Advice

How to Be an Author

January 14, 2008

Put down the pen, turn off the computer: Writing a book is only the first part of becoming an academic author. Today, more than ever, you also have to become your publisher's partner.

It's easy to imagine what that might mean while the book is still cooking. But the real work of promotion begins when the book is done. This isn't the moment to be tired of your subject -- you're the only one to whom your book is old news. Here are a few things authors can do. Some require plane flights and hotel stays, others you can do from home.

Talk to Your Publisher's Publicity Department.

Get its take on your book's potential. If it's a trade book, can you get a breakfast appearance or an autograph session at BookExpo, the massive booksellers' jamboree? Can you get on "Fresh Air?" Cable? Network TV? For most academic authors, those aren't likely prospects, but it's always worth asking politely. If you're not big media fodder, there are plenty of other ways in which to take part in your book's career. Be sure you've filled out the author's questionnaire that the publisher sent you to guide its promotion efforts. Fill it out completely. Which means all the parts.

Make the Net Work for You.

If you're a blogger, you already have a platform. If not, maybe you've been a lurker on a forum or an e-mail discussion group. Now is the moment to step into the cyberspotlight and say something about your exciting new project. Don't be afraid to e-mail friends and acquaintances. Spam filters and institutional protocols may set limits on what you can do, but an e-blast is a good way for you, or you and your publisher, to reach carefully selected lists.

If you have a Web site, use it to reward the curious. Offer more information (for example, visuals) about your project. Make the URL part of your e-signature. If you don't want to mix holiday snaps with your professional writing life, consider creating a separate Web site dedicated to your subject.

Watch Amazon. Be sure your publisher has put up the cover of your book with the correct copy, advance blurbs, and good reviews as they come in.

Go Out and Dramatize.

Most authors lecture on their subject. Plan on speaking about your book, and plan on reading some of it aloud when you do. Keep a public-reading copy, and keep it safe. Mark up passages that take no more than 10 minutes to read. Don't just settle on the three pages you like best. Edit them down for maximum effectiveness. That means taking out clauses or descriptive words that don't work as well when spoken as they do on the page. Dickens took a heavy pencil to his own novels to produce gripping renditions of stories his audiences already knew. Your study of oil spills in Antarctica might not read like Sykes's murder of Nancy, but then again, with a bit of editing, it could.

It's no accident that some scholars wind up speaking about their recent books at academic conventions. Plan ahead. Arrange to be on programs related to your current work. Propose a special session on Antarcticana.

Have things to say, or at least one important thing to say (in the end, one thing may be better anyway). Some authors work with media consultants. They can help you learn not to fidget and explain that you need to floss before going on camera. A friend of mine calls them people trainers. If you're invited to appear on camera -- anywhere -- you might consider getting people-trained, too.

Having spent our entire lives in and around academe, and much of it in front of students, it can be sobering to learn that our presentational skills can do with some sharpening. Watch successful academics speak with television interviewers. Take notes on what works and what doesn't. You'll discover that most successful interviewees have something they want to say. Take a leaf from the politician's handbook: Know what your message is before they clip the lapel mike on. Then stay on message.

Hand out fliers. Your publisher will be happy to e-mail you a PDF file of a flier for your book. You can print up a stack of fliers and distribute them in connection with your conference talk. If you're uncomfortable being seen passing out advertising for your own book, leave a stack of fliers at a conspicuous spot in the conference hotel's corridor. At many conventions, there will be a natural space for placing promotional materials, calls for papers, and other academic curiosa.

Be Seen.

In the year around publication -- roughly two months before your pub date and 10 months following -- you should be out and visible. Get invited to give a talk or be a respondent. If your travel plans will bring you near a university or college, ask if there might be an opportunity to speak on the subject of your new book. Don't be the first to mention money.

Don't Get Flustered, Get Coherent.

If your project is controversial, expect your audiences to include unhappy people. Unless you really enjoy yelling in public, plan on calm, clear statements of what you believe. Spend time with your publicity department working through answers to difficult questions. If you have a project that is complex rather than controversial, work on simplifying your message so that nonspecialists, or even other specialists, will understand. Don't think of it as that sadly cheapened term, the sound bite. Think of it as ear protein.

If you've had a less-than ideal-experience with a publisher, avoid the opportunity to grouse when speaking in public. It's easier to remember a dissatisfied, grumbling academic than his argument about adjudicating responsibility for pollution in international waters. Right now your job is to support your book, which means supporting this particular publisher even as you might be looking for a new house for the next project.

Inscribe, Dedicate, Thank.

People like to meet authors and have them ink the title page. Always be happy to sign extra copies for a bookseller. Signed copies are not returnable. And while you're being on your best behavior, be gracious to your institution's public-affairs staff, to the student group that invites you for a lunchtime chat, even to the incorrigible interviewer who hasn't read your book.

Consider Trading Your Labor for Books.

Perhaps you're invited to speak somewhere and offered a small honorarium; a little money is nice, but after taxes it's really not that much. Some authors ask that the host institution purchase books instead. That maneuver is particularly useful when you're speaking to an audience already interested in your subject. The Armchair Explorers Club of Heidelberg, Ohio, has invited you to talk about pollution and Antarctic development, and can offer you $500 plus expenses. See if your publisher will make a bulk sale to the Explorers and turn your speaking fee into 20 or 30 copies of Penguins With Dirty Faces, which the group might give away to the first people who come to your talk.

Be Realistic About Sales Potential.

Nothing makes an author and the author's publisher unhappy more easily than big dreams for a small monograph. If you've written a small monograph, be proud of it; small monographs are where most of academe gets its thinking done. The next book can be bigger.

Stay in Touch.

Keep a rolling diary of speaking engagements, media events, and conference appearances. Bond with your publisher's publicity department, and keep your publicist abreast of your planned activities. Remember that the news media need lead time to contact your host and inquire about getting books or fliers to the right place. Provide your publisher with the important information about your talks: when, where, title, and e-mail and phone-contact information for the person who has invited you.

Keep talking. Your book shouldn't be the last thing you have to say -- or write -- on your topic. Every author gathers more information about a topic than can, or should, wind up between the covers. When you speak, have your book's most important points down cold. Then have at least one other goodie for your audience, something that's not in the book.

Seek out opportunities to write about your work. An opinion piece on the dangers posed by penguins to tour operators is an opportunity to run a byline identifying you as the author of an important new study. Translate your work into more broadly accessible language.

Look to your institution's public-programs division; give a talk to a continuing-ed class or offer a public lecture. Speak to the editor of your institution's alumni magazine (most scholars have been nurtured by several natural and surrogate alma maters -- an undergraduate institution, one or more graduate schools, even the place where you work). Suggest that you write a piece for alums about your subject.

Sometimes you have an opportunity to publish an excerpt from your work (that's the first serial/second serial business), but more often, you're asked to do something very much like -- but not identical to -- what you've just put down on paper about as well as you possibly could. Take a deep breath and do it. People rarely want to read in an article what they can simply read in your book. You've got to reinvigorate yourself, keeping your eye on broader audiences. Articulate the same thoughts in a different dialect. It's not merely an opportunity, at an important level, it's a scholar's obligation.

Open Up.

Every academic author -- without exception -- should be able to talk about his or her work to an audience of nonspecialists. They might be academic nonspecialists, or they might be ordinary readers, those people whose hard-earned money makes publishing possible. No man is an ice floe: When you speak to people who aren't other academics exactly like yourself, you're not simply promoting a book or getting the word out, you're giving back.

 

William Germano is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A version of this essay will appear in the fall of 2008 in the second edition of "Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books" (University of Chicago Press).