How to publicize your first academic book (opinion)

Congratulations! You’ve published your first book.

Now what?

TikTok video? Meme? Befriend an influencer?

To many academics, opening an account on Twitter is frightening. Many of us are camera-shy, reluctant to self-promote and wary of media representations. We dream of long, interrupted 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 having spent countless hours thinking and writing and fretting over a book, only to see it sit at No. 581,000 on the Amazon ranking list. That means about eight copies of the book are being sold a month.

Academic monographs, I’m told, typically sell 500 to 1,000 copies—over a lifetime, and mainly to libraries. The running joke in academe is that the royalties from your book will buy you a few lattes—but they will also earn you tenure, which is enough for most of us.

We may also not feel much external pressure to market our books, but we’ll receive intrinsic rewards for doing so. We know so much about our topic; It’s worth sharing that knowledge with other people. I’ve also found that different audiences make me think about my work in different ways. And it undoubtedly makes my day to receive 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 did not become a best seller. But, along the way, I learned you can do a number of small things to help publicize your book and get your story out to a broader audience. Here are 10 of them.

  1. Target your audience. Figure out whom you are trying to reach. Apart from faculty members and students in your field, would other audiences be interested in your book? I wanted my book to be read by teachers and charter school leaders. To reach those groups, I sent emails to charter school principals, mailed hard 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 on public Montessori schools, organized book talks at different Montessori schools and obtained 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 publication 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 livelier to find someone to interview you about it. For my book launch, I invited Jennifer Berkshire, an educational blogger and author, to interview me, because she was knowledgeable about the field and a pro at the format. The recording from my book launch was replayed on C-SPAN 2’s Book TV.
  3. Work with your publisher and their marketing department. Academics presses do not have extensive resources to market your book, but they can still be helpful. Typically, they will send an announcement about your book to a list of media outlets and facilitate contacts with interested parties. Mine also sent a digital or hard copy of the book to a list of 20 to 30 academics whom I recommended. They also sent copies of the book out for book awards, which can get pricey if you have to do it on your own. They made me a Twitter banner. You can also search different publishers’ websites for media tool kits for book promotion.
  4. Say yes to most everything. 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 that I could manage those different events, as they were spread throughout the year. By the time I had done a few of them, I had to prepare less and felt more confident speaking off the cuff.
  5. Don’t ignore small opportunities to get the word out. Have you sent a book announcement to your member associations/sections? Would a particular blog feature your book or post an excerpt? What about sending an email to colleagues and friends, alerting them about your new book? I received one from an author I did not 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 seminar. Send a brief email to journal editors—or a book review editor if listed on the journal website—asking if they would consider your new book for review.
  6. Use your academic affiliations. Does your undergraduate institution have a reading series? What about your doctoral institution? I was able to get my book included in my undergraduate institution’s Featured Book of the Month, and the college magazine then excerpted that interview. Have you also reached out to your current institution’s media relations office? In every tweet I post related to my book, I tag my institution’s Twitter handle and they will repost it, widening its reach.
  7. Read CVs. To identify potential news outlets, journals and prizes, I searched the CVs of academics who had written successful books in my area. That’s how I found the New Books Network, where I participated in a podcast. It’s also how I found two awards that I ended up winning: one from the Society of Professors of Education and the Independent Publishers Book Award.
  8. Try your hand at a different kind of writing. Opinion pieces are a great way to get your message out succinctly and to a wide audience. Consider whether there is a recent news event or anniversary that can serve as a hook for your story. In my case, I framed a piece around the 30th anniversary of charter schools. The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization that exclusively publishes articles written by academics, is a great outlet to try. My article based on my book was out in about a week, catchy photos included. The piece was picked up by over 20 news websites and published in the print version of The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was clicked on more than 57,000 times. You can also experiment with different genres, such as writing an advice piece in a publication like Inside Higher Ed for faculty who may be struggling through the book-writing process.
  9. Start early. Media interest peaks around your publication date, so you will want to start drafting opinion pieces and reaching out to potential outlets several months before. The OpEd Project, which I participated in, is a resource for faculty who want to learn how to write for a public audience. Listen to podcasts. Research bloggers and influencers in your area. Figure out which reporters are writing on your topic and contact them. This is also the time to reach out to independent bookstores. I reached out to my local bookstore a few months after my book was 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, a graduate of Yale University and of a “no excuses” charter school, where we discussed our mutual research projects.

To learn more about promoting your book, check out this media tool kit put together by the American Sociological Association with advice and experiences from academics. If you are feeling especially brave, you might even explore marketing strategies and seminars aimed at writers who publish books independently. Next time around, consider working with an agent or publishing an academic-trade book.

Marketing a book takes time, but these strategies are fairly easy to execute. And by pursuing them, who knows? You might even gain the attention of The New York Times or a well-known blogger. Cumulatively, and with such an endorsement, your book on game theory (OK, Jane Austen) may even momentarily pass the No. 200 ranking on Amazon.

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