Book readings, your audience, and successful self-promotion

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!)

0 thoughts on “Book readings, your audience, and successful self-promotion

  1. Hmmm. I guess I see my role as more of a provocateur, because I DO like pissing people off. Some people, anyway, and it sounds like that was a crowd of people who needed to be antagonized.

    But here’s my question related to the original thrust of the post: do you really think you would have sold a few copies of your book to that crowd if you had pitched your talk differently? History is different than Lit Studies, I know, in terms of appeal to a general readership. But I simply can’t imagine that giving public lectures to a general audience would be an effective way to move copies of my academic monograph, especially since the publisher in its infinite wisdom set the price at $80…


  2. Trying to get too subtle or complex in *any* context beyond an audience of specialists (and sometimes maybe even within) is probably an invitation to people hearing whatever they thought they heard. I love that iconic picture above, but the American Chatauqua audience–and the chatauqua aural comprehension skill-set in the body publicus–just doesn’t exist anymore. And we know it; witness the occasional strictures on the lecture as a viable pedagogic technique in various threads on this blog. So, if you don’t mind riling up a few wealthy donors or second-guessing your own specific rhetorical tactics on the drive home, probably no reason not to do it, and no reason to do it either. No harm, no foul.

    My book was somewhat understood to have at least a limited amount of “crossover” potential. And while I didn’t have anything that could be seriously called a “book tour” [still wish they’d bought that idea of opening up in Jersey Shore (PA), Fratguy!!], I did present in various media and to various kinds of audiences. No real total bomb-outs that I’m remembering now, but it was hard to keep the thing completely or consistently on point each time out. I don’t think I ever truly pandered, or tried to specifically provoke. When the book proved to still have a (slight) pulse again this spring, I played it safe and took the baby back on the road for 270 eighth graders, who listened very carefully (…for the lunch bell, it turns out!!).


  3. I think that how a non-specialist audience perceives their own level of expertise makes a difference. I can get pretty far with an interested audience that is open to the idea that I am an expert and they can learn something from me. As with the case in my comment two days ago, folks who understand themselves to be knowledgeable but are, in fact, not, can be trouble. I imagine that it’s more common in the humanities than in the sciences for non-specialist audiences to overestimate their own expertise.


  4. I gave a talk to a similar audience once. It went reasonably well, I thought, with a number of interested questions afterward. Afterward, though, I got a little email from someone who led business speaking seminars, who volunteered that I needed to stay on a simple, streamlined three-point message, and not move my hands while speaking.


  5. I am lucky that there are some really sexy things in my first book and that it has been pretty easy to guess what certain audiences want to hear. Talking to an audience with some knowledge about my subject and a tacit understanding not to air dirty laundry was much harder because my work exposes certain taboos. I’ve always tried to sit firmly in the middle of being entertaining and giving some core facts. What I have found in hawking two books, is most folks respond to a large personality, titillation, and enough facts to prove you did the work and are “worthy” of the profession how you mix those three things is based on your audience.

    and I’d agree with @truffula that “experts” in the audience can always be a problem & the best way I’ve found to diffuse them is to start by acknowledging how “truly brilliant they are” and how “grateful you are they showed up” and moving on quickly to other people. You can then work correcting information into a follow up comment to someone else’s question or in closing remarks just before it is time for meet and greet.


  6. I have no book-reading advice (never wrote one, so no readings necessary!), except that telling fun stories in such a way that the audience gets to feel like they’re very smart and sophisticated for having attended seems to be the way to go. But I did just want to say that whenever I’ve made the mistake of mentioning “feminism” in a non-women’s studies class, a very very large percentage of the class has denounced feminism as the belief that women are better than men. (This has happened a few times.) I always told those students that feminism *isn’t* the belief that women are better than men, but am quite sure that they dismissed this as my opinion without any scholarly backing (because I studied old stuff, which they didn’t know about, but feminism is modern stuff, which they know all about through just living in the modern world, of course).


  7. New Kid: I guess I was unfamiliar with popular beliefs about what constitutes modern feminist thought, because (like you in your old life) I teach in a period before there is such a thing as feminism as an intellectual or political movement. (For the most part, anyway.) I came to understand that most people have a very watered-down and extremely outdated understanding of feminism, which is that feminism is the belief that women are superior to men (or a somewhat less stark but no less crude, Oprah-esque “all women are goddesses” idea.)

    The lesson I took from that talk was that clearly, I lead a very sheltered life. I am rarely if ever NOT the expert in the room, and it was strange not to be recognized as such. I’m not criticizing my audence (although they clearly didn’t know as much as they think they did)–but I clearly didn’t know as much as I thought I did, either.

    It’s a good thing I wasn’t trying to sell books! (John S. is going to try to do that, I’m sure.) I just thought that comment from my PR & marketing friend was food for thought. Contra Shane, I didn’t want to piss anyone off. I wanted to be provocative, but in the way that we academics can provoke thought without provoking anger or more volatile emotions. I was behaving as though my audience were academics and not a more general audience–and I was taken aback that they didn’t recognize the same “rules” that we play by. It was my mistake.


  8. Yes, unfortunately, people do have very outdated information about feminism. I have had female students announce very seriously in class that women ARE better than men, and that they learned it in a Women’s Studies class. I seriously doubt that was the gist of the Women’s Studies class they took, but even students in Women’s Studies class may internalize a distorted message. I think that what comes out of your experience is not necessarily to water down your information, as much as give a clear yet brief explanation of terms at the beginning of the talk, without coming across as condescending. For example, “I use a feminist standpoint here, with the understanding that feminism means a, b, and c” … I mean, just an idea. And then, remember, sometimes an audience will suck! It happens. One lives and learns from it, and moves on.


  9. It’s always eye-opening (and somewhat unnerving) to find out the attitudes held outside of the group of your usual associates.

    I almost always hang out in feminist spaces and have friends that at least nominally identify as feminists. There are still areas of disagreement (we’ve had to agree to stay off politics), but the underlying philosophy is the same. At work, I keep my conversation on work-related topics or VERY general.

    Then, I go to a family reunion or a party at a more distant friend and meet HER friends, and it’s all scarily different.


  10. This discussion is so helpful. I am unsure about how to “move units,” in some ways because I am not sure why people would buy the book. Some of that is impostor syndrome (am I really a published author?), but some is that it’s unclear how a lay audience might access a uni. press book.

    I’ve gotten the advice that I might link it to current events, but I am wary of doing that. One of the book’s major topics is immigration and cultural assimilation–which is something of a hot button in the west, shall we say. And I am unprepared to handle such comments. Just last night, Professor Mrs. John S. and I were at an event to support our favorite animal charity and a woman across the table opined, in a random reference to a stray comment, that “those illegals and people on welfare” have kids only because they want to collect checks. I am not dexterous enough to parry a comment about contemporary diversity with “now about the 17th century…”

    But then, I recently had a student ask me for my opinion on a “historical” subject (he used the term loosely) he and his friends were debating: whether or not Obama won the Nobel Prize just because he was black. (The proof: Bush never won, and he’s white!) I just informed him that it was 4:10, and time to talk about the New Netherlands.


  11. Proud to report that the reading was a reasonable success. I had about 20 faculty colleagues, graduate students, undergraduates, and interested members of the university community. I choose not to relate my work to contemporary events but instead focused on 1) how I came to my topic; and 2) the most interesting chapter of the book, in abbreviated detail. People *seemed* interested, at least.


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