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.

Keep It Covered

I’ve seen it at last.  The cover concept for my book.  I’ve been manicly checking the Rowman and Littlefield (parent company of Lexington/Fortress Academic—a roadmap would be useful) webpage to see what it might look like.  I’ve “seen a sighting” at last.  Nightmares with the Bible seems to be actually happening.  As a writer there’s always some doubt involved with your book.  You wonder, will it really come out?  Will someone pull the plug at the last minute?  Is any of this real at all?  Those kinds of things.  I’ve mentioned before that waiting is a very large part of the process.  Publishing is a slow business and the world changes so fast.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever leave books behind.

My waiting hasn’t been idle, of course.  My next nonfiction book is well underway but I’m focusing on fiction at the moment.  I had two short stories published within the last month and I’m inclined to follow where some success shows itself.  Besides, fiction and nonfiction aren’t as far apart as is often claimed.  Seeing the cover of the book, however, nudges me back towards nonfiction a bit.  Since I’m no longer an academic it’s a toss-up.  A few colleagues like what I’m doing, but my fiction work is secret.  So the process continues, waffling back and forth.  It’s all in service of learning how the publishing industry works.  That’s one of the many things they don’t teach you in graduate school.

It’s October and I should be thinking about monsters.  Although I’ve gone through my closet of DVDs, there are many that bear watching again.  If only I could fabricate time!  One of the things I’ve noticed about this pandemic—and I know it’s not just me—is that time seems to have been swallowed up.  A simple walk down the local biking trail now requires masking up before and washing hands after.  Less than a minute of time, for sure, but it adds up.  And if you go after work there’s not enough light left to paint the porch by when you get back.  Such are the contradictions of this wonderful season.  You really can’t pin anything down.  The colorful trees put you into rapture then they’re bare.  The bright blue sky looms under relentless clouds.  You throw off your jacket one day and it snows the next.  And there might just be monsters lurking out there.  One of them, it’s said, will be released in November.  Given the nature of this season we’ll just have to wait and see.

BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.

Update on Nightmares

Progress continues on Nightmares with the Bible.  Despite pandemic conditions, I received a happy email last week telling me that the manuscript had been transmitted to production.  If you don’t work in publishing that probably sounds like a pretty simple step, but in reality it’s immensely complicated.  The job of many editorial assistants is often just making sure books get through the transition from author to publishing engines safely.  Since Lexington/Fortress Academic is short-staffed at the moment (publishing is a “non-essential” business), they ask authors to take on additional responsibilities.  One that they passed on to me was to find people to endorse my book.  Fortunately I’ve got star series editors who agreed to take on the task, sparing me from going to someone and saying, “Um, hi.  Would you like to say nice things about my book?”  I’m shy that way.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not excited about the book.  It came about in an odd way, but like any parent an author loves her or his books, even if they aren’t quite what you expected.  Getting a fourth book published is kind of a hallmark for me, especially since I spend a lot of time on the websites of successful academic colleagues older than me that haven’t reached that benchmark.  Publishing books, for me, is a kind of validation.  The original ideas of editors aren’t much valued, either in publishing or in society at large.  Who cares what an editor thinks?  Put that same person in a college and s/he’s a superstar, eh, Qohelet?  So I sit here like an expectant parent, wondering what the book will look like although I already know what I’ve put into it.

Nightmares was never meant to be a research book.  Indeed, Holy Horror was written with an eye toward trade publication.  I’ve been working on my next book project (which I’m keeping under wraps at the moment for fear that someone with more time might get to it first, since there’s no getting the genie back in the bottle).  Before too many weeks have passed I’ll need to brush off my indexing skills (in as far as I have any), and get proofs submitted.  I’m afraid I’ll miss the coveted Halloween launch yet again with this book.  “Scary topic” books always sell best in September/October, but if you miss it, the next year you’re old news.  Like an anxious parent I sit here and wait because at this point things are literally out of my hands.

Nightmares with Nightmares

Although some staff members are furloughed, Nightmares with the Bible is still going to press.  Unlike many authors, I realize that Covid-19 has had a stifling effect on publishing, starting with bottlenecking books at printing houses.  Printers (along with publishers) were non-essential businesses and since you have to be physically present to run a printing press, the virus literally, well, stopped the presses.  Many publishers could work remotely, so the projects began piling up before printing houses reopened.  All of this is preamble to saying I am gratified that work with Nightmares is continuing.  Yesterday, however, it led to a nightmare of its own.

One of the reasons I don’t fight awaking early is that it is uninterrupted writing time.  Most of the rest of your time zone is asleep at three a.m., so I can write in peace.  Yesterday, however, I had to divide my manuscript into chapter files and resend it to the publisher.  No problem, right?  Technology, however, has made this once simple task a burden.  I use a Mac, and so my word processor is Pages.  Not only that, but the constant systems upgrades require me to empty space on my hard drive—really, the only stuff I keep on here are my writings and those pictures I snap with my phone.  Still, I had to load my external drive to access the final file sent to the publisher two months back.  With Pages you can’t select material from page-to-page in the thumbnails.  No, you must “physically” go to the start of the chapter, click, scroll to the end of the chapter, and shift-click to highlight and then copy it.  Then you have to open a new file, select a template, and paste.  Save and export as a Word document.  The process took about two hours.

 

Now, I get up this early to write and do a little reading.  Yesterday I could do neither.  Instead I was cutting and pasting like a manic kindergartener, trying to get my manuscript printed before the second wave comes and shuts everything down again.  Talk about your nightmares!  Technology has made the industry much swifter, no doubt.  When I first began publishing articles you had to send physical printouts through the postal services and await either a rejection, or acceptance, through the mail.  Book manuscripts required large print jobs and keeping duplicates (at least we didn’t have to use carbon paper!).  All I lost was a morning of writing before the work bell rang.  Still, nightmares come in all sizes, some of them quite small.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

Book Festival

So it’s here.  The Easton Book Festival begins today.  The weather?  Partly sunny, temps in the mid-60s.  There’s no excuse not to go!  (Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons, but if you’re in the area please consider it!)  I have to admit that my involvement with it was opportunistic.  I contacted the organizer because I was looking to promote my autumnally themed book, Holy Horror, in the season for which it was written.  I understand delayed gratification.  What author isn’t delighted when her or his book arrives?  Thing is, mine came around Christmas time, and, while a wonderful gift, nobody was thinking about scary movies during the joyful winter season.  My observation is this: books are lenses to focus thoughts.  I enjoy Halloween, but I also enjoy Christmas.  One follows the other.  The Easton Book Festival just happens to be during the former rather than the latter.

It’s heeerrreee…

My own involvement with the festival doesn’t start until tomorrow.  Today’s a work day, after all.  Employers don’t give days off for self-promotion (or even for writing books) so festivals are extra-curricular activities.  I’ll be on a panel discussion tomorrow at the Sigal Museum and on Sunday afternoon I’ll be doing a presentation on my book, same venue.  Maybe I’ve got this backwards (nobody tells you these things), but I’m not doing this primarily to sell books.  I’m doing it to promote dialogue.  During my less-than-stellar book signing last week at the Morvarian Book Shop I had only one brief conversation of substance.  It was with a scientist who pointed out that science and religion had nothing to do with one another.  I guess my hopes for the events of the next two days are that folks might want to discuss the ideas in the book.  Or at least think about them.

Sunday morning I’ll be giving a church presentation on the book as well.  Being in the publishing biz I’ve learned the importance of authors getting out there to talk about their books.  Hands up, who’s read a McFarland catalogue lately?  Case in point.  The only problem with all of this is that I still have to get my weekend errands done.  My daily schedule doesn’t allow for trips to the grocery store or even putting gas in the car.  And no matter how much time I put into work, there’s always more to do.  Festivals, of course, are intended to be time set apart from regular pursuits.  So I’m going to put on respectable clothes and I’m going to speak about what’s on my mind this time of year.  If the Lehigh Valley’s in your orbit, I’d be glad to see you there.

Linking

So I’m active on LinkedIn.  I try to keep social media down to the essentials, but you never know when opportunity might rap its knuckles next to your shingle.  When LinkedIn began they ran the warning that you should only connect with people you actually knew, since people can say bad things about you and hurt your job prospects.  Since that kept me down to about a dozen connections (many academics, being secure with tenure, don’t bother with LinkedIn), I eventually followed the advice of a wise friend and accepted invitations from people I didn’t know because, as he pointed out, they might be the ones with jobs to offer.  That made sense.  There is a flip-side to it, however, and that is people think I have work to offer.  I don’t.  At my job I have no hiring capacity whatsoever.  (I can feel the links being broken even as I write this.)

The vast majority of people who contact me on LinkedIn want something from me.  They obviously don’t read this blog.  (See paragraph above.)  Many people send me messages wanting me to publish their books.  Editors, my dear and gentle readers, work in specific disciplines.  No one contacting me on LinkedIn has written a book about the Bible, although my profile indicates that’s my gig.  And besides, many companies, including mine, have policies against doing business over social media.  I often think of this because the book business is easily researched.  There’s a ton of information both online and on shelf about how to get published.  Messaging someone on LinkedIn is not recommended.

Writing a book takes a lot of effort.  I know, because I’ve done it a number of times.  If you’re going to put years into doing something, it pays to spend at least a few minutes learning about how the publishing industry works.  I made rookie mistakes in my younger days, of course.  But that led me to learn about publishing even before I had a job in the industry.  Quite apart from my job, I freely admit to being a book nerd.  And publishing, despite its many problems, is an inherently fascinating industry.  Although I’ve had academic books accepted for publication, I still struggle getting my fiction to press (I have had short stories published, but my novels remain unread).  I won’t contact other publishers I know through LinkedIn, though.  I’d rather have it be a personal experience whether it’s acceptance or rejection.  And that’s something social media just can’t replicate.

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.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

On the Nature of Publishers

An occupational hazard of the editor is paying obsessive attention to publishers. That stands to reason. Many academics are less concerned than some publishers think they are about such matters as who publishes their book. I suspect that many have, for whatever reason, found no welcome home among elite publishers. This happens often enough to make many scholars less worried about reputation than the practical matter of getting a publisher interested at all. There are a lot of original thoughts out there, and some of them occur to a person and just won’t let her or him go. An example: what terms are used for weather in the Psalms and why? Before you know it you’ve awaken before the sun for five years and written 75,000 words on the topic and you want to get it published without having to pay someone to do it. That kind of thing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of scholars who understand this kind of reasoning.

Also, it’s a matter of scale. I work for a premier publisher in the academic world. It may surprise many people to find out just how often when someone asks what I do (not very often, for the record) and then follows it up who I do it for, the interrogator has never heard of my employer. Academic presses, even important ones, are really only known among academics. Keep scale in mind. If you’ve ever walked passed Norton’s offices in Manhattan, and then those in which I spend my days, you know what I mean. Academia is small scale. For the average person reading a book is something they generally choose not to do. Of those who do read, very few read academic books. Those who read academic books tend to stick to their own discipline, or related ones. You get the picture—smaller returns at each step.

So, having written a book about horror movies, where do I take it? This isn’t one of those footnoted, look-how-erudite-I-am kind of books. It’s more of a I-noticed-something type. The question then becomes, who publishes such kinds of thing? I do worry about academic reputation—who doesn’t?—but this is a book I want the correct readers to find. That’s why McFarland suggested itself. People reading on pop culture, know to keep an eye on their offerings. Hopefully enough people will find it to have justified the effort. It won’t impress those enamored of collecting (academic) names. It isn’t the kind of book my employer would publish. Nor would I want them to. Call it an occupational hazard. Like any subject, knowing too much about publishing can take away from the fun.