Are you sure you know what a "trade publisher" is?

Let's clear it up

Hello Manuscript Workers!

In my work as a developmental editor and consultant for academic authors, and in my general observations on places like, I’ve noticed some confusion about the different types of publishers who put out scholarly books. In particular, I see people throw around the term “trade publisher” in ways that aren’t entirely accurate. I don’t blame academics for this; the entire motivation of this newsletter and my forthcoming book is that there’s no systematic way in which aspiring academic authors learn how publishing works, which leads to a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. Even if you’ve published a book or few already, there’s so much you may never get to see or have explained to you, which leads to sketchy advice being passed even from experienced scholarly authors to their students and mentees. So, here I am.

Before we talk about trade publishing, I want to quickly talk about university presses and commercial academic presses. University Presses are mission-driven, not-for-profit publishers. That means they have some internal mandate to serve the public good through publishing scholarship (and possibly other kinds of books, like regional interest books that serve a local community), and any revenue they generate above and beyond the cost of publishing their books goes back into publishing more books. They may publish many of their books at a loss, to be offset by subsidies or other forms of revenue. They put all (or nearly all) of their book manuscripts through peer review to ensure the scholarly integrity of what they publish.

Commercial academic presses, like university presses, publish scholarship and put it through peer review. But their economic structure is different. These companies aim to make a profit. They may try to do this in a few different ways. One is to publish textbooks, handbooks, and readers, the kind that get reliably adopted in undergraduate college courses where there are a lot of students to purchase them. (If you’re writing an academic monograph based on your original research on a particular topic, your book may have course adoption potential but probably not primary required textbook potential.) The other way publishers try to maximize profit, when a book isn’t expected to sell in huge numbers, is to keep publishing costs as low as possible. Sacrifices might be made in the areas of design, printing, copyediting, and promotion for certain books. A commercial academic publisher may make the calculation that it makes more economic sense to print just a couple hundred copies of a book (or fewer) and sell it directly to libraries at a steep price (think $100 or therabouts), rather than investing a lot into making the book appealing to consumers and trying to sell a thousand copies directly to readers at an affordable price point.

Then there are trade presses, which should not be confused with commercial academic presses (or university presses for that matter). Just because a press is for-profit doesn’t mean it’s a trade press. “Trade” means something very specific in this context. A “trade press” publishes books that are mostly intended to be sold through retail channels like book stores (including online book stores). The books have a “list price” — the price a consumer may expect to pay for the book — but the publisher will sell the book to the retailer at a pretty steep discount off that price, in order to get the publisher to stock the book in their stores. The difference between the discounted price and the list price the reader pays is what the retailer takes home when they sell the books.

In order for the financials to make sense for a trade publisher to take on publishing a given book, they have to anticipate a large enough volume of copies sold that they will still make money, even after giving the big discount to the retailer. This is why trade presses mostly do not publish academic books. Academic monographs are (usually) written for advanced academic readers, and there simply aren’t enough of those readers to justify a trade press investing in producing that book or a book retailer giving that book space on their shelves. (The boundaries between different kinds of presses are not always starkly drawn. A couple of the big trade presses have academic divisions. For example, Bloomsbury has Bloomsbury Academic, which published my first book. These branches of trade presses may function more like commercial academic publishers.)

Of course we can all think of exceptions, in which an academic writes a book that does hold appeal for a broad audience of readers. In this case, the author might consider trying to publish that book with a trade press in the hope of reaching a large nonacademic readership. Smaller, independent trade presses may accept unsolicited proposals from authors (and may put some scholarly manuscripts they acquire through peer review). The bigger trade presses only accept proposals that come to them through literary agents. If a scholarly author wants to write for both academic and nonacademic audiences (and needs an academic publisher for career reasons), they might choose the path of publishing with an academic press that has a track record of successfully publishing trade titles, which can give them a bit of the best of both worlds.

A trade title is a specific book that an academic press decides to push out to retailers at a trade discount because they think it could hold broader appeal and cross over to nonacademic audiences (that’s why they’re sometimes called “crossover books”). In addition to offering these books at a trade discount, the press might package the book in a particular way so as to appeal to nonacademic readers.

Take my client John Cheney-Lippold’s book, We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, as an example:

It’s an academic book, no doubt. It was a revision of a dissertation, it draws on poststructuralist and feminist political philosophy, it has plenty of endnotes, and it was published by a university press. But it’s also on a trendy topic and it’s written in an accessible (and in my opinion, entertaining) way, such that it could be of interest to nonacademics too. This is reflected in its packaging — it has an appealing, artistic cover and the internal design feels intentional and special, with lots of white space on the page rather than dense blocks of tense like we’re used to seeing in academic monographs. Some of the publicity around the book was aimed at nonacademic audiences too, such as public radio listeners. I wasn’t privy to the internal activities of this book’s publisher, but I bet their sales team presented it to retail booksellers and tried to get it stocked on shelves where an average customer browsing around might pick it up.

Now, you don’t get to just take your book proposal to a university press and say “this should be a trade title, please and thank you.” The decision whether to package and market your book as a trade book will be made internally at the publisher, based on their calculations about your book’s sales potential. But you can make a compelling case for your book as a trade book by crafting your proposal to reflect those aspirations. Again, this doesn’t just mean saying somewhere in your proposal that you want it to be a crossover book. It means using every element of the proposal to demonstrate your book’s potential to appeal to a broad audience, from the title to the project description to the table of contents to the comparable works to the author bio.

In a future post, I’ll go into more detail about how you can use each element of your book proposal to communicate its trade potential, if that’s a route you want to take. I also talk about this a little bit in The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors.

That book is, incidentally, what is called an “academic trade” title. The intended readership is mostly academics, but it’ll be marketed and sold differently than a research monograph, since it’s an advice/how-to book that could appeal pretty broadly across disciplines. That target readership affected not only how I wrote the proposal, but also how my publisher and I are thinking about promotion in the coming months. (As a subscriber to this newsletter, you will have a front-row seat for that, so I hope you’re ready!!)

In the meantime, do feel free to kindly and/or pedantically correct people who need a little education on the differences between university presses, commercial academic publishers, and trade publishers, now that you know. (Probably err toward kindly if you can — this topic is admittedly complicated and there are nuances of it that I didn’t even capture in this post. See this great Feeding the Elephant post for some additional details about scholarly book production and pricing, for example.)

If there’s another topic in scholarly writing or publishing that you’d like to get pedantic about but need more knowledge to back you up, reply to this email with your question and I’ll try to address it in a future Q&A post!