How to Publish Your First Academic Book (Opinion)

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How to Publish Your First Academic Book (Opinion)

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Congratulations! You published your first book.

Now what?

A video on TikTok? a meme? Befriending an influencer?

For many scientists, opening a Twitter account is intimidating. Many of us are camera-shy, reluctant to self-promote, and wary of media portrayals. We dream of long, uninterrupted hours of reading and writing and shudder at the thought of a live interview.

I’m with you there. But I also know the sinking feeling of spending countless hours thinking, writing, and worrying about a book only to see it sit at number 581,000 on Amazon. This means that about eight copies of the book are sold per month.

I’m told that academic monographs typically sell 500 to 1,000 copies – lifetime and mainly to libraries. It’s a common joke in academia that your book royalties will buy you a few lattes, but they’ll also get you tenure, which is enough for most of us.

We may also not feel much external pressure to promote our books, but we will reap intrinsic rewards for doing so. We know so much about our subject; it is worth sharing this knowledge with others. I’ve also found that different audiences make me think about my work in different ways. And it sure makes my day to get an email from someone who enjoyed reading my book.

I published my first book on “no excuses” charter schools and discipline last summer with Princeton University Press. It didn’t become a bestseller. But along the way, I’ve learned that there are a number of small things you can do to promote your book and get your story out to a wider audience. Here are 10 of them.

  1. Target your audience. Know who you’re trying to reach. Besides faculty members and students in your field, will another audience be interested in your book? I wanted my book to be read by charter school teachers and leaders. To reach these groups, I emailed charter school principals, sent paper copies of the book—with a handwritten note—to charter school leaders and teacher organizations, and created a discussion guide on my website for teachers and schools. Similarly, Mira Debs, whose first book was about public Montessori schools, organized book talks at various Montessori schools and received funding to distribute free books to participating teachers. She also created school and community resources.
  2. Organize a virtual book launch. This is a fun way to celebrate the release of your book. You can create a simple Evite with a Zoom link and send the invitation in an email to friends, family, students and colleagues. You can present material from your book, or it might be more lively to find someone to interview you about it. For my book launch, I invited Jennifer Berkshire, an education blogger and author, to interview me because she knew the field and was a professional in the format. The recording of my book launch was played on C-SPAN 2 Book TV.
  3. Work with your publisher and their marketing department. Academic journals do not have extensive resources for promoting your book, but they can still be useful. Typically, they will send an announcement about your book to a media list and facilitate contacts with interested parties. Mine also sent a digital or paper copy of the book to a list of 20 to 30 scholars I recommended. They also sent out copies of the book for book awards, which can get expensive if you have to do it yourself. They made me a Twitter banner. You can also search various publishers’ websites for book promotion media kits.
  4. Say yes to almost anything. I said yes to almost every media or podcast request about my book. I said yes to every invitation to speak about the book in college courses or university seminars. If your book is very popular, you may need to be more selective, but I found I could manage these different events as they were spread out throughout the year. By the time I did a few of these, I had to prepare less and felt more confident speaking off the cuff.
  5. Don’t overlook small opportunities to get the word out. Have you sent a book message to your member associations/sections? Would a particular blog feature your book or publish an excerpt? How about emailing colleagues and friends to alert them to your new book? I got one from an author I didn’t know personally and ended up teaching their book. Reach out to colleagues you know in other departments and express your interest in speaking at a colloquium, book talk series, or workshop. Send a brief email to journal editors—or a book review editor if listed on the journal’s website—asking if they would consider your new book for review.
  6. Use your academic connections. Does your institution of higher learning have a reading series? How about your doctoral institution? I was able to have my book included in my institution’s book of the month, and the college magazine then ran an excerpt from this interview. Have you also contacted your current institution’s media relations office? In every tweet I post about my book, I tag my institution’s name on Twitter and they will retweet it, expanding its reach.
  7. Read autobiographies. To identify potential news outlets, journals, and awards, I searched the biographies of academics who had written successful books in my field. That’s how I discovered the New Books Network, where I participated in a podcast. I also discovered two awards that I ended up winning: one from the Society of Education Educators and the Independent Publishers Book Award.
  8. Try your hand at a different type of writing. Opinions are a great way to get your message across in a nutshell and to a wide audience. Consider whether there is a recent news event or anniversary that could serve as a hook for your story. In my case, I framed a piece around the 30th anniversary of charter schools. The Conversation, an independent not-for-profit news organization that exclusively publishes articles written by academics, is a great outlet to try. My article based on my book came out in about a week, including teasing photos. The piece was picked up by over 20 news websites and published in the print version of the The Philadelphia Inquirer. It has been clicked more than 57,000 times. You can also experiment with different genres, such as writing advice in a post like Inside Higher Ed for educators who may be struggling with the process of writing a book.
  9. Start early. Media interest peaks around the publication date, so you’ll want to start drafting pitches and contacting potential media a few months in advance. The OpEd Project I participated in is a resource for educators who want to learn how to write for a public audience. Listen to podcasts. Research bloggers and influencers in your area. Find out which reporters cover your topic and contact them. This is also the time to turn to independent bookstores. I contacted the local bookstore a few months after my book came out and they said it was too late to host a book event.
  10. Spread the wealth. Use opportunities to talk about your book as a way to promote the work of other scholars/activists/stakeholders, especially junior scholars and those from underrepresented backgrounds. Spreading the wealth puts you in interesting dialogues and brings attention to other people’s work. At Yale Education Studies, I gave a talk with Michael Martinez, an alumnus of Yale University and a “no excuses” charter school, where we discussed our joint research projects.

To learn more about promoting your book, check out this media toolkit compiled by the American Sociological Association with advice and expertise from academics. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can even explore marketing strategies and workshops aimed at self-publishing writers. Next time, consider working with an agent or publishing an academic trade book.

Marketing a book takes time, but these strategies are fairly easy to implement. And chasing them, who knows? You might even gain the attention of New York Times or a famous blogger. Cumulatively, and with that kind of endorsement, your game theory book (okay, Jane Austen) might even momentarily pass #200 on Amazon.



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