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How I Write a Trade Book for a General Audience

I am at a good place in my progress toward writing my book on the afterlife, and thought I could devote a few posts to explaining the whole process.  This is in response to questions I sometimes get from blog members who would like to know what steps I actually take in going from the idea of a book to the final product.

First off: how do I decide what books to write?   Different scholars have different ways of making this kind of (very big) decision.   In my case it is a little complicated by the fact that I write three kinds of books.  I write scholarly books for academic colleagues in my fields of research; I write textbooks for college students; and I write trade books for general audiences.   The process is slightly different for each one, so for my purposes here I’ll stick to how I go about writing trade books.

Depending on how you count, this will be my fifteenth trade book.  My first was Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, published in 1999 – so written this time 20 years ago.  How have I decided on what topics to pursue in these books?

It actually has been fairly easy for me.  It’s a matter of combining three things:  what I have some …

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How a Book Gets Written
My Life! An Interview with Frank Statio on “The State of Things”



  1. Avatar
    forthfading  May 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am so glad you decided to write for the general audience because through your writings I have developed a passion for early Christian history and historical Jesus studies.

    It was your book Jesus, interrupted that hooked me. As a Christian, I got a undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, but was not at all satisfied with my education. I ended up becoming a high school history teacher. Your writings have inspired and peeked my interest in the field. If I would have had a professor like yourself, I am positive I would have went to graduate school to study early Christianity. Thank you for helping us lay people understand and enjoy religious studies!

    You always take the time and point out in your writings that you are presenting the facts and conclusions solely from a historical perspective, not a theological. You are very careful with your words to let Christians know that you are not attacking their faith or theological persuasions. You do this without fail. You have even mentioned that your spouse is a believer and you have friends and colleagues that are believers. I get very pissed at so many people (often conservative scholars) who claim you are out to destroy people’s faith in the Bible and their Christian world view. I’m a believer, and I have never felt that you wanted to destroy my faith. I am grateful that you are honest enough as a scholar to let the truth guide your conclusions. Why do “Christian scholars” slander you so? Does it trouble you and your family?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2018

      I think they find a historical approach to the Bible threatening to their faith. They want to assure their readers that their faith is built on a solid foundation, not uncertainty — especially given the fact that the church is losing so many members already, for other reasons. My view is that historical realities really matter and should not be a causse of consternation. If one has to change what one believes, they should change. It certainly doesn’t mean one has to leave the faith — it simply means that the grounds of faith need to be reexamined.

    • Avatar
      bluesclues  May 20, 2018


      I believe Dr. Ehrman has expressed in a few of his talks/presentations/debates that he is opposed to a form of faith – Christian fundamentalism; which is founded on the view that the Bible is inerrant and is to be read/followed literally. The “conservative scholars” of which you speak are “pissed” because Dr. Ehman’s (and most scholars?) work directly calls to question this view; and, worse, his trade books makes the scholarship lucidly available to the common man!

      These conservative scholars usually label themselves “evangelical” which, today, is a somewhat amorphous term. It seems to me that a large and noisy faction of Christians that call themselves evangelicals are actually fundamentalists. I think they might not call themselves fundamentalists because of the negative connotations the term carries, but they really are Christian fundamentalists.

  2. Avatar
    mcmemmo  May 16, 2018

    I am very glad you are writing a book about the afterlife. I hope it will address issues of eschatology. I have so many questions. Did Jesus preach conditional immortality & annihilationism? I really sounds as if he did, but Augustine clearly thought eternal conscious torment was the ultimate fate of the damned. I’d like to know where that idea came from if it wasn’t Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2018

      Yes, these are some of the issue I’ll be addressing. (Jesus never *teaches* annihilation; but he seems to assume it.)

  3. Avatar
    ardeare  May 17, 2018

    I just don’t get this new concept for your book on the afterlife. Did Jesus believe The Son of Man would return, set up his kingdom on earth, Jesus would rule along with the apostles, then they would die and the lights just go out forever? Is the parable of the goats and the sheep an earthly judgment that represents an earthly separation of good and evil, having no eternal consequences? I could list several other examples (Paul, Book of Revelation, Ezekiel,) but suffice it to say, I just don’t get it.

    My *crystal ball* prediction is that this book will garner more opposition than any which have come before it.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2018

      I agree with your son of man summary until the last bit: I don’t think the lights were supposed to go out — it would be life eternal here on earth. In the sheep and goats, it’s all about eternal consequences. The question is whether that goes back to Jesus or not.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 17, 2018

        Yes, eternal life on Earth…but with no one else (like, us) ever being born!

  4. Avatar
    Silver  May 17, 2018

    I’m always saddened when you say ‘trade books’. To my mind it takes away their dignity, relegating them to pot boilers. It is, of course, through them that you reach out to many people with your scholarship; I certainly have been very grateful for them. Do you use a similar term when thinking of your Great Courses lectures? It is not a term with which I am familiar in the UK and, indeed, I only encounter it from you. Have you considered a different wording?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2018

      No need to be sad! That’s simply what publishers call books for general audiences. In fact publishing houses that publish only that kind of book are called “trade presses” as opposed, say, to “academic presses.” There can be crossover, of course — my first trade books were publisehd by Oxford University Press, which is an academic press with a trade division. In any event there is not a thing derogatory in the term “trade book.”

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 17, 2018

    About the topics you have to “sell”? I think there have been cases where I didn’t find the description anything I’d want to read…*except* for the fact that I’d read other books of *yours*, and found them appealing. For some potential readers, the author’s name is what sells!

  6. Alemin
    Alemin  May 18, 2018

    I’m really looking forward to this book. What timeline are you going to cover? Abraham to Jesus, or will it continue on into the catholic development of afterlife thinking (and up to the present)? Also, how much will you look at Babylonian, Egyptian, Mediterranean, etc., beliefs and their influence?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2018

      I’ll deal with the Gilgamesh epic, but that’s the only think from the Ancient Near East. Otherwise it’s ancient Greek and Roman, then the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and on up to Augustine. Still, Gilgamesh to Augustine is a nice stretch.

      • Avatar
        Eric  May 30, 2018

        If you’re ending with Augustine, I hope at least in your introduction or first chapter you at least survey the major current “commonly held” thinkings on afterlife.

        I think a lay reader needs to have them articulated (and named?) to appreciate their contrast with the original or earlier “thinkings” on the subject.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 18, 2018

    Well, your trade books and textbooks have literally changed my life. My views were slowly evolving in the directions you describe in your books, but I really needed the scholarly foundation that your books provide. Thanks so much.

    The book about the evolution of the concept of the “Afterlife” does sound like something that greatly interests most of us.

  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 19, 2018

    Concerning your trade books. Has the scholarship advanced or have your conclusions changed to the point that you would consider revising any of them for a second edition?

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 19, 2018

    I know that even some of the most conservative scholars agree that The Woman Taken in Adultery is not original to any of the canonical gospel, but it is by far the best Jesus episode in terms of judging v. not judging others for their sins, in my opinion. I would be disappointed if Jesus never said anything like, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” But I read the claim that the Greek actually says “… without this sin,” meaning only those who were not themselves guilty of adultery had the right to condemn her. Is that your reading and, if so, what was Jesus saying about himself when he said, “Nor do I condemn you?”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2018

      No, the Greek definitely does not say that. It literally says “let the sinless one among you be the first….”

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 21, 2018

        Thank you. It’s good to be able to check these things out with an authority!

  10. Avatar
    Stylites  May 19, 2018

    It does take some time, but reading both your Bible textbook and New Testament textbook provides an excellent foundation and background for then reading your trade books. Your Old Testament and Apocrypha sections of your Bible textbook tend to be better than books written strictly as an Old Testament text. At least that has been my experience. After reading the texts the trade books in a very helpful way more fully develop the earlier works. It makes for a very pleasant and enlightening experience. I find myself reading all of this not just for knowledge but also for enjoyment.

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