What is a Book Worth?

On Friday April 13th, 2012, Nick and I had lunch with caller Tony Parkes at The Other Side, a small hippie restaurant in Boston. We talked about many topics, one of them being the book review that Parkes had published about my book, “Folk Dancing,” in the Spring 2012 CDSS News. I felt that the review was accurate, well-rounded, and objective. My favorite paragraph of the review is as follows:

The book has been a labor of love for Nielsen: she immersed herself in the folk dance world for three years, doing research in libraries and at dance events nationwide. She conducted hundreds of interviews and consulted many books, including some of the latest and best. As a result, her work strikes a nice balance between “book larnin’” and first-hand acquaintance. Unlike some previous authors who based their suppositions on the views of a few opinionated leaders, Nielsen has talked to enough people to develop a well-rounded picture of the recreational dance world.

In the review, Parkes points out that the book has some typos, repeated or missed words, and few factual errors (i.e. western Massachusetts should have been eastern Massachusetts). At our luncheon, Parkes also stated that the content provided a very good, accurate overview, and that the editing issues were the main reason he would recommend that people not quote directly from the book. The fact that he would recommend the book to a layperson to learn about the history of folk dancing in our country meant a lot to me. After all, that was the objective of the book. Furthermore, I appreciated that Parkes viewed the book within the context of my research methodologies and didn’t get caught up in whether he agreed or disagreed personally with what I learned and wrote about. Another dance newsletter editor actually refused to review my book because a couple of his own experiences differed from what other people told me and I wrote about. All I can ask is that readers try to understand my book in terms of the context in which it was written, which is what people should do for all books anyway.

On book tour, one of the most annoying things that Nick and I have dealt with are people who flip through my book until they find a typo that they can point out to us. It’s not that I dislike feedback. In fact, I enjoy and appreciate when people make suggestions for ways to enhance the content, to refine my phrasing. But to all the typo-finders out there (and I am one too), please try to understand how difficult it is to put together a book and think twice before you approach an author with, “I found a typo!” I too have found lots of typos in dance books, but I don’t mention them to the author because I think it’s more important to focus on the broader message of the work. For instance, I found “cancer” instead of “dancer” in a major government-sponsored, award-winning initiative by a major choreographer; tons of typos in a recent dance/music book by a well-respected caller; and even word-for-word plagiarism by another highly revered caller in the multi-edition textbook “Dance A While.” Need a clue? Start with Lilly Groves’ 1895 “Dancing,” the section on Scottish dancing. Although Groves wrote her passage more than a hundred years ago, she should be given credit where credit is due. It just goes to show that even people who are nationally renowned in dance communities for decades can make mistakes in their writing.

I believe it’s important to be transparent; that’s why I tried to be very clear about my fieldwork methods in my book and blog. To the editing issues of my book, I will respond as follows: To write and organize my book was extremely difficult, one of the most challenging things I have done in my life. When the publishers returned my manuscript with the final edits (five months after my original manuscript submission), I reread the entire book and was not happy with the organization. I felt it had the potential to be better. The book underwent major re-organization just prior to publication, which probably accounts for some of the errors. Other errors were my own oversights, glossing over things I had read hundreds of times. It’s unfortunate. But when people approach me to point out a typo or problem (i.e. I didn’t mention their favorite dance teacher), I’ve found the following statements useful: “Yes, that typo is a mistake; I hope it didn’t ruin the whole book for you” (to which they usually laugh) and, “Remember, the book is an overview. It can’t cover everyone and everything, but it tries to capture them in trends.” Tony Parkes understood these things, and that’s why I think he wrote the best possible review for my book.

Another issue that we’ve dealt with on the road: Some people think $35 is a lofty price for a book (by the way, the earlier mentioned books with typos/plagiarism are $40, $45, and $63). I think that some people have the impression that I’m making a huge profit from this book, that I’m self-published and set the price (even though ABC-CLIO and Greenwood Press are clearly printed on the back cover and inside), and that the price is negotiable. First of all, I’ve talked to a lot of authors, and no one write a dance book to make a fortune. It doesn’t happen. I probably won’t break even with the fieldwork and book tour costs, but that’s okay. I wrote the book because I was and am passionate about the subject. Second, the publisher, not me, sets the price of the book.

So what is a book worth? To me, “Folk Dancing” was worth three years of my life and $15,000 of my money. It was worth 80-hour work weeks to save money for dance camps and eating Ramen noodles everyday for a summer. It was worth thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles. It was worth the stress of how to best represent a wide array of dance communities and knit them together in a single work, knowing that I forever would be tied to these communities and held accountable for what was published. It’s even worth all the ups and downs of book tour.

I’m not sure how many people read my blog posts, but maybe some people will find my perspective as an author interesting. Maybe they’ll try to determine a book’s worth not solely by its cover price but by its virtues, based on book reviews by credible proofreaders and background information provided by the author. And maybe, if I’m lucky, some people will think more critically about how they want to spend their time with authors. There are more interesting topics to discuss than typos and pricing. Gaining a contextual understanding of who the author is and how the book developed is the best way to determine the book’s worth, and then a potential buyer can make a decision on whether the cover price makes sense to him or her.

Based on my book tour experience, one of the best questions people can ask an author is, “What made you decide to write a book about…?” I am always happy to discuss my process, and I always respond better to curious, open-ended questions than nitty-gritty remarks about errors or things I missed. Fortunately, the majority of people we’ve met on book tour ask curious, open-ended questions and understand the art of respectful, polite conversation. Most people ask questions and do not make a judgment on my book based on a word, sentence, paragraph, the book’s price, or even my gender or age. Still, it would be nice if more people were as open-minded.


May 6, 2012. About the Book.

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