In 2003, Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels hit pay dirt with Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Though she was not a stranger to general market success (see "The Peril and the Promise" in this issue), Beyond Belief propelled Pagels to the big time. It was the right book at the right Da Vinci moment and became a national bestseller.
Although the scale of Pagels's ascendancy is unusual for an academic, it's part of a larger crest of interest in religion books. According to the Association of American Publishers, religion as a category grew by an astonishing 37% in 2003. Although books written by academics account for only a small percentage of this growth, the demand for serious religion books has risen right alongside the mandate for more popular fare. Stellar editors are helping an increasing number of scholars move from writing solely for the academy to communicating to a much broader audience—though not without some effort. PW spoke with a few of them about the features and challenges of this strengthening phenomenon.
Short and Sweet
Many religion editors point to the rise of the concise introduction and the short biography, saying that scholars who are serious about writing popular books need to learn how to condense their message. The general feeling is that readers are short on time, so while there's always room for a book like George Marsden's magisterial—and enormous—biography of Jonathan Edwards (Yale, 2003), the trend is to scale things down. Carolyn Carlson, executive editor at Viking Penguin, points to the Penguin Lives series, which distills information about famous individuals into short, accessible biographies. Some of the strongest sellers in the religion arena have been by academics, including Karen Armstrong's Buddha, which was a PW and New York Times bestseller in hardcover. The paperback edition was released in September. Martin Marty's biography of Martin Luther (Jan. 2004) and Garry Wills's treatments of Saint Augustine and the Confessions have also been strong sellers, Carlson reports. The newest in Wills's series, Conversion, comes out in December.
In a similar vein, Oxford has had success with its Seven Deadly Sins series, in which several of the volumes were written by academics. Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhism at Columbia University, wrote the book on anger (Oct.), while Cambridge philosophy professor Simon Blackburn penned the volume on lust (2003). Oxford senior editor Elda Rotor, who acquired the series, also touts the press's Very Short Introduction series and an unnamed one offering brief four-color illustrated books on world religions. "People want to be informed, but they want something succinct," she notes.
N.T. Wright, the British New Testament scholar whose academic commentaries have made him a top figure in biblical studies, uses the alter ego of "Tom Wright" when writing for ordinary folks. The first 12 volumes of his For Everyone commentary series with Westminster John Knox Press have sold 30,000 copies in the U.S., reports David Dobson, director of product management. "He can write the 800-page scholarly books, but then turn around and move into an accessible style for laity," says Dobson.
Finding the "General Reader"
Although dozens of religion scholars have managed to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the cafe at Barnes & Noble, there are probably far more who haven't been able to connect with the elusive "general reader."
Lil Copan, editor at Paraclete Press, says that academics who want to write for the general market need to do some homework first. "Do a lot of reading in the genre you are looking to write in," she advises. Writers should "study the market, get a feel for the books out there that are competing products, get a sense for the publishing houses and of what general readers are looking for." Then authors need to prepare for a different writing style, one that "focuses on the communication of an idea, rather than just putting forth that idea." Scholars, she says, sometimes battle an overwhelming desire to burden the reader with too much information instead of picking and choosing the most salient points.
Then there is the question of language. Editors love to work with scholars who willingly jettison the jargon instead of clinging to its comforting air of erudition. Jewish Publication Society CEO Ellen Frankel says that scholars need to ask themselves whether general readers actually share academics' "theoretical, historical, [and] theological assumptions." Trade editors also require scholar-authors to let go of the extensive footnotes that are a regular feature of academic books, a shift that many scholars find unsettling.
Brazos Press editorial director Rodney Clapp cautions that what academics imagine is appropriate for a popular audience is often "three or four steps above the actually existing general readership level." If they're serious about writing for the general market, scholars need to find out what makes those readers tick. "What can you talk about with nonacademic friends or acquaintances at a party or football game and not see their eyes glaze over?" Clapp asks.
The Power of Story
Editors say language is just the tip of the iceberg. The deeper issue is connecting with the reader through story. Says Jeremy Langford, executive editor for religious studies at Rowman & Littlefield/Sheed & Ward, "Narrative is a very powerful vehicle, and narrative in religion sells. People want to know if you think about this in your own life."
Langford heralds the success story of Daniel Harrington, a professor at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston. When discussing his manuscript for How Do Catholics Read the Bible? as part of Sheed & Ward's Come and See series, Harrington happened to mention a childhood story that revealed why he was interested in the subject. In 1950, when he was 10 years old, two well-dressed Bible salesmen came to Harrington's house, only to be rebuffed by his mother. "We're Catholics," she informed them. "We don't read the Bible." The boy overheard this conversation and wondered about it for years—was it true that Catholics didn't read the Bible? Much of his adult research showed that, to the contrary, Catholics were steeped in the Bible through the Mass.
When Langford heard this tale, he encouraged Harrington to open with the anecdote and use it to frame the entire book. Although Harrington was initially intimidated by inserting some of his personal story into his writing, he did it several times. Langford recently had a moment of satisfaction when Harrington told him that out of all the books he's written, this was the most enjoyable because of the personal elements in the narrative.
Beacon Press senior editor Amy Caldwell also praises one of her authors on this score. In May 2005, Beacon will release Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith by Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University. Caldwell says Beal is "willing to take risks" and understands the "whys" behind religious attractions like Holy Land USA, Golgotha Fun Park and the Precious Moments Chapel. "He has to examine why he's so interested in these sites and people. It gives the book a drive, an arc," she explains. The personal saga of the Beal family's 2002 RV tour to see these sites forms a travelogue-style framework for the book and helps to connect readers to the subject.
Sheryl Fullerton, executive editor at Jossey-Bass, says that this jump to storytelling is difficult for many academics because of their training. "The socialization that Ph.D. students go through is very thorough and very lasting," she explains. "It's hard for a lot of them to be personal, to use personal examples and stories—or even to be comfortable with stories and examples at all. I've observed that moving out of theory and abstraction is discomfiting [for them], as is the idea of having a voice or persona whose presence is alive in the manuscript."
Several editors report that academics are often surprised by how difficult it is to write for a general audience. "All they usually think they have to do is dumb it down, use smaller words," says Jon Pott, v-p and editor-in-chief of Eerdmans. "Those are important things, but that's not enough. Truly writing for a general audience requires a deeper shift in the head. That's harder to get across, and I frankly think that many academics will never do it well. One thing I tell them is to think orally. If they operate the way they would when they're speaking to an undergraduate class, they're going to be zippier than when they're speaking to their colleagues."
Although scholars face some obstacles in connecting to a general audience, the benefits can be huge. Beyond healthy sales and broad exposure, for many the greatest reward might be in discovering that "ordinary" readers can come to care passionately about the issues that absorb scholars.