Academics writing trade books: what should they know?

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 27, 2018

A befriended academic has written a non-scholarly book, and has been approached by a publisher who picked it up and wants to negotiate a contract. She asked her FB-friends for advice, and almost everyone suggested to get an agent. I suspect that very few academics know how to publish smartly outside academia, and whether one should get an agent (and if so, where to get one, and what to know). I confess I know nothing about this myself when it concerns the English-language publishing world — but would be interested to learn more about this too.

Since this blog has a wide readership, perhaps we can call on the collective wisdom and experience here: what should academics who want to publish a (non-academic) trade book know? It would be great if some agents, those who’ve worked with agents, publishers, as well as authors who have traveled this path can share their views and advice.



Daniel Hirschman 01.27.18 at 1:49 pm

Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels have a nice book about public engagement (broadly writ), which includes a whole chapter on writing books for general audiences: Going Public. It might be a good starting point!


Displaced Person 01.27.18 at 1:49 pm

I think it wise to at least explore working with an agent first. Permit me to recommend my old college classmate, Patricia Mulcahy in NYC. She is good, very experienced and will tell your friend whether the manuscript is publishable.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.27.18 at 2:00 pm

Displaced Person (or anyone else) – how does one find an agent apart from asking around in one’s networks (where no-one may have worked with an agent)?
You recommend someone particular in NYC – but would you recommend a scholar working in London or Amsterdam to get an agent in the US?

Daniel – thanks for the suggestion, just ordered the book. Perhaps it will tell clueless academics who want to publish trade what to do.


Sean Carroll 01.27.18 at 4:18 pm

Getting an agent (a good one) is absolutely the most important thing. They earn their commission if only because of nonsense like audio books, foreign rights, etc. But more importantly they will help shape a proposal, make sure you are not taken advantage of, and act as your advocate throughout the process.

The good news is that you can just contact them and ask if they’re interested; unlike publishers, agents take it as their responsibility to comb through submissions looking for diamonds (in the rough of otherwise).

Personal networks are the best way to get one. You can also just Google, or check out the acknowledgments of books by your favorite writers, as they will often thank their agents. Different agents have different specialties, so it’s worth the effort to find one who is on a sympathetic wavelength.


Farah Mendlesohn 01.28.18 at 9:43 am

Is she really doesn’t want an agent then go to SFWA and download their model contract and cross check.

My Heinlein book came out of the academic press. I had just finished checking with certain interested parties who wanted first refusal, and was about to head off to a non fic agent, when @Unbound snapped it up. If she wants to see the contract I signed with them I can send it peer to peer.


Raven Onthill 01.28.18 at 10:24 am

This, now 14 years old, is perhaps relevant:


Raven Onthill 01.28.18 at 10:40 am

Your friend, with an already-interested publisher, is in a good position to hire an agent.

Other question: what kind of book? Fiction, non-fiction? What field? It’s important; publishing is a diverse business, and marketing a genre novel is different from marketing a popular science book and these are both different from other types of books. Charlie Stross, in his series of six articles, “Common Misconceptions about publishing,” (first one at makes his first misconception: “The publishing industry makes sense” and this is still true; it is an enormous muddle. That series (I think there are six parts) is also useful, though a bit specialized to publishing genre fiction.


Raven Onthill 01.28.18 at 11:09 am

Another few notes, before I toddle off:
1. The Associations of Authors Representatives (AAR) in New York has a good reputation: It appears, however, to be specialized to US authors.
2. Remember Yog’s law! Which I make, “In an honest publishing deal, money flows to the author.” (This is perhaps too basic a warning. But…)


Ingrid Robeyns 01.28.18 at 3:58 pm

Raven Onthill, thanks, these are useful links and information.

A question: should one find an agent in the country of residence? (which for my friend in the UK). Or is it better to find an agent in the most powerful market, which I assume is the US?


Raven Onthill 01.28.18 at 8:38 pm

Mmmm…the British Commonwealth is also a powerful market. I’d say, an agent in the country, perhaps even city, where the publisher is located. If your friend has a UK publisher interested, I would think a UK agent who has already worked with the publisher would be best. I am not entirely certain of that, however.

My spouse, a writer and editor, suggests that your friend find six authors that have published books in a similar field and find out who their agents are.

Also, your friend might just write Charlie Stross, who is also in the UK. He’ll likely know someone who knows someone.

Good luck to your friend!


John Quiggin 01.29.18 at 3:36 am

I didn’t use an agent for Zombie Economics, as PUP approached me. Perhaps I could have driven a harder bargain, but I was so pleased to get the offer, it didn’t really occur to me.

This is yet another reminder of how far behind I am on Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve promised a manuscript by April, so I’d better get cracking.

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