Thursday, November 12, 2020

The ISSR Book Prizes for 2020

I'm late to reporting this, but my Templeton-Cambridge colleague and leading scholar in the field of science and religion, Fraser Watts, writes that the International Society for Science and Religion announced the winners for its 2020 Book Prize in September.

Books on the interface between science and religion remain very popular. However, recent years have seen a significant change in the kind of books that are being published, according to Watts. 

"The older books usually argued that Christian belief was (or wasn’t) compatible with science," Watts said in an email. "More recently, books on science and religion have become more diverse, and taken a broader view of religion and spirituality."

Starting this year, ISSR is awarding three prizes, one for a book intended for the general public, one for a book intended for professionals engaged in communication, and one for a book intended for academics.

Agustin Fuentes. Image courtesy of Princeton University.

The book awarded the prize in the general public category this year was by Professor Agustin Fuentes, an anthropologist and primatologist at Princeton University. His award-winning book, published by Yale University Press, is Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

"There has been a huge amount of interest recently in human distinctiveness, both in just how different humans are from other species, and, if we are different, what makes us different," said Watts. "Fuentes’ answer is that it is the predisposition to believe that makes humans what they are. He is concerned here, not with what views people hold in an abstract detached kind of way, nor specifically with religious beliefs, but with the more general predisposition for humans to become passionately committed to ideas. It is this tendency that is manifest in what we call ‘religion’, though it can find other outlets too. This tendency to form passionate commitments is one of the glories of human beings, but also sometimes one of their problems." 

The prize for a book intended for professionals and communicators went to Christopher White, Professor of Religion at Vassar College in New York, Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions, published by Harvard University Press. White brings together two contemporary preoccupations that, on the face of things, seem very different: physics and fantasy fiction. On the one hand people have become fascinated by physics and cosmology. The focus on hidden invisible dimensions has liberated us from the tyranny of common sense and encouraged us to believe in the possibility of worlds very different from what we see around us. 

According to Watts, "White argues that has set writers free to create an extraordinary rich variety of enchanted worlds in fantasy fiction, from Flatland, by Eric A Abbott, in 1884, and continuing through the para-Christian fantasy writing of people such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Physical science and fantasy fiction have come together to help many people, who may not be religious in the conventional sense, to believe in an enchanted world."

Finally, the prize for a book intended to for an academic audience went to a young German academic, Dr Silke Gülker, for her book on Transcendence in Science: Studies in Stem Cell Research in Germany and the USA. 

"The book arises from fieldwork, using an anthropological methodology in which academic theologians embed themselves in scientific laboratories. They try to understand as deeply as possible what researchers are trying to do, how they go about it, and what sense they make of their research. Gülker embedded herself in two laboratories doing research on stem cells, and studied how the scientists she was working with grappled with ‘transcendence’, i.e. with how they pushed the boundary of what was perceptible and available, and reached beyond. This is a fascinating study of how research scientists are grappling with transcendence at the cutting edge of their research." 

All three books frame religion in a broader sense than adherence to established faiths, according to Watts. 

"Fuentes is concerned with the tendency for humans to form passionate commitments, of which organised religion is one manifestation. White is concerned with the enchanted world of fantasy-fiction. Gülker is concerned with the implicit grappling with issues about transcendence in research laboratories. All this reflects the time in which we live, in which sociologists are increasingly recognizing how many people are ‘spiritual but not religious’. Current books on science and religion reflect that new climate."

Monday, November 09, 2020

Discussing My Book and Medieval Inventions on 'Science Goes to the Movies'

Lisa Beth Kovetz and I on the latest segment posted now at YouTube. Lisa Beth is a great host and it was a lot of fun seeing all the different movie clips she worked into our discussion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Normalization of Self-Publishing

    An editor friend and colleague recently noted the news of yet another round of layoffs coming in the top five New York publishers.

    Where exactly is mainstream publishing headed? One super-sized publisher, devoted only to sure-fire blockbusters and the complete disappearance of the already withered 'midlist'?

    In light of this, I want to discuss the increasing appeal and popularity of self-publishing via three online friends who have carved out a path of their own.

    Gary Ponzo is the author of a series of thrillers featuring his hero Nick Bracco. When Gary and I first became Facebook friends (over a decade ago), he was just forging ahead with the first book. Already an accomplished writer of mystery short stories, he was offered a hardcover deal which--on the advice of his agent--he turned down in order to publish on his own.

    Gary spent the first ten years of his career writing shorts exclusively. After publishing seven stories and receiving two Pushcart Prize nominations, he had the confidence to write his first novel. And in 2003 he began searching for a literary agent to sell his first Nick Bracco adventure, A Touch of Deceit

    "I felt I had written a compelling story along with a great tagline: FBI agent Nick Bracco recruits his Mafia-connected cousin to track terrorists," he told me via email.

    "Within a few months I’d received plenty of interest and signed with Peter Miller, known as the Literary Lion. For 18 months I did nothing but stare at my phone. Then after two years, one of his assistants contacted me to let me know she had left his agency and told me to leave him because he was just sitting on the book. Apparently, he’d given up and decided to keep my book on the shelf like a can of beans waiting for someone to come to him with interest."

    Gary signed with a smaller literary agency, Wylie Merrick, to work with Robert Brown who sent out a few copies and got some mild interest, but no immediate offers. 

    "This was back in 2009," said Gary, "when A Touch of Deceit had just received the Southwest Writers Award for best thriller. Even with all my publishing honors, publishers were leery of signing anyone new. It was much easier to sell David Baldacci’s thirtieth novel than Gary Ponzo’s first one." 

    After six months of going back and forth, Brown received an offer with a minimal advance and a very limited hardcover run. "I was so ready to finally be published when Robert gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received," said Gary. "He told me to forget the offer and publish the book myself as an Ebook."  

    "This was 2010 and Ebooks were in [their] infancy and self-publishers were still considered scabs. Writers who dared to bypass the gatekeepers of the publishing world and sell books without their approval. Never mind that I ended up paying a thousand bucks to have my book professionally edited and paid five hundred bucks to have a professional cover made and another five hundred bucks to have it formatted for Ebook consumption. The nerve."

    "Finding Robert was such a blessing. I would’ve never had the courage to do it without his encouragement. And he was right. At some point in 2011, A Touch of Deceit had reached the top ten of all books sold on Amazon. That’s right, only seven other books in the world were selling more than mine. Crazy huh? I would sell 1000 books in a day. Amazon Crossing decided to translate A Touch of Deceit into German and French. USA Network wanted to make a series out of it. Podium Publishing purchased the audio book rights. All this because Robert Brown insisted I go this alone."

    As eBooks have gone global and Kindles and other devices have gone worldwide, the market has gotten more crowded. But Gary said he wouldn't change a thing.

    "I have no regrets," he said. "Even though the Big Five Publishers finally figured out that Ebooks were the future and decided to squeeze out independent writers from the front of Amazon’s landing page, it was the right call. Fast forward to 2020. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of new Ebooks uploaded each day to Amazon. It’s much harder to find an audience for your work. Readers are bombarded with options. Even someone with my stellar history has to grind out a living. But it was all worth it.

    "Now, while working on Nick Bracco thriller #8, I’m so grateful to receive emails from my readers telling me how much they enjoy my work. I received one recently from a woman who was going through chemotherapy and told me that reading my books had helped her through the treatments. So glad."  

    As far as he's concerned, it’s hard not to look at publishing as a business. "But honestly, I would be writing these stories no matter the financial prosperity. My characters are all mine and my readers are so loyal, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend time creating nail-biting scenarios for my readers to enjoy. And really, that’s all I ever wanted. An audience."

    Brendan and Cat Hodge have been blogging since 2005.  Both write fiction. Brendan has been working over the past few years on a long novel about World War I. Cat has written at least two other novels. 

    Last year Ignatius Press offered Brendan a contract to publish an earlier novel of his, If You Can Get It, which came out this past summer. What's interesting is that Ignatius is primarily devoted to Catholic apologetics and inspirational  books. What few novels they have published seem to revolve around the lives of the saints (and look suitably mawkish). So a novel about a young technology professional dealing with multiple career changes while her younger sister moves in to sort out her own issues is definitely offbeat for them. There is a Catholic element to the story, of course, but it's primarily a family story.

    What got me curious was why--after selling a novel to a traditional publisher, Brendan, like Gary, was ready to go forward on his own.  

    "It's been a fascinating experience helping to market the novel," Brendan recently wrote on his blog, not long after the book came out, "but one of the things that I discovered as I dug into resources for authors promoting their novels is that many of them are written by and for self-published authors....Of course, the trick is that self-published authors can do things which traditionally published authors can't. For example, they can adjust the price and run promotions. They can insert a live "subscribe to my newsletter" link into the ebook's backmatter, etc.

"Needless to say, there are things which a publisher does for you which represent a clear advantage versus self-publishing. They pay you an advance on royalties, cover the expenses of cover design, copy-editing, typesetting, etc., and do a certain amount of marketing themselves. But having just gone through the experience of launching a book while not being a publisher, I'll admit I was curious to try it as a publisher.

"One night, as I was looking at Amazon Sales Rank data and talking about things it would be interesting to be able to do, it clicked with us: We have multiple quality manuscripts sitting around, waiting to be revised and to find their way to readers; we have enough money to professionally package a novel and market it; and we now have spent a good deal of time researching novel marketing. We could do this." 

   The main thing that pushed he and Cat to want to try it, he added when we discussed it via direct message, "is that when it comes to promoting your newly released novel, there's a lot you can't do if you're with a traditional publisher. You can't advertise on Amazon. (Ignatius could, but that's not in their plans for mine.) You can't do a short term markdown and get it on BookBub, etc. And you can't control the price, etc. 

    "So watching the things that Ignatius was doing, and noting the things that I couldn't do as an author coming out with them, I felt like we could take a pretty decent shot at pushing a novel much harder if we brought it out ourselves."

    The first release under their Oak & Linden Press  is Cat's holiday novella, Unstable Felicty, which she will also bring out as an audiobook.

    As for myself, I've let my own venture in self-publishing, Doctor Janeway's Plague, slowly retire from visibility. I pulled the Kindle version a while back, but you can still find a handful of copies of the initial Copyright 2000 paperback (for only a $100 and up!) via  I'm more interested now in creating a complete Audio book version with a professional narrator and letting it carry on as audiobook only....


Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Mark Shea's Timely Book.

Four years ago Catholic apologist Mark P. Shea got fired from the National Catholic Register (along with fellow journalist and blogger Simcha Fisher) for repeatedly telling Catholics who supported Trump that 'this emperor has no clothes' (and also wondering what the hell is wrong with people).

Over the past four years of Trump, he's certainly had plenty of reasons to broadcast Schadenfreude--but instead he diligently went to work on a much needed book explaining the long tradition of Catholic social teaching which too many U.S. Catholics on the Right either don't want to acknowledge or truly do not understand.

Presenting The Church's Best Kept Secret.

Shea's book launches with an overview of the Church's fundamental teaching about the dignity of human beings, the fundamental ground from which pretty much all of the Church's social teaching follows, for example: support for the rights of workers', support for social programs that protect families and children and the destitute, the sacredness of life from the womb to the grave, a longstanding critical attitude toward unregulated capitalism, and especially the Church's critique of the hyper individualism and libertarianism that has infected conservative American Catholicism--from EWTN to the heavily funded Napa Institute to Opus Dei's 'Catholic Information Center' in Washington DC, and on and on. It's extraordinary how many of the folks at these institutions turn apoplectic on social media whenever Pope Francis makes the slightest criticism of capitalism and consumerism.

I want to focus on one section from Shea's book in particular, from Chapter 7, 'On Solidarity'--which beautifully outlines the Church's insistence on support for the state--precisely where Catholic fans of National Review, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, and Fox News are most in need of reminding. 

Or, as Shea describes it: What We Owe Each Other.

Some think that we can live in a stateless society of pure individualism.  But this simply is not so.  By our very nature, we are born into a world where it is our glad burden to owe debts to God and to our fellow human beings that we can never repay.  We owe God an unpayable debt for literally everything.  But we also owe our family, our country, our civilization, and the entire human race for a colossal bounty of gifts.  They gave us food, clothing, shelter, education, language, Shakespeare, fishing, physics, a million recipes, Star Wars, the Beatles, Homer, the Bible, bubble gum, pencils, penicillin, aspirin, automobiles, indoor plumbing and a billion other things we could never have thought of, much less created on our own.  We depend on others—and on the organizing power of the state—for a host of things. Therefore, we owe those people—and the state—a debt not of charity but of justice, to help advance the work we do in common for the good of all. That is why Scripture describes taxes, not as “theft” but as something we do, in fact, owe(see Romans 13:7). Why?

Because our freeway system was not built and is not maintained by small bands of local citizens patching potholes on Saturday afternoon. The state does that.

Because an educated population of millions did not just happen.  They went through school systems that were largely the creation of the state.

Because when a despot like Hitler declared war, he was not met by some volunteers who grabbed their pistols and headed across the Atlantic in a dinghy to land at Normandy. The state made it possible to defeat Nazi Germany.

Because when Ebola was raging, the cure was not found by one plucky guy with his chemistry set, but by a vast coordinated effort of states and private actors.

Of course, being human creations, no state system is flawless. Nevertheless, St. Paul understood the state to be so vital in forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—that is, to maintaining the Common Good—that he told the Church that state authorities“are ministers of God” (Romans 13:6). 

If you're a Catholic who's been suckered by the Republican Party into believing you have to vote for Trump because the GOP is 'pro life' or because the Democrats will turn the entire country socialist, order a copy of The Church's Best Kept Secret


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Print Sales Are Up This Month

Publisher's Weekly reports that print sales are up in June.

With all categories except adult nonfiction posting increases, unit sales of print books rose 5.6% in the week ended June 13, 2020, over the comparable week last year, at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. The YA categories had solid gains, with nonfiction sales jumping 34.1% over the week ended June 15, 2019, and fiction sales up 21.4%. The latter category benefited from the continued strong sales of The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds by Suzanne Collins, which was the top book in the week overall, selling almost 70,000 copies. In YA nonfiction, This Book Is Anti-racist by Tiff any Jewell sold nearly 6,000 copies, making it #1 on the category list. Unit sales rose 19.2% in the juvenile nonfiction category over 2019. A new release, Discovery: Animals All Around by Courtney Acampora, sold about 6,000 copies, putting it close to the top on the category list. Summer Bridge Activities workbooks published by Carson Dellaso took the #4–#11 bestseller spots on the list, selling about 81,000 copies total. Sales of adult fiction rose 6.3% in the week, with good performances by new releases from James Patterson and Danielle Steel; The Summer House (by Patterson, with Brendan DuBois) sold nearly 26,000 copies, and Steel’s Daddy’s Girlsold more than 22,000 copies. Sales slipped 2.3% in adult nonfiction despite strong sales of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which sold more than 57,000 copies, and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, which sold more than 54,000 copies. A new release, Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace, sold about 45,000 copies in its debut week.

I just finished Oluo's book and it was superb. I don't know about elsewhere, but in the Boston area at least one bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, is cautiously re-opening.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Clock and the Camshaft is Available

The delays due to Covid were not as grim as I feared. My book is now officially in stock. The official listing, and you can order direct from Rowman and Littlefield. And Bookshop.

Fresh from the warehouse!
If you buy the print edition from Bookshop, the proceeds go to help independent booksellers. Ebook eition is also available at Amazon.