Bam! American Environmental History Part One
Thursday, December 03, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
I've gone ahead and pulled the trigger. Part One of my American Environmental History is now available on Amazon as a print book and a Kindle Ebook. I self-published this, which I think I ought to explain, since although plenty of novelists (myself included) have had success self-publishing, it isn't something that has really caught on yet in nonfiction, and especially in not academic publishing. So what's this all about?
I've been teaching American Environmental History for UMass/Amherst for several years. I actually TA-ed the class while I was doing my PhD coursework there, after taking the graduate version of the class with David Glassberg. Then I did a Global Environmental History teaching field with Ted Melillo down the road at Amherst College. Then I wrote my own syllabus and taught the class online in 2014 and 2015. I'll be teaching it again in the Spring semester, 2016, beginning in a few weeks.
All of that, to be honest, is me establishing my platform. I had a chat with an editor many years ago at a writers' conference. He said I could submit any fiction I wanted to him, but nonfiction would need to be accompanied by a convincing platform in order to be considered. That's actually what convinced me to go back to UMass for the PhD. That PhD is nearly completed--all that's left is the pesky detail of finishing the dissertation. But in any case, I think I have at least a plausible claim to a platform for this book.
I think so, but one of the reviewers the Oxford University Press sent my book proposal out to last year didn't agree. Of the six reviews, three were negative and three positive. So I didn't get a contract offer. One of the reviewers was simply not buying the project from an author without the PhD. The other two had constructive criticisms that I used to make the manuscript better. The outline was too New England-centric, one reviewer said. That was true. It isn't anymore. I hadn't made a firm commitment to chronological or thematic presentation, said the other. That was true, too, but a little more complicated. I've split the project into a mostly-chronological Part One and a mostly-thematic Part Two as a result.
But then there were the other three reviewers, who all said they would use the book as proposed. That was very encouraging. One reviewer said "I have long wanted a straightforward account of environmental history to use with undergraduate classes." Another agreed with me that there is currently no comprehensive survey available. Ted Steinberg's and Carolyn Merchant's textbooks, I had argued, are more oriented toward historiography, theory, and special topics. A reviewer agreed that "Neither Steinberg nor Merchant emphasize momentous events. This study will focus students' attention on the most significant moments in American Environmental History."
So all that gave me the confidence to revise my course and my manuscript. And then I decided not to resubmit the proposal to Oxford America. Why not?
It took nearly six months for my first proposal to go through the process. I didn't want to do that again. And even after the book was accepted somewhere, I'd still be looking at another year before it hit the shelves. Life's too short.
The suggested price-points mentioned in the reviews ranged from $45 to $75. I didn't want my work to have that high a tag on it. I'd really like some general readers outside the academy to pick this up. That's not going to happen if the book is priced like a college textbook. I don't blame publishers for pricing books the way they do. They have a lot of overhead to pay for. But I don't.
What if I could get the thing out for under $25? Okay, there would be some sacrifices. It would be printed on regular paper rather than glossy textbook stock. The illustrations would all have to be in black and white. More significantly, they'd all have to be public domain images, since I don't have the administrative capability or the budget to license hundreds of maps, photos, and drawings. And I'd have to handle all the page layout and proofreading myself. I taught myself InDesign and learned the tricks to submitting a clean interior to Createspace and then a completely different format to Kindle Direct Publishing. The big nail-biter, frankly, was the proofreading. We're all aware how easy it is to miss errors in your own writing. Luckily, I have talented friends and family to help with that.
So there are a lot of reasons to try the self-publishing route, I think. Some challenges I've tried to work through. And one big, uncontrollable unknown. Will anybody buy it?
Because, let's face it, in addition to the editing and production expertise a publisher like Oxford brings to the table, there's the logo on the spine. It's a lot safer to buy a history with a label authenticating it. Yes, we can all point to something that managed to sneak into a major publisher's catalog that shouldn't be there. But there's still a sense of safety. I'm not an enemy of the publishing industry, I just think it should change with the times. A really good self-published history might help shake things up.
I can't change the power of branding. What I can do is make it easy to take the risk. Part One is on Amazon for $11.99 in print and $8.99 on Kindle; the Kindle is free when you buy the print book. And I'll be happy to send a free (print) copy to anyone who'll write a review.
So come on. Let's shake things up a bit.