Self-Publishing

Change starts in the local library

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One of the things I really like about teaching an online American Environmental History class at UMass is that my course is offered through the university's Division of Continuing Education. That means my students tend to be older and are mostly non-history majors. Many are non-traditional students: working people finishing up a bachelor's degree they've been working on at night or, more recently, online. Taking the General Education requirement they missed along the way.

So I've tried to build my class and my textbook for these people. And my hope is that, in addition to being useful in college courses like my own, the textbook might be interesting and useful to regular people. Because I think a widespread public understanding of our history that includes the environment is critical, if we're going to make any progress toward a more sustainable social order in the twenty-first century

I know, it seems like a kind-of high-falutin idea, when I write it down like that. But isn't that pretty much what we're really working for? So I've been thinking, how do I get this message out to more people? There just aren't enough regular people getting on Goodreads or Amazon and searching for new books about Environmental History.

But there are a lot of regular people visiting their local libraries

So I've decided to donate copies of the book to libraries. There are a lot of libraries in the U.S. and lots of people still use them pretty extensively. So maybe if my book is sitting on a shelf of newly acquired titles, people will pick it up and take a look. The way the math works out, I'll break even if I send a copy to a library for every three books I sell. If I don't sell a lot of books, maybe I'll try some type of crowd-funding scheme.

I'm not saying my American Environmental History textbook is the only EnvHist title that ought to be available for people in local libraries. But I can buy my own book for a fraction of the cost of other people's titles. Maybe someday there'll be a big foundation stocking local library shelves with EnvHist titles. That would be pretty cool. In the meantime, I'm going to start sending copies of my book to libraries later this week, when my first box of books arrives.

Vikings, Climate, and Self-Publishing

Yesterday NiCHE re-tweeted a link from Tina Loo, calling attention to a Guardian article about climate change and the Viking settlement on Greenland. Tina's comment, "Now I have to rewrite my #envhist lecture," struck a chord, because I'm preparing my lectures for Spring semester, and because I've just released Part One of my textbook, which discusses the Vikings, Greenland, and Vinland. My first thought was the same. Am I going to have to revise that chapter the first week the book is out?

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I took a look at
the study the Guardian article was reporting on. After reading it, I don't think I need to rush back and rewrite. The main point of the study seems to be that the Norse were not idiots prone to "maladaptation by an inflexible temperate zone society" as the article puts it, but instead "show greater resilience [and] more willingness to expand sources of TEK [and]...ability to resolve conflicts between climate change and core social ideology" than we have so far, to quote the study's conclusion. The Vikings did manage to survive in Greenland for five hundred years, after all. They must have been pretty tough and pretty smart.

I was hoping the article would say more about fishing and Vinland. But the main thing I was looking for was an explanation for the two headlines I saw:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian)
and
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post)

The target of both articles seems to be the "so-called medieval warm period," in the
Guardian's words. The Washington Post goes a bit farther, and uses caps and quotes not only for "Medieval Warm Period" but for "Little Ice Age." The Post goes on to say the article challenges "whether the so-called Medieval Warm Period was really so warm...suggesting that the tale of the Vikings colonizing but then abandoning Greenland due to climatic changes may be too simplistic." Well, yeah. Suggesting that anybody does anything for just one reason is probably too simplistic. But it bothers me just a bit that as you scroll down this Post article, there are three Shell Oil ads inserted into the text, in addition to the big one on the sidebar.

In case you were wondering, the article concludes that although the situation was more complicated than monocausal explanations of the past may have implied, climate played a big role in the Norse experience of Greenland, and probably in the settlement's end. Here are their words:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

So, as far as I'm concerned, a lecture or a textbook that had avoided a simplistic telling of the story in the first place should be okay. I don't have to revise my chapter on European discovery of the Americas.

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But I think it's worth noting that if the evidence had really contradicted what I had said in that chapter, in a really compelling way, I could have changed it. That's a distinct feature of a self-published text. I would not have had to burn a thousand copies, because there was no press run. The book prints on demand in Amazon's warehouse. Just like most of the paperback books you buy nowadays, actually. But, unlike those other books, I can upload a changed file to Createspace (which is also Amazon) anytime, day or night. My book can change instantly to respond to new discoveries or to comment on new data or interpretations. Or if not instantly, then in less time than passes between the moment you order a copy and the moment it ships. No need to wait a couple years for the second edition.

That's another part of the publishing world I think self-publishing can help shake up. So let's shake things up.

Bam! American Environmental History Part One

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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.