Is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support.
But if every university press book is, in some sense at least, an academic book, it doesn’t work the other way around. Some of the books that have influenced me most have been published by trade and independent presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually inspiring biography of Sarah Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Those are both venerable, high-status imprints that frequently publish scholarship for a wide audience...
Are we to understand that academic books are those read only by academics and their ever-diligent, hardworking, curious students? That’s one possible explanation for such a list, but if it were true, it would be a tragedy. University presses can and frequently do publish work that has a general reader foremost in mind. I’m a big fan of William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, published by the University of Texas Press. Oxford University Press has put out accessible work like Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment (distributed by Random House in the US) and Patrick Griffin’s brilliant America’s Revolution. It also publishes Very Short Introductions such as Richard Bernstein’s on The Founding Fathers. Harvard University Press, meanwhile, has had its share of bestsellers.
Cutterham's post is on the mark. So-called "academic books" that make an argument or contain footnotes are published by university presses and trade presses. The main difference is how the publisher chooses to define the book and ultimately promote it. "Academic books" tend to be published by the academic side of a university press (if they have one). They are not usually marketed to brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble. They are marketed to libraries. They are usually published with a price-point above forty dollars. The press does not usually assign a publicist to promote these books.
Non-academic books, or trade books, are marketed to brick and mortar shops. They usually sell for less than thirty dollars. They are assigned a publicist. And the author advance (against future royalties) on such books tend to be a lot larger.
You may think that you wrote a trade book, but if you can't get a trade publisher (or a university press with a trade division) or a literary agent to agree with you, the book will be sold and marketed as an "academic" book.