why there are
TOO MANY BOOKS
Ruse is a philosopher of biology at Florida State University
and is well known for his work on the creationism/evolution
controversy and the demarcation problem in science. He is the
author of many articles and books including Darwin and its
Take my temperature. I must be sick. I am in danger of agreeing
with Naomi Schaefer Riley!
you can peer through the thick fog of animus towards university
professors and what they do, she has an important point about
academics and books. There are too many books being published,
or at least there are too many of the wrong kind.
speaking now of my own field of philosophy, there really are
way too many technical monographs, read by vanishingly few.
We philosophers think that to be profound we must be prolix
and complicated – think Immanuel Kant – and we rather
revel in it. It is not so much that our topics are inherently
boring, but that we fear that unless what we write is boring,
no one will think us deep and thoughtful.
is a possibly apocryphal story (but one of those stories that,
even if it isn’t true, ought to be true) about the important,
American, 20th-century philosopher Wilfred Sellars. Talking
to him, he was fun and interesting and comprehensible. But then
he would put pen to paper. He would start with a first draft
that anyone could understand, and (this completed) set to again.
At length he would be faced with a manuscript comprehensible
only to God. Happily, he would set out for one final set of
speaking now as one who has edited books for Cambridge University
Press for 20 years, the market is starting to rectify this situation.
(Is this the Invisible Hand at work? Tell the New Atheists.
Ruse has a new proof for the existence of God). When I started
editing a series in the philosophy of biology around 1990, we
could expect to sell around 2,000 copies. Not God Delusion
numbers, but respectable in academic circles.
the next 15 years, this drifted down and down to about 500 copies.
I am told that it was nothing personal, but a general trend
of philosophy books. So now we have revanched, and launched
a new series aimed more at students and the general reader.
The initial books strike me as just as deep and thoughtful as
the older books (in some cases written by the same authors)
but much more interesting and fun to read. I am going to be
seriously cheesed off if we don’t sell 3,000 copies a
the place where I really agree with my fellow Brainstormer is
over books by young academics. It is not a disease that affects
people in the sciences. No serious, untenured faculty member
in physics is going to write a book. Get on with the articles
and show your mettle. I am glad to say that this is also the
way in philosophy. I don’t think I am alone in distrusting
books by young philosophers. It is almost invariably a warmed-over
dissertation and as such not a real book. Much better to cut
your teeth on articles. Apart from anything else, it is here
that you start to get the real feedback on your work. Up to
now, everyone from your mom to your supervisor has been telling
you how great you are and then some nasty, little, unwashed,
anonymous referee rips you up. If you have any good sense, you
will get drunk, swear at the referee – obviously just
out of grad school, doesn’t know the literature, jealous
at what you have written – and then settle down and take
the criticisms seriously.
as one who has also founded and edited a journal for 15 years,
I am being very unfair to referees. My experience was that senior
scholars particularly would spend hours on the work of the most
junior authors. I, for one, think blind refereeing is stupid.
I want to know the background against which a piece is being
written and I found that people worked really hard to see merit
in unknown people. Remember, an editor or referee gets much
more credit for finding the new Immanuel Kant than for publishing
the established Immanuel Kant’s latest piece on the Categorical
in many areas of the humanities – English and history
are the big sinners – the demand is for a book for tenure.
And so we get volume after volume that would have made one or
two good articles, and put the rest of the material on the Net
if it is worth knowing about. Readers get cheated because they
are not getting value for money and authors get cheated because
they are not getting the right feedback (and the discipline
of writing clearly and concisely) at the very time they need
suspicion is that the Invisible Hand is moving in here too.
Presses, particularly academic presses, are under huge monetary
constraints and less and less will be able to publish a monograph
that sells 300 copies. Universities won’t buy them. And
a young author can only afford so many copies to give to relatives.
So the opportunities to publish these unneeded books will fade
and humanities departments will simply have to make other demands
says the market is always a bad thing? Not me or Ms. Riley,
I am sure!
I am being atypically modest. With a topic like this, even despite
the somewhat chilly and mystifying cover, if I don’t sell
10,000 copies I am going to be very cross. Keeping things in
perspective, when I last heard, The God Delusion had
sold over three million copies.