Many years when the world was young (OK, it was the mid-1980s) I was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, having lots of fun playing in rock bands and pretending to do a Ph.D. In the gaps between I taught second-year undergraduate zoology students about the principles of systematics, and also about the origin of the vertebrates, the group of creatures to which we ourselves belong. (While reading what follows I recommend listening to this song, flung in my direction by Crox Minor.)
In putting together the course, I had to trawl a great deal of obscure and ancient grimoires – remember, this was before PubMed and Google Scholar, folks, and teh Interwebz had yet to rise over the yard-arm.
How fine it would be, I thought, had someone put together a graduate-level text in which all these diverse references were gathered together in a cave and grooving with a Pict. But they hadn’t. So I decided to do it myself, and, after many more toilsome years during which I acquired vast piles of photocopies and a filing cabinet, the book was published. It was called Before The Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates, and you can still buy it – though for an eye-watering sum.
It achieved some modest success, back in the day, and in recent times I have been deluged with suggestions from senior academics (step up, Professor M. L. of Berkeley, and Professor N. H. of San Diego) that I do a new edition.
And that’s kinda the problem. If I did the book today, I’d do it as an eBook, either self-published or through my agent, for sale to the intended audience for peanuts. Less than ten bucks a pop, maybe, certainly a picayune fraction of the current price tage of $169 ($169! That’s £106 in real money!)
But, because the book is still being printed and sold, the current publisher still has first dibs over a new edition.
On the other hand, the subject has changed beyond all recognition in the past twenty years. Heavens to Betsy, when I wrote Before The Backbone, Hox genes had hardly been invented, and now we can haz entire genomes, alongside fancy new techniques of fiddling up RNA that allow one to knock things out, yea, even unto non-model organisms. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, quite a lot of the book is now either outdated or irrelevant. So I wouldn’t be revising the book, or even rewriting it, but composing something new, from the ground up, and the product would bear as much relationship to Before The Backbone as a girrafe does to a unicycle.
In which case I might be off the hook.
A conversation with my agent shall ensue. Stay tuned.