Trade Wars?

A few friends are suffering sticker shock at the cost of Nightmares with the Bible.  I offer my sincere apologies.  To those in the normal world (outside academia) such pricing appears predatory.  It is, but you’re not the intended prey.  One of the pillars upon which capitalism rests is “what the market will bear.”  You price up any product until people stop buying it, then you retreat.  I’m no fan of the dismal science, but I am certainly not in the cheering section for capitalism.  Institutionalized greed.  Still, I can explain a little of why Nightmares comes with such a high price tag.  Publishers have long indulged in “library pricing.”  Although many libraries now buy ebooks instead, the model persists.  The idea is that libraries can afford higher prices than mere mortals.  For those of you not in academia, $100 is actually on the low end.  Believe it or not.

In researching Nightmares I saw monographs I coveted.  Some of them priced at $175.  Considering that some of these were under 200 pages, my primitive math sets the rate at about 87 cents per page (single-sided).  Here’s where the disconnect comes in.  Nightmares was written for general readers.  I long ago gave up the idea that to be intelligent a book must be impenetrable.  And academics wonder why people question their utility?  Only after I signed the contract did I learn that the Horror and Scripture series, of which Nightmares is the second volume, would suffer “library pricing.”  There is a discount code for those who may not be libraries.  But please, have your library buy a copy.  That’ll give me fuel for a paperback argument.

In a “catch-22” scenario, it goes like this: a publisher tells an author, “if your book sells well enough at this price we’ll issue a paperback.”  The truth is your hardcover only sells well if you’re well known or if your choice of topic is truly compelling.  If the unit cost were actually the same as the library pricing I’d be a rich man.  Where does all that money go?  It’s a legitimate question.  It’s not royalties!  Academic publishing is an expensive business to run.  Apart from overheads—there are always overheads—you need to pay tech companies to ready your files so they can be printed.  Unless the print run (generally under 200 now) is intended to sell out you’ll have it done domestically so that you don’t have to pay warehousing costs on unsold stock.  I knew a single-man academic publisher who stored his stock in his basement.  Excuses aside, my apologies that Nightmares costs so much.  I’ll send the discount code to anyone who’d like it.

Arrival

Excitement that comes during the work week gets sublimated.  Work, you see, is like a huge ship chugging ahead at about 30 knots.  It takes some time to stop, or even change direction.  So on Thursday, while I was still at my desk, Nightmares with the Bible arrived.  Since all work—even salaried—is measured by the clock by HR,  I couldn’t take off time to enjoy the birth.  I opened the box, cursorily flipped through a copy, and got back to the task for which I’m paid.  After work it’s time for supper and I can’t stay awake much beyond seven or eight, which meant I neglected my baby.  Friday was another work day, and although I wanted to do all the things marketers tell you to do, I had other duties.

So now it’s Saturday and I can officially say Nightmares have been released.  I have a discount code flyer, about which nobody has yet emailed me, but the offer still stands.  You can get a discounted (but still expensive) copy by following the instructions below.  Feel free to share with your rich friends.  Better yet, have your library order a copy.  I’m hoping for a paperback on this one, but that’ll be a couple years and I know paperbacks seldom outsell hardcovers, even expensive ones.  Raising a child can be a costly venture, no?  Adding another book meant that my display copies had to move out of their cubby-hole onto a bookshelf.  Hopefully, if things go well, there will be more siblings.  Perhaps better priced.

A Reassessment of Asherah was published by a European academic press and put at the incredibly high price of $78 back in 1993.  Gorgias Press reissued it, with additional material, but made it even more expensive.  I can’t even afford to buy a copy.  Weathering the Psalms was only $22, but wasn’t a gripping topic for many.  Cascade Books, at least, know how to price things.  Holy Horror, at the shockingly high $45 for a paperback (McFarland), languished.  It missed its Halloween release and no reviews have appeared.  “Nightmares” might well capture my sense of the price for my second missed Halloween release.  There are other books in the works.  If any of them get completed I’ll be seeking an agent to try to bring the prices down.  Until then, Nightmares will be the final word.  It’s out there now, for those brave enough to engage with it.

War of Egos

As an author you have to believe in your book.  Experience has taught me that if you don’t, nobody will.  Still, there are ways of believing in your book while keeping your ego in check.  Given the ego we’ve seen along Pennsylvania Avenue these last few years it may come as little surprise that even some wannabe authors can nearly match it.  The line, as professionals draw it, is balancing between the importance of your work with the realism that few books sell well.  Your best approach, as author, is humility.  Many people don’t read the professionals.  You quickly learn this if you’re in an editorial role.  It is normal to receive emails from authors telling you how important their work is, some even claiming it as an even on a cosmic scale (I am not joking).

I often consider how much pain authors could spare themselves with just a tiny bit of research.  If a publisher has turned your book down twice already, don’t submit it a third time.  (You already crossed the line the second time you sent it.)  And don’t send your proposal with a list of demands.  What I’ve noted both on this blog and elsewhere is that editors value professionalism.  We don’t like turning down books.  We don’t want to ruin a prospective author’s day.  There are, however, safeguards you can use to prevent the worst kinds of disappointment.  Rule number one is check your ego at the door.  Do you know how many books have been published?  Do you know just how difficult it will be for your book to get noticed?  Take a reality check.

Also, scale your expectations.  How many bestsellers have come from university presses?  If you’re after bestseller status you need to aim for a trade publisher.  This is pretty basic stuff.  Those of us who publish in the academic world do believe our books are important, but many of us also know that they start only small conversations.  Biblical studies isn’t exactly a growth field.  We talk amongst each other, a collegial little group for the most part.  And to keep things on the collegial level it is helpful to remember that we’re not publishing for ego.  We’re publishing to try to move knowledge ahead, even if just by a micron or two.  Good writing, I was once told, is simply clear thinking.  Getting that writing published is part of a conversation and conversation only works if  we are willing to keep our egos on their leashes.

Index Fingers

I’ve occasionally written about how authors obsess over indices, or indexes, for their books.  These days most things are looked up electronically, but this entire week my reading, writing, and relaxing time have been taken up with the index for Nightmares with the Bible.  Creating an index is an odious yet perversely enjoyable task.  Most publishers (at least among the academic crowd) foist this duty onto the author since a freelancer can easily add $4,000 or $5,000 to the book’s budget.  After preparing an index you can understand why.  At least I get to work with searchable PDFs, but I remember doing indexes on paper and having to sort through printed proofs and hoping that you’d catch every instance or a word or phrase.  The searchable PDF helps, but it depends on the material you’ve got to work with.

The Bible, for instance.  Not only are many book names short—Job, John, Mark, James—they are also common.  People have named their kids after biblical characters, or with biblical names, for millennia.  Not only that, but Job can be job.  Unless you put the quotes around it “Eve” will show up on just about every page, believe it or not.  The real strain on the eyes comes from those terms that are important and show up throughout the book.  Words like “Israel,” or “monster,” or “priest.”  I’m not one of those people who writes a book about demons and puts “demons” in the index, though.  Hey, if you know that’s what the book is about, why look in the index?  Just read it!

Meanwhile, the cover copy came this week for my approval.  I haven’t seen the cover proof yet, but last time I actually had time to check (several days ago now) other media outlets had picked up on the imminent arrival of a new book.  It wasn’t on Goodreads the last time I looked, but there’s time for that.  Right now there’s no time for anything, however, other than indexing.  It actually takes longer to do this than it does to read the proofs for the book.  And indexing helped me discover a spelling error that had gone past both me and the copyeditor.  So this is a valuable exercise, but there are many other things to do as the weather turns cooler and other projects are aching for attention.  Four days of intensive indexing and I’m only up to the “p”s.  I’ve been away from it too long, so I’d better mind my “q”s as well.

Addenda

One of the perceived advantages of electronic publication is the possibility of corrections.  I say “perceived” because this casts us into the deep sea of uncertainty when it comes to citing sources.  If you read an article, and something really struck you, then the author revised that very thing later, you would be “misquoting” if you quoted that fact you found so stunning.  In our mania for keeping up-to-date you would need to constantly recheck your sources to ensure that you were working with the latest version of your resource.  This level of change speed isn’t conducive to academic practice.  When I was young I was taught that a book of the same edition, published under the same title, by the same author, would be the same across printings.  That’s no longer true.  Due to the ability to insert corrections, the same ISBN can result in two very different books.  Call it the hang-up of an ex-literalist, but this bothers me.

Back in the old days it was common to publish books with a “addenda et corrigenda page that listed the known errors.  Beyond that you just had to suck it up and admit that there might be errors in your book.  You had to face with fortitude when someone pointed them out.  Now you can go back to the publisher, particularly if the book is in electronic form, and have your errors corrected.  The only ones to be confused will be your readers.  Why are we so bad at owning up to our mistakes?  Electronic reading can lead to a slippery slope of confusion about what publishers call “the version of record.”  Your permanent record, it turns out, can be changed after all!  Mistakes can be erased.  Sins can be forgiven.

In publishing the set standard had been that you had to wait for a new edition to change the interior text of your book.  The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was your guarantee that the contents would be identical to any other copy with the same ISBN.  That’s no longer true.  If you don’t pay attention to which printing you have (which is never cited in footnotes or bibliography) you could be citing in error.  This practice has deep and worrying implications.  It has come to a crisis under Trump, a president who constitutionally lies.  Truth is what he says it is.  And if you want to check the facts, well you better be sure that you cite your printing because any of your critics could easily stick a [sic] next to your words if they find any “error” at all.

No longer “Standard”?

Nightmares’ Progress

Ironically for someone who works in academic publishing, I have my own issues of how books are priced.  I understand why, however, because I can see sales trends.  When it comes to authoring my own books I’ve learned how to write for general readers.  Not all publishers know how to price for that.  Already I’ve had one friend blanch at the price of Nightmares with the Bible and the hope is that it does well enough in the library market to earn a paperback.  I also know paperback sales seldom reach the level of hardcover sales from academic presses.  Much of it is driven by demand.  If people know about the book and ask their libraries to buy it, and this is key—check it out—that has a way of sometimes snowballing enough to convince a publisher that there’s an individual market.

Since I’m plotting the progress on Nightmares here on this blog, I’ll point out that the book has its own page on my website (located here).  Actually, all my books have their own page, but since my website is in the low-rent district of the internet not many readers venture here.  Yesterday I added the back-cover blurbs to the page.  I did so with fear and trembling.  Life has taught me not to take well to compliments.  They make me uncomfortable, like strangers entering my house without masks on.  Since I have no institution backing me, however, I need the praise of colleagues to convince others to buy this book.  In my long-term thinking on the topic, I’m hoping Nightmares gets reviewed and people will get interested in Holy Horror, which didn’t get reviews but which is half the price.

In the biz we call this “platform building.”  Those with healthier egos than mine hire their own publicists who boost their number of Twitter followers and get their names out there on the internet.  My own platform building has been of the budget kind.  I’m active on Goodreads to get followers.  I’ll engage with any comments I get on social media.  But I’m also a working stiff hoping desperately not to lose my job during this pandemic.  The blurbs on Nightmares are very nice, and they note that I write for non-specialists.  This blog is open to all comers, after all.  Likes, shares, and comments all help.  My thanks to my endorsers—you know who you are!—you made my day with your kind words.

Google Scholarship

The other day I had to check something on Google Scholar for work.  Since our computers now know who we are, mine asked if I would like to update my profile on the site.  I figured it couldn’t hurt.  I waited until after work, however, since my scholarship is strictly separated from my job.  When I went to complete the profile I learned that you can’t do it without a .edu extension on your email.  In other words, and independent scholar is no Google Scholar at all.  It’s not the first time I’ve run into this bias.  I have sat through many meetings where those with no institutional affiliation are spoken of with deep suspicion, as if the extreme shortage of academic jobs has left only the worthiest employed.  Classic blaming the victims.

Having once been a full-time academic, I have watched the job ads for nearly three decades now.  The number of positions has steadily decreased while the number of new Ph.D.s has readily increased.  There aren’t enough jobs to go around and those who don’t land one of the few available are considered inferior scholars.  Even Google says so.  The interesting thing about this is there is little outcry from academia itself.  You’d think that, given the protests that go on in other areas of perceived injustices that the educated would call for redress.  You’d think incorrectly.  As a society we distrust those who don’t have an institution backing them.  Unless they’re rich (for money is a kind of institution).  It’s a strange state of affairs.

In my line of work citations on Google Scholar don’t really matter.  In fact, many publishers are kind of embarrassed when their employees are published, or are even cited in the books they produce.  Scholarship, in other words, is institutionalized.  The thing is, life in our society isn’t so neatly categorized.  My first job, in a poverty-level family, was working as a janitor.  I was always surprised at how philosophical the discussions were among the cleaning staff at our local school district.  Many of these guys were deep thinkers behind a  broom.  In the schools where they worked the students tended to make fun of them.  You certainly won’t find their musings on Google Scholar.  I tend to think that our society might be more equitable if we’d recognize intelligence where it exists rather than sticking it behind the walls of academe.  But then, I’m no Google Scholar so you need not believe a thing I write.

Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.

Paper or Electronic?

Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out.  Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers.  Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror.  She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it.  (This was before the pandemic.)  That’s old school book advertising.  Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks.  It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.

Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look.  It was everywhere.  No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee.  If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books!  I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes.  When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand.  Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time?  You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many).  I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.

Book covers are artworks.  At least some of them are.  I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover.  (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.)  It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead.  That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books.  The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered.  If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it?  And viruses only last on paper for about a day.  That’s a quarantine I can live with.

Without Peer

Peer review makes the world go round.  Well, at least the academic world.  It’s based on a simple enough premise: if your academic work is passable other scholars will be able to tell.  It’s a process fraught with peril, however.  Scholars, being human, are subject to fits of pique or of hypersensitivity, or just having gotten out of the wrong side of bed that morning.  Perfectly good projects can be shot down with a single, well-placed arrow.  Or even dart.  Problem is, there’s no better system for deciding if academic work is adequate, or even good.  There may be some objective measure out there in the universe, but if there is we don’t have access to it.  We have to rely on peer review.

During my teaching years, which numbered nearly twenty, I was never asked to peer review anything.  My first invitation came while I was working as an editor.  Of course I said “yes.”  A number of scholars, however, don’t share the basic reality that if nobody peer reviewed their work, they’d never get published.  Many scholars decline offers to review their colleagues’ work.  I even had a very senior scholar once blithely tell me that he had his own research to do, so why should he take time to review that of others.  Professional reserve prevented me from pointing out that if his colleagues felt the same way he’d be as unpublished as a fresh doctorate-holder.  Scholarship is a cooperative venture, no matter how many Lone Rangers ride the cuesta.  So why is it so difficult to find peer reviewers?

I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine!

Something I’ve noticed is that many scholars are coddled.  Constantly told that they’re brilliant and gifted, they come to believe it like miniature Trumps.  More to the point, perhaps, is the shrinking number of academic positions.  The few who hold actual jobs are bombarded with other tasks, including committee work, advisory duties, and sometimes even teaching (depending on the adjunct pool).  I know it’s tough.  Been there, done that.  Nevertheless, academia cannot survive without the basic peer reviewer.  Education is a cooperative venture.  We may imagine the academic alone in her or his study, but breakthroughs generally come through when people work together.  Of course, my job is one performed in isolation.  Increasingly, academics can be found not in their offices, but working remotely from home.  Is the sense of “peer” itself breaking down?  My own book, Nightmares with the Bible, was slowed down by peer review.  In a sense I’m glad it was.  Hi ho Silver, away!

Voice of Experience

Trust your publisher.  Well, if you have one, that is.  I’m not the only erstwhile academic to have ended up in publishing, but what constantly surprises me is that academics care little about those who give voice to their ideas.  Now this blog is self-publishing.  It contains my ideas, but they are free for the taking, and here’s a bit of useful advice: trust your publisher.  These days with easy online publication and formatting that makes your posts look like a pro (not here, mind you), it’s sometimes difficult to realize that publishers actually provide more than just an imprint.  They offer services to make your book look serious, scholarly, and also to be useful to others.  Those of us who write books are often far too emotionally involved to see this.

I regularly run across academics who tell publishers how the text should look on the page.  I’m not talking about those weird and wonderful sections of ancient texts with <lacunae>… ellipses… [brackets] and whatnot.  No, there are those who want to control kerning, leading, and all sorts of things.  There are those who want practically every single word indexed, although research shows that most researchers access searchable PDFs rather than wasting their time thumbing through pages to find a reference.  And that traditional chestnut, “written for general readers.”  Publishers have access to book sales figures (at least of their own books).  There’s no need to bluff; if your book is only for scholars (does it have words like “reify” or “heuristic” in it?  Be honest now!), publishers know how to handle that.

We’re all nervous when our book gets through the acceptance process.  Peer review always breaks me into a cold sweat.  Believe me, we understand!  Take a soothing sip of tea.  Go for a walk.  Better yet, jog.  Scholars tend to be precise thinkers.  We get that.  When, however, is the last time someone used a map from a Bible for navigation?  Most of those cities don’t even exist any more!  This strange mix of online savvy and adherence to the old ways of print (which I love and of which I shall never let go) clash in ways that cause publishers great stress.  You can find a YouTube video on how to make your own book.  Those of us in the biz can tell at a glance if a book’s self-published or not.  And believe me, we’re rooting for you.  We want your book to succeed.  Why not trust those who know what they’re doing?

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

After Easton

I’m still recovering.  The Easton Book Festival was a fine example of liminal time.  Ordinary time—the day-to-day, or “workaday” variety of time—may pay the bills but comes up short on meaning.  Literary time is rare and sacred.  No, there weren’t great crowds at my two sessions.  In fact, the crowds were modest.  More people showed up for my church presentation on Sunday morning than came to either of my more “secular” presentations.  The festival, however, wasn’t about numbers.  It was about the love of books.  Much of the time those of us who love reading are perceived as “Poindexters” who deny the excitement of a life spent in sports and adventure.  There’s no reason, however, that the two can’t get along.  After all, authors write about adventure and sports as well as religion and philosophy.

As Halloween nears and November encroaches on the days of trees losing their leaves, I reflect on how my entire October was leading up to this.  Half a year ago I was contacting libraries and bookstores about doing Holy Horror presentations in the autumn.  Only the Moravian Book Shop and the Easton Book Festival took me up on my proposal, but they allowed me, as my wife expressed it, “to put myself out there.”  To be part of the conversation.  People are busy, I know.  Still, I came away with the business cards of a few more successful writers, and I gave away a handful of bookmarks for my too-expensive tome.  I was after conversation, not fame.

Although I met the director of the festival a couple of times, I don’t know the results.  I do sincerely hope that another will be offered next year.  Gatherings of the bookish are dicey affairs.  I attended the banquet not knowing a soul, but left having learned of others nearby who practice the craft.  Many had made that transition from workaday to writer.  I learned that getting the pennies I do for my books is, really, an aberration of the academic publishing scheme.  Most academics have good paying university jobs and don’t really need the cash.  Book festivals are opportunities to learn, classrooms in everyday life.  I met authors of topics more obscure than my own who’d earned healthy advances.  This was liminal time indeed.  I feel honored to have been included among those feted for putting their words out there for reading and possible rejection.  Books are conversations, and in a world far too busy, book festivals are a source of truly significant discussions.  Long may they continue!