Why Not Pre-Books?

I’m planning to write a book, a book I want to both be engaging to a wide audience, and to adequately defend some complex non-obvious intellectual claims. It feels quite daunting to write with both of these goals in mind at once. So I’m thinking of achieving these two goals in two steps. First I’d write a pre-book, which states my main claims and arguments directly and clearly, using expert language, for an expert audience. I’d then circulate that pre-book privately among experts and useful thinkers of various sorts, seeking criticism of my arguments. Then using their feedback, I’d revise my claims and arguments, and write an engaging accessible book that can be circulated widely.

While this strategy seems to make sense, I rarely hear of anyone doing it. Why? Some possible explanations:

  1. Lots of writers do this; they just don’t let it be known, as that makes them seem unconfident.
  2. Most writers think they know what experts will think about each opinion they will express, and see little value in getting expert feedback on the package of opinions they will express.
  3. A pre-book nearly doubles a writer’s effort, and few writers of accessible books are willing to do this just to get a more intellectually defensible argument.
  4. Far fewer experts are willing to comment on a private pre-book than are willing to publicly criticize a published book. The main way to get feedback is to publish things.
  5. The readers of the pre-book will be offended that their feedback don’t much change the writer’s opinions.
  6. If the pre-book is circulated too widely, that will cut too far into the book sales.
  7. Critics with access to the pre-book might embarrass the author by pointing the many changes of opinion in the book.
  8. Good writers don’t find it very hard to simultaneously write both defensibly and accessibly.
  9. Writers choose a book concept based on what they think will sell. Getting expert feedback on a pre-book might change author opinions too much, making it harder to sincerely write the initial book concept.
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  • bk

    By `pre-book’, you mean an article, in an academic or other relatively specialized press? I think they’re pretty common.

    • gwern0

      I kept waiting for the punchline where Robin said ‘and pre-books are obviously papers; the difficulty of writing papers explains why there are so many books which have no pre-books’.

      • You can actually be funny on occasion.

      • Jayson Virissimo

         Who, gwern or gwern0?

    • books are longer than articles

  • Traveler26

    Many authors circulate drafts of a book to a limited audience.   What may(?) be different about the approach you describe is that your pre-book is not intended to be accessible to non-experts.

    The approach makes sense to me.  It is what they taught our 4th graders at writing workshops – focus first on what you want to say, then on how you want to say it.  Presumably you will want to get pre-publication feedback on the latter as well (I certainly would).

    Of the reasons you cite, the only ones which seem to apply to your approach and not to (what I assume is) the typical approach to draft reviews are 2 and, to a certain extent, 3.

    • The approach makes sense to me.  It is what they taught our 4th graders at writing workshops – focus first on what you want to say, then on how you want to say it.

      But 4th graders aren’t told another truth: you should never  write without an intended audience. That is, focusing first on what you want to say isn’t the same as saying it to a different audience.

  • snooky23

    I choose 1, but many writers thank people (including experts) who looked over drafts of the book in the acknowledgments.

  • What Traveler26 said. Also, if you’re going to write two books, you may was well publish both of them–which some authors do, in effect, by publishing an academic book, then publishing a popularization of the academic book.

    See, for example, Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, followed up by Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman, I think, is also doing this in reverse, you could say–his more recent book Forged mentioned that he’s did a ton of research for the book and he’s also going to do a more academic research later on.

  • David

    bk makes the right point: The optimal way of reaching an expert audience that will stress-test your argument is to publish the main arguments of the book first as journal articles. A further advantage of this is that there is no perceived competition between the two books.

    I’m aware of a few important moments of philosophy that have followed the pattern you describe. Kant’s Prolegomena has often been seen as the “post-book” to his first Critique. Hume’s Treatise is the pre-book for the two later Enquiries. Berkeley’s Prinicples is the pre-book for his Dialogues. But in each case, it’s the more technical pre-book that has gone down as the true and important classic, while the value of the post-book was largely seen in terms of communicating to undergraduates.

    That sort of thing could easily happen to you if you really do compose two books with largely the same argument, and you may find yourself wishing that you have worked harder at making the pre-book air tight, since that’s what will be seen as the definitive expression of your view. Somehow, if the pre-book is in the form of articles, the academic community allows you to circumvent this problem.

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  • Dean Jens

    “Closing of the American Mind” not only went through a variety of somewhat public forms, but was ultimately published in a form in which the first 40% or so was expected to be much more broadly accessible than the portion that followed it.

  • MPS

    A philosopher wanting to write a popular book about science and religion (focusing on fine-tuning and cosmology) once contacted me to review several chapters of his book.  It was clear he did this with many experts on the relevant subjects he addressed, sending just a chapter or two to each expert so that they could give it the attention he desired without being too inconvenienced.  I interacted with him a lot about this, and judging by the acknowledgments of his book so did many other (more prominent) academics.

    • MPS

      PS:  I never bothered to look at his book to see if he addressed my critiques.  For whatever that’s worth.

  • Kevin Dick

    This was 10 years ago, but it might help.  After I wrote a well received software book targeted specifically at the non-expert audience, a friend of mine in a different sub-field faced your problem.  My advice was to write non-expert and expert sections, then label them.  In the introduction, tell the non-experts to skip the expert sections and the experts that if they think a non-expert section was oversimplified, to consult the corresponding expert section before complaining.

    The book became the standard in the sub-field, certainly among non-experts and among most experts.  Of course, this success was due to my friends incredible expertise, not my suggestion.  But it probably didn’t hurt.  So at least it’s possible to accomplish something like what you want.

  • spindritf

    > If the pre-book is circulated too widely, that will cut too far into the book sales.

    You could just sell the pre-book with the understanding that the buyer will also get access to the final version.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, it’s my understanding that a very common/traditional way for a would-be author to secure a publisher for a book is for that author to provide the first chapter, along with an outline of the remaining chapters, and to ask the publisher if he/she would be interested in: (1) seeing the rest when it is completed, and (2) making any suggestions at this “pre-book” stage.  So, basically, I think you may be talking about doing something that is quite close to the traditional, standard approach in the book publishing business.  And, if I recall correctly, this approach applies to both fiction and non-fiction books.  But regardless of the path you take, good luck!

  • Hubris

    Possible 10 (Could be a combination of some of the given reasons): defensibility and accessibility are mutually corrosive. If you’re looking for the maximum of both, that’s simply unachievable, so showing it to experts may help you sharpen your arguments, but you’ll have to give that sharpness up anyway during your “accessibility revision”.

  • For my first book (which was about pickup artists), I put together focus groups for the first draft — one being “internet feminists,” one being “guys interested in masculinity” and a third being “random dilettante friends.”  Most of these people volunteered because they like my blog, and were willing to sign NDAs and other documentation to protect my interests.  Few of them were “experts” (granted, there are probably fewer “experts” in the field of internet feminism than in your field).  But they did immeasurably improve the book.

  • Ilya Shpitser

    I write papers like that sometimes.

  • Kristine A Valo

    College textbooks often contain errors that get corrected in subsequent editions. Then students can’t buy used books because the newest edition is required.

  • Too inefficient. Use your time, instead, to perfect the style of the general-audience book. That, in itself, won’t be easy: the style in economics journals is known to be the worst in all the social sciences and humanities—not good enough for a successful book. (For a rational revision cycle based on construal-level theory, see my “Avoiding irrelevance and dilution: Construal-level theory, the endowment effect, and the art of omission.” [ http://tinyurl.com/9sw54v8  ].) 

    Your book is part of an intellectual process. After it’s published, you can defend and refine the arguments in response to criticism in the journals.  

    • Sorry for the essentially repeated posts. I don’t understand what’s happening in the “queque.” Posts don’t appear, I conjecture (per Schulman) about what might trigger it. The last post appears and some time later the earlier posts appear. Anybody know what’s going on?

      • tba

        Maybe your use of a URL shortener is triggering a spam filter?

  • I suggest you start a blog and publish your pre-book in parts there.

    • AnthonyC

      Yes, I read this article thinking it sounds a bit like what Kevin Kelly did w/ the book “What Technology Wants” and his blog “The Technium.”

    • Exactly. I use my blog to throw out ideas and test them.

  • John Maxwell IV

    How common is it, really, for popular-level books to make arguments that are genuinely novel to experts in the field?

  • stevesailer

    Why not write two books? Edward O. Wilson, Peter Turchin, Steven Pinker, and others switch back and forth between writing books for an academic audience and writing for a popular audience. 

  • 2, 3, 4 all sound most plausible to me.

  • Drewfus

    “Then using their feedback, I’d revise my claims and arguments, and write an engaging accessible book that can be circulated widely.”

    A confidence building process. It is interesting to hear what Leslie Robertson, a head structural engineer of the World Trade Center, says about confidence @3:53 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53c-JUrFtvE He points out that much of the innovation of the WTC design was in large part due to his age at the commencement of the project (34), and that an older engineer would have had confidence in the work he had done previously (and thus likely to repeat it), whereas he was “charging down a different highway”.

    Confidence is about repeatability. Confidence is about predictability – which increases demand. Interesting that confidence, or at least over-confidence, also increases risk-seeking behavior. However, confidence may have negative impacts on innovation levels.

    The bottom line is; a choice is there to be made – get the feedback loop happening and maximize confidence as a result, or, forget all that and charge down a different highway instead.

  • retired urologist

    Gary Taubes did this when he published the very important  book “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, 500 pages of heavily annotated evidence that eruditely shows how wrong American physicians and nutritionists have been. He followed with the more reader-friendly “Why We Are Fat”, with essentially the same info for non-experts. Interestingly (in my opinion) the bias of the “experts” has prevented the former tome from having the effect it should, while the indoctrination of the masses has prevented the latter tome from generating a populist paradigm shift. OTOH, perhaps he made some money.

  • Why do you claim that people don’t already do this?  Read the acknowledgements of different books.  How did all those names get in there if the author didn’t circulate a draft?

    •  You missed the point. He’s talking about writing two different books, not an earlier draft of the same book.

  • Peter Gerdes

    I’ve asked other mathematicians about a very similar issue and they were quite upfront that the main impetues for publishing a book was the prestige and that the prestige came from the publisher’s endorsement of this as a genuine draft of something that would be printed (I wanted to know why they didn’t just post their graduate level textbooks online).

    I suspect this is at work here.  If you show people your idea before it has a publisher’s full endorsement you might be dismissed as a crank and when your book finally comes out, even if your intellectual contributions were recognized, it would be old hat and you would miss out on a fair bit of prestige.

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