We need more economists writing books, says experienced publisher Richard Baggaley of London Publishing Partnership.

 

Journal articles may be the currency for academic research and career progression, but precious few of them will ever move mountains. Books can do this. They make a difference – they educate, inspire, excite, change minds and set people on new paths. As economics arguably plays such a massive part in our modern world, literally shaping people’s lives, then we surely need better and wider understanding of the subject.

 

But why are economists so shy about writing books? Communicating Economics co-founder Romesh Vaitilingam’s 2005 review of John Kay’s Everlasting Light Bulbs reminds us ‘that it is possible not only to follow the rigorous intellectual pursuit of economics, but also to illuminate the wider world of public policy and business practice.’ Kay has of course done this in a number of ways, not least through his regular column in the Financial Times, but he’s also been a prolific and bestselling book author, perhaps best known for The Truth About Markets.

 

Development economist Paul Collier had worked for many years as a relatively unknown, but hugely respected development economist. But his light bulb moment was surely The Bottom Billion, a book that really made people see things differently, and made him an international intellectual star, listened to by presidents. Did that book make a difference? Of course it did.

 

Bob Denham, the other co-founder of Communicating Economics, calls for some new heroes of economics – people who can communicate. He quotes Noah Smith: ‘We need a new Milton Friedman for this new age. Economics and the world have both changed, but public discussion is still too often based on the ideas of the 1970s and 1980s… We need a Milton Friedman of empirical economics. This should be someone with an unquestioned academic pedigree, who is also good at boiling down a complex academic literature in ways lay people can understand.’

 

In this world of fake news and abuse of facts, Tim Harford makes a similar plea: ‘What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science – somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.’

 

The heroes that Denham and Harford call for will need to have academic credibility, founded in research (paper) publications. But the means for them to make a real difference will most likely be through television, radio, newspaper articles as well as books.

 

Of these media, books are the most durable. Whether print or electronic, books stick around. Just ask Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Books get passed on, they get translated, re-issued, reviewed, talked about, given as presents, copied and criticised. People pay for books, and this means they are taken more seriously than broadcast media – which is devalued by being permanently ‘on’ (regardless of quality), easily ignored and forgotten in the information blizzard.

 

Not all great books are blockbusters on airport bookshelves, nor do books have to be as long as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to be taken seriously. Diane Coyle’s terrific series of thought-provoking books, Perspectives, contains individual volumes that are as short as 30,000 words.

 

Fledgling and future economists get their ideas from the humble textbook, and lecturers the world over look to them for structure and credibility in their courses. Before he won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, Jean Tirole was for many years known for his classic text The Theory of Industrial Organization, a truly field-defining work, which he followed years later with the equally magnificent The Theory of Corporate Finance.

 

What better way to make your mark in the world, to shape people’s thinking and generally do the world a favour than by writing a great textbook? It didn’t do Tirole’s career any harm, and it has earned him a tidy few euros too.

 

What stands in the way of this, in the UK at least, is an excessive focus on journal articles, which means that we leave it to others to write our field-defining texts and ‘big idea’ books for the general market.

 

The incentive to make use of the bigger canvas and freedom that books can provide has largely been removed in economics by the phenomena of research assessment and citation data – which determine funding for departments, and career progression for individuals. Our scholars are hemmed in. Too few British academic economists have the time, motivation or courage to write a book.

 

To change subject horses just for a moment, I once asked biologist Richard Dawkins if he would still write The Selfish Gene today, if he were a young and ambitious scientist. The answer was ‘definitely not’. That’s a great pity. As an economist, if you know Dawkins, it’ll most likely be due to that book.

 

Let’s heed Bob Denham’s call for new economics heroes who can communicate this great subject and make it work better for people. Economists, go forth and write books – you have nothing to lose but your chains! Now hang on a minute, who said that…?

 

 

Richard Baggaley is co-founder of London Publishing Partnership, which specialises in books on economics and public policy. He has worked for Princeton University Press, John Wiley & Sons, and Open University Press.