Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Blog CCXV (215): The Mechanics of Trade Book Publishing Revisited

In the early days of this blog, I wrote several essays on the publishing process.  Three focused on what it took to get a book into print:
What does it take to write for the general public?  While I have five academic books to my name and five writing awards, I might not be the best person to answer that question.  I think the observations offered in Blog XXIV are pretty sound, but I have never published a trade book. 

Even if I had, that question is difficult to answer, and the experiences of editors, authors, and literary agents tend to be very different.  The American Historian, a publication of the Organization of American Historians, published an article on this topic: "Writing History for a Popular Audience: A Round Table Discussion."  What makes this article so valuable is it is a roundtable of three individuals involved in the trade book world: Danielle McGuire, an award winning historian who teaches at Wayne State University; Andrew Miller, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf; and T. J. Stiles, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer.   It is a very insightful exchange on publishing, offering a number of perspectives, but one point Stiles made stands out: "Trade publishing exists in the commercial economy. Here, you try to expand your audience, rather than more deeply penetrate a closed market, as in academic publishing. You do that not by dumbing down, but by maximizing the reading experience. The ultimate goal of the trade book is not to advance the state of the field, though it certainly may do that, but to succeed as a book—as an organically complete and satisfying work."

In another article from The American Historian on this topic, Brandon Proia, the history editor at the University of North Carolina Press who previously worked at Basic Books and PublicAffairs, tries to explain what works and does not work in the trade book industry: "The Art of the Serious: Writing History for an Elusive Mass Readership."  As he admits, "There is much mythmaking surrounding the jump from publishing revised dissertations and monographs to writing history for the masses. What makes a trade book 'trade' is the fact that it targets the broadest possible book-buying audience. Yet how to accomplish this is less settled." 

Proia explains that any number of things can go wrong: the editor that acquired the project leaves the press, the manuscript is rushed into production without enough editing, there is not enough marketing support, and so on.  These facts can be a bit demoralizing, but it is hardly surprising.  Books--trade books in particular--are part of the entertainment industry and the whims of what are popular do not always go hand in hand with what is good.  There are too many examples of good television series or films failing to find an audience despite their artistic merit. 

There are a number of differences between television, film and books, but one that works to the advantage of authors and publishers is that books often get the time to become successful.  "What few publishers will admit out loud is that it takes time for a readership to find an author, and vice versa."  Overnight successes are often years in the making.  "It may take multiple books, a multitude of lectures and interviews and reviews before an argument begins to sink in and audiences begin to arise around one’s book."  Basically, he argues that historians make their audiences book after book.  "The serious historian and publisher must cross over to larger and larger audiences—and keep pushing even when the initial attempt doesn’t take. They must do so, not out of a faith that readers must be out there, but precisely because they know that they’re not—not yet. Readers spring up only where we sow."

Anyone interested in going the trade route should read these two essays.  They have much to offer.

1 comment:

  1. A special note of thanks goes out to T.J. Stiles for letting me know about the roundtable article.

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