Five Lessons from the Object Lessons Workshop

During the peak of the “bomb cyclone” that hit the northeast the other week, I was sitting in the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in midtown New York with ten academics who braved the wintry blast to discuss writing crossover trade books. Hosted by Ian Bogost and Chris Schaberg (editors of Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series) our workshop was one of four that are designed to help academics and nonfiction writers reach wider audiences.

If you are an academic who hopes to break into the mainstream and gather an audience outside of the narrow halls of academia, take heed! The following five pieces of wisdom may help make your next book an object lesson in crossover success.

 

1) Most academic books are not well written.

Full stop.

“But my book was well written,” you may very well be screaming at me through the screen. This is undoubtedly true. Surely, you are the exception to this rule.

However, most other, lesser academic books are consigned to library shelves to never be picked up again. Academics across the humanities and social sciences teach the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students how to research and theorize, but rarely focus on the actual process of writing. As a result, academic writing continues to repeat the errors of the past, mistaking length for complexity and wordiness for intelligence.

These books (but, obviously, not your book) make a nice line on a future associate professor’s CV, but they are rarely read by anybody outside of a niche audience who borrow the book off a library stack. This is not to say that niche, professional monographs aren’t valuable--as an employee of a university press, of all people, I am very pro-long form academic writing. But, if you want a wider audience, you must practice writing clearly and accessibly (and, maybe, try to lose some of the jargon).

2) Every research project has crossover potential.

Writing is like cooking, Ian told us. You can eat an apple right out the cabinet, or you can cut it up into slice, or you can bake it into a pie; a research project could be a short op-ed, an article in an academic journal, a professional monograph, or a trade book. It just depends on what you want on your plate! So don’t limit yourself to a research pie--most of the time people just want a slice.

3) Your proposal doesn’t stop with your acquisitions editor.

Even though you might email your editor the prospectus and sample chapters, these will inevitably be circulated around the publisher before a contract is ever considered. From design to accounting, nearly every department at the press will see your proposal before it is brought to the publishing committee or editorial board.

Make it catchy!

Nobody from sales wants to read about your latest take on Heidegger, but they are interested in what you have to say about how latest iPhone app will help their life, or destroy it.

4) Just because you publish a trade book, doesn’t mean you are not a serious scholar

Many of the members of our workshop were concerned with how their various committees would receive their research if it was published as a trade book. Ian and Chris (both well-regarded crossover authors in their own right) adamantly believe that if you frame your crossover book as part of your larger research project that includes both academic and trade publications, your tenure committee will take your work just as seriously and any other.

Much of this work can be done by developing your publicly facing profile online. As you write for general audiences, make sure your colleagues are able to access all of your work in a single place so they can see that your polemic for The Nation ties in with your recent theorizations in Critical Inquiry.

5) Once you write for a crossover audience, you’ll never go back.

Two of our guest speakers, John Garrison and Bruce Holsinger (professors and successful crossover authors), recognized major changes across all their writings as soon as they started to write for crossover audiences. They both emphasized that an academic author doesn’t need to lose any theoretical or methodological rigor as they write for a wider group of readers; they just need to be clearer. By losing jargon and wordiness in favor of clarity and empathy with those from outside one’s field, any academic can bring their niche to the masses.

Once both of them tasted crossover success, they never reverted to writing exclusively for those old niches. All of their work improved because of clear, accessible prose and a desire to be understood by any generally educated reader.

 

All of this aside, if you choose to write a professional monograph that is tailored towards a very niche academic audience, more power to you and I’m sure your work will be influential. But, if you want your work to be read by more than just a small group of intellectuals who while away their hours spinning theory, take a note from Ian and Chris:

“The risk is relatively low, but the possible reward can be very high when you try to write for a wider audience. You don’t have to dumb things down; you just have to think a bit more about your audience, and catch yourself from falling into bad habits of excessive framing and qualifying. And while writing is always difficult, it can be gratifying when you expand your readership and start reaching new audiences.”

Noah Springer currently works as an Assistant Acquisitions Editor in New Media, Game Studies and Design, and Education and Learning at MIT Press. He has a PhD in media studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder.