At the AAUP meeting last week, I participated in a preconference panel discussion on using electronic media (blogging, Facebook, Twitter) to to market university press books. It was an opportunity to say a few words about what we're trying to accomplish with this blog. For the benefit of everyone who didn't have the chance to hear it--which I believe includes most of the people in the room at the time--here's what I said. We hope to be posting a bit more about our experience at the meeting in the next few days.
The Penn State Press blog isn’t about advertising our books. Other press blogs start with that; they announce new titles as they come out, they give news about their authors, they might even use their books as the occasion to write about topical events. There are some exceptional ones that amount to a sort of journal of public affairs, centered around the press’s books. But we seldom do any of that; you’d have to go through quite a few pages of our blog to find any mention of a book we’ve published (though we were sure to say something about it when Bill Clinton had apparently been reading our biography of Joseph Priestley, the inventor of soda water; it turned out he’d gotten the title wrong, and it was some other press’s book). We’re not trying to catch the attention of that huge untapped audience out there eager for the latest about musical medieval nuns or feminist interpretations of Benedict Spinoza. The audience we would like to reach is the librarians who order our books; the university administrators who oversee our funding; the fellow publishers who share our pain—people who know, or ought to know, what we’re up to. We want to promote our press, not just our product; to let people know what sort of publisher we are, what sort of people we are, what we’re up to in our little corner of the publishing world, in our little corner of a cow pasture in the shadow of the largest sports stadium in the whole United States (on winter afternoons, that last part is literally true). We want our blog to be a place where we can address issues important to us—whether “us” means our industry, our company, or ourselves. So instead of having our marketing department be responsible for the blog, we’ve tried to open it up to people from different areas of the Press. Ellie or Patrick in acquisitions might post about the Espresso instant bookmaking machine or the best sticky notes of the past year; Tony in marketing might post about the closing of a favorite bookstore in Ann Arbor, or the Amazon Kindle (we can’t stop him from posting about the Kindle, actually); Heather, our publicity manager, might post about seeing Pete Rose signing books at Caesar’s Palace (89 bucks each); or one of our editorial assistants might post a link to whatever it is that young book people are interesting themselves in in the twenty-first century. And then there’s me.
I’m a manuscript editor. I’m concerned, as far as my job goes, with how our books are written, with the authors who write them, with the Press staff who acquire them, and with those who carry out the obscure processes that turn them into physical commodities (or electronic ones). I’m even acquainted with those, like Tony, who go and hawk them on the street. But I am not concerned—again, as far as my job goes—with most of the issues being so earnestly discussed at the sessions of this meeting—with Google and open access, library and press cooperation, digitalization, short runs and bottom lines, and tailoring acquisitions to the mission of my campus. Naturally I’m fascinated by these things—I’d be a fool not to be, given that my livelihood ultimately depends on them—but they have very little to do with my daily working life. If I’m going to send dispatches to the world from my world, I’ll have to talk about exasperating manuscripts, befuddled authors, missing permissions, overcommitted freelancers, and stacks of proofs that need to be read through in the next two days because we couldn’t afford a proofreader. But, for the most part, I can’t do that. It would be talking out of school. No one outside the press needs to hear, for example, which author has been causing us the most distress lately—least of all the author himself, who might happen to read the blog. Fortunately, as I told my parents when I was eight, it’s easier to talk about something if you can just make it up. And that’s what I do. Here are a few of the topics I’ve covered in the last year or so.
I’ve written about the annual Penn State Press spring cleaning bonfire at which a difficult author is burned in effigy. Unfortunately, that tradition died out some years ago.
I’ve told the story of my conversation with an author who insisted that series style or no series style, there was no need to refer to the game played by the shepherdesses in a Watteau painting as “field hockey”; just “hockey” would do. “No one was playing hockey at Fontainebleau in 1715,” he informed me. “You can trust me on that.” And that’s why his book is the only one of our field hockey titles in which the term “field hockey” never appears.
I’ve explained to our readers that the designers of our books are some of the most skillful and creative people around, and that if, for example, the pages seem to have been inserted into the binding backwards and upside-down, or there are gaps and repeats in the page numbering, or the title on the cover isn’t the same as the title inside, or the author photo looks like a Cairn terrier smoking a meerschaum, there’s no need to jump to conclusions and assume we don’t know what we’re doing. They need to remember that we’re working hard to give them value that they won’t get from an ordinary trade publisher.
I’ve posted a dispatch from the author of Down and Dirty: A Practical Guide to Traditional and Home Laundering about her signing in a local bookstore. I only wish that there really were local bookstores that sold our books. I’ve thanked our vendors for their very thoughtful gifts last holiday season, including the Old-Time Print Shoppe for the famous writer trucker hats. I brought my Samuel Beckett hat to Philadelphia with me, but I left it in my room.
And I’ve posted some true stuff too—my review of the Kindle, and a natural history of the coconut crab, which is a kind of toddler-sized, shell-less hermit crab that survives on coconuts it cadges from soft-hearted tourists. But really, it’s all true.
So that’s what I’ve been up to, and what we’ve been up to. I can’t speak to its soundness as a marketing strategy; you’ll have to ask Tony about that. I can say that it’s enjoyable having a forum like this—enjoyable for me, for our other posters, and, I hope, for our readers. But it’s not easy sometimes to keep it going. Most of us, most of the time, are too occupied doing what we do to describe what we do. And though Tony assures me that we do draw a fair amount of traffic, it does occasionally feel like a one-sided conversation. But if we can maintain our side of the conversation, our hope is that it can become more and more a real conversation, and our blog can be about not only our quirky little selves, but the quirky little world that all of us in this room are a part of.