The Laws of (Marketing) Magic

A few months ago, I wrote on Facebook that about 60% of the staff at my current job refers to my work as “doing my magic.” It’s a variation of an old meme:

  1. Something is needed
  2. Sara does her magic
  3. Profit!

At first, I was somewhat flattered by this–“I really feel like a magician, y’all” was my exact phrasing. But it’s starting to wear on me a bit, so I thought I would take the opportunity to remind everyone that even magic has rules. Consider Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration from the Harry Potter universe: while magic allows you to summon or conjure many things, there are certain materials or conditions that can’t be created magically. One is food, which–as Hermione explains–can be multiplied or summoned but not made by magic. Money is another; I imagine that money can’t even be multiplied, because that would create substantial problems with an economy based on precious metals. If a wizard wants money or food, they must trade goods or services like any Muggle.

In the kinds of marketing I do–writing and designing promotional material for print and digital distribution–the relevant magical law is the Iron Triangle. Also known as the project management triangle, but obviously “iron” sounds a lot more alchemical.


The version of this I learned from working with printers is: you can have it fast, cheap, or good; pick any two. In other words, you can optimize the costs of your project (which tends to be the major concern for nonprofits I’ve worked with) and you can have it done well, but you have to allow time and plan well. Timing and planning is not a specialty of my current employer, however, and I find myself butting up against the laws of marketing magic regularly as my supervisors assign me last-minute tasks or make eleventh-hour changes. And while they understand certain mathematics of production–if we order double the brochures that we planned, the final bill will be greater than the price estimate we were given–that it might take more time to print and fold those additional brochures came as a surprise to them.

A couple other magical laws that may apply to marketing:

Knowing the true name of a thing makes it easier to magically affect. So, for example, when I am asked to remove all the Times New Roman font from a document that contains no TNR, I have no idea what to do. (Turns out my supervisor does not like serif fonts, period, but I did not know that at the time.)

Certain magic cannot be performed without artifacts of power. I just created a glossy full-color trifold brochure in Microsoft Publisher, y’all. And it looks pretty okay. But it was not easy. You have to sort of jury-rig bleeds and crop marks unless you want a white border all the way around your piece. Also, you can’t do much to modify the .pdf resolution settings, and you can’t create a CMYK document even pretty much anything printed in color is printed in CMYK. I yearn for Adobe software.

More fun with the magic of making-to-order:

How a web design goes to hell, from The Oatmeal

A sweeter, gentler story about book design at The Toast

An entire Tumblr dedicated to difficult clients.


How Not To Be: Promo Copy

I actually drafted this post several months ago, but felt hesitant about publishing it while I still worked for my previous employer. I sent it out into the world now mainly because I think it will be of interest to first-time authors, particularly the academic authors-to-be of my acquaintance.

The occasion: I was working on promotional copy for three very different books whose authors had given me three perfect examples of descriptive copy that I could not use for promotional purposes. To be fair, the authors’ own descriptions of their own books was not ever intended for promotional use. We definitely don’t expect academic writers to be able to write a perfect piece of promotional copy (although some do!); the promo copy we use is displayed in a number of different spaces for a number of different audiences, and there’s no reason that a scholarly author would be aware of the demands and restrictions of those spaces. But we wanted to be true to the author’s vision for their book, so we would ask them for a short summary and tried to be clear about what we planned to do with it.

The style and content of the descriptions I received could often tell me a lot about an author’s hopes and expectations for book promotion. The three descriptions which inspired this post were for books in quite different fields, but let’s imagine they were all for the same book–something common but specialized, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. These three authors would describe The Elements of Style as follows:

  • A. The Elements of Style is a comprehensive guide to euphonic grammatolatry. Combining the logocratic methodologies of neoterism and semantologics, this book makes an incisive critique of verbigeration, catachresis, and sesquipedalia.
  • B. The Elements of Style is essential reading for everyone who uses language to communicate. In presenting a new perspective on words, syntax, and punctuation, this fresh take on classic rules of writing will help us understand humankind and the world.
  • C. When we write, what are we saying? What does it mean to be a writer? What are words? The Elements of Style shows that language is more than sentences and sentences are more than words.

A is writing for a target audience of scholars similar to A, and who indeed are among the readers who we hope will respond to the copy. A will most likely resist my revisions, worried about alienating independent buyers, but A‘s copy will need to be rewritten so that it is also legible to nonspecialists: the librarians, book buyers, and sales representatives who move large quantities of books. Nonspecialist book people want to order or promote books in subject areas that are relevant to the specialized scholars and customers they serve, but “grammatolatry” might not come up in an online catalog search for “writing style,” and in fact may make the book appear less readable and relevant.

B is already writing for a larger audience, but unfortunately a much larger audience than B‘s book is likely to have. I would quietly erase the larger claims about how B‘s book will apply to the wider world–anyone smart enough to read B‘s book is smart enough to discover the larger implications on their own–and add in more information about what the book is actually about so that it will show up in relevant searches. B will most likely protest, and ask us why we wish to pigeonhole this important book.
B has a cousin who does not aim to reach general audiences but lists every marginally relevant academic discipline: students, graduate students, and senior scholars of history, law, politics, science, engineering, and on and on. It’s not a good use of space: on the odd chance that an engineer does want to pick up a monograph on medieval history, they will not attempt to find it by searching for “engineer.”

I never know what authors like C are going for, but on the plus side, C probably won’t mind if I replace their suggestion with something more practical and descriptive. On the minus side, I still have no idea what C‘s book is about.

In general, promotional copywriting for academic or nonfiction books should offer a concise, informative summary of what the book is about and what makes it different (better) than other books. I personally prefer for the copy to be engaging and fun to read–the kind of thing that will grab a random bookbrowser at a conference and hold her attention. But that person is such a vanishingly small percentage of our buyers that clear, accessible, searchable information is the priority. To that end:

  • Be specific. What does the book argue? How does it make the argument? Does it cover a specific time, place, population, or problem? What sources or perspectives make it unique? If it’s a collection, what unifies the variously authored chapters?
  • But don’t get lost in the details. Promo copy is like microfiction. In few words you must sketch out the who-what-when-where of the book and merely evoke the rest. These are the takeaways I should have: What is your topic? What argument or question are you exploring? What materials and methods do you use?
  • Don’t try to do a Shyamalan. No cliffhangers, no surprise twists. Nonfiction readers–especially for academic volumes, which tend to be pricy–need to know up front how it ends. The reason they buy the book is to see how you get there.
    Once we sent a marketing plan to a couple of historians who co-authored a book about an 18th century trial. The offender was “sentenced to death” for the crime; we edited this to “executed” so that it would fit in the 350-character metadata field. The coauthors got upset when they saw this, because we’d gotten it wrong–the guy was sentenced to death, but he died of natural causes before hanged. Well, we didn’t know that. The book’s editor didn’t know that. No one knew it because none of us had read the book all the way to the end, where this minor fact was revealed. No one cares, though: the reason people pick up that book is to see whether the guy actually did it, not how he paid for his crime.
  • Don’t give more than half a sentence to what other scholars are doing. Your book itself will do all the work of positioning your argument in relation to other arguments. But promo copy is for sales, and we are not selling other arguments, we are selling yours.
  • No need to namecheck the theorists or scholars whose work you build on unless they are literally the subject of your study, or your whole angle is that you think you’re the first person to do a study of X through Theorist Y. Those names won’t mean as much to the nonspecialist bookhandlers who are ordering copies for their stores and libraries, and the readers in your field will most likely be able to infer.
  • Don’t tell your readers what to do. Your readers are smart. They are also busy. They’ll decide for themselves whether your history book is suited to their scientific interests or if your ethnography will inform their human rights mission. The best way to get book across disciplinary lines is to be quite clear about what it is and does.

Trolling Your Thesis

If you are a current or recovering academic, odds are good that you’ve already seen lol my thesis within the last month–and thanks to each and everyone one of you who linked to it.  Reducing years of research and pages of explication into one sentence = academic comedy gold. I’m delighted by the premise as a book pusher, since in addition to my seasonal task of writing appealing summaries of our new books in three paragraphs or less, I also boil that down into short copy of 350 characters (roughly 5o words). The short copy is public–it goes with the rest of the metadata to online trade partners and databases–but privately, we also write short catchy taglines to interest our sales reps in each title. The “lol my thesis” entries remind me of these: when you strip an argument of its jargon and shrink it down to its basic components, the result might be pleasingly direct and sharp, or laughable and absurd.

I like the science lol-theses best, because they are so much more straightforward. After years of research, their authors have found something new–or, alternately, something quite obvious, but at least it’s proven beyond reasonable doubt.

  • Bad puns are simple enough that a computer can make them up, but actually funny jokes are harder. Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh. [link]
  • Avoiding people has its mental health benefits. Clinical Psychology, University of the Philippines. [link]
  • “That’s surprising that the microorganism evolved when you put it in a difficult environment” said no one ever. Microbiology, University of Sydney. [link]

It’s a little harder to do pithy summaries of humanities and humanistic social sciences; our arguments tend to be made from excess verbiage, more rhetorics than empirics. But some good lol-theses are made by contradicting received wisdom or by going all meta on the project–two time-honored tools in the contemporary humanities toolkit!

  • It’s not selfish to be selfish. Philosophy, Whitman College. [link]
  • You can write a 120 page thesis on a 119 page book. English, University of Victoria. [link]

Some of them sound like studies I definitely want to read. And I imagine what the short copy for these theses would sound like if I rewrote their summaries with all the proper keywords and house style and whatnot. They would become more specific, searchable, and targeted to their audiences–but far less catchy! That is precisely why we write the secret internal-use-only handles for sales reps: we can’t publicly release summaries like these.

  • College professors don’t actually *teach* very well, except for the one teaching *this* class. Education, Brandman. [link]
  • There are thousands of ways to be a compatibilist, but there’s only one way to be a libertarian, and it’s the crazy way. Philosophy, University of Victoria. [link]

But many, many others are not quite funny. I do not wish to pick on specific examples, but you will know them when you see them: they are a little too long, usually. A little defensive, maybe, or trying too hard. Some of them straight-up humorlessly describe the thesis, or weakly inject humor by way of infantilizing or aggrandizing the project. I say this with utmost sympathy, but I’d wager that a survey would reveal the authors of the significantly-less-funny submissions to be currently or recently engaged in thesis-writing. It’s still a little too close for us them, a little too hard not to take it seriously, however much I they wish to play it cool. 

I get it. I really do. You know who else does? Matt Might, the author of The Illustrated Guide to a PhD.

With the utmost affection and sympathy, I like to revisit this comic with my publishing colleagues when, say, a scholar of a very obscure and little-read archive wants us to advertise their book in or send review copies to The New York Times. I wish I remembered more often to share it with my academic colleagues, too. This marvelous illustration depicts the process of education as a series of concentric circles, with each level of education taking you to the outer limit of knowledge in your specialized field. When you reach that limit, you dedicate your time and strength to pushing at the boundaries until you break through–making a discovery or argument or artwork that no one has made before! It can be exhilarating, and after all that time and energy spent at your task, all you can see is the place you’ve broken through. It looks huge, it looks like the whole world.

But compared to the rest of the world’s knowledge, that already known and that still waiting to be discovered, your breakthrough looks like this:

From An Illustrated Guide to a PhD

His message is: Keep on pushing. My takeaway is: Keep humble–and keep humor.

Elsewhere on the Internet: A little help from your friends

Tweeted by Jonathan Davies

Tweeted by Jonathan Davies

Melville House posted Margaret Atwood’s rhymed rejection of solicitations to blurb new books, which is great fun. As someone who frequently solicits blurbs for my press’s books, occasionally taking quite a long shot to do so, I very rarely get no for an answer and never mind when I do–unless the no started out as a yes and then dragged out beyond the ample schedule I provided.

To clarify, by blurb I mean quoted praise, also known as puffery. (Some people use blurb to denote the book description–which is what I call copy.) In Helpful Definitions for Modern Authors (NYTimes Opinionator), Steve Macone snarkily defines the word blurb as “the sound made by an author paying back a favor.”

Mental Floss describes  Ezra Pound’s proto-Kickstarter fundraiser which underwrote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (It would have been worth mentioning, I think, that Pound also re-wrote much of The Waste Land!) I have no great love for Ezra Pound’s poetry, politics, or philosophy, but I am quite fond of stories of his philantropy (such as it is). Pound’s greater talent was for shepherding poetic talent into the public light; without him we would never had made so much of Eliot or Langston Hughes among others. His friendship with William Carlos Williams was inspiration to the latter (c.f. “Transitional”) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is smattered with stories of Pound tenderly nursing poets in various stages of dissipation.

Unrelated to the theme, but fun: Mental Floss also tipped me off to the existence of a classic game archive which includes a 1982 version of The Hobbit, if you’re in Tolkein Immersion Mode right now, and Adventure, in which I spent countless hours as a youth lost among twisty little passages.


A few notes on academic book titles

  1. For first-time authors: name your dissertation something plain and boring if you’re planning to turn it into a book. A book and a dissertation should not share a title, so if you’ve got a good one, save it for later!
  2. Your “good” title, by the way, should contain information about the book’s topic. That may sound obvious, but academics have a tendency to title their work with cute puns, alliteration, or quotes from their primary texts, leaving all the who-what-where for the subtitle. That may be permissible for conference presentations or journal articles, but it doesn’t work well for print books. Imagine scholars perusing a row of library books, shelved spine-out with only the title and author surname visible; how will they know to pull and peruse your book? Imagine researchers searching for your topic in a database; how close to the top will your book title appear in search results sorted by “relevance?” Imagine booksellers doing the same thing in their databases, some of which tend to limit search strings to fourteen characters; are the keywords of your title within the first fourteen characters?
  3. Finally: name your book something that doesn’t depend on on quotation marks, parentheses, or slash marks to convey its meaning. Not only is cleverly punctuated punning a relic of the 20th century, but punctuations introduce all kinds of trouble to searches, digital catalogs, and web pages. Consider the hashtag, a still-current and ubiquitous symbol used in conversational as well as written English: the only reason there aren’t five hundred (instead of about five) new books with titles like #Blessed or #YOLO or Generation # is that the hashtag makes the title impossible to search. (Too bad, though; “Generation #” would make a fabulous title for the next kids-these-days head-shaker.)

How Not To Be: Publicity

I’ve been a high school teacher and a tour guide for drunken out-of-towners; I’ve provided customer service to angry, entitled museum members. I’ve dealt with some tough customers, in other words. Yet I’m continually surprised at some of the rude and ungenerous replies that scholars and authors return to my department’s marketing efforts. The worst offenders are usually first-time authors, roughly my age, and I often joke that since we all grew up with the smash success of Harry Potter we think book marketing is all midnight book parties and advance publicity. For a small press whose books enjoy a small and specialized (but enthusiastic!) audience, there isn’t much to gain from marketing until the book is on sale, and once it’s available, we must deploy our limited resources carefully and purposefully.

The slow pace and small scale–compared to Harry Potter, at least–can be understandably frustrating for authors who have spent years working on their books and now, at last, have time to sit back and enjoy the splash it makes. “I am prepared to market my book aggressively,” one author wrote to me, “although I’m not sure what that means.” She could be speaking on behalf of many with that sentiment.

I am not about to write a book marketing how-to, since the resources and best practices will vary by press and genre. What I do want to present is some press relationship DOs and DON’Ts for new authors that should apply generally. All of the DON’Ts are drawn from actual author behavior.

Do respect the efforts of the people who read, review, and sometimes provide quotable praise for your manuscript. Not all readers are kind, or constructive, or timely–I can relate, I’ve had bad reviewers too.  A reviewer may well read your manuscript badly or with an inexcusable bias. (Ask me about this sometime.) But unless they give you good cause to mistrust their advice, accept that it was meant in good faith. In other words, if you learn the identity of your anonymous reviewers–perhaps because they generously unveiled themselves to provide a positive blurb for your book jacket–don’t contact them to nitpick about how deeply they misunderstood your work.
If we solicit blurbs for your book or adapt them from your readers’ reports, don’t rewrite them unless they are factually incorrect–and even then, ask your marketing contact. Don’t say something nasty like “this blurb is no good;” a scholar of some eminence in your field has said something positive and encouraging about your book, and the appropriate response is “thank you.” If you wished for more blurbs of a more effervescent quality from different reviewers, don’t solicit additional blurbs for your book without conferring with your marketing contact or editor. We usually have reasons for our choices; we’ll listen to yours, too, but honestly, sometimes it does more harm than good to fill up a book jacket with advance praise from your friends and mentors.

Do respect your publisher’s resources. Don’t ask whether or not we want your book to sell–obviously we do, so you can safely assume that we are doing what we can to make that happen. However, “what we can” may be constrained by funds, staffpower, legal issues, or any number of problems that you can’t anticipate–and why should you? You’re an expert in your field, not ours. Don’t ask for an advertisement in the New York Times, for example, when we’ve made it clear that we don’t advertise there.
Don’t leap to the conclusion that your publisher is somehow shorting you or cheating you of marketing opportunities; you’ll just feel silly when you learn that they’ve already pursued that venue, or have your book lined up for the next issue.
Don’t accuse your marketers misunderstanding or misrepresenting your work. Assume that they are intelligent people; understand that it is likely that many of them have attained high levels of education, not unlike yours. To accuse publishers of misunderstanding you is more or less to accuse yourself of being unclear.

If a so-called aggressive marketing campaign is important to you, do bring that up in your early talks with the acquisitions editor; he or she might paint a rosy and accommodating picture of what the press can do for you, but they should also be invested in giving you realistic expectations. If you are shopping a book around, then, you might get a better sense of what kind of reach a publisher has and whether publishers across the board have the means to, say, underwrite their authors’ book tours (answer: none that I know of).

Do ask if there is anything you can do to supplement your publisher’s marketing strategies. Authors have the potential to be their own best advocates!

In short: do be nice and feel free to ask questions in good faith. Don’t treat the marketing department as though they made your cappuccino with too much or not enough foam. Really, you should not treat baristas badly either, because of basic decency. But even if you do feel entitled to be rude to service people if they disappoint your (spoken or unspoken) expectations, do not make the same mistake with your publisher’s marketing department. I have often been willing to go the extra mile for an author who shows him or herself willing to collaborate on marketing efforts; I don’t get paid overtime, but I will stay late to help a kind author with a special event or even just to speak on the phone and talk everything through. But if an author approaches me like an angry customer? I do the least helpful thing possible: I let them have their own way.
(Within the budget, that is.)