Ruth Scurr

March 9, 2007

The gulf between academic and trade books seems wider than ever. There is now a dramatic contrast in pricing: many academic books retail for well over Pounds 30, while trade publishers compete to give their books away in three-for-two offers. On the first model, the book is an expensive artefact aimed at an exclusive market; on the second, it resembles a packet of biscuits, bought on impulse because few can resist a bargain.

Publishers and authors on both sides of the divide regret it. There are books that fit into one category or the other, but between specialist interest and the mass market is a whole spectrum of possible books that thousands of people might like to read - sadly it is increasingly difficult to produce them.

Commissioning editors at large commercial publishing houses find it hard to interest their marketing departments in a book that will probably sell a few thousand copies. And academic publishers struggle to publicise more accessible books, many of which never reach the wider readership they deserve.

Despite the impasse, there are some grounds for hope. I was struck by the presence of trade and academic books on the long list for this year's Duff Cooper Prize. There was John Haffenden's biography of William Empson (Oxford University Press) and Daniel Szechi's 1715: The Great Jacobite Revolution (Yale University Press), alongside books from trade publishers.

Alfred Duff Cooper was born in 1890. He worked as a statesman, diplomat and author, so the wide spectrum of titles considered for the prize established in his name is fitting: history, biography, political science and poetry, published in either English or French. Such breadth is refreshing in current circumstances where publishers and academics are disinclined to take risks that might upset either sales and marketing or the research assessment exercise inspectors.

Duff Cooper's best known book is his biography of Napoleon's Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand. Duff Cooper wrote it after losing his seat in Parliament when the Tories were swept out of office in 1929.

Talleyrand was published in 1932, by which time Duff Cooper had been re-elected. He served in the Cabinet as War Secretary, while completing, in his spare time, a biography of Douglas Haig. He resigned over the Munich Agreement in 1938 and became Ambassador to France in 1944. In retirement, he devoted himself to literature, which is why Duff Cooper's friends established a prize in his honour after his death.

The life of a gentleman scholar, pursuing research and writing books alongside a demanding day job in the Cabinet or Foreign Office, seems something from another era. Worth rescuing, though, is the joyful approach to these activities that too easily gets lost in contemporary academic life. Someone such as Duff Cooper, who could not stop writing books despite having so much else to do, might be an inspiration as we struggle to find time to write among all the administrative chores and teaching responsibilities.

The winner of the 2007 prize was William Dalrymple for T he Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, 1857 . This year is the 150th anniversary of what we still call the Indian Mutiny. Dalrymple's revisionist account is based on 20,000 rebel documents in Urdu and Persian that lay undiscovered in the Indian National Archives. Deciphering this wealth of material, Dalrymple and his colleague Mahmoud Farooqi found that the rebels described the uprising as a war of religion. In an interview with the BBC, Dalrymple explained: "I feel rather like an Indian historian would feel if he were to go to Paris and find, almost unused, the complete records of the French Revolution sitting in the Biblioth que Nationale."

Dalrymple and Farooqi undertook serious original research of the kind any academic press would be proud to publish. In choosing a trade publisher (Bloomsbury), Dalrymple has ensured that his book reaches the widest audience and is priced accordingly. The Duff Cooper Prize draws attention to the fact that the gulf between academic and trade publishing is not necessarily one of quality.

Another book on this year's list deserves special mention in the light of Duff Cooper's career. Jenny Uglow's Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick was written alongside her job as an editor at Chatto & Windus. There are undoubtedly strains in combining two or more careers. But it is also a potentially creative and rewarding choice. Like Dalrymple's, Uglow's book contains original research and is as attractive to academic readers as it is to a popular audience.

However enormous the gulf between academic and trade publishers in economics and marketing, it is far smaller in reality. The Duff Cooper Prize celebrates this fact.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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