I started writing my book on the Apocalypse of John a couple of weeks ago and have been using the occasion to reflect on my how my approach to writing has changed over the past few years. My first trade book – that is, a book for a general audience — was Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. That came out in 1999 so I suppose I started working on it in 1997.
Up to that point I had published three scholarly books – (Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels; The Text of the Fourth Gospel in the Writings of Origen; and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and most recently my New Testament textbook (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings). The first two of these written for were for a very small group of ancient New Testament manuscript nerds (like me) in the world; the third for a wider range of scholars; and fourth for 18- to 20-year-olds who knew nothing about the New Testament.
The BIGGEST thing authors need to be conscious of (after knowing what they want their book to be about, doing the work to make it possible, and, well, having the ability to write) is also the ONE thing that most writers do not take fully into account. Who is their audience?
It makes a huge difference. Mistake your audience and no one will read your book. If you want to write for scholars but don’t write at a scholarly level, scholars won’t read the book, or if they do they’ll pan it. If you write a textbook for college kids but make it technical – forget it. Professors won’t assign it and if they do, the students won’t read it.
The one audience I had not written for was the the parents and grandparents of my nineteen-year-olds, the Barnes & Noble crowd, the mature adults with a lot of experience of the world and a whole different set of assumptions from their kids and grandkids. And the truth is, I was never interested in writing for that crowd. Nearly everyone I knew in academia (not just in New Testament and early Christianty, or in religious studies, or in humanities – but, well, so far as I can recall, really everyone I knew) thought that writing for a broader audience was a second-rate occupation taken up by the people who couldn’t do real scholarship.
And so it wasn’t (and usually still isn’t) considered an appropriate activity for people who wanted to be serious scholars. The people who did it, especially if they were successful, were looked down upon.
Let me say right her,e quite emphatically, that I completely agree in every way that writing a trade book is NOT scholarship. Here’s a surprising factoid for outsiders: in many major research universities (certainly the ones I know well), it will be a decided disadvantage, and possibly a critical one for a junior faculty member trying to get tenure to write a trade book. I am always vehement on the point with junior colleagues (or just scholars who ask). If you don’t have tenure yet, Don’t Do It!
The reason is that research universities promote the advancement of knowledge. That’s why they exist. Yes, the faculty at these schools are there to teach the most advanced, serious advances in their field to undergraduates. They are to do that clearly and convincingly, on the students’ levels. But that requires the professor to be a leading scholar in the field. And it requires hard-core research to get to that point. No one is at that point once they’ve finished the PhD. It requires substantially more work and years of effort. And the reality is you can’t do that and write a trade book at the same time.
Even after getting tenure, writing a trade book can sully a research scholar’s reputation among fellow scholars.
As a result, my plan had been NEVER to write a trade book. But my editor at Oxford University Press, Robert Miller (now one of my closest friends), convinced me to do it. And so I wrote the book on Jesus.
My idea was for that to be the one and only trade book I did. And I have to say, I felt a bit like a fish out of water trying to write it. I knew how to write for manuscript nerds and for scholars in my field. I had also figured out how to write for nineteen-year-olds, since I had taught thousands of them already over the course of thirteen years before taking on my textbook.
But I was not quite sure how to write a trade book. And so I did the best I could. I think the one thing that took me a few trade books to figure out was how to pitch it to that audience and what tone to achieve. In particular, I had a pretty good sense about what kind of humor and wit would work with the 19- to 20-year-olds. It proved to be a bit harder to gauge what would work with the adult crowd. Of course, I had been giving public talks to that crowd for many years, but writing is a bit different. It took a while.
Even so, just the other day I was looking over Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, and I still like it a good deal. When I finished it, I thought “OK, that’s that” – back to my scholarship. But then I got swept up in other things, and ended up doing trade books in addition to my scholarship. In doing so, I developed a kind of approach to trade book writing that only in the past few years have I changed. I’ll explain about that in the next post.
For now I’ll just say – and I’m hopelessly thin-skinned on this point (and on others, as you may have noticed) – that I have always tried to ward off the charges from my scholar colleagues that I was “just a popularizer,” that is, someone who wrote trade books but did not advance scholarship. I’ve tried to do so by continuing to publish serious scholarship as well. But, as it turns out, there’s no way to fend off the charge of being a popularizer, no matter how much serious scholarship you do. But I wouldn’t trade my career path (research scholar, professor, trade-book-guy) for the world. Not that the world has made a counter-offer….