Writers Reading

A lot of misconceptions about books abound out there.  One of those misconceptions that has become clear to me is that authors write books to teach.  (Or to make money.  Ha!)  That may well be part of the motivation, but for me, the larger part has been writing books to learn.  You see, the frontiers of human knowledge cannot be reached without stretching.  Writing a book is a way of learning.  Long gone are the days when a person could read every known published work.  Indeed, there aren’t enough hours on the clock for anyone even to read all published books on the Bible, let alone the far bigger topics these days.  And so writing a book that deals with a biblical topic—let’s say demons—is the ultimate learning exercise.  It’s a very humbling one.

I recently read an article where book pirates (yes, there is such a thing!  I should explain: there are those who believe authors are ripping off society by getting royalties for their books.  These pirates, like those of galleys of yore, take ebooks and make them available for free on the internet.) call authors “elitists” for wanting to earn something from their labors.  These folks, I’d humbly suggest, have never written a book.  Most books (and I’m mainly familiar with non-fiction publishing here, but the same applies to the other kind) take years to write.  Authors read incessantly, and if they have day jobs (which many do) it is their “free time” that goes into reading and writing.  They do it for many reasons, but in my case, I do it to learn.

The doctoral dissertation is accomplished by reading as much as possible beforehand and writing up the results quick, before someone else takes your thesis.  It is the practice I also used for my second book as well, Weathering the Psalms.  The third book, Holy Horror, was a little bit different.  Yes, I read beforehand, but much of the research went on after the body of the book had largely taken form.  I had to test my assumptions, which are on ground most academics, needing and fearing tenure, tremble to tread.  I read books academic and popular, and having been classically trained, often went back and read the books that led to the first books I read.  It is a never-ending journey.  I could easily spend a lifetime writing because I’d be learning.  But like other misconceptions, those who write books don’t lead lives of luxury.  They work for a living, but they live for the chance to learn.  And that’s worth more than royalties.  Besides, the nine-to-five demands constant attention.

Paper or Plastic?

Perhaps the most frequent topic on this blog is books. I don’t discuss every book I read, but most end up here. I can’t help but be pleased then, that recent polls show the number of people reading books is rising. Not only that, but that paper is back. We all appreciate new things. In fact, our economy would grind to a dead stop if it weren’t for new things that keep us buying. Ebooks were a new thing. Sometimes they’re even convenient things. If you’re going on a trip and you tend to travel with lots of books, like I do (who knows what mood you’ll be in when you get there? You’ve got to be prepared!) then an ebook reader can save stress on your back and luggage capacity. But I still prefer to zip open my bag and see four or five books smiling up at me. Visitors (rare, but not completely fictional) sometimes ask why I keep them all. I must restrain myself from retorting “why do you keep all your children?”

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Books—print books—represent so many things. Yes, they often contain knowledge. But they also contain memories. The contain emotions too. I remember that book that I saw in the library window at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh book sale display. I was only at Oshkosh one year, but I recall seeing the book that my advisor had recommended a decade and a half earlier. I was so excited I called the librarian to ask if it could be put on hold. He allowed as it couldn’t but if I were to pay in advance perhaps another book could be substituted in the display. I remember having my worldview torn open by books—that January that I read three books that changed my outlook on life almost completely over Christmas break. How can I bear to let any of them go?

I suspect ebooks were a fad. They are still useful and they still sell. But is there any feeling like taking a book, closing the back cover, setting it on your lap, and thinking about what you’ve just seen? I know nothing like it. Of the many books I’ve written, only two have been published. In some sense, those two are the only two I’ve done. I keep trying with the others, but meanwhile out there in a few select libraries people can find bricks of paper with my name on the outside. It wouldn’t been the same if the publishers had said, “it will only be an ebook.” I know that it shouldn’t make a difference if its paper or plastic, but it does. It makes all the difference in the world. No matter if it means having to build more bookshelves. They make excellent insulation.

Nobody’s Business

Working in academic publishing some insights are available that academics typically miss. For example, it isn’t unusual for a professor to ask why royalties aren’t higher on ebooks because “they don’t cost the press anything.” Ah, my poor, simple academics! If only life were so kind. Ebooks don’t require any ink, paper, or binding. They require a whole lot more than that. Ebooks require publishers to hire entire new divisions to oversee the complicated, technical, and swiftly-changing business of having ebooks in the format that they can be accessed by various reader platforms. Think of it this way: instead of buying materials, publishers have to enter an entirely new business area to sell what they always sold without it before. Now let’s twist the letter-opener just a bit more. Ebooks have exploded exponentially. Anyone with an Amazon account can be an author. Who buys academic books? University libraries. How to libraries decide what to buy? Well, let’s just say “it’s complicated.”

Now let’s go a bit deeper. Have you noticed that instead of fewer presses there are more and more of them? Stop and think about this. Universities have been churning out more and more doctorates for a system that has had a shrinking number of positions for at least the last three decades. Yes, someone’s entire academic career could have been spent in a vanishing profession and they never noticed. There are no jobs out there, my dear professors. Why do you continue to churn out graduate students? The student knows that s/he will be expected to publish. A lot. Librarians, whose jobs have gotten a whole lot more complicated, face budgets that have been simplified. That is to say, administrators say “Ebooks cost less, so libraries need less money. Besides, there’s Wikipedia.” A doctoral dissertation on a single word in a single verse on a single book in the Bible is not likely to get noticed in such a situation.

The fact is society is hungry for new knowledge. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. That’s the illusion cast by the internet: knowledge should be free. Tenured professors, however, don’t come cheap. Just ask the professional adjunct living out of his car and eating Ramen noodles heated up with the cigarette lighter. We don’t think about her, however, because she’s not writing books. Society wants an alternative to consumer capitalism. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. Presses start up because there is plenty of content out there—all those dissertations you direct—and anybody can make an ebook cheaply. Print-on-demand alone can keep a press in business. The knowledge pours out the facet, goes over the hands and down the drain. Professors, comfortable in their paneled offices, will never complain. You’ve beat the system—congratulations! But I just can’t help you with those ebook royalties. If you’ll excuse me, my noodles are getting cold.

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The Lure of the Dark Side

I have to confess that the easy self-publishing of ebooks is a real temptation sometimes. Perhaps it’s one of those inexplicable side-effects of earning a Ph.D., but sometimes you have the impression you have something to say and traditional publishers just don’t agree. In my work life I see many clever ideas that, well, let’s be frank, just won’t sell. Publishers do have to keep an eye on whether a book can earn back the money put into it, and sometimes a good idea leads to no cash payout. So when you can easily sign up online—you don’t even have to talk to anyone—and post your unedited words right on Amazon and call it a book, well, anyone can be an author. So I was looking up books with the terms “Bible” and “America” on Amazon when I came up with Donald Trump in the Bible Code. I found the self-designed cover frightening, and the sentiments expressed in the description grounds for terror. Then I noticed it was only 15 pages long. I’ve written student evaluations that were longer than that.

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At three bucks, that’s—wait while I get my calculator—twenty cents a page. Now anyone who’s been able to read the original Bible Code and not cover a snicker or two will possibly find such a jeremiad palatable. After all, it’s a book! Somebody published it. Well, actually, all you need for self-publishing is an internet connection and at least one finger to type and click. Or a toe. You too can become an expert! No education required. Publishing fiction in such a format is one thing, but when people can’t tell a prestige publisher from a vanity press when it comes to factual material, we’re all in trouble.

There’s an old saying: “those who can’t do, teach.” I think I first came across this wisdom in a Peanuts cartoon, with all the gravitas that such implies. Editors, it seems, are not required for publishing. In fact, some of us who live by the word seem destined to die by the word. Even with connections I have trouble getting my ideas published. More than once I’ve lingered on Amazon’s CreateSpace page with my finger hovering over the mouse. Publication is one click away and some people make six digits a year publishing only on Amazon. Since I produce about 145,000 words a year on this blog alone (apart from my other writing), the urge is very strong at times. Then I look at that cover and I stay my finger as it hovers. I’ll wait a little longer. At least until November.

What I Meant to Say

XML. CSS.  Abstracting.  Separating content and meaning.  Sounds kind of scary to me.  As a would-be writer, plodding my way through what used to be the humanities, I’m sometimes frightened when I hear techies talk about where publishing “has to go” to remain “competitive.”  Since technology drives industry these days, we all need to bow before the image with a head of gold.  What you write on the page has to be edited to make it say what you meant it to say.  Then the meaning has to be excised and converted into XML, because that’s the way ebooks like it.  Page numbers are an artifact, and if your device can’t find the phrase you half remember, don’t go looking for an index.  You see, XML files don’t have pages—they’re just an illusion caused by the limited size of paper.  The meaning lies in the stripped, naked, and shivering content.  Or meaning.  Or something.
 
So goes the brave new world of publishing.  We live in the days of inferred information and bowdlerization in inscrutable acrostics.  I’ve actually heard techies say, “we need to teach authors to produce what we need.”  Have you ever seen a dog wag so fast?  Or a tale hold so perfectly still?  What do I mean?  Ask an expert.
 
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The blank page of actual paper used to terrorize many a student.  There are few things so transcendent to me as a new, unused Moleskine.  The very blankness of the pages is like unto the whiteness of Heaven.  This is a place where thoughts can roam free, and I can feel the thoughts coursing from my brain to my fingers as the pen traces paths never before seen.  As this blog attests, my writing does not draw the countless masses.  The vast majority of it written on paper will never be seen by another human being.  Thoughts are captured there, mid-flight.  They’ve never been tamed or tagged or abstracted from their meaning.  In the mind of some, I must suppose, that means they really mean nothing.  When I hold them, however, which I can never do with an XML file, I know that some things are simply too important to convert to what someone else declares they must be.