Outbox: Smart Books

Top L to R: Unbuttoning America by Ardis Cameron, The Borscht Belt by Marisa Scheinfeld. Bottom L to R: Where the River Burned by David and Richard Stradling, The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel, Under the Surface by Tom Wilber

By Michael J. McGandy

A couple of months ago I was recording a segment for “1869: The Cornell University Press Podcast” and our marketing director, Martyn Beeny, asked me what I meant when I talked about “smart books.” I had used the term in association with the sort of titles I wanted to acquire for our new regional trade imprint, Three Hills. “Smart” sounded like a good word, even a smart word, but what did I mean by it?

I paused, and audibly gulped. (You can listen here; the gulp comes at 2:06.) While I pulled myself together and said something about books that were “well-researched,” “informed,” “fair,” and “searching”—all good words, too—the truth was that I was not sure what I meant when I used the term “smart.” I felt that I knew what a smart book was but, when asked by Martyn, I realized I did not have a handle on what was obviously an intuitive feel for the sort of title I wanted to sign for the imprint.

A lot of work in publishing is, in fact, done by feel and intuition. That is part of the peril and fun of what we acquisitions editors do when we make judgments about quality and determine what we want to publish. Yet my failure to be articulate on this topic bothered me, and so I thought more on it. I use the term most often when I am talking about my trade and academic-trade titles—books that are meant to appeal to broader audiences—and that sense of readership plays into the concept of smart that, after some reflection, I struck upon.

I paused, and audibly gulped. The truth was that I was not sure what I meant when I used the term “smart book.”

Smart books have flare. A book that will engage readers needs to not just convey information but do so in an appealing way. It has to be a pleasure to read. There have to be moments when the reader pauses and says to herself, “That is a really good sentence.” Reading should be a joy.

Smart books respect their readers. A book is for its readers. It is not for the author. It is not for the editor. So the author needs to know who his readers are and appeal to them. The insecure author will wonder if he is being asked to pander to readers (i.e., to dumb things down). Good authors know that is silly response. An effective and well-crafted book will meet readers where they are.

Smart books wear their intelligence lightly. These books show more than they tell. They are not freighted with spare research that does not help the argument or illuminate the prose. They do not feature stilted language and jargon so as to position the author with an elite crowd or cow the supposedly less intelligent reader into awe at the erudition of the author. The author of a smart book is secure in her authority as a writer and researcher. In that security, she is able to write well and communicate with her readers. Always, the intelligence of the author shines through.

It is a rush of goosebumps on the arms and a tingling at the base of the scalp. I know the book is fresh, exciting, important—it is just right.

Smart books have a purpose. Not-so-smart books simply follow trends, seek the sensational, and measure success solely in dollars and cents. Smart books have a mission. That mission may be no more lofty than to render a rich and true account of a person’s life or to provide deep insight into some intriguing phenomena of the natural world. Sometimes the mission will relate directly to the news of the day and connect with important trends in politics and policy. Regardless, the author will be passionate about the subject, and will be driven to share his knowledge and experience with others. In fulfilling that purpose, a smart book should also make money for the author and the press; the profit is as much an index of the effect the book has had in the world—how many readers—as a measure of the impact it has had on his personal bank account.

I could add a few more items to the list, but these four strike me as sufficient. What remains to be added to the account is what this editor experiences when he gets a proposal for or learns about a smart book project. For me, it is a rush of goosebumps on the arms and a certain tingling at the base of the scalp. I know the book is fresh, exciting, important—it is just right. That is the feeling that keeps most editors in the business. It is also what keeps us working hard with our authors over the months and sometimes years after that first thrilling recognition of the value of the work. Even the book idea that results in goosebumps will need a lot of work. Authors of smart books know that, too.

I am happy to add that goose bumps do arise a whole lot more often than people might think. There are lots of great authors out there, and many good stories and important topics. Sorting through my slush pile and combing through my email on any given day, I anticipate that the next book project I scan might be fresh, exciting, important—indeed, just right.

Michael J. McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmcgandy.

Outbox: Smart Books