Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

Epistemic Epistemology

I’ve been thinking about thinking, if you’ll pardon my meta.  More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what happens to thinking when it becomes writing.  Thoughts may or may not be safe if they’re left in your head, but once they’re on paper other people start to get concerned.  A diary, of which the weblog is a public variety, is often private.  You may write to remember.  You may write to stab at mortality.  You may do it just for fun.  No matter why you do it, if enough people read it, your writing will be misunderstood.  Ironically, even in a nation with freedom of speech, and the press, the writing rights of individuals aren’t guaranteed.  Take this blog, for example.  Over the decade I’ve kept it, a few jobs—two actual and one potential—have instructed me in what I could or could not write.  Like Niagara Falls, you’re getting only a portion of what flows in my river of thoughts.

Thoughts can change the world.  Considering the news lately that might not be such a bad thing.  In any case, the vast majority of writing remains private.  Even with Amazon and others making self-publishing simple, it’s not easy to get ideas out there.  Getting the attention of a major publisher has odds that are vanishingly small.  And the internet’s a big place, getting bigger by the day.  In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, I guess.  Even on a smaller scale, my own computer complains that I write too much.  “Not enough space for updates,” it says in its dialogue box dialect, “too many documents.”  Never mind that I purchased it for writing, and a bit of surfing.  It wants more of the latter.  Other’s words, in other words, commodified.

My writing life began young, but not as young as that of many fictional writers like Jo March or Francie Nolan.  Our apartments and eventually small house had no space for one of the kids to hole up and write.  When I did start, in my early teens, I breached the dam without anticipating the results.  I’d been reading a lot, and writing seemed the right way to join the conversation.  I started composing novels before high school, but my first published book (and for many years my only one) was my dissertation.  I always believed that writing could be done on the side for any job, but that’s not the case.  Well, it is if you keep it in your diary, I suppose.  If you open the tap, however, you’d better make sure you have a mighty big glass in hand.

Dark Houses

A book can be whatever an author wants it to be.  When it goes through the publication process, however, it becomes a group effort.  Granted, the other parties are motivated by money rather than by the message of the book, but they are professionals.  Editors can point out what’s irrelevant, or beside the point.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  They change things, often, authors admit upon reflection, for the better.  The self-published book shows itself as just what an author wants it to be.  House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story, by Andrea Perron is a case in point.  In three volumes of about 500 pages each, it is (they are) the insider story of the family portrayed in The Conjuring.  After having finished volume one, it’s clear the book needed an editor.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here.  The first couple hundred pages are fascinating, although there’s a slow build-up into moving into the Harrisville house.  One thing academics have always been too quick to do is dismiss the experience of non-trained observers.  We have to be skeptical, of course, to spot those who are intentionally deceitful, but a person doesn’t write 1,500 pages without cause.  People do experience strange things, and this book is a family’s recollection of events that inspired a horror movie.  There were a few points in the course of reading through that I found myself pondering new perspectives on the realm of ghosts—shifts of point of view.  There were many points, though, that I found myself muttering that an editor would’ve helped.

As a fully trained academic in the field of studies that handles issues of the soul, I am hungry for primary sources.  Sociologists and psychologists get their information from observers—ordinary people.  It’s only when the claims become extraordinary that such observations are called into doubt.  We have all heard of haunted houses.  We all know that sometimes strange things happen in them.  We can explain such happenings in different ways.  The skeptical explain them away as misperceptions, normal occurrences masquerading as paranormal.  The credulous accept everything at face value.  Truth, it seems to me, is a middle of the road phenomenon.  I’ve always sat on the fence regarding ghosts.  Too many people over too many centuries have reported them with great detail—witnesses include some very reputable and rational individuals—to dismiss them in toto.  After volume one, it seems that something worth exploring took place in the eponymous house.  For full impact, however, who you gonna call?  This time you’d better make it an editor.

Book Recommendations

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.

How to Talk to an Editor

There are right ways and wrong ways to get your book published. When approaching an editor, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, we’re human. Yes, I know that I have something you want. The usual career track for an academic is Brown, Harvard, dissertation published by a certain academic press with which I’m familiar. I get that. The internet, however, has made publishing into something different than what it used to be. First of all, you can self-publish. Sorting through all the self-proclaimed experts can be a full-time job when you’re trying to find the latest authoritative treatment of a subject. Also, the internet has made research into publishers much easier than it used to be. My first book, back in the day, was simply sent off to a European publisher that specialized in academic monographs in my subject area and then I moved on. Today authors see flashy first books online and want just that. You can have it all, they’re told.

My LinkedIn profile took a definite boost once I became an editor. Now I often think it would be great if someone asking to connect actually knew me. But I digress. One way not to get your book published is to state right on your LinkedIn profile—or other social media—that you have a great book and you’re letting all publishers know. You then invite them to connect on LinkedIn and your book announcement, like a peacock’s tail, is supposed to attract the hungry editor. In reality what attracts an editor is professionalism. Research publishers, find out what they actually publish. That’s pretty easy these days; there’s more than funny videos on the internet. Even browsing titles similar to your own on Amazon can help. Pay attention to the publishers of the books you’re using for your research. If a publisher has done several books in your area they are more likely to be interested in your proposal than a publisher who’s never ventured into those waters.

It may be easy to think of us editors as sitting bored in our lonely cubicles, awaiting the next great thing. The fact is we receive plenty of submissions and we have to sort through them. Treat the subject professionally. Many of us hold doctorates and are keenly aware of hyperbole when we see it. You don’t need to tell the editor your book is ground-breaking. They will make that decision based on the evidence before them. And trust your editor when it comes to things like how a book should be titled or placed or marketed. Publishers—some of which have been around for centuries—daily face the harsh realities of producing books in an era of YouTube and online television. We know it’s difficult out there. Many of us want to help. Some of us write books and have to go through the same travails as other authors in finding publishers of our own. Do your research on publishers. When an editor offers free advice, take it. A little bit of extra work by an author goes a long way in helping a book proposal succeed.

The Lure of the Dark Side

I have to confess that the easy self-publishing of ebooks is a real temptation sometimes. Perhaps it’s one of those inexplicable side-effects of earning a Ph.D., but sometimes you have the impression you have something to say and traditional publishers just don’t agree. In my work life I see many clever ideas that, well, let’s be frank, just won’t sell. Publishers do have to keep an eye on whether a book can earn back the money put into it, and sometimes a good idea leads to no cash payout. So when you can easily sign up online—you don’t even have to talk to anyone—and post your unedited words right on Amazon and call it a book, well, anyone can be an author. So I was looking up books with the terms “Bible” and “America” on Amazon when I came up with Donald Trump in the Bible Code. I found the self-designed cover frightening, and the sentiments expressed in the description grounds for terror. Then I noticed it was only 15 pages long. I’ve written student evaluations that were longer than that.

Trump

At three bucks, that’s—wait while I get my calculator—twenty cents a page. Now anyone who’s been able to read the original Bible Code and not cover a snicker or two will possibly find such a jeremiad palatable. After all, it’s a book! Somebody published it. Well, actually, all you need for self-publishing is an internet connection and at least one finger to type and click. Or a toe. You too can become an expert! No education required. Publishing fiction in such a format is one thing, but when people can’t tell a prestige publisher from a vanity press when it comes to factual material, we’re all in trouble.

There’s an old saying: “those who can’t do, teach.” I think I first came across this wisdom in a Peanuts cartoon, with all the gravitas that such implies. Editors, it seems, are not required for publishing. In fact, some of us who live by the word seem destined to die by the word. Even with connections I have trouble getting my ideas published. More than once I’ve lingered on Amazon’s CreateSpace page with my finger hovering over the mouse. Publication is one click away and some people make six digits a year publishing only on Amazon. Since I produce about 145,000 words a year on this blog alone (apart from my other writing), the urge is very strong at times. Then I look at that cover and I stay my finger as it hovers. I’ll wait a little longer. At least until November.