An Academic’s ‘Great Escape’ into Writing for Trade

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As she pulled her chair forward to conspiring distance and sat down next to me, her eyes were wary and her overall demeanour skittish.  She opened her mouth, then shut it again.  Her cheeks were flushed, her chin was ducked low, her shoulders were hunched.  The woman was the very embodiment of shame.  What on earth could her errand be?  Was she about to ask me where she could find some illegal drugs?  Was she hoping to procure a hit man?  Was she about to confess some unpardonable sin?

‘I’m thinking of leaving academia,’ said my fellow conference attendee. ‘Maybe you can help me.  How did you get out?

Oh dear, another one.  I’d thought as much – all the indicators were there.  Since leaving my position as a Principal Lecturer and Head of Programmes at a UK university, I’d been approached this way at least a dozen times.   I was curious about the apparent extent of her terror, for she was simply asking me a career question, not risking her life to plot with me about digging a tunnel out of Stalag Luft III.   ‘Why are you whispering?’ I asked.

We were miles away from her employer, but nevertheless she cast a glance to either side of us and quickly checked over her shoulder.  ‘I’m not sure,’ she said.  Even so, her voice remained hushed throughout the rest of the conversation.

I do have a hypothesis about this, one that I’ll explore in a future blog post.  Leaving one’s job in higher education might not be easy for a variety of reasons, but I reckon that life in modern UK higher education institutions (HEIs) is giving faculty a kind of individual and collective inferiority complex.  However extraordinary their gifts, however solid and potentially transferable their skill sets, academics don’t think there’s anything else they can do, anywhere else they can go…at least, not if they want to survive.  Huge workloads and the tyranny of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) force everyone from lecturers to professors into insularity, unable to think beyond the immediate demands of their jobs.  The fences surrounding the ivory tower appear to have grown higher and more impenetrable – no wonder the chances of carrying off an escape attempt are perceived as slight.  But I didn’t feel that I had a choice.  There was something I wanted and even needed to do, something my employer treated with disinterest and perhaps even mild disdain, something that was judged to have nothing whatsoever to do with my job.  I hesitate to say it out loud, even today.

I wanted to write a book…for trade.  

That’s right.  Trade.  Not for an academic publisher.  Not for an academic audience.  A general, non-fiction, popular science type of book, aimed at a broad readership, something that wouldn’t even cause a blip on the REF radar. Now that All the Ghosts in the Machine is submitted, accepted, and awaiting publication with Little, Brown UK, I’m reviewing the last year of my life and contemplating the next one, and I can honestly say that making the leap was one of the best decisions of my life.

If you’re an academic who’s also interested in being a public intellectual, let me hasten to say that writing a book for a trade publisher, aimed at a general audience, is not the only way to pursue that.  But it’s what I’m going to talk about here.  Maybe you think your primary barrier to writing for trade is time, perhaps related to your institution’s reluctance to privilege this kind of activity over, say, the production of research articles for 4* journals.  Maybe it’s confidence, and if that lack of confidence stems at least partly from ignorance of this sector, I would like to help you out a bit by offering some nuggets of wisdom drawn from my learnings of the past year.

Read on for my top seven tips for academics who dream of writing for trade.

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1.  Trade and academic publishing are quite different in terms of intended audience, preferred tone, and expectations for sales.  Have a look here for a useful blog that compares and contrasts the two types of publishing.  Academic publishers target the scholarly community – academics and students – while trade publishers aim for the public at large.  Be aware that there are some hybrids out there – some academic publishers (e.g., Yale University Press) have a ‘trade arm’.   Your usual academic writing style will likely go down like a lead balloon in a book for trade, and making the shift isn’t as easy as you think it will be.  Even with a history of creative and journalistic writing, I found it surprisingly difficult to shake off the shackles of academic convention.  And while academic books are scarcely expected to sell a heck of a lot of copies these days, and projected sales in the tens of thousands aren’t necessary to secure an academic book contract, a trade publisher cares a lot about the bottom line, and that means sales.  I know that this sounds nuts, but the a trade publisher doesn’t even particularly care if a book is good, as long as they feel confident it will sell.  For an academic who’s forever stressing about hitting the quality standards that hypercritical peer reviewers are looking for, this is a weird concept.  Nevertheless, you need to get your head around it, or you won’t be getting much further.  So can you jettison the safety net of comfortable, familiar academic convention and write a book that will appeal to a broad audience?  Do you want to? 

2.  Don’t let your inferiority complex shove you into self-publishing too quickly.  Is your anxiety, ignorance, and/or fear of rejection pushing you into assuming that self-publishing is the only way to go?  Just hang on a second.  Yes, self-publishing is easy now, what with Amazon and all of the print-on-demand services that exist these days.  But the very existence of those phenomena means that the book market is saturated.  Without the knowledge, distribution channels and marketing power of a publisher behind you, successful self publishing – while not impossible – will be a significant challenge, a job in itself.  I have a friend who wrote and self-published a hilarious, fantastic, original novel that has never sustained more than a dribble of sales on Amazon, despite his best efforts.  If you have a great idea for a book that you think the public would care about, don’t give up before you’ve started.  My strong recommendation is that you do #3.

3.  Get a literary agent.  I am virtually certain that had I not obtained a literary agent, I would not have reached this position this quickly, or at all.  I knew nothing about trade publishing.  I was a babe in the woods.  I needed a strong and steady hand to drive the process, and I found it in Caroline. I will readily admit that I met my agent through a lucky fluke – a connection made through a co-worker who was also a novelist, and who had worked with her for years.  I still had to further capture her attention with a one-page synopsis and persuade her as to my saleability at a face-to-face meeting, but a personal connected started it all. You too should work any connection you have – don’t be shy to ask for an introduction.  If you don’t know anyone who knows anyone, however, don’t despair.  Look on your shelves and in shops and find books that are similar in tone, scope, and perhaps even broad topic to the book that you imagine writing.  For me, those authors were people like Ben Goldacre, Jon Ronson, Aleks Krotoski and Adam Alter.  It’s easy to find out who represents them – search for ‘[author’s name] agent’ or ‘[author’s name] literary agent’.  In your approach, explain that you were interested in working with them because of your style or approach being similar to these authors.  My agent was invaluable.  She shaped and edited my book proposal, pitched it vigorously to editors she knew personally, and nagged and negotiated to secure a bigger advance.  For all this, I was happy to pay the standard 15% for UK/Commonwealth rights and 20% for translation and broader international rights (more on that later).

4.  You don’t have to have the finished book in hand to get an agent or a publisher.  This should be familiar to you from academic writing contracts – it’s the same for nonfiction trade publishing.  I secured an agent on the strength of a one-page synopsis and a meeting (although you should always read the submission guidance for individual agents/agencies carefully).  The publishing contract was obtained through her efforts, with my extended book proposal and sample chapter in hand.  This larger proposal was about 16 pages and included detailed information about chapter structure and content (icky and difficult), a statement of why I was so great and why anyone would listen to what I had to say about death and the digital (excruciating), what connections and platforms I already had that would help guarantee sales of the book (discouraging), and proof – in the form of successful existing books on the market – that people in their thousands were likely to buy a book about death at all (rather reassuring – thank you Atul Gawande).  Ultimately, I chose the publisher who had the most resources to promote the book, and who pitched us the most well-developed marketing strategy.  Then it was up to me to write the thing.

5.  Let your own values, not other people’s, drive your decisions about writing the book.  This book was my own passion project.  The writing of it wasn’t supported – financially or otherwise – by my employer.  Mind you, that’s not particular to the institution that I worked for at the time.  HEI these days will almost always rate teaching activities, any research that produces 4* journal articles, various and management/administration tasks as being more important than your writing a book for trade.  If I had let my employer’s perceptions of the relative importance of this project determine my decisions, I would never have done it.  After 12 years of studying this topic and talking to countless academics and practitioners about it, though, I wanted to get the word out there, and various trends and stories in the news made it clear to me that this was my moment. Now or never. So I quit my job.  I was so prepared to commit that I actually left academic employment before I got a publishing contract – a strategy that would have been riskier had I not had a private psychotherapy practice to help pay the  essential bills while I was figuring it all out.  You might not be in that position, but that doesn’t keep you from putting together a plan to make it work.  Maybe it involves some significant compromise.  Maybe it feels scary, and you feel uncertain, and you have to think more flexibly about your working and financial life than you’re used to thinking. But if you believe in your idea’s relevance to the public, and if your ability to write about it, and if you want it…you only have one life.  You know how you’re always saying that you’re likely to be less busy next month, or next term, or just after this examination period?  When was the last time that hoped-for lull happened?  I’m not telling you how to live your life, but is making some sort of a change really impossible, or are you just telling yourself it’s impossible?

6.  There’s actual money to be made – compared with academic publishing, at least.  I’ve written a slew of chapters, edited a text that’s core reading for my field, and produced one solo-authored book aimed at aspiring professionals.  I always register my works with the Author’s Licensing and Collection Society and Public Lending Rights to squeeze every last pence out of those works.  But even the first tranche of advance that hit my bank account for All the Ghosts in the Machine was several times larger than the aggregate amount made with my academic writing to date.  That says less about how large the advance was and more about how paltry the sums to be made from academic publishing usually are.  The advance might have been larger, but I was a nobody.  I don’t take that personally now, although I did at first.  You see, if you haven’t got a proven track record in trade publishing, if you aren’t a celebrity, if you don’t have a big public profile of some type, you’re a nobody.  A publishing house is less likely to take a risk on you with a big advance, because they absorb that risk.  If your book doesn’t make more in sales than you’ve been paid for an advance, it’s the publisher who loses out.  The agreed advance (which is likely to be higher if you have an agent) may be paid in three lots: one third on contract signing, one third on delivery & acceptance, and one third on publication.  If a book is going to be distributed worldwide, though, there will be multiple pots of money, multiple advances.  My UK publisher initially bought just the rights for English editions of the book, in just the UK and Commonwealth countries.  When the rights for North America (U.S./Canada) are sold, that’s another pot of money, another advance.  When my agent goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October – one of the most important events in the calendar for people in the book business – she and her colleagues will do wheeling and dealing to sell the translation rights into various languages for various regions.  She’ll take 20%.  She is entirely welcome to it.  Again – this never would have happened without her.  I never heard of the Frankfurt Book Fair until last September, and I would have assumed it was a kind of giant bookstore for members of the public.  I don’t know about you, but I vastly prefer 80% of something to 100% of nothing.

7.  The book is just part of a larger picture.  I didn’t just quit my academic post to find the time to write a book.  I quit to disseminate my expertise about death and the digital more broadly, to engage in the kinds of activities that I enjoy, and that incidentally may help ensure the book’s success when it eventually launches.  The first thing I did was ‘rebrand’, with the help of some young designers who were expanding their own portfolios.  They created new logos and other design elements that reflected my work, in addition to building two new websites on Squarespace that represented the practitioner and author/speaker sides of my professional identity.  I read Jane Friedman’s excellent The Business of Being a Writer.  I got my social media house in order, becoming more active on Twitter and LinkedIn, blogging more regularly, and setting up an author page on Goodreads.  I created Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest pages specifically linked to the book.  I subscribed to Loomly, a social-media management tool that would save me time by helping me schedule posts and share them across multiple platforms.  I decided to use my old WordPress site primarily for blog posts specifically related to my upcoming book, and my author website for more general writing.  Sound like a lot of work?  It is.  I spend at least two days a week at my amazing east-London co-working space, This Time Next Year, working on this stuff.  But you know what?  The more of this I’m doing, the more media and speaking gigs I’m getting.  I’m building relationships with my eventual readership.  I’m increasingly in a position to help other people do what they care about – like I hope I’m doing now, with you.

This was a long post, I know, and it probably won’t be the last set of tips I give you.  If it’s assisted you in any way, inspired or guided you, please let me know.  Please share it widely.  And one more request to all of you beleaguered academics out there – please remember this.  It’s not the Research Excellence Framework that should be defining ‘impact’ for you.  It’s you.  Your values are what really matters, and you have more to give, to more people, than you might think.

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