What academics need to know about writing for a trade audience

While the books I represent generally are for a trade audience, and are available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and independent bookstores, a number of my authors are academicians, and also have written for more academic audiences. Very often, that is how their book career began. Today, more categories, such as neuroscience, education, learning, botany, history, and more, are crossing over from academic/textbook to trade, as those authors are able to reframe their material or generate a new spin for an alternate receptive audience.

When an author approaches me, no matter the academic ties, I want to know comparable titles for their project (as outlined in my Web site’s submission guidelines for a standard book proposal), to both help gauge the strength of the category and what sets this proposed project apart. In fact, the author’s initial search for comp titles might reveal a saturated shelf and suggest a reason to choose another angle or an entirely different topic. It’s important to keep the ultimate reader in mind so the material is accessible and still fresh and exciting, since as the literary agent pitching the book to publishers, I’ll need to argue, “How is this project different from and better than what is now on the market? and “Will a sizeable trade audience be receptive to this work?” Research on respective demographics/markets/organizations tied to the topic can help build a case for the book.

Some of my authors already had a track record with a university press or textbook publisher. If the sales for those books were modest, I’d want the more commercial book to be supported by the author’s outreach, i.e., Web site, social media outreach, lecture circuit, articles for a mainstream audience, so I more easily can point to the author’s readiness to promote a trade title. Stanley A. Rice, Professor of Biological Science at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, is the author of many books, including Encyclopedia of Evolution (Facts on File); Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive (Rutgers University Press), and Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science (Prometheus Books). Each successive book is for a more mainstream audience, though all of these titles are applicable to course adoptions. William Klemm, Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, is the author of The Learning Skills Cycle: A Way to Rethink Education Reform (Rowman & Littlefield); Conscious Agency and Free Will (Academic Press), Memory Power 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Better Learning for Students, Businesspeople, and Seniors (Skyhorse), and Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate (Prometheus Books), as well as other titles. These authors’ trade books were based on the most recent research and also had “takeaways,” a prescriptive element, that for me at least, can make a book easier to sell.

Textbook authors pitching textbook ideas to a textbook publisher typically write a proposal based on publisher guidelines, including a first chapter, with the full manuscript due later. This applies to non-fiction trade book authors, too, though on occasion the author, sensitive to personal schedules and obligations, will complete the manuscript to help guarantee final delivery. At times this has helped expedite the selling and publishing of the work. Still, the advantage of selling a project on a proposal is that the author might not have to course correct if an editor would otherwise have significant editorial changes to that full manuscript. Optimally, a sample chapter or chapters help establish the substance and tone of the full work, and early editorial input sets the author on the right path.

As agent of record, I expect to sell the work, negotiate the contract, and to keep track of the process, and to intervene and troubleshoot when necessary. And, of course, to celebrate publication! Even experienced authors can be orphaned or have disputes with their editors, and it’s useful to have an advocate in place.

How satisfying it is for authors to extend their reach and readership, adapting expertise to and through multiple publishing divisions. The challenge in crossing the divide is to hone the topic for the wider readership, making sure the prose doesn’t veer toward the academic at the expense of this mainstream audience, and to use the full extent of your connections to help publish a successful book with a long shelf life.


Rita RosenkranzA well-established agent, who began her career as an editor at major publishing houses, Rita Rosenkranz represents almost exclusively adult non-fiction titles. Her wide-ranging list includes health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, sports, popular reference, cooking, writing, humor, spirituality, illustrated books and general interest titles. She represents first-time as well as seasoned authors, and looks for projects that present familiar subjects freshly or lesser-known subjects presented commercially. Rita works with major publishing houses, as well as regional publishers that handle niche markets. Visit her website at Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency.