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.