Friday, September 29, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part Two

Everybody agrees that, in trade publishing, you need an agent. Agents do not tend to be involved in academic publishing, largely because there is not enough money in the business to make it worth their while. They are also rare in the textbook market because publishers often commission authors directly rather than waiting for submissions to come in. But in trade publishing, agents are essential. Publishers like agents because they act as gatekeepers. Many publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts at all and those that do give them very little attention. However, when a trusted agent submits a proposal, an editor knows that it has already been approved by a fellow professional in the business and is probably worth a look. That doesn't mean the editor will publish it - they probably won't - but they will look at it.

Agents are paid by results. They get around 15% of an author's royalties. This makes them completely dependent on the success of their authors. An editor has a salary to support them if it all goes wrong. On the other hand, an agent can get very rich whereas salaries in the publishing industry are notoriously stingy.

As I wanted my book to be published as a trade title, it was clear that I needed an agent. I began the search with a copy of the writer's bible The Writers and Artists Yearbook. This includes a listing of literary agents that is also available on-line. I picked out three and sent them a one -page synopsis by post. The replies were polite but not all that keen. However, one of them enclosed a guide to producing a book proposal that made a number of very helpful suggestions. I got to work.

Then I had a sudden thought. I googled for 'literary agent' together with the names of several authors whom I thought were writing stuff similar to me. In this way I found several agents with websites that included detailed guidance on submissions. Some even said that they didn't mind an initial approach by email (although others said they didn't like this idea at all). This seemed a good idea and I composed a short emailing trying to sell the essence of my book. I sent it to a US agent who had represented some history of science authors. Due to other commitments, I didn't check my email until late next day and found not just a reply from the agent, but a chaser asking why he hadn't heard back from me. He wanted my proposal as quickly as possible! I polished it up as best I could and emailed it back. His reply took a week and when it came it was the last thing I was expecting...

Next, how I actually found an agent.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Trying to Get Published - Part One

I thought I should share with you my on-going and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my popular history of medieval science. The book, called the Genesis of Science, is intended to show lay readers that quite a lot of science was happening in the Middle Ages. It also demonstrates how this science fed through into the work of Copernicus, Galileo and other early-modern natural philosophers. Finally, it debunks several of the most egregious myths about the Middle Ages, most of which involve the church.

Let me begin with some background to the publishing industry. There are three kinds of publisher that might be interested in a book about medieval science. First are the academic publishers including the university presses, Brill, Routledge and the like. They publish books written by scholars for scholars. You rarely find them in general bookstores and they can often be prohibitively expensive. Books published under an academic inprint are intended to further the writer's career rather than make him any money.

Next are textbook publishers. These bring out books for students that tend to go through multiple editions to keep them up-to-date. Textbook writers are usually academics although, for high school and primary school, the work is often done by retired teachers. It can be very lucrative, especially if your book becomes the standard work on the subject that every English speaking undergraduate has to have. Peter Atkins, the hostile atheist, made his money from the textbook Physical Chemistry. Working on a textbook can end up as a permenant job because you have to keep up with changes to the syllabus and sometimes this requires a new book every year. One important textbook on medieval science exists - David Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. Others aspire to its crown.

Finally, there are trade publishers that publish books that normal people read. They are out to make money by selling to the biggest market that they can. They understand that this limits the number of titles that can sell on a particular topic. They are also usually unwilling to publish a book about a subject that has never been touched before. This is because they don't know if the market exists or not. The ideal book for a trade publisher is the same as one that has sold well already, but different enough to justify people reading it as well.

These three compartments are surprisingly watertight. Crossover is rarer than you might think despite many of the big houses having fingers in all three pies. Books tend to be targetted at one particular market and have packaging to match.

Next time, I'll tell you how I set about finding an agent.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Richard Dawkin's Foundation

Dawkins has a new toy for his retirement: his very own foundation.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Religion and evolution

It seems to me that the starting point of Dawkins and Dennett in their analyses of religion is not "God doesn't exist". Rather, it is "we hate religion." The reason for their animosity is a strong belief that religion is harmful and we would be better off without it. They rationalise this belief with the usual string of historical anecdotes and misconceptions that are so popular on atheist websites (such as the imaginary conflict between science and religion; religion causing wars, intolerance and suicide bombers; no atheist ever killed someone else because their atheism etc etc etc.). It all boils down to Steven Weinberg's fatuous and false sound bite "For good people to do bad things, that takes religion." Presumably he lives in a world without jealousy, revenge, money, hunger, anger, a mistaken sense of duty, scientific ignorance or stupidity.

In fact, I don't see how any consistent Darwinist could say religion is a 'bad thing'. Religion is human nature. Dennett and Dawkins both try to explain it as an unwelcome side effect of some other evolutionary adaptation. But this is highly unlikely because it is too in-built and multi-centred. Religion is caused by our brains ability to generate mystical experience; our instinctive desire for God or gods; our feeling for an objective moral order; our sense of wonder at nature and our skills at social cohesion. These traits are far too varied mean that religion is not a side-effect, it is a fundamental part of human nature. We also know religious belief is partly inheritable which further proves that speculation about memes is way off beam.

If religion is fundamental to our nature then, according to Darwinists, it can only have arisen in one way - selected by evolution. And it would only be selected if it was advantageous. The inherent propensity towards religion, that everyone bar a few mutants have, must be an adaptation that helped human beings dominate the planet. Furthermore, about the only working definition of 'good' and 'bad' that a Darwinist can get a handle on is whether or not a behavior has helped humans survive and multiply. Religion must, by Darwinian lights, be a 'good thing'.

It is just that like many other good things, it can go wrong.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind

A little while ago, I was asked to write a review of Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind. Then I was asked again. And the other day, I found an existing review on the internet that is completely misguided. So, I thought, I must get my act together and finally do one myself.

My review is here. I posted it onto the Secular Web to see how the pit liked it. Notalot, as you can see but it sparked a great deal of discussion. Freeman is totally wrong, of course. The closing of the western mind was caused by a horde of barbarians over running the Roman Empire. Christianity is why the western mind reopened a few centuries later. Somehow, Freeman never seems to mention that...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkin's new book The God Delusion is nearly upon us and reviews have started to appear. Obviously, some people are going to love it, especially if they mistook Sam Harris's rant, The End of Faith, for an intelligent analysis of religion.

Andrew Brown kicked things off in the Guardian with his article (that I linked to earlier in the week as well) taking serious issue with where Dawkins is coming from. Even more revealing were the cries of pain from Dawkinites in the comments section:
"I've now read this several times and I'm still boggling. It is just utter rubbish. Why are the religious allowed to publish this sort of drivel?"
"That's why I, and perhaps others, f**king hate religion Mr. Brown. Get it ? F**king HATE it. Or is that just jeering, smug atheism as well?"
"No, it calls for intelligence, which those who adhere to religious beliefs not only lack (as it is impossible to hold a religious belief and to be intelligent), but openly disavow. Hence religion is nothing more than a grotesque display of wanton stupidity and should be ridiculed and derided at every possible opportunity."
"but they are deluded fantasists!!!"
The review that Brown refers to in the opening sentence of the article above was for Prospect Magazine and it now on-line here. Needless to say, he eviscerates Dawkins's book from the standpoint of an intelligent atheist. His main attack is on Dawkins's blind spot, shared by most denizens of the Secular Web, that atheism has never caused anything bad to happen. I'd like to review the book myself but my wife has forbidden me to line Dawkins's pocket by buying it. I tell me myself it can't be as bad as Harris's but Andrew Brown seems to think it might be.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope is Right

Pope Benedict XVI's speech last week was, of course, excellent - measured, rational and almost irrefutable. He explained that unless faith is grounded in reason, it is dangerously prone to violence. If you can't win an argument with reason then there is always the temptation to fight it out instead.

The resulting fuss, riots and possible murder from Islamicists rather proved his point. However, the treatment of the row in the western media showed the Pope is right about another matter of concern to him - relativism. Reading some of the related comment articles (Madeleine Bunting, Will Hutton and Karen Armstrong being three egregious examples), I realised just how much trouble we are in. Almost no one dares to face up to the fact that the Islamic reaction shows us that we have a serious problem. The west is built on freedom of speech. Thus, I have no objection to the articles (mainly in the Guardian) by Moslems who want to defend their religion, even though the articles are packed full of historical inaccuracies and modern wishful thinking. But for the European left to side with Islam against freedom of speech is nothing less than suicidal. Where are the immortal words, usually attributed to Voltaire "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The Islamicist version: "If I disagree with what you say, I have the right to put you to death."

So kudos to Andrew Brown. I recently applauded this article of his on Richard Dawkins. He has also provided one of the few careful analyses of the Pope's speech. If you read nothing else about this matter, read Brown's article. One other ground for hope: The BBC's Have Your Say page is nearly unanimous in its condemnation of the Islamicist reaction. It's just a shame the BBC's editors didn't take that on board.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The God of the Philosophers

I was reading some blurb by John Selby "rent-a-quote" Spong yesterday. This is the guy who used to be a bishop in Newark and wrote a load of books on why Christians and Christianity suck. He now says nice things about anti-Christian books, most amusingly calling The Jesus Mysteries "provocative, exciting and challenging." So yesterday I read that he was promoting Bob Price's attack on something called The Purpose Driven Life, which I understand is a sort of evangelical self-help manual. I've never seen Spong criticise fundamentalist atheists although I get the impression they view him as a 'useful idiot'.

Spong, like some other liberal theologians (Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway spring to mind), views conservative Christians with contempt. But he also sees himself as a leftwinger who hates 'elitism'. There's a contradiction here. By ridiculing the idea of a personal God, he attacks the beliefs that give meaning and purpose to the lives of millions of ordinary people. His idea of good religion can appeal only in the salons of Harvard or among people to whom Spinoza makes sense. The monumental irony of Spong is that he honestly believes that traditional Christianity is the problem and his non-religious religion is the answer. The best way to promote Christianity is to make it so undemanding that it becomes meaningless. I doubt we'll see many more transformed lives if Spong gets his way.

But this is not an attack on radical theology. For centuries scholars have struggled with the concept of God and often produced something that is not going to go down a storm in the pews. Dionysius invented 'negative theology' because our language is not equipped to say positive things about God - only what He is not. The scholastic understanding of God, especially the Ockhamists, was so far removed from experience it was impossible to relate to individual religious experience. That's why Luther hated it. Today, Keith Ward and Rowan Williams might find they could agree with quite a lot of what Spong says, if not how he says it. But being a liberal or radical theologian does not make you unorthodox, any more than being a conservative Christian makes you politically conservative.

The problem with Spong, Holloway and others is they aim their fire at Christians, not at anti-Christians. Ward and Williams remain solidly orthodox and know who the enemy is. It is interesting that Bishop of Oxford, who once foolishly shared platforms with Richard Dawkins, seems to have realised that cross-dressing in such a way is unacceptable, even for a bishop.

For me, the question to ask a theologian is not "what is God?" but rather "whose side are you on?". Comparing the books of Keith Ward to those of John Selby Spong, I am reminded of the phrase "By their fruits you will know them."

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Book burning - a comparative study

Many radical theories about Christian origins excuse the lack of primary evidence for their reconstruction of events by postulating a successful exercise in suppression of the relevant documents by the early Church. The usual suspect is Constantine, but many Jesus Mythers have realised that to be credible, the suppression must have taken place earlier. The reason for this is the lack of any rebuttals against the Jesus Myth heresy by Christian apologists of the second and third centuries, despite their detailed refutation of literally dozens of other heresies. Also, the many Christian documents to have been found in Egyptian archaeological digs gives us a considerable amount of material uneffected by any edicts of Constantine and his successors.

I think the lack of rebuttals by the early heresiologists is, itself, fatal to the Jesus myth hypothesis. After all, this was a heresy that, according to mythers, was true and so surely was more worth refutation than the weird fantasies of the gnostics. But let me also add a few notes on how successful, or otherwise, the Church has been in suppressing documents it doesn't like.

The medieval papacy has become the very byword for successful control of ideas. The inquisitors were accorded extreme powers to hunt down and destroy subversive literature. There was nowhere to flee, nowhere outside the control of the papacy where Latin literature could realisitically be studied. Almost all literate people were clergy under direct ecclesiatical control. Furthermore, copying manuscripts required skills that hardly existed outside monestaries and universities, not to mention a great deal of money. Surely, in this case, a text specifically condemned and ordered to be burnt by the pope had no chance of survival.

Of course, you already know what I'm going to say. Oddly, condemned documents seem to have a better than usual chance of surviving. Here are two examples: Peter Abelard's Ethica and Theologica were condemned by Innocent II in 1140, worthy only to be burnt. We have an eyewitness account of the bonfire in Rome. Of course, both survive in multiple manuscript copies. Admittedly, there are few from the 12th century, but these multiply in the 13th and 14th. All the power of the medieval church could not prevent its own staff from copying these forbidden works.

The second case is Cecco D'Ascoli, burnt at the stake in 1327. At the same time two of his books, De sphera and Acerba, were thrown to the flames and utterly condemned by the Florentine inquisitor. Of course, they both survive. The rarest of his works is the one that wasn't condemned!

It seems clear that if the medieval church could not stamp out a text of which it disapproved, it is absurd to suggest that the early church was in a position to do so. It is almost as absurd to believe Constantine, in a world with a far higher literary level than the 12th century, could have managed it either. And, in both cases, they leave us no trace at all, even in rebuttals, of the works they allegedly covered up.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Conspiracy Theories

While I haven't finished my thesis, I do feel things are under control so I'll try to get back to short, twice weekly additions to this blog.

In today's Independent, the columnist Johann Hari (link to a free version of the article) wonders why we have so many conspiracy theories milling around. Of course, the Jesus Myth is a conspiracy theory as far as I'm concerned, although Hari doesn't mention that one. However, he does bring up the idea, recently dramatised by the BBC, that the Prime Minister Harold Wilson was subject to coup attempt by rightwingers. This is a classic conspiracy and no real evidence for it exists that I know of, beyond the recollections of a couple of journalists about Wilson's paranoia. But Hari seems to believe it is true. He also implies that the invasion of Iraq was a conspiracy rather than a mistake made in good faith. Thus, Hari ends up looking like the pot commenting on the kettle's poor complexion.

Of course, the main drift of his article is that conspiracy theorists are like religious people and thus mad and deluded. Rational argument is of no avail against either the religious bigot or the conspiracy aficionado. Somehow, you have to admire the way that almost any subject can be used to attack religion if you put your mind to it.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.