ask a scatterbrain: how do you get your book taught?

From a faithful reader. Here’s a question for those who have published books: What are the most effective things you or your publisher did to get your book picked up in classes? Are there things you wish you had done, or things that you thought would pay off but probably didn’t? (Likewise, experiences from the other side — what have authors or publishers done that influenced your decision, in either direction, to teach their book — would be useful.)

Also, what’s a “normal” print run for an academic sociology book? (i.e., a sociology book that isn’t Gang Leader for a Day, etc)

9 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: how do you get your book taught?”

  1. 1. Low price. That always helps.

    2. “normal run”: I’ve been told that 500 or so is rock bottom. You need to sell that many copies – minimum – to make back costs. 1,000-1,500 is good. If the publisher can do thousands of copies (e.g., 2000+), you are golden.

    The logic: a few hundred libraries will buy nearly every decent book from a reputable press, then it’s up to specialists to buy monographs. If the topic has some popular pull, add a few hundred more. So a book should sell over a few years 500-1000 copies.

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  2. One thing you can do to be entrepreneurial about it is to do some research online and then personally send review copies or even just fliers to folks who teach courses in your area (regardless of whether you already know them or not).

    Also, have no shame in sending it around and trying to get it reviewed in any possible relevant journal or magazine. Free press is good press.

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  3. Ideally a publisher would like a first printing that will fill a year of demand and spread out the fixed costs of production (i.e. copy-editing, typesetting, press make-ready, etc) across as many units as possible to keep the list price as low as possible. On the numbers Fabio is basically correct.

    That said, I think we’ll see the trend of declining first printings continue because the cost to go back to press (due in part to POD) is less than the potential sunk cost of inventory and overstock. If the e-book market ever develops in a meaningful way, it will have to play into this equation too.

    Course adoptions for monographs are tricky because they tend to fit into a course syllabus in an idiosyncratic way. Your publisher will work the conference circuit, academic media, and popular media (if relevant). The author shouldn’t duplicate this effort. Instead authors should show no shame in informally working their social networks and formally promoting the book through participation in conference panels, articles, seminars, etc. A book can only be adopted if potential adopters are aware of it and think that their students will benefit from an engagement with its author’s ideas. If successful, the book will take on a life of its own.

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  4. Speaking as a potential adopter, the most important factor is to stay in print long enough to build an audience. This is not easy and I’d try to make that a criterion in choosing a publisher. Most monographs are just not going to be adopted all that fast for teaching, but some have the potential if they can last long enough for word of mouth to do its work. Some years ago, I was told about Judith Hellman’s Journey’s Among Women and actually assigned it twice, but then it went out of print, never more to be seen except in used book lists. It is one of the all time great books to teach out of because of its spectacular research design: 3 branches of the Italian women’s movement in 5 cities, showing how the political context affected “the same” organizations differently in different cities. But, alas, it is gone. I don’t know why it was killed off just as it was making its way onto lots of people’s syllabi.

    Books vary a lot in their suitability for teaching. The teachability criteria include: not too long, not too expensive, well written, subject matter accessible and interesting to the desired audience, instructor can see how to connect the material with other parts of the course. If you want to sell your book for teaching, it seems like you should be thinking about how you’d teach out of it at the time of writing.

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  5. I think books with multiple subthemes are long term keepers (if they stay in print, as OW notes!). I sold tons of copies of Aldon Morris’s Origins, Burke Rochford’s Hare Krishna, and Jane Mansbridge’s Why We Lost. Each not only had the general punch of a great book, but also contained separate subthemes which enabled three completely different sets of questions for short paper assignments….I could use the same books semester after semester (or at least a core of regulars), and still vary exams and discussion. More unifocal works wound up getting a one semester tryout, followed by relegation to graduate reading lists.

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  6. I guess textbooks are a little different and aren’t really the topic, but in that world, the most important thing seems to be helping the prof teach the class with the book. Supplements, powerpoints, etc. are always in high demand. There might be some ways of adapting that to a monograph though–maybe by creating some kind of web site that does some of this work for the potential prof.

    Once people adopt a book, they are very likely to keep using it, of course. So, I’ve always thought publishers ought to give the books away to likely targets in the early stages of their careers. They try this some with text books, but they aren’t systematic enough in identifying and distributing.

    Third thing is that the used book market will kill you. I’m not you talking about the pitiful royalties, but when there are so many used copying floating around and the used market has become so much more efficient, the book is likely to go out of print quicker because the publisher can’t make enough money to make it worth their while. So, two contrasting strategies: (1) find a way to make people either want to KEEP your book after the class so they don’t sell it off, (2) find a way to make them DESTROY your book so they can’t sell it back! :)

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