Sharp and Wide

These days I am working on a book proposal.  The book is based on my sabbatical project from a few years ago and is academic in nature – although not overly technical.  The proposal is really a series of questions, posed by the publisher.  Writing a book proposal is a bit like writing a book, but rather different in certain ways.  The like bit includes an overlap of subject matter.  The proposal, insofar as it succeeds, reflects to the reader of the proposal what they will read should the book see the light of day.  There are usually questions about table of contents, competing works in the market, etc that allow the author of the proposal to draw on his or her work in writing the book itself.

But then there are the other questions; the different questions, well really, the different question.  “What are your plans for promoting the book?”  This question is then split into a series of sub-questions asking about social media, conferences and conventions, as well as professional connections that can be leveraged in order to sell your book should the publisher choose to take on your project. This bit is hard for me.  My guess is that it is hard for many if not most academics.  After all, our training generally is subject specific, and while we may know a lot about theology, or geology, or philosophy, not many of us have taken courses in marketing.  Consequently this question can be a bit vexing, but as with most things vexing, it reveals something about the self and invites authors to do at least two things.

First, it invites us to ask the question: Why does this book matter?  For those who aren’t steeped in the sometimes arcane disciplines of academic writing, this question seems like a no-brainer.  But academics, by nature of their craft, often have to put on blinders so they can focus on the topic at hand.  But the marketing question also forces us to step back and ask the “So what?” question.  Sometimes this question results in re-writing, or fine tuning, or re-casting our projects.

Second, the marketing question pushes us to think about the market itself.  Once upon a time academics lived at a kind of arms-length distance from the market.  Entrance to the academic guild meant that you worked with editors who were sympathetic to your discipline, and the paper market allowed them some sense of where your work would fit in the academic world.  But the market is now virtual as much as paper, and authors who care to think about their place in the virtual world are forced to think through the market.  What does it mean that my work has to vie for a place in an internet search?  What does it mean that there are readers visiting forums looking to find a free electronic version of my book?  How do I relate to the market, and how will I engage it?

It is easy for authors to lament these new challenges, but it need not be paralysing.  For those who rise to the occasion, their writing can be both sharpened and widened despite fear of losing sight of the subject matter in concentrating on the audience.  Moreover, those who bridge subject matter and audience receive a rich reward: that peculiar joy that attends being a way rather than a destination.

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10 thoughts on “Sharp and Wide

  1. Marie Taylor says:

    I particularly like your reward of ‘way’ rather than destination. The why question can be a tough one. It may be hard to rationally or economically justify why one wants to do something. The internet has certainly revolutionized the how and why of publishing – much as the printing press shook up the scribes in the monasteries. Good luck on your new project!

  2. diannegray says:

    Best of luck, Allen. I find the marketing side the hardest part of writing. You don’t want to push, but you don’t want to stay silent either. “Why does this book matter” is a question we all ask ourselves and it always leads back to our belief in our own words.

  3. shoreacres says:

    Things may have changed since I was skirting the edges of academia, but I suspect some things haven’t changed much. I’m thinking, for example, of the old saw about “publish or perish,” and the tension that existed between writing to be read, and writing to “pay dues” or establish reputation. To whatever degree that tension still exists, I would think that, for the author, keeping the pleasure in the process might be a bit of a trick from time to time.

    I don’t know squat about marketing books, but I do have some experience with those questions you asked about finding a place on the internet. I think there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to publicizing through social media, but there’s no question that a social media presence opens up opportunities. I rarely publicize my blog, per se, but I will occasionally send a link to a specific post to someone, with a note saying, “You might be interested in this.” I suppose they call that “targeted marketing.”

    In any event, this is exciting. When it’s published, I intend to have my copy autographed. 🙂

    • agjorgenson says:

      Publish or perish is still at work in the academy, although there has been some push back – especially around the question of tenure. Some schools are giving folk more credit for excellent teaching records. But really, the future of university seems to be drifting (racing?) in the direction of Contract Academic Staff, with the great majority of classes taught by adjuncts, who hardly have time to read, never mind write. We’ll see if that breaks at some point.

      Thanks for your reflections on diminishing returns. That seems to make sense and is important for me to remember because the internet can be a big black hole.

      I will gladly sign your copy of my book should it see the light of day!

  4. jannatwrites says:

    Why does this book matter is a question any writer should ask. I think the marketing side is overwhelming, which is probably one of the many reasons I drag my feet on completing anything. (If I finish something, then the logical step would be to market it.) That’s messed up logic, I know. Best to you on your proposal. I think you’ll find your way through the process!

    • agjorgenson says:

      Yes, it seems like a sensible question, and an upside of this new reality. I think many authors are like you. We tend to be a bit more internal and marketing is for extroverts. I suppose it isn’t so much a question of logic as personality.

  5. dianerivers says:

    I went through this book proposal exercise a few years back and found it incredibly clarifying, both in terms of the “what” and “why” of the message I wanted to convey and the specifics of my proposed audience. Sadly, it did not result in a book deal but maybe the process of writing the proposal was worthwhile as far as it went. Best of luck to you!

    • agjorgenson says:

      I have had plenty of rejection on this front, and am developing thicker skin, but it never feels nice to receive a no, But with you, I find I learn from this. Best to you Diane!

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