This category has been attracting attention this year. My post of a couple of months ago suggested that it was nothing more than the appearance of a trend: brainy people have always been interested in brainy books. Now we hear from The Bookseller that Cambridge University Press is moving formally to take advantage of this fashion — and I thought they’d always been doing this sort of publishing! (Link via Book Business.)

Maybe it’s just The Bookseller‘s headline, but does calling CUP’s initiative a “destination list” mean anything at all? Is it a destination for authors or for readers? Maybe just for dollars.

What’s going on here? On the one hand we hear that brainy books are all the rage; on the other hand we are being told that it’s getting harder and harder for intelligent popularizations to thrive. It was just a year ago that we got the news of the Public Scholars scheme subsidizing this very type of publishing. Can’t have worked that fast, can it? I suspect the fact is that the intelligent book was never in the sort of jeopardy that the National Endowment for the Humanities was persuaded that it was. Nice to have their money of course, but they’re not making the difference between death and survival, but between prospering and prospering more. The death of the mid-list is a trope whose sell-by date has surely passed. If big trade publishers can’t make money by doing books which can only sell around 5,000 copies, there are, and always have been, lots of smaller publishers, notably university presses, who’d jump at such a sale, and are rather good at achieving it.

We must note that the main losers in the abandonment of this sort of book by trade publishers are the authors. Trade publishers do business on a model of paying large advances against royalties. They are stopping doing mid list books (which could more honestly perhaps be described as books which do not earn out their advances) not because of any disdain for intelligent non-fiction, but because they have at long last figured out that unearned advances are not a smart business strategy.

Should book publishers be expected to invest in authorship, to support authors? To my purist mind publishers exist in order to provide the link between author and audience. They “buy” an author’s product and package if for sale. But over the years there have been many books published under a relationships much more like employment than the normal royalty deal. If you think that publishers ought to finance the creative process rather than just acquiring rights to it after the product exists, then you may have to admit that paying an advance against royalties which ends up being greater than the royalties earned through sales, is probably a pretty inefficient way of achieving such support. There may be authors who would like to be taken onto the payroll, but of course employees are expected to deliver work product in return for their salaries. An author panicking because they’ve only written a single historical biography in this calendar year doesn’t seem to me to be an author who’s set up to deliver a work of genius. Of course there are writers who’d sign on for this. Nice work if you can get it, and it’d come with health benefits.