Anticipation

My work computer was recently upgraded.  I, for one, am quickly tiring of uppity software assuming it knows what I need it to do.  This is most evident in Microsoft products, such as Excel, which no longer shows the toolbar unless you click it every single time you want to use it (which is constantly), and Word, which hides tracked changes unless you tell it not to.  Hello?  Why do you track changes if you don’t want to see what’s been changed when you finish?  The one positive thing I’ve noticed is now that when you highlight a fine name in “File Explorer” and press the forward arrow key it actually goes the the end of the title rather than just one letter back from the start.  Another goodie is when you go to select an attachment and Outlook assumes you want to send a file you’ve just been working on—good for you!

The main concern I have, however, is that algorithms are now trying to anticipate what we want.  They already track our browsing interests (I once accidentally clicked on a well-timed pop-up ad for a device for artfully trimming certain private hairs—my aim isn’t so good any more and that would belie the usefulness of said instrument—only to find the internet supposing I preferred the shaved look.  I have an old-growth beard on my face and haven’t shaved in over three decades, and that’s not likely to change, no matter how many ads I get).  Now they’re trying to assume they know what we want.  Granted, “editor” is seldom a job listed on drop-down menus when you have to pick a title for some faceless source of money or services, but it is a job.  And lots of us do it.  Our software, however, is unaware of what editors need.  It’s not shaving.

In the grip of the pandemic, we’re relying on technology by orders of magnitude.  Even before that my current job, which used to be done with pen and paper and typewriter, was fully electronic.  One of the reasons that remote working made sense to me was that I didn’t need to go into the office to do what I do.  Other than looking up the odd physical contract I had no reason to spend three hours a day getting to and from New York.  I think of impatient authors and want to remind them that during my lifetime book publishing used to require physical manuscripts sent through civilian mail systems (as did my first book).  My first book also included some hand-drawn cuneiform because type didn’t exist for the letters at that particular publisher.  They had no way, it turns out, to anticipate what I wanted it to look like.  That, it seems, is a more honest way for work to be done.


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.


Fearing Errata

Well before I became an editor, I noted mistakes in books.  I go through phases of marking up books as I read them—in pencil only, please!—and not doing so, but I used to mark mistakes when I found them.  At that point I hadn’t realized the complexity of the process of book production and I had no idea of the many ways in which errors might creep in.  I’m a bit more forgiving now.  In any case, errors are a regular part of book publishing.  Older books used to carry pages with incantational-sounding titles like “errata” and “addenda et corrigenda.”  Errors, in other words, were considered inevitable because every time you have another set of eyes look over the manuscript it adds to both the costs and time for the production schedule.  Then I started writing books.

Now, before I get too far I should explain that many book editors don’t line edit submissions.  The standard “editor” is an acquisitions editor, which means you sign up books for your press, but you don’t necessarily (if ever) actually edit them.  I still have the sensibilities of a copyeditor, however.  That’s the main reason I fear to read my own books after they’re published.  I’m afraid I’ll find mistakes.  I do take the proofreading stage seriously, but often a writer has little control over when proofs arrive with a tight turnaround time.  You have to drop everything to get them returned by the deadline.  I’m always worried that errors might’ve crept in.  For example, with Holy Horror, I corrected with website copy for the book.  The errors, however, remain online.  They’re minor, but as the author you’re always considered culpable for such oversights.

Now that I’m working on a presentation to give for Holy Horror, I find myself facing my fears.  I need to go back to a book already published and look inside.  Since writing it I’ve completed another book, Nightmares with the Bible, and my mind can’t help mixing up a little in which book I said what.  To make sure I don’t tell potential readers the wrong information, I need to go back and reread parts of my own work.  What if I find errors?  Will I have to mark up my own copies like I used to do to those of others?  Will I need to compile an errata sheet?  I tend to be a careful reader, especially with proofs.  But facing possible errors is nevertheless a terrifying prospect, even if it’s a regular hazard for those who attempt to write books.


Chapter and Verse

Maybe like me you’ve read some arguments based on chapter and verse.  I should mention that I mean chapter and verse in the Bible.  The typical scenario will go like this: Genesis (say) uses this word three times in chapter 38.  The case then often slips to making a point on the number of instances a word or phrase occurs within a circumscribed set of verses.  (The actual word doesn’t matter—this is a thought experiment.)  When I ran into an example of this a few days ago a thought occurred to me: chapters and verses are later additions to the biblical text.  They were never part of the original and were only added because Bible readers got tired of saying “That part in Genesis where…”  In other words, chapter and verse are artificial means of interpreting the Bible.  They’re very useful for taking quotes out of context.

I used to tell my students that you have to think carefully about what is the Bible and what isn’t.  As a culture where the book has instant recognition, we tend to think of that discrete unit of pages and cover as coming from one person—the author.  In reality most books (I can’t speak for the self-published) are the work of several people.  Just like it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes one to assemble a book.  That includes the Good Book.  Not everything between the covers is sacred text.  I’m pretty sure about that since as I was glancing through the latest edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible I found my own name in the Preface.  As much as I’d like to claim otherwise I’m not exactly biblical. 

Modern ways of looking at ancient texts require a degree of facility in understanding how God’s scribes of yesteryear went about their work.  While early experiments in binding books may go back close to the time when the latter parts of the Bible were being written, the scroll—without chapter and verse—contained only the words of the text.  Most ancient manuscripts in Greek, anyway, didn’t even bother to put spaces between the words.  That leaves some room for ambiguity in among all those letters.  The Bible is a complex book with a complex history.  We do it a disservice as modern readers treating it as a modern book.  If you read Scripture online, or via electronic media, an even further layer of interpretation has been added.  That’s why we still need Bible scholars tangled somewhere in this world-wide web.


Books and Editing

My life has been about books. It was only as I became what is now known as a tween that the passion took hold, but since that time I’ve been addicted to them. As some readers know, I have a Goodreads account. Each year I try to take out a Goodreads challenge on how many books to read. That recently got me thinking; as an editor you read lots of embryonic books, but they don’t count. Being an editor’s a funny job. Not ha-ha funny, but the other kind. When I was having trouble breaking back into higher education, I ran across a quote that went something like this: What’s an editor? A writer who actually has a job. (Rimshot.) I have a tendency to take things literally, so I thought I’d discover lots of writers among professionals in the publishing world. I haven’t.

It could be that other writers keep it well hidden. I publish my fiction under a pseudonym and it may be that the other editors I know live hidden lives too. Somehow I doubt it. They check their email at midnight and all day long on weekends. One thing I know about writers is that we need time to write. If your workday is already eight hours and your commute is three-plus hours more, you won’t be checking work emails on weekends if you want to get any writing done at all. But what about the reading? Does it count when you read books that aren’t even born yet?

On Goodreads I enter my books by the ISBN. The International Standard Book Number (for which you have to pay, I’ve learned) is a tool used so that booksellers can keep track of titles with a unique identifier. The system is fairly recent (at least according to some of the books I read), and not all books have one. For those of us who read ancient documents, those can’t count either. Ilimilku didn’t think to stamp 13-digits on the bottom of his clay tablets. There’s no way to trace just how much s person reads in an actual year. I measure myself by my books. I get a profound sense of fulfillment when I finish one. That’s why I so often post about them on this blog. Books mean something. Call it a bad habit if you will. We’re outgrowing our apartment because I find it hard to part with books. There are those who spend their lives building arsenals. Then there are those who spend theirs building libraries. I know which I prefer.


Spoiler Alert

I work in a cubicle. That’s just one word shy of the famed “six word novel” challenges. I’m wondering what qualifier I should add. To understand this dilemma you have to realize a few things. My first professional job (professor) included a three-room office to myself. Also, I am a middle-aged man amid a work-pool of mostly twenty-somethings (everyone else my age has their own office). My cubicle has walls six feet high, so I can’t see, but can hear my just-out-of-college neighbors. Very few people talk to me at work. In fact, I can go an entire week without anyone saying anything to me, right here in the largest city in the country. The office is generally very quiet. You can hear everything. This leads to my concern with a very specific peril regarding work in a cubicle.

Much of the meaning in my life comes from what I read. In addition to all the books I review here on this blog, I have quite a few fiction projects going at any one time. I happen to be reading a book just now that was recently made into a movie. The reason I know it’s been made into a movie? My unseen, 20-something colleagues began talking about it yesterday morning. Complete with spoilers. Now, they couldn’t see the contortions on my face, hidden in my cubicle. The people who sit next to me work in a different department than mine and I have no reason to speak to them—they don’t even know who I am. Should I, like the voice of God, thunder unseen from my cube, “No spoilers!”? Or should I just continue to sit here with my fingers jammed firmly into my ears and hope that when I pull them out I don’t learn anything more about what I haven’t read yet?

I know it’s just me. I don’t read the blurbs on a book before reading the book itself. I don’t read reviews of movies before seeing the film. Guys my age appreciate the craft of story, building up to the reveal, not getting it in Monday morning water-cooler talk. I finally got up and walked away from my desk. There’s nowhere private to go on my floor, so I went to the stairwell and pointlessly climbed to the top floor and back down again. I returned to my desk and they were still talking about it. Not only was it Monday morning in a New York City where nobody had spoken to me in the three hours since I arrived in town, but there wasn’t even a spoiler warning for one of my favorite pastimes. Such are the perils of cubicle life.