I finally finished the little local history book, which I have begun to call my "tourist book" because that's the market. The last two weeks were the crunch weeks, made all the worse by having my summer class overlap with my spring class (my spring class is what they call a "mid-semester start" course, which isn't a bad idea, until it overlaps with the other semesters!) I found that, after having record days of writing, my brain is numb in the verbal lobes, so my verbal abilities are a bit slurred. All I want to do is sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep! I'll be happy about finishing later.
Writing for this popular press has been quite the crash course; and, taken with my previous publishing experience with an academic press, I find some benefits to both. Both might do well to adopt some of the tactics of the other. I kinda wish both would not treat the author like the intellectual equivalent of the field hand; but then, they probably wish the writers realized that they are the content providers and not the whole show.
Ultimately, everyone involved is trying to make a product. Even we writers see the book as the product of our research and writing activities and want people to buy and read the thing so that maybe someone will let us write another (or so that we can prove that we are able to do it and never again have to write another, it all depends upon who you talk to!)
Academic publishers realize the main audience for the books that they publish will be read critically, possibly by only a small group of people who specialize in facet of the book being published. So, they do everything that they can to make sure that the writer's work has been read by experts in that particular field. They make sure that all of the citations are complete, consistent, and accurate, and that everything being said in the book makes sense. These will be things that reviewers and readers will check. These are the things that make the book a serious contribution to the author's field. The academic press, then, is interested in the quality of the content because that quality will sell the books that they publish.
The popular press, or at least what I'm calling the "tourist press" (again, because that is the market -- and you know you've seen these books in the museum stores or in the "local history" sections of book stores in tourist towns), is much more interested in selling the book to anyone and everyone. So, they want the book to look good and they would like it to have a nice, uncomplicated narrative that will appeal to people with at least a passing interest in the subject.(I am also waiting to be told that I was too critical of the town in the last chapter because I, at long last, raised class issues and gave a little too much credence to an unpopular ethnic group's position on an issue that still raises hackles.)
They do not ensure that the book will be read by experts before they publish it, beyond having them "skim it to give us a good quote for the back." They don't insist upon citations, and actually discourage them because their audience couldn't care less about citations beyond "Further Reading" suggestions. The author, realizing that their citations are unwelcome and will cut into their word count, just doesn't include them. The publisher, interested in getting the book on the shelves as soon as possible, doesn't do much in the way of proofing the content. So, when the book reaches the shelves, the quality is, literally, questionable.
On the other hand, I like that this little tourist press works its butt off to make sure that the book sells as widely as possible. They want to put the damn thing in hotels, restaurants, all of the tchotcke stores, at all of the tourist traps, at all of the tourist attractions, at anywhere a tourist might stop for a snack or a bathroom break, everywhere for 100 miles around the actual town. They also want booths at academic conferences. They want it to sell way more than I do; and I'm the one with my name on the book and the one who need the royalties to offset the cost of the damn illustrations! That impresses me.
Academic presses, are good at selling to academic markets. They go the very tried, true and respected routes, in trade publications and at conferences. I'm not knocking conferences, mind you! One of the best moments of my life was having my book featured by my press at a big conference in my home town, where I went to graduate school. All my old grad school buddies were there. They thought they were going to have to get a forklift to carry my head out of the hotel.
I digress. My point is that I wish that academic presses had the ability to sell to a broader market than academics. Not that I want the academic book to be in hotels and restaurants and all of that; but it would be nice to go into Barnes and Noble and see a copy on their shelves, or to go into a bookstore in the state where it took place and see it in their "local interest section," or to go into a museum in the state where it took place and see it in the gift shop.
Ideally, the perfect topic will straddle both of these worlds, and the material and the author's abilities will rise above the limits of either type of publisher. I'm not sure that is me. My tourist book could be much better and much more scholarly; but it should also have a regional focus not limited to this little town that is really not a town if it were to fall into that dual category of popular and academic. Meanwhile, I write for one, or I write for the other, and I bitch about their shortcomings and enjoy their benefits.
Also, I see an implicit question here: Why did I bother, with all of my bitching, to write this book? I even had one friend who wondered why I didn't break the contract. The last, well, I just couldn't do. I'd rather kiss my brother, with tongue -- squick! -- as break a contract! Well, I both started and finished the book -- in less than a year, which should give some idea of the quality -- because I wanted to salvage the last few years of my life, particularly last year. This book would be a way to literally have something to show for the time that I essentially wasted in that place. I suppose it is a souvenir of my time there, and I loves me some souvenirs!