Type Right

Image credit: Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’d like to get a typewriter.  An old one, without electric capacity.  Clacking keys flying before the dawn.  At first this might seem impractical—why buy a typewriter when almost all publishing is now electronic, at least in one stage of its life cycle?  You type something out and you’re going to have to “re-key” it for the hegemony of technology.  But wait—there is a method to this madness.  I’ve heard it said that good writing is just clear thinking.  That sounds right to me, but with a proviso: good writing is edited writing.  The editor may be someone else, or it may be the author, but the point is that something written, with rare exceptions, improves upon rewriting.  Like ordinary stones in a rock tumbler that come out glistening.  Type it, then retype it.

Back in college I wrote all my papers out by hand before typing them.  (Sometimes three lines of handwriting on each college-ruled line.)  “Keyboard composition,” as it was called then, was shorthand for quick, sloppy writing.  The uniformity of type hides a host of syntactical sins.  I used to see the same thing with student papers prepared on a computer in my teaching days—colorful images and fancy type utilized to mask a lack of engagement.  The paper written and rewritten shows itself to be of a higher standard.  I (or others) notice more errors on this blog when I run out of time for editing, often because work looms.  If I have the time, I edit.  And I actually miss writing my thoughts out longhand.  What I need is a typewriter.

Reading has always been a large part of my job.  Student papers and book proposals aren’t so very different.  Many of both come in what appears to be first draft form.  It’s understandable—good writing takes time not only to hammer out a draft but to think, mull, change angles, and hammer again—and we’re all so terribly busy.  The end result is often worth it.  At this point in Nightmares with the Bible I’m printing out my draft so that I can see what I’ve written.  The handwritten comments come after the keyboard composition, but they still come.  The important thing is that drafts require re-reading.  Better, re-writing.  The niceties of pleasing writing can be added or enhanced by an editor.  When editors write books, other editors edit them.  And as I sit here typing this silently on my computer, I’m imagining the satisfying sounds of a manic typewriter early in the morning.

Editing the Week

Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.  Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.  Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.  Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.  Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.  They often possess valuable advice.

It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.  The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.  Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.  Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.  There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.  (Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)  Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.  My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.

One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.  Sometimes that works.  Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.  There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.  There are hidden lives of editors.  I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.  I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.

Dark Houses

A book can be whatever an author wants it to be.  When it goes through the publication process, however, it becomes a group effort.  Granted, the other parties are motivated by money rather than by the message of the book, but they are professionals.  Editors can point out what’s irrelevant, or beside the point.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  They change things, often, authors admit upon reflection, for the better.  The self-published book shows itself as just what an author wants it to be.  House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story, by Andrea Perron is a case in point.  In three volumes of about 500 pages each, it is (they are) the insider story of the family portrayed in The Conjuring.  After having finished volume one, it’s clear the book needed an editor.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here.  The first couple hundred pages are fascinating, although there’s a slow build-up into moving into the Harrisville house.  One thing academics have always been too quick to do is dismiss the experience of non-trained observers.  We have to be skeptical, of course, to spot those who are intentionally deceitful, but a person doesn’t write 1,500 pages without cause.  People do experience strange things, and this book is a family’s recollection of events that inspired a horror movie.  There were a few points in the course of reading through that I found myself pondering new perspectives on the realm of ghosts—shifts of point of view.  There were many points, though, that I found myself muttering that an editor would’ve helped.

As a fully trained academic in the field of studies that handles issues of the soul, I am hungry for primary sources.  Sociologists and psychologists get their information from observers—ordinary people.  It’s only when the claims become extraordinary that such observations are called into doubt.  We have all heard of haunted houses.  We all know that sometimes strange things happen in them.  We can explain such happenings in different ways.  The skeptical explain them away as misperceptions, normal occurrences masquerading as paranormal.  The credulous accept everything at face value.  Truth, it seems to me, is a middle of the road phenomenon.  I’ve always sat on the fence regarding ghosts.  Too many people over too many centuries have reported them with great detail—witnesses include some very reputable and rational individuals—to dismiss them in toto.  After volume one, it seems that something worth exploring took place in the eponymous house.  For full impact, however, who you gonna call?  This time you’d better make it an editor.

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.

Title-less

I’ve been offering a few teasers about my forthcoming book. One of the reasons for not making an announcement is that the title hasn’t been settled yet. It’s pretty hard to promote a book without one. I’ve written enough about it that readers can tell it’s about horror movies. The publisher is McFarland, an independent academic publisher that specializes in pop culture and has an impressive list concerning monsters and other frightening things. Once we get a title down, I’ll say more. In the meantime, I can take the opportunity to say a bit more about the publishing industry. Not that people generally ask me about it, but I suspect many authors secretly want to know some insider tips. If not, I suspect there’s one or two other blogs to read today.

I’ll admit up front that I tried unsuccessfully to interest agents in this book. At least four wrote back to tell me it was a great idea, but a writer without a platform is like, well, an editor. I help other people get their ideas published—always a bridesmaid, as they say—physician heal thyself. When I realized I was wasting months trying to find a professional to promote my book, I decided to revert to the tried and true. When you want to know who to approach about your book, look at the spines of the books you read to write yours. Who are the publishers who produce books in this area? Sometimes the interests of a publishing house will change with the editors, so the more recent your comps, the better.

Horror sells. My project wasn’t really mercenary in that way, but rather it was the result of years of watching horror, usually by myself, and finding some commonality in the films. What exactly that commonality is will, I hope, become clear once I can freely write about my book topic. Others, you see, could swoop in and take my thesis—a perpetual fear of someone who barely has time to scribble out a blog post a day. Finding the time to write books in the off-work and off-commute hours is a real juggling act. In my case, perhaps a jugular act. Without an agent, I turned to McFarland. Many of their books helped me form the ideas for my own. Besides, they have a Scottish connection, and that means something to this old Edinburgh alum. If you want to get published, it helps to know the players. That may become even a bit easier once I’ve got a title.

Time Killer

The internet, while it’s no longer free, still at least offers many opportunities to connect. No matter what your obscure passion, you’ll find others who share it online. In my own little shadowy corner of the web, I’m keenly aware of the time requested of others. When you stick a piece of writing in front of someone’s face, you’re demanding a real commodity of them—their time. I keep the vast majority of my posts here under 500 words. Google will now tell you how long it’ll take to read my musings, so I won’t even ask 15 minutes of your time. Others, however, don’t always get the message.

The internet has also granted those who write copiously the ability to send long messages to complete strangers. People I don’t know find my name and send me lengthy emails, perhaps supposing an editor simply chooses material at random to publish. I even get requests on LinkedIn that begin with “Seeking representation.” I’m not an agent, and I’ve had a great deal of trouble finding one to represent my own fiction. Those who know me sometimes ask why I don’t write something longer (I do—my third book is on its way), but the fact is I respect your time far too much. My thoughts about religion in modern life ask only a few moments of your time to think, I hope, about matters profound and important. Then click off to another site. Besides, this blog contains well over a million words by now, and that is plenty long.

I try to read every email from an actual human. I also read about 100 books a year, not including those I read all day long at work. My world is made of words. I do not, however, have unlimited time. Sadly, when I walk into a bookstore I often look at how thick a book is. How much of my time is an author demanding? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of books with a weight problem on my shelves, many of them read from cover to cover. Still, they’re asking for my trust. Trust that the time spent won’t have been wasted. The web is a great place to kill time. It’s also a place, occasionally, to pause and reflect. This blog is no super-site with myriad hits every day, but it’s a place that makes little demand of your time. And it is my sincerest hope, dear reader, that time spent here is never simply killed.

How to Talk to an Editor

There are right ways and wrong ways to get your book published. When approaching an editor, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, we’re human. Yes, I know that I have something you want. The usual career track for an academic is Brown, Harvard, dissertation published by a certain academic press with which I’m familiar. I get that. The internet, however, has made publishing into something different than what it used to be. First of all, you can self-publish. Sorting through all the self-proclaimed experts can be a full-time job when you’re trying to find the latest authoritative treatment of a subject. Also, the internet has made research into publishers much easier than it used to be. My first book, back in the day, was simply sent off to a European publisher that specialized in academic monographs in my subject area and then I moved on. Today authors see flashy first books online and want just that. You can have it all, they’re told.

My LinkedIn profile took a definite boost once I became an editor. Now I often think it would be great if someone asking to connect actually knew me. But I digress. One way not to get your book published is to state right on your LinkedIn profile—or other social media—that you have a great book and you’re letting all publishers know. You then invite them to connect on LinkedIn and your book announcement, like a peacock’s tail, is supposed to attract the hungry editor. In reality what attracts an editor is professionalism. Research publishers, find out what they actually publish. That’s pretty easy these days; there’s more than funny videos on the internet. Even browsing titles similar to your own on Amazon can help. Pay attention to the publishers of the books you’re using for your research. If a publisher has done several books in your area they are more likely to be interested in your proposal than a publisher who’s never ventured into those waters.

It may be easy to think of us editors as sitting bored in our lonely cubicles, awaiting the next great thing. The fact is we receive plenty of submissions and we have to sort through them. Treat the subject professionally. Many of us hold doctorates and are keenly aware of hyperbole when we see it. You don’t need to tell the editor your book is ground-breaking. They will make that decision based on the evidence before them. And trust your editor when it comes to things like how a book should be titled or placed or marketed. Publishers—some of which have been around for centuries—daily face the harsh realities of producing books in an era of YouTube and online television. We know it’s difficult out there. Many of us want to help. Some of us write books and have to go through the same travails as other authors in finding publishers of our own. Do your research on publishers. When an editor offers free advice, take it. A little bit of extra work by an author goes a long way in helping a book proposal succeed.

Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

The Labyrinth of Copyright

Here’s another post originating from my daily work as an editor. (As an editor you tend to assume nobody’s really interested in what you do all day, but I’ve been told this isn’t so.) What is copyright? And do I have it? First of all, a caveat: I’m not a lawyer. Copyright is complex and, to answer my second question first, yes, you do have it! So what is copyright? Essentially it’s the protection of intellectual property. As long as that property remains in your head, it’s yours alone. Once it’s expressed in writing, art of any kind, music, or even as a chart, it is automatically covered by copyright. If you want to use something someone else wrote, or produced, in your book, you need permission. Small quotes are generally considered fair use, but don’t push that doctrine too far! Fair use is listed as just that, a doctrine.

What many authors don’t realize is that your book contract is an exchange—you’re selling your copyright to the publisher for their services (they publish your book, promote it, register the copyright (it already has copyright, but registering helps to protect it legally), and handle the financial aspects of selling your book). You can’t publish your own work again without permission of the publisher. Sometimes I’ve had people ask me to use my artwork (from my own published articles) in their work. I don’t mind, of course, but I don’t own the copyright! If I published my work, the publisher has taken that copyright and I remain simply the author. If I want to publish my own published work somewhere else, I have to ask permission. Copyright, however, doesn’t last forever.

The only safe date before which material can be used without fear of infringement is 1922. Works published before then are in the public domain. Right now new works (such as this blog) are covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 more years. After that, unless the law changes, you don’t need permission to reuse these idiosyncratic musings. Not that that’s ever been an issue. I’m not a litigious person, but I do like to be cited. (Who doesn’t?) In any case, if you’re working on an academic piece, and you want to reuse somebody’s drawing, or an extended piece of writing, or even a tiny bit of a poem, you must have permission to do so. That’s what copyright does for you. The “fair use doctrine,” like most doctrines, doesn’t hold up well in court. If in doubt, just ask. Before you do, though, you might want to consult a copyright lawyer, just in case.

All opinions my own.

The One Who Seeks

Academics and social media are, at times, an uneasy fit. In my work as an editor I come across many of the professorate who have virtually no web presence at all. If you’re wanting to write a book these days and you aren’t yet famous, you need what they call a “platform.” That is to say, you need to be easily found on internet searches, you have to have “followers” on various social media, and people have to know where to look to find information about you. A starter site that does fairly well is the for-profit venture called academia.edu. Because of that final “edu” extension, many suppose this is an educational site with no money in mind, but that’s not really the case. Still, it’s free to post your academic papers there and many intellectuals, public and otherwise, have vested some of their effort on getting academia followers.

J. C. L. Gibson, someone, and Nicolas Wyatt

My own profile on academia, which has copies of most of my papers available for free downloads, at one time was in the top 2%. I felt so special. Being kept out of academia for so many years, one does begin to wonder. In any case, one of the features of the site is that when someone lands on your page you receive a notice telling you how they found you. More detailed information is available for a fee (this is one of the not not-for-profit aspects I was mentioning). Sometimes they will provide you with the search terms used and the paper found. My site has quite a bit about Asherah. I wrote a book on the goddess, still largely overlooked, and several discrete papers. The other day I received a notice that someone found my page with this notice of how:

Someone from India found “A Reassessment of Asherah:…” on Google with the keyword “sex photos hd com R A N ilaku.”

I have the feeling someone left my site keenly disappointed. Although my book does discuss sexuality a little—you kind of have to with Asherah—I did wonder about the “photos” and “hd” and “ilaku” parts of the equation. You must be pretty desperate in your pornography quest to stumble across my academia page. Not that I’ve replicated the search, but I must be thousands of pages down in the results. Still, someone found my first book that way. And that’s the lesson—an internet platform may bring your work unexpected fame. Whether or not that fame is ill, will, however, remain an open question.

Identity Crisis

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. The movie, I mean. As a child I was taught never to talk to strangers, but that’s a little hard to maintain in New York City. You’re never really alone there. Standing in line for the bus, I read. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a crowded place around rush hour and I try to spin my literary cocoon so that I can get some reading done and so that I can have a little alone time. Introverts are like that. When the guy standing in front of me is confused, however, I like to help. There are three different bus lines that get mixed at my gate, and since I do this nearly every day I usually have a pretty good idea where to stand. I pointed this young fellow in the right direction. “Thanks,” he said. After a pause he asked, “are you a teacher?” I get this a lot, actually. By everyone but deans and search committees.

The writing on the wall.

The writing on the wall.

I was out for a walk in a city I’d only been to once before. Some guys were setting up for an outdoor function (the city was in the south). I was actually using my phone for geocaching, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. One of the guys stopped me and said, “Excuse me—are you a professor?” Some might accuse me of cultivating the look—glasses, beard, slightly puzzled expression most of the time—but the reality is the look is simply who I am. There are those who are professors because they want to be. There are those of us who should be because we can’t help it. I read as if books were food. When somebody asks what the weather’s like, I’m wondering if this world is reality at all. Thing is, academics too are busy finding jobs for their friends to care.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he went on. “I mean, I’m a complete stranger.” Actually he’s not. He’s a student. I don’t know him. I’ve never had him in class, but he needed some information I had readily available. I shared it with him. No, the fact is I’m not a professor. Professors are paid (much better than editors) for dispensing what I’m glad to give away for free. A teacher, you see, teaches. The best teachers I ever had were those who continued the lifestyle outside the classroom. They were never arrogant or privileged. They simply shared. Every day, in this situation, begins to look like the one before.

Retire Me This…

We’re all getting older.  My daily, grudging glimpse in the mirror reminds me that my beard wasn’t always gray, and there was a time *gasp* when no beard grew at all.  One of the realities of the brave new world we inhabit is that career stability has become a myth.  My father, in the brief time I knew him, worked as a house painter.  My stepfather worked in a sewage plant for a small town and drove a snowplow in winter to make ends meet.  These utilitarian jobs seemed never to end.  I made the mistake of going into higher education, not realizing that the risks were much higher and that I would make more money working in a sewage plant than I have ever made in my professional career, PhD in hand.  So it rankles me when I hear professors complaining about being too busy in retirement.  Retirement: what a concept.  When the guy who has custodianship of my minuscule retirement account from Nashotah House, after his gentle awaking from the defibrillator, looks at my records he always informs me, “you’re not well placed for retirement.”  Talking to my big brother we agree—our retirement plan is to die on the job.  So, when someone asks you to write another book, remember maybe it is some guy your own age who is trying not to starve.

As a society we’re aging.  Those who managed not to be fired by Fundamentalists have had a secure, tenure-ridden ride through the occupation that some of the rest of us were denied.  Busy in retirement?  Some of us will never have that privilege.  Funny thing is, it’s not funny.  I sometimes lean back in my editorial chair and realize, if this hadn’t happened to me, I would probably look at it the same way.  I would have published that second, third, and fourth book, and people would actually think my opinion mattered.  I would’ve become a resource to be tapped rather than a dancing monkey who hopes for anything shiny.  Is that another gray hair?

I don’t belittle the hard work of higher education—it’s not an easy profession. But writing books? That’s the fun part! Privilege induces blindness. How rare an opportunity it is to teach! While we as a nation devalue it, in many parts of the world those who shape future minds are revered. Yet elsewhere in the world there are those who are far worse off even than an editor—those for whom life is constant suffering and surviving another day is not reasonably assured. How easily I forget this as I neglect to balance my checkbook for fear of what I might find. We shouldn’t complain when someone asks us to give back, even in retirement. Those of us capable of writing books sometimes lack only the bona fide of a college or university position to do so. Otherwise I might hope to retire as well some day.

"Photo by Chalmers Butterfield"

“Photo by Chalmers Butterfield”