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.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Searching Again

Research can be addictive.  Those who know me are generally aware of how I can’t let ideas go.  I suppose this is necessary for those who write books—concentrating on one subject for a long time is mentally taxing and can lead to early loss of interest.  Those of us inclined to embrace this activity live for the thrill of uncovering new ideas and making connections that we’d overlooked.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is a case in point.  Before submitting this book proposal I’d done a lot of reading on the subject of demons.  This is a dark topic, but those of us who live in temperate zones spend quite a bit of time without daylight, so I might think of this as a kind of therapy.  Or an excuse to do research.

Here’s often what happens: I’ll be writing along when suddenly a new question pops into my head.  Why was this or that the case?  The internet makes amateur research quite easy, but as someone raised on solid scholarly food, I need to check my sources.  When a professor I would’ve headed to the library with interlibrary loan slips in my hand.  These days I tend to turn to my own books and lament that I don’t have just the right one (there’s a reason, you see, that there are so many tomes in this house).  I try to find workarounds and used copies.  Perhaps I’ll pick up an adjunct class or two to be given library access again.  Meanwhile, the idea, like an ear worm, is burrowing into my conscious mind.  Until it’s time to go to work.

That great eight-hour stretch of day drains my energy.  Indeed, many employers count on taking the best you have to offer and making it their own.  What you do with “the rest of your time” is up to you.  Thing is, research is a full-time job.  Fortunately some of what I learn while on the clock will help me with my own research agenda.  The overlap isn’t especially strong, but now and again something I read in a manuscript will sync with what I do in the pre-dawn hours before I commit myself to the time-clock.  It’s a strange way to do research.  Back at Nashotah House I’d use the summers to follow the clues laid before my mind and, as long as I went to chapel, it was considered part of my employment.  Now it’s considered an avocation.  I can’t help myself, though.  Personal research is not part of the job description, but I’m an addict when it comes to learning new things.

Non-Lending Library

One of the hidden benefits of the coming societal collapse is the chance for the resurgence of print books. Since I’ve spent most of my life surrounding myself with volumes thick and thin, dense and light, I’ll have plenty to read between bouts of skulking out for food like a feral cat and clawing off those who follow me home, thinking that it’s edible stuff I’m stockpiling. Won’t they be surprised to learn it’s only books! My wife sent me an Atlas Obscura story the other day about book curses. The description of the life of a medieval scribe sounded oddly compelling to me—hunched all day over a writing desk, copying books by hand. Not having to worry about catching the bus before sunrise or being too tired to answer your personal email in the evening. The point of the piece, however, was the book curses.

I’ve been an avid reader since moving to a small town where the main occupation of kids my age was recreational drug use. I was one of the very few who didn’t inhale. Reading became my escape from the loneliness I felt. And I used to lend books to people who’d ask me. I quickly learned that others didn’t share the same care for books that I had. Lent books seldom made their way back to me. We were poor and there were no bookstores nearby and Amazon wasn’t even a meme in Jeff Bezos’ eye yet. Replacing books wasn’t easy. Once I lent out a book I’d already read (but you couldn’t tell it, I’d been so careful). The borrower actually did return it, but the spine was all creased and cracked so that you couldn’t even read the title anymore. I soon began to regard books like those medieval monks who put curses on them so nobody would steal them. I stopped lending them out.

The thing I’m banking on is that books will retain their barter value when society implodes. Of all possible universes only in that one will I be considered wealthy. Those who visit our little apartment inevitably comment on the number of books. What they don’t realize is that there’s a strategy involved here. Like those medieval monks, I have a suspicion that knowledge—including facts that don’t have alternatives—will one day in our dystopian future be valued above all the tweets and lies Washington seems to suggest we follow blindly. And blindness will make a great curse, now that I think about it, to protect these books from being stolen. Or “anathema-maranatha,” as my medieval mentors used to say. Or as Sarah Laskow ends her piece, “May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.” Maybe this isn’t so strange for a guy whose first academic appointment was at a school that reminds many of The Name of the Rose. (Which was the last book I lent out, for the record.)

Colorful Leaves

Weekends, it seems, are incomplete without being among books. You might think that someone who works in publishing might want to get away from books in the off hours, but quite the contrary. I love a good walk in the woods in autumn. Especially if it’s followed by a trip to the local independent bookstore. It just feels right being among books. I realize that I’m in the minority by expressing such an opinion, and that the book buying (and book publishing industry) is (are) small compared to other forms of passing one’s time, but they are significant beyond their size. My wife and I have scoped out the various indie book sellers all around. When we have to take the car in for service, we drop it off, have lunch at a diner, and stroll down to the bookshop. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

img_2984

Here’s the sign on our Clinton indie. In case you can’t make it out, the legend says “This is a book shop. Cross-roads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts. Against the ravages of time. Armoury of fearless truth. Against whispering rumour. Incessant trumpet of trade. From this place words may fly abroad not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time. Not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in truth. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a book shop.” I especially appreciate the sentiment of sacred ground. Indeed, sanctuaries of all sorts often house books. As libraries experience funding difficulties, civilizations are in the throes of collapse. Just to have books around me makes me feel secure.

Some months ago we had to have a refrigerator replaced. Our apartment has a strange, offset back door that makes getting anything of size in or out difficult. The front door is a fairly straight shot, but just beyond the entryway I had set up a bookshelf after we moved in. The appliance guys came in, jaws literally dropping. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place,” one of them said. They then complained and told me they couldn’t get the old fridge out as the landlord had said they’d be able too. “Your books are in the way,” they complained with accusatory tones. I had to unload the books from two shelves and move them while they watched. I, the lover of books, was duly chastened. I’m afraid my love affair with reading has only become more passionate since that day. The books are back on their shelves and they’ve been joined by more friends. What is a weekend without books but a wasted opportunity?

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?”

img_2945

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.

British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

DSCN5025