This post is an Institute for Humane Studies exclusive. Parts 1-4 were originally published in The Volokh Conspiracy on Reason.com.
In previous posts in this series, I described how to decide whether you want to write an academic book in the first place, how to choose a publisher, how to persuade publishers to accept your proposal, and how to get through the writing process. Many scholars assume that once your book is finished, your work is done. But it isn’t! If you want to get the most out of your book, you also have to promote it.
Unless you are already famous, or at least a big-name figure in your field, the intended audience for your book probably won’t notice it unless you try to bring it to their attention. That applies to both the audience of experts in your field, and any possible broader audience in the general public. This post explains how to do that.
Reaching Experts in Your Field
For most academic books, the most important audience is likely to be other scholars in your own field. Most are likely to be academics; but some may also be scholars at think tanks, research institutes, and government agencies. If these people review your book and cite it, it might have a real impact on the field – and on your reputation. If not, the book will probably sink like a stone – as all too many books do.
How do you get the attention of your fellow experts? The best way to start is by letting them know about the book! A few weeks before the book comes out, make a list of the top twenty or thirty experts in your field who might be interested. Perhaps even more. Then e-mail them to let them know the book will be out soon. If the book relates to their work – or better still if it cites them – make sure to let them know about that. It will make them more likely to read it – and cite it. If at all possible, follow up by sending them copies of the book when it does come out.
Do the same thing with editors of the most prominent academic journals in your field. That will make it more likely that the book will get reviewed.
Many publishers will give you some author copies to dispose of as you wish, or will even send copies directly to potential prominent readers and reviewers. If possible, bargain with the publisher to get extra author copies of the book. Point out that if they give you more to send out to potential influential readers and reviewers, it will ultimately be good for sales. They are likely to make the money back!
At the very least, most publishers will let you buy author copies at a large discount (usually 30-40%). If you’ve followed my advice to bargain with publishers about setting a reasonable price for the book (say, $25-30 or less), the author discount will enable you to buy extra copies for about $15-18 each, or so. You can then use your academic expense account (if you are already a professor or a think tank scholar or the like) to buy another few dozen, and send them out to potential influential readers and reviewers. I won’t say to spend your own money on this, if you don’t have an academic expense account. Much depends on your overall financial situation. But you should at least consider it.
“The more scholars and other experts know about your book, talk about your book, and review your book, the better! If things go well, the attention will even be self-reinforcing.”
If even a few of the copies you send out to other experts in the field result in influential reviews, professionally valuable speaking engagements, and other similar opportunities, it will be more than worth it!
When I published my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, I sent copies to several dozen people by using my own expense account funds, on top of several dozen more that the publisher sent out. One of the former was a copy I sent to a Japanese academic who I thought might be interested. He ended up offering to do a Japanese translation of the book. The royalties from that were enough to recoup all the money spent on extra promotional copies; more importantly, the Japanese translation opened up a whole new audience for my work. Don’t skimp on sending out copies of your book to influential readers and reviewers in your field. Doing so is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
In addition to letting your fellow scholars know about the book and sending out review copies, you should also do all you can to drum up relevant speaking engagements. Many academic departments, think tanks, and other similar institutions run workshops and lecture series. Find out about the key ones in your field (you should know them already, if you want to be a successful scholar!) and contact the organizers to see if they might be interested in having you speak about your book. Don’t forget about non-university based institutions that focus on your field. For example, if your book is about property rights (like some of mine), consider such organizations as the Urban Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Brookings Institution, which have extensive programs focused on housing and related issues. They might be interested in hosting you, or at least including you in a conference about the topic.
The same goes for professional conferences, such as the American Association of Law Schools annual conference (in law), or the American Political Science Association convention (in political science). See if you can get your book included in a panel, or even submit a proposal to the organizers for a panel focused on the book. Invite interested scholars to participate (many might be at the conference anyway).
The more scholars and other experts know about your book, talk about your book, and review your book, the better! If things go well, the attention will even be self-reinforcing. One person who becomes interested in your book will tell another about it, and they in turn will tell their friends and colleagues. But it won’t happen unless you get the ball rolling.
As I write these words, the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging, and there are few in-person speaking events. That is a tragedy, in many ways. But, on the other hand, there are lots of virtual ones! They are inferior to in-person events in various ways. It’s harder to develop a rapport with the audience, and especially to interact with them informally afterwards. But there is the off-setting benefit that you can do a lot more of them in any given period of time, and they are much cheaper and easier to organize. The host institution need not pay for flights and hotel rooms, for example.
“Many academic books have little or no appeal to non-specialists. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.”
For that reason, I suspect virtual speaking events will remain more common than before 2020, even after the pandemic. If so, you can take advantage of that to promote your book! An institution that might not be willing to pay to have you visit in person might still be happy to give you a virtual speaking engagement.
In 2020, I had the grave misfortune of having my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom come out just as the pandemic began. Nearly all the in-person speaking engagements I had lined up were canceled, as a result. But I was able to partially make up for it by organizing some two dozen virtual ones, including at institutions where I might not have been able to go in person even in “normal times,” such as universities in Argentina, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. It took me a while to realize this substitution was possible, and to begin to exploit the possibilities. Had I figured things out earlier, I might have done still better. And so can you, if you avoid my initial mistake.
I may be wrong. But I expect that the post-pandemic world will feature a mix of in-person and virtual events. Do your best to take advantage of both.
Reaching the Broader Public
Many academic books have little or no appeal to non-specialists. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. If your book is about theoretical physics or the fine points of archeological technique, it is highly unlikely to interest the general public, no matter how well you promote it. Such a book can still be a major contribution to its field, and you have every reason to be happy if your book does that.
Some academic books, however, have the potential to attract lay readers, as well. That’s particularly true of books that touch on prominent controversial issues in economics, politics, law, and public policy. For example, my book Free to Move, focuses on immigration, federalism, and their relationship to democracy and political choice. It’s pretty obvious that these are major topics of public debate in many countries. My earlier book, The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain, is about a Supreme Court case that attracted widespread media and public attention throughout the United States and even abroad.
If your book focuses on a topic like that, you might be able to attract interest beyond the academic world – especially if you have written the book in a way that is accessible to non-specialists (I offered some thoughts on how to do that in a previous post). I have to admit it isn’t easy to attract public attention to an academic book if you’re not already well-known. But I can offer some useful suggestions on how to get started.
First, try to have the publisher send out review copies to mainstream media organizations, as well as academic journals. If possible, find out the name of the relevant book review editor there, and e-mail him or her directly. If even one or two prominent newspapers or websites review the book, it can attract a great deal of interest.
Try, also, to contact columnists and op ed writers who have shown an interest in the topic of your book. E-mail them and, if possible, send them a copy (just like with influential academics). If one of them mentions your book in a column, it can really pay off. One of the biggest boosts for sales of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance came when Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a piece about it.
The same point applies to influential bloggers who write about issues covered in my book. When I write books about property rights, I always try to inform the authors of leading law, property, and economics blogs about it. If one of them mentions the book in a post, that too can be a real boon. If you don’t already know who are the most influential bloggers or Substack commentators writing about your topic, make sure to find out!
“What is true of media attention is also true of nonacademic speaking engagements. Find out whether there are nonacademic organizations interested in your topics, and see if they would be interested in having you speak about it.”
Free to Move got a valuable burst of attention when economist Tyler Cowen mentioned and briefly reviewed it on the widely read Marginal Revolution blog. That happened because I reached out to him and informed him the book was coming out.
When writing members of the media, bloggers, and potential reviewers in advance of publication, consider e-mailing them a copy of the PDF of the page proofs (most publishers will let you do that). That can help drum up interest early on, and give them an early preview of what’s in the book.
In addition to reaching out to bloggers, media commentators, and reviewers, keep an eye on current events. If there are issues in the news that relate to the topic of your book, try submitting an op ed or other opinion piece about it! The fact that you’ve just published a book about the subject should give you extra credibility with opinion editors. The same goes for writing longer opinion articles for publications such as The Atlantic or the New Republic.
After I published Free to Move, I did all I could to publish op eds and articles about immigration and other issues related to the book. My efforts were partly stymied by the enormous press of other events in a year that included a horrible pandemic and a disputed presidential election. I also waited too long to begin my efforts (you should try to start even before the book comes out). Still, I managed to publish pieces related to the book in The Atlantic, USA Today, The Hill, and elsewhere. If you avoid my mistakes, have better luck with timing, or both, you can do better!
“If one reporter or commentator quotes you, that makes it more likely that others will do so. Eventually, the media will start to come to you, instead of you having to work to attract their attention.”
Learning how to write a good op ed or popular media article is a task in itself. To really explain how to do it would require a post of its own! But if you do have that skill – or manage to develop it over time (as I have tried to do) – you can use it to generate public interest in your book. The kinds of people who read articles about political or legal issues in major media are also the kinds most likely to be interested in reading books about the subject – including yours!
If you do manage to publish popular media articles related to your book, make sure to mention it in your byline. Perhaps like this: “Ilya Somin is professor of law at George Mason University, and author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.” If possible, include a hyperlink to the book’s Amazon page (that will help with sales).
What is true of media attention is also true of nonacademic speaking engagements. Find out whether there are nonacademic organizations interested in your topics, and see if they would be interested in having you speak about it. For example, in the legal world, both the right-of-center Federalist Society and the liberal/progressive American Constitution Society regularly invite academics to speak to their events for lawyers and law students (some on university campuses, and some elsewhere). If your book is relevant to their interests, contact them! Similarly, I have given talks to nonacademic groups interested in topics that I write about, such as property rights, federalism, and immigration. Get to know the relevant organizations in your field, and reach out to them.
Like academic interest, media interest in you and your work can build upon itself. If you write one op-ed related to the book, that makes it easier to get others accepted. If one reporter or commentator quotes you, that makes it more likely that others will do so. Eventually, the media will start to come to you, instead of you having to work to attract their attention. You may even find you have to reject some opportunities to write op-eds or speak to reporters, because you don’t have time. Ditto for invitations to speaking engagements. You might end up with more of them than you have time and energy for. If so, that’s a sign of success.
“Promoting your book can be a difficult task, one that doesn’t come naturally to most academics. But, if you succeed, you get the enormous benefit of having people take an interest in your work. That in turn enables your ideas to have an impact on your field and even beyond.”
Don’t Be Afraid of Rejection
At least initially, the key to attracting both expert and lay interest in your book is reaching out to as wide a range of people and organizations as you can. If you reach out to ten contacts and even one of them pays off in the form of a review, op ed, or speaking opportunity, that’s a good result!
Doing that kind of outreach means you will probably get a lot of rejections, and perhaps even more situations where people simply ignore you (e.g. – by not responding to your e-mails or not acknowledging the copy of the book you sent them). When that happens, don’t worry! It’s just a normal part of the process. While the rejections may be painful (especially at first), try to put them out of your mind as fast as you can, and move on. Don’t get mad at people and institutions that say “no” to you (or even just ignore you). If they turn you down, politely thank them for their consideration, and go on with your efforts on other fronts. Don’t become a pest by trying to argue that they were wrong to say “no” (even if you are right about that, it’s highly unlikely they will change their minds). Try not to burn any bridges by getting angry or showing your disappointment. After all, you might contact these same people again about your next project!
“Promoting your book can be a difficult task, one that doesn’t come naturally to most academics. But, if you succeed, you get the enormous benefit of having people take an interest in your work.”
Reaching out to large numbers of people can be difficult; even more so if you know that many of those efforts will likely fail. It’s harder still if you’re an introvert – as many academics and intellectuals are (myself, included). But you should remember that these kind of rejections are an unavoidable part of becoming a successful author. However great the pain may seem at the time, it will pass soon enough. And in the long run, no one will remember how many times you got turned down for a review, a speaking engagement, or an op ed. The world will only see the times you succeeded!
I know that from difficult personal experience. The list of people, institutions, and publications that rejected my efforts at outreach at one time or another, is long and distinguished. Every one of the setbacks hurt at the time. But, today, hardly anyone but me remembers any of those rejections. Other people only see the successes – even if the latter are actually fewer in number.
Promoting your book can be a difficult task, one that doesn’t come naturally to most academics. But, if you succeed, you get the enormous benefit of having people take an interest in your work. That in turn enables your ideas to have an impact on your field and even beyond. Isn’t that the biggest reason why we write books in the first place?
Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University. This piece is part 5 out of a series of 5.
In This Series: