Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Even More Bitching and Moaning from the Land of Local History

NOTE: I just have to bitch. I was going to make this part of my Tuesday Hate at The Weblog, but it got out of control, so I put it here. Scroll down to the Peeps entry, or the one about Babu, if you want happier entertainment.

Paranoia is contagious. The publisher of my Local History Book has told me that they need the approval of the Big Museum in the area for my book to do well. This is good business, which I understand and, naturally, fully support. The problem is that the Big Museum, where I used to work in the library, and particularly certain individuals who work at Big Museum have this belief that they own the history of the town. Outsiders, such as myself and pretty much anyone whose ancestors weren't living there since the American Revolution, can be interested in that history and spend money on that history (although sometimes your Outsider money is still not good enough), but can't actually participate in it.

The irony of this attitude of ownership as it applies to the Big Museum's culture is that the mission of the Big Museum is not local history. Indeed, many of the people charged with carrying out the Big Museum Mission consciously cast aside that local history and instruct their interpreters not to talk about "what was right here back then" (which is the second most common question asked by tourists).

In any case, here I am, writing this history, investing my very scarce dollars into the 80 to 100 illustrations specified in the contract, when the publisher went to visit the town to drum up interest in the book. She met with some of the local historians, who are all just thrilled about my book. This part actually matched my experience there with the small museums and archives, who joyfully share the wealth. The Big Museum, not so much. The representative from the Big Museum also acted thrilled. Heck, he went so far as to offer to read the manuscript. This is where I began to catch the paranoia.

See, this representative, the Big Local Historian who works in a high position at Big Museum, was the same one who tried to warn me off of writing the book in the first place because he thought it might compete with the reprint of his own book. He was the same one who suggested that I was trying to get him to write my book for me merely because I asked him to take a look at my work. He was the same one who criticized another local history book for being "inaccurate," after it was published, and after he refused their request to have him co-author it with them or at least look at the manuscript. In my case, he was kind enough to begrudgingly agree to read a draft, and I thanked him profusely; but his attitude made me decide that the less that I dealt with him, the better. He was clearly one of the people who thinks that he owns the history.

I also gathered, in our meeting and from things that I have read about him in local papers, that he is not a person who tolerates anything that he perceives as competition, and he is not a person who tolerates alternate interpretations of history from his own. I am am the first and have the second. Where he sees a loving community created by the owners of a factory who were so kind as to rent to their employees and issue them company script to shop in the company store, I see a company town with all its warts. Where he sees a hiding place on the Underground Railroad, I see a storage closet. Where he sees a heroic struggle that allowed white men to settle New England, I see the slaughter of women and children. I don't have to use hard words, I just have to lay out the evidence, and it speaks for itself. So, I decided to do that, and sidestep any confrontation with him until the book was in print. At that point, he might bash it to his friends and associates, but all of the thousands of tourists who don't know him from the next guy would still buy it.

Now the publisher wants him to read the manuscript after it is done. She wants his approval and, by extension, the approval of Big Museum. Having a reader or an outside institution's approval of the publication of the volume was nowhere in the contract. When I asked about this, I was told "we sometimes do that." What really pisses me off and makes me very paranoid, however, is that he could easily kill the book after all of my work and investment of time and precious dollars (most of which has gone to Big Museum for the use of illustrations from their collections*).

Here is where I get even more paranoid. He could kill the book, then he could turn around and write his own for this publisher or for his own publisher (which, what do you know, happens to be a department of Big Museum) now that he knows that someone is interested in producing such a book. I consider this a conflict of interest on his part. This is not to say I wouldn't love experts on local history to read and make suggestions about my work. That would be wonderful; but I would like them to not have a vested interest in the work failing.

Ultimately, I realize that I am producing a product, not a piece of scholarship. "Good" doesn't matter so much as "Saleable." "Saleable" includes being non-threatening to anyone who might be offended by the very existence of such a product (unless, of course, they themselves produced it). Indeed, "saleable" might mean altering my work to make them happy, regardless of what those alterations do to the quality of the scholarship. I have to be compliant to whatever the publisher decides because they control the crucial element in getting my creation to the world: the printing and distribution of the final volume. They are the experts, and know what will and won't sell, and they know how to make the selling happen. Yet another lesson learned on the Local History and Commercial Publishing front.

Maybe I should come to grips with the fact that I can be an unpleasant person and put people off. I clearly don't have the political savvy to be a local historian.
*This also pisses me off. I don't work for them any longer. I don't work for them because of conditions that they created. They have been the only institution who has given me trouble on this book. They have had their pound of flesh -- twice -- in the form of $1000 for the reproductions and rights to the illustrations. Now, they want to approve of the book itself or it won't sell. Does it never end?


Anonymous said...

Does the publisher know of your conflict-of-interest concerns, and the guy's track record?

How much leeway does the publisher have in deciding whether to publish? (I'm guess a lot, but maybe not infinite).

Obviously a published book is better than a lawsuit, or a threat of a lawsuit even, but I can imagine circumstances that might amount to tortious interference with contract and/or tortious interference with prospective advantage.


Clio Bluestocking said...

I've been trying to express these concerns to the publisher without coming right out and saying it on e-mail because I don't want that coming back to bite me. We are supposed to have a phone talk on Friday (although they've blow those off before). I will be quite candid with them then. In fact, part of writing this post was to organize my thoughts and to purge myself of obvious anger, paranoia, and four-letter words.

As for whether to publish or not, I am guessing that they have full power to change their minds. Any lawsuit talk, as I'm sure you know, can get ugly. I'd much rather that we mutually agree to part ways than have Big Museum essentially control the content. That way, if I continue with the project (which, at the moment, isn't really advancing my career), it can be a much better book with broader appeal.

Tita said...

Clio, unfortunately I have no advice to offer but I am totally rooting for you! I am also now really curious about said book so perhaps you will let readers of CBT know how to purchase it WHEN it is published? Good luck. Oh, and remember, semper ubi sub ubi.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Tita! Thank you very much. I will definitely reveal the book if and when it is published (by whomever publishes it!).

thinking girl said...

mmmm. reading this made me feel a bit queasy on your behalf. I hope everything turns out well for you. professional jealousy can be a really awful thing.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Thinking Girl, don't feel too queasy! It's not as if this particular book is my life's work, just my life's work for the past year or so, and I hate to see it go to waste.


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