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Textbooks-to-trade shift not always easy

The trade book market can be lucrative, so it’s no wonder some textbook authors have their hands dipped into both pots. But how can a textbook author “cross over” to trade? Most literary agents agree that being academically published gives trade book-author wannabes extra credibility, but the question is, does the textbook author have what it takes to write for the trade book market.

Sheryl Fullerton, a literary agent with Sheryl B. Fullerton Associates, said text and academic author experience is important in trade publications, especially if the author is writing on the same subject, but it doesn’t guarantee ready acceptance among publishers. “A trade book has to look like, smell like, and taste like a trade book; it can’t have the pedagogical trappings or the professional jargon that are common to text and academic titles,” she said. “For most academic authors, shifting to writing for a trade audience is challenging.”

Fullerton said while it’s admirable to take on trade book authoring, most academic authors are not well prepared for the differences between the academic and trade publishing worlds: “Though these worlds share some traits — the belief in the need for a well-defined market and a good idea — they are truly separate. Expectations about the quality of the writing, assumptions about readers, level and style of discourse, humor, purpose, and almost every other aspect are very different and must be taken into account.”

Fullerton said text and academic authors who want to write a trade book should remember these things: Be realistic about this very different publishing world and take those differences seriously; do your homework; respect your competitors; understand the process and the players; do an absolutely bang-up proposal; get an agent if you need one. She adds one other piece of advice: “If you’ve got an idea that you believe in passionately, don’t be intimidated and don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done,” said Fullerton.

Trade book publishing is very different from the world of textbook publishing, said Michael Rosenberg, a literary agent with the Rosenberg Group. One major difference between the two is that textbook publishing is not dependent upon literary agents like trade books are. Instead, he said, the people who sell textbooks are responsible for recruiting writers: “They know they need certain books with authors with certain credentials. So they come to the author.” Their only concerns, he said, are whether the person wants to write a book, whether they can write and whether they can meet deadlines. Trade book publishing, Rosenberg said, is not as “luxurious”. Publishers do not recruit authors, he said, they wait for agents to nominate books that should be published.

Neil Salkind, a literary agent and author of 80 text and trade books in the fields of developmental psychology, behavior sciences and social and behavioral sciences, said the only similarities between writing for trade and writing for academics is that “you put words to paper.” “Successful textbook authoring is not related to successful trade book authoring,” he said. “This is not encouraging at all to text authors who want to be trade authors.” Textbook authors can’t simply take a text and convert it easily into trade, said Salkind, because of the general nature of the topics they are writing.

“Few text authors can write for the trade area,” said Salkind. “The first quality needed to be a text author is content expertise, while the first quality needed to be a trade author is writing expertise.” If you want to write trade books, he said, you should be able to write engaging copy fast. “Most text authors want to be reflective, writing a page a day,” he said. “While it takes a textbook author two to three years to write a textbook, a trade book must be written much faster than that or no one will be interested in reading it by the time it is published.”

Literary agent Jeff Herman gives this advice for text and academic authors who want to break into trade book authoring:

  • Look in bookstores and see what’s missing. Do you have a variation on a topic that hasn’t been written about yet?
  • Stay attuned to what the public pays attention to. The hot topics of today are self-help books. That may not be true three years ago or three years from now.