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.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Writing in Public

Did you know that it is NaPoWriMo? Last year I challenged myself to read a poem every day, since I knew I’d be too busy to write so many and too shy to share. This year I made no such committment, but fortunately I follow a few poets who are churning them out, so I am more or less reading a poem a day after all. Nicole Steinberg has been posting poems that riff off the headlines of posts and articles from high-traffic websites like The Awl and Salon; I like that they veer into territories I’m familiar with from her other poems, but they are their own strange new beasts. She plans to take them down after a week, so today might be your last day to read “Why are millenials so unfuckable?” which is my favorite so far, probably due to 90s video game references. Hannah Stephenson, too, posts poems at an alarming (to a slow writer like myself) rate. You’ll probably like “Let’s Have Class Outside Today” especially if, like me, you’ve been both the student and the teacher in that conversation, and the ever-so-slightly warmer sunshine of April makes you want to do everything outside.

Former museum colleague Kara linked me to this Museum 2.0 post about Hemingway, an online tool designed to help streamline your writing. I felt very wary at first–remembering too well my encounter with the unfortunately named Writer’s Diet–but 2.0’s Nina Simon makes a good case for the tool as a way to produce concise copy for exhibit labels or grant applications. I was intrigued, since right now I am rushing to polish up piles of catalog copy by the end of the month and a key element of that task is streamlining. I ran a couple of works-in-progress through the app and was unsurprised to see them both rated “bad” (too many “very hard to read” sentences plus passive voice and excessive adverbs); however, they are in pretty good form for copy which must appeal to a fairly specialized class of people and fit in a number of keywords to increase search relevance. You can’t please everybody!

Approximately a thousand years ago in internet years, I linked to an article in which two scholar looked at the question of “Should Academics Blog?” and came up with a resounding yes. Their evidence mostly comes from an quantification and analysis of the reception of an immensely popular article (also about academic blogging) which they wrote, promoted, and tracked through social media. I’ve been meaning to compile a longer post on the debate for some time, but I have to accept that I never will, so here’s a quick rundown.
First, my entrypoint to this argument is that I am an academic (sort of) who blogs. I blog because I read a lot about the topics that interest me, and my response to the reading tends to spill out of me in writing. The blogging platform has other benefits: namely, it has brought me into conversation with other thinkers and writers, which never ceases to surprise and gladden me since I began my research in comparative isolation. Blogging also has certain costs: mostly time, I think, as it takes a certain amount of time to write and briskly proof or factcheck the posts before I make them public and attached to my given name. It also takes a certain amount of time to engage with that broader community through social media–rewarding and pleasant time, but that’s time I’m not spending on further research or writing. But for me, there’s no question of whether to blog or not; it’s just something I do.

But the question is often posed to me by academic friends who’ve observed my blogging and wonder if it would be worthwhile for themselves and by first-time authors who ask me, as a university press marketer, what they can do to promote their book. And my answer is quite different from the post I linked above: only if you want to. The authors of that post (Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson) authored an extraordinarily successful article in terms of clicks and downloads for several reasons, and their social media platform was only one of them: they also had a much more broadly relevant topic than the average journal article can claim, and their work was available (non-paywalled) for much longer than a typical article for that academic journal. So while blogging can allow academics to seize a greater part of the “attention economy” (I am fascinated by this term, indicating that attention is finite and commodifiable), like any economy, you have to pay in to get payout.

Here are the pros of academic blogging, near as I can make out: Blogging is in most cases a free public forum; this is less of an issue in the States, one of the last bastions against mandated Open Access, but in many overseas publications, it does or will cost scholars money to have their work published. A blog can be a broad forum, reaching many more people than a journal, and it may be linked up with social media to exponentially increase readership if social media is handled effectively. An author’s existing social media platform is very appealing to publishers. On the web, scholarship can become much more of a conversation, since your feedback and response can be instantaneous. And–this is more important for some authors than others–you can reach a broader range of people, nonacademics as well as fellow scholars. (However, Mewburn and Thomson note that the academic-general reader dynamic is not usually what’s at play: “While arguments are made for blogging as an outreach activity, where academics ‘translate’ their work for a non-academic audience, in our sample we saw more evidence of conversations happening between academics – and much of it about academia itself. This led us to conclude that the blogging discourse, is similar in purpose, if not necessarily in form or content, to the academic discourse happening in journals: academics talking to academics in an effort to advance knowledge and understanding.”)
The cons include: blogging and social media promotion is just one more example of unpaid labor that the young academic is expected to perform in order to compete in the academic economy. It takes time–a valuable resource to the busy academic–and the time you spend is not always repaid. Managing blogs and social media effectively is a skill: it’s one that many of us develop to some degree in our personal lives, but deploying social media savvy for promotion is a delicate business of getting the relevant information to your target readers without annoying them. And there’s nothing more annoying–and sad–than an author who signs up for Twitter or WordPress for the first time just to promote their work; tweeting is a genre, blogging is a genre (or a collection of subgenres), and promotional writing is too; it takes time to learn and adapt to writing in those modes. (Which can be a pro as well, if you are invested in reaching nonacademic readers.)
Those of my readers who are also blogging academics, I am deeply interested in your thoughts on this.

Finally, just to make this a truly eclectic linklist, here is an adorable infographic to breakdown the effectiveness of serif and sans serif fonts in print and electronic contexts.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Women, art, and love

There’s not really a theme here: this is just a list of links I’ve enjoyed this week that I wanted to share before I take to the sea. (I finally get to say that and mean it!)

Remember when I posted about Lilit Marcus’s article about reading only women in 2013? Lilit posted a sequel at The Toast, which describes some of the blowback she’s gotten and details a few more of her favorite woman-authored discoveries (in case you were looking for ideas to add to your #readwomen2014 list.

If you’ve somehow missed it, this is #readwomen2014. It is pretty astonishing how it has blown up on social media in a month, especially to those of us who have been quietly and deliberately reading woman-authored books all along. But it’s a bandwagon I’m happy to jump on, so behold: the #readwomen2014 shelf on my Booklikes page. It will only grow longer. The ladywriters shelf, of course, lives on.

Also at The Toast, grad student Tina Rivers has some thoughts about art history being the scapegoat in conversations about education and jobs. She makes several good points, but my favorite is that visual literacy is an extremely valuable skill in contemporary life. Yes, job-value as well as life-quality-value.

Speaking of visual literacy, I knew before reading this article that the marauding toddler in question was crawling on a Donald Judd sculpture. I’m no great fan of mid-century minimalism, so usually the best I can say about Donald Judd is that I know his work when I see it. But that’s actually quite something: functional and formalist though his work may be, it still forged a distinct place in 20th century visual landscape. Whether we know it or not, the way we see and imagine things today has in part been influenced by the work of Judd and his contemporaries. Besides, parents, you have no idea whether that thing can hold a child’s weight or not!

That story reminded me of one I’d heard when working at the Philly art museum: the reason that we don’t permit backpacks in galleries is that one time a woman tripped on hers and punched a hole through a Picasso as she lost her balance. A quick Google search led me down this rabbit hole: Picasso-punching confirmed, although it doesn’t note whether her backpack was the culprit; plus several other horrifying stories of art destruction (mainly of Picassos, interestingly).

I really enjoyed this Awl story about a woman who ghost-wrote love letters, among other things. The author, Bonnie Dowling, often had to coax the real message out of her clients; her work seemed to be as much counseling as it was writing. But I think the story resonated so much with me because I place so much value on textual communications in relationships. I tend to prefer an epistolary courtship of some length, regardless of whether I met the romantic interest on- or off-line; I rely on chatty emails and texts to establish intimacy when I’m not ready or able to invest much facetime. I’ve grown out of this somewhat, but I used to rely heavily on Emails to carry the point in relationship arguments as well. For someone who is most comfortable in text, writing is a source of power–leverage, even, when that’s necessary. I can’t imagine handing that power over to someone, or not having it to give in the first place. . . . and that failure of imagination on my part suggests some astonishing unexamined privilege on my part. I had to take stock of my expectation.

Are you reading Dr. Ladybusiness? You probably should be if you’re a poet and/or a current or recovering academic, which is a significant percentage of my peer group. Anyway, she recently wrote to place the recent revival of interest and backlash on Dylan Farrow’s story in the context of a larger struggle to reconcile the sins of the artist with the legacy of the art. It should be simple, and she makes it so:  it’s your choice whether you continue to value the art of criminals (convicted or otherwise), but why should that so-called controversy drown out the voices of those who survived their crimes?

Elsewhere on the Internet: Your Dream Job

After work last night, I stopped at a bar to join some of my old colleagues from the art museum in celebrating the tenure of our former manager, who is retiring. (Sort of. She’s not one to rest on her laurels for long.) One of the lovely things about working at that museum was a cohort of smart, savvy coworkers, some of whom I haven’t seen much in the last two years, so much of my visit was spent catching up on what everyone was doing. Some were still working with visitor services; others had migrated to other departments, or begun graduate studies, or veered off in another direction entirely. We swapped stories and feelings about our various career situations.

When one former colleague said that she just didn’t know what she wanted to be, it struck a chord with me. Since college, when I locked down my post-graduate plans to Teach for America before senior year midterms, I’ve always presented myself as someone with a plan and an endgame–even during periods of floundering. But it’s not just that I wanted to be perceived as purposeful and together; I really believed that there was a True Job out there for me, like a True Love, waiting to be found and to transform my life into what it was always meant to be. Academia really enforces that belief in a number of ways, and when I finally admitted that the ivory tower was not the right home for me, I redirected my pursuit to a career in publishing. This has worked out pretty well for me–it was not an uneducated guess, I took some steps to consider my options–but even as I’ve grown comfortable and competent at my job, I’ve come to realize that the dream job is a fairytale. Some people find it; many others don’t, but that doesn’t make their work or lives any less valuable or meaningful. Publishing suits me, but so would working at the museum, had I stayed. So would a number of jobs in education, editing, or the arts. 

I’m not at all sure I conveyed my unromantic perspective to my colleague  with the intended balance of wisdom and YMMV, but just today The Hairpin linked to this smart piece at Jacobin about the myth of “doing what you love.” Miya Tokumitsu looks at the idea of DWYL from the perspective of its implied flip side: if having your dream job is integral to your life meaning and self-realization, what about everyone who does the unloved but necessary jobs, the sanitation and unglamorous care and production jobs? The DWYL ideology, she writes, is the perfect tool for exploitation: it renders invisible the needs and labor of undercompensated workers, and it particularly enforces unreasonable expectations for labor among those of us who really are supposedly doing what we love, particular women who hold jobs in education, childcare, or “public face” type fields. It’s difficult to quote this piece because the whole thing is so relevant: it’s a good piece to send to your fellows in customer service, marketing, or grad school.

Speaking of grad school, Jacqui Shine at Chronicle Vitae also criticizes the idea, particularly fostered by graduate schools, that academics should labor for love. The points about exploitative labor raised by Tokumitsu, above, are particularly relevant to the ongoing adjunct crisis in higher ed; Shine’s focus is more on how the academic climate affects mental health. “We are steeped in the belief that one has to truly love the work in order to succeed,” she writes. “It’s a conversation I have with my adviser a lot: whether or not I love the work enough to see it through, to be sustained by it. But depression makes that a question I can’t answer.”

On the more cheerful side of things: I’ve been wanting an excuse to link to this charming piece on The Awl, in which Elizabeth Stevens looks behind the scenes of Fraggle Rock to discover why so many Fraggle alums describe that work as “the best job they ever had.” She breaks down the Jim Henson company practices into some basic principles of fostering imagination, productivity, and collegiality: vision, creativity, collaboration, funding (!), and challenging work. It’s a lovely inside view for anyone who loved Jim Henson growing up, but it also offers some perspective on what material, strategic steps could turn an exhausting job into an exhilarating one.
Of course, not everyone wants or can thrive in a creativity-driven, elastic, and cooperative environment like the Fraggle Rock staff–and not all necessary work can be done in such an environment. But it’s evident from the success of the show and the warm recollections of its members that their collaboration was a productive and meaningful one; in other words, they were supported, not exploited, in Doing What They Love. It certainly led me to wonder–what would the supposedly creative and collaborative environments of my career history have looked like with adequate funding, collegiality, and incentives to work outside the box? 

Finally: it’s never not the right time to link to Captain Awkward, so here is her well-considered list of Job Search Red Flags and Due Diligence for all of you job-hunters and career seekers out there. If you make it to the copious (and wonderful) comments, you’ll read a couple of my own job interview red flag stories. 

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: Peer Review

This post is modified from the original, which appeared in 2012 on Peachleaves.

Back in my hoop-jumping early years of grad school, I sent an abstract of a seminar paper to three editors of a proposed volume. The road to revision never did run smooth, but the process for this volume was more painful than it really should have been–not least because the three editors offered three different sets of comments with no overarching vision to help reconcile them. Five years later, after as many job changes and a fundamental overhaul of my academic philosophy, the book was bound for publication and, suddenly, the contributors received a quality review courtesy of an anonymous scholar who was said to be eminent in the field.

I should point out that we had done at least three rounds of revisions and two major citation changes at that point. We had already done copy edits and switched everything into Harvard style at the publishers’ behest; we’d been told there wasn’t anything more to do. It was a bit late in the process for a quality review, and I suspect the volume editors were inclined to agree; the one who contacted me had a conciliatory tone, and noted that the reviewer said my piece was well-written and in good shape, so there shouldn’t be much action necessary.

This was mostly correct; there weren’t many notes, and some of them were for perfectly sensible revisions, although other suggestions were rather nasty and sarcastic. At the same time, there were many other comments that did not seem to be aimed to revision at all: the reviewer dropped random comments in the margins, as though reporting the thoughts passing through his or her head; he or she disagreed with me on some pretty crucial points, but didn’t seem to think that those should be changed or better defended; meanwhile, he or she dedicated multiple sentences to word choice issues elsewhere; worst of all, he or she responded in many places simply by highlighting words and leaving question marks.

I repeat, this is the last step before publication, and some anonymous reviewer is going through the manuscript there putting “??” in the margins.

If it’s not clear why these responses caused me such self-righteous pain, let me lay out a list of Editing Don’ts. Don’t do these things to your students, your coworkers, your friends whose manuscripts you’re correcting. If you do, they won’t have enough information to make significant corrections; further, they’ll lose faith in your powers as a reviewer, and will be less inclined to take even the advice that is well-said and well-meant.

Don’t just write what you’re thinking in the margins–or, rather, if you do, make sure it’s clear that you’re just remarking, e.g. “This reminds me of…”  It’s pretty neatfor writers to have a chance to know what’s going through their readers’ heads while reading, but if you’re editing, then all of your comments accompanied by the expectation of your judgment.  Thus, your benign marginalia may be utterly confusing to an eager-to-please writer if you don’t clarify whether or not you expect the writer to make a change.

Don’t leave vague notations like “Awk” or “??”. or just circle or highlight.
That’s why.  You’ll never know.  You’ve just been writing “Awk” in the margins like it’s a meaningful phrase, and now I’m vaguely indicating to you that you shouldn’t, but I’m not telling you why not or what you should do instead.  You know what you’ll probably do now?  Keep writing “Awk.”
Students and writers put words down on paper because they think those words have meaning.  If you don’t get the meaning, or if the meaning is garbled through wonky syntax or confusing word choice, you’ll need to use your Word Person skills and figure out what’s throwing you off. Otherwise, the student or writer is unlikely to read your mind any better than you could read theirs.

Don’t get married to style rules; they will not love you back. All rules have exceptions.  If you are a diehard loyalist of a particular rule, not only will you miss out on some expressive modes of wordplay, but you’ll also occasionally be wrong–the opposite of the “broken clock is right twice a day” idiom. Two separate examples from beyond my anthology chapter: one, a writer-friend’s beta reader insisted on making the dialogue in my friend’s manuscript grammatically correct, and it looked pretty silly.  Two, one of my press’s authors insisted on changing all the passive constructions in her promotional copy back to active constructions.  Sounds fine, right?  But my press uses passive construction when describing common perception: e.g. “it was widely believed.” If you use active in such instances, you’re forced to point fingers (“scholars widely believe”) or worse, be inelegantly vague (“people widely believe”).

Don’t be sarcastic or unkind. Mainly because it makes you look bad.  You’re editing because you want to help, not because correcting grammar makes you feel superior, riiiight?  Also, in some cases you may not be the first editor to trample over a person’s writing–who knows what placating concessions have been made in response to a previous reviewer’s comments?  In an early round on my article, the volume editors insisted that I change some term I no longer even remember to “agentic.”  (Adjective, I suppose, meaning “possessing agency.”)  When the finished article was read by the quality reviewer, he or she circled each use of “agentic” and commented ” Find a real word to use! Agentic isn’t a word!” Which of course I know, but neither are half a dozen other words we all use regularly, and it wasn’t my word to begin with, and also give me a break.

I’m sure we can think of others, but in general, good editing advice will fall under “be specific” and “do no harm.”