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


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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