I thought I should share with you my on-going and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my popular history of medieval science. The book, called the Genesis of Science, is intended to show lay readers that quite a lot of science was happening in the Middle Ages. It also demonstrates how this science fed through into the work of Copernicus, Galileo and other early-modern natural philosophers. Finally, it debunks several of the most egregious myths about the Middle Ages, most of which involve the church.
Let me begin with some background to the publishing industry. There are three kinds of publisher that might be interested in a book about medieval science. First are the academic publishers including the university presses, Brill, Routledge and the like. They publish books written by scholars for scholars. You rarely find them in general bookstores and they can often be prohibitively expensive. Books published under an academic inprint are intended to further the writer's career rather than make him any money.
Next are textbook publishers. These bring out books for students that tend to go through multiple editions to keep them up-to-date. Textbook writers are usually academics although, for high school and primary school, the work is often done by retired teachers. It can be very lucrative, especially if your book becomes the standard work on the subject that every English speaking undergraduate has to have. Peter Atkins, the hostile atheist, made his money from the textbook Physical Chemistry. Working on a textbook can end up as a permenant job because you have to keep up with changes to the syllabus and sometimes this requires a new book every year. One important textbook on medieval science exists - David Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. Others aspire to its crown.
Finally, there are trade publishers that publish books that normal people read. They are out to make money by selling to the biggest market that they can. They understand that this limits the number of titles that can sell on a particular topic. They are also usually unwilling to publish a book about a subject that has never been touched before. This is because they don't know if the market exists or not. The ideal book for a trade publisher is the same as one that has sold well already, but different enough to justify people reading it as well.
These three compartments are surprisingly watertight. Crossover is rarer than you might think despite many of the big houses having fingers in all three pies. Books tend to be targetted at one particular market and have packaging to match.
Next time, I'll tell you how I set about finding an agent.
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