Tortoise and hare

1 May 2013

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)

hare-and-tortoise

Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.


Doing just fine

26 April 2013

A lot of aspiring authors put their energies into getting published and assume the sales will look after themselves. They are wrong; as I have said before, all authors need to shamelessly self-promote themselves, especially in today’s economic climate. Nor is it just that you should never trust your publisher to do all the necessary hustling; you cannot even rely on the booksellers to do their job – something that I was reminded of once again the other day.

While attending a conference in the beautiful Dutch town of Leiden this week, I went for a stroll during a lunch break and found myself outside the Leiden branch of Van Stockum, a Dutch bookseller regularly buying our books. Inside, one of the staff was happy to answer my idle questions – for instance, who our customers were likely to be and how the business of selling books was going.

van-stockum

A constant refrain of academic publishers is that library sales are falling without being offset by rising personal purchases (on the contrary) while income from digital sales is negligible. My informant confirmed that library budgets in the Netherlands were tighter and this had affected sales but individual purchases were holding up. That said, a lot of bookstores were in trouble with many closing down.

Why?

Village bookstores have been badly affected by the global economic crisis; there are few book lovers to begin with here and, in the last resort, the latest novel by Donna Leon or a new history of baroque music is a discretionary purchase.

In the cities it is another matter. And that was when the conversation got very interesting. Traditionally, the cities have been full of book-buying students and professionals, housewives and pensioners (among others). Catering to this market, in recent decades we have seen the rise of chain bookstores like Waterstones in England and Borders in the States. Now the chains are in trouble.

Just as in the villages, discretionary spending has dropped and of course more people are buying online; many Dutch readers are quite happy to read the English edition of (say) Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 if the price is considerably lower than the Dutch edition. But where the chain stores are especially hurting is that – in pursuit of rationalisation and greater profits – they chopped their specialist staff, the people who knew what penny-pinching scholars from the Department of This’n’that at Leiden University would be interested to buy. In the good times this didn’t matter; now it does.

We can be certain that the hard times are affecting all, that booksellers like Van Stockum who still focus on quality are nonetheless also feeling the pinch. Even so, university budgets may be down but scholars still need to read books and many wish to have their own copies ready to hand. Selling books, then, is harder than it was but quality bookstores … they’re just fine.

The problem is that’s not enough. Such quality bookstores are few in number. As argued in my last post, it is time for authors to use their personal contacts, Twitter, whatever to point readers towards a bookstore like Van Stockum.


Making the most of social media

19 April 2013

Many authors I know wouldn’t touch Facebook with a bargepole. Indeed, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but until now I haven’t thought this to be a real problem; shyness doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship.

Now I am not so sure.

What made me think again was attending the recent London Book Fair, at which I attended what I thought it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). It wasn’t, not really; authors were the prime focus of the session. (This was in line with a huge increase in author-centred activity at the LBF and elsewhere, as discussed here and here, and – with regard to self-publishing – here. Self-publishing is also something this blog has explored before, in a series of posts starting here.)

author-seminar

At the seminar, a literary publisher from Cromer in Norfolk was joined by three of his authors to expound on why getting published requires that you ‘get’ social media. Of course, academic authors might argue that the worlds of literary fiction and scholarly discourse have little in common and they are right, to a point. That said, I suspect that authors of all types can learn much from what the panelists said.

Unfortunately, I didn’t record the session but here are some of the points made.

  • Like it or not, social media are unavoidable. Used intelligently, however, they offer the best means for authors to reach the widest possible readership. This is because branding and identification, not the hard sell, is what drives most people to follow an author.
  • There is no point being half-hearted; get your numbers up. For instance, Salt Press may be small but on Twitter it has 86,571 followers while one of the authors present reported that she was linked to over 1,000 (or was it 10,000?) people on Facebook.
  • How on earth do the panelists keep up with such a huge circle? They don’t, not necessarily; it is usually enough to tune into the conversation every so often. Time management is crucial.
  • When questioned if they really wished to expose themselves to a whole lot of strangers, it was clear the panelists were only showing their public persona to the world (or had, say, separate private Facebook accounts). As they also warned, don’t go public with something you would want to stay private.
  • Of course, the key requirement of social networking is that you participate but you would be wise to (mainly) only say things that matter. How many people care if you are waiting for a bus?
  • Social networking is not one-way. Show generosity, for instance by offering advice or pointing people to another author’s work.
  • One way to build such numbers of friends and followers is by searching for interest groups (Twitter’s search functions are especially powerful). However, you need to know what you are searching for.
  • Another way to build a following is to ensure that many of the people whom you meet in person become members of your social network; point them towards your online presence. Collecting other people’s business cards is no longer enough.
  • But to succeed in building a following and then benefit from it, you must understand why people are interested in you, why they follow you. It is unlikely to be your persona only (though this can play a role); more likely it is something that you are seen to be offering them. In short, social networks are all about belonging. People are drawn to you because they have a stake in you or your work.
  • The essence of what you are doing with your social networking is creating a brand. Part of your work here is not only to inform people what you are doing but also to communicate your persona, even the philosophy and principles guiding your work. It may also mean talking about experiences as well as end results. And, just like (say) Apple, your purpose is to build brand loyalty, create a little passion.
  • What is imperative here is brand consistency. Think about the ramifications of what you do and say, and be consistent. Here it is easiest if your public persona and your private self are much the same but as a result you can do much damage to your prospects if you are not true to yourself.
  • Learn, then, to handle mistakes; they are bound to happen and are unlikely to stay hidden for long.
  • Some of the panelists preferred Facebook, others a personal blog; the publisher seems to choose Twitter. What was clear with all of them, however, is that they used multiple channels to present themselves.
  • Social media have great reach but they are most effective when there is confluence between the different channels, when (say) tweets, a Facebook item and a blog post build on each other to promote an event.

Largely, that is what I am trying to do here – with this post on ‘Getting Published’, on related news items on my work website, with a tweet here and there and corresponding entries on a work Facebook page. Sorry but there’s no clip on YouTube.

Just how effective it all is … well, that is another matter. One thing to consider, however: even if there is a problem with the messenger, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the message.


From conference organiser to volume editor

10 April 2012

If you are someone who has organised a conference and is now being urged to edit the ‘conference volume’, you need to be wary of what you are getting yourself into.

Overcoming the prejudice against edited volumes means that the progression from conference programme to printed book is not simple; it is more than a matter of polishing the papers presented.

  • The volume must be given a focus (more of a focus than the conference had, perhaps).
  • Papers need to be selected that generally match this focus.
  • Inevitably, some papers presented at the conference will have to be excluded; no matter how good they are, their subject lies far beyond the volume’s focus and they cannot be adapted to it.
  • Ideally, other papers should be solicited that fit the subject but are missing from the original line-up.
  • All papers must then edited to conform with the overarching focus of the volume.

And that’s just the outline. Within this process are a mass of issues, not least those of managing a complex project, handling many authors (some with experience, reputations and egos vastly greater than yours and no doubt all with many other demands on their working time), performing in the delicate role as first-line peer reviewer and dealing with a publisher. And perhaps worst of all, editors are often given little academic credit for such a difficult and delicate task.

Given the prejudice against edited volumes and the demanding requirements to produce something that brings you credit, not opprobrium, it may be that another outcome for the conference is best. Perhaps your best course of action, then, is to suggest publishing the conference papers online, essentially as a cluster of working papers.

Unfortunately, your bosses may think it makes perfect institutional sense to publish a volume based on the conference programme and this year it’s your turn.

Of course, you may not be forced into the role of volume editor; there are indeed a number of good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening.

But, whatever your reasons, be aware what you are getting yourself into.


Contributing to an edited volume

9 April 2012

What to do with that conference paper you presented recently? Chances are you are thinking to rework the text into a journal article. Sometimes, however, something else is on offer – you are invited to submit your paper for publication as a chapter in an edited volume arising out of that conference. Despite a prejudice against edited volumes, you would be wise to pause before rejecting this offer.

Why would you write such a chapter instead of an article? Why indeed, given that an article in an international refereed journal counts for a lot, and in some research evaluation systems a chapter in a book for almost nothing – always assuming any publisher takes the edited book, which is by no means a given.

There are good reasons. Like an article, a chapter can be a quick way for you to assert your ‘ownership’ of new ideas and research material. But what a chapter adds over and above a journal article is that it is published in a collection of such chapters on a common issue; the edited volume and its attendant marketing activities create a magnet for specialists working in your field (and related fields) to discover your work.

Moreover, this need not be an either-or choice. Given the differences between the two prose forms, you should be able to write chapters and articles so significantly different that they complement each other and build your publication list. Just make sure that the titles are different. There is no point giving the impression you are recycling your research (heaven forbid!)


Prejudice against edited volumes

10 March 2012

There is a widespread prejudice against edited volumes in the scholarly world, the idea being they are collections of unedited conference papers with a cover slapped on. In a few cases this is true, the culprits even found among the published lists of certain eminent academic presses.

Such blatant inferiority is not the case for most edited volumes but many do have their issues. A commonly perceived fault is that some editing has been done but not enough; the editors have started with a disparate collection of whatever papers came to hand (papers from a conference being the most common source) and not done enough to bring these bits and pieces together into an integrated whole.

As a result, the mere mention of ‘edited volume’ can prompt many people and the majority of publishers to blindly reach for their nose.

Image

But this judgement is unfair, the charge they are rough and raw is far from the truth for most edited volumes. They may have their flaws but many are actually focused and subtle works. Moreover, often these volumes are the earliest channel for new scholars to bring fresh insights in their field to a wider readership. As a result, a few such edited volumes – especially those that can truly focus many minds together (often from different disciplines) on a single subject – can actually be path-breaking works.

Of course, edited volumes require contributors and editors. As can be seen in my next post, authors may have other ideas. Moreover, the role of the volume editor is not utterly joyful (as seen in my subsequent post).


How much theory?

19 January 2012

Recently, an author asked me for a bit of advice.

I am slaving away on the book, but I need a bit of advice. I have changed the style from thesis to book. That’s no problem, but I am concerned about the theoretical frame. I have a whole chapter on what you might call ‘Critical Strategies’, that is, the 3 or 4 major theoretical underpinnings. I am wondering if you normally ask authors to delete that sort of chapter. Some of the theories about discourse and so on are sprinkled throughout the text. That’s unavoidable, if it is to make sense. Do you recommend I take it out that chapter and simplify the argument, or leave it in and see what your reviewers think?

Personally, I’m not a great fan of theoretical arguments; I often joke and say, ‘Whenever I see a theory I reach for my knife!’

However – whether authors, readers, librarians or publishers – we are in the ‘business’ of academic communication. In so doing, we act within one or more scholarly discourses. Clearly, your own study belongs to a specific scholarly discourse and will be framed by this. Some theory, then, is pretty much unavoidable. As your intended readers are already familiar with this discourse, it is sufficient that you lightly refer to this and indicate how your work adds to the debate. Certainly, it is unlikely that a 100-page review of the theoretical literature to date will be of interest.

As such, I replied to my author as follows:

As you say, there will be some theoretical discussion sprinkled throughout the book. This needs to be put in context at the beginning. However, there is no place for the big cow-pat of theoretical recitation commonly found at the start of theses; you are not needing to prove to any examiners that you know the discourse.

So how much and how little?

May I suggest that you imagine just who your readers are – you could even identify specific, real people – and then consider what would be their interest in your book. More than likely they do not want to be served up with a regurgitation of theories they know backwards but they will appreciate seeing how your study fits (and builds on) the existing discourse.

That at least is my ‘theory’ on theory. The practical reality for each individual work will be different, of course. Some will need to be larded with a theoretical overlay, others will be so empirical they are theory-anorexic. As always, think of the needs of your book and its readers.