The Heart of Publishing

My heart goes out to academic authors.  It really does.  They labor over a book important to their field and see it come out costing near triple digits and wonder why it’s not in the local bookstore.  There is, however, a very wide gap between academic and trade publishing.  It is bridged here and there by authors who value readers over reputation, but unless you deliberately try to learn how all of this works, it is bewildering.  Academics, you see, are area specialists by and large.  You don’t write a dissertation on the Bible, for example, but on a specific part of the Bible (New Testament or Hebrew Bible).  And within that section your specialization is not a single book, but often a small part of a book, or a theme.  I’ve seen dissertations written on a single Hebrew word.  Specialization.

With all of this tight focus, it’s easy to forget what browsing in a bookstore’s like.  Even with some of the incredible brick and mortar stores in Edinburgh, technical books had to be ordered—this was before Amazon.  When you check the books of colleagues out of libraries it doesn’t always occur that you do this because libraries are the only places that buy such books.  And with the explosion of doctoral degrees in shrinking areas of studies (there are no jobs here, folks!) the number of published dissertations has skyrocketed.  Even advanced scholars forget the average reading public would find their work impenetrable.  It’s not going to be in the local bookstore, and it costs so much because it sells so few copies.  I do feel for academic authors.

In addition to all the area specialization, it would make sense to research the academic publishing industry.  Yes, it is an industry—it has to try to turn a profit when sales are minimal.  And with so many books being published, libraries can’t keep up.  The end result is high prices.  I’m as guilty as the next academic at wishing economics would just go away and leave me alone.  I want to believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.   That’s not the way the world works, however.  At least not the publishing world in a capitalistic context.  The internet itself has become competition.  Much of the information’s out there for free.  So your academic book, when it comes out, will be priced out of your comfort range (been there, done that).  It’s not that your publisher doesn’t believe in you, but that they have to try to turn a profit.  All it takes to understand why is a bit of research.

Not that kind of book.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

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.

Sideliners

Sidelines can be interesting places to sit. You’re close to the action, and you’re privileged with a close view that few others have. You can’t, however, play the game. Sidelines are familiar to biblical scholars. I can’t count the number of times and/or ways the input of those who spend their lives trying to comprehend the Good Book are, well, sidelined. In the publishing world those who work with Bibles are simply ignored by most others, despite the enormous revenue Bible sales generate. In the academy religion departments overall are fair game for any potential budget cuts. And since what religion study survives tends to be intercultural, the Bible faculty are deemed somewhat less necessary than other sub-disciplines. It’s easy to forget that Christianity is the largest organized religion in the world and that some 2.2 billion persons claim that name. The Bible’s their foundational book. It tells us what motivates them. And yet, it’s easier simply to ignore the whole thing. Then something insane like an Evangelical-fueled Trump election, and everyone continues to say, “we can safely ignore this.”

I recently saw an article by scientists which explored why people engage in dangerous behaviors. The main idea was that although we know certain things are bad for us individually or as a planet, we still do them. We do them with the full knowledge that they’re deadly and will likely hasten our demise. Ignoring religion (and in the case at hand, the Bible) is very much like that. A well-armed true believer can ruin your day pretty quickly. Religion, in recent years, has generated over $82 billion in revenue per year. At least those in the dismal science ought to sit up and take notice of that! Hey, for once, the numbers are with us! Statistically, religion is very important. Sounds like a good thing to pretend doesn’t exist.

Having grown up a Fundamentalist, I often ponder this state of affairs. The Bible, we all knew, was the most important thing. Studying it formally does tend to force new ways of considering it, but few Bible scholars would want to dismiss the Good Book out of hand. It still means too much to too many people simply to ignore. Far safer is the proper handling of Holy Writ. This is much easier to instill when institutions support it. It really is a necessary kind of education. Still, it gets sidelined for industries with lesser profits and lesser baggage. I grew into a career defined by the Bible, but even if I hadn’t I’d hope that I’d be able to recognize that some things just shouldn’t be ignored. Yet I’m on the sidelines cheering on those who consider such a career a tragic mistake.