Sunday, March 30, 2008

The "Impact Academic Book"

I learned a new term while visiting Oxford University Press in New York two weeks ago. Books that successfully cross the line from purely academic to trade, and that do well in trade bookstores as well as in library and institutional sales, are sometimes known as "impact academic" titles. It sounds kinda slick, so of course it made me edgy, but I have to admit the term does sum up something I've been trying to say with more words. After all, how do you define a book that stands up to scholarly scrutiny, but that also speaks to a larger audience and sells well outside of the academy? "Impact academic" will do for now, I suppose.

So how doth one write an impact academic book? Answers vary, but one way is to examine the fate of other books that accomplished this feat. We discussed many during my visit, and I took some home, including Caroline P. Murphy's Murder of a Medici Princess. It's a beautiful book with a fetching, reader-friendly cover painting of Felice della Rovere, the princess in question. Oxford priced it at $24.95, not the usual hundred or so that so many university press publishers love to insist upon. "Murder" in the title is always good for a glance or two in a busy bookstore, and the book is written in accessible style, sans criticalese or unnecessarily complicated sentences. But it's not watered down, either. Endnotes carefully document everything, the prose is still a challenge (possibly too much so for readers who devoured books like Random House's huge hit Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire a few years ago), and it is quite comfortably an Oxfordly title, but it promises to sell far beyond the usual academic libraries.

Will Murder of a Medici Princess really be able to have it all -- that is, be taken seriously in academic circles while sustaining trade sales? It is just peeking out now along with the first spring blossoms, so it's hard to tell, but I'll watch this title with interest and report anything exciting that I may learn about its progress.

1 comment:

Nate Mow said...

10 Notes (my company) just built a website to support Dr. Murphy's new book...I'm sure she would love to discuss the concept of an "impact academic book" further with you!