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.
Publishing is a slow business. In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned. Outdated. Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing? These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index. This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by. That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way. Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable. They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well. This is the world beyond math. It is the human world.
Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting. The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible. The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time. It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days. Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations. It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print. Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today. A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did. For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.
Most of us are content with the satisfactory. We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience. We do it all the time. Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back. Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise. Why would anyone buy a record? The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one. There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download. Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material. Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index. We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess. The slower world of publishing is more my speed.
Writers anticipate and dread proofs. After several months of delay, I have received the proofs for Holy Horror—it should be out in the next couple of months for both of you who’ve asked about it. Anticipation is pretty straightforward, but why the dread? Those of us who write books have to deal with the fact that publishing is, by nature, a slow business. What I’m proofreading now is material that I wrote a couple of years ago; the final manuscript was submitted back in January. The internet has accelerated the pace of everything, and now that I have a daily record of my public thoughts on this blog, I can see how my own outlook has changed in that time. Reading proofs reminds you of whence you came, not where you are.
I suspect that has something to do with the internet and instant access to information. I also suspect that’s why many of us trust books more than the “open web.” The oak that has taken centuries to grow is a hardy tree. The handcrafted piece of furniture lasts longer than the mass produced. Books, hopefully, stand the test of time. Writing is an exercise in building eternity. These thoughts, the author hopes, will be around for some time to come. As long as libraries endure. Looking at the proofs, there’s pressure to get things right. Was I correct in what I wrote down so long ago? Since then I’ve read dozens of books more. I’ve even written the draft of another book myself. I face the proofs and shudder.
Part of my angst, I suppose, is that Holy Horror will likely sell better than my previous two books. It may actually get read. No, it won’t be any kind of best-seller, but perhaps a few hundred people will read it. That’s a lot of pressure for those of us who’ve primarily written for other academics. Perhaps this fear is the reason I’ve moved to writing about horror films. Those of us blocked from the academy have to build our own credibility, one book at a time. Reading the proofs, although already dated, I find myself liking this book. It was fun to write, and it has a good message, I think. Even prestige presses know that books about horror films are of popular interest. As I read through where my mind was in days stretching back before the nightmare of Trump, I see that I had only just started on this path. Before me are the proofs of that.
I’m reading an overwritten book right now. In fact, I just finished an overwritten book. Such works, I suppose, are the results of being taught how to write. It’s not that people can’t be taught to compose, but for various reasons some authors, either through the privilege of having high-powered publishers, or their own conviction that they don’t require correction, overwrite. I suppose overwriting is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Several years back I recall a critic stating Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was overwritten. I thought it was fun. Yes, deliberately exaggerated, but nevertheless well-composed. Those books were enjoyable to read because, I think, they refused to take themselves seriously. Writers can be temperamental people.
As an editor something I need to repeat—for academics are consummate overwriters—is to keep your intended readership in mind. No book is written for everyone. In fact, many people can’t make it through books like the Bible because they’re hard to read. Religious books often are. There’s no such thing as a universal book, but some believers in some religions make the claim for their sacred texts. Like many curious people I find it rewarding to read the scriptures of other traditions. It’s not always easy—in fact, it seldom is. It’s frequently disorienting and I look for an edition with an introduction. The reason is when it comes to books, even sacred ones, it’s not one size fits all. Many religious conflicts in the world could be resolved if we’d just realize this.
Someone who reads a lot is bound to be disappointed from time to time. We turn to books either looking for a certain mood or specific pieces of information. Authors often take things in their own directions. Our minds don’t all work in the same way. That’s why, in my opinion, reading is so important. I prefer “long form” writing—I always have. Sometimes an idea can be well expressed in an article, but taking the time to develop ideas requires a nuance not all publishers appreciate. (Yes, I realize that by expressing this sentiment in a brief essay like this I leave myself open to deconstruction—one of the overwritten books I just read was written by a deconstructionist.) Still, I have trouble abandoning books that take ideas in a way I wouldn’t go. Usually when I start reading, I’m committed to finish. Some would say that’s foolish. I take it as a learning opportunity.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Books, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing
Tagged A Series of Unfortunate Events, deconstructionism, Lemony Snicket, overwriting, Publishing, writing
The other day I had to go somewhere that I knew would involve a wait. I’ve always thought of waiting as a theological problem—time is very limited and I don’t have it to squander while dallying about for my turn. That’s why I take a book. The problem is that many books I read, I feel, require explanation. That’s because many of them are the 6-by-9 format preferred by publishers these days. The idea behind the paperback that fit into your pocket—the “mass market paperback”—was that it was essentially disposable. Cheap, easily printed in large quantities, it was handy for taking along while on a bus, plane, or submarine. It didn’t take up too much space. It was easy to keep private. I miss the mass market paperback.
The majority of my books—fiction as well as non—are larger than the mass market. That’s the price you pay for reading books that don’t sell in those quantities. If your interests aren’t the lowest common denominator, you have to buy a copy that won’t easily slip into a pocket. And everybody can see what you’re reading. I work in publishing, so I get it. The idea is that the book cover is a form of advertisement. The thing is, reading is generally a private activity. I post on this blog most of the books I read (but not all!). I want to support those who write and actually manage to find publishers to advocate their work. But I’d really like to be able to put the book into my pocket between appointments.
The waiting room is a kind of torture chamber of daytime television and insipid magazines. Most of the people in here are looking at their phones anyway. I have a book with me, and I’m vulnerable with everyone freely able to read my preferences. I want to explain—“I’m writing a book about demons, you see. It’s not that I believe all this stuff…” and so on. It would be so much easier if the book were small enough to be concealed by my hands. If others want to know what I’ve been reading, they can consult this blog. Well, the stats show they haven’t been doing that. They might, however, if my own books had been published in mass market format. Available in the wire-rack at the drug store or vape-shop. Then the readers could easily hide their interest by putting it into their pocket. None would be the wiser.
Working in publishing has its perils. One from my personal experience is that you run into many books you just have to read. Not necessarily for work, but because you want to. This varies from publisher to publisher, of course. There weren’t too many Gorgias Press titles I felt compelled to read, although there were a few. Since then, however, my employers have transported me back to that kid in a candy store feeling time and again. Friends will sometimes send me book recommendations—I always appreciate that. Often the books are from the very publisher for whom I work. In some cases I was actually in the editorial board meeting where the book was approved. It makes me feel like my small contribution matters when someone recommends a book on which I voiced an opinion.
In these days when thoughtful approaches to life are under constant duress, it’s nice to be reminded that people pay attention to books. Relatively few buy them, of course, but books are the storehouse of our knowledge. We all turn to the internet to get information quickly. If you linger, however, you find that much of the web fall into the “opinion” column rather than that of factual reporting. Books from established publishers are vetted on at least one or two levels before a press makes a commitment to print them. Self-publishing has muddied those clear waters a bit, but the seal of approval of a reputable publisher is what makes a book. For example, if a publisher discovers a serious error in a work it will often be pulled from the market. We don’t like to spread errors.
The problem is volume. We long ago surpassed the point during which one individual could read every known book in her or his lifetime. In fact, those who were credited with doing so in the past are given a pass because many ancient texts lay undiscovered under the soil during their times. For all our foibles we are a prolific species when it comes to writing things down. For academics, publishing is often a requirement for tenure and promotion. There are a lot of books out there. This is one surplus, however, that isn’t as celebrated as it should be. I have had people suggest we have too many books in our home. Unlike too much food in the fridge, however, these pieces of intellectual nourishment don’t go bad. And if you point me to a book about which I’m already aware, I always appreciate the conversation anyway. Of some good things you can’t have too much.