Consider buying a book– new, and now

Posted on March 22, 2012


The Society for American Archaeology annual meeting is coming next month. Like thousands of others, I will make the pilgrimage (to Memphis this year) and present a paper (in a session on history of collecting) and discuss a session (on household archaeology, one where Liz Brumfiel was supposed to be the other discussant).

I will spend some time in committee meetings, and I will talk to a lot of former students, close colleagues, and friends.

What I probably won’t do is buy books.

That used to be one of my major goals at any meeting. I would pick up the 20% off lists, go home, and send in orders, and then have weeks of new books to review. I would walk through the exhibit hall looking at a selection of targeted presses.

I don’t do that routinely anymore.

Partly, it’s because I tend to have a lot of scheduled time now; partly it’s because of online book ordering which means I get books differently now. But I alsojust  don’t buy as many books. I have very little space to add them, for one thing: even though I had bookshelves installed in my office on campus in library style to vastly increase the capacity, I am actually at a point of considering getting rid of professional books, because there is no more room. And don’t let’s think about my office at home: I am pretty sure books were never intended as flooring, or furniture.

What inspired my thinking about this was a note about Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (the book) from the press that published it, Thames and Hudson.

I will cruise by the Thames and Hudson booth at SAA, I guess, but the last time I did that I didn’t actually see the book noticeably visible.

Published with the hope that it would be useful in teaching, the book has not met the expectations of the press in terms of sales.

I am not sure where those expectations came from, or even how high they were. I have been thinking that maybe I was right when I originally turned down an invitation to write a book on archaeology of gender– I said we didn’t need another one, so at least I can claim a level of prescience. I got caught up in the challenge of writing a book on the archaeology of gender that wouldn’t just be for archaeologists– but then, where’s the interest going to come from?

I don’t want to give the impression that the book has no audience: just take a look at some of the reviews, this one. Or try this.

On Amazon, the book got characterized as

really amazing work, going outside its field of archaeology and showing why this field is important for research and society at large. Agree or disagree, the author lifts the whole sex/gender argument to a new level.

And how about this, also from Amazon:

Archaeology is not my field, but from the first page on, that did not seem to matter. Rosemary Joyce writes with both scholarly depth and engaging accessibility; I could hardly put the book down.

So the book seems to me to be doing quite well in reception, both with professional reviewers and general readers, inside archaeology and outside.

While there is a circle of people who think things like sex and gender in the past are important, maybe there are just too few of us to sustain publishing books like this.

Certainly, that is what Thames and Hudson presumably thinks it found out by publishing this book: and that is unfortunate, because the next person who wants to publish a book on a difficult aspect of life in the past will find less welcome there.

Due, among other things, to this blog, I know there is interest in the archaeology of sex and gender (and in my writing about the topic). The blog routinely gets more hits in a day than some of my books got sales in a year. But then, the blog is connected via links to lots of other things; with the book you get my voice and end notes.

The book, though, has one big advantage: artwork. I don’t follow the loose practice of many bloggers in borrowing images to post here– not comfortable with the rights terrain involved– and Thames and Hudson provided a relatively generous provision of images.

So maybe there is a lot of interest in the topic, and the lower than expected sales of my book can actually be attributed to a shift in book buying tendencies.

If so, I have to ask: how are longer more complex arguments going to be sustained in the future? Where is the support going to come from for creating book-length websites that are densely linked internally, amply provided with artwork, fully cited, and clearly authored by a reliable and identifiable source?

I have some experience with this. With hypertext fiction pioneers Michael Joyce and Carolyn Guyer, I wrote Sister Stories, published online by NYU Press (no longer available there, apparently, alas– books, it seems, go “out of print” even when not printed– but thanks to the Wayback machine you can see it here). An experimental work that I write about in The Languages of Archaeology, this collaboration was a hypertext rooted in Mexica (Aztec) texts, and it literally contained as much text as a standard monograph. While it was posted, it received a lot of visitors. Of course, it wasn’t for sale– and that is the rub.

Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives missing sales expectations does no damage to me. It probably means Thames and Hudson won’t take a risk on another book by me, but that hardly matters. It may, however, be part of a pattern of events leading to a disinclination on the part of presses to take risks with new ideas and more edgy topics.

And that would be a tragedy. In the ecology of academic research, journal articles are where you go to find work that has been so well demonstrated that it basically is accepted throughout most of the research world by the time it is published– anonymous peer review by up to six reviewers takes care of riskier, less established, and dare I say, more creative ideas.

Book publication is where you find credible, vetted, but more original work. What happens if book publishers decide not to take risks anymore?

Which is where we all come in. Buying books needs to be part of our habit until someone actually works out the next platform. It isn’t a blog, either. I love my blogs– but they are not going to be the place for me to develop longer more complicated arguments.

So consider buying a book. It doesn’t have to be this one. Just do it soon– and buy a new copy; presses don’t count resales.

If the book you want isn’t on kindle, and you want to read it on your iPad, bug the publisher.

I will be doing the same. And then let’s all get together somewhere like this and talk about the books we have found and should all be reading.

Posted in: gender, teaching