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As one of the objectives of my trip has been to work out how to assist academic authors with publishing books with wider appeal, I decided to spend some time with Icon Books, an independent publisher of thought-provoking nonfiction. Icon Books are best known for a series called ‘Introducing’ which makes complex topics accessible to wider audiences by means of good writing, real-life examples and graphic illustrations. They have also published many outstanding standalone nonfiction titles popularising economics, science, philosophy, psychology and other complex topics such as epigenetics.

As many of Icon Books authors are academics, I asked Kiera Jamison, Series Editor, and Duncan Heath, Editorial Director, how they manage the process of commissioning, manuscript development and editing of books that popularise serious research.

Commissioning of trade nonfiction

While literary agents rarely deal with academic monographs, they play an important role in book acquisitions and commissioning in trade publishing. They help with identifying the right projects and work on the manuscript before submitting it to an appropriate publisher. Commissioning editors make decisions on the basis of the quality and originality of the proposal, and its commercial potential. This is an inexact science, where a lot depends on the gut feelings and the interests of the editor. Although proposals or manuscript sent by the authors directly to the publisher are reviewed, it’s not often that they turn into publishing projects. Having spent some time looking at the so-called slush pile at Icon Books, I am not surprised. Most of the submissions are either not publishable, or not suitable.

The process of commissioning of new titles in a series is more structured. It all starts with identifying gaps in the list, and extensive research into the potential market, competitive titles and identifying possible authors. The authors need to be experts in their field, and they are given specific guidelines and examples of existing titles so that they know what is expected of them, especially in terms of format, writing style and tone. They submit a detailed plan before the contract is signed and sample material for feedback as soon as it is ready.

Working on the manuscript

The parameters of a trade nonfiction book, whether it is standalone or a part of a series, are well defined: the writing style should be clear and accessible, the content well structured, etc. But the manuscript does not always fulfill the expectations when it finally arrives. And for this reason, editors at Icon Books, and at other publishers I visited while in the UK, noted that missed deadlines and shortened turnaround times due to intensive editorial work are the biggest challenge when working with authors.

Apart from time management issues, there are occasional problems with missing or incorrect references, a somewhat cavalier attitude to the copyright laws and a lack of international perspective in the narrative. For books aimed at global audiences, writers and publishers need to pay close attention to cultural reference points. It is also important to avoid academic scaffolding and unnecessary internal referencing that pervades much of the scholarly writing. General readers are rarely interested in how much the author has read on the topic. They want to know what the author thinks personally. All too often academic authors try to tell too much, include too much detail and are reluctant to take a stance. While a commitment to objectivity may be OK for an academic monograph, trade book requires a different approach. The editors at Icon Books look for manuscripts that combine expertise with a strong opinion as well as a touch of controversy thrown in the mix to engage the reader.

But getting the tone right is the biggest issue, which is not surprising. Academic authors are used to writing in a very specific manner, to put it kindly. Interestingly, they can often talk in an absorbing way and with a great passion about their research. So getting them to loosen up, write as they talk and put themselves in the place of a general reader are some of the strategies that can help. Some researchers are quick to develop a captivating voice; others may need a bit more help with their writing. But if the content and ideas are brilliant, then the writing style and tone of voice gets a lot of attention in the copyediting process.

While it is great to have experts writing for general audiences, it is sometimes better and easier to get a non-specialist involved in translating research. According to editors working in trade publishing, journalists often make the best nonfiction authors – they can write well, on time and on spec. So watch out academics or you’ll lose this space!

Writing monographs vs trade nonfiction books

Monographs and trade nonfiction books are totally different beasts. There have been academic monographs that became bestsellers or textbooks, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. So when planning to write a book, thinking about the audience in realistic terms is an important decision that sets three very distinctive publishing journeys in motion.

The three major audience categories for whom academic authors typically write (other academics, students and general public) require different level of detail, writing style and tone and are published by different publishers: academic, educational and trade. There are companies that publish across many areas, but even they would have specialists divisions or imprints that target specific audiences as is the case of Cambridge and Oxford university presses for example.

Academic, educational and trade books should not only be written in a different way, but they also have very specific layout and design parameters, and require a totally different marketing and PR strategy.

So if you feel inspired to write a book, it’s really important to decide what type of a book you have in mind so that you can place it with the right publisher and give it the best chance of success! As much as publishers and authors alike would love for every research-based book to be read widely, we know that the reality is different. If you want to reach the general public, following the Icon Books recipe for success is a good option. You need to combine your expertise with a strong opinion and a touch of controversy, and who knows – perhaps you’ll be the next best-selling author!

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