The myth of Giddens' Porsche

January 16, 2004

Michael North reports on the opportunities for academic writers to reach a popular readership and asks established authors for their top tips.

The philosopher A. C. Grayling recalls that in the 1980s when he was embarking on his career as an academic author, publishers were willing to pay big bucks for textbooks by big names. "There was a rumour that Anthony Giddens was driving around Cambridge in a Porsche," he says.

Despite his own prolific publishing career, which has included bestsellers for the general reader, Grayling says such wealth has eluded him. "I wish I had a Porsche, but I'm afraid I don't."

For 99.9 per cent of academics who write for a wider readership than their peers, Giddens' Porsche will always be an elusive dream. Fred Halliday, a bestselling writer on Middle East politics, says: "Postgraduates come to me with shining eyes with an idea to write a book and live off the profits. I have to say: 'Sorry. It's not like that. The money does not pay for the effort that goes into it.'" But writing can lead to the fulfilment of more modest ambitions for the gifted scholar. "The aspiration of many academics is to lose the administration and keep the research and teaching," says Catherine Clarke, Grayling's literary agent at Oxford-based agency Felicity Bryan. "Even if they make money from writing or television deals, it is still important that they have an affiliation with an institution for their credibility."

Agents such as Clarke are vital for those academics wishing to reach the general reader through trade publishers (as opposed to university presses).

They offer good contacts and are able to place authors with the right editor and imprint for them. Agents know how publishers will market their client's work, whether they will backlist (sell the book beyond the first year), and whether there is any likelihood of translation deals and the sale of rights to foreign publishers.

Agents also know what publishers want. Clarke says: "Over the past few years, the trade presses have increasingly been looking for academic writing for the general reader, in particular science and history. They want a combination of expertise and original research coupled with an ability to write in a way that will inform and entertain a broad readership."

Ruth Killick of Profile Books says: "There is quite a growth in interest in serious non-fiction. People are much more open to it. We are looking for academics who can bring a subject to life and tell a gripping story."

Killick raves about some of the academic authors on Profile's list who provide "rollicking reads". She adds, apropos the "shining-eyed" aspirant:

"It's quite unlikely that a first book is going to take off, but if you tell a good story then your reputation can be built up."

Killick advises academics to find an agent before going to a publisher. "We work very well with agents. A lot of them have a lot of input. They help us develop authors."

Will Sulkin, who publishes serious non-fiction for Jonathan Cape, concurs that an agent is a must for a first-time author. "Nine out of ten proposals come from agents. If you are getting 400 proposals from agents a year and publishing only 15 to 20 books a year, there is no need to go looking elsewhere. You take authors more seriously if you know there has been a filter - an agent you trust. If they say they like it, I'm predisposed to take it."

Sulkin and Killick have some top tips for aspiring authors: write a covering letter with your book proposal and give a breakdown of chapters, perhaps including a sample chapter or short extract. Sulkin complains:

"Proposals are becoming longer and longer, sometimes up to 100 pages. It almost defeats the purpose. I have not got the time to read ten books a week." He adds, ominously: "Some books work, most don't."

Killick says: "Authors should be aware of what is out there, have a look in the shops and see what's selling. Remember that you are writing for a general audience. Don't assume that they know certain things."

Once the proposal is done, leave the rest to the agent. A good proposal can create such a buzz around a book idea that an auction is needed between competing publishers. Television and film companies may also become interested in the rights.

Clarke held such an auction two years ago for A History of the Sicilian Mafia , by John Dickie, an academic in the Italian department at University College London. The book is due out this month. Clarke says: "We (agents) are highly instrumental in creating the atmosphere of excitement, but you have to have a proposal to work with. In this case, the book is better than its promise."

Could the book make Dickie rich? Clarke says: "It will not make him a millionaire... unless there's a film deal, but it's more likely that a TV series will come out of it."

Perhaps Dickie is one of those rare academic authors for whom a trip to the Porsche showroom could be more than just a dream.

Niall Ferguson, professor of political and financial history at Oxford University

"The first book I published, Paper and Iron , was my Oxford DPhil thesis, which I revised radically for publication. I went with Cambridge University Press as it seemed more adventurous about the design and marketing of the book than Oxford. I'd also got to know its head of the history list as I was teaching in Cambridge at the time.

After Paper and Iron , I was asked to write the history of the Rothschilds by George Weidenfeld. One successful book tends to beget another.

My advice to aspiring academic authors is that a PhD thesis is not a book.

You'll need at least a year of revision and perhaps extra research to make it one. But first it's worth showing the thesis to at least three publishers to see what they think. Their advice may determine how you proceed."

Laurie Taylor, THES columnist and former professor of sociology at the University of York

"I was teaching in a sociology department in the late 1960s when there was a dramatic expansion in publishing. We used to get publishers coming to the office in search of ideas.

Most people thought 'why bother?'. There was no research assessment exercise. We would say to our Maureens: 'No more publishers today.' Those people who published were regarded as below the salt.

We regarded ourselves as patricians. Academics used to say: 'I'm working on the big one.' There were people around who were known to be working on a big one about the meaning of life or something. I don't think many people produced anything.

My advice to academics is to write something you are interested in. I'm working on a big one at the moment."

A. C. Grayling, reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

"My first book, An Introduction to Philosophical Logic , was written while I did my doctorate. It was tailored to the needs of the philosophy student. I always say write the book you want to read. Students call it the 'holy Grayling'.

I was asked in the late 1980s to write for the Oxford University Press 'Past Masters' series for academic and popular readers. I believe that universities should be part of the community's debate with itself about great issues. I try to write clearly and interestingly.

Ilove teaching. It is like fertiliser that feeds into everything I do.

However distracted you are by popular publishing, you have to remain committed to your discipline. It keeps your views clear. If you give that up, you start writing nonsense."

Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics

"I got my first book contract from Penguin in 1970. It was trying to build up its Middle Eastern and Arabian Peninsula library. I am proud that my books are translated into the languages of the people I am writing about. If I have a book that is hostile to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis try to buy all the copies so they sell quite well.

My first three books were published by Penguin, but the idea of a serious left-of-centre series of books on the third world faltered by the late 1970s. I had to get other people to publish my work.

My advice is write and research. Write a theoretical introduction but don't go in for protracted throat-clearing before getting into the meat.

Teaching and discussions with students help to pin down important arguments that need looking at."

Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution

"If you have never written before, don't write a word until you sit down with a publisher. If you are an academic or scientist, you must be at the coalface. Before my first book (in 1995), I neither had time nor sufficient knowledge.

I don't feel I'm preaching to the great unwashed - more that I'm excited by certain questions and I want to share my ideas. As a result of my writing, I get invited to more conferences. It's a platform to say what I think.

Writing can be lonely. You have to do it in the nooks and crannies of your time.

But writing has taught me a sense of commitment, of seeing something through. It's marvellous seeing the finished product. It's kind of addictive. As soon as one is finished, the temptation is to produce again - it's a bit like having kids."

Steven Rose, chair of biology at the Open University

"My first book was The Chemistry of Life , first published by Penguin in 1966 with a fourth edition in 1999.

It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and I still meet people who tell me that their career choices were changed by it.

I was 25 in 1963 and had just completed my PhD and postdoc and had a fellowship that was going to take me to Rome, away from my partner and young family.

A friend had been appointed commissioning editor for science for Penguin, and he suggested that I write a popular book about biochemistry. I agreed as it would give me something to do in the long, solitary evenings in Rome.

The book reflected my biochemistry training in Cambridge and my then enthusiastic belief that biochemistry was the road to future understanding of what life is all about."

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