Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Manufactured Conspiracy in Wiccan Publishing

I have started reading Aidan Kelly's Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion, published by Thoth Publications but also available from Amazon.

In simplest terms, it's an enlargement and reworking of Crafting the Art of Magic, Book 1, which Llewellyn published in 1991--Kelly's study of the origins of modern Wicca, based primarily on textual criticism of various versions of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows.

Kelly published one earlier article on the BoS in my own zine, Iron Mountain: A Journal of Magical Religion, which had a run of four issues from about 1984-1986. It is sort of fun to see it referred to again.

Because there was only Book 1 and no Book 2 back 15 years ago, a whole conspiracy theory has arisen, for example, that American Gardnerians somehow had the book suppressed. Even Thoth's copywriters can't resist: the back-cover copy reads, in part, "When the first edition of thisbook was released, conservative Gardnerian Witches attempted to suppress it....Even though its first printing quickly [!] sold out, the original publisher, faced with death threats and boycotts, agreed to abandon the project..."

Horse shit. Elephant dung. Monkey poop. Here are some facts:

1. Llewellyn typically then (and now, I suppose) kept first runs short, usually under 5,000 copies. If sales were good, more copies would be ordered in similar increments. Even one of their top Wiccan authors, Scott Cunningham, was selling only in the mid-five figures at that time.

2. Shortly after Crafting was released, I flew to Minnesota to spend a couple of days with Carl and Sandra Weschcke, who own Llewellyn, and then-acquisitions editor Nancy Mostad, discussing the series that I was editing for them and possible other projects.

On our way to dinner the first night, Carl asked me if I knew when Kelly would send the ms. for Book 2. He wanted to publish it. After thirty years in the occult publishing business, he probably treated the displeasure of his reading public less seriously than he treated Minnesota mosquitoes. Death threats indeed. Controversy is good for publishers, as Thoth is obliquely admitting by trying to manufacture some.

3. But Kelly's own problems at the time prevented him from ever delivering the manuscript. With no Book 2 in the pipeline, Book 1 was allowed to go out of print -- as the majority of Llewellyn titles do after their first press runs. No conspiracy there, just business.

Since Amazon advertises used copies of Crafting at prices from $46 to more than $150, you get much more by buying the new book, despite the cover hype. I have some minor issues with it -- I wish that it more reflected research into Wiccan origins done since the first book was written -- but it is still worthwhile.

Thoth also has reprinted Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki's The Forgotten Mage. It is a key background book in the emergence of contemporary Paganism from the milieu of early 20th-century ceremonial magic and esotericism.

UPDATE 10/25: Greetings if you came here from Wildhunt. (Thanks, Jason.) As I hope I made clear in my response to one commenter, I don't want to turn a discussion of this dubious book marketing into a pro/con discussion about Dr. Kelly and his difficult relationship with other American Gardnerians. Don't want to go there, OK?

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Blogger Deborah said...

Aidan Kelly is obsessed with the American Gardnerians (myself included) who have criticized him as unethical and mean-spirited, and for serious mistakes in his scholarship. I keep up with Gardnerian publications, 'zines, and the like. There have never been death threats. The very idea!!

Yet he cannot stop peeking over the fence and sniping at what we do. His Yahoo list is extremely focused on that subject.

Nancy Mostad was my editor as well. She was extremely unhappy that Kelly responded to every negative review with 'It's Llewellyn's fault, not mine; they bowlderized my manuscript.' Ultimately, she felt that 'since you hate how we treat your work, you don't need us to publish it' was a legitimate response.

That said, if sales had been as thrilling as Kelly claims, they probably would have bit the bullet and published him anyway.

What a maroon.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Yes, Kelly's issues with other Gardnerians are well known to people who care about that stuff.

But I am more amused about Thoth's attempt to ballyhoo their new edition by claiming that the earlier book was "suppressed."

12:26 PM  
Blogger Broomstick Chronicles said...

Without commenting on the truthiness of the content, I can say from first-hand knowledge that Aidan peddled his second book to HarperSanFrancisco (our publisher for The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. I know of at least three local Gardnerians who in fact did contact the editors at HSF to scrap the book. I doubt the editors took much heed, since they are, after all, in the business of selling books, not of passing judgment on the quality of their content. They may think this is their job and that they do it well, but the fact is that in matters of Paganism, publishers, HSF included, are notoriously unconcerned.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

If true, that story indicates the difference between publishing with Llewellyn -- or Thoth, or that matter -- and a larger outfit like HarperSF.

The former publish books in Wicca, etc., year after year, whereas at Harper, some editor is likely to come out of the conference room and announce, "Wicca books don't sell. No more Wicca books."

Aidan may have just missed the window of opportunity there, and so, having burned his bridges at Llewellyn, he had to find another publisher who would look it in -- even if that meant going to a small house across the pond.

Or at least that is how I would interpret the chronology.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Broomstick Chronicles said...

Whaddaya mean, "if true"? I saw some of the letters. The people who did this discussed it with me. Isn't that what "first-hand knowledge" is?

Actually, this happened some years before the crash in Pagan publishing. It was a time just before that trend when lots of publishers were publishing ultra basic books on magic and Wicca and all manner of Pagan topics, but all primers. I think this was even before TPBOL&D.

5:24 AM  

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