December 14, 2010
Now about that Festschrift and other things you need to know about the future of publishing (Part 3)
If you write academic books (broadly defined), what strategies might you employ for successful publishing in our new environment? Here are two potential strategies. (I’ll take up two more in part 4 —this will end up to be a five-part rather than three-part series!)
First, create the “killer app.” In the increasingly competitive publishing environment, with thinner margins and more resistant buyers, coming up with good book ideas is more important than ever. I find myself regularly saying no to proposals that I would have thought viable even a couple years ago. I regularly spend time trying to come up with book ideas that will work, and it’s not easy. Good book ideas might sometimes just pop into your head. But more often they come out of long incubation and experience.
If you are teaching, you are in direct touch with your readership—and that’s a good place to begin. Focus on academic textbooks in the classroom—main and supplementary. What is the book you reach for, but it’s not there? What are the questions students ask, but no book adequately addresses it? What is the hole you’re constantly having to fill in class lectures but you’d rather relegate to reading? In dreaming up books, don’t think you have to swing for the bleachers. A base hit might be a more effective strategy.
As an aside, I’m convinced that the most invincible “new book” dreamers in our seminaries are teachers of Greek and Hebrew. You probably wouldn’t think so. But over the years I’ve surely seen dozens of proposals for new introductory Greek or Hebrew grammars. I conclude these language teachers must be perpetually fed up or bored with what’s available and are quite persuaded they’ve got a better way. God bless you! So far I’ve steered clear of these books since it seems to me that—after a lot of editorial work getting it all just so—any given Hebrew or Greek textbook is likely to be supplanted by the next one. But if you are in charge of biblical language instruction at a seminary the size of *Fuller, and you have the power to enforce your textbook across the program (like William La Sor back in his day—with his own verb identification system!), I’d like to talk with you. You might be the absolute scourge of the student body, but I’m sure we’d make great friends!
And don’t be shy about discussing ideas with editors. This is self-serving, but the law of 10,000 hours comes into play here. Season by season, year by year, editors see what succeeds and what doesn’t. Not all of it can be distilled into bullet points or rules. But talking to editors from an early stage can save a lot of heartache later.
And yet … And yet twenty or so editors “passed” on Eugene Petersen’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction until it reached Jim Hoover at IVP. So over the long haul, if you really believe in your project, you don’t want to put your trust in any one editor!
Second, think of publishers as channels. Publishers are conduits, giving you access to markets. There is nothing new in this but it is tremendously important. Publishers don’t just shoot a shotgun spray of promotion and hope to hit a target. Marketers think in terms of concrete readerships. Amazon is a powerful distribution system, but it is not the primary way people hear about a book, particularly academic books. Amazon does a lot, to be sure, introducing you to books you might like or ones that others of your ilk have bought. But this is algorithmic stuff. Publishers spend a great deal of time cultivating channels through which they can move books to particular audiences that Amazon might not reach effectively. They get to know the gate keepers of those channels, build relationships and learn how to reach particular audiences effectively. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes.
This is all part of the back story that informs your instincts in taking your OT or NT study to a publisher with a history of publishing in that area. You’ve observed that they know how to reach your audience. They’ve reached you, your friends and colleagues. And they’ve done it appropriately. You don’t want your publisher using Christian retailing tactics at SBL, handing out bracelets with one-liners from your book. That could be a career buster. Academic authors know this intuitively, though sometimes they get stung by the attractive offers of publishers better known for publishing celebrity preachers. A book is not just a book or “product.” You want to publish with a publisher that knows your tribe (and its chieftains)!
Next we’ll look at platform and promotion.
*This blog originated in a talk within the context of Fuller Seminary.