No Mas

Herb Childress describes how a successful book contract led to his academic career’s end.

May 24, 2017
 
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By all accounts, the arrival of the book contract in the spring of 2013 from a major academic publishing house should have been a moment of celebration, with my wife/co-author/business partner and I opening a bottle of prosecco and sending gleeful emails to all of our friends. This is the winding tale of why we did not sign that contract, and why I left higher education only months later.

Some months before, I had sent an editor a finished manuscript of another book entirely. I had written a guide for doctoral students and prospective doctoral students, attempting to explain some of the secrets of our society so that they might be better prepared to enter a competition for faculty life that only a sixth of them could ever win.

I had repeatedly entered, and repeatedly lost, that competition since 1996 and the completion of my own Ph.D. degree. Through whatever unknowable combination -- disciplinary fit, disciplinary health, luck of the draw, personal ineptness -- I had remained part of the vast sea of doctorate holders who would never reach the shoreline of tenure-track safety. A four-year teaching postdoc was followed by seven years as an administrator in a small New England college, starting as director of liberal studies and concluding as dean of research and assessment. That decade of service, along with increasing immersion and leadership responsibilities in a professional society, led me to understand many things about the landscape of higher education and faculty life that had previously been unknowable to a late-life scholar from a working-class family. The proposed book was a way of sharing the intelligence that I had gathered, showing others the life that that I had first loved and then despaired and now grieve.

After reading that manuscript, the editor wrote back to say that, while she deeply appreciated its quality, her press had no means of marketing to undergraduates. That was a significant misreading of its primary function, but you don’t tell the priest that she’s misinterpreting Scripture. She ended that message, however, with a request for a follow-up phone call to explore other book projects I might be interested in.

I made that call, we had a productive conversation, and I committed (with my wife, Nora Rubinstein) to write a proposal for a book on what we call local learning. Nora and I have worked for 10 or more years to help colleges develop opportunities for their students to “major in their place” -- to have repeated and scaffolded experiences to learn the details of their specific community and region. I won’t bother you with the details of that prospectus here. Suffice it to say that the editor was enthusiastic, the peer reviewer was enthusiastic, the publisher’s editorial board was enthusiastic, and we received a copy of a contract to review and sign.

It had been over 15 years since I’d received my first contract from an academic publisher for the book drawn from my dissertation, and I’d forgotten just how wretched these contracts can be. To start with the obvious, of course, there’s virtually no money involved. The new contract specified royalties starting at 3 percent of the publisher’s net receipts, rising to 5 percent after 350 copies had been sold. If the book sold as well as my first (at 1,900 copies, they tell me it did pretty well, though of course I considered it a crushing disappointment), our joint year’s work might make as much as $6,500 over the book’s life. Two-thirds of the value of my 2007 Honda Civic. About the same as we make for teaching two graduate courses online.

But those 1,900 copies would have made us John Grisham in comparison with this publisher’s projections. At the low end, they thought they might sell 200 hardcover and 300 paperbacks, with a few ebooks for libraries thrown in. At the wild reaches of optimism, they predicted selling maybe as many as 300 hardcover and 700 paperbacks. So ratchet those financial expectations back some -- closer to three grand even if we hit a home run.

As bad as the economics looked, other elements of the contract were worse. The publisher sold mostly to academic libraries, and our book would have had a projected list price of about $100. This would have eliminated our ideas from consideration by any of the community partners and civic leaders who might have a lot to contribute and even more to gain from conversations about locally based bodies of knowledge. Laypeople are smart enough not to buy hundred-dollar books, and the publisher had no mechanism for broader marketing and distribution, in any case.

Worse yet, if the book was a success and the publisher wanted to issue a second edition, we’d have had two options, neither of which included saying “no, thank you.” The contract held the choice between our writing a second edition or having the publisher choose someone else to write it. With our names still attached to it as authors.

It went on and on. The publisher demanded the unlikely rights to develop a video game or television series from the work. It also required that we review proofs within 20 days while their obligation to act was always “within a reasonable time,” that we create our own index at our own cost, and that we give them rights of first refusal on the next nonfiction book that either Nora or I might create individually or jointly. Eleven pages of sharpened blades, all pointed at us.

I need to be clear here that I don’t blame the publisher for any of this, just as you don’t blame the cheetah for ripping the throat out of the gazelle. They’re just fulfilling their role in the ecosystem.

Aesthetic Principles

Nora and I agonized over the contract for some hours. In the end, our decision to not proceed was complex. The fundamental stumbling block was that the right people wouldn’t get access to the book -- that the ideas would be sequestered behind the academic walls, a deeply paradoxical fate for a book that would attempt to bring about some détente between the academic and civilian communities. We also struggled with the loss of control, the idea that someone else would be permitted to create updated or auxiliary materials with our names on them.

But the decision, as clear as it was, was a tough one. I’ve had more than 20 years of being a supplicant in higher education, hoping that finally some department would see me as a scholarly partner worthy of wooing, that I’d finally get the academic post I’d wanted since going back to Berkeley to finish my dropped-out undergraduate degree. My whole identity since grade school has been based on pushing myself to be the best student in every classroom I entered, to do more with the material than the instructors expected possible, to be perpetually ready to take on intellectual tasks that were over my head and to find a way to scramble up to their peaks. I was not yet ready to surrender that identity, even though it had long since given up on me.

But as Nora and I were talking about this book project, I looked again at the publisher’s website, seeing the other books in the series this was projected to enter. Those covers … I had forgotten just how pitiful the graphic design services can be in academic publishing. Two-tone geometric patterns unworthy of a grade-school quilter. A maze, for God’s sake! A book about civic life illustrated with a maze! Every single cover was worse than Microsoft clip art.

Either a book is an aesthetic event or it isn’t. Just on my desk now I see the burned-paper edge of Richard Hoffman’s memoir Love and Fury, the haphazard rubber bands seeming to hold together David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published collection Both Flesh and Not, the business card and family photos recreated on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. To love what writing can be, to love what books can be, and then to voluntarily re-enter the joyless world of academic writing, was more than I could bear. Just as to know the pleasures of teaching and research, and be restricted to the life of administration, was finally more than I could endure in my career. Either teaching and curriculum design and serving young people are aesthetic events or they aren’t. And the academic machine has little space for aesthetic principles.

Halfway through the beating Roberto Durán took at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard in the second of their three great fights in the 1980s, Durán raised his gloves to the referee and famously declared, “No mas.” After 18 years since my dissertation, I too admitted that I could take no more, and left my administrative job. I’ll still teach where they’ll have me, I’ll still do professional development with faculty, I’ll still do keynote talks at colleges and academic conferences. But finally, after so, so long, my identity had come unbound from the image I once had of higher education. Teaching, yes, and writing, and mentoring young people -- those will always be central to me. But those book covers, and the higher ed sausage maker they represented, finally convinced me that I had no place in the operation.

It would be more noble to say that I walked away from higher education for deep principles. In protest of a system that justifies putting its students a trillion dollars in debt. In disgust at an institutional culture willing to behave like agribusiness, with its work conducted increasingly by armies of desperate seasonal workers. In defense of academic freedom and the pursuit of unpopular ideas. Sometimes, though, it’s the smaller details that help us see more clearly. An array of book covers showed me that it was time to leave.

Bio

Herb Childress is the author of The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) About Doctoral and Faculty Life (University of Chicago Press, 2016), from a publisher to whom he is vastly grateful for being so much better than the one described above. After a career as a higher education administrator, he now co-owns Teleidoscope Group LLC, a Vermont-based consulting company.

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