Thinking like an editor




There is a lot of good information about academic writing and publishing that is now out of print. It’s generally still accessible if you peruse the outlets that sell second hand books or remainders, so do check out the ‘other sellers’ link online. I’ve recently been accumulating older books about book publishing. One such elderly text that I bought recently for not much more than the cost of the postage was Thinking like your editor. How to write great serious nonfiction – and get it published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

Rabiner and Fortunato are not academics. They are in the trade, working as literary agents. They aren’t writing just for academics either, but for anyone who fancies writing a well -researched but popular book. When they meet authors, and read their book proposals, they look for someone who

  • “demonstrates real command of their material”

They want someone who “isn’t afraid to make observations and draw inferences”. They don’t want a writer who is tentative, or  someone who produces polemic, bombast or un-evidenced generalisations. They won’t have someone who rests on their reputation either.  And they’ll reject anyone who “qualifies everything they say” – such people are, they suggest, “better suited to university press publishing”.

  • is able to make their material come alive for the reader

Over detailed work is as much of a problem as a book lacking in evidence. A successful nonfiction writer knows how to explain “the rules of their world” and also what to leave out. They respect their readers’ intelligence and neither talk down to them nor bore them to tears.

  • has honed the craft of writing

Publishers are not looking for someone who is still learning, according to Rabiner and Fortunato. They want authors who can use “precision in language, sound overarching structure and good narrative skills.”

  • communicates their “passion for the topic” and their “passion to leave a mark on it”

Rabiner and Fortunato suggest that popular on fiction writers have “a strong authorial voice’. While a book must deal fairly with its subject matter, taking into account all relevant information and points of view, the author must have “something to say and the compulsion to say it.” The author is ambitious and unafraid to let loose their desire to say something important. (  p 68-69)

Now, while Rabiner and Fortunato differentiate themselves from agents and editors who work in university presses, my hunch is that this list isn’t very different from what academic editors really want too. Rabiner and Fortunato’s good popular nonfiction writer is also the ideal academic writer.

My guess is that if you want to publish a monograph in paperback with one of the big academic book publishers then you’ll have to pretty well meet the same criteria. You see, academic publishers, just like big commercial publishers, also make judgments about authors as well as their topics. As a very senior academic editor told me once, “We’re not just investing in your book, we’re investing in you.” So you have to show that you know your stuff, but also that you can write in ways that are engaging and authoritative. And most of all, you have to balance your hedging with your assertive argument.  If you don’t, I reckon it’s the hard-back library copies for you, prospective author.

But, if the difference between the popular nonfiction book and a ‘popular’ academic book is not necessarily about the author and their writing, then what actually is the difference? Why aren’t all academic books considered to be popular nonfiction? The answer is of course that it’s the topic and the market – it’s about how many people are likely to be interested in the book’s content. Most academic books are relatively narrow in focus and have less popular appeal than the big selling non-fiction books.

But not all academic books are niche. We can probably all list some academic colleagues who make it big in the popular nonfiction market. Some of us do work on topics which, for one reason or another, are of interest to big readerships. Not me unfortunately!

If this is you, and you are working on a topic that you think might be of wider interest than a largely academic audience, Rabiner and Fortunato have some very helpful things to say to you. That’s because most of their book is about how prospective authors can explain their project in ways that will convince a publisher or an agent that they have a potential best seller on their hands. They tell you the common pitfalls that authors make when they are pitching their text, and the kinds of considerations and calculations that big commercial publishers make.

So… if you are one of those people who has the potential to write popular nonfiction, then you could do a lot worse than picking up your second-hand copy of this book. I’m not lending you mine, Im afraid, as I think there’s still more I can dig out of it.