Thank you to Nick and his co-editors for inviting us to contribute to this symposium on writing books for general audiences! We have both written several books, and one of us – Weatherall – has written two other books for general audiences. But in this post, we are going to focus on our experience co-authoring The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (in what follows, MIA), which was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.
Yale published our book as a trade book. “Trade”, here, is the publishing industry’s word for what others might call “popular” or “public facing”. A trade book is one that is written for and, more importantly, marketed to a general audience. Non-fiction trade books are often published by presses that specialize in books of that nature – publishers such as Penguin Random House or Simon and Schuster. But to publish with one of these Presses, academics generally need assistance, such as from a professional literary agent. Many academic presses, including Yale and Oxford University Press, can also publish trade books, and they have marketing staff who can assist in pushing such books out to book review editors, radio producers, and other media outlets. In fact, often the same editors at University Presses who commission traditional academic books can also commission trade books.
So why publish our book as a trade book—and why with an academic press, instead of a larger trade press? One sometimes thinks of “public philosophy” as analogous to something like “popular science”. Popular science writing generally reports on or explains, in a widely accessible way, existing work in the sciences. One generally does not, and it would not be appropriate to, introduce new scientific ideas in that format. Sometimes public philosophy can be like that, too, where one takes an existing literature in philosophy and tries to describe the key ideas for a general audience.
But that was not the mode of writing we adopted in MIA. Our project was to offer a novel perspective on a topic of pressing public concern, using analytic tools from history and philosophy of science that had not previously been widely applied to that topic. So in this sense, our book was an original work of philosophy that, because of its subject matter, had a natural audience outside of academic philosophy.
As background, here, we should explain what the book is meant to accomplish. The principal thesis of MIA is that the persistence and spread of false beliefs concerning matters of fact is, at least in part, a social phenomenon, rather than (only) a reflection of individual epistemic failures like cognitive biases, poor reasoning skills, or ignorance. The book responds to an idea, widespread in popular media in 2016 following the outcomes of the Brexit vote and the U.S. Presidential election, that voters had been misled by inaccurate information on social media and in some traditional media outlets. The primary foil of the book was the theory that such voters held false beliefs because of their individual failures to “do the research” or adequately vet claims, with suggested solutions primarily focused on education campaigns to help social media users become more savvy.
MIA defends an alternative – though not entirely incompatible – thesis, which is that in certain social contexts, where people learn about the world not only from their own individual experience, but also via the experience and testimony of others, false beliefs persist and spread even when individuals adopt what might seem like reasonable or even necessary heuristics for evaluating how to act and whom to trust. We felt that recognizing this other, social aspect of false belief was necessary for evaluating policy proposals and for identifying sufficient causes for belief polarization. We also thought that there was a relatively new literature in social epistemology of science that we could draw on to explore this thesis.
It was clear from the beginning of the project that these arguments were relevant outside of philosophy. This was the main reason we elected to pursue trade publication: the content of the book seemed to demand it. We wanted to present these ideas in a way that was readable, and would be read, by policy makers and advisors, members of the media, workers in the tech industry, and the general public. There are other reasons for philosophers to write books for general audiences, such as a desire to reach a wider audience with one’s own existing work or as an extension of one’s teaching, where the idea is to share a body of research produced by other philosophers. Such projects, which are more like the “popular science” model mentioned above, are often valuable, though they may also be difficult to sell to trade publishers, who will invariably want to know things like why this, why now, and who is going to care enough to buy the book. In our experience, it is easier to interest trade publishers with ideas that start with something they are independently interested in, rather than something whose principal claim on their attention is that academics have published many research articles about it.
Of course, having an idea that is of clear interest to a wider audience and producing a book that appeals to and reaches that audience are different things. To publish this book as a trade book, we needed to adopt a style that avoided unnecessary jargon, focused on big-picture issues, and sacrificed some of the precision that philosophers value. This was especially difficult for two related reasons. One, which we have already noted, was that the book was developing mostly new ideas, and so it could not refer back to an existing literature in which the more precise and careful philosophical work was already done. (In fact, for just this reason we ended up publishing four journal articles exploring some of the ideas in the book in greater detail; but most of these appeared in print after the book.) The other challenge was that the literature we were drawing on in philosophy of science made heavy use of formal and computational models of scientific communities, and the arguments in the book relied, in part, on new models that we introduced to explore our specific topic. Since some of these models were not yet published elsewhere, we could not simply cite results—we needed to explain in some detail how the models worked.
These challenges were a big part of why Yale University Press was a natural home for the book. One nice feature of publishing a trade book with an academic press is that (usually) the book still needs to be peer-reviewed and to pass muster with an editorial board consisting of other academics charged with preserving the reputation of the Press. So while the book was published as a trade book, it was also vetted as an original academic contribution, which we thought was important given that many of the ideas and models presented in the book had not already been peer-reviewed elsewhere. Plus, in addition to providing some quality control, the fact that the book was a peer-reviewed monograph published by a respected academic press helped ensure that the book would “count” for purposes of promotion. Yale was also willing to tolerate some things that were important to us, given that we wanted the work to meet high standards of scholarship even though we were writing for a general audience, such as detailed endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and somewhat more in-depth discussion of the models than you might otherwise expect in a trade book.
As a final remark, we will briefly describe the process by which the idea for the book – which originated in winter of 2017, when one of us (Weatherall) suggested that the other’s (O’Connor’s) research program in social epistemology of science might be applied to the questions we address in the book – turned into a book contract and, ultimately, a book. Here we had an advantage, which was that Weatherall had previously published a book with Yale University Press, in their (trade) Foundations of Science series, so there was an existing relationship to work from—though that relationship might just as well have been developed through other routes, such as a previous academic publication or a meeting at a conference. We approached the editor Weatherall had worked with previously with a proposal, written in the style that we expected to adopt in the book and sketching the big-picture argument and why it mattered. (To get a sense of what this looked like, the proposal essentially became the first draft of the Introduction of the published book.)
The editor evaluated the proposal himself, and then sent it out for review by outside readers, much like an academic proposal would be handled. Once he received favorable reports, he offered us a contract. This came in the summer of 2017, about six months after we originated the idea. Since the topic was timely, we worried (as it happened, without basis) that its interest might fade if we took too long. We proceeded to write the book very quickly, delivering it in November of that year, less than a year after we started work on it. The draft manuscript was then sent to referees, who made some helpful suggestions; the editor also went through the manuscript carefully, making suggestions about organization and even wording on a sentence-to-sentence level. We produced the final manuscript the following winter, and then it was published a little under a year after that. (The original plan was to publish it in the fall of 2018, before the U.S. midterm elections, but the Press made a tactical decision to hold it back until January of 2019.)
We chose to work through a literary agent. There were a few reasons for this. One was that we had an existing relationship with someone who had helped Weatherall with his previous books, and we trusted her advice and guidance. Another was that it was Weatherall’s agent who had helped establish the relationship with the editor at Yale who we wished to approach, and it would be professionally discourteous to work around her. Yet another reason is that, while academic book contracts (in our experience anyway) tend to be boilerplate and with little room to negotiate, trade contracts have many moving parts, such as international publication rights, royalties, and the possibility of an advance on royalties to offset the expenses of writing the book. An agent can help navigate these details and negotiate a more advantageous contract.
But there are also some disadvantages to working with an agent, which stem from the fact that most agents’ incentives and priorities are not perfectly aligned with those of academic authors. Academic authors often wish to balance reaching a wide audience against writing books that are respected by their colleagues and meet certain standards of intellectual rigor, so that their efforts are recognized as scholarly contributions for purposes of academic advancement. Agents, meanwhile, earn their money as a fraction of royalties earned on the contract, and so their principal goal is to steer authors towards books that are likely to sell well, even if that means sacrificing academic standards.
Still, we have found that some agents (including ours) recognize that a strong academic reputation is an asset for authors when they approach trade editors, and are willing to work with academics to find an appropriate balance. Trade authors often thank their agents in book acknowledgements. We recommend looking for agents by seeing who has represented books similar to the one you would like to write. And although we were very happy with our experience working with an agent, it is not strictly necessary—especially if you seek to publish a trade book through an academic press, and you have an existing relationship with a commissioning editor.