How does an expert join the ranks of the fame academy?

January 3, 2003

Over the past year, academia mourned the loss of some of its most high-profile public figures. Harriet Swain asks publishers and agents who will fill their shoes and what is needed to make a scholar famous beyond his or her field?

If there was one place academics achieved undisputed prominence in 2002, it was in the obituary columns. Every month brought news that yet another high-profile 20th-century thinker had been lost. It started in January with the death of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, followed the next month by Nobel prizewinning biologist Max Perutz and, in March, historian Roy Porter. In May, biologist Stephen Jay Gould succumbed to cancer, as did historian Stephen Ambrose in October, just as his books appeared on bestseller lists around the world. In November, it was the turn of political philosopher John Rawls.

All will be much mourned - not just by their friends, family and thousands of avid readers, but also by their publishers. Before Ambrose's death, the Wall Street Journal stated that if he were to retire "the impact on his publishers would be roughly equivalent to a big industrial company losing one of its most profitable factories". Helen Gummer, non-fiction publisher at Simon and Schuster, which publishes Ambrose in the UK, concedes: "We will certainly miss him." A number of Ambrose projects are still working their way through the system. Once they have been published, she says, she will probably look to America again for "another historian who writes with the punch and mass-market appeal he does, although there will be no one quite like him".

So who will be among the new generation of academic stars - the kind of academic who can sell upwards of 20,000 books in a year, whose name, and perhaps even face, is recognised and respected not only outside his or her own university and research field but outside higher education altogether? And will they reach stardom through the quality of their thinking, the quality of their writing or the quality of their publicists?

Answering these questions is tricky because widespread fame is not straightforward in the academic world. Not only is public popularity no indication of peer approval, it can positively damage it. For every few viewers who rave about Simon Schama's History of Britain , there is probably a historian somewhere muttering about him selling out - Blair Worden, professor of history at Sussex University, for example, who has criticised "the twirling cameras of Schama's televised history" that "invite us not to think, not to exercise our imaginations, but to gawp. That's where the money is"; or Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto, professorial fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, who wrote of Schama: "I used to read his books - daring essays, cutting-edge cultural history, lush narratives with academic integrity and popular appeal - in admiration of his genius. Now, I watch his work on television with dropped-jawed bewilderment."

After a damning review of his book Natasha's Dance by the Moscow-based British academic Rachel Polonsky, Orlando Figes says any scholar who writes for a wider audience and crosses academic boundaries has to draw on more detailed research by other academics and has to expect criticism and even envy. Academic scholars, he suggests, are perhaps "suspicious of a scholar like myself who likes to tackle big ideas".

Yet it is the big ideas, publishers say, that are most likely to prove a hit with the public. Andrew Franklin, managing director of Profile Books, says broad subjects, such as how the brain works, tend to sell. But it is not particularly important to offer groundbreaking research. "No one wants to publish a book that has nothing to say," he says. "But it is possible to be original in a synthetic approach as well as in original research." Real geniuses offer something truly important and original, he says, but these are rare. Richard Milner, publishing director, non-fiction, at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, says: "What you want is for them at least to give an overview of the current state of academic thought in a given subject. It might be a synthesis, but that doesn't matter if it is coming from an established authority."

It does not even seem to matter if the choice of subject is unoriginal. Interest in the first and second world wars and the German Third Reich seems to show no sign of abating, although literary agent Catherine Clarke suggests that public attention may be moving backwards, to earlier periods. She predicts that the 16th century will come into its own next year - the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth I's death.

Producing the right work at the right time is also part of the recipe for academic success. Franklin suggests that both Francis Fukuyama, who became known for his "end of history" theory, and Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and more recently The Blank Slate , benefited from riding the Zeitgeist, as well as being major thinkers. Some can attribute their high profile directly to topical events.

Cambridge academic Noreena Hertz, for example, secured a six-figure sum and Channel 4 series for her book The Silent Takeover , which tackled globalisation just as anti-globalisation protesters were demonstrating across Europe. Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert based at St Andrews University and one of the few people who had extensively researched al-Qaida, was thrust into the spotlight after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US. He was given six months to produce a book drawing on this research.

Rosie Glaischer, publicity director of Penguin Press, says it is one of her responsibilities to keep an eye on what is going on in the world and to try to make links with potential book projects. "We are not influencing how books would be written, but rather looking for books we can relate to the general readership - and that can be a key point in acquisition," she says. For this reason, one thing that publishers prize highly in an academic author is the ability to apply specialist knowledge to much broader themes. Pinker, for example, was able to draw on the scientific arguments he made in The Blank Slate for articles in national newspapers on contemporary issues. Authors can improve their shelf-life dramatically if they are ready to apply the ideas in their books not only to events around the time of publication but whenever journalists or others consult them subsequently.

Over the past ten years, media involvement by authors has become more and more an expected part of the publishing process, Glaischer says. This means being prepared not only to answer queries from journalists or write articles, but to attend literary festivals, take part in panel discussions and give public lectures. Milner says that when he first meets an academic, he always hopes for a sense that if he can get them an invitation to a few book festivals they will present themselves well. What he is looking for is "a certain dynamism that will engage the public", something that should also be reflected in what they write.

What has upped the publicity stakes in recent years is the increasing dominance of television. The list of bestselling books in the UK by academics in 2002 (below), compiled for The THES , leaves this in no doubt. Half of the top ten titles can be linked directly to involvement of some kind in a television programme or series. Of the rest, only Daniel Goleman, co-chair of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations, based at Rutgers University in the US, has no connection with a screen - at least in this country. Even Roy Jenkins, number two bestselling author on the list, whose writing and academic roles have been relatively little covered on television, is well known to television audiences as a politician - and Churchill won the BBC's Great Britons poll. While John Bailey can hardly be called a TV star, his memoir of Iris Murdoch saw him represented on the big screen by the actor Jim Broadbent so successfully that Broadbent came away with an Oscar. Stephen Hawking has also had a recognisable TV presence, not to mention cameo roles in The Simpsons and Star Trek . David Starkey's book Elizabeth, which only narrowly missed making the top ten, follows the TV-tie-in rule.

Gummer admits that what tipped the balance in terms of Ambrose's success in the UK was "something as obvious and commercial as a television tie-in book, Band of Brothers ". She says the same is true of Schama. "These people have a reputation and success anyway but often it is television that sends these things skywards."

Both publishers and agents insist that the superstardom - and super pay packets (Schama has secured a deal worth £3 million and Starkey £2 million) - available in television is nothing to do with appearance and all to do with ability to convey passion for an academic subject. Nevertheless, the picture is complicated by the presence of television production companies with their own agendas. Tristram Hunt, for example, is the product of an attempt to find the "naked chef" of history, and he was marketed in exactly these terms as "the naked historian". His agent, Georgina Capel, says he approached her after finishing his thesis at Cambridge University on Victorian civic society with an idea for a book on Victorian cities - an idea taken up by Weidenfeld. Meanwhile, Capel was approached by a production company looking for a "young presenter" to do a television series on the civil war and she put him forward. The series was made, the Victorian city book is still to be written.

If academics find their relationship with fame problematic, so do the publishers and agents who deal with them. All stress the importance of establishing the academic credentials of those they represent - through looking at CVs, talking to their peers, looking at previous publications - and then single out for praise those whose reputations have been made far more as authors than as academics, or who may never have been academics at all, or whose books focus on a different area from their academic research. What it seems to come down to is a reliance on the anxiety of the academics themselves to maintain the respect of their peers.

This reliance is usually justified. Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, and author of An Intimate History of Killing , says she is a strong believer in appealing to a popular audience and a big fan of current media historians, although she acknowledges that "dumbing down" is a potential danger. "Younger historians thinking of getting an agent have to be careful that that agent is supportive of the intellectual exercise and not just interested in producing blockbusters," she warns. She praises her agent, Peter Robinson, for not quibbling about the fact that a quarter of her book was made up of footnotes.

One thing about which publishers and agents are unambiguous is the importance of high-quality writing. All stress that this is the main criterion for success for all academic authors. Capel says the trouble with many academics is that they spend too much time explaining what we do not know, which spoils the narrative. "It doesn't matter what the subject is as long as there is passion and they can write." Milner says: "The real stars have an innate understanding and ability to communicate and convey their subject." Franklin says simply: "The more elegant the prose, the more likely it is to succeed." He insists that this is something that was just as true when the generation of thinkers that filled recent obituary columns were themselves starting out.

For him, the idea of distinguishing academic work that will last from work that has current general appeal is a red herring. "The work of most historians does not survive their lifetimes," he says. "How many 20th-century philosophers are still read? It is in the nature of knowledge that things move on. I do not think academic books do last. Instead, the next generation will build on what has been done. It will be absorbed into the culture, and it is the job of publishers to ensure that that absorption takes place."


  • Learn how to tell a story and don't get hung up about footnotes or impressing your peers. But make sure you have enough academic credentials for publishers to boast about them on press releases.
  • Be enthusiastic about your subject and be able to communicate that enthusiasm to a general audience.
  • Get on to a screen somewhere - a television series, one-off documentary or even feature film will do.
  • Be willing to charm at book signings, public lectures and literary festivals.
  • Choose your subject carefully, making sure it is not too specialised. If possible, for the foreseeable future at least, be a historian, preferably of the first or second world wars. If you are a scientist, try the brain or the universe.

  • Band of Brothers , Stephen E. Ambrose
  • Churchill : A Biography , Roy Jenkins
  • Iris : A Memoir of Iris Murdoch , John Bayley
  • The Wild Blue , Stephen E. Ambrose
  • Redcoat : The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket , Richard Holmes
  • The Universe in a Nutshell , Stephen Hawking
  • D -Day June 6 1944 : The Climatic Battle of World War II , Stephen E. Ambrose
  • A History of Britain : Volume Three, Fate of Empire, 1776-2001 , Simon Schama
  • Brief History of Time : From the Big Bang to Black Holes , Stephen Hawking
  • Emotional Intelligence : Why it Can Matter More than IQ ,Daniel Goleman
  • Data supplied by and copyright to Nielsen BookScan from the Total Consumer Market year to November 30 2002.

    On the rise: three up-and-coming media stars

    Joanna Bourke , 39, achieved impressive book sales, wide newspaper coverage, a couple of television series and numerous radio appearances as a result of her 1999 book, An Intimate History of Killing .

    In the book she draws on letters and diaries from participants in the first and second world wars and Vietnam to discuss the fears and the pleasures involved in killing.

    For Peter Clarke, professor of modern British history at Cambridge University, Bourke is "a talented young historian" who shows that "military history is far too important to be left to the military history buffs and buffers". Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College London, described her book as "an extraordinary tour de force ".

    But not everyone was as complimentary. Bestselling history writer Anthony Beevor thought it "a politically correct rewrite of history with attitude and an agenda", while Max Hastings, former editor of The Evening Standard and one-time war correspondent, called it "a feminist misreading of history on a massive scale".

    Bourke studied for her PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra before returning to her native New Zealand as a junior lecturer at Auckland University. In 1990, she came to England as a research fellow at Cambridge. For the past 11 years, she has been at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is now a professor of history.

    She says she loves taking part in radio programmes and would like to do more television, although she is less comfortable with the medium. "It is a good thing that historians are reaching a bigger audience," she says. "It is something I would encourage my colleagues to do."

    Her next book will be a history of fear in the 20th century.

    Janna Levin , 35, received enthusiastic reviews this year for her first book for a general audience, How the Universe Got its Spots . Written in the form of unsent letters to her mother, it combines discussion of research exploring the idea that the universe may be finite with a description of her personal and intellectual journey.

    Richard Milner, publishing director, non-fiction, at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which published the book in the UK and will publish her second soon, says she is in demand at academic symposia around the world. He describes her as a "fantastic communicator" - "very dynamic and a big thinker, too".

    Levin was an undergraduate at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. She then studied for a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before postdoctoral work in the Center for Particle Astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. She is now an advanced fellow in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge.

    In addition to her many scholarly articles, Levin has appeared on radio and television. "The ivory tower doesn't thrill me," she says. "It's a brick wall." She has been described by the journal Astronomy as "a young scientist with much to say", and by Lee Smolin, author of The Life of the Cosmos , as "one of the most talented and original of the young cosmologists".

    Her next book will be about mathematics and madness.

    Simon Baron-Cohen , 44, will see his first book for a general audience published next year, but he has already been tipped by his publisher, Penguin, as an up-and-coming star.

    As co-director of the Cambridge Autism Research Centre and a clinical psychologist with expertise in autism and Asperger's syndrome, he has been in increasing demand to comment on the growing number of diagnoses in this area.

    His book The Essential Difference : Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain , out in the spring, will examine controversial questions of differences in male and female brains and will explore the theory that autism may be an extreme of the male brain.

    Writing it has been a balancing act between informing his colleagues in cognitive neuroscience and appealing to the kind of people who read the science and health pages of broadsheet newspapers, he says.

    But it was a challenge he enjoyed, especially the greater flexibility of writing outside the constraints of a scientific journal.

    He felt the topic was a particularly important one to communicate to a wide market because social scientists had been so influential in the 1960s in arguing that sex differences were to do with upbringing and education. "I thought there was a huge amount of biology out there that the general public ought to know about," he says.

    He has already done some television and radio and is planning to discuss the book in the media "if appropriate", but he says he will have to keep it within reasonable limits because of his work running a busy experimental research lab.

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