Last week I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter, where I asked writers, editors, and publishers whether they prefer the term “academic” or “scholarly” to refer to the books they work on.
While the results don’t tell us very much (other than how this self-selecting group of 62 people decided to respond on that particular day), I think the poll provided a good opportunity to reflect on the terms we use and why.
Personally, I try to use each term when it’s appropriate based on the context in which I’m writing or speaking. When I talk about “academic” authors or books, I am generally referring to people who are employed within academia and who produce books as part of that employment. The time and money that supports the writing of these books comes from academic institutions. The authors’ goals for these book may be bound up in their academic career goals, as when someone is hoping to publish book in order to bolster their tenure case. The “academic” in academic books may also refer to the publisher, as when a book is published by a press that is affiliated with a university.
“Scholarly” is a more capacious term. One can be a scholar without having anything to do with the academy, and one can write scholarly books outside of academic employment. Scholarly books may be published by commercial or not-for-profit presses that have no affiliation with a university. Scholarly authors may wish to reach readers outside the academy, and thus find “academic” too limiting a term, despite the book’s production within academic institutions.
Some people see “scholarly” and “academic” as terms of identity for themselves, not just their books, and this is where the strong feelings come out. (My own book has a chapter on what happens when “anarchist” is a word people use to refer to themselves, not just their political philosophies, so I get it.) As my fellow editor Margy Thomas pointed out in the Twitter thread, “scholar” is an identity that can’t be taken away. The subtext is that “academic” feels like an identity that has been taken away from so many by the cruelties of the academic job market. I feel this too. I published my book with a commercial academic press while working as a Visiting Assistant Professor with little hope of a permanent academic position. Even though it didn’t do squat for me on the tenure-track job market, I felt proud of my book precisely because it was an accomplishment that couldn’t be taken away from me. Whether I stayed in academia or not, I’d always have that book. And so I understand why people reject the term “academic” in favor of “scholarly.”
In case it needs to be said: A book does not guarantee a job. A book does not guarantee tenure. Publishing your book, even if it is an excellent book, cannot undo entrenched structures of racism, sexism, and classism that make academia more navigable by some than others. It’s best to be realistic about all of this when deciding why you want to write the book in the first place. In my view, the best reason to write a book is to reach readers with something you think they need to hear, and that can happen entirely apart from the academy if that’s what’s meaningful for you.
Ultimately, I think it’s important for writers, editors, and publishers to be clear (and honest) about the books they produce and the goals they have for those books. I continue to use the term “academic” when I describe the work that I do—my Twitter bio says that I’m a “developmental editor and publishing consultant for academic authors”—because I feel that two of the strengths I offer as an editor and consultant are my intimate knowledge of the conditions under which scholarship is produced and judged within the academy and my empathy for people who work (and sometimes suffer) within this system. Do I work on “crossover” books that are intended for a broader audience in addition to academics? All the time. Might “scholarly” be a better descriptor than “academic” for these books? Maybe. But for now, I want to signal to academic authors that I know what they’re going through and that I can (hopefully) make it easier to come out on the other side of the publishing process with a book they can be proud of, whatever their goals might be.