Reader John S. has a reading of his just-published book at his campus bookstore next week. I gave a few lectures when Abraham in Arms first came out on the subject of my book–they weren’t book readings, but one was for a more general audience, in which I bombed, and two to university audiences, which were more successful.
My lecture to the more general audience was for wealthy donors to my college, so the audience was middle-aged or older, and very unafraid to share their opinions with me. I made a strategic mistake in my efforts to connect my ideas about warfare and gender in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America to today, and cited some of the gendered and sexualized language deployed by Americans with respect to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They treated me like I was just another jerk with an opinion, rather than someone who had spent a decade researching and thinking about these issues across time. Many of them were angry or just confused by my talk, and came to conclusions that I never articulated. (For example: I talked about how English men and women alike used gendered language and ideas to demonize Indians in borderlands warfare. One participant concluded that feminism was all bullcrap because women aren’t in fact morally superior to men. Now, I have no idea why she would have thought that feminism was the belief that women are better than men, since I don’t think that’s been a big part of feminist thought for at least a century, but there you have it.) I was mortified. Clearly, we all would have been better off if I had told them a few entertaining and heroic tales of our nation’s “pioneers!” It would have been dull for all concerned, but I don’t like pi$$ing people off.
When I gave the same talk a few weeks later to two different university audiences (mixed groups of faculty, grad students, and undergraduates), I was fascinating, subtle, and clever, and the audience questions were terrific. I was also the beneficiary of the politesse of the university audience, in which even if they hated me, no one would tell me because I was a faculty member visiting from another university, and that kind of deference to my expertise was non-existent in the previous crowd. As I learned from painful experience, your audience is everything.
I wish I had talked to a friend of mine in who works in advertising and public relations beforehand. (Incidentally, she never studied those subjects in college–she was a double-major in French and Political Science). She told me after the fact that if your goal is to move books, you just need to motivate your audience to buy books. You don’t need to give them a comprehensive or even particularly accurate view of what’s inside your book–just get them to pull their wallets out and buy it. She cited the example of a recent trade history title, The Professor and the Madman, which she had heard promoted on NPR. She said that in the interview, the author made it sound like such an interesting story that she ran out and bought the book right away. She was disappointed to find that the book wasn’t at all what it sounded like it would be in that interview. It wasn’t even particularly clever or even well-written, but she admired the publicist who had devised the strategy that led to her running out to buy the book.
What experiences with book readings and book promotion do you have? What advice do you have for John? (And for me, the next time around!)