Money Changes Everything

Writing Crossover Books

Can scholarship sell?

Previous AE coverage of these issues:

Money Changes Everything
Commerce, philanthropy, and the culture of the academy

"We should be more creative in thinking about how we reward people for what they've done."
Rich Rothenberg, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine

"If I'm going to accept [the Sloan Foundation's] money in good faith, I have to minimally carry out their agenda."
Bradd Shore, Professor of Anthropology

University, Inc.
License income, patents, start-ups, and research expenditures for a selection of eleven institutions

Who sees the money?
Emory's recently revised intellectual property ownership policy

Writing Crossover Books
Can scholarship sell?

Agents and advances
For the crossover book

Ex libris
Crossover titles by Emory authors

Help on the horizon
The new program in manuscript development

Return to Contents

The year 2001 stood out as remarkably bad for scholarly presses, from large university presses like Yale and Chicago to smaller ones like New Mexico and North Carolina. The recent economic distress just adds another chapter to a growing tale of financial troubles driven by decades of decreased university subsidies and increased publishing costs. To survive, many presses are publishing fewer books overall and placing more emphasis on crossover books—scholarly works aimed at somewhat broader audiences. Recent crossover books by Emory faculty in fields ranging across political science, physics, theology, and business have sold twenty thousand, thirty thousand, even seventy thousand copies and reflect key aspects of this trend.

The desire to speak to larger audiences motivates many writers of crossover books, both in the arts and sciences and the professional schools. A ready audience of educated laypeople exists for some subjects, like the intrigues of
communism laid bare by political historian Harvey Klehr, the quest for the historical Jesus critiqued by theologian Luke Johnson, and the lasting impact of stress on the brain investigated by psychiatrist Douglas Bremner.

Other scholars can’t resist the challenge of demystifying the truly esoteric for the truly curious. “As important as physics is,” says physicist Sidney Perkowitz, “much of it is remote from daily experience. It’s an intellectual challenge and a spirit-enhancing thing for me to try to engage people by writing about physical science.”

The urge to make a mark beyond academe also drives some scholars to write for broader audiences, even when such works will not count towards tenure and promotion in their disciplines. Though scholarly articles are the coin of the realm in promotion in the business school, Jagdish Sheth, Charles Kellstadt Professor of Marketing, has also published an array of books ranging from traditional scholarly studies to books for both academics and professionals, to one purely commercial work, published by Simon & Schuster. “Across all
disciplines,” Sheth says, “books make the biggest impact on other academics, students, and professionals outside the university.”

Klehr similarly enjoys seeing his arguments at play in the marketplace of ideas. He views the studies of American communism that he and co-author John Haynes have published with Yale University Press as twin endeavors to the
opinion articles they regularly write for popular journals like The New Republic and The Weekly Standard.

Ironically, both Klehr and Sheth note that sometimes their work travels a circuitous route from the academy, into the larger society, and back again. “If you take a seminal piece of thinking to a wider audience, it gets more widely reviewed and discussed,” says Sheth. Klehr’s work, which stirred public controversy, also changed historians’ understanding of periods like the McCarthy era. “Influencing people beyond the academy can ultimately have impact within the discipline,” he says.

Rather than a winding path running between the academy and the larger culture, Candler Professor of Primate Behavior Frans de Waal offers the image of parallel train tracks for his scholarly and popular writings about primates. For de Waal, who developed his feel for a wider audience through years of lecturing to the general public at zoo events, both tracks are important. “Peer review of rigorous scholarship is a very valuable thing, and you must publish in those kinds of forums,” says de Waal. “But that process can sometimes kill creative thinking, too.”

Bremner echoes that frustration with the limits inherent in scientific articles. The breadth of a book manuscript gave him room to discuss the politics as well as the science of stress-induced brain damage. “Trauma changes over time, yet it’s similar across cultures and often used as a political tool,” he says. “These are things you can’t convey in the purely scientific literature.”

Bremner, who holds an undergraduate degree in English and wrote a family memoir while a medical student at Duke University, reflects another quality common to most crossover authors: they fundamentally identify as writers. “The craft of writing has always been my art,” explains Luke Johnson. “Becoming a scholar meant having something to say.” For other writers, collaboration also enlivens and disciplines their prose. Klehr and co-author Haynes rely on each other to critique vigorously their expression as well as their arguments. “It’s like having another editor to make it better,” Klehr says.

Crossing the line?

This kind of scholarship does come with risks. Few would attempt it before tenure, since the long-standing academic bias against popular writing could sour their prospects. And everyone fears comparisons to what Klehr calls “Geraldo-style books that cross the line of good scholarship and embarrass the academy.”

“Going popular can be read as selling out,” says Johnson. “And there’s enough truth to that to make it dangerous.” The publicity that sometimes follows popular works also can trigger the kind of acute professorial discomfort that Candler Professor of Religion Mark Jordan captured in his Academic Exchange article “’My Tragic Life as a Sound Byte!’” (October/November 2002).

While talk show hosts may pressure scholars to falsely render complications as clarity, authors say they do not feel such pressure from publishers of serious books for wider audiences. “Even with commercial presses like Basic Books,” says Klehr, “I never had an editor say, ‘Dumb this down.’”—A.B.B.