Book editor’s blog: bewitching tales of whales, wombs and more

Scholars have striking stories to tell, Matthew Reisz concludes from his experience judging a prize for academics seeking to bring their work to a wider readership

February 6, 2020
Beached whale
Source: Getty

Every year, there are a number of great books by scholars that reach out beyond academia to a much wider audience through publication by a trade press. Yet this is seldom recognised, far less acclaimed, as a significant genre in its own right. So I was delighted when I was asked to be a judge for a pioneering competition designed to discover and promote precisely such books. This is the inaugural Profile Aitken Alexander Non-Fiction Prize for the best debut trade non-fiction proposal.

The winner will be represented by Aitken Alexander Associates literary agency and receive a £25,000 publishing contract with Profile Books. Ed Lake at Profile and Chris Wellbelove at Aitken Alexander did an initial sifting of the 80-plus entries submitted, which covered topics from the uses of graphene to the history of New York’s Fire Island. The other judges – historian Margaret MacMillan and the mathematician and pianist Eugenia Cheng – and I had little idea of what to expect, but we were thrilled by the range and quality of the 30 synopses passed on to us. Many have huge potential for popularising specialist research. But we were delighted to give the prize to Strandings, by Peter Riley, senior lecturer in American literature at the University of Exeter.

His entry is a scholarly and yet poetic account of the history of beached whales and the largely secret world of the people who are fascinated by them. The synopsis opens with a haunting episode – and a mysterious woman – that marked Riley’s teenage years. There is every sign that he will develop it into a highly unusual book about obsession, ecology, English eccentricity and our relationship with the natural world.

I also have high hopes for a proposal we were happy to highly commend: Eve, by Claire Horn, who teaches criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, which explores the history, technology and ethics of artificial wombs.

Building on the success of these first year’s submissions, entries are now being sought for the 2020 Profile Aitken Alexander Non-Fiction Prize. The competition is open, until 30 April, to individuals (or teams of two) “with a PhD or an equivalent qualification, graduate-level lecturers in a University or College, and senior researchers at an institute or think tank”. Submissions should take the form of an outline or essay 3,000 to 4,000 words long and “focused on a subject in which the submitter holds a post-graduate qualification”. The essence of the prize remains that it is designed to pick out and support an academic’s “first trade non-fiction book”. If last year’s proposals are anything to go by, we can expect many striking examples of specialists getting out of their comfort zones and finding ways to breach the walls of the academy.


Print headline: Marginalia and miscellanea: Bewitching tales of whales, wombs and more

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