An Interview with Caitlin McDonald, Author of Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World
Published Jul 02, 2012 by Peter Armstrong
Dr. Caitlin McDonald is the author of the Leanpub book Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World. Caitlin holds a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter in England. Her findings about the international belly dance community have presented at several international and interdisciplinary conferences. She’s also an avid writer of non-fiction, and a Skirt!setter for US-based Skirt! Magazine’s website. She blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com.
This interview was recorded on June 26, 2012.
Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Dr. Caitlin McDonald. Caitlin holds a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter in England. Her findings about the international belly dance community have presented at several international and interdisciplinary conferences. She’s also an avid writer of non-fiction, and a Skirt!setter for US-based Skirt! Magazine’s website. She blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com. Caitlin is also the author of the Leanpub book Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World.
We’re going to talk today about Caitlin’s book, her experiences as a writer, and her experience with Leanpub. We’re also going to talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for her.
So Caitlin, thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!
Caitlin McDonald: Well it’s my pleasure, thank you for having me!
A: First off, reading your blog, I discovered you’re not only a PhD, but also a belly dancer and a practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu.
A: So, what’s it like to do both Jiu-Jitsu and belly dance, and what led you to choose to take them up?
M: Well, I would say that the Jiu-Jitsu was a bit of a reaction to the belly dance, because when I was in the middle of my PhD, all I would do all day was write about belly dance, or read other people’s writing about belly dance, and my whole life was belly dance, and it was a bit like being in, working in the ice cream store, you want something that was a little bit different but that was still physically active and social, and that you needed to learn, and so Jiu-Jitsu was my thing that I did. And that was great, and the reason that I took up belly dance was basically it looked like a lot of fun, and I started doing it when I was 17, and it just continued from there.
A: So your belly dance predates your academic research, and then the Jiu-Jitsu happened during your PhD…. So let’s talk about your book Global Moves. How did it come about, and what’s it’s relationship to your PhD? It’s not exactly your PhD thesis, but is it excerpted from it, or how does the relationship between them?
M: It’s modified. Certainly all the research is based on my PhD, and it’s modified to make it more readable to a more general audience, certainly a very smart audiences, and I’m hoping that lots of people will find it very interesting. And updated as well: there were some, I got to speak again to several of the people that I’d researched, and update some of their stories, and talk about what they were doing in the intervening time, because it took quite a long time, because of course when I started my research that was way back in 2006, 2007… By the time I got to the point where I was finished my thesis it was already three years down the line, and then it took quite a long time to adapt the book. So it was nice to go back to that and have a chance to look at what was going on. And, of course, around the time that I was adapting the book, the Arab Spring was just starting, so there are some very small refernces to that, but it’s something that I think would be a great point to continue research to see where things are going in Egypt politically, now and in the future.
A: Yeah, I have a whole bunch of questions about that… What is your take on how the Arab Spring will impact belly dance is? Is it seen as something that’s traditionl… Is it considered a positive cultural thing for Egypt, or is it considered to be something to be reacted against?
M: It’s a really complicated cultural issue because dance is, and music, they are a very very big part of Egyptian life, in a way that dance and music are not really parts of… I mean, dance and music are really big parts of lots of people’s lives, but it’s not quite the same, there isn’t that kind of passion, there’s an embarrassment, I would say, about dance in Western culture that is not there in Arab culture, as long as it’s being done appropriately. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because if you are dancing as a woman, at home, in your house, in an appropriate space, away from men, in a tradtional setting, that’s absolutely fine, as long as you’re not out in public, doing it for money, in front of people. And of course that a lot of professional belly dancers do this, and so that’s perceived as negative and not something that should be culturally appropriate. However, belly dance shows are extremely popular, even among people who are traditional, and dance is a very big part of ceremonial life as well. During a wedding, dance is a big part of what’s going on, as a celebration of joy, but also as an expression of fertility, and there are lots of cultural connotations for dance in Egypt, and throughout the Arab world. And it’s, interestingly, because it’s so contested, because there is a sense that dance is both this wonderful positive thing, but also this slightly dangerous thing, it can also be used as a site of resistance to cultural norms, certainly in a place like Iran, where dancing is recently, they’ve kind of overturned this, but for a long time it was considered to be illegal to dance publcly in Iran. As a result of that, you can then use dance as a site of resistance, because the second that you do dance, then you are resisting the political situation, and so you’ve, by making it illegal, it then becomes a ground to become a political statement.
Returning to Egypt, certainly music and the songs that were such a big part of the protesting, and then as the announcement of the elections were announced yesterday, dancing in the streets, that was literally happening, there was dancing in the streets as people were celebrating the election of Morsi, the new Islamic president, the Muslim Brotherhood president. And it’s a complex issue, because certainly a lot of professional dancers are speculating about what will happen to the entertainment industry, whether it will be negatively impacted by the election of a president who is from the Muslim Brotherhood party. But there’s equally speculation that the tourism industry is so dependent on people, a lot of people do go to Egypt specifically with the purpose of watching dance, and so it would be very, um, it wouldn’t be a very wise move. And the other thing is that throughout history, there have been several times where dance was banned, or partially banned, or there have been these attempts to restrict dance in a professional setting, going all the way back to I believe it’s 1854 I believe was the first known ban, where all the dancers were sent out of Cairo and away up the river, because they were these creatures of, you know, iniquity and sin, and just causing all kinds of problems. But a few years later they relented and the ban was taken away, because, partly because I think it’s such a culturally important part of peoples’ lives, and also because economically it’s not very wise to ban something that generates a lot of tax revenue. And generates a lot of revenue generally, and so I think it’s a fine line to walk, and it will be interesting to see whether dance becomes part of the national dialogue, in this new Egypt that’s being built, whether dance becomes a big symbol or not, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.
A: Right, that’s like when you were discussing how your friend, when you did the research, your friend had been working, she was from Scotland was it?
A: And she was a foreign dancer, and then there was a brief time where foreign dancers were banned, and then they removed the ban, sort of a similar type of idea…?
M: Yes, similar. I don’t believe that dancers, what had happened was that there were restrictions put in place on what foreign workers were allowed to do. There was a brief period where foreign dancers were no longer allowed to, this is another example of that kind of restriction, where foreigners were not allowed to take part in certain professions, and one of these was dancing. But, there were several ways around this. One was that you could rejig your act to become more of what’s called a ‘folkloric act’. So instead of doing specifically what’s known as belly dancing, or in Egypt it’s called ‘Raqs sharqi’ which means ‘Eastern dance’, and instead of doing that, you could do something that was a more folksy kind of folk dance. But equally there was a lot of pressure, both from foreign dancers and from Egyptian dancers, to remove this ban, partly because frankly a lot of the dancers working in the tourist trade in Egypt now are not local dancers, because as Egypt has grown more conservative, it’s become such a negatively-perceived profession that a lot of young Muslim women don’t want to go into that profession. They may enjoy dance, they may enjoy watching dance, it might be part of their private lives, but a lot of them don’t want to become dancers, and to kind of fill this gap, economically, foreign workers are used, in the same way that foreign workers are used in many professions around the world. So they weren’t able to keep the ban going very long, it was only a couple of years, and then it was overturned very quickly. But restrictions are still in place. There’s restricted movement because you have to give your passport in to the people that are managing you, and things of that nature. So there’s still quite a lot of restrictions on foreign dancers, compared to local dancers.
A: So are most of the foreign dancers Western, or from Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, or all over?
M: There are a variety. I would say people from Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece, Egyptians wouldn’t look at them as being quite as foreign, I suppose…
M: …maybe Turkey. But I spoke to a few dancers that are from the UK, there were certainly dancers that are from France, but the big one is Eastern European dancers, there are quite a lot of those working in Egypt, and they’re not perceived very highly. They may be very technically skilled, but they’re often seen as undercutting the market, which I think is rather unfortunate, but I also understand that in any situation where there’s a lot of pressure, and there’s a very, in a market where everyone wants to be successful, it’s very easy to try to differentiate yourself in a way… to need a scapegoat to blame the negativity of the profession and the negative connotations of the profession on someone else. And in this case that’s become the dancers from Eastern Europe.
A: Interesting… So, your book is called Global Moves, and it’s really interesting in terms of thinking about globalisation in general, about how belly dance for Egypt is an import and an export. In Egypt, is it considered, when you look at Wikipedia you’ll see it’s kind of one of those muddled things where, you know, belly dance, people aren’t sure is it originally Egyptian, or from Turkey, or farther east, or Greece — it’s harder to pin down belly dance, compared to say, some religions, which say, well, it was founded on this day, or at this spot. Do people in Egypt see belly dance as, this is our Egyptian dance, or is this something that they see as more muddled as well?
M: I think that’s a really interesting question. I think the question of origins is always incredibly interesting because there is absolutely no way to know. There’s very little evidence before a certain period, that’s written down, about this particular style of dance, and as a result of that the idea of what the origins of this dance might be has become a really strong area where people project their imaginations to give them a sense of what they want to be. It’s become a place where people can then enact their fantasies about what they would like dance to be. And that’s resulted in a lot of interesting things. In terms of a sense of national identity for Egyptians, speaking in the modern period, definitely yes, people are very proud of dance. Certainly Egyptian dancers are. There’s a sense, it was interesting because in the most recent ban where foreign dancers were excluded from the profession for a time, the argument was that it should be kept as a part of Egyptian territory. There’s kind of a contradictory argument going on. One side of it was, Egyptian dance, this kind of dance is Egyptian, only Egyptians can do it, it belongs to Egyptians because it iss something that is in our blood, essentially. But then conversely, the other argument was, basically it’s not really a profession, it’s so easy that anyone can do it. And it’s like, well, you can’t have it both ways. It’s either that you’re born with it, or everyone can learn and therefore it’s not valuable, and that’s why you shouldn’t be doing it. And so there was this kind of converse. But certainly one of the strains is that people are very tied to dance because it’s an expression of self, it’s an expression of connection with the land, with the nation, and certainly many kinds of folkloric dance in Egypt are very evocative of rural Egypt, and living in Cairo, a lot of people will have families, or they will have been from a place that’s further, not near a city, and dance is something that connects them. In the same way that something like country music is actually an expression of longing for the country, rather than actually being usually about the country, it’s more, it’s a music that people listen to in the city when they’re away from their country background. Dance is like that for people in Egypt as well.
A: OK… Also, when you think about, in terms of authenticity, in terms of you think about costumes, like for example reading about the ‘bedlah’, about the idea that it was imported into Egypt supposedly by a cabaret owner in Cairo to meet Western toursists’ expectations about what belly dancers should look like. Is that… right?
M: Do you mean the two-piece costume?
A: Yeah, the two-piece btereotypical belly dance costume be something that was sort of a Hollywood origin?
A: I forget if it was Hollywood, or Europe in the 1800s, and then imported into Egypt. Is that sort of a standard costume? Your cover of your book has like the one store, Mahmoud’s, with all the costumes. But is this, is there a sort of a standard costume, and is that the one that was imported, or is all over the map…?
M: Well, it’s an interesting one, because origins are something, I mean when you look at any performative thing that’s done for the outside world, any kind of performance that’s done where suddenly there’s an outside, there’s another culture involved, suddenly you’re no longer doing it because that’s what you would do if you were there with your friends by yourself, it suddenly becomes something that’s looked upon, and as a result it changes, and you, especially when there’s economic inequality involved, if people come along, you know, you can go back as far as the writer Flaubert, who was there in the 1850s, looking for these belly dancers, looking all over, up and down Egypt for these belly dancers, and when you consider that he was only one of many that went to Egypt on this, pilgrimages, these journeys of the self, to look for these dancers and find something, and here are all these dancers saying well, if everybody’s coming this way, you know, even people who may not have been dancers, coming along and saying, well here are all these people coming, and they want to see the dancers, so let’s show them what the dancers are like. So from their perspective, anything that they could do that would give the experience of, you know, the expected experience of this exotic dancing, to see, that they all wanted to see, you know, as far as they were concerned, it just gives them an economic way ahead. Because they’ve, you know, been asked to do something, implicitly asked to make this performance, and so, for them, perhaps that wasn’t what they would have chosen to do just by themselves, if they weren’t professionally doing it, it just becomes another aspect of the performance itself. And I think the costume is very much along those lines, and certainly the evolution of the standard expectation of what the belly dance costume is, I think is very strongly influenced by Hollywood, and you can kind of trace back–but the other aspect of that is, even if you look at older images, if you trace back these older images and look at things and say, they weren’t wearing two-piece costumes, they were wearing your regular-style galabeas, which is long dresses, or they were wearing Western-style clothes, a lot of the old lithographs just show women in basically what like 18th-century women’s clothes, with wide skirts and the bodice tops. Then even all of that is in many ways constructed, because the images were created by artists, certainly a lot of the Orientalist imagery, is very constructed, it’s very posed, it’s very much a fantasy, it’s not a documentary, it’s a fantasy. And you know there are lots of writings about how problematic that is as an approach to culture. I mean, I think you can certainly take away that lots of the images are beautiful, whether is that an accurate representation of what that culture was like, I think is a much bigger question, which is why authenticity is such a troublesome word in my book.
A: Yeah… That’s what I think is so interesting, is that there’s so many thorny questions around authenticity, but if you think about yourself, in terms of feminisim, like, you described yourself as a gender theorist…
A: …so what’s your, I’m sure that belly dance is not without controversy in feminist circles also….
M: Yeah, I think that’s definitely very true. But equally, I think that it’s a dance, you know, there’s a part where I’m talking about the difference between belly dance and burlesque, because a lot of belly dancers don’t like to be, even if they like watching burlesque, they don’t like to be associated with burlesque, because they think that there’s a very different ethos, and a lot of people will ask, when you talk about belly dance, they’ll feel that it’s a very one-sided transaction, that for them, if they’re not familiar with, you know, the variety of belly dance that I’ve come into contact with, they might assume that belly dance is only ever a female dancer in front of a male audience, a primarily male audience, and my experience has been the complete reverse of that. I mean it often is a female performer, but usually it’s in a context of other women. Men tend to get very uncomfortable at belly dance shows because they are not, the kind of belly dance shows that I go to, they’re not for men, they’re for women, they’re something that women do to socialize with one another. And I think that it can be a very empowering experience to have a kind of feminine sensuality that is not restricted, or not being, um…
A: …held down…
M: …held down, or equally, that’s not being, there’s no expectations, I suppose, is one way of looking at it. I mean certainly there are, there’s always expectations, with gender, that’s one of the points that I raise, is that gender is always something that you do for someone else, it’s never, it’s rarely something that you do just for yourself. But equally, there’s a very different level of expectation when you’re in a situation that’s outside of your ordinary life, and for a lot of women, this kind of dance was a femininity that they could engage with, that was perhaps more exaggerated than they would normally have in their regular lives, but equally not exaggerated in a way that meant that they felt they had to have sexual expectations put upon them, I guess is the best way of describing it. And I wouldn’t say, I mean I think that there are a lot of modernist feminist interpretations of burlesque as well, but that dance does come from a very different background, and that dance is primarily about, you know, the female display for a male audience, it is, it’s not as, I mean, belly dance has a history and roots in homes, in mothers and daughters, in aunts and nieces, in female societies. And while, when you take the dance out of that context, when you take it outside the Arab world, and then you’re in classrooms and you’re at festivals, and it’s no longer a family activity in the truest sense, in the sense of family members doing it together, I think that for a lot of people the appeal was that here was something that you could do that was sensual, but equally was still something that you could bring your family to and not feel uncomfortable about this, something that you could go, you know, certainly I’ve seen plenty of mother-daughter teams going to belly dance classes together and finding this to be a really relaxing experience, to have time that they could spend together exploring femininity, I think that’s something that does carry over. So I think that that’s certainly there are valid feminist critiques that you could bring to bear, but equally, I think that on the scale of things, it’s also a feminist activity, as well.
A: Right. My assumption would be that, do you think that the critiques are something that is probably more old school, and that the sort of reaction that would be more focused on empowerment, or in terms of something that women do, for each other, is a more modern way of thinking about it, compared to like a cardboard-cutout caricature?
M: Well, interestingly enough, I think that in fact a lot of the, much of the popularity of belly dance, certainly in the States, came about with new age feminism, with new wave feminism in the 1970s, as people were starting to explore and become more comfortable with their bodies, as women, specifically, were starting to explore and become more comfortable with their bodies, this was perceived as a way that women could engage with themselves physically, to break out of this mold where they were only ever being enacted upon in a sexual way, and that they could kind of explore things without having to feel like they were transgressing their usual gender boundaries. Because you’re in this whole different world, you’re in this whole different space, you’re dressed in a completely different way, you’re doing things that you would never do, and so therefore you’re allowed to break the boundaries a little bit, and so I think as a result of that a lot of feminists, it was very appealing, and that’s where some of this imagery, goddess imagery has come out of, and I think now in fact some of the feminist critiques would be not so much about the male gaze issue, as it would be about feminism as a… the globalness of feminism I suppose, because there have been a lot of critiques recently about whether feminism actually has the same aims in all countries and in all nations and in all walks of life, and whether feminism that speaks to people in the United States, the needs of feminism there, are the same as the needs of feminism in Egypt, are the same as the needs of feminism in Hong Kong, or sub-Saharan Africa, or all around the world, and whether women really have the same needs, and whether those needs can be addressed using the same tools. So that would be a kind of critique of feminism now of belly dance would be, not so much about the male gaze, but it would be more about whether using this dance as an expression of feminiity and sensuality is in some way impacting on the women that use this dance in the Middle East or in other parts of the world, and whether that’s challenging, or whether it’s helpful or whether it’s not helpful for other women who are exploring feminism in different ways.
A: That’s interesting. On a sort of unrelated, well kind of related note, you mentioned on your blog you were going to do a paper about belly dance in Second Life…
M: Indeed, yes!
A: So tell me about that.
M: I did write a little bit about it in Global Moves as well, but now I’ve kind of updated it, it’s going into an anthology of chapters by many authors about belly dancing globalization, and I found out about belly dance and Second Life through a conversation that I was having with one of my research participants who lived in Florida. And she just happened to kind of casually mention it as we were having this conversation about wide-ranging topics, and I really became fascinated by this, mainly because I just could not get my head around the idea that you would want to do something like dance in a virtual scenario. Because, I mean, I understand the appeal of virtual reality on many levels — it allows you to communicate with people, it allows you to try on things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do.
In fact, in a lot of ways it’s parallel to things like dance. You know one of my arguments about dance is that it is a space outside your ordinary life where you get to do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, and virtual reality is much like that. You can explore things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, and it allows you play to around with bits of yourself that you don’t normally get to engage with. But, belly dance, any kind of dance, or sports, or anything that’s really physical, I just could not understand why you’d want to do it. Or like, baking cookies — would you really want to do that in a virtual environment? You don’t get a cookie at the end, I just don’t understand!
A: You don’t get the calories either, I guess!
M: That’s true, well exactly. So I was just fascinated, and completely couldn’t wrap my head around it at first, so obviously I had to go try it for myself, and see what it’s all about, and interview a few people, a few avatars in Second Life and figure out their, why they were doing it, what they got out of it. And the other thing I learned in the end was it’s not so much that belly dance is a big phenomenon, as dancing as a whole is a really big phenomenon on Second Life, it’s one of the main activities that people do. You know, anywhere you go, often when you go into like a bar in Second Life, there’s like a glowing ball that hangs above the floor, and then you click on that and it makes your character dance. And you can also download little animations that will make your character dance when you play them, and things like that. And it just became, it became apparent that it wasn’t so much about belly dance, although of course for a lot people — really what I learned was that people really weren’t doing things that were that different from what they did in ordinary life. I mean they might lead a slightly enhanced life, or they might have a different shape, or they might have built something, like an island, that they really enjoyed, or, you know, they may have constructed things slightly, but mainly people did a lot of the same activities that they did in real life. And as a result, of starting down this road of conversations and speaking to people and interviewing people I eventually found out, someone pointed out to me that some of the moves that they were seeing in one of the videos that I was sharing with the research community, somebody emailed me and said, Well, that’s a routine that my teacher taught to me, my real life actual teacher, taught to me, and I know that she did some motion-capture animation for this company. And so then I interviewed the company, and I interviewed the dancer, and I talked to them about what they thought about dance in a virtual world and things like that, and in the end the conclusion that I had was that people like to do things that are a little different bit from themselves, but they want to, you know, most people, certainly there are people who really push it to the extreme, but a lot of people, you know, they don’t, people would ask me, is everyone that belly dances, is it like an old, you know, 40-year-old man who’s sitting in his basement and lives at home with his mom, now he’s having this fantasy of being this amazing belly dancer, and the answer is no — a lot of times it was people who really were belly dancers in real life, and who either had stopped taking classes for a while, for whatever reason, or realized that it was much cheaper to buy a costume online, than it is in real life, or, there were a number of reasons, but they weren’t at all what I was expecting. And so that was really interesting, to find that it was really not so different from real life. I thought that was fascinating.
A: Interesting. So, moving on from Global Moves. You’re planning another book on Leanpub, it looks like you’ve started another book on Leanpub, is that something that you’re going to publish in progress, or are you going to wait until it’s finished as well? Do you want to talk about that book?
M: The new book is called We Dance Around In A Ring And Suppose: Travel Memoirs Of A Belly Dance PhD, and it’s, it is what it says. It’s all the kind of stuff that I couldn’t put in the research book, because even though they were really fun and lovely and exciting stories that happened to me while I was doing the research, they weren’t really about belly dance, they were about things that were going on in Egypt while I was there. And I just think that, you know, I really enjoyed my time in Egypt, it was a really intense time, but I had so many stories at the end of that time that I really wanted to share with people, and I would like to publish this one in a different way. The reason that the first book was published in the way that it was, is that I’d not actually planned to go down the Leanpub route at all. It was sort of, it was something that was suggested to me much later, after the PhD was done, so all that, that book was already completed anyway, whereas with this one, I have a bit of more of a chance to play around with things, and let it develop a little more organically. A lot of the material I have already because I was keeping a blog in the time that I was in Egypt, and so there’s some organization to be done, but certainly this book, I could take a much different route, and kind of explore the way that I want it to be structured, and release things slowly and do all the things that Leanpub is known for.
A: How did you discover Leanpub?
M: I discovered it through a software developer that I know who suggested Leanpub as a publication option when I was looking around, because initially, the first book I’d wanted to publish an acadmeic book, with an academic publishing house, and have it, you know, hardback copies and all that, and I’d had some interest from publishers, and then because I was no longer in the world of academia, I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to do the revisions that they wanted, and I wanted to get it out quickly, because in academia, and certainly in publishing, everything moves very slowly. Like, even if I’d done all the revisions in the way that they wanted it to be packaged, it would still be another year, and I could see that things in Egypt were moving so rapidly, that I really wanted the research to be available quickly. And, so I found out about the site, and I decided that it would be a really good way of doing it, because it just looked very straightforward, and not as… I’d looked at some other self-publishing options as well, and this one, I think for me, the big thing was it would allow me to have a lot more control over the material than any of the other options that I’d explored. So, even though I wasn’t doing the slow release of material, it was still something that would allow me to do things in the way that I really wanted them to be done, and, you know, just that, things like, release it at a price that I was comfortable with, and things like that, which you wouldn’t really get in a lot of other places.
A: Right… Excellent. So, do you think that, in terms of books that originate as, I think your book is our first book that originated as a PhD thesis, Global Moves. Do you think it’s something that other people who’ve done a PhD thesis and are looking to — because I don’t know how copyright works. I assume the university owns the copyright for the thesis itself, but that the work is something that obviously is yours, and you can adapt; do you think this is something that other people doing PhDs should look at if they want to make their work more available to a more global, a more broad audience, or, is there anything we should try to do to improve, to make that easier to get started?
M: Sure. To start with the copyright issue, I’m not sure how it works in the States. It depends in part on what kind of research you’re doing, and things of that nature. I would need to look again at the copyright page, but I believe that I still own the copyright for my thesis. The issue weasn’t so much that the copyright would belong to the university, as it was that the university also publishes a copy. So, it’s also available on their website. But if someone else wanted to publish it, it would be available, it’s just that there would already be a competing copy out there. And with Leanpub that wasn’t an issue, whereas with a lot of traditional publishers, and even self-publishers, they’re going to say, Well, why put this content out there, even revised content, why should I put this out there when there already is an existing, the research can be accessed somewhere else. And so this was one of the appealing things for me, was that there wouldn’t be that issue, I could still do it, and I think it is actually a really appealing model for young researchers to go this route.
The risk that they would take at the moment is that if you are still working in academia, then it’s not as prestigious, because you won’t have the pedigree of an academic publisher. However, lots of people graduate with PhDs, and there are only a limited number of academic positions in the world, so plenty of people move on from academia and they go on and do other things, and then their research, there might be one copy languishing in a library somewhere, or it might be online; lots of universities have moved to that model, where they make the thesis available, usually as a PDF, which can often be hard to work with, and I just think that, there is, it’s underused, the technology at the disposal of universities to disseminate reasearch is really underused, and something like this, it allows people to download in many formats, it allows you to market things in a much more interesting way, I think it could be much easier to find as well, because if it’s just on the university website, then you’d have to know who the researcher was, you have to know which university they went to, it can be very difficult to find things when they’re only limited to that arena, and with this, you have a little more flexibility.
I also think that for a lot researchers, it would be really interesting to not publish all at once, but to publish results as things go along, which is kind of the way that journals work, traditionally, is that you have a small amount and then you publish and then you have a little more, and then you publish, and at the end, maybe you put it all together and you get one big book. But this, you could kind of replicate that idea by using the Leanpub model and publishing you know, a chapter at a time. And certainly lots of researchers are really fed up with the way that academic journals traditionally work, because, you know, you write all of this stuff, and you send it off to the journal, and you do that for free, and then the journal charges you money to, not you yourself, but when you want a copy of the journal, you then get the, the university gets charged exorbitant fees to subscribe to the service. So basically, in the end, the only people making money are the journals themselves, and all the researchers contribute the content for free, and then review the content for free as well, because everything in academica has to be peer-reviewed. So all this stuff is done out of the goodwill of their hearts, and then at the end you just feel like, well, it’s nice to have the prestige, which is important in academia, because having the recognition of your peers is really how research gets vetted. But equally, it would be nice if I had a few more pennies to support the research that I was doing. Not just from grants, and not just from salary, but also to have the sense that the research is getting used, and downloaded, and nobody’s missing out. So, I think that was an appealing thing for me as well, because when I looked at some of the other self-publishing models, certainly they were not as, the percentages were not as good, and certainly in academia, if I’d gone down the route of publishing a print book, I wouldn’t have expected any money out of it at all. So, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my royalities so far, and even though that wasn’t the reason to do it, I was pleasantly surprised by that.
A: I really liked how you reached out to the people on the Leanpub Google Group. What was that one email, like “hey, software developers!” It was really cute; I thought it was awesome. It was a really good email, I liked that.
A: Is there anything you’d want us to do? Like we talked about journals. In general is there anything you wish we’d improve or make easier, and then specifically around the idea when you talk about journals and research, people coming from acaademia where there’s this notion of peer review, etc. Is there anything that you wish Leanpub made more… like, enabled?
M: I think there’s two things that I think would be really helpful. One is that when I tried to convert my thesis from Word into the Leanpub format, it was a bit of a shambles. It did work in the end, and you guys were really helpful, and really responsive, and I appreciated that a lot. But the only thing that worked was saving it as a web page, and then redoing it, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that when your managing a long document like a thesis in Word, it just happens to be that mine was already in Word. If somebody were coming into their thesis, were entering their Phd for the first time and saying OK, I’m not going to write it in Word, I’m going to do it in Markdown, then they wouldn’t have had this problem. But I think it’s going to be a while before that happens, and it would be nice if there were an easier way to manage long documents, conversion of long documents from Word. And I also had that one very strange issue where all of my offset quotes, which are a big thing when you’re quoting long quotes, because of the way that code examples work in Markdown, everything that I quoted from someone else was showing up in a really weird format, and it took me a while to work out why that was happening. And again, it was fine, but it would be nice if there was ‘The Academic’s Guide To Converting Your Thesis From Word Into Markdown’, because I think some specific issues about having a really long existing document, that could be better addressed. But the one thing that wasn’t an issue at all, which surprised me, was that I use kind of a program to keep track of all my references, it’s just like a database program, and I expected that the tags that that program uses were really going to screw up, and that it wasn’t going to work, and that it was going to break everything. It didn’t, it worked fine, so I was pleased by that because that will make it easy for a lot of people who are using that same program to convert their theses into Markdown, that will make it a lot easier. In terms of other things that you could think about, I spoke about peer review. It’s a difficult one. There’s some really good guidelines about setting up an academic journal, that include things like best practice about peer review and things like that. I think that the thing that you struggle with is that when you’re doing that kind of thing, you need a big enough set of peer reviewers. Because in my case, for instance, I would need people that were in the humanities, you’d need other people that were academics, but if someone comes along who’s a biologist, you can’t peer review them, so you’d need a whole community for that separate group of people. But, equally, they wouldn’t all have to be Leanpub authors, you could have a group of, you could set up a program where people could become Leanpub peer reviewers. They wouldn’t have to be, you could have a database of reviewers people could use, set up some kind of affiliate, academic affiliate program.
A: Is this something where the peer reviewer is known, where the author goes out and gets the peer reviewers, because like obviously at Leanpub we don’t have the type of editorial thing that a journal does, but if you went and found top experts in your field and said “Hey, I’ll send you a Dropbox sharing request, and you can do a peer review of my work”…?
M: The answer is, if you’re working with a journal, then you send your article in, and they have a board of reviewers that they already have set up, and it’s normally done blind. If you were working, if you are producing an academic book, like for instance when I was shopping my manuscript around to different academic publishers, often times they will ask, Who do you think would be a good reviewer for this, and you just, you mention some big names in your field, depending on how close a relationship you have with them you may have turned around to someboday and said, Hey, I’m shopping, I have a manuscript, I’ve sent it off to these publishers, and they may come to your for a peer review, would you have time for that, is that something that you’d be interested in doing? So the answer is yes, you can certainly depend on authors to provide a list of people that might be good peer reviewers, it’s certainly something that would be in their interest to do, and to have a community, because that’s how it works. You peer review someone’s book, and then they turn around and they ask you to do it a few years later.
A: Right, a “favour model” economy.
A: Obviously since in terms of the program that you mentioned, that you used to keep track of your research, if this is helpful to someone else, what program was it?
M: Yes, I used one called EndNote. I think that there are other ones, but that was the one that my university supported, so that’s the one that I used. EndNote is a very… it’s great program when it works, but it also does some very funny things at times, so I was very pleased that it was able to convert the tags easily. Basically, it just keeps a database of all of your references, and you either enter those manually, or in an academic library, normally when you check a book out, you can download a file that contains the bibliographical information from that book, and so then you can keep that, you just add that to your list of references, and then as you’re going through and you’re writing your book or your paper, you just kind of insert a little tag that says, Please put so-and-so in this point, and then it will automatically do your bibliography for you as well at the end. And it just kind of keeps track of everything, and it really, really makes things much easier than doing it all by hand, and you can put in a lot more references, I feel, it just, it definitely upped the amount of stuff I could include as references. There were issues that I had, but none of them were with Leanpub, so we won’t go into that!
A: OK… So what’s surprised you most about Leanpub, other than the issues around long documents that you had? Is there anything that you wouldn’t have expected, either good or bad…?
M: Let me think about that for a minute. I think the thing that surprised me in a very good way was how responsive you guys were to feedback and questions. That wasn’t something that I was expecting, I was expecting to kind of be there on my own, and furiously working away, and having problems, and just having to overcome them. And you know every time I had a question, within a few hours or within a day, it was answered, or partially, someone had said something about it that was helpful, and most of the time it was resolved, and I found that incredibly encouraging. And you know, and really supportive and really wonderful, because you don’t get that kind of treatment, as an author, as an academic, you don’t really get that kind of help most of the time, when you’re working on something that’s as big as a PhD, obviously you have your supervisors and you have people there mentoring you and helping you, but in terms of technical problems, you don’t usually have somebody to really help you sort that kind of stuff out, and so I really appreciated that. In terms of surprise, surprising things… I think we’re going to end at that actually.
A: OK. Cool. Excellent. Well I think that’s probably it for me. So, Caitlin, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.
M: My pleasure, I’ve really enjoyed it.
Originally published at leanpub.com.