Publish and Be Damned
The Anxiety of Trade Publishing
Posted Apr 20, 2012
Well, what should be my very first blog for Psychology Today? I have had a look through the help pages and the do’s and don’ts of blogging on this site. Rule 2 is that there should be no “Blatant self-promotion.” That’s a bit of a tough one for me at the moment given that my blog is all about the illusion of the self and this is also the very week that a certain book on this very topic by this very same author has been launched in the UK. At the danger of incurring the wrath of the editors (they do have the power to pull any blog that defies the rules), then let me briefly write about something that I had forgotten was the negative side of publishing books.
I published my first general audience book two years ago. The first time round, I experienced a whole set of emotions and expectations that I simply put down to virgin author nerves. However, over the past day, I have discovered the very same thoughts and feelings returned all over again with my second popular science book, which shall remain nameless here to appease the Psychology Today editors (hint: don’t you think that’s a snappy title for my blog?).
I have been writing for years as a scientist, but edited academic volumes and textbooks don’t count—hardly anyone buys them and they are rarely critiqued. Of course, we all get emotionally invested with our journal papers but so long as they get accepted, then publication is simply a moment of pride. Actually, for me, that moment of joy on publication day for journal articles has somewhat evaporated. I vividly remember the exhilaration of receiving the proofs of my first scientific paper in 1986 (I was child prodigy). Nowadays, it is usually an attached electronic PDF file from an automated website that lacks the humanity of that triumphant moment of scientific achievement. More often than not, the final publication appears online well in advance of any physical paper and I only discover it when someone in some obscure part of the world, that does not have library access, sends me a postcard requesting a hard copy. I then have to download it from the Internet, print it off and send it by post.
Maybe the automaticity of journal publication over the recent years explains why scientific journal papers thrill me less. Or maybe I am simply getting a bit long in the tooth when it comes to the problems of difficult reviewers, journal politics and the sheer rip-off of academics time and effort in the whole academic publishing world. Of course I will continue to publish my research and I still enjoy the editor’s letter of acceptance with minor revisions, but trade books are a totally different game. They are much more real world, more risky, more edgy—a bit like releasing your new album.
A number of us academics are doing it now. Probably too many as we vie for the same territory that has been more skillfully occupied by the professional journalists who know how to write for the general public both in terms of accessible style and what is going to sell. We all know who they are. However, we academics should not feel too aggrieved. We have full time jobs whereas these guys have literally got to write for their next paycheck. We all make uncomfortable bedfellows as we look for angles and topics that have not already been covered. It is getting very hard and as soon as something interesting appears on the scientific horizon, you can bet it will end up in a trade book within six months—the minimum time it takes to go from final proof edits to publication.
So we push on with the trade book wars. I am sure that many authors will agree, when starting out, publication day is a double-edged sword. Yes, there is the sense of completion and achievement but those positive vibes are soon replaced by anxiety about how your efforts are going to be received. After all, what’s the point in writing when it is going to be panned by critics or worse, not read at all. Some writers are OK with negative criticism if their books sell well because they can always take comfort that critics are failed writers and the public knows best. Well at least that's what we tell ourselves. Then there are those books that receive positive “critical acclaim” which is a euphemism for “didn’t sell well.” Inevitably, we try to remain aloof from the process of evaluation by market forces but really we are emotionally distraught by negative reviews and elated by thumbs up and five star ratings. I would like to say that I am above that, but I know that I will be checking my Amazon ratings on the hour for the next week or so. Well at least until the next book idea and offer comes along.