The Art of the Serious: Writing History for an Elusive Mass Readership

by Brandon Proia

In time, the broad audience beckons to the serious historian. The first monograph is published, maybe the second as well—now to write that great popular history that has long simmered in the back of the mind. Or it may be that enough is enough: having suffered so many terrible bestsellers written by journalists, politicians, and television hosts there remains no option but to strike back in kind.

Yet there are many ways a trade debut can go awry. One might secure the services of an agent, throw oneself into writing a convincing proposal, and still end up signing with the same university press that published one’s previous monographs (after giving up the 15% commission, of course). Another historian might find a big commercial press willing to sign the book—and then end up orphaned by the departure of the acquiring editor, left to be championed by someone unfamiliar. All too many find their books rushed into the marketplace with minimal guidance and attention, as the publishing calendar moves forward from Dads and Grads to Summer Reads, ever onward unto New Year, New You.

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. To do so, an editor may urge an author to submerge a book’s argument, focusing primarily on narrative while painstakingly bringing the reader up to speed on the basics. Yet even after grinding out the jargon and “difficulty” (however defined), the audience more often than not remains scarce. Connecting with a larger audience is an intensely difficult task—it is a very rare author who is able to master this move on the first try. What’s more, I would argue that commercial publishing is simply not wired to support the fledgling popular historian. For a select group of writers, the big trade presses serve their purpose well. For the rest, they can be frustrating.

To be sure, there are books that embody both lucid writing and uncompromising arguments. They resist submission to the unpredictable tastes of a notional mass audience and build a coalition of readers drawn from the academy in addition to select fragments of the broader public. I would call these “crossover” rather than trade books— yet even having to stipulate degrees of trade and of difficulty is telling. The intersection of trade publishing and serious nonfiction marks an uneasy space.

Few of the books detailing the history of twentieth-century publishing reveal much about why it is so hard for the serious writer to flourish. Biographies of Max Perkins, Horace Liveright, and Blanche Knopf, and memoirs by other publishing grandees have much to say about the minds of editors past. But at best these books reveal what past publishers think succeeded. The instrumentalist logic here only goes so far: publisher X found bestsellerdom with author Y writing on subject Z—but the many failures of that same publisher, author, and subject are routinely edited out of the story.

From afar, publishing for a broad readership certainly seems simple: select a juicy subject, argue innovatively, hone prose, smother jargon, kill darlings, join Twitter, navigate the minor matter of securing a contract, and then wait for the accolades to flow in.

And yet very good books fail all the time. Publishers and authors have no lack of excuses when this happens. It may have been some black swan event that sucked the oxygen out of the media sphere, bumping the reviews and NPR bookings that would obviously have made all the difference. Maybe it was the jargon—if only there had been one more round of editing. Or the blurbs weren’t quite right. Or the jacket was all wrong.

Rationalizations aside, when good books don’t sell as well as bad ones, merit may indeed have nothing to do with it. In 2014 Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century spent a substantial amount of time (for a hardcover academic doorstop, at least) ranked as the number one seller on Amazon. I remember receiving my copy and marveling that such a heavy tome could capture so immense an audience—a rare win for team serious! I also remember watching Piketty displaced from the top perch by a Disney branded coloring book.

The woes of the serious author are not individual, but structural—they are endemic to publishing. And like the crises of the intellectual, the university, and the humanities, the crisis of publishing is protean. It is tempting to point to a golden age and say, there; those were the good old days. Why can’t we revert to how it was then? Yet as might be expected, serious publishers and authors have been mourning the loss of seriousness in publishing for the duration.

The past few years have seen innumerable complaints about Amazon’s strangulation of the industry. (1) Prior to that, Google and its army of scanners appeared to be the culprit. (2) Even earlier the rise of chain stores—not just Barnes and Noble and Borders, but Crown and B. Dalton—appeared poised to choke out all that was good and serious in bookselling. (3) A wave of mergers and acquisitions from the late 1960s on prompted soul-searching and teeth-gnashing. (4) In the first pages of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists, sociologist Edward Shils was already mourning the death of serious bookselling in the 1960s: “Americans showed little interest in reading, and publishers often bypassed bookstores to sell directly to the public—a set of conditions that only compounded the already unprofitable character of bookselling. As a result, most bookshops specialized in bestsellers and other popular titles and few carried a satisfactory and varied selection.” (5) Combing through old issues of The Publishers Weekly one finds anxious articles on the crisis in book publishing as early as the aftermath of WWI. (6)

Tempting as it is to wax nostalgic on golden ages, to bemoan filter bubbles and creeping tech disruption, or to trumpet narratives of declension, if there is a transhistorical predicament in publishing, it is the meager readership for serious books. Middle and lowbrow books regularly do well and for some publishers that is enough to subsist. In The New Republic Evan Hughes likened publishers’ lists to a health insurer’s risk pool, where the few books that make money cover the many that don’t. (7) Yet what author would be comforted to know that their book scrapes by as a prestigious but low-performing loss-leader rescued by high-earning commercial pap?

When I received proposals while working at trade presses, the first thing I would do with all prospective authors was to google them, look them up on Amazon, and BookScan their previous works. I was seeking evidence that they might come to us with a ready audience—anything so that I would not have to go into editorial board fighting for a book on the merits of its argument alone.

There is a market logic that impels publishers into this defensive, data-crunching crouch. I knew editors at major imprints who could not bring a book forward unless they could make a case for it selling at least 20,000 copies. The authors of such books tend to have bylines in national newspapers and magazine. As for their content, in the words of Sam Leith, “these are talking-point books. They are easily imitated; their headline conclusions tend towards the categorical, and can be summed up in a dinner party one-liner or a 900-word newspaper op-ed; they lean on a vogueish but vague pop-theoretical or neuroscientific framework. They often have in their titles, or imply, a big question answered; or they have a flavour of self-help or how-to. They like to offer us things in the forms of lists. And—did I say this before?—they are easily imitated.” (8) Jessa Crispin put it more bluntly: “Big publishers have stopped doing intellectually ambitious nonfiction. And so those writers are now on academic presses.” (9)

World-changing ideas are world-changing because they are new. Mass audiences more often than not buy books out of familiarity and identification—buy the biography to display your hero on your bookshelf, to signal what kind of person you’d like to be. Locating a critical mass of readers with the surplus time and money to spend on difficult books takes more time and effort than many large publishers are willing to spend—especially if they need to do it over and over again for each aspiring author that enters their pipeline. In his The Business of Books, André Schiffrin remarks that Pantheon published E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class for the U.S. market with a projected sale of 1,500 copies. In the years that followed it would sell many tens of thousands—but what contemporary trade publisher could afford to wait that long? The patience required by serious nonfiction is often too much for market logic to bear.

University presses and nonprofits can provide an escape hatch from the brutality and short attention span of the market. With endowments and subsidies, they are able to fund the sorts of functions that trade publishers cannot or will not perform—namely quality control in the form of peer review. (10) Rather than publishing under-researched, polemical books, university presses and nonprofits defy the market logic that demands cost-cutting and reduced editorial quality, opening up a haven for the serious writer who seeks to go beyond the confines of the academic monograph to say something more ambitious.

This ambition, however, need not inexorably lead to writing trade histories aimed at the undifferentiated mass audience. Crossover books target multiple audiences—for historians, this suggests a book that is more than a scholarly monograph but not resigned to competing for space with the Bill O’Reilly school of trade history. The classic example is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. When The New Press published this book, it was not initially reviewed in the New York Times and did not make its way onto the bestseller list until after the paperback edition was released two years later. (11) Here is a case where a book’s argument proved so strong, so timely, and so necessary that the audience grew up to meet it. Another more recent crossover success is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, which sacrifices no historical precision as it speaks simultaneously to academic, activist, and general audiences.

A crossover book is uncompromising—it does not condescend to its reader, nor dumb itself down as it aims to go further than a monograph. It stops short of erasing the argument from the narrative and does not sacrifice precision for popular appeal. University presses are well-situated to publish such books. Elizabeth Hinton’s From The War on Poverty to the War on Crime and Nathan Connolly’s A World More Concrete come to mind as brilliant works that appeal both to specialists and to a motivated, growing slice of the public. The peer review process of a university press is a further guarantor of quality, and the academic marketing expertise of a university press assures at least one constituency—that of scholars—can serve as a foundation to build from. Going beyond that initial audience, and adding in additional readerships, is a matter of continued effort that does not cease.

What few publishers will admit out loud is that it takes time for a readership to find an author, and vice versa. 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. On this subject, I follow the lead of Corey Robin, who defines a truly successful public intellectual as one who doesn’t stoop to an existing audience, but rather creates one. “The problem with our public intellectuals today has little to do with their style. . . . The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.” (12)

Good books persist beyond seasons, selling cycles, and fiscal years. Historians, academics, and writers of substance must continue bruiting their ideas against the edifice of a seemingly unresponsive public, and not surrender to cultic self-publishing, the penniless utopianism of open-access, or silence, worst of all. 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.

Brandon Proia is a history editor at UNC Press. He previously worked at Basic Books and PublicAffairs, and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

NOTES

(1) Jordan Weissman, “Will Amazon Kill Publishing?,” The Atlantic, Jan. 30, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/01/will-amazon-kill-publishing/252218/.

(2) James Grimmelmann, “Hail and Farewell to the Google Books Case,” Publishers Weekly, May 11, 2016, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/copyright/article/70326-hail-and-farewell-to-the-google-books-case.html.

(3) Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (2006), 1–6.

(4) André Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000), 70–82.

(5) Miller, Reluctant Capitalists, 1.

(6) Publishers Weekly, Volume 99, Part 1, page 276.

(7) Evan Hughes, “Matt Yglesias Entirely Misunderstands Why the Book Publishing Industry Exists,” New Republic, Oct. 24, 2014, https://newrepublic.com/article/119977/what-matt-yglesias-doesnt-understand-about-book-publishing.

(8) Sam Leith, “The Crisis in Non-fiction Publishing,” The Guardian, June 26, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/26/is-there-a-crisis-in-high-calibre-non-fiction-publishing-sam-leith.

(9) Michelle Dean, “Jessa Crispin: 'We're Not Allowed to Say the Paris Review Is Boring,'” The Guardian, May 9, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/09/jessa-crispin-bookslut-publishing-new-york-literature.

(10) Connie Chia, “The Case for Financial Support of Your University Press,” UNC Press Blog, Nov. 10, 2015, http://uncpressblog.com/2015/11/10/university-press-week-2015-blog-tour-day-2-john-sherer-the-case-for-financial-support-of-your-university-press/.

(11) Jennifer Schuessler, “Drug Policy as Race Policy: Best Seller Galvanizes the Debate,” New York Times, March 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/books/michelle-alexanders-new-jim-crow-raises-drug-law-debates.html?_r=0.

(12) Corey Robin, “How Intellectuals Create a Public, ”Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 22, 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/How-Intellectuals-Create-a/234984.