I risk being seen as even more of a book nerd by addressing the topic of International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs. For those who’ve purchased a book in the past several decades, you’ve seen ISBNs, but perhaps unwittingly. They’re represented by a barcode, often on the back cover in the lower left corner, or sometimes the middle. The ISBN is the edition’s unique identifier, but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that the contents will be exactly the same since typos corrected for new printings may use the same ISBN already purchased. Yes, you read right. Publishers have to purchase ISBNs. Without them listings on many websites and distributors’ lists would be impossible. The ISBN is what fulfillers use to order books since neither author nor title is necessarily unique. Many book titles have been used to the point of dullness.
A typical ISBN
A colleague recently complained to me about being able to request permission to reuse something from a book without an ISBN. Rights vendors often require them. The ISBN came into usage, however, only in 1970. As I’ve learned from trying to load older books into my Goodreads list, there are all kinds of complications and potential confusions if you don’t have the unique identifier for your source. Titles cannot be copyrighted, and many are consequently overused. The ISBN is your guide to a specific book. If the book came before the ISBN system it’s going to take some extra work to ensure that you find the correct way to identify what you’re talking about. This is only one of the many ways in which the book industry differs from most others. It’s also the reason that I generally object to corrected printings.
Perhaps it’s odd to see a publishing professional take a hard line on book content. The fact is almost always an author is given the opportunity to proofread, well proofs. The copyedited, typeset book is given to them. Yes, errors may creep in after this stage, but that’s not very common. If an author didn’t catch mistakes, then a corrected edition ought to be published with a new ISBN. But that’s not how it works. Each ISBN should indicate the exact same content. Although an ISBN must be purchased, just one isn’t expensive (witness all the self-publishing going on these days and that should be obvious). Publishers that have to buy many thousands of them, however, are disinclined to waste them. I’m not a fan of all technology, but the ISBN seems like a good concept to me. Even if it’s not a guarantee that things are what they seem.
Academic writing strives to remove personality from your work. It can be soul-crushing. I remember well when my daughter—a talented writer—came home in sixth grade with a note from her teacher. An otherwise ideal student, she was writing her science projects with *gasp* her own voice! Mr. Hydrogen and how he joins Mr. Oxygen—that sort of thing. Granted, it would never be published in a scientific journal, but it was a personalized expression that demonstrated an understanding of the concepts. Having been the recipient of an old school education, I also learned that academic writing should lack personality. Those who’ve bothered to read my academic papers, however, may have noted that I don’t always obey the rules. Subtle bits (very small, I’ll allow) crept in amid the erudition. And now I find myself wishing I’d persisted a bit more.
Pure objectivity, anyone living in a post-modern world knows, is a chimera. It doesn’t really exist. We all have points of view, whether they eschew adjectives or not. I still write fiction, but since my publication history has been “academic” I indulge in it while trying to break through where someone’s voice isn’t a detriment. I’ve been reading non-fiction by younger women writers and one of the things I’m finally catching onto is that your own voice shouldn’t be the enemy. It may be so for most publishing houses, but I’m wondering at what cost. So many ideas, just as valid as any staid publication, never see the light of day beyond some editor’s desk. That’s not to suggest that anyone can write—I’ve read far too many student papers to believe that—but that those who can ought not be shackled by convention. If only I could get an agent who believes that!
Holy Horror isn’t exactly flying off the press, but it does represent a kind of hybrid. It’s transitioning to a kind of writing that allows some personality onto the page (yes, I’m old enough to still believe in pages). A now departed family friend—he’d known my grandfather—was determined to read Weathering the Psalms. He didn’t make it through. It was an academic publication. In the humanities, it seems to me, we need to allow authors to be human. It’s in our title, after all. Please don’t take this as professional advice; careers are still broken on the wheel of tradition. Writing, however, shouldn’t be a caged bird. But then again, the clock says it’s now time to get to work.
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.
I’m working on embracing the electronic age. No doubt it’s convenient. And fast! Publishing is, and always has been, a slow industry. As connoisseurs of anything know, quality takes time. This brings me to my paean to paper. I generally write these blog posts on a computer. That makes sense since they have to go onto the web and to do so they must be keyboarded. Many of them start, however, on paper. Sketching and free-flowing lines can become ideas, yet to draw on a computer you have to buy specialized (and expensive) equipment and software (which costs even more) to use it. You’ll lose months of you life learning how to use said software. In the end you’ll probably have forgotten, what? I forget.
The other day I ran into an author who wanted maps. In an electronic age the easiest way to get maps is to take them from the web. Google Maps seems innocent enough. Only it’s covered by copyright, and commercial use requires permission. As I went through the whole permissions process I was thinking of tracing paper. Copyright covers the execution of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Coastlines, rivers, and mountains added through the miracle of tracing paper become the copyright of the maker. (Don’t try this by rewriting written words through tracing paper—that doesn’t work.) Tracing paper’s old school. The illustrations in many older books used a similar technique. In A Reassessment of Asherah all the illustrations were ones I drew by hand. You can do that on paper. The only investment is a single sheet and a pencil. A scanner can handle the rest.
Technologists like to espouse that there’s no such thing as a page. Authors, they aver, must learn to write without references to page numbers. Avoid the words “above” and “below” to refer to something discussed elsewhere in the text. This “format neutral language” (for it has to have a fancy name) is intended to ease the reading experience for the ebook. With my Kindle software, however, there are still pages. Don’t we call them webpages? Don’t we bookmark both our place in Kindles and on the web? Why then can’t we have our page numbers? Have you ever tried to make your laptop into a paper airplane when you’re bored? It’s often hard for progressive creatures like ourselves to admit that maybe we have had it right the first time. Maybe reading and paper need each other. A future without paper will be very sterile indeed.
Nine. That’s the number of people before me in line. It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two. As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work. Well, like most people I think about work a lot. You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business. There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training. The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast. (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)
I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated. Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.” We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road. I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books. “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!” It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them. I have written several books, although so far only three have been published. World-travel? Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit. One of the other friends I’ve lost track of. Another committed suicide after graduating. We really can’t see far into the future.
Publishing is a challenging gig. My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think. I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it. Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days. (There are more of us than you’d think!) Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world. I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor. I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book. Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does. It’s like being a professor without the status. No, I didn’t see this in my future. As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.
Difficult to see where this is going.
The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply. I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly. In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for. While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles. God’s word for a dollar a pop. This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books. Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.
That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store. Many of them were Christian-themed. This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel. People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck. Many Americans live like this. Many of them support Trump. Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message. There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced. Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run. Someone knows that Bibles sell. You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble. The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.
The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message. Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book. While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work. As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be. Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task. To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary. Even then you might not get it. Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply. But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket. And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.
The costs for academic books can seem criminal. Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing. Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche. At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe. Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value? Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other. In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet. Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.
These days books are the handmaidens to the internet. The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted. Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it. Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean. Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up. This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business. You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff. Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell. It’s like an entire business model run on consignment. And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies. That means that the per unit cost has to go up. Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.
I keep a running list of books I’d like. Some are for research and some are for other pleasures. The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published. I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way. If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs? I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45. Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing. Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much. Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent? Or is all of this just criminal?