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Why Don’t More Scholars Write Trade Books?

This post is free for all readers.  It can give you an idea of *one* kind of post you find on the blog, five days a week.  Usually the posts are actually discussing what scholars say about the New Testament or the early years of Christianity; some are more like this.  If you joined the blog you, could get all of them, each and every week, going back seven years.  And comment on them.  And hear me respond to your comments.  So why not join?

In my most recent thread I’ve been talking about trade books (written for popular audiences, rather than for scholars) and have received this interesting question, that I don’t recall actually addressing head on before.

 

QUESTION:

Why don’t more scholars try their hand at trade books? I agree with another blogger who said that the general public crave knowledge about technical and complicated subjects (history, science, philosophy, religion, etc.). Is it considered crossing over to the dark side??

 

RESPONSE:

This is a great question, and one I think about all the time – and have thought about regularly for over thirty years – necessarily, since I’m a scholar who writes trade books.  I certainly wasn’t doing that thirty years ago.  I was trying, instead, to establish my credentials as a scholar.   But I obviously knew, or rather, knew of, scholars who wrote trade books, especially in my field, and so had to think about the value and utility of doing so, and thought about it quite assiduously.  My thought at the time was that there was no way on God’s green earth I would ever write trade books myself.   That often seems strange to non-scholars but makes absolutely perfect sense to most scholars.

So let me explain why – at least from my experience – most scholars are not interested in, themselves, reaching out to the broader public.  Let me stress that I am decidedly not saying that scholars don’t want others to know of their work, or that they think the public should be misinformed or uninformed.  I’m saying that they themselves, as a rule, are not interested in writing such books, and often, ironically, look down on others who do.  But why?

To begin with, no scholar, at least in any serious academic field, is ever trained to write a trade book.  We are trained to produce scholarship.  It’s a different universe.  In graduate school we are trained to write serious academic book reviews of scholarly books; to produce term papers that replicate and that sometimes then turn into academic articles written for academic journals to advance academic knowledge for those with academic training; and to write dissertations that will be, in many cases, the first academic book published by an academic press, again for scholars in the field.

But why?  Why not be trained to reach out to a popular audience?  Because the ultimate raison d’être for scholarship is to advance learning and to create knowledge.  As, in my strong opinion, it should be.   I’m trying to think of an analogy.  A world class painter is not normally trained or expected to produce mass-produced art for a PR firm.   And most wouldn’t want to.  And would look down on those who do.  There are exceptions of course, but if you can think of them, it’s because they stand out from the crowd.  Most artists want to develop their craft, sales be damned.  They aren’t going to go for mass appeal.  They have a drive to advance their artistic passions.

I’m not sure that’s a perfect analogy, but I hope you see what I mean.  (I have a very serious artist friend and this is *exactly* his view.)  Most scholars have gotten into scholarship because they are passionate their field and they want to spend their research time learning more, developing their own insights, making new discoveries, advancing the understanding of the serious topics they’re interested in, and, in effect producing knowledge.  That’s why they got into the business.

Moreover that’s where the real cachet is in the scholarly world.   If you want to be known as an important scholar in your field, you will never, ever (EVER) get there by writing trade books.   Trade books almost never advance knowledge seriously.   And scholars in the field almost never read the trade books of others in the field.  Why should they?  What are they going to learn?  Either the book will say what they already know or what they already disagree with.  (I’m not saying that’s actually true: there are couple of my trade books – How Jesus Became God, Jesus Before the Gospels, and the Triumph of Christianity that I wish scholars *would* read, because I advance serious arguments and support them with evidence and arguments that many scholars simply seem to be unaware of, especially in my least best known recent book, Jesus Before the Gospels).

And so scholars assume – usually rightly – that trade books aren’t gonna say much that’s new.  Or if it is new, it’s not supported with sufficient scholarly evidence and argument (since it’s not a scholarly book)  And that’s why there has been a (very) long tradition of scholars looking down on colleagues who write trade books.  I think that has begun to change, to some extent (as I’ll explain later).  But scholars who write trade books are indeed looked down upon, often, as “popularizers” (that’s a four-letter word in scholarly circles).  They have sold out to market interests.  Dumbed down complicated matters, grossly oversimplified things, sensationalized serious knowledge, forsaken their true love (the scholarship in their field) for popularity and money.

A lot of this is driven by blind jealously — blind both because it’s blinding to the merits of good trade books but also blind because those who hold it don’t see its real roots, in a kind of professional resentment that someone else is getting the attention (and income) that they themselves would like to have.  Without having to stoop so low as to communicate with normal human beings.

I will admit that part of this assessment does in fact make sense and has solid basis.  A lot of trade books – maybe most? – really are written by people who are not experts in the fields they describe, and readers who are *not* scholars don’t have the tools to discern whether the author has solid scholarship supporting her or his views or is, instead, just blowing wind to make a buck or to influence public opinion.  One naturally thinks of some of those crazy Mythicist books that so many people read (well, not millions of people; but I certainly hear from a lot of them).

But more than that.  Most of the very best-selling books about Jesus have been written by people without serious training in the field, who, in fact, most of the time, can’t even read the New Testament in Greek.  Good grief.

Scholars understandably get resentful about that.   So there is a scholar who has spent 30 years studying the historical Jesus, mastering the ancient languages, reading scholarship on the topic in all the major research languages of Europe, publishing academic articles advancing our knowledge, working diligently at the craft – and some other bloke comes along who has read a dozen books in English and writes up a sensationalized view based on no real scholarship, just a theory based on an opinion and a few readings of the Gospels, who sells hundreds of thousands of books to people who end up thinking, hey, this fellow’s really on to something!  Of course there’s resentment.

On the other hand.  Why would serious scholars object if other serious scholars write books explaining the findings of real scholarship to a popular audience?  Those who do object almost always do so also out of jealousy – DAMN, that person’s getting all the attention, but MY work is much better!  No one would admit that, of course.  But it’s something we’ve all felt — all of us scholars.

Oh boy do I understand that.   And there is, indeed, often a good basis for it.  Even scholars sometimes overly sensationalize in order to get a reading audience.  I won’t name names, but I have some in mind.  And as you may know, this is an accusation sometimes leveled against me.  What can you do?  As a scholar writing these books, all you can do is proceed responsibly and do your best not to distort the truth in order to win a reader.

If others want to charge you of that, the best to do is to ask for an instance of it.  I often get charged with doing this in Misquoting Jesus; and whenever I ask someone who charges me of it to tell me any factual mistake in the book, anything that I said that is just wrong, or even distorted.  I have never yet received an answer.   But maybe someone will point out one to me now!

I have more to say about the topic – more than I expected to say; but this post is already too long, so I’ll go at it again in the next post.

 


Some Pitfalls of Writing for a General Audience
How Did We Get Chapters and Verses?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    flshrP  September 8, 2019

    Like you, scholars spend years getting advanced degrees (docs, post-docs, etc) and then more years doing original research and publishing scholarly papers, monographs, books, etc to establish their credentials as world-class scholars in their field. Decades later some of these recognized scholars may write articles and books for the general reading public in their later years when they have the tenure and other benefits that give them more time for these pursuits. Example: Albert Einstein who didn’t publish trade books until he became ALBERT EINSTEIN, Nobel laureate and the successor to Issac Newton as the GOAT– greatest of all time physicist.

    So, if a young scholar starts writing trade books 5 or 10 years into a 40-50 year career, it’s possible that this some of his peers would think that he’s petered out as an original researcher. Career suicide. So I guess you are truly a black swan who’s been able to pull off this dual career path successfully. Awesome.

  2. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 8, 2019

    Ironically I was just reading similar article on this subject, though the focus was on American history, The scholars that do write popular/trade books are providing a public service and advancing knowledge because they are making an academic subject matter outside academia accessible to a larger audience who may not know about the subject. That’s how I got into history and motivated me to return to college complete my BA in history.

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  September 8, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This post does help me understand why writing trade books is not more common, but let me me express how grateful I am for your trade books. They have really transformed my life….and that is not an exaggeration. They helped rescue me from fundamentalism and from hating myself for questioning what I thought was a perfect and error less book. I have a very conservative friend who is a schloar (in worship history, not early Christianity) that is trying to write a trade book and has been stuck for over a year. It takes discipline and artistic know how to make that jump into the popular world. Did you have a mentor that helped guide you or did you just have a knack for it?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      No, no mentor. I just figured it out. Maybe I’ll post on that down the line.

  4. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  September 8, 2019

    You don’t mention the issue most often raised in promotions committee meetings in my own college: that trade books (and textbooks) are intended to make money. That, we assume, is their purpose. So the scholar should not expect to be rewarded by promotion because the filthy lucre is all the reward they deserve. And if the project doesn’t make money, then it was unsuccessful and shouldn’t be rewarded anyway. Trade books and textbooks not only do not count toward promotions, but the assumption is that their authors chose to work for money rather than for knowledge (evil rather than virtue), so the net result is often actually negative. (I wrote textbooks.)

  5. Avatar
    mombird903  September 8, 2019

    Somehow the scholarly information has to get out to the masses or nothing will change. I mentioned in another post about Dawkins and Greene and how their books opened up an entire world of information that I would never have known about. The same with your books Bart. Yes, perhaps these kind of books are dumbed down a bit but they are valuable all the same. They open up new vistas in thinking. I feel most of us who read the “trade” books that scholars write about science or religion don’t do it for fun but to learn. We are interested and get the benefit of knowledge without having to be scholars ourselves. Also, after reading enough on a topic usually a reader can decipher for her self what is non-sense and what is serious. Honestly, scholarship needs to be shared to one and all otherwise what’s the point? As for the artist, of course an artist doesn’t want to be considered a commercial artist. The artist wants to create and make a statement but that work of art gets shared. What work of art should be kept locked away for only other artists to see? Gosh Bart, sorry I’m rambling. Sermon over!

  6. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 8, 2019

    Some notable figures in other fields, like math and science, have written what are effectively trade books. I am thinking of Poincare and Hadamard and even Schrodinger and Einstein. They are trying to communicate difficult concepts to a broader audience, and I don’t think anyone ever looked down on them. There is a blog I follow that is maintained by a respected German theoretical physicist (she even does music videos!) who is doing somewhat the same thing you are doing– explicating issues and problems in the field so that a lay audience can gain some understanding and insight. So there is really nothing wrong with what you are doing. It seems that it has not yet become respectable in your field of scholarship, but you might be blazing a trail that others will follow. I certainly hope so.

  7. Avatar
    prestige7jem  September 8, 2019

    Don’t artists who create art to advance the practice want non-artists to see it as well? Don’t musicians want non-musicians to hear their work even if they are mainly interested in mastering their craft? It seems tragic that scholars, and scientists, don’t care to find a way to transfer that information to the general public. Which in return, creates doubt and mistrust of those fields and what they discover in much of the public. Consider the challenge of telling the general believer that the New Testament is not historically reliable even though scholars have known this for centuries.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      Yes, but they want them to see and appreciate *their* art. They don’t want to cater to the desires and wishes and tastes of the broader public.

  8. Avatar
    doug  September 8, 2019

    Your trade books have increased the knowledge and helped improve the lives of myself and many others. Your trade books have probably even inspired some people to become NT scholars. Thank you Bart.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  September 8, 2019

    I don’t know this is equally true in all areas of historical study. I remember one of my professors in grad school praising Garrett Mattingly’s very popular book The Armada, saying that it was sound scholarship, ground-breaking, but also highly entertaining. He talked about how people would show up in hordes for book signings by Mattingly, and he didn’t sound condescending–or jealous–just admiring. (And no doubt trying to figure out how he could do the same someday).

    A lot of my professors said that the goal was to write meticulously but also well, so that people other than fellow scholars in your precise field would benefit from what you’d learned. Most of the recommended reading list I got to turned out to be very readable–but perhaps still written for a fairly highbrow audience.

    That was modern European history (dating back to the Renaissance), some of it conducted in modern English, and the barriers to cross are less formidable. You don’t have to keep explaining all the translation difficulties, and of course you don’t have to deal with people knowing nothing but the King James version of the story you’re trying to get across, and all the wacky modern interpretations they’ve been subjected to. But there are misnomers about basically all cultures and periods of history people remember (not too many about, let’s say, the Parthians, who don’t get so much press for some reason).

    It does seem like the standards for studying Early Christianity are very high, but that’s no less true of the French Revolution (and come to think of it, most of what people hear about that speciality is not from scholars, but novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers–and political zealots trying to make a point–perhaps there is a comparison to be made).

    I think the bete noire for my professors in English history was Antonia Fraser–I wouldn’t say they hated her, but there was a certain note of amusement. Still and all, somebody has to keep people interested in the past, and hopefully some will go past the bodice-ripping pageturners to the real thing.

    In any event, if you’re going to write, write well. If Paul and the gospel authors hadn’t, would we be having this conversation?

  10. Avatar
    Hon Wai  September 8, 2019

    Evangelical biblical scholars on the other hand churn out trade books all the time e.g. Peter Williams’ recent “Can we trust the gospels”.
    I’m confident Bart’s bestsellers are inerrant i.e. they do not contain any factual mistakes 😉
    How you posted a response to Craig Evan et. al. critique of your book “How Jesus became God” in their edited volume “How God became Jesus”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      Oh yes, I posted a long series of responses to it on the blog: just search for Craig Evans and you’ll find them.

  11. Avatar
    RAhmed  September 8, 2019

    “So there is a scholar who has spent 30 years studying the historical Jesus, mastering the ancient languages, reading scholarship on the topic in all the major research languages of Europe”

    Something I’ve wondered and am a bit mystified about is the fact that scholars such as yourself and the ones you refer to often casually mention reading in many different languages. So, how fluent do you have to be in all these languages? From my experience, it can take years and years and years just to master one language. Yet from what I understand, Biblical scholars are reading Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Ugaritic, German, French, and English. So, is my understanding wrong here or are you all really able to do this? Because that sounds almost superhuman!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      I’m not fluent in any of them. And can’t speak them at all. I can grind my way through a book in French, German, or Italian, but I need a dictionary usually. I never read ancient languages without a lexicon by my side (well, unless it’s a familiar text already, such as the NT).

  12. Avatar
    pstrst@pacbell.net  September 8, 2019

    Is it tempting for some scholars to write a trade book in the hopes it will take off (as a few titles do) and earn substantial royalties? I would assume scholarly books are not big money-makers…which is also true of 99% of trade nonfiction books. I write trade nonfiction and so am curious about how people view it from scholarly/academic side.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      Yes, scholarly books make virtually no money; and most trade books don’t sell. There it is!

  13. Avatar
    Victor  September 8, 2019

    Bart, you mentioned that scholars can overly sensationalize in trade books in order to get an audience. Does this also happen in actual scholarly research? E.g., someone making a career out of theories that are provocative but poorly supported or rather clearly wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2019

      Yes, there’s a fine line between serious scholarship and sensationalized scholarship, to the point that scholars deeply question whether another scholar is really a scholar at all. Kind of like a geologist who claims there really was a world-wide flood in biblical times. Is he really a serious geologist?

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  September 9, 2019

    The fact that more scholars of early Christianity or related fields don’t write trade books is mysterious to me, too. I think there is certainly a strong interest in this subject among the general public, and God knows, more knowledge in this area would certainly benefit us as a society. Eminent theoretical physicists, to use one example, are constantly writing books for a general readership. They leave out the equations, which most casual readers wouldn’t understand anyway, but most of them are still able to present deep and cutting-edge ideas in physics in a manner accessible to lay readers willing to put in a little effort. More dissemination of real scholarship can only be a good thing.

  15. Avatar
    chadbeast  September 9, 2019

    Excellent article. I would love to see more trained scholars writing for a mass audience. There is always the tension between quality content and what attracts a mass audience. In this genre there is the even deeper tension between wanting the truth and wanting to hear what we wish to be true. Believing what you see instead of seeing what you believe. The optimistic view is that the more quality content that is out there the more enlightened our culture will be. Will “Jesus Before the Gospels” eclipse the sales figures of “Left Behind”? One can only hope. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, fiction vs non-fiction, but perhaps speaks to the broader point.

  16. galah
    galah  September 9, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, surely, of all the posts you’ve received since you’ve been doing this blog, someone out there, at some point in time, has said something that stirred a thought, perhaps enlightening you about something you’d never considered before. Maybe it was something you already knew, but just hadn’t put two and two together. Maybe that’s never happened to you. I don’t know. But, there are lots of amateurs in every field and, sometimes, someone discovers something incredible. For example, occasionally you hear of amateur astronomers finding something in the sky and bringing it to the attention of scientists before they are aware of it. Astronomers, it seems, are thankful for such findings, not insulted because an amateur got lucky. It rarely happens, in large part because scientists have access to much more powerful tools than amateurs. They see far more sky. Likewise, it’s unlikely that an amateur historian will enlighten a professional scholar, since scholars have access to much more data, but it’s not impossible. I don’t think professional astronomers see themselves as the only ones looking at the night sky. Neither are biblical scholars the only ones looking at ancient biblical texts, ancient histories, etc. We need more scholars with less ego, who are willing to open up to the public as you have done. Everyone would win.

  17. Avatar
    hankgillette  September 10, 2019

    “A world class painter is not normally trained or expected to produce mass-produced art for a PR firm.”

    Yet, Shakespeare wrote for a popular audience, and he is widely considered the greatest writer of English of all time.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      He didn’t see himself as a scholar writing for general audience. He was producing plays for public performance. He didn’t even save, let alone publish, his original texts….

  18. Avatar
    cristianp  September 16, 2019

    763/5000
    Dear Dr. Ehrman, I have had the privilege of having some exchanges of opinions with Antonio Piñero (academic of the Complutense University of Madrid), which is the closest thing to a homologue of yours. He also has several commercial books, and he told me that he thinks that in the midst of a world full of religiosity and pseudo researchers, he considers it of almost vital importance to bring academic knowledge to the general public.
    I live, literally, at the end of the world, where I have no physical closeness to scholars in this field. And you dear Eherman and Piñero, have been invaluable to me, and not only to me, but to those who have been able to bring their research and reading their books. I can’t say more than thanks and thanks

  19. Avatar
    cristianp  September 16, 2019

    Can a scholar, in any field, let himself be seduced by the ego and competition, and without having absolute data confirmation write an absolutely sensationalist article? I absolutely think so. I remember a debate in which Daniel B. Wallace presented Dr. Ehrman with the information of a fragment of Mark’s gospel, which he claimed was from the middle of the first century. Serious mistake since it was later confirmed that it was from the end of the second century or the beginning of the third.

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