Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.

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.

International Standards

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.

The Price of Writing

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.

Fearing Errata

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.

In Praise of Paper

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.

Seeing the Future

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.