Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quality Biblioblogging & Self-Publishing

I've come across a couple of posts this week on different blogs that illustrate the pluses and minuses of self-publishing in biblical studies or ancient languages.

First, James McGrath is contemplating self-publishing a book he's written. I'm sure his work is thought-provoking and well-researched, reflecting his training and experience in biblical studies. Self-publishing seems to be a way that he could get something in print and in the hands of select people quickly.

Second, Jay has tactfully commented on the self-published work of a certifiable self-taught crackpot whose books curiously enjoy prominent placement in Amazon searches and recommendations.

The second example makes me appreciate the process that editors and publishing houses have put in place that ensure a quality publication (usually), just like academic journals subject articles to peer-review. They screen out the crazies and crackpots (usually-I offer anything written by Graham Phillips as evidence that they don't always). Self-publishing is too easy. Anyone can do it if they want to pay for it and it doesn't matter if what they've written is quality or not.

On the other hand, blogging is a form of self-publishing - unregulated and lacking peer-review. We have no standards, no organization that gives us an official stamp of approval (unless you count I guess the comments feature can keep us honest, accountable, and in dialogue, but unless I know the commenter, I don't know if he has the training to critique my work or not (like Jay I'm not trying to sound elitist - but I've had a bit more training in this field than your average person who reads the Bible in English for fun or faith or whatever).

I wonder how much Jay's question about what to do about self-published crackpots in print ("how can we rid the popular culture of such stains on linguistics, sound methodology, the study of Hebrew Bible, and common sense?") should be extended to also include the blogosphere. I know you're out there - bloggers with conspiracy theories about Jesus who think the DaVinci Code was non-fiction and that the Bible Code really works.


  1. several things- first, there's more crap published by big publishing houses than by self-publishing.

    second- self publishing was the way things were done for centuries. it's big publishing houses controlling everything that's the innovaton. and its done simply for the sake of financial control.

    and third, demonizing self publishing by pointing out the crackpots is a red herring. the much vaunted peer review process is nothing more, most of the time, than a circling of the wagons to protect territory.

    i'm telling you- the way big publishers operate has insured their own eventual demise.

  2. Jim,

    I'm not disputing that publishers don't always publish good stuff since they're trying to make money by publishing what will sell - conspiracy theories and sensationalism sell.

    But, appealing to self-publishing as "the way things were done for centuries" is also a red herring because there's a major difference in quality of education between the literate gentleman-scholars of the 18th and 19th century (like Edward Gibbon) and the average person looking to self-publish today. I agree that self-publishing is appropriate for some people and some circumstances (like the move toward "open" textbooks that are usually print-on-demand), but apparently many readers lack the discernment to tell the difference between quality and crap (a problem caused by the breakdown our education system over the last half century).

    Finally, I don't think you give enough credit to the peer-review process. Of course, it could be that I see "circling the wagons to protect territory" as a good thing. We may have to agree to disagree.

    I can tell you don't like the "big publishing houses" (I'm not sure who's all in that group), but what do you think of the smaller publishers who produce quality books in biblical studies like Eisenbrauns and Eerdmans? I think a lot of the academically-oriented publishers are doing good work and aren't just out to make a buck (except Brill - quality book, poor editing process, ridiculous price).

  3. Generally speaking, I avoid self-published works. Why? No control. Yes, peer-review may be a "circling of the wagons" but, like Douglas, I don't really consider that a bad thing. Consider the sheer arrogance for an author to believe that he alone in the academic world has the proper view of things (such as the particular "crackpot" in question). Can good things come out of such "arrogance"? Yes, but the odds are rather against such.

    Yes, big publishing houses don't get it right all the time. Yes, there have been some good things delivered via self-publishing. But if an author can't get his work published via the (new) traditional methods, perhaps he should consider whether there are indeed innate flaws in his methodology or concept rather than circumventing the peer review process.

    The fact is that self-publishing somewhat levels the field in the public eye. They don't know if something published by (insert name of self-publisher here) is more legitimate than anything published by Brill or Eisenbrauns or de Gruyter or Eerdmans or SBL. They simply believe that the self-publisher must represent all scholarship. Truthfully, that's my real problem--I want to protect the curious "lay" person from idiocy. Isn't that part of what our scholarship is meant to do?

  4. Jay, obviously I agree with you all the way.

    Jim, I neglected to comment on your first point - "there's more crap published by big publishing houses than by self-publishing."

    I disagree. It seems more logical to me (due to the ease of self-publishing) that there would be proportionally much more crap coming from self-publishing than from traditional publishing. That's also why I don't think bringing up the crackpots in self-publishing is a red herring. They tend to dominate the field (except for the "open textbook" movement, see I have no idea how to find statistics on what's out there and evaluate how much of it is crap, but I've come across a lot more bad than good. In fact, I can't think of any good examples.

    The mainstream crackpots tend to fall into 3 camps - the trained scholars who've sold out, journalists who know how to write and research facts but lack the methodological training to know what to do with their facts, and the celebrity amateurs (like Bob Cornuke) who are famous for "discovering" something ridiculous like Noah's Ark and getting media coverage for it.

    Jim, I know you're familiar with the problem of biblical dilettantism ( and biblical archaeological dilettantism (, so can we admit that they're all over the place in self-publishing, too?

  5. oh yes- to be sure- but i don't think you ought to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    i probably loathe dilettantism more than you or jay. but i also know that academia has vested interests and those interests don't always serve the public.

    as to brill. what ridiculous prices. eerdmans and eisenbrauns are excellent, as is sheffield phoenix and equinox and TVZ and a number of others. i'm not opposed to big, or little, publishing houses. i'm opposed to control that has more to do with the bottom line than insuring academic quality.

    we probably agree about that.