Rachel Toor has a fabulous article (my prejudice) on the "Care and Feeding of the Reader" in a recent issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education. It starts by quoting an article from Harpers about books sold last year:
"Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year, as tracked by Nielsen BookScan: 1,446,000.
"Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000.
"Number that sold more than 100,000: 483."
Now how many books can you think of by academics that have sold more than 100,000 copies -- or even, let's face it, 10,000 copies? Scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jared M. Diamond, Stephen Hawking have all hit the best-seller lists...blockbusters are frequently written by people trained in history but whom academics do not think of as being part of their pack.
Books that sell well don't look or sound academic; books that read well tell a story in a strong and seductive narrative voice. I am not suggesting that scholarly books are not important, but rather that academics who seek a larger audience would do well to bear in mind the advice of Samuel Johnson: "Those authors who would find many readers must endeavor to please while they instruct."
A good writer, she opines, must enchant the reader, rather like a good teacher. You must be able to write what the reader wants to read. And this is an art.
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