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How to write, publish, and market a national bestseller

Posted on July 14, 2015 by Colleen Skidmore

“Why is this book a national bestseller?”

Clearing the Plains cover

McMaster University food historian Ian Mosby asked this question about a seemingly ordinary Canadian history book at Congress 2015.

It is a timely question as a minor skirmish on the crisis, or not, in non-fiction publishing erupted earlier this summer in The Guardian and the CEO of Penguin Random House Canada declared,“I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.”

Respondents in both Britain and Canada named university presses as havens for quality non-fiction books and their future. Perhaps they are right.

The book in question, James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, has sold more than 15,000 copies since publication by the University of Regina Press (URP) in 2013. It has also won numerous awards including, ironically, the prestigious Sir John A. Macdonald Prize. Its subject is the food distribution policies and practices of Prime Minister Macdonald and his government in late nineteenth-century prairie Canada. As the 2014 Macdonald laureate, Clearing the Plains was the subject of a Canadian Historical Association roundtable discussion this year where Ian Mosby posed and explored his question, along with other panelists, including the author, and audience members, including publisher Bruce Walsh.

Dr. Mosby admired the publishing phenomenon that is Clearing the Plains, the culmination of twenty years of research, which has had an impact on the national conversation about First Nations relations with the Canadian government. But he wondered why this book has achieved such a response when 1) other historians have known and written about the topic before, but not to such attention and acclaim, and 2) reviews of the book in both academic journals and popular media and magazines, which have been numerous, have identified not only its considerable strengths, but shortcomings, too.

In other words, this is a fine book but not a perfect book or one presenting new knowledge. So what has happened here?

For Bruce Walsh, commenting at the roundtable, finding this kind of manuscript is every publisher’s dream: an unknown (to him, a non-academic reader) and upsetting story found among a backlog of manuscript submissions when he joined the newly established URP. Its success has defined the URP’s profile but is also a prototype of the potential for academic books in today’s reading culture and market in Canada.

Panelists and audience members collectively proposed that Clearing the Plains is a national best-seller because, in varying degrees:

  1. It takes on a Big Topic.
  2. The topic is timely, one that is on the national public agenda in various ways.
  3. The book is the result of long-term study, deeply researched and meticulously documented in a way that builds in its readers moral and intellectual shock at its findings.
  4. It is lucidly written for both an educated lay audience and academics.
  5. It tells a story in ways that appeal to readers.
  6. It lays out the problem being presented without labeling it, so the book does not become nor can it be dismissed as, merely a polemic.
  7. It is professionally edited for style, structure, and substance (not just copy edited and proofread). The manuscript’s working title has been replaced with one more succinct and compelling.
  8. It is marketed and promoted aggressively by the press both within the academic loop of disciplinary associations and researchers, and in broader public venues.
  9. The publisher sought and received high-profile endorsements for the book.
  10. The author is willing and able to take on the role of public intellectual, writing and speaking in local and national media and other non-scholarly venues.

Why is all of this so hard to do to such success? Why are sales of academic books rarely robust and their social impact rarely significant in Canada? Like the URP, most university publishers seek scholars who can write (or, as Bruce Walsh prefers, writers who happen to be scholars) and aspire to attracting a broad and abundant audience to their scholarly books. Manuscripts are peer reviewed for quality and the final decision to publish is based on merit rather than profit margin.

Formal and informal discussions among scholars at Congress yielded a variety of opinions and reasons based on experience:

  1. “Productivity” paradigms now rule annual reviews of humanities and social sciences professors’ work: demands for quantity of “output” trump the time needed to undertake the deeper, longer, and more complex work that should be part of the norm for responsible scholarly endeavour and career achievement.
  1. Many researchers believe that peer reviewers will criticize a less formal or specialized writing style that appeals to readers beyond academics, and will reject such manuscripts for publication or for SSHRC and ASPP funding.
  1. There appears to be little excitement and energy in the scholarly community to work outside prescribed norms. Disciplinary traditions and concerns for career progression preclude imagination and creativity in how to “report research” in such as way that people want to read it.
  1. Many university publishers make comparatively narrow, limited, and traditional marketing efforts.

At the Congress Career Corner session on “Publishing and Marketing Your Scholarly Book,” there was a perceptible deflation of the audience when one press panelist answered a question about how a marketing plan is determined. The panelist stated that the author needs to bring energy and enthusiasm to promoting the book, give the press marketing ideas, tell the press where the book should be reviewed, and, finally, “be realistic.” None of this inspired or reassured either the aspiring or experienced scholarly authors in the audience. Many were surprised to learn that they need to know how to market their book, rather than just how to research and write one that meets peer review standards of excellence for funding and publication.

In contrast at this session, panelist Bruce Walsh of URP stated that a publisher has to do “whatever it takes” to get attention for a book, to imagine what a book could be and how to communicate to get readers to buy the book. As you might guess, it was the URP that attracted a line-up of aspiring academic writers after the session.

Not all books need to be national best sellers, but every scholarly book published by a public university press should make a contribution to both public and academic debates. To do so, they have to be widely read and discussed.

Not-for-profit university presses must meet a bottom-line as responsible stewards of public funds. They also have both the mandate and the responsibility to publish high-quality, readable, scholarly non-fiction that engages readers, specialists and generalists alike. Equally, once the researcher has delivered a manuscript that meets these criteria, university presses must work imaginatively, enthusiastically, and forcefully in the contemporary marketplace to attract readers to their books. Marketing too needs to be supported, by inventive and determined distribution efforts in both traditional and alternative venues.

In the end, when all of these variables are well met, a scholarly book will sell well. And there is a good chance that one of those books (or more, if URP’s early track record is an indicator) is bound to be a national bestseller.

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