global politics, relationally

How To Write a Successful Academic Book (Tips from an Academic Editor)


This is a post by Erin Jenne, from Central European University. A security problem at RelationsInternational forced us to close accounts, so the author byline here is incorrect. Sorry for the inconvenience!

As with the publishing world in general, today’s academic presses—hardly ever known for profitability—have had to adapt to a series of hardships.  For many years now (a process accelerated by the recent economic crisis), libraries have been pushed to cut back on their book acquisitions (a central profit center for academic presses), and these days allocate ever more of their budgets to serials, databases, and other electronic resources at the expense of book monographs.  Meanwhile, due to university-wide budget cuts, university presses have had to live with reduced subsidies.

As a result, academic presses are increasingly pressured to base their decisions on “what sells” in the publishing world.  They are thus “faced with the choice of publishing fewer books or of changing the mix of books they do publish by reducing the number of specialized monographs in favor of books with a larger potential market—broad syntheses, biographies of well-known figures, anthologies, books with a potential for undergraduate course adoptions, even textbooks.”

Ironically, the pressure to publish books to attract a mass audience runs directly counter to academic trends toward increased research specialization.  There was some hope that electronic publishing might provide an outlet for niche academic research, but for now, prospective authors should be aware of what they are up against.  First time authors hoping to publish their dissertations as books are often the first casualty (I gave lots of tips on this subject in a prior post), as presses must be confident that their titles will sell at least 200-700 copies to be assured of breaking even.  This means that books must be shorter (thus cheaper to print), and they must sell.

To protect against potential losses,  presses often ask authors for “subventions,” which means that the author pays out of pocket to defray the costs of publication.  Although authors can sometimes “buy” publications at less reputable presses, subventions do not tip the balance in favor of publication at most academic presses.  Instead, the decision to publish is made on the merit of the book; subventions allow the publisher to push down the retail price of the book, increase the advertising budget for the book, and help to pay for “desirable illustrations” in the book—all of which cost money.

Which Books Sell?

Roger Haydon—Executive Editor from Cornell University Press in the areas of international relations, politics, Asian Studies, and Russian/Eurasian studies—has observed a change in the disciplinary dominance in the titles he has handled over time.

Over the past decade or so, he has noticed that books on anthropology and political geography have tended to do well, as the authors tell interesting stories and bring unique insights to a lesser-known subject.  For this reason, he has come to value (even more highly) books that are written by authors with language skills and field expertise—people who have spent years in the field studying a topic in a way that yields something that few other people could have written.  Such books tend to be more successful than those where the author has gained little first-hand experience with the topic.

Over the years, he has also been publishing more work from non-North American authors, particularly as Cornell extends its reach outside the U.S. and Canada.  He is not entirely sure why that is, but notes that much of the work that is done in American departments (particularly in political science) has become increasingly “formalistic and professional in a normal-science way,” and often fails to attract reader interest.  On top of this, improvements in the ease of communication and increased globalization have made it possible to collaborate with authors from around the world to bring their work to press.

How to Adapt?

For many of us, it may be too late (or otherwise ill-advised) to switch from formal theory to political geography or anthropology, but there are many things one can do to increase the chances of publication, nonetheless.

Make a Memorable, Even Controversial, Argument

Books that make a controversial argument on a topic that has gained considerable attention in the media do very well.  Cornell recently published a book entitled “Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Indicators and What to Do About It.”  In it, the author argued that the development statistics tend to be based on government accounting, and many developing countries in Africa, for instance, do not have the resources to generate reliable numbers.  When the author was invited to give a talk at an international economic conference in Africa, the economic ministry of one such country (disliking the book’s implications) managed to get the author’s invitation rescinded, leading to a scandal and skyrocketing book sales, which helped to heighten the profile of the author.

Widen the Scope of the Argument

Books with wider scope and powerful (possibly controversial) policy advice and/or that go against received wisdom in the field or commonplace understandings tend to do well.  This should not be surprising, and dovetails with the above point.  This is tricky, of course, as authors should not be overselling their evidence.  The key is to push the argument to the limits of what the author’s evidence can support without crossing it.  This can be a tough tightrope to walk.

Strip out the Academic Jargon and Simplify!

With presses seeking to broaden their audiences (in hopes of covering the costs of publishing the book), academic jargon can be the kiss of death in terms of book sales.  As academic disciplines increasingly specialize, it may be that only a handful of specialists can read books using certain niche nomenclatures.  Of those who can read this jargon, only a subset of them will choose to do so—and a smaller subset of these will actually be willing to spend cash on your book.  For this reason, book editors often urge authors to avoid as much academic jargon as possible.

Promote Your Argument and the Book

Once you are published, your book may do better in sales and scholarly impact when you are actively involved in promoting the book.  We live in the age of connectivity and social networks, and the authors who promote their books on social media, through blogging, through writing op-eds in various journals and newspapers that promote the book help the sales and reputation of their book considerably.  Presses do not require this of their authors, but it is a win-win for the press, the author, and for the book itself, which consequently gets far more readers.

The Bottom Line

We are entering largely unchartered territory with ever increasing pressures on academic presses to turn a profit and with declining sales of print copies of academic books.  (Just think: how willing is anyone these days to spend 50+ USD on a book written by an unknown author?)  E-books will hopefully ease these pressures and make it easier to bring niche academic research to market, but one never knows.  The very best academic books represent quality research, while expanding interest beyond a narrow (and often all-too-obscure) cadre of scholar.

The best advice I have heard about how to navigate these waters is to make your argument (and research!) as accessible, relevant and interesting to as many potential readers as possible, while being willing to promote your research on social networks.  It is possible to turn out a successful academic book without doing these things, but doing so undoubtedly tips the odds of success in your favor.