January 31, 2008
But Should We Publish It?
In my previous post I offered a description of Luxenberg’s method of studying the Qur’an and his provocative thesis. Suppose I am offered a book proposal that propounds a new thesis such as Luxenberg’s, and I work for an academic press that publishes broadly in religious studies. And just to clear the decks of distraction, let’s say there is no real threat from Islamic radicals if we do publish the book.
I posit too that as a press we do not have the in-house expertise to really evaluate the viability of the thesis, and even if we did, we would want other opinions. So what would we do? Well, we would send the book out to a couple of out-of-house experts for their review and opinion. What do you think of this manuscript? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Should we publish or not?
The reviews come in and we get a Phenix & Horn opinion, on the one hand, that is positively inclined (though not uncritically so), and on the other a de Blois opinion, which is quite negative (basically, the hypothesis is riddled with problems and the author’s qualifications are unknown and questionable on the surface). What do we do? We might seek a third opinion to see if we can break the tie. But that third opinion might be ambivalent. We will probably critically weigh the quality of the reviews and the possible biases behind them.
As an editor, I would want to know more about the author--his/her qualifications to write this book, including the author’s training in the relevant languages and critical methods. I would need to have confidence that I was not dealing with a dilettante, and I would be looking for assurance that the author was not someone who is known for trading in speculative theories (publishers receive such proposals regularly!).
In the end we might decide in favor of publishing the book because we believe it will contribute something to the conversation about the origin of the Qur’an, even if this particular approach is eventually shown to be seriously flawed. We might reason that this is a book that offers something genuinely new, and even if it doesn’t score a goal, it at least has the potential of moving the ball down field. It is research that can be corrected and built upon. We will recognize that we risk the embarrassment of having published on the wrong side of an issue. On the other hand, this might be a great opportunity to advance the cause of knowledge.
But in the end, the decision whether or not to publish might very well come down to a well informed but subjective judgment—a gamble. If we go with it, as the “sponsoring” editor, in my private thoughts, I might waver between confidence and trepidation in the months to come. The book might prey on my mind in the wee hours of the morning. But you won’t know that, because I’m not going to tell you. Once we’re committed to publishing it, I’ll write the back-cover copy as if it were the hottest thing since the discovery of Enuma Elish.
And then we’ll sit and wait for the kudos—or possibly incoming mortar fire, otherwise known as critical reviews. In terms of sales, the critical reviews might not hurt sales at all. They might in fact be great publicity. But if the reviews are running in a consistently negative vein, this editor, at least, will be wondering if he made the right call. That’s just the way it is.