Q&A: All About Book Promotion

What should you be doing and when?

Hi Manuscript Workers,

I’m currently in the thick of the big promotion push for The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors, because it comes out in just two weeks. I’ll be sharing more about exactly what I’m doing to promote the book and why over the next few weeks, because I think readers of this newsletter may find it helpful to see how book promotion works from the inside. But today’s newsletter is not about me and my book, it’s about you and your promotion-related questions. So let’s get to the Q&A!

L. asks: What is the ideal timing for book promotion? When should I be doing what?

My answer: The best time to do a big promotion push is around the book’s release date. Media outlets will likely want to peg any essays or interviews to a timely story, and the fact that the book is new could serve as a possible hook. It’s even better if there’s something newsworthy related to your book that you could also use as a hook to get an outlet and their readers interested.

If you want things like essays or interviews to come out around the same time as your book, that means you need to be pitching them a few months in advance of that release date to allow editors, podcasters, etc., time to plan and fit you into their schedule. While it’s ok to reach out early, you should make clear what the book’s release date is and specifically request that the piece run on or after that date. You don’t want people to see your essay or hear your podcast episode, go to buy the book, and then not be able to order it right away.

If you are trying to get people to review the book, you’ll similarly need to plan a few months in advance. Public-facing reviews outlets typically only review brand new books, which means the review may need to be lined up before the book is even publicly available. Your publisher should be able to set reviewers up with advance copies (though it may have to be an electronic copy because most scholarly publishers won’t be printing ARCs or “advance reader copies” due to cost). If you’re pitching the book for review in a scholarly journal, it usually doesn’t have to be quite so fresh, so you can wait until the actual print book is available. But you’ll still want to get it out there as close to the release as possible because some scholarly reviews editors do like to be timely as well.

If you are planning events to promote your book, there’s perhaps a bit more leeway as far as timeline. I wouldn’t plan anything for before the book is available, because, again, you want people to be able to read the book right away if the event gets them interested in it. But you can continue to plan events for months beyond your book’s release date. Something right around the release could be good to build awareness and momentum, but if you also have opportunities to give talks or do other events in the year or two following the release, go for it.

M. asks: How much promotion do I definitely have to do myself? What if I have some publicity help from my publisher?

My first answer is to read Kate McKean’s recent newsletter about this because a lot of what she says there holds true for scholarly publishing. Kate writes about trade publishing, where authors sometimes assume they would get more support for promotion than at a scholarly publisher, but that’s not necessary the case. (If you’re not sure what the definitional differences between academic and trade publishing are, see this post.)

Publishers will tell you that you are the best marketer and sales person for your book, because you understand the material the best and you are the closest person to your audiences. For this reason, I think it’s helpful to see your publisher’s marketing and publicity efforts as a support for your own, rather than a replacement or the lead team. Your publisher will be working behind the scenes to pitch your book to reviews editors and other people who might cover it, but some pitches may actually be more effective coming from you, especially if you already have relationships with editors, reviewers, and readerships.

It’s helpful to coordinate with your publicity person on who will be reaching out for what. When you do the reaching out, keep your publicity person in the loop so they can support you by sending review copies where they need to go. Also let them know when reviews, essays, or interviews run so they can help you publicize those.

The truth is that different publishers have different capacities and levels of investment in marketing and promotion. You may feel like you aren’t getting enough support, and it’s valid to feel that way. But a conversation with your editor and publicist before your book’s release can help to make sure everyone’s on the same page and can also make you aware of a lot of behind-the-scenes work that authors often don’t even see.

If marketing/publicity is very important to you, I encourage you to ask about it and do some research before you sign with a publisher. Some presses are better at it than others, and it’s a legitimate criterion to use when evaluating publishers you might want to partner with.

Amanda Edgar asks: In addition to my academic job and my own publishing goals, I also work as a ghostwriter on the side. In that role I put together a lot of proposals for non-academic books, mostly creative nonfiction. I've noticed some differences in the advice that's out there for non-university press proposals versus the backroom advice I got when I was writing proposals for my own books (one UP and one for-profit academic publisher), and I wondered whether you've encountered questions about this before. For example, I was never told to include anything on Author Platform or a Personal Promotion Plan in my UP proposals, but those seem to be standard bits of advice (and indispensable in the case of Author Platform) in proposals for non-UP publishing houses.

Are these differences a matter of different genres, in which case it makes sense to approach these types of proposals differently, or does it make sense for academics to adopt some of the conventions of non-academic book proposals? Or, in other words, is it possible that UP editors would be turned off by an overly commercial-oriented proposal?

(I asked Amanda if I could use her real name because I thought people might want to find her to learn more about her services.)

My answer: I think the advice not to include platform and promotion plan in a scholarly proposal is pretty outdated. UPs are increasingly thinking about connecting directly with readers and retailers as library purchases have steeply declined. Authors have a big role to play in that effort. I've even heard from some UP directors who say that they do consider things like Twitter follower count when deciding whether to sign a scholarly book. That's a bit drastic in my opinion—and I’ve heard other editors say that their press doesn’t consider platform as a determining factor—but if some publishers say they're doing it, it's probably good for authors to know that.

I think there's a way to include platform and promotion information that conveys an author's desire to make a serious intellectual contribution balanced with the way they intend to make that contribution widely known to people who might buy their book. It doesn't have to be all social media gimmicks; I might advise an academic author to highlight the talks they've been invited to give or plan to give, the organizations who regularly bring them in to speak, public facing venues they have relationships with, etc. I don't think there's a scholarly press in existence who would turn their noses up at an author who wanted to take an active role in promotion in those ways. A peer reviewer who is asked to look at a proposal might have some old-fashioned aversion to this kind of promotion, but I honestly don't think that part of their review would carry much weight with the press. Ultimately presses want to reach readers and sell books, and author promotion is how that happens.

All that said, not all scholarly presses specifically ask for promotion information in the proposal itself. Some do this in a separate document called the author marketing questionnaire (which you’ve surely seen since you’ve published books before). I've seen different presses handle this questionnaire differently; some ask for the author to fill it out before making an offer on the book, some will do so after the fact. So I guess my advice to an author who is wondering whether they need to come up with a promotion plan ahead of time would be that it will be a nice bonus if they appear to have considered it, but they don't need to stress out about it until it's asked for by the press. But they should definitely be prepared, because they will be asked—I don't know of any press that skips the author marketing questionnaire altogether. And they should know that some commonly asked-for aspects of the proposal (like the author bio) are actually asking about platform without using that term explicitly.

If you’re looking for more answers to your questions about book promotion, do check out The Book Proposal Book, especially Chapter 14. It’s already shipping from Princeton UP, so if you order directly from them you can get it before the release day even. The book also includes some tools to help you plan out your own promotion efforts; I hope they help!

One last thing: tomorrow (July 1st) is the last day to get early-bird pricing on my Developmental Editing for Academics self-paced course. You can sign up and get instant access here, if you’re interested!