The Price Is Wrong

The costs for academic books can seem criminal.  Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing.  Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche.  At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe.  Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value?  Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other.  In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet.  Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.

These days books are the handmaidens to the internet.  The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted.  Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it.  Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean.  Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up.  This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business.  You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff.  Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell.  It’s like an entire business model run on consignment.  And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies.  That means that the per unit cost has to go up.  Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.

I keep a running list of books I’d like.  Some are for research and some are for other pleasures.  The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published.  I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way.  If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs?  I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45.  Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing.  Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much.  Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent?  Or is all of this just criminal?

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Editing the Week

Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.  Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.  Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.  Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.  Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.  They often possess valuable advice.

It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.  The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.  Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.  Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.  There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.  (Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)  Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.  My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.

One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.  Sometimes that works.  Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.  There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.  There are hidden lives of editors.  I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.  I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.

Time Taking

Publishing is a slow business.  In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned.  Outdated.  Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing?  These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index.  This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by.  That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way.  Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable.  They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well.  This is the world beyond math.  It is the human world.

Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible.  The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time.  It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days.  Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations.  It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print.  Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today.  A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did.  For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.

Most of us are content with the satisfactory.  We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience.  We do it all the time.  Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back.  Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise.  Why would anyone buy a record?  The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one.  There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download.  Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material.  Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index.  We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess.  The slower world of publishing is more my speed.

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

The Hardest Part

The waiting, Tom Petty suggested, is a most difficult portion (no copyright violations!). The late, great departed rocker had a point. When I was younger I thought waiting was a theological problem, but the fact is it’s an unavoidable part of life. Right now I’m in that holding pattern between having submitted my files for Holy Horror and awaiting anxiously the proofs. Anxiously because there’s so much going on right now that I’m not sure how I can carve out the time to read them. Time and tides, they say, wait for no one.

I suspect a big part of this is that I have high hopes for this book. Not that I’m being unrealistic. I’m hoping to break that 500 copies barrier that holds most academic books hostage. Holy Horror isn’t really academic—it’s not technical at all like my last two books were—it’s just that the premise is academic. What do horror movies tell us about the Bible? I take that question seriously. You see, I read about the Bible a lot. Whether we want to admit it or not, western culture is based on it both implicitly and explicitly. People who castigate it don’t seem to realize that our very way of thinking is based on it. If you doubt that, talk to someone raised in eastern Asia. Someone thoroughly Buddhist or Confucian in outlook. The way we frame our thinking is based on a biblical worldview over here. It’s smart to pay attention to things like that.

At the same time, we are believers in media. Looking out the bus window on the way home I’m always amazed at how many people on the Parkway are texting while they’re driving (yes, you can be seen from above!). We can’t live without our media. When it comes to the Good Book, most people rely on media to tell them what it says. Horror, although not popular with many people, always does well at the box office. And one of the things I explore in Holy Horror is just how often the Bible appears in such movies. It’s not ubiquitous, but it certainly isn’t rare either. We should take to heart what other people say about us. Not that they know the truth of the matter—they seldom do—but we are social animals and we make our reality based on interactions with others. Those who make horror movies know things about the Bible that scholars don’t. And they know that suspense—waiting, as it were—is the hardest part.