Book Birthing

Books, like humans and other animals, undergo a process of conception, development, and birth.  It may seem, when holding a book in hand, that it is the singular work of one person, but in fact most books are a community effort.  I’ve read many books where the author was a specialist in one area and decided to write a book in a different field.  This used to be more acceptable, as various polymaths showed that specialization wasn’t the only way to understand the bigger picture.  Such efforts these days, however, take some convincing of skeptical editors.  And with good reason.  Factual books, especially, are subject to close scrutiny.  Does the author indeed know what s/he is talking about?  Is s/he qualified to write this book?

Recently I was reading such a book.  It was published by a university press, and the author was a specialist in one field, but writing in an unrelated one.  In my mind (so fictionally) I went through how this may have developed.  A writer goes to an editor and says “I have an idea for a book.”  From my own experience as an editor, this second party then asks her or himself a few questions.  Is this topic a viable book?  If so, who will buy it?  Is this author the right person to write it?  (It is possible that a person has an idea for a book better written by someone else.)  Depending on the author’s stature, the editor may cave and say, “Okay, but you need to let me help you.”  Editors (present company excepted) are some of the smartest people I’ve met.  They may not be specialists like professors, but they know an awful lot.  Many authors constantly question their editorial decisions nevertheless.

No matter how rational an author is, emotion plays into the process of writing.  I frequently tell my authors “the book has to be what you want it to be.”  Still, that may mean it should be published by someone else.  An author who publishes books s/he doesn’t like is not a happy person.  For nonfiction books other readers, such as peer reviewers and colleagues, also shape the final tome.  Seldom does the book in your hands represent something straight from the mind of the writer.  There are places for such things, of course, this blog being one of them.  (And there are many more.)  What makes the book authoritative, however, is that it has been fact-checked by many readers other than the author before it ever goes to press.  Gestation is important.  No book can be fully formed without it.


Mothers’ Instinct

Maternity leave (not for me, but still) demonstrates just how sexist capitalism is.  This becomes very clear in publishing where schedules are reinforced by incentives (instead of paying properly) for meeting agreed-upon deadlines.  If an author gets pregnant while writing a book—not an unusual situation—it can throw shockwaves all through a book’s schedule from production all the way back up to editorial.  Why?  Because incentives are on the line.  It’s possible to counter with what if an author falls sick?  Or dies?  Yes, these happen too, but pregnancy isn’t an illness and isn’t infrequently a biologically constrained event—there is an age at which it ceases to become an issue.  So incentives, which are based on schedules drawn up before an author conceives, put the capitalist machine into a tizzy.

If employers didn’t rely on incentives, but paid better wages, this could make the issue less acute.  The entire system is devised from a male perspective.  Sickness and death do occur from time to time, but the invariability of a schedule (which ironically takes about nine months) is based on a view that doesn’t account for the somewhat likely event of a pregnancy.  I often think about this.  The corporate structure was made by men, for men.  We now give lip-service to equality while refusing to change the masculinist structure that underlies it.  By doing so the valuable contributions and improvements that women might make are kept under the standard business model.  No wonder it feels like we’re stuck in a rut.

Societal change is generally slow, and that conservative tendency preserves our property and our means of making a living.  If we gave women more prominence in leadership I would hope that this would start to change.  The male-oriented viewpoints of the capitalist entrepreneur, the stolid religious leader, and the halls of government, and even education, are reluctant to let people think differently.  We want to move forward, but we’re afraid of losing what we have.  This is why the conversation needs to widen.  Maternity leave reminds us that some things are more important than work.  Care for a helpless human being is something nearly all people would support.  It’s when they grow up that society feels it can safely ignore their needs.  We need a mother’s wisdom here.  Every time a pregnancy sets publication schedules in a frenzy I ask myself why we have to rely on incentives beyond just being the most human that we can be.


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.


The Hardest Part of Nightmares

In the process of writing a book, there comes the long time between when everything’s submitted and you hear nothing.  In fact, writing a book is often about waiting.  You spend years pounding your thoughts through a keyboard, send them off to some editor (guilty, as charged) who takes months to read and think about it.  If they like it they’ll send you instructions on how to change it and you start banging the keys again.  When it’s finally ready you submit it and wait while it gets transferred to production.  This handover is a complicated process and can itself take a month, easily.  Then the manuscript has to be copyedited.  I’m at the post-copyedited phase of Nightmares with the Bible, and this is, it seems, the longest wait.

There were only a few changes to the proofs I received.  These days your Word files (converted from Pages files for Mac users) get loaded directly into the production software.  What you see is your own words, in a different format.  You type your corrections directly onto the proofs.  Hit submit.  Then wait.  In my head I know that my book is one of many waiting in a queue to be printed.  I’m also a realist so I know the initial printing will likely be about 150 copies.  (When I first started in the publishing world academic books routinely sold 300 copies, but those days are long gone.)  At some point before then I’ll receive an email telling me the cover’s ready.  That’s what I’m waiting for at the moment.

We’re constantly told, in the business, that electronic books are what people want.  I can’t speak for others who write, but when I think of a book I think of a physical object.  Not some electrons sharing a screen promiscuously with any number of other books.  I haven’t published until I hold the printed object in my hands.  That’s still at least a weeks away.  Unless your book is anticipated to be a big seller, this is a period of absolute silence.  You just wait, nervously checking the publisher’s website every other day to see if your page has been updated, all the while working on your next tome.  Although it is priced expensively, I’m hoping Nightmares with the Bible will do reasonably well because of the subject.  Maybe some people will even get curious about Holy Horror, which was the precursor for it.  But for now, I sitting here with Tom Petty, waiting.