Reading about the Trump administration underscores once again the traditional American contradiction of, love of, but mostly hatred toward, experts. When you’re lying on that operating table, you stake your life that an expert is going to perform the surgery. When you buy that airline ticket, you’re banking that the pilot will be an expert. If you’re electing the most powerful individual in the world, you’ll excoriate experts and defer to the guy with the weird hair that says whatever he pleases and has never been a public servant a day in his life. This observation isn’t original with me, of course. I’m only an editor. Nevertheless, the same dilemma comes down to my little world of academic publishing as well. Most academics don’t understand this business—I was an academic at one time and I certainly didn’t—and yet don’t like to bow to the expertise of those who do.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m making no grand claims to understanding this industry into which I unwittingly stumbled. I have been involved in it for over a decade now and I’m still learning. One of the things I’m learning is that many academics don’t trust experts. In part it’s academic culture. A doctoral program, if it’s a good one, will make you question everything. Sometimes even experts forget when to engage the brakes. When dealing with the experts at a publishing company, many academics doubt the expertise of those who do this day in and day out for a living. Books, however, have measurable sales records. There’s hard data for analysis. Not that it’s foolproof (but what is?), such metrics are time-tested and based on reasonable data sets. Often that’s not enough to convince an expert that other experts know more than they’re revealing. A personal philosophy, but one which I pursue with appropriate skepticism, is that other people should be left to do their jobs. As I frequently note, those who talk to the bus driver, freely giving advice, often make the situation worse for everyone.
The case of religion, however, is a special can of worms. There are no experts in this field, even among those of us who are experts. Had I realized this when I was younger, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference in what I ended up doing with my life. You see, religion is all about ultimates. The big questions. The sine qua non of every single thing. When I read about things like politics, or entrepreneurship, I think to myself, “That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, is it what really matters?” If life is a search for meaning, why not grab it by both hands and try to become an expert at it? Some would say that’s the job of the philosopher, but let’s face it, religionists and philosophers deal in the same currency. One is more abstract than the other, to be sure. Still, don’t take my word for it. Please consult an expert.
It’s a matter of scale. If you read this blog chances are you like books. If you like books you probably know about remainders. When you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf or section of really cheap new books, you’ve found the remainders. This happens when a publisher overprints and, instead of pulping books (that hurts even to type!) the remaining stock is sold at just above cost so that retailers can add a small markup and make a marginal profit. Most authors don’t like to see their books remaindered, since it means demand wasn’t as high as the publisher anticipated. Expectation was that the book would do better than it did, now the publisher and bookseller just want to recoup some of their losses. Often there’s a marker stroke across the bottom pages of the book so you can’t return it for the retail price.
For those of us whose books sell in the double digits, seeing yourself on a remainder list would be kind of a thrill. The other day I looked at Wipf & Stock’s 50 percent off sale to find a copy of Weathering the Psalms listed. Probably it was overprinted for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, since I saw that they did have copies there again last November. If they hadn’t bothered to print out a bunch, I would never be on the remainder shelf in Eugene. I don’t mind because I’m in good company. Looking at the list I feel like I belong in some kind of academic crowd in the reduced bin. There’s a sense of community among the overprinted.
Turnabout, they say, is fair play. I’ve bought plenty of remaindered books in my life. Lately I buy used academic books because the new editions are out of the reach of an independent scholar who isn’t independently wealthy and who doesn’t have access to a university library. If I buy others cheaply, I turn the other page and expect the same back. Most of us who write academic books aren’t in it for the money. We want to be remembered for our contributions to the discussion. We took the many months and years it takes to research, write, and polish a book, and we want others to take an interest in what we have to say. It’s all about the dialogue. It’s all about the community. For those of us who never really found a home among the established academy, publication can mean a lot. It doesn’t matter that the books are sold cheaply—in fact, that’s good, because it means somebody might just read what you wrote. It’s all a matter of scale.
One of my greatest phobias is that people will think I’m arrogant. Those who know me realize that I’m highly self-critical, as befits a lapsed Fundamentalist. Self-image isn’t my strong suit. So it is with great trepidation that I celebrate a tiny bit at another book contract. Book number three (still not officially titled) now rests with McFarland Books. Shortly after I signed the contract for the book nameless here forevermore, Lexington and Fortress Academic announced a new series: Horror and Scripture. Maybe you know the feeling too. You’ve just done something you’re proud of and then you’re upstaged. My book deals with the Bible and horror films—what could be more Horror and Scripture than that?
The new Lexington/Fortress series has two editors. One of them is a friend of mine. (Monsters and horror don’t often mix with the Good Book, and those few of us interested in such things receive glances askew.) She asked me if I’d consider contributing to the series. This takes a lot of careful thought on my part. I have a sum total of about an hour a day to write, often less. I can read research-related material on the bus, if I can stay awake, but other than weekends—already quite busy catching up from not being home all week—I have very circumscribed writing time. Nevertheless, I do get up at 3:00 a.m. so that I can have that vital hour to write. Why not focus my efforts onto another book? Perhaps insanely, I submitted a proposal. This week a contract came.
In the short span of one year I’ve gone from being able to claim two books to four, almost like a parable. My untitled book is written and submitted. My contracted book is already half-drafted. After my McFarland book I’d already begun work on a sequel, you see. It lacked form and substance, but the proposal forced me to bring it together. Now, barring any unforeseen disaster, I should be able to submit this new book within a couple of years. By admitting this to you, dear readers, I fear I open myself to accusations of either arrogance, or at least greed. It is, actually, rather like this: my wife often tells me “we must cut the coat to fit the cloth.” I don’t have an academic position, but I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry over the past decade. Research is a constant in my life, as it is with most credentialed people, no matter their jobs. So it is with fear and trembling that I announce my next book: Nightmares with the Bible. Watch this space for cryptic updates as the details unfold. And please don’t think less of me for it.
Posted in Bible, Books, Higher Education, Memoirs, Monsters, Posts, Publishing
Tagged academic publishing, Fortress Academic, Horror and Scripture, Lexington, McFarland Books, Nightmares with the Bible
An occupational hazard of the editor is paying obsessive attention to publishers. That stands to reason. Many academics are less concerned than some publishers think they are about such matters as who publishes their book. I suspect that many have, for whatever reason, found no welcome home among elite publishers. This happens often enough to make many scholars less worried about reputation than the practical matter of getting a publisher interested at all. There are a lot of original thoughts out there, and some of them occur to a person and just won’t let her or him go. An example: what terms are used for weather in the Psalms and why? Before you know it you’ve awaken before the sun for five years and written 75,000 words on the topic and you want to get it published without having to pay someone to do it. That kind of thing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of scholars who understand this kind of reasoning.
Also, it’s a matter of scale. I work for a premier publisher in the academic world. It may surprise many people to find out just how often when someone asks what I do (not very often, for the record) and then follows it up who I do it for, the interrogator has never heard of my employer. Academic presses, even important ones, are really only known among academics. Keep scale in mind. If you’ve ever walked passed Norton’s offices in Manhattan, and then those in which I spend my days, you know what I mean. Academia is small scale. For the average person reading a book is something they generally choose not to do. Of those who do read, very few read academic books. Those who read academic books tend to stick to their own discipline, or related ones. You get the picture—smaller returns at each step.
So, having written a book about horror movies, where do I take it? This isn’t one of those footnoted, look-how-erudite-I-am kind of books. It’s more of a I-noticed-something type. The question then becomes, who publishes such kinds of thing? I do worry about academic reputation—who doesn’t?—but this is a book I want the correct readers to find. That’s why McFarland suggested itself. People reading on pop culture, know to keep an eye on their offerings. Hopefully enough people will find it to have justified the effort. It won’t impress those enamored of collecting (academic) names. It isn’t the kind of book my employer would publish. Nor would I want them to. Call it an occupational hazard. Like any subject, knowing too much about publishing can take away from the fun.
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.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Current Events, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing, Travel
Tagged AAR/SBL, academic publishing, Boston, Edinburgh University, Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion
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.