“Aikido Books: Try to know what you’re buying…,” by Clark Bateman

There are a couple of disturbing developments in the book world today. Despite all the upside that the burgeoning print-on-demand publishing business has brought to those who enjoy books, and to those who otherwise would not be able to write them, there comes along with it a bit of a seedy element that can cost you money if you fall prey.

The first is the “information harvester” publication, which is often no more than an electronically-produced compilation of info taken from public domain sources (most notably, Wikipedia). Wikipedia has no real rights of control over the information it distributes, so it is not illegal for the data to be reproduced, even for profit, by anyone who wishes to do so, as long as the source (Wikipedia) is credited somewhere in the publication. The resulting “book” is usually nothing more than what shows up in an automated “mining” operation performed on the pages of Wikipedia, wherein every reference mentioning the word “aikido”, for example, is pulled out and compiled in book form, usually unedited, and certainly produced by people who don’t know diddly about aikido. Not only that, but the source of any quotation is usually listed by name as an author, even if they’ve never written anything in their life! Not only that, but Wikipedia is user edited, so the information there may not even be correct. The result is often a book which you will usually pay too much for, that is a mass of disjointed, irrelevant, redundant, misquoted and basically useless information, sitting on your bookshelf gathering dust.

We have an example of such a book right here in our Bibliography (had to put it in there, because the book does exist). It is called, simply, “Aikido”, and is published offshore by Alphascript Publishing. The AJ listing is located at the following web address: (http://www.aikidojournal.com/bibliography_details?id=321). This same company also has a daito-ryu title created in the same way.

The second emerging type of book requiring “caveat emptor” is the “thesis mill”. Certain publishing companies send form letters out to graduating college students offering to publish their college papers in book form free of charge, in exchange for the rights to distribute and profit from the book. This is often done with little or no regard for the contents. The college kid often gets little in the way of compensation, beyond the ego boost of seeing his paper published with his byline, and maybe a small honorarium from the publisher on a per-copy basis. While there may indeed be some value to the contents of these books (and I’m not saying there isn’t), the buyer must remember that the material is entirely subjective, and almost certainly from someone they have never heard of before. And the cost can be considerable; the title I am going to cite from our Bibliography goes for a hefty $85US a copy, plus overseas shipping! That’s a lot of cheese for what may be a “pig-in-a-poke”. The pricing would lead one to believe that the publisher doesn’t expect to sell many copies, but they don’t really care, because their speculative costs are minuscule (no advance to the author, printed only to order, no advertising expense, fat return on any sale, etc.). The Bibliography listing that contains an example of this type of product is for “Aikido and Spirituality”, published by VDM Verlag (http://www.aikidojournal.com/bibliography_details?id=336).

Both the publishing companies listed above specialize in producing the type of product indicated here, and they are entirely within their rights to conduct their business as they see fit, but I think a better-informed consumer is the key to whether or not they are successful, and whether or not you end up feeling you have wasted your money needlessly, so watch out for more of this type of thing, and try to know what you’re buying…

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  1. Drew Gardner says:

    There is a simple trade-off: publishers that accept more authors cannot afford the same marketing and advertising expenditures per author.

    An author like myself who has signed with a publisher that allows about 20% of its received manuscripts to go to print, will not receive as much individual attention as an author who somehow manages to sign with a big dog. Going from 80% rejection to about 99.9% rejection, most of which is based less on the content of the book, and much more upon the author’s fame and other salability factors, Random House will fly its authors first class to cities all over their country for elaborate book signing events.

    Random House and the other big dogs will pay thousands to bookstores to place each of their books, especially new releases, in the most conspicuous locations which are usually toward the front of stores.

    When walking into a Barnes and Noble, a customer is in fact being psychologically toyed with from first being drawn to the word, “Noble,” and along each of his or her browsing steps.

    My novel is shelved in all four locations of the famous independent bookstore, Books & Books. Authors with fame all the way to President Clinton have done signings there, my book right near them as they spoke.

    I do not say this for ego. I say it to show that, even though my publisher does not go after doctoral dissertations, and even though it is not a fully traditional house, one of the most famous people in the Miami area, the owner of that bookstore, kindly read my gift of a copy. Because he or someone on his team enjoyed my novel, the content superseded the publishing house.

    The publisher elitism needs to rest. Let’s say a 69 year old, heterosexual, far-right man grabs a book off the shelf because the title is his age, and he validates it as a Random House novel. When he gets home, he discovers it’s an instructional book for gay lovers. He checks again to make sure it is Random House. Too tired to return it, he sets on a stack of 100 other unread books from top-notch publishers.

  2. Lynn Seiser says:

    Osu Clark-san.

    Anyone can be a publishied author now.
    Buyer and reader beware.
    Yet in the midst of that, there are sone gems.

    Rei, Domo.

  3. Margaret Greenhalgh says:

    As the author of Aikido and Spirituality I would like to correct some of the errors of perception in Mr Bateman’s sweeping generalisations about books published under the print-on-demand system. His comments suggest that books of this type are typically written by “college kids”. Far from being a “college kid”, I am 59 years old and have practised aikido intensively for 30 years. I may well be someone that the reader has “never heard of” but that does not exclude me from being able to conduct good research on an activity to which I have devoted half my life. Aikido is not only for the famous.

    My book is based on a serious substantial research project undertaken at a prestigious British university from 2000 to 2003 and is listed in the university library catalogue. In the UK, an MA by Research, which is what this project initially was before it was updated for publication, is a hefty 50,000-word rigorous research work – by no means a brief “college paper”. It was examined by two examiners external to the university. One is a leading UK professor of the study of religion and the other an eminent academic and practitioner of the martial arts. The thesis was passed as having met the appropriate standard without any requirement for rewriting or correction.

    The project took three years of meticulous research to complete and was undertaken to clarify the relationship of aikido to the spiritual thought of East Asia. A principal reason for writing it was that very little has so far been written on this subject. Indeed, the entire field of martial arts is very much under-researched because until fairly recently universities did not consider the martial arts as fit subjects for academic research. This is a great pity because good academic research can really dispel sources of confusion and stem the spread of grossly inaccurate information. I was fortunate to be working at the time in the Department of East Asian Studies in the university which gave me access to a wealth of information in university libraries worldwide about East Asian thought, not to mention the support of Japanese and Chinese colleagues who helped with linguistic issues.

    Mr Bateman alleges that the material in books of this type is “entirely subjective”. I would respond that all books are subjective in nature. Even apparently factual biographies are composed of material selected and interpreted by the author. Martial arts’ technical manuals, too, present individual interpretations of techniques. But perhaps Mr Bateman is missing the point that a requirement of an academic research project is that it should marshal facts to construct an argument. This is what I have done in a very detailed way. In fact the beauty of an academic piece of writing is that all quotations are required to be meticulously documented which means that the reader can check the veracity of the sources for him or herself. When reading an academic work, the reader is expected to exercise judgment and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the argument in the light of the evidence presented. No one is coercing them into agreement.

    Contrary to suggestions in Mr Bateman’s commentary, the publisher did not contact me at the time the dissertation was passed, but rather six years later when they came across a reference to the title. Even then, they did not offer to publish it without seeing it. The price of the book is, as indicated, relatively high but is in fact on a par with current prices for serious academic books. It really only amounts to the cost of buying two other books. As it contains no photographs and is printed in small type, a great deal of information has been packed into its pages. When approached by the publisher I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity to disseminate my findings as I could not have afforded to contribute to publishing costs which is common practice in the publishing world. I have no vested financial interest in the venture since the author’s profits, if there are any, are already pledged to a British charity. Having been a professional writer (on an entirely different subject) all my life, I am used to seeing my name in print and do not need any supposed “ego boost” from authorship. My book sets aikido in a context (that of East Asian spiritual thought) which has not yet been widely investigated. Some readers may find this disconcerting. I think rather that it can be an exciting starting-point for many other lines of fruitful enquiry. Readers, beware hastily written commentaries and assumptions about new forms of publishing.

  4. Clark Bateman says:

    Ms. Greenhalgh, please accept my apology if my commentary came across as a condemnation of your work. Yours is merely the first (to my knowledge) entry into the subject of aikido by the budding industry of “thesis-mining”. It is that medium that concerns me, not your book specifically. Any comments I would make regarding the specific contents of your book or of your background, would appear in a review of the title, which I have not offered. I have criticized what I feel is a valid concern with an industry… I have not taken to criticize you personally. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for you… I have simply encouraged readers to become more aware that the places aikido books are coming from now (not to mention the price points) may be changing from the traditional, and that “you pays your money and you takes your chances”.

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