December 16, 2010
Now about that Festschrift and other things you need to know about the future of publishing (Part 4)
Okay, so you’ve got your proposal for a killer app of an academic book and you’ve identified the right publishers. What else do you need to know? Well, the next thing is something you should have already been working on!
Third, build a platform—“six feet above contradiction.” Marketers in publishing houses today habitually ask, “What’s the author’s platform?” What’s the place on which they stand and can be seen above the crowd—what’s their name recognition, their associated institutions, their networks of influential people? Who are the tribes listening to them? Who are the opinion shapers who will endorse and promote their book?
Of course, you need to recognize the platform you have as an academic. And then build out that platform effectively. This needs to be done well in advance of your book. Blogging, social media, speaking are all means of doing this. The need for platform started out as something essential for the general (what folks often call the “popular”) author, but it’s moving into academic publishing too. Here the employed scholar has an advantage: an academic writer with a teaching position in a respected institution already has a level of platform. And it’s enhanced, of course, by the prestige of the institution—and/or the quality of their work as it becomes known among peers. An educational institution can be a formidable platform.
It certainly helps if your institution promotes its professors. My work takes me to many a college or university or seminary website, looking for professors. Some of these websites bury their professors beneath an architecture apparently designed by someone who has no idea of the value of faculty for their institution. Fuller Seminary does a great job here—it’s easy to find faculty. Under “media relations” you can even search for them by expertise, from “Anxiety” to “Youth Ministry.” That all contributes to platform! (Fuller references are retained from the original Sitz im Leben of this piece.)
Fortunately, a lot can be done today through blogs, Facebook and—yes—Twitter! Those of my *Fuller generation can find ample amusement in conjuring up images of George Ladd twittering. (“Charles Fuller was a great man. But he didn’t understand eschatology!” He actually said something like that in a chapel address in the late 70s.) But even without today’s social media, he certainly had a platform! And a good part of that consisted in his effectively and arrestingly teaching Fuller students year after year. And they went forth as promoters of his books. So did Dan Fuller, who built a loyal following of students and former students. There are Fuller profs today who are adept at platform building with the new social media, with a vast tribe of Facebook friends and an active and engaging blog. When publishers see an academic with over 1,000 “friends,” they see promotional gold. Put the word out over that grapevine when you publish your next book and just see if it doesn’t go to work for you.
In 2009 IVP Academic published John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch. When John Piper and Mark Driscoll tweeted their enthusiasm for it, the book shot up to number 84 on Amazon’s ranking. That’s nearly Oprah country. It’s like William Randolph Hearst sending a telegram to his editors in 1949, “Puff Graham.”
So as you propose a book and write it, develop your platform and pray for the patronage of opinion leaders.
Fourth, be ready to promote it to glory. “If you write it, they will come.” And if they don’t, it’s all the publisher’s fault. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t any longer. Certainly not for a beginning author.
I can’t recount how many times recently I’ve heard marketers say, in doing an autopsy on a book with disappointing sales—yes, even an academic book:
And so forth. That may not be the whole story, but it is part of it. Whatever the individual circumstances, the marketers and publicists are saying that they cannot do all the work by themselves. They need what the author brings to the transaction between publisher and public, and the more the author brings, the better things will go. It’s much easier to accelerate a moving object than to get a stationary object moving.
To be sure, some of us are naturally wired for this promotional thing. Others of us resist it with all our might. I would not welcome, nor do I anticipate, a world in which extroverted, entrepreneurial academics with a penchant for self-promotion are the only ones who get published. I hardly think that’s where we are headed. But however you are put together, you do need to be prepared for effort post-publication.
As you have gathered by now, the future of publishing rests on hard work and creativity.
Okay, we’re about to get to that Festschrift.