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Do You Really Have to Give Book Talks?
A Pep Talk for Introverts
Quick message before I talk about book talks: I’m holding a 90-minute workshop tomorrow (August 20, 2021) on how to write an outstanding academic book proposal. There’s still time to register if you want to get a handle on how to craft an effective pitch for your book (before the intensity of the fall semester kicks in).
Ok, on to the post.
There are so many things in academia that we do because we take for granted that we’re supposed to. Heck, writing a book is one of those things for some people — you might not feel much intrinsic desire to write a research monograph but it might be a requirement for earning tenure at your institution (or the type of institution you hope to end up at one day) so you dutifully revise the dissertation and get it out there. Giving talks about one’s book is another thing that it seems like everyone out there is doing. Some people even plan whole book tours or months and months of virtual talks. But is giving book talks something you have to do?
Certainly there are many great reasons to go out and give talks about your book. Last week I asked on Twitter why people feel motivated to give book talks and got a lot of thoughtful answers. Here are some of the benefits people cited:
Selling more copies of the book
Having more people find out about your research, especially communities the research is directly relevant to
Opportunities to partner with local organizations or bookshops
Earning money from speaking fees
Getting to travel to fun places / see family and friends (when not in a pandemic)
Talking to audiences who are genuinely interested in your research topic, including nonacademic audiences you might not have had access to otherwise
Additional CV lines
Getting feedback and discovering unexpected connections to others’ work
An excuse to post about your book on social media, reaching a potentially larger audience than just those who would attend the talk
Acknowledgment/recognition of the fact that you wrote a book and catharsis that you finished it
Building up your public platform in preparation for future books you might publish
If any of these things resonate with you and your goals, then book talks might be for you!
Of course, there are some costs to giving book talks as well. I didn’t poll Twitter about these, but some that I can think of are:
Travel costs (when not in a pandemic, if not covered by your host)
Opportunity costs in the form of time away from kids, family, and daily obligations (when not in a pandemic).
Even if you’re not traveling anywhere to give the talk, it does take time to prepare and you may have other things you’d rather spend that time doing.
The potential for hostile, unenthusiastic, or demoralizingly small audiences
Having to talk enthusiastically about a topic you may well be sick of by now
Dealing with general public speaking anxiety
This last one is a big one for me, personally. I love doing my Q&As with people I’ve been working with in my Book Proposal Accelerator, but public talks to a large audience I don’t know? Those take a lot out of me, so I have to think carefully about whether the benefits of doing them are worth it in each instance. (Yes, I’m doing a workshop with a large audience of people I don’t know tomorrow. Yes, I’ll probably be a little jittery for a few hours beforehand. I decided it’s worth it this time.)
Let’s go back to the question of whether you have to give talks about your book. Here’s where it’s important to get clear on your goals for your book and your promotion efforts in general. What do you want your book to do for you? Advance your academic career? Put you in conversation with groups you care about? Support or shape the efforts of activists or practitioners? Be a source of income and/or a stepping-stone toward income-generating activities? Let you bask in the glory of the accomplishment? These are all valid desires for a book. If you can be honest with yourself about what you really want to get out of having published a book, then you can decide whether book talks are the most effective way to get you closer to those goals.
Knowing what you hope to get out of giving book talks can also help you decide which opportunities to speak about your book are going to be good investments of your time and energy and which might be better to politely pass on. For instance, you may decide to turn down invitations that don’t pay an honorarium, that will force you to travel to places you’re not interested in going, that don’t address an audience you’re interested in being in conversation with, etc. You don’t have to accept every invitation that comes your way.
If you do decide that giving book talks is consistent with your goals, I recommend staking out in advance how many talks you realistically have the bandwidth for. Write the number down somewhere or tell a friend or family member who will hold you accountable. Invitations can be flattering and difficult to turn down, but if you’ve already recognized that you can really only do, say, three talks per semester without having your energy and time for other personal commitments completely drained, it’ll be that much easier to gently decline invitation #4 (or ask to schedule it at a later time).
For me, giving talks is not a significant part of my promotion strategy for The Book Proposal Book. With my limited time and resources, I’ve chosen to focus on a few other avenues for making people aware of the book and discussing the content with people it might help. This newsletter is a major one of those avenues. I have about 2500 people on my mailing list who have already self-selected as people who want to know more about scholarly publishing and book proposals. To me, the single best use of my time is probably connecting with these readers (i.e. you!) and providing valuable posts on a weekly basis.
The other major prong of my promotion strategy for The Book Proposal Book has been to place essays and interviews in venues that are highly visible to and tightly overlapping with my target readership. These venues include The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, University Affairs, and The Academic Life Podcast. My contributions there have the potential to reach an unlimited number of people and to be found by potential readers for years into the future as they search the internet for scholarly book proposal advice. I therefore see them as a better use of my bandwidth—and a better fit for my personality—than one-off talks.
I will be doing a few “talks” about book proposals in the coming weeks, but I don’t particularly consider these “book talks.” As an editor and publishing consultant, my business model already involves conducting workshops and webinars, sometimes hosted by organizations or academic institutions, sometimes put on by myself (like the one happening tomorrow). These events allow me to get my message out about proposals and publishing to dozens or hundreds of people at a time, to receive feedback from my ideal readers in real time, and (usually) to be fairly compensated for the labor that goes into preparing for and participating in the event. This last piece is important to me because I’m self-employed and don’t draw a salary from any institution, nor do I expect to bring in significant income from sales of the book itself—that’s just the reality of publishing for most authors, especially those who write for academic audiences.
Enough about me, let’s get back to you and your book talk plans (or lack thereof). It’s super easy to see certain highly visible people advertising frequent talks and being able to command high speaking fees and think “oh, I guess I have to aim for that too.” But you don’t. The evergreen social media advice not to compare your inside with their outside holds up here. You don’t know what that person’s goals are for their book or career and you don’t know what personal and professional obligations they’re balancing or (failing to balance) with their book promotion activities.
And here’s the other secret: some people genuinely like speaking in public, meeting lots of new people at once, and talking about themselves and their work. Book talks (or whole book tours) are a good promotional strategy for those people. But not everyone is like that, and if that’s not you, it’s quite alright to focus on different ways of connecting your book with potential readers. Chapter 14 of The Book Proposal Book has some ideas if you need them. :)
One more time, here’s the link to sign up for my Outstanding Academic Book Proposals workshop on Friday. Hope to see you there!