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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

academic myopia

Second Mouse -- An Excerpt

Here's the story of my own decision to become a self-publisher. It is taken directly from the book.

As I negotiated the paths of writing and publishing for a general audience rather than an academic one, I learned a lot. I knew I could no longer rely on a professional identity to pave my way, and that I had only made a start at building a viable platform as an author. I recognized the warning signs as publishers reacted to a faltering economy by restricting their publications to authors they could count on to generate huge sales. And I had identified my niche among potential readers.

My real breakthrough, however, came as a result of some random questions from a casual acquaintance. “I’m betting that you write exactly the kinds of books you most enjoy reading,” he said. “So how do you choose? When you walk into a bookstore, do you browse or head straight to pick up what you want? Do you buy best sellers or look for hidden gems? Do you buy hardbacks or paperbacks? Do you want a quick read, or a hefty volume to fill long hours? What kind of cover makes you pick up a book and examine it? If you know what kind of book you buy, you’ll understand what your readers want from you.”

His point was well taken, but my answers brought me up short. You see, I am a dedicated Kindle owner. Gadgets fascinate me, and I’m frequently the first to adopt new technology. I bought my Kindle in 2008, and since then my book purchases have dwindled to a trickle. I’ve purchased a couple of used editions of books that are out of print, but I don’t buy new books unless I can get them in an electronic edition.

That surprises even me. I was intrigued by the idea of a Kindle. But I’ve always loved the feel and heft and smell of books. They fill my office, every end table, and overflow the living room book case. I thought reading on a Kindle would be a novelty, but I didn’t expect the device to become transparent, leaving only me and the printed word—just the way a book does. I found the Kindle much easier to carry around than a stack of books, and my hands didn’t get tired holding a heavy book. The cat quit stealing my bookmarks because they no longer dangled out of the book.

I knew I had come to depend on my Kindle in ways I never expected. Kindle provides immediate and inexpensive gratification. If I hear about a book I want to read, I can buy it and start reading in less than a minute. I upload research documents that I want to have instantly available. I now have an application that allows me to read Kindle texts on my desk computer, my iPhone, or my iPad. All those devices sync themselves, so that I never lose my place or misplace a text when I move from one device to another. What kind of a book do I choose for myself? Obviously, the answer is one that comes in an electronic version.

And there was the answer to all my publishing dilemmas. Kindle editions (and the other versions that are now coming out) don’t require a traditional publisher. In fact, in some cases, having a traditional publishing contract limits or squelches an author’s ability to jump into the e-book market. I learned how serious that problem is when I tried to talk the publisher of A Scratch with the Rebels into doing a Kindle edition. Eventually they tried, but they did a really poor job of it and refused to advertise that the e-book was available because it cut into their profits.

I was about to become a self-published author. I have to admit that the idea made me slightly uncomfortable in the beginning, because I was still carrying around some leftover baggage from my days as an academic. Most professors have run into one or two folks who use a vanity press to publish their books because no one else will touch them. Within the university, publishing with a vanity press—in effect paying somebody to publish your book—was a career killer. My first hurdle was recognizing the difference between a vanity press (which charges a hefty sum to produce a book) and a self-publishing company (which allows an author to contract for services only when production assistance is necessary).

My production company of choice was CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon. If they accept a book for publication, they do not charge for the privilege. They will provide guidance on how to prepare a manuscript for Kindle, and they will carry the Kindle edition in the Amazon catalog. The author pays nothing up front; the company takes a small cut of any sales for its handling and delivery of the e-book.

 They offer more elaborate services, of course. I wanted my Beyond All Price to be available in trade paper, so I contracted for their printing services. That also meant that they would sell my books on Amazon, thus releasing me from the need to distribute all my books myself. Because I wanted the book to look as professional as possible, I also paid a layout person to handle things like interior appearance, margins, and pagination. Those were services I could not do myself.

Traditional publishers, of course, do more than print a book, but I felt fairly confident of my ability to provide those other services. I already knew exactly how I wanted my cover to look, and I owned the photograph I wanted to use. All I had to do was prepare the cover art and submit it to the printer. All manuscripts need editing; traditional publishers have their own editors to proofread, catch stupid errors, and clean up grammar and punctuation. In my case, I had years of editing experience of my own, and a couple of talented friends who were willing to comb through the manuscript to catch any errors I missed. I did not think I needed to pay an editor. Publishers also assume some responsibility for marketing a book, although in recent years they have demanded that authors do more and more of their own marketing. Since I already had an Internet presence, as well as a small but loyal base of followers, and since I was writing for an electronic audience, it was easy to do my own marketing.

Was it the right decision? So far, I have to believe it was. In the current market, bookstores are closing and e-book sales are leaping ahead. Within the first three months, I had sold more copies of Beyond All Price on Amazon and Kindle than the total three-year sales of my last traditionally published book. Plus, Kindle pays 70% royalties, while my traditional publishing contracts offered 5% to 12%. Oh, I’m not going to get rich from the sales I generate. But I have paid off all my publishing costs, and I am in complete control of future sales. I’m my own publisher, and I love it.


Get the rests of the story here:

Not Every "Dead Man Walking" is a Convicted Serial Killer


Facebook and other internet outlets have been full of controversy all weekend.  For the most part, I have stayed out of it, but before the next fight emerges, I have a simple observation to make:

Yes, this is the correct historical approach:
  • Memorial Day (May)  was established to honor those who died while fighting for their country.
  • Veterans Day (November) honors all who fought in one of the so-called “great” wars.

Moreover, the long- grieving families of those who died on a battlefield are justified in objecting to anyone who wishes them a “Happy Memorial Day.”  This day is meant to be somber and reflective.  It’s not about barbecued ribs or the kickoff for summer. It's about the dead.

But on the other side of the controversy are those who lived through the wars but who have been forever changed by the experience — "dead men walking," indeed.

On Memorial Day, should we honor the soldier who stepped on a land mine, but not recognize the soldier who came home from the war without so much as a Purple Heart?  One who (like my own brother) was so mentally and emotionally damaged by his experiences at Iwo Jima that he never had  the ability to get his life back on track. Hallucinations, nightmares, raging alcoholism, and unexplainable rages were his daily reality — and the reality for his family as well.

On Memorial Day, should we honor the sailor whose ship was torpedoed, but not honor the soldier who (like my husband) came home from his  war unscathed?  One who discovered too late that exposure to deadly chemicals in Vietnam had caused permanent and fatal deterioration of his heart muscle.   

So, yes, those of you who support the historical meaning of Memorial Day, you are literally correct — right up to the point at which you deny your recognition and respect to those who didn’t suffer a quick and immediate death. Death on a battlefield is devastating, but so is the living death of a man who lives for sixty more years with the ravages of PTSD — and as well as for a man who lives for forty-five more years with the hovering threat of dropping dead without warning.

As you can see, this is all personal to me. When you say this to someone — “You’re wrong. It’s not your day.”  — you are talking about my family. Both the men in the examples above are my veterans who now lie buried in national cemeteries, and yes, they both received their little flags this weekend to honor their sacrifice. But while they lived, they carried their war damage with them every day. Please — next year — before you criticize a living veteran for expecting to be honored on the “wrong” day, remember that a living veteran may well be a dead man walking.

Tar-Brushing 101: A Rant in Support of Self-Publishers


This is a rant, so be forewarned.  Several days ago I read a Facebook posting that left me surprised and furious all at once.  It came from someone I know only slightly but have always respected as a talented academic.  It dealt with an ongoing discussion about a controversial new book in a field with which I have some familiarity, so I was interested in a casual way.  (All of that to demonstrate that I really don’t have a dog in that particular academic fight.)
 
The poster shall remain anonymous, just in case s/he did not mean to be as snarky as the  comment seemed to be.  It started this way: “I have not read this book, but . . .”  Now if I were inclined toward snark myself, I would stop reading right there. “No? Then shut up! You shouldn’t be commenting on something you admit to knowing nothing about.”
 
Ah, but this was a comment from someone I’ve always liked in an offhand sort of way, so I continued to read: “I have not read this book, but I am inclined to reject the argument because the book is self-published.” Then the writer went on to explain that self-publishing meant that the author knew all of the following: that the book was not worthy of “real” publication . . . that no publisher would have accepted it. . .  and that the argument would not stand up to careful fact-checking.  ARRRRGGGH! I had so hoped that we were past that  old view that equates self-publishing with the rip-offs of a vanity press.
 
Do we need to make these points again?  Apparently so!
 
·      Traditional publishers put out some books that are unworthy of publication, simply because they know the author’s name or the provocative title will guarantee high sales. We could all name book series that have deteriorated over time, with the author’s carelessness or impending senility. Traditional publication does not guarantee high quality, and has never done so.
 
·      Some fine and talented authors have good books in several venues – traditional, small press, and self-published. The types serve different purposes.
 
·      Last year two of the top-ten best-sellers on the New York Times list were self-published.
 
·      Self-publishing does not necessarily mean undocumented nonsense, badly-written prose, or a book full of typos, misspelled words, sentence fragments, and grammatical nightmares.
 
·      Some (make that many) self-published authors have their work carefully edited at their own expense, use beta-readers to weed out any objectionable material, hire professional cover designers and layout experts to produce visually-appealing books, and take full responsibility for all sales and promotions.  Self-publishing is hard work, not taking the “easy way out.”!
 
·      Legitimate authors self-publish for many reasons, including a bad experience with a traditional publisher, a need to get the book out in a timely fashion, or the simple fact that they need to make enough money on the book to recoup their expenses. (One example: I have a book that is both traditionally published and self-published in different formats.  From the traditionally-published volume, I earn $0.17 per sale.  From the self-published paperback, I earn $3.45. I’m not going to get rich on the latter amount, but it’s a closer estimate of what my time and expertise is worth than is the $0.17 retail rip-off.)
 
·      Like e-mail, digital images of rare manuscripts, online editions of out-of-print books, and other electronic wonders of the past ten years or so, self-publishing has become a reality without which much fine scholarship would never reach the public.
 
·      Are there bad books among the self-published?  Of course. That’s where human judgment and scholarly discernment must come into play.  But to reject an argument on the simplistic grounds that it has been self-published is like rejecting all books with red covers just because they seem too showy.
 
Add this to my list of reasons for being happily retired from academia!