Want to get published? Want to make a strong debut? Know your audience.
Helping launch a first-time author into what I hope will be a career-long scholarly conversation is one of the most satisfying aspects of my job. My advice for them?
Don’t just try to get published. Try to get read.
That means that for you, the author, the actual “publishing” part of working with a press isn’t and shouldn’t be the main focus of your attention. Publishing, after all, is an intermediary step on the way to building and sustaining a meaningful readership.
Taking this as your point of departure, you need to first think about how your research might attract readers, or why it should be read. When you’re drafting the book proposal, or just trying to conceptualize how your research will be reworked as a book, the most important thing to think about is pivoting the research towards your audience.
Find an editor that is not only enthusiastic, but also willing to work with you in order to get the readership right.
An idea for a book manuscript can’t just be interesting—it also has to do something for its readership. As the author, you should bring a fresh voice to a conversation that audiences haven’t heard before, one that can speak to a number of people in the appropriate field and share something valuable, or force readers to think in a new and innovative way. Take a hard look at your proposed manuscript, and think about how you would characterize it as a reader. Is it a unique and fascinating case study? Perhaps it stretches the bounds of a theoretical debate? Or maybe it’s a beautiful ethnographic narrative. Zero in on what about this study makes it required reading.
Figuring out what makes the study special and potentially resonant to readers is vital. But you also have to know which readers you’re primarily talking to, and how the kind of study you’re planning will be used by them. You should be brutally honest with yourself about who your primary audience will actually be. There are generally three classic, broad readerships that I often see in a proposal that help me, as an editor, understand how to best assess a project:
Some manuscripts are intended to be read primarily by other scholars, graduate students, and adopted for the very occasional high-level undergraduate seminar.
Other manuscripts are meant for undergraduates taking courses within the field, and are planned to be adopted by professors for course use.
Or, least likely of all, the manuscript could be read by university students of all levels, and perhaps the interested general reader.
Please note: “all of the above” is never an answer to the primary audience question, and as an editor I see right through this claim. You may see a few readers outside of your core audience reading the book (and that’s great!)—but academic books that try to write for everyone most often resonate with no one.
“All of the above” is never an answer to the primary audience question.
To get a better sense of your project’s readership, start by looking at books similar to your proposed manuscript in terms of the style and level of scholarly engagement. Try to match and compare your book to those. Then think about who primarily reads those books and how they were received and used by readers. That will help you see your own contribution as a future reader might see it. And don’t be afraid to step outside your silo: branch out a bit from the niche literature you’ve been reading within your own specialty to see how others have successfully published their work.
Knowing who your readers are is a crucial first step—but it’s not enough to simply know who you want the book to be for; the manuscript’s presentation and style must match the needs of your readership. Different readers expect different things—just as the way you convey something to a peer might not match the way you present that idea to a student, a manuscript needs to be focused in on how readers will want to hear your arguments.
Once you’ve thought deeply about your project, who will read it, and why, you should have more clarity as you sit down to draft your proposal.
If your primary readership is a high-level academic audience of scholars and graduate students, the manuscript should be sophisticated, and engage with the necessary high-level theory. Generally, your writing should be professional in tone and on a sentence-by-sentence level, the diction is formal and serious.
If your primary readership is undergraduates within the field, there needs to be fluid integration between engaging narrative and some theory—in other words, the manuscript has to be useful for teaching. The author looks to expand an argument past a specific case study in order to include a large undergraduate readership.
For students of all levels and an interested general reader: There needs to be a near-obsessive attention to narrative. And you should have an important and captivating thesis with wide implications. The tone is conversational but confident, sometimes informal.
Once you’ve thought deeply about your project, who will read it, and why, you should have more clarity as you sit down to draft your proposal and send it out to editors. For me, nothing is more exciting than reading a proposal, or writing sample, and seeing the kernels of what could be an important, or beautiful, or field-busting book that people will need to read. I should be enthusiastic about your manuscript and motivated to find an audience for it, and willing to provide editorial guidance. If I’m not, then I’m likely not invested in making it more than what it already is.
Find an editor that is not only enthusiastic, but also willing to work with you in order to get the readership right. A good editor will help you position the manuscript so that it can have a lasting impact in the field, regardless of audience-level. An editor may disagree with your proposed readership—listen to their feedback and use that to continue the conversation. I often discuss with authors very early on what they’re looking for from me to help maximize their scholarly contribution. Some editors are more hands on than others. Know what you want from your editor, and discuss it with them before you make a commitment.
Most readers will pick up your book, read it, and then move on to the next book, and then another, and then many others after that. What about your book do you want them to actually remember, so that they can recall a strong message years later that continues to inform their intellectual life? Good books have that power. So I’ll leave you again with this mantra: Don’t just get published. Get read.
This post is adapted from a presentation delivered by Law and Anthropology editor, Michelle Lipinski at the 2015 American Association of Anthropologists. The panel on which she spoke was an Early Career Mentoring Event organized by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology that asked panelists to offer critical bits of advice for unpublished scholars.
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