The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Writing an Academic Book, Part I: How to Decide Whether You Should Write a Book in the First Place

Part I in a series of posts about how to write an academic book and get it published.


Other academics, particularly younger scholars,  often ask me about how to get an academic book published. When I recently floated the idea of writing a series of blog posts about this issue, on social media, the response was so overwhelming that I decided to go ahead with it.

This is the first post in what I expect will be a series of four or five in all. It will deal with the all-important question of how you should decide whether to try writing a book in the first place. Future posts in the series will take a look at the publication process in more detail, including submitting a proposal, choosing a publisher, and actually writing the book.

By an "academic" book, I mean a book published with a university press or a commercial academic publisher, such as Routledge or Palgrave Macmillan. These publishers usually print books that are intended to make original contributions to scholarly knowledge, and are aimed at least in large part at an audience of experts in the field—though many also reach interested lay readers. I am also going to focus on academic books that seek to make an original contribution, and are authored by one or a small team of authors. Thus, I won't try to cover edited volumes with large numbers of contributors, or textbooks. My advice is also primarily geared to scholars in law, the social sciences, public policy, and areas of the humanities closely related to legal and political issues. These are the fields I am most familiar with.

Before beginning, it may be worth explaining why people might want my advice on this question. I'm no book-publishing guru, and my suggestions are hardly the last word on the subject. But I have published six books with academic publishers, including some of the best-known ones: Oxford University Press, University of Chicago Press, Cambridge University Press, and Stanford University Press. I even published my undergraduate thesis with an academic press, though frankly I had no real idea what I was doing back then. I therefore have a demonstrated record of getting my books accepted and published; several of them have also attracted a good deal of attention from scholars, the media, and interested lay readers. At the same time, I have made plenty of mistakes in the process of working on these projects. All of that experience—both positive and negative—generated some insight that others might be able to use.

I have also served as a peer reviewer for multiple publishers in both the US and Europe, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Chicago, among others; that is, these publishers occasionally pay me to review manuscripts and book proposals and make recommendations on whether they should publish them. That experience has given me a chance to see the process from the other side, and get a better sense of what works and what doesn't.

So, without further ado, let's get down to the point!

When it comes to book publishing, the biggest issue you need to consider is whether you want to write a book in the first place. There are important potential benefits, but also some major costs. The main possible benefits are professional advancement, getting your ideas across in a way that isn't possible in other formats, reaching a bigger audience, and (possibly) increasing your income. The big cost is the time and effort you put in. Let's look at each of these in turn.

I. Professional Advancement

How much publishing a book will help your career varies a lot based on the field you are in. Some academic fields are "book fields," where scholars are expected to publish a book in order to get tenure, or at least have a contract in hand. For obvious reasons, if you are a professor or grad student in one of these fields, you need to start thinking about publishing a book as early in your career as you can. At the other extreme are fields where book publishing is rare or even close to nonexistent, and academics are judged almost exclusively based on articles.

More common are fields like law and political science, where publishing a book can help your career—sometimes a lot—but isn't considered essential. Some famous law professors are known primarily or even almost exclusively for the articles they publish. But others have made their reputations in large part based on their books. If you are in this kind of intermediate field, how much a book will help your career depends in large part on how successful it is.

There are also widely varying expectations for law and public policy scholars who work outside of academia. Some think tanks and research centers outside the academic world focus on long-term "big-picture" policy issues. Examples include the Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute. If you work at one of these places (or want to), publishing an academic book related to your policy research could well be a significant boost to your prospects. On the other hand, there are lots of research organizations that focus more on day-to-day conflicts over politics and public policy. Writing a book probably won't do much for you there.

If you are unsure what the expectations in your field are, you need to find out as quickly as you can. Talk to more senior scholars and see what they say. Another way to get a quick read on this is to make a list of some of the most prominent people in your field, particularly those who are not too much older than you are (as norms may have been different in earlier generations). The more of these successful scholars are best-known for their books (as opposed to their articles) the more likely it is that writing books is a good way to break through in that field.

II. Getting Your Ideas Across Better

Perhaps the biggest potential advantage of writing a book is that it enables you to get your ideas across better than would be possible in another format. The most obvious example is if you want to explore a big issue that requires more space than is possible in an academic article. If you want to do a broad overview of the legal and public policy issues involved in the use of eminent domain to seize private property, and bring them together in a unified whole, as I did in my book The Grasping Hand, it probably cannot be done well in a single article. If you do a series of articles, that gives you more space. But the result won't be a single, integrated whole in the way a book can be.

Writing a book also makes it easier to cut across disciplinary boundaries. Most academic journals are focused on one specific discipline, and it isn't easy to to integrate material from another one (though this varies somewhat by the field). By contrast, book publishers tend to be more open to interdisciplinary work. Much of my work combines material from traditional legal scholarship with ideas and issues from economics and political theory. That makes book publishing attractive (though I have also published a good many interdisciplinary journal articles).

Finally, the book format often enables the author to avoid the often rigid stylistic and organizational requirements imposed on academic journal articles. You don't have to narrowly focus the book on one or a few arguments, and you have much more discretion about length, structure, and style. For example, in my books, I deliberately choose not to use the ridiculously overcomplicated Bluebook citation system required by most law journals. I instead use a simplified system that is more accessible to readers. Book publishers are fine with that. And while some readers don't like my books, I have yet to hear from a reader who thought that the really big flaw in one of them was that it didn't have a complicated enough citation system!

How much these advantages matter will vary based on the nature of your project. But as a general rule, the more space you need to develop your thesis, the more interdisciplinary your project, and the more you chafe at the rigid rules of academic journals, the more you should consider doing the project as a book.

III. Reaching a Wider Audience

In some situations, writing a book allows you to reach a much wider audience than is possible with an academic article. One of the dirty secrets of academia is that most scholars rarely read articles from journals outside their own field—even in many situations where the articles are highly relevant to their research. Perhaps it shouldn't be that way. But all too often, that's how it is.

By contrast, academics are more likely to read research by a scholar in another field if it's published as a book, especially by a major academic publisher. Then it's less likely to be seen as a narrow "law," "political science," "economics," or "sociology" project, and more simply as a book about the specific subject it focuses on (say, the development of property rights, or the behavior of voters).

Lay readers—even those with a strong interest in intellectual matters—are even less likely to read academic journal articles than academics are. On the other hand, many do read nonfiction books about law, politics, history, and other such issues. If you want to reach lay readers and not just academic experts, the book format is almost always better than an article.

My book Democracy and Political Ignorance is an example of these dynamics. The ideas I develop there are of potential interest to scholars in a wide range of disciplines outside my own, including political science, economics, philosophy, and others. But it's highly unlikely many of them would have noticed if I had published the same material as a series of law journal articles. It is even less likely lay readers and the media would have taken any notice.

Because I published it as a book, Democracy and Political Ignorance has accumulated hundreds of citations in non-law academic journals, and has been assigned in classes in a number of different departments, including ones in economics, political science, and communications. It also attracted a decent amount of attention from both US and foreign media, and eventually got translated into Italian and Japanese. I was, admittedly, greatly helped by the widespread interest in the subject of political ignorance. Still, it's likely that none of this would have happened if the same material were published in article form.

How much these advantages matter depends largely on the subject you are writing about. If your topic is a narrow one unlikely to interest anyone outside your field, that weakens the case for turning it into a book. On the other hand, the broader your topic, the better the case for turning it into a book.

IV. Making Money

In most cases, increasing your income is one of the weakest reasons for writing an academic book. It is true that book publishers pay you royalties, whereas journals that publish articles usually do not. But, with rare exceptions, you won't earn all that much money from it. As a general rule, academic press royalty rates are about 5 to 10 percent of net receipts. Even if your book sells much better than the average academic press book does, you probably won't make much more than a few thousand dollars from the royalty payments  on it (often spaced out over several years).

There is sometimes much more money to be made from book-related speaking engagements. But you can't count on that, and it probably won't happen to any great extent unless your book is on a topic that has broad appeal and is unusually popular and successful. Most academic book-related speaking engagements pay you only a small speaker fee or sometimes just travel costs.

I make a lot more money from royalties and speaking engagements than the average book-writing academic. But it still rarely rises above $10-20,000 per year—and that's for all my books combined.

You can make vastly more money than that on both royalties and speaking engagements if you are a "celebrity" academic like Steven Pinker or Cass Sunstein. But if you're not in that category, then money should probably be only a small factor in your decision-making on whether to write an academic book. And if you are like Pinker and Sunstein, you probably don't need my advice on book writing to begin with!

V. The Costs

The potential benefits of writing an academic book have to be weighed against the costs, which can be great. The biggest is the enormous time and effort involved. When I was a young scholar, I used to think that if a book is five times longer than an article, it should take five times longer to write. In reality, it's more like ten or fifteen times. A bigger, more complicated project, is often harder to organize and prepare than several smaller ones with the same combined length. Other book writers I know report similar experiences.

The time it takes you to write a book can potentially be used to write multiple articles. In combination, they might help your career more than book would. If you need to increase your income and you're in a field where there are outside consulting opportunities, you can probably make more money doing that than by devoting the same length of time to book-writing. If instead of writing six books, I had devoted the same time to consulting for law firms, I would likely be considerably wealthier than I currently am.

The time and effort devoted to writing books (which often comes on top of other professional obligations) can also put a strain on family relationships. That's an additional cost.

Admittedly, these costs may not be so big if you're a workaholic, if you are unusually good at time management, or if you're just a very quick writer. But many people—including most academics—don't fall into those categories.

The costs of book-writing are often high, but the benefits can be, as well. Writing books can be the most rewarding thing you ever do in an academic or public policy career.

Many people compare writing a book to raising children. I wouldn't go quite that far, and I do not love my books as much as I love my kids. But I do love them far more than any of my other writings. In the books, I was able to do things I could never have done in another format. If any of my work is still read after I am gone, I hope it will be the books.

Whether the costs of writing a book outweigh the benefits is going to vary a lot based on the nature of your research, and on your personal situation. It may also vary based on what stage you are at in your life and career. For example, the sacrifice of time may be more forbidding if you are at a point in life where you have small children.

Only you can know whether writing a book is worth the trouble for you. But this post outlines some considerations you should weigh.