Supporting your “beyond 101” writers

This morning, I was asked to comment on this blog post by Raven Grimassi, concerning the pagan publishing industry.

The problem that Mr. Grimassi describes here, that the pagan book publishing market is flooded with silly, superficial, “101 level” books, has been a problem for over twenty years.

In all that time, the solution that people suggest is almost always the same: “we need more intelligent, serious, and deeper books to be published”. Yet in twenty years, it appears that little has changed: hence Grimassi’s complaint.

Grimassi’s explanation, or part of it anyway, is that some reviewers do not write meaningful reviews. They skim a book quickly and comment without a full understanding of what they have read. Prospective readers thus get turned off. But in my view, this factor is quite minor, compared to the next three:

Too many publishers are not willing to publish the serious, intellectually rigorous books, because they believe they will not sell. Remember, a publishing company is a business. It is a business with an important place in culture and the intellectual and artistic character of a community, but it is a business nonetheless.

Too many authors are not willing to write those more serious books because they believe they will not sell, or because they are simply not competent to write such books and, perhaps, do not know that they are not competent. I do not wish to name names nor point fingers here. This isn’t meant to attack anyone. But I’m sure you can think of a few examples. Think of the lead characters from “Dumb and Dumber”.

– And finally, too many readers are not willing to buy them because they find them intimidating, difficult, controversial, insufficiently gratifying, or too expensive.

I think the real solution, then, is somewhere between these factors. Publishers have to be willing to include a few serious and challenging books in their catalogue. But some publishers, such as my own, certainly are so willing. Thus, as far as I am concerned, this problem is now solved.

Writers have to be willing to write better books too – and willing to learn how to write them. But the advanced books do exist, and there are lots of good writers continuing to write them. So I think this problem is also essentially solved.

What remains are the problems related to publicity, marketing, and sales. Perhaps that is where Grimassi’s gripe about incompetent reviewers can come in. But it should also be pointed out that in the non-fiction publishing industry, writers are expected to do almost all of their own marketing. Well for my part, I think I know a thing or two about writing a book, but I certainly know almost nothing about promoting one. Most other writers I know are the same. It is extremely hard, time consuming, expensive, and stressful to promote a book, especially when I would rather be writing the next one. Hence why I run contests, submit review copies everywhere, try to get interviews on prominent podcasts and websites, attend events and do presentations, and the like. I do the best I can, but there is only so much I can do on my own.

Finally, given that we live in a capitalist market, the solution to the problem of the glut of superficial pagan books rests also in the hands of readers with money to spend on books. The market is saturated with superficial pagan books because people are buying them. Readers have to be willing to spend their money on books that will challenge them. If readers are not willing to change their purchasing habits, the problem will persist.

How to recognise a more advanced book:

– It poses serious problems, and asks tougher questions. It is concerned with what is true, what is real, what is right, or what is beautiful. It does not dismiss the seriousness of these themes under a morass of inoffensive relativism. It takes a stand on an issue that matters, and is unafraid of criticism or controversy. As Aristotle wrote, ‘the great soul cares more about the truth than about what people think.’

– It rejects as false the popular dichotomy between theory and practice.

– It is not primarily interested in ritual or spellcraft. There are already thousands of books that speak of nothing but spellcraft and ritual; there are also thousands of blogs and websites. I doubt that we need any more.

– Rather, it is primarily about a problem that matters – and not just to pagans, but to everyone in the author’s whole society, or to every human being on earth. Furthermore it identifies a problem that is a real source of suffering or pain in people’s lives.

– It does not settle for superficial or easy solutions to those problems. It builds arguments, considers counter-arguments, investigates alternatives, and provides answers together with reasons for why the answers are good answers. Further, it provides answers which can stand the test of a reviewer’s critical attention, and which lead to further good questions.

– It appeals to the reader’s intelligence, and does not try to manipulate or subvert the reader’s intelligence. It does not treat the reader like an ignorant child.

– The author makes no promses he or she cannot fulfill; nor does she claim to possess any knowledge or talent or prestige that she does not in fact possess.

– It opens the way for readers to pursue for themselves the evidence in favour of the author’s argument: the reader does not have to take the writer’s word for it. The author’s own experience of something, while relevant and important, is not the only thing that matters. The book asserts nothing on the basis of faith alone.

– Its theme is focused, specific, and timely; it does not try to do too much at once. It is generally better to do one or two things well, than to do seven or eight things poorly.

– Its author cares about ideas and cares about knowledge, cares about the community he or she is addressing, and cares about humanity and about life on earth. He or she cares more about these things than she does about her personal reputation.

– Its authors sees writing as a spiritual calling first; a source of monetary profit second. The publishing gurus who recommend that writers not start a book until they have a contract are simply wrong here. Writers who think of their books as products are living with divided minds. Writers who think of their books as living things that they are compelled by the spirit to create are writers who can captivate and change the world.

How to support an author who writes better books.

– Buy the books.

– Talk about them, review them, criticise them (constructively), practice or experiment with the ideas or practices that the books describe.

– Recommend them to your friends. Spread the word about the books that you think really are of good quality; ignore the rest.

– Start a book club, and read them with your friends.

– Share this blog post. 🙂

Happy Lughnasad to you all!

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12 Responses to Supporting your “beyond 101” writers

  1. Star Foster says:

    As someone who receives a lot of books to review, I can tell you that finding the time to read and review them is always an issue for me. Plus, there is an art to reviewing a book as well as writing it. Some people simply aren’t good at reviewing books.

    I think the book club idea is a good one. There need to be more Pagan book clubs.

  2. Sam Wagar says:

    Good thoughts, Brendan. To elaborate on point three on your list – introductory material and simple material will always be dominant. Most people do not feel the need to challenge themselves, to go deeper, or to experience life more intensely than they already do. Look in every area of publishing – there is a great whack of elementary material and very few jewels. Pap dominates because people like it.

    Now, I do my bit to try to raise the bar. I had a wonderful time teaching the graduate-level course in ritual theory through Avalon College this year and look forward to offering some more serious academic work. I read and recommend serious pieces, including those books of yours I have (need to get the lonliness one soon). Clergy training at CWABC and CWAA has some intellectual rigour and we are bringing forward people with a taste for the depths.

    And a last point – I generally don’t read “Pagan” books (with exceptions) but books dealing with topics that interest me, which often include ritual, mythology, philosophy etc. Genre writing is also problematic.

    Blessings,

    sam

  3. I’m a writer and a publisher. I would certainly publish more of these advanced texts if I could solve a few problems. Some are technical and require me to work at them (e.g., producing quality looking material although we don’t do too badly at this) but this requires the one thing I don’t have – money. It’s a Catch 22 situation. If the books sold, I’d have the cash. If I had the cash, I could produce and sell the books. Marketing and distribution are the big barriers. I’m based in the UK and know nothing about the USA and Canada in terms of book distribution and marketing. And of course, the other issue is time. My publishing activities have to fit in with my own attempt to earn a living (not helped by the linked facts that [a] I’m disabled and being limited in what I can do have [b] chosen to try to earn money by writing). There are some interesting ideas here to be considered. And if anyone has ideas of how I can get current and future books into North America I’d be grateful to hear them.

  4. Winter says:

    As one who finds the “101 level” books to be such horrid, superficial fluff, it’s devastating to think about all of the well-written, thought-provoking books that aren’t being published because they might not be able to raise enough hype to fly off shelves.
    In an era where bestsellers are written by the likes of Stephenie Meyer and “Snooki”, it’s small wonder that anything with a modicum of depth and challenge would cause a publisher to hem and haw with the concern that it wouldn’t make a considerable profit.
    Sigh.

    As a side note, I would be delighted to join a Pagan book club, should anyone start one in the Toronto era.

  5. David Carron says:

    Aren’t most of the supply side issues mostly resolved via the internet, specifically with the Print On Demand and electronic publishing? There should be little excuse for folks not producing. There certainly are limited buyers but for almost 0 start up, what is there is to complain about in the Internet Age besides a like of content? (Not to mention the occasional free podcast…)

  6. Jane H says:

    First, let me thank you for this article and apologize for the length of my response, but I stand in the middle between the publisher and the reader.

    As a bookseller, I can tell you that there is a market for more advanced works, but not as big as the market for intro level books, for a couple of reasons: First, a more detailed and in-depth book focuses on a specific topic and thus speaks to fewer people than a broad introduction. Second, some people never advance beyond 101. They jump ship or pick another path to study.

    To help fill that need, small presses in the US are using Print On Demand (POD) to try to fill in the gap left by some major publishers. (Note that a major metaphysical/pagan publisher isn’t that big compared to the ones which put out New York Times Bestsellers). But frankly, often their covers are poorly designed (most people do judge a book by the cover) and small presses do have a problem getting both the word out and their books into stores. Barnes & Noble is just too big and their buyers probably wouldn’t give an independent press much notice.

    There is no way to make a Pagan book a bestseller like there is in the mainstream. There is no media equivalent of the Oprah Book Club for Pagans. When I, as a bookseller, search for good titles to carry, I find dated recommended book lists where as many as half of the titles are out of print or only available overseas. Nor is there an equivalent of Christianity Today in print or online. The closest thing is the Patheos Pagan Portal, and that is a relatively new thing. How many pagans out there know of it? So even if a book is reviewed, how many people read that review?

    Getting the books into specialty stores:

    Independent stores like ours prefer to work with large book distributors or specialty distributors like AzureGreen, New Leaf, or lately, MagusBooks, because we only stock one or two of most titles. But lately the distributors are failing to keep small-press books in stock, they are “available to back-order” but it might take a month to get them in because they wait until there are enough to order. Many indie publishers have just gone with the Amazon/Createspace model so they can sell both e-Books and Print-On-Demand with the full marketing of Amazon, basically bypassing indies like us. For instance, when I just searched “Loneliness and Revelation” on Baker & Taylor, it’s available to back-order. So, if I want to get it in any sooner, I need to track it back in the supply chain to O Books then to NBN Distributors, then to a .pdf of a list of reps who I need to contact via e-mail. Then there are new minimums we need to meet, so we need to try to select even more titles from the publisher, with mostly just intuition/gut instinct, the title and the cover to tell us what we should carry.

    The other place we’re finding interesting books is academic presses. But often these are not offered by distributors and we have to order direct. They are also often very low margin, AKA no profit, books, and they often require a large number of copies of a single title. So if they aren’t pre-sold, it’s pretty-much a no go for us. We found out about these books through a local academic who lead an “Egghead Pagans Book Club” at our store a couple of years back. With more than a dozen members, and a strong beginning, we worked hard to track down the books and get them from the publishers. But in the end, we got burned on many of the titles because only two or three would buy the book (they’d get it from the library) or they would buy it on Amazon to save two bucks. Also, it turns out one of the books was available as a free PDF online.

    Large publishers know how to market intro books but are clueless as to how to market “smart” niche books. They think they don’t sell because they slap a semi-comic-book cover on it and a “catchy” title which misrepresents the book. This does get a certain segment to pick it up and page through a bit and find it too obtuse and put it down. But the people who would actually want the book, find it useful and challenging and all those good things won’t even pick it up because it looks like a 101 book. So we, as booksellers have to hand-sell them. “The cover is awful, and the title misleading, but but the book is wonderful, here . . . look inside.”

    The other problem with some of the larger publishing houses is simply the expertise required to be able to judge a more advanced manuscript. How many times have you picked up a book which was supposed to be more advanced and found out it’s just 101 1/2, a different angle of rehash of the same topics as the basics beginners book?

    So what do we do? How do we get the good works out there and into the hands (and heads) of the readers? I love the idea of a Book Club model, both online and off. I’d like there to be something which would include independent stores like ours, who could supply the books as well as meeting space, because I’d love to participate. But it should also be available in other areas without a local store or center to host, or for people just on the internet.

    Heck, I’d even be happy with just an ongoing list of beyond 101 books worth pursuing and reading. I’d like a Pagan “Shelf Awareness”

  7. bj says:

    why not try picking a half dozen worthy/important “pagan” books of substance and do a bit of sleuthing about how they came to be successfully distributed.

    in reading the comments i particularly noted and agreed with the sentiments about genre books. they do narrow your target market….even though with “pagan” books the subject matter may be relevant for more than those people who self identify as pagan….the label could be thus damning.

  8. I think that e-publishing might be able to help in this situation. The basic problem, IMHO, is that print publishers have to look at the print run – how many books have to be sold, and at what price, to surpass the break-even on the cost of printing the book. That’s why so many text books are priced in the hundreds of dollars. (Small market with limited interest equals higher price) And its the printing costs that make up the majority of the publisher’s overhead on a per-book basis.

    All books have to be written and layouts have to be done and covers have to be made. But e-books don’t have to worry about press runs or warehouse storage or returns on unsold books.

    So maybe its time for Pagans to follow the trend and create a niche market ebook publisher – Pagan books: 101 and beyond 🙂

  9. Pingback: Episode 7 – On the Road Again « Dining with Druids

  10. Brendan, Your post sparked a long conversation between Jeff and I last week that made it onto this week’s episode of Dining with Druids: http://diningdruids.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/episode-7/ 🙂 Wanted to share that with you!

  11. Michael Mergon says:

    Brendan I want to give you the heads up for saying what you did in your excellent blog – a year or so ago I was amongst the complainers but now I fully support a few indie publishers instead. I encourage the authors of books I find useful by writing to them and thanking them and also by writing reviews when I can.

    Here I want to plug Avalonia Books which is also based in the UK. They have a few 101 books, but most of those are on specialised subjects and treat the 101 in quite a different way – but overall they seem to dare and make a success out of publishing titles which the mainstream publishers would not touch. I found out about them through a blog written on the Llewellyn website by one of the Llewellyn editors and have been hooked ever since.

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