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Books covering primarily academic topics, from philosophy and neuroscience to physics and geopolitics, are usually written (not surprisingly) by experts in the field, which are normally academics themselves. I wonder how these academics secure the time and funding to write such books?

To give a few arbitrary examples, I refer to books like these (note that these are not college textbooks):

Is this something academics normally work on in their spare time, or do they get paid to actually do it? Are there grants or donations involved? Is it a privilege that comes with tenure? I'm mostly familiar with life science research, where people will constantly publish papers in journals and that's it - there seems to be no time nor funding to write anything beyond that, at least not as a part of the job.

Apparently, the amount of books written by academics also varies with discipline - e.g. there are more books by professors of philosophy compared to professors of physics. Is this also due to the differences in funding mechanisms and day-to-day job duties among various disciplines?

What are the main factors that influence this?

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    I think it was Orson Scott Card who I heard this advice from: "Many people want to have written a book. Relatively few want to actually write a book." If it's something you really want or need to do, you need to commit the time to do it. Yes, that may mean giving up other things. – keshlam Jan 4 '15 at 2:57
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    I think if you're in a field where book writing isn't the norm, writing a book while pursuing tenure is discouraged. That was time you could have spent getting grant money. – user137 Jan 4 '15 at 6:37
  • I think there are two sorts of books written by academics. One is the specialist book targeted at an academic audience (often the way dissertations are published); the other is the general-audience book that happens to be written by an academic (e.g., the various bestsellers by Jared Diamond). Are you asking about both, or just one? – BrenBarn Jan 5 '15 at 20:56
  • @BrenBarn I'm mostly curious about the types of books targeted at an educated audience, but not limited to academics or field specialists. I guess this is closer to the second case you mention, though I'd appreciate information about both types, provided this is not a false dichotomy (I'm not in a position to judge that). – voidptr Jan 5 '15 at 21:06
  • @voidptr: The main reason I ask is that I think it's much less likely that professors would be given a grant to write a mass-audience book, since such a book has at least the potential to pay for itself, whereas an academic-audience book has almost no chance of paying for itself. – BrenBarn Jan 5 '15 at 21:10
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I'm an associate professor in a humanistic social science (anthropology). Anthropology is different from pure humanities in that monographs are usually based on extended participant-observation fieldwork.

Before getting tenure, I wrote two books (monographs):

  • The first book was an extension of my original PhD dissertation. I revised and submitted it to academic presses in the first three years of my first tenure-track job. I used a portion of my third year leave to do the final editing of the ms.

  • I used the remaining half of my third-year leave to do some of the research for my second book. I also changed universities and used another year of leave provided by them for additional fieldwork. The second book was then written during summers and other leave periods.

So in the twelve years or so years since my doctorate, I've finished two books. I'm currently working on my third using a portion of my triennial leave to focus on writing it. Each book has taken around 4-6 years to research and write -- which is on the fast side compared to some of my peers. I should note that one of my senior colleagues in history has written a book every two years -- he is considered exceptional by most.

To answer some of your specific questions:

Is this something academics normally work on in their spare time, or do they get paid to actually do it?

Writing books (for faculty in the humanities / humanistic social sciences) is considered part of our research output -- the same as when natural scientists write journal articles. We try to do secondary research and write during the school year and do our primary field research in the summers and when we can get research leaves (sabbaticals, triennials, etc.).

Are there grants or donations involved?

I used external grants to conduct the field research for the books. I also used internal grants for book completion (copyright clearances, indexing, production offsets, etc.).

It should be noted that the royalties for most academic books (except popular textbooks) are very modest. At best, you might earn a few thousand (US) dollars on royalties on an academic book. Many don't make any money at all. Advances on books are also very rare.

Is it a privilege that comes with tenure?

No. If you want tenure, you have to write. At most R1s, you have to have at least one monograph for a strong tenure bid (in humanities/humanistic social sciences).

I'm mostly familiar with life science research, where people will constantly publish papers in journals and that's it - there seems to be no time nor funding to write anything beyond that, at least not as a part of the job.

In disciplines where monographs are important, journal articles are slightly deprecated in importance.

Note that monographs are also separate from edited volumes. In disciplines where "books" are prioritized, this almost always means a single-authored monograph from an academic press. Edited volumes count much less in value in terms of promotion and merit raises.

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You correctly observed that monographs are more common in the humanities than in experimental sciences. Often, researchers in humanities publish their PhD thesis as a book (typically during their early post-doc years), and the output of the tenure-track years is a second one, etc. Articles are also usually expected, but they can have much less weight than monographs.

For experimental sciences, (senior) researchers write handbooks, because they enjoy their field, they see it as a way of organizing their thoughts, and it's a great reference material for the classes they teach. The time and funding is related to teaching appointments. Some say, some even made a few bucks out of these, but I have my doubts.

Otherwise, publishers regularly ask prominent researchers to edit books about their field. These persons proceed to ask around to find people to write chapters for the book that are similar to very thorough literature reviews. Here the funding situation is unclear, researchers know that it's good for their CV and network to author a chapter and make time for this, generally to the expense of their free time.

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Another route to finding time and funding for creating a book is a sabbatical. While my own position gives me no personal experience with this, I have often heard colleagues talk about using sabbaticals for book-writing. The semester or year of freedom from other work that a sabbatical provides is often an excellent time for faculty to execute larger-scale projects like writing a coherent book.

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From those I know who wrote a book in the field of engineering, the writing is frequently done during spare time -- nights and weekends -- and during the periods where academic work is reduced. The time needed to complete the book can be around 2-3 years. No specific funding is provided.

From the prefaces of technical books, you can read writing times which range from a couple of years to 7-8 years (not many authors declare the writing time, but some do). Such long times are probably a sign of part-time writing. Shorter times can be declared by those who took a sabbatical leave.

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First, I think a desire to publish a book is required. You could have all the time and funding in the world to publish a book, but if you're not motivated to do it, it won't be done.

In my experience, the summer "break" offers the best chance of completing side projects like book writing. During the academic year, most people are too busy with teaching classes and doing research; however, during the summer, these obligations become much lighter, especially with regards to teaching. My undergraduate advisor (a life scientist) published his book by writing the vast majority of it over the summer when he had no teaching duties.

I would also surmise that funding does play a part. Someone who is funded primarily through teaching might have more time to polish his/her lecture notes, which in turn might make turning them into a book easier. In fact, I've read several books/textbook where the author explicitly mentions that the book was born out of the classroom. Someone who has no teaching responsibilities doesn't have as much inertia to write a book, and it might even be detrimental to try because it takes away from research and/or publishing research papers in journals.

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I've also seen quite a number of textbooks which were originally a professor's lecture notes. After teaching the same class for some number of years, refining the lectures and the notes each time, writing down a combined version of the lectures and notes is mostly a matter of investing the time and effort.

Whether the result is a good textbook depends on the professor's teaching, writing, and editing skills -- and the skills of anyone they bring in to help with the project as co-authors -- and on the skills of the editors and technical editors the publisher assigns to that book.

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