Book development: Challenging content for a general audience
Part of the bedrock of the publishing industry's business model has always included the realization that, to stay afloat, sufficiently healthy sales are required to underwrite the cost of operation and reap profit. Meeting requisite sales levels entails publishing titles that enough people find sufficiently appealing (or necessary) to move them to fork over the cover price.
So how do publishers—and the book producers who work with them—arrive at the attitudes and approaches that define and satisfy audiences? How does one go about determining who will want to read a given title? And what will they expect to accomplish by reading the book? Enter the "general audience"—the nonfiction gold standard for a majority of trade publishers (as well as numerous university and academic presses).
This entity admits of no one definition, of course. Different houses understand general audience to mean different things, but a broad-based consideration leads to something along the lines of "readers who share a sufficiently serious interest in a topic to want to read about it, but may not be equipped and/or willing to take on the technical or difficult prose used to address it."
What do the author's, or manuscript editor's, or publisher's toolboxes need to hold in order to prepare intelligent, challenging works of nonfiction that will satisfy both Everyreader and the Scholar? (Surprisingly, this is a fairly recent distinction that seems to have sprung, in large part, from the technologically driven entertainment culture in which most of us now live. But that's a springboard to a totally different blog.) Numerous notches in my editorial belt have been carved by books intended to span the specialist-generalist divide, and they have given rise to a few ideas.
First, a healthy sense of humility. This applies to both sides of the table—author and reader alike. The scholar is called upon to recognize that few share her/his depth of knowledge and understanding of the material. If reaching out to readers other than initiates in the field is at all desirable to the author, s/he should step back far enough to gain perspective about what needs to be discussed, and how it needs to be presented. Including a bibliography, glossary, and similar reader's aids can go a long way toward helping the less-than-expert grasp the material. That said, the interested reader, whether generalist or specialist, must be willing to take on some of the burden of getting up to speed by becoming versed in those resources that will help answer questions that may arise or flesh out information that is only glancingly mentioned. It should be no surprise that jargon fits neither bill.
Next there is clarity. The writing and, in particular, substantive editing must be called into service to establish and work from an ideal overall vantage point for the subject matter. With that point of departure adopted, the content is more likely to fall into place. If it does not, however, the editor should be prepared to work carefully with the author and provide the needed perspective in order to hone the text appropriately. This is no place for inflated egos (on either contributor's part), nor does it call for infantilization of the audience. The editor should be well versed in the generalist's requirements and able to make unobtrusive suggestions that will assist generalist readers with filling in their own particular blanks.
Finally, acuity and realism. Here is where the book producer and publisher need to contribute accurate comprehension of the book's audience, understanding who these readers are and how best to let them know that the book is intended for them, too. Again, talking down is a sure way to alienate everyone, regardless of background. But overreaching can be just as disastrous. And remember, the sales and marketing functions are apt to take their cue from publisher and editor—rather than the author—so presenting the book in an accurate, realistic light will go a long way toward appropriate and well-targeted representation to the media, academia, and booksellers.