Our Academic Book Tour

Full vitae advice   road trip

By Brian F. Harrison and Melissa R. Michelson

Earlier this year, we completed a 12-week, 38-stop tour of the continental United States, discussing our new book,Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes About LGBT Rights. A book tour like this is unusual for academics, and we have fielded a lot of questions about how we made it happen and the role played by our publisher. While Oxford was supportive, we arranged this on our own. And it was fabulous. Here’s how we did it.

A year ago, with a publication date in sight, we sent out more than 100 emails to everyone we knew — a geeky version of cold-calling for prospects. The message was short and direct, with wording along these lines:

Brian Harrison and I have a fabulous book coming out in December on persuasion experiments and same-sex marriage. We’re hoping to publicize the book by getting our friends (that’s you!) to invite us out for talks. Does [institution] have any sort of speaker series or workshops that this might be a good fit for? No worries if you can’t help, of course, but I figure it can’t hurt to ask, and I don’t have an agent. :)

Most folks wrote back, and some were immediately interested. We soon realized that, while some colleagues thought a book talk would be a great opportunity for their institutions, they just didn’t have the financial means to host us. That’s when we turned into matchmakers: Once we had a funded trip on the calendar at one campus, we would reach out to other nearby institutions to see if they would be interested in a cost-shared trip.

In many cases, that was just what people needed to hear in order to make it happen.

Valerie Martinez-Ebers at the University of North Texas had money to invite one of us (Melissa) to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but Emily Farris at the nearby Texas Christian University had fewer resources. So we scheduled talks back-to-back and Val did the driving from one campus to the other. Jason Casellas at the University of Houston had money in the budget for a talk, and going from Dallas to Houston was just a one-hour flight. After a morning talk at Houston, Melissa took a taxi over to Rice University for an afternoon session. Scheduling all four talks in Texas over three consecutive days meant fewer days away from home and fewer expenses for all of the campuses.

We adopted the same cost-sharing principle for other stops on the tour. Jessica Lavariega Monforti at Pace University had money to get us to New York City. We then drove Brian’s car for a 10-day tour of the Northeast, including Syracuse, Skidmore, Dartmouth, Amherst, Lehigh, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Maryland. Some institutions paid for our hotel, some hosted us for meals, and others paid for our car mileage. Delivering nine talks in 12 days was challenging, but it was also efficient and saved our hosts money. (We took the weekend off to hang out in New Hampshire with family and took in some local fun, like learning how to make syrup in a sugaring shack.)

The last big week of our tour was also a cost-sharing success, including visits to Oberlin, University of Toledo, University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana University — five talks in five days. By scheduling them together and using Brian’s car to travel between talks, we were able to visit places that otherwise wouldn’t have had the resources to bring us to their campuses.

Another aspect of our book-tour planning was communicating what we could offer in addition to a book talk. We guest-lectured on all sorts of topics. We met with groups of undergraduate honors students, with LGBTQ center staff, and with graduate students. We gave workshops on how to conduct field experiments and how to establish partnerships with community organizations. At some campuses, we faced a jam-packed schedule from breakfast through dinner. Other campuses just wanted a book talk, and we were grateful for a little quiet time.

A final piece of the puzzle was coordinating our book-tour stops with our other travel obligations. Melissa took advantage of a work trip to Seattle to arrange a talk at a local bookstore. Brian spoke at independent bookstores in Minneapolis and Iowa City during visits to campuses nearby. Conferences in Chicago and Pittsburgh were similarly used as no-cost opportunities to schedule book talks.

Of course, there were a few hiccups. Because the schedule was so tight, we often spent quite a few hours on the road, cursing traffic or watching nervously for approaching tornadoes (we’re looking at you, Indiana!). One talk had to be rescheduled for October because of a missed flight connection.

The end results, we found, were worth dealing with those hiccups. For any academic authors interested in following our lead, here are some tips to consider in setting up your own book tour:

  • Free up your schedule. None of this would have worked had we not been able to clear our schedules for 12 weeks — taking a break from teaching for a semester and leaning more heavily than usual on our husbands to manage our households and parenting. Even if you can’t get a semester off, talk to your families, departments, and institutions to see if you can free up any amount of time to take your book on tour.
  • Reach out to friends and colleagues. Let them know you’re interested. You’ve got to toot your own horn a bit and put yourself out there — a prospect that will make some academics uncomfortable. Push past it. Don’t be overly modest about your work or expect folks to come calling. Keep in mind that people often just don’t know you have a book to talk about, or that you’re interested in giving a talk at their campus. Get on their radar.
  • Go local. Send messages to small bookstores that specialize in your kind of work, or where you have a hometown connection. Think about upcoming travel on your schedule and reach out to local institutions. In addition to giving a talk on your book, be upfront about what else you might have to offer — a guest lecture or a methods workshop — especially if folks at the target campus don’t have anyone on the faculty with your specialty. Reach out beyond your own discipline and look for opportunities with student organizations on campus, as we did with LGBT centers.
  • Rejection hurts, but try not to take it personally. Some people you approach won’t be interested. Maybe your book isn’t a good fit for their workshop or their calendar is full. If they don’t answer your email right away, try following up once or twice. And if they still don’t respond, move on.
  • Don’t expect too much help from your publisher. Although Oxford was supportive — providing books for post-talk signings and sending some posters and handouts to accessorize our podiums — we really did this on our own. Organizing a book tour is beyond the job description of your publisher’s marketing department.

It’s rare for academics to get a lot of direct response to our research, which is one reason why our book tour was so satisfying. Iowa State blew our socks off with a turnout of some 400 people. Folks in Chicago braved a terrible thunderstorm to hear our talk. Dara Strolovitch not only had us teach her class at Princeton but she assigned our book. It was an amazing feeling to walk into a class and see the students pull out their dog-eared and highlighted copies. At Yale, we learned that a faculty member’s 11-year-old transgender son had been reading our book and had proclaimed it "the most important book ever."

Some of our best memories are from conversations we had with young people in the audiences — some moved by the idea that LGBTQ people were reflected in serious political-science scholarship. We offered scholarly and publishing advice to students and faculty members about their research, and life advice to young LGBTQ folks about how to come out to their parents or find a tenure-track job as a member of the LGBTQ community.

Yes, it was exhausting. Yes, our husbands and children missed us. But it was one of the best things we’ve ever done. We sold out the first run of books and hit No. 1 on the Amazon best-seller list for books in our subfield. We got folks talking about and reading our work. And we’re looking forward to doing it again when we have another book to share.

Brian F. Harrison is a lecturer in political science at Northwestern University and Melissa R. Michelson is a professor of political science at Menlo College.


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