the biggest mistake you can make with a publisher

This post is from Philip Mudd, a publisher at Routledge. Philip is responsible for books on research methods, higher education, adult education and lifelong learning.

What is the single biggest mistake people make when trying to get you to publish their book? And why is it a mistake?

When Pat first posed this question to me, it took me less than a second to think of my answer. There are lots of things that can ring alarm bells in my head when I first glance over a publishing idea but one doesn’t just ring an alarm bell, it sets off a deafening klaxon.

Most publishers have a template form to help potential authors pull together a publishing proposal. It doesn’t have to be followed exactly, especially as it can’t match every project, but it can help writers to crystalize their ideas. Each publisher’s form is slightly different but a question you will find on most is something along the lines of “Who is the readership for this book?” It helps writers, and publishers, understand and clearly define the market for book. Can the publisher reach the audience? Is the market big enough to make the project viable? Is the writer being realistic?

The one word I dread seeing as an answer to this question is “Everyone”. It rings alarm bells in my head for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows that the writer has completely unrealistic ideas about the relevance, influence and importance of their work. I have had writers in the past suggest that their book would get them onto BBC news, that national newspapers would demand to review it, and that they would be on chat shows on TV and radio. Let’s face it: that’s not going to happen.

Such a lack of understanding of the ways of the academic world also suggests that the writer doesn’t have a clear idea of the true audience for their work. It is never everyone. It can sometimes be a range of audiences and satisfying a diverse audience is much harder to do but it’s never “everyone”. The needs of a student are different from those of a professor. A policy-maker will expect a different style of writing from a teacher working in a school. So it is important for writers to decide who they are really hoping to reach, and influence, through their writing.

Tensions do arise when a topic can, and should, appeal to a very broad range of audiences. One question I am often asked is how to deal with this both in terms of structure and writing style – and my answer is always the same: even if you are trying to reach diverse groups keep one audience in mind. Even better keep one particular reader in mind. After all, as politicians know all too well, trying to be all things to all people is often a recipe for disaster. And a book that tries to appeal equally to two, or more, completely different groups is not going to hit all targets full on. And it might easily end up missing all of them.

For example, a book on the design of schools may well appeal to architects, designers and to those involved in education but the needs of each group will be very different. Think of a primary audience and write for that group. Yes, do add in elements now and then that will appeal to other audiences but write for one audience and keep that audience, or even person, in mind at all times.

Another reason alarm bells ring when I see the phrase “my book will appeal to everyone” is because it is a sign that the writer may well pester the sales and marketing teams to do more and more to try to get their book noticed by inappropriate audiences. In one company I worked at many moons ago, there used to be a system for categorising authors so that publishing staff in other departments had a bit of extra background about an author. The options included “First time author”, i.e. may need a bit more hand-holding and reassurance, “Author writing in a second language”, i.e. watch out for language and cultural issues that may be confusing, and the most feared category… “Difficult author”. And although that box was only rarely selected, it often was marked because the author had unrealistic expectations.

Be realistic. Know who you are writing for. And write for them.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic book, book proposal, Philip Mudd, readers, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the biggest mistake you can make with a publisher

  1. hubitus says:

    This is a really great tip. I’ve heard it before but from other writers or writing instructors, never from the publisher’s point of view. It’s very powerful from this perspective. Thanks (:

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  2. Bob says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been approached by a publisher to author a monograph on a rather broad topic for an equally broad audience. It’s to be part of a collection of books for a “lay” reader. The brief says its intended audience is everyone from high school students to retirees – anyone who’s interested in finding out more about the topic. And said publisher is experienced in publishing monographs on academic topics. Seems like publishers sometimes make this mistake too.

    That said (and as the post itself hints), maybe “everyone’s” still a legitimate category if appropriately defined? Series like Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” exist, and are successful. Maybe it’s important to put a finer point on what an audience of “everyone” means, and what might still be reasonable?

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  3. SheriO says:

    I wonder if writers should rewrite and repackage their material for different audiences so as to hit the mark…Barbara Lovitts, who researches issues in doctoral studies, had her research/advice repackaged slightly I suppose for the humanities/social sciences audience as distinct from the STEM field. Probably 90% of both books were the same but the language was tweaked.

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