Time to Get Over Your Discomfort With Book Marketing

Full vitae book tour 1

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By Irina Dumitrescu

Most academics spend years writing a scholarly book, and comparatively little effort trying to get it into readers’ hands. If you are based at a famous institution, supported by a large travel budget, and bombarded with invitations for guest lectures, you might not need to worry about creating buzz about your work. The rest of us, however, do.

When I have spoken to colleagues about book promotion, I’ve found that many are uncomfortable with the idea. Part of that is, I think, due to an antiquated sense that academics should not sully themselves with matters of trade, but there is also a genuine desire not to annoy. Either way, the result of doing nothing can be a disappointing response to a project years in the making.

If you are having trouble persuading yourself to take a hand in marketing your book, tell yourself that by sharing news of its publication, you are making colleagues’ research and library orders easier. Nor do you have to think of book publicity only in terms of selling — think of it as gaining readers. There may be a graduate student somewhere who is just waiting to build on your work. Becoming active in its publicity will give you a sense of agency — you do not have to be subject to a publisher’s whims. You might even say that you owe your book a chance to shine.

The marketing process begins before you sign the book contract. As you look for a home for your manuscript, you are already comparing publishers in terms of fit and prestige, as well as the impact of their various book series. Make marketing part of that equation, too.

Pay attention to which presses send you fliers, have a presence at academic conferences (virtual and in person), and have their books regularly reviewed. Look, too, at the advertising pages of literary magazines: Which academic publishers are taking out ads for their newest publications? Most important, talk with colleagues about their experiences with presses. Even if the insider information does not change your choice of publisher, it will help you make a plan for the years after your book appears.

Once you have found a press, marketing tasks become more concrete. Roberta Mock, a professor of performance studies at Britain’s University of Plymouth, advises: “As early as possible (preferably before signing the contract), ask your publisher what their marketing plan is, what they’ll actually be doing to promote your book, and how you can be involved.” A publisher will usually send you a marketing questionnaire, asking you to provide the names of journals that might be interested in reviewing the book, conferences where the book should be advertised, and scholarly prizes for which your work is eligible.

As you fill it out, try to think beyond the obvious choices in your own discipline. Are there journals or conferences dedicated to your subject that might not usually review a book in your field? My own monograph on early-medieval depictions of teaching was mostly covered in journals dedicated to literary and medieval studies, but the British Journal of Educational Studies also ran a review, bringing my book to a wholly different audience.

Before you finish writing, you have a few more strategic decisions, including the book’s title, which should be both clear and compelling. Consider how well your title is likely to age, and if it sacrifices clarity for wit.

Finally, writing the acknowledgments is also part of marketing, and not in the way you might think. Only after my book was published did I learn that some journals have a policy of not sending a book out for review to anyone who is thanked in it. By name-checking so many colleagues — with whom I was on good terms but who had not directly aided my research — I had drastically reduced the pool of eligible reviewers, including many most knowledgeable about my topic.

Your work does not end on publication. After the book has been out awhile, check with the journals you listed on your marketing questionnaire to make sure they received copies. Don’t be surprised if they haven’t; just make sure they do.

The same is true for prize submissions: Keep an eye on the deadlines and the documents required for entry, and keep your press in the loop. When reviews begin appearing, send them to the press so it can update your book page on its website. I found that if I chose quotes to highlight and ordered them the way I wanted, my book page tended to be updated quickly.

As you read this, you may bristle at the prospect of doing tasks that seem as if they should be the press’s job. But many scholarly presses are understaffed, which can slow down the marketing significantly, and even more so if someone on the staff is out sick. Consider whether maintaining the division of labor between author and publisher is more important to you than getting your book read. Before Covid-19, some academics even set up their own mini book tours, knowing that their publishers didn’t have the staff to do it.

So far I have described traditional forms of marketing, but there’s a lot you can do beyond that. If you do not already have a relationship with staff members in your campus PR office, cultivate one. Find out how they like to shape stories, which topics they think could work well for news releases or other media, and how much lead time they prefer when a big publication is on the way. Learning how your PR officers think is also valuable for your career in the long term. At some point, they may want to highlight how your research enriches your teaching, or have a better sense of how your work could connect to the institution’s larger strategic goals. Besides helping you to publicize your work, they can be useful allies as you position yourself within your institution.

If your institution is slow in updating its faculty webpages, you might find it helpful to build a website for your book. That way, you can present as much detail as you’d like, including links to reviews and other publicity about you and the book. If you develop teaching materials related to your book, this is also a good place to keep them.

Publicize your book beyond scholarly journals and conferences. A number of periodicals publish accessible essays on scholarly books. The usual suspects include The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and Los Angeles Review of Books, but some smaller literary journals may be interested in reviewing a monograph, if the topic appeals.

If you’re in doubt about whether a general-interest magazine would review your book, just ask. Surekha Davies, a research fellow in history at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, says to be direct: “Ask editors whether they would be willing to send the book out for review if you had the press send it to them.” That’s especially good advice in cases when the press has a limited budget for review copies.

Of course, you can always write for those publications yourself. A common publicity strategy in the trade market is for writers to place essays pegged to their book’s release in a variety of outlets. The current boom in crossover writing means there are more places than ever open to pitches from academics, even those making their first foray into public writing. In publications like Public Books, Aeon, The Conversation, and The Washington Post’s Made by History, you can use your expertise to shed light on a current event. This approach has the advantage of giving your book a boost even years after publication.

Helpful resources on public writing include the OpEd Project and Trish Hall’s 2019 book Writing to Persuade. Do not underestimate the usefulness of blogs, either. Guest posts on your publisher’s blog or on blogs that are popular in your field are an excellent way to reach your target audience.

You can get the word out about your book in other ways that are less work-intensive than writing articles about it yourself. Anna Kornbluh, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recommends arranging interviews that will allow you to speak informally and conversationally about your research. Whether your interviews are “transcribed in a magazine or blog, podcasts, or YouTube videos,” she says, “they can make book ideas come alive even more than topical, well-placed op-eds or blog posts by the author.”

Perhaps the most obvious place to start pitching your book and yourself for such conversations is the New Books Network, a consortium of podcast channels. But there are plenty of other podcasts, some of which may be thematically connected to your work.

Traditional radio producers are also on the lookout for topical material and experts ready to speak on it. I was first contacted by one such journalist after my university put out a news release about a conference I was helping to organize. I kept that journalist’s contact details and sent her subsequent news releases directly, which resulted in another radio feature about my work. Once you realize that producers need material, you see that sharing your work with them can benefit you both.

An even better win-win situation is to offer to speak with your colleagues’ students about your scholarship. That can be particularly useful if they happen to be assigning one of your articles or book chapters anyway: Getting to talk to the author is exciting for students and takes less preparation from you than a regular lecture would. I did that several times before the Covid-19 pandemic, usually with Skype and a classroom setup, but the (otherwise difficult) turn to online teaching makes such guest lectures even easier and more appealing. It’s a cheap and eco-friendly way to share your research, and brings with it a joyful sense of community.

Perhaps the most obvious place to spread the word is on social media. You may have (understandable) reservations about aggravating your contacts with incessant book promotion on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, but one or two posts probably won’t push their limit. If your publisher makes a chapter open-access, then the link will interest many. Do your social-media promotion in the spirit of scholarly generosity, and it will be less irritating to friends and colleagues.

If you make a habit of reading, sharing, reviewing, and celebrating your colleagues’ work, too, they will not mind when you shine the light on your own publications. (Of course, it’s best to start appreciating others’ books well before your own comes out.)

Really, the sky’s the limit if you want to be creative in marketing your book on social media. Jonathan Senchyne, an associate professor of book history and print culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, advises making a Twitter header with a picture of your book (you can do this free on Canva.com) and pinning a link to your book page on your Twitter profile. “For our edited collection,” he adds, “I did a promotion through Twitter where I sent anyone who ordered the book, or asked their library to order a copy, a print of the cover. Now that’s not an option for everyone, but perhaps you draw, or cross-stitch, or play guitar and sing, and can do something quick and personalized for anyone who orders.”

Finally, a tried-and-true strategy is to turn to your network. In recent years I have often received direct emails from scholars with whom I’ve collaborated at some point, letting me know about the publication of their new book. I am happy to hear from them, and having the information in an email makes it easy to forward to my librarian for purchasing. Kim Yates, associate director of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, also has a simple but powerful tip: “Ask friends who have large follow lists to share it, one each day.”

This is a long list of suggestions, but the good news is that you do not have to do everything on it. Pick strategies that you feel comfortable with and that feel authentic, even fun. The window for marketing academic books is longer than for trade books, so you can space out your efforts over several years. You may find that some of these skills come in handy in other situations, too, or are intrinsically rewarding.

I wish you the best of luck with marketing your book. Drop me a line when it comes out.

Irina Dumitrescu is a professor of English and medieval studies at the University of Bonn. She is on Twitter @irinibus.


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