I was fortunate to attend a terrific session at this year’s London Book Fair, organised by the brilliant project, The Academic Book of the Future. It was about the appeal of the crossover book: the holy grail of scholarly publishing that, like base metal turned into gold, somehow goes mass market and sells by the million.
But it got me thinking. The thrust of the discussion seemed to be about the challenge of commissioning: how to find the perfect topical book that goes viral. That’s great, but lots of authors research in areas that don’t tick those boxes, and precious few are in a position to abandon their research area just to work on something more media-friendly. I wonder if a different kind of crossover book lies just a little more within the grasp of the author.
Here’s the thing. Publishers define the success of a crossover book – no, in fact, they define a crossover book per se – by commercial return. A book has become a crossover book if it crosses the revenue divide between short-run university library market and Waterstones-at-Christmas mass market.
But I wonder if that distinction misses the point. Academic success isn’t measured by sales, but by that frightening concept, ‘impact’. You need to advance the conversation, cross disciplines, move on the lumbering caravan of debate, change the world. No pressure then.
I can’t helping thinking that a crossover book is more than just a bestseller (although let’s not pretend we don’t all want one or two of those). Surely the challenge lies less with our material and more with the way we communicate. I don’t buy this idea that only a handful of subjects are of wider interest. Readers are intelligent. They don’t need a Leverhulme Fellowship to follow your ideas… but they might need one to follow your writing style. I believe that if you can communicate better, you can cross over.
A monotonous book, written with heavy prose and a healthy dose of navel-gazing, a book that doesn’t give a damn about its audience and simply says ‘my ideas are good enough; I don’t need to explain them to you’, isn’t just failing to cross over. It’s failing full stop. In fact, some of the definitions of an academic book flying around at London Book Fair are enough to make us all pack up and go home: ‘when the author doesn’t care if the book is read or not’; ‘heavy, thick, annoying, dull, expensive’; ‘monotonous’.
If you can write beautifully, clearly, passionately; if by your very words you can spin a story and engage an audience; if the prose is not scabrous but seductive (well, OK: let’s stick with ‘relatively jargon-free’); if you can make people sit up and say ‘my word, the Battle of Bramham Moor was about real people with real lives doing real things, not just three men and a horse having a barney in the fog’; well, then you’ve written a crossover book and hang the sales. Because you’ve reached out beyond your peer group. That may not be how publishers define crossover, but it surely improves the image of traditional academic writing.
So let’s write with a wider audience in mind. Not because it’s easy. But because the buck stops with us, the authors. Because revelling in obscurity is downright silly. And because it’s our research. Ours. Let’s write it as gloriously as we know how.
Martyn Lawrence is Publisher at Emerald Group Publishing, with almost ten years experience of journals and serials acquisition. He holds a PhD from the University of York, and sits on taskforces that monitor open access, bibliometrics and the wider impact of scholarly research. A frequent contributor to international publishing workshops, he is a member of the ALPSP Government Affairs committee and incoming Publishing Manager at the Royal Armouries, Leeds.