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.


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: Fun with Bound Books

Penn Book Tree

Happy holidays, y’all. I cannot claim responsibility for the creation of my company’s book tree–although when I heard that the marketing assistant was spearheading one, I gleefully pulled down all of the books from our archive that I’ve been meaning to ship back to the warehouse for ages. (Unfortunately, most of them were not green, so this was not the most helpful thing except from a housekeeping perspective.) The garland is made from stickers that the Jewish Book Council sends us every year, and the topper is Benjamin Franklin. (We have a number of Ben Franklins lying around, including a life-size cardboard Ben that wears a baseball cap and hangs out in our student worker cubicle.)

If you, like me, are on the road (or, more precisely, in the air) and looking for some pleasant clicks, please click through to these posts which all include photos of beautiful bookery.

  • A little while ago, The Toast had a post on the Pros and Cons of Organizing Your Bookshelves by Color. I’ve been in the same room of a color-coordinated bookshelf, and I can attest that it really is a thing of beauty and joy, although I would worry about all of organizational issues the other explains in her Cons list.
    My own bookshelf is organized by and alphabetized within genre distinctions, a habit I developed when I moved to Philadelphia for grad school and left behind a tall shelf of books neatly labeled so that my mom could easily find and ship books if I needed them. (Thanks, mom!) I also have the ability to shelve two rows deep on the middle shelves, so those books are suborganized by preference: thus, Lyotard comes after Kant rather than after Lacan, who has been relegated to the back row.
  • My gentleman friend visited a friend in Brooklyn whose husband makes furniture, and he showed me a photo of their armchair which had built-in bookshelves. It looked similar to this example at the top of an old Brainpickings post, but with a homier or less slick finish on the wood.
  • This week Colossal had a post about the astonishing book sculpture of Guy Laramee, who carved and colored a beautifully detailed mountainous landscape out of an Encyclopedia Britannica set. This kind of thing is always a little shocking to me: even though I find it lovely to look at, I still have a great (and archaic) respect for encyclopedic volumes. We had a much-loved, much-used set of World Book Encyclopedias when I was growing up: their heft, gilt-edged pages, and dignified pebbled binding made them feel like precious objectsto me, and I would leaf carefully through the thin uncoated pages looking for readable entries on geography and mythology (childhood favorite subjects). A set of encyclopedias scalped and sculpted feels a little sacriligous even though I know that these bulky volumes have little value these days when the wealth of human knowledge can be found online.
  • If you love book sculpture, then you must know about the anonymous sculptor in Scotland who secretly left mysterious book sculptures at various institutions in Edinburgh. They are minutely detailed and finely crafted, quite beautiful to look at, and of course it’s a quite delicious mystery to think about an artist creeping around Scotland leaving these anonymous gifts just for the pleasure of arts and letters.
  • Via Colossal, who posted about the beautiful book-edge paintings discovered in University of Iowa’s special collections and archive, I’ve been enjoying the rest of the archive’s Tumblr which is full of treasures for book nerds.


Font Lines

Last Tuesday, my work iMac had a meltdown. I felt like having one too: it’s been a stressful month, trying to keep my major seasonal project rolling while filling in the gaps that open in the absence of a departmental assistant. But there is no time for hard drive failure, mine or otherwise, so I worked on the vacant assistant’s PC and focused on textual tasks until my Mac was reinstated yesterday.

Coming back to it was strange; after a year of working seamlessly on my work Mac and home PC, one week of all-PC-all-day caused my hands to forget Mac keystroke combinations. The gutted and replaced Mac seemed to suffer few such memory lapses and cheerfully booted up all the programs and files we had backed up and copied over–until I opened some book ads in InDesign and saw that the text was all highlighted pink, default systems fonts replacing the weights of Helvetica I have always used.
“It’s possible that they couldn’t be copied over,” said the technician. “You had a hard drive failure, maybe that’s where the fault lines were.”
I like the image of a computer’s memory tearing asunder like two shelves of land during an earthquake, letters and numbers all tumbling into the gap. I like it less when applied to my own workstation. Of course the fault lines trace the paths I use most often, the fonts we have always used to declare new titles.

Thinking about fonts today reminded me that, long ago, I borrowed a book on typography from my press’s art director: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. “It’s a bit flowery,” he warned me–and it is, gloriously so. Bringhurst was evidently a poet as well as a typographer, and his rhapsodies about the effect of sublimely deployed typography are matched only by his scathing dismissal of the stylistic excesses of the nineteenth century and the eye-candy aesthetic of the contemporary logo. He’s so wonderfully quotable that I’ve been meaning for ages to make some of his zingers into images, the sorts of things you can reblog or pin, which would double as typographical and textural exercises for me. I’m usually too busy to practice at work, and at home I have much less powerful software to work with, but in the wake of my missing and sorely missed iterations of Helvetica Neue, it seems like a good time to take up The Elements of Typography again and start playing.

Bringhurst 5.5.1

My lesson this week, from section 5.5.1 (“Use the accents and alternate sorts that proper names and imported words and phrases require.”)

Simplicity is good, but so is plurality. Typography’s principal function (not its only function) is communication, and the greatest threat to communication is not difference but sameness.

Bringhurst is talking about the need for contemporary fonts to include a broad range of diacritics so that they can accurately represent words from a diversity of languages. For me, it’s a gentle reminder that it’s okay to stray from the design set by years of advertising templates before me. (Although font nerds will note my use of Helvetica Neue above, too.)