Tag Archives: academic publishing

The Pace of Progress

Scientists tell us the earth is slowing down. It’s only by a fraction of a fraction of a second, but like a top set spinning these endless revolutions can’t go on forever. Although the evidence all points in this direction, it feels like it’s speeding up. How else can I account for the apparent loss of time I’ve been sensing? Let me contextualize that. I’ve been attending the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1991. That first meeting in Kansas City’s acid-etched in my friable consciousness with the long hours waiting for interviews that never came and no mentors to show me what to do. Those three-and-a-half days stretched on into an endless Tom Sawyer summer. I was anxious to get back to my wife in Edinburgh to and finish my dissertation. Fast forward a quarter of a century.

My days are now filled with back-to-back meetings. Normally by now I’d have had a leisurely perambulation among the bookstalls (where I spend all day) taking in the volumes the competitors publish, noting what I need to read. Instead, the time has been shortened. I have to keep a constant watch on my watch for the next appointment. Hearing about new books being born rather than tending the infants that surround me. We are a thriving population of readers here. Although it looks like a large crowd, I know that in reality we don’t make much of a dent. Boston’s big enough to absorb us and all our feverish ideas. When wakefulness arrives at my usual New York commuting time, even the nights seem to be shorter. Where has the time gone?

Most of those I meet have no idea I write books of my own. It was a process started long before the conferral of a diploma from a university far away. The earth is spinning in that direction, I’m told, so I should be in the tailwind of Edinburgh all the time. I’ve grown old with some of these colleagues. Those I’ve known since I was a young man, thinking he knew something about life, learning how little he really knew in this very city. I’m pretty sure I know even less now. The world, for example, seems to be speeding up to me. In fact I know it’s slowing down. Days are growing longer, but there is ever more yet to do. And all I want to accomplish right now is to walk around a bit and browse the books that others have written. I’m absolutely sure the earth is indeed speeding up.

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

Citation Anxiety

As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when Academia.edu sends me notices. Academia, most of my academic colleagues don’t realize, is a for-profit website that advocates open access. “Open access” (or OA in the biz) is academic trash talk for making the published results of research available for free. It’s a great idea, but it often doesn’t take into account how complex publishing really is. Peer review, printing, and distribution of articles all take money and to make all research free cuts out what those who publish the research can use to fund the venture (with a cut taken out, of course, to make the whole thing worth their while). That’s the way capitalism works. (Look it up under economics.) In any case, not realizing that Academia is also a profit-making venture, lots of us put our published papers on it, making them freely available to anybody who cares.

Once in a while Academia will send its users a flattering notice: “X-hundred people have cited your papers.” Be still, my throbbing heart! Desperate for any attention, most academics (let alone us exes) are thrilled that more than 100 people have read their stuff. So I clicked their link. “309 papers mention the name ‘Steve Wiggins’ or ’S.A. Wiggins’” it cheerfully reads. I know something the robot apparently doesn’t. I’m not the only Steve Wiggins on Academia. There is a slightly older agronomist whose name I share. He’s employed in academia and has more papers than me. And “S. A. Wiggins” could be anybody. My 309 paper mentions shrinks to double digits. Not high double-digits either. Names are hardly unique identifiers. With some seven-and-a-half billion people, there’s bound to be some reduplication. I always tell the few curious to search “Steve A. Wiggins”—with the quotation marks—to find the few, true references.

Taking on the internet is a fool’s errand. This blog gets a few piddly hits a day. I often consider closing it down. Readers don’t share it enough to get any attention. It takes a lot of effort on my part since I write books (both fiction and non) in my hours not at work. So when Academia shows up in my inbox my excitement spikes, just for a moment, and I go on with my other work, which never seems to get done. And then, when I’m sure nobody else is looking, I go ahead and click on the link.

Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

Overdone

One of the things you see quite a lot of as an editor is “the next big thing.” Authors with an ego that awes me ensure me that this book will be the sea change we’ve all been waiting for. Things will be different after this is published. I don’t blame them. The trades all say that you’ve got to convince the editor that this project is worth her or his while. Overstating the case is par on this course. All of this got me to thinking. If you’ve read biblical studies seriously you’ll recognize the name Wellhausen. I don’t even have to use his first name—you know who I mean, right? Well, we’ve gone beyond the days when you could be a Wellhausen. When I was a student people spoke of the Wright, Bright, and Albright school. We knew who each of these gentlemen was. Now there are so many spoons in the pot that we’re not even certain what’s cooking.

Have you seen this man?

I’m not sure what the attraction to advanced degrees in this area is. If my case is anything to go by (and I don’t claim that it is) you grow up in a Bible reading family and you want to take the next logical steps. When you’re far enough along on the path to realize what’s happened, it’s too late to turn back. Many things in life are that way. There is a tipping point, a moment of crisis, then nothing will be the same. Then you learn you’ll never be the new Wellhausen. There was only one, and that was a couple of centuries ago now. I run into some pretty strange stuff when it comes to ways of reading the Bible. When the dust settles, however, we’ll still be counting J, E, D, and P on our fingers.

This isn’t a field for fame. Don’t believe me? Approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they know who Wellhausen is. Alas and alack, one of our greatest names is nobody outside the academy! In my own days among the privileged professorate, I never suspected I’d be anything but one of many voices trying to be heard. After all, my training was really more in history of religions than Bible in the first place. Dead languages had to be negotiated, but that’s all part of becoming an expert in something nobody really cares about. But then I think of Wellhausen. There was a time when all of this could make a nation such as Germany sit up and take notice. That day was centuries ago, and I’d better check that pot—I think maybe whatever’s in it may be done.

Publisher’s Breakfast

I recently had the opportunity to discuss publishing to a room full of academics. (Ooo, I can feel the envy rising already!) Although I discuss books quite frequently on this blog, I generally don’t discuss publishing much. One of the reasons is that publishing isn’t easy to tie into religion sometimes. Another—and this may be the bigger factor—is that publishing is work. This blog, which is technically a form of publishing, is more for letting my mind wander outside the paddock after being penned in at work for too much of my adult life. Still, I’m glad to give publishing advice for those who want it.

The focus of these talks (of which I’ve given precisely two) is how to get published. My main approach to this question is to point out that higher education and publishing are diverging rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put, publishers need to make money. Having been on the receiving end of tuition statements for a good deal of my life, I have no doubt that institutions make ready money. They may have trouble meeting the costs of all those administrators for whom they keep creating positions, like any good business, so each semester the bill creeps up a bit until suddenly you realize your bank account’s empty and you’d better get to commissioning some more academic books. After all, this is all about money, is it not?

Like many in higher education, I courted academia as a hopeless romantic. I believed that love of subject and ardent devotion with ample proofs of said love would woo the academy into a permanent relationship. I’ve always been an idealist. Now I’m on the side of the desk where colleagues approach me to ask favors. It’s kind of like The Godfather, really. Only those who kiss Don Corleone’s ring tend to do so knowing that favors require some kind of reciprocity. The academy may not welcome you but would you mind helping us out now that you’re in a position to do so? No fear of horse heads here. Perhaps by now you understand why I don’t write much about publishing on this humble little blog. The focus of The Godfather, after all, is really young Michael Corleone and his devolution from an upstanding citizen (shall we say “academic”?) to a mafia crime boss. I’ll leave the other side of the equation blank. Trade secrets, after all, are worth money.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

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This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.