Translating academic writing into trade books

Academic writers typically orient their writing to readers like themselves: other academics used to the jargon associated with any particular discipline. Yet some scholars manage to traverse the divide between the ivory tower and the general public and produce readable, enjoyable, and educational explanations of their topics of interest in the form of trade books. For example, the remarkable popularity of Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city (Desmond, 2016) shows the value of translating academic research for general audiences.

Some time ago, I attended a talk by Christie Henry, director of Princeton University Press, who talked about how academic writers might translate their work for general audiences. She mentioned that although there are few incentives in universities to write trade books. In contrast to academic books, trade books are:

  • Typically structured using a story to explain concepts to a lay audience
  • Shorter
  • Accessible and translatable globally
  • Usable for course books when they are written in a style for non-majors

Henry mentioned that trade books usually do not include lengthy methodology statements, footnotes or endnotes, and the Table of Contents can read like “poetry”. In order to gain a contract for a trade book, writers must be able to hook potential publishers and readers, know their audience and the competition. Authors will be involved far beyond the writing in order to market a trade book. In order to write and market a trade book, an author needs to consider the following questions: How are you building your platform? How might you publish Op-Eds drawing from the book? How could you use Twitter, a website, or a blog to market the book?

Two trade books that I’ve enjoyed over the last year are Women & Power: A Manifesto by the classics scholar, Mary Beard (2017), and The Allure of the Archives, by French historian Arlette Farge (2013) (translated by Thomas Scott-Railton). Both texts are short – I read each of these books in one sitting over two enjoyable afternoons. What is it about these books that invites and holds the attention of readers with little or no knowledge about the authors’ topics? What made these fun reads?

First, as mentioned above, both books are short: Beard’s book is 104 pages, Farge’s book is 124 pages. Beard’s book is organized into two essays supplemented with images of artwork, while Farge’s book is organized in five un-numbered chapters with interludes describing visits to the archives. Clearly, it helps to be concise rather than long-winded.

Second, both authors write lyrically about their topics of interest in ways that are understandable to readers who are new to ideas discussed. Beard uses her deep knowledge of Greek and Roman history to discuss misogyny in the 21st Century. Farge, whose area of interest is 18th Century life in France, talks about the work of an historian, what is entailed in doing archival work, and how individuals’ lives can “speak” through archival records. Here is Farge, writing on the “allure” of archival research:

To feel the allure of the archives is to seek to extract additional meaning from the fragmented phrases found there. Emotion is another tool with which to split the rock of the past, or silence. (p. 32).

And here is Beard extrapolating on the “radical separation – real, cultural and imaginary – between women and power” using the myths of Athena and Medusa.

On most images of the goddess [Athena], at the very centre of her body armour, fixed onto her breastplate, is the image of a female head, with writhing snakes for hair. This is the head of Medusa, one of three mythical sisters known as the Gorgons, and it was one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented (pp. 70-71).

Third, both authors write with a sense of humor. Writing about her response to misogynistic comments directed at her person, Beard wryly comments:

After one particular vile bout of internet comments on my own genitalia, I tweeted (rather pluckily, I thought), that it was all a bit ‘gob-smacking’. This was reported in a mainstream British magazine in these terms: ‘The misogyny is truly gob-smacking”, she whined.” (So far as I can see from a quick Google trawl, the only other group in this country said to ‘whine’ as much as women are unpopular Premiership football managers on a losing streak.) (Beard, 2017, p. 30).

Farge, meanwhile, provides examples of the kinds of observations of one’s neighbors that transpire while working in the silence of archival reading rooms:

The way her old-fashioned high heels hammer the floor, always sticking between two uneven boards, she has to be doing it on purpose. Why is it that since the archives opened she’s obstinately made five fruitless trips back and forth from her table to the section where the big Encylopédie is kept? Why can’t she just choose a spot and stick to it? It’s so early in the morning.

When are they going to put a rug down to muffle the sounds of footsteps? Even if it were an ugly color or low quality, everyone would be relieved. (Farge, 2013, p. 49, italics in original).

Fourth, both authors connect ideas discussed to the present day in evocative language. Here is Beard, writing about women politicians who have been given the “Medusa” treatment, in which images of Cellini’s statue of Perseus holding up the severed head of Medusa have been digitally altered to show opposition to women’s power:

…this scene of Perseus-Trump brandishing the dripping, oozing head of Medusa-Clinton was very much part of the everyday, domestic American world. You could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP). It may take a moment or two to take in that normalization of gendered violence, but if you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating and justifying it – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case (pp. 76, 79).

Farge (2013) concludes her narrative by commenting on the importance of using archives for making connections to the present:

The allure of the archives entails a roaming voyage through the words of others, and a search for a language that can rescue their relevance. It may also entail a voyage through the words of today, with the perhaps somewhat unreasonable conviction that we write history not just to tell it but to anchor a departed past to our words and bring about an “exchange among the living.” We write to enter into an unending conversation about humanity and forgetting, origins and death. About the words each of us uses to enter into the debates that surround us (pp. 123-124).

What are your favorite trade books? If you were to consider your own topic of research – how might you convey what you know to others? What kinds of stories would frame your research interests to lay audiences not knowledgeable in your areas of expertise? What would you need to do to make connections to audiences beyond the walls of academe? Is writing a trade book in your future?

Kathy Roulston

References

Beard, M. (2017). Women & Power: A manifesto. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.

Farge, A. (2013). The allure of the archives. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

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