Writing Academic Books When You’re Not an Academic

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and the author’s approval. 

Like most would-be academics, I had dreams of a library book with my name on it. A book with a colon in the title and footnotes at the back. A book lodged in some quiet corner of a university library, to be discovered generations hence by an earnest graduate student researching the influence of intelligent design on Charles Darwin, and/or the poetry of Emily Bronte (my scholarly interests were somewhat in flux.)

Alas, it was not to be. I dropped out of grad school to write poetry. I still think the reasoning was sound. Given the state of the faculty job market, I figured I could spend another seven years in a history program, fail to find a teaching position, and have to find another job. Or I could just leave academe immediately and have to find another job. Why wait?

For the most part, I haven’t regretted that decision, even if the poetry thing didn’t exactly work out (the market for clerihews was less expansive than I’d hoped.) I eventually managed to cobble together a living doing work-for-hire writing, arts criticism, and other freelance gigs. I still missed having my own academic tome somewhere out there on the road that bunches of other people had taken. Writing a whole book on some obscure obsession? It sounded lovely, even if unattainable outside an academic setting.

And then, somewhat to my surprise, I attained it. Colon in the title and everything.

In 2009, I saw a sequence from the original Wonder Woman comics (William M. Marston/Harry G. Peter) for the first time, posted on The Comics Journal’s website. The image showed our heroine in a gimp mask, musing on the history of bondage in France. I was flabbergasted. Then I was intrigued. Then I was obsessed. I scrounged around to find reprints and back issues, and eventually started blogging my way through every issue of the original monthly Wonder Woman comic. I began connecting with other Wonder Woman enthusiasts, including scholars. And when Rutgers University Press started a comics-culture series, several folks asked me to submit a proposal. I did, and they liked it, and my little blogging obsession turned into that book I’d dreamed of before I became a grad-school drop out — Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48, available online and nestled expectantly in a university library near you.

So is this a tale of how the internet has opened the doors of academe to people of all walks of life, no matter their credentials?

Well … not exactly. After writing for three years about Wonder Woman on my blog, I had a vast store of ideas and prose at hand when I started to put together my book. Even so, looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. Rutgers gave me a (very) small advance, but still, the project was really a hobby — like the blog itself. Academics are paid a salary to do research and writing. I wasn’t an academic, so payment was down to book royalties. I’ve tried not to calculate what my per-hour rate was, because that way lies weeping and hurling of author’s copies. But let’s just say Bernie Sanders would be outraged on my behalf.

As a frustrated wannabe academic, I was willing to call my Wonder Woman book a vanity project — and one that maybe helped me get some other paying gigs (like this one!). But to do it again? I did have a press approach me about writing another comics-themed book. I even signed a contract — but I can’t for the life of me see how I’ll ever manage to write it. There is no advance at all in this case, and finding the time seems impossible, what with other projects and the general freelance scrabble for income.

I have written a second academic-oriented book (with a colon) — just not through a university press. Instead, I collected some of my more academic-y essays and self-published Fecund Horror: Slashers, Rape/Revenge, Women in Prison, Zombies and Other Exploitation Dreck as an Amazon ebook, funded partly through Patreon.

Books about exploitation film and gender theory are not, as it turns out, Amazon bestsellers. Still, since I’m self-publishing, I make substantially more per sale than I do from my Wonder Woman book. I’m not sure yet whether the new book will pay for itself. But I know a university press book wouldn’t.

Academics, and academic presses are, in my experience willing, and even eager, to work with folks who lack conventional credentials. Comics has a history of fan scholarship, but the truth is: The Internet has made all kinds of connections easier for everyone, in every field. Academics read blogs, bloggers read academics, and they’re both on social media, for better or worse. The ivory tower is less tower-like than it’s ever been.

But while the university presses may be ideologically willing to open the gates to the uncredentialed rabble, economic reality swings those gates right back shut. As long as university presses rely on academic salaries to pay authors, it’s going to be extremely difficult for nonacademics to write scholarly books.

That is obviously not the most pressing budgetary issue confronting the student-debt-ridden, ever-adjunctifying university system.

Still, it’s a reminder that, when universities are insular, it’s not necessarily a function of ill will on the part of anyone in particular. Those books with their colons, nestled in their libraries, are the products of a particular closed economic system. Making space on the shelves for people with different backgrounds requires more than good intentions. It requires money — which is why my first university press book, proud as I am of it, is likely to be my last. Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and independent scholar. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48.


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