How To Be Your Own Book Agent: DIY Strategies for the Enterprising Academic

Photo by Kimmie David.

Photo by Kimmie David.

When I was on book tour with Vibrator Nation last year, giving talks at universities, bookstores, and adult boutiques about the history of feminist sex-toy stores, colleagues and friends frequently asked if I had an agent. They were surprised when I smiled and said, “Me.” 

The prospect of having an agent tickled me. Vibrator Nation had received a fair amount of mainstream media attention, so I understood why they thought this might be the case. They assumed I had hired an agent or publicist whose job it was to get the book on the radar of media outlets and booksellers. But nope, it was just me and the ace marketing team at Duke University Press. It was old fashioned hustle combined with the good fortune of writing a book about something people were interested in reading. 

Academic authors rarely talk about strategies for self-promotion. It’s as if doing so is considered untoward or gauche. We are not encouraged to think entrepreneurially about our research and certainly not about building a personal brand. It muddies the water, I suppose. There’s a purity principle that operates in a lot of academic circles and good books are assumed to simply sell themselves. (Pro tip: they don’t.) There are no faculty workshops on how to write a blockbuster academic book and definitely none for how to market and promote it on a professor’s salary. 

In my case, it helped that I had spent almost 20 years studying feminist entrepreneurs and the scrappy, DIY world of small, woman-run businesses, including their methods of guerilla marketing. I was immersed in a world of entrepreneurial sex educators and sex workers whose business acumen could compete with the best corporate CEOs. I also knew a lot of feminist writers and freelancers, for whom self-promotion was a means of economic survival. I watched. I listened. I learned. 

Over the past few months a handful of academic authors have reached out to me for ideas and inspiration as they plan for the publication of their own books. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.                                                                                         

Write A Book You Want to Promote. This might sound painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of academic authors I’ve encountered who told me they had no desire to promote their books once they finished writing them. Some were simply ready to move on to new projects, while others admitted they didn’t like the book they wrote enough to put much, if any, energy into promoting it. For many academic authors writing a book is a utilitarian enterprise that brings them one step closer to their dream job or to tenure and promotion. This means that the intended audience is, on the one hand, a small circle of colleagues who can attest to the book’s academic merits and, on the other, the university libraries they hope will purchase it. This is where the imagined audience for countless academic authors often starts and ends. Which leads to my next point.

Be Clear About the Audience You Want to Reach. If you want your book to make an impact beyond a select academic audience, you need to write that book. Again, this might sound obvious, but academic authors are not typically encouraged to think broadly about the question of audience. A book that’s theoretically dense and filled with jargon is not one that will likely appeal to more mainstream audiences. Whatever the discipline, a good book should tell a story. It should be engaging and draw a reader in. Prose and tone matter. I wanted Vibrator Nation to have broad cross-over appeal so I worked very hard to write that book. I went through multiple drafts until I wrote one I was happy with. I wanted fans of feminist sex-toy shops to buy it, professors to assign it to their undergraduate students, and academic researchers to cite it. Some audiences might appreciate certain parts of the book more than others—that’s to be expected—but the fact that Vibrator Nation was written in an intentionally accessible style is one reason why, I think, journalists wanted to write about it, sex bloggers reviewed it, podcasters featured it, and mainstream media, including the New York Times Book Review, covered it.

Have A Solid Marketing Plan. This starts with your marketing questionnaire. Don’t cut corners here. Find out which journalists cover the beats that speak to your book. Include them on your questionnaire so they can get advance review copies. Are you planning a book tour? Make sure local publications in those cities are included on your marketing plan. Work with your press’s marketing team. Think big. Don’t limit yourself. Are there media outlets that might run an excerpt? If so, figure out in advance what excerpt might work best for their readership and have those ready to go. I also made sure the book was on the radar of relevant listservs before it came out and asked people to pre-order it and request their local and university libraries also order a copy. Posting to those listservs, which were part of my wider professional circles, also meant the book was on the radar of feminist journalists and podcasters. This meant that my media outreach, in terms of doing interviews and recording podcasts, got underway a good month before the book’s publication date. As a result, a lot of articles were ready to drop by the time of the book's publication and in the month that followed. Things organically snowballed from there. 

Make Sure You Are Easy to Find. If you don’t have a professional website, get one. If you are not listed on your university’s “experts” page, change that. Does your college have a communications specialist? If so, reach out to them. If you want journalists, radio hosts and podcasters to interview you about your book—why you wrote it, what your research process was like, if there were any surprises along the way—they need to know how to find you. Make it easy for them.

It Takes a Village. Tap into your research communities and professional networks to help put the book on people’s radar. I provided graphics that friends and colleagues could use on social media to help generate buzz about the book before it dropped. By the time my publication day rolled around, many people had already received their pre-ordered copies from Amazon and were posting photos online and talking up the book. I started a Vibrator Nation Instagram account (@vibrator_nation) where I built a following for the book in the months before it came out. I posted photos from my research archive and talked about the history of feminist sex-toy stores and the women who founded them. I had a hashtag, #VibratorNation. All of these things helped build anticipation for the book’s release. 

Consider Organizing a Book Tour. Take it on the road. Bring your book to life. Talk to people about your research and why it matters. Academic presses do not have budgets for book tours, alas, so I self-funded my tour with honorariums I received from university speaking gigs. I organized the tour myself. I stayed with friends when I could and cheap hotels when I couldn’t. For me, it was worth it. A book tour is a lot of work, for sure, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve wracking at times. Every event felt like a cocktail party I was throwing where I didn’t know in advance if any guests would show up. I did events in sex-toy shops. I did events at bookstores. I gave talks at universities. I reached out to various celebrity “sexperts” who could join me in conversation at certain stops. For my Las Vegas book launch, my sister-in-law, who is a pastry chef, made vibrator-shaped cookies and shipped them from Chicago. At an event in Baltimore, a man showed up with his entire vintage vibrator collection, which he wheeled into the store after my talk. Lotus Blooms in Alexandria, Virginia hosted a “Books and Brunch” event with mimosas and mini muffins. Some events were bigger than others and that’s okay. Work with venues to ensure your event is well promoted. Give them promotional copy in advance that they can use to plug the event. Make sure it’s listed on their website and on yours. Have hi-res headshots available and hi-res photos of your book cover for publicity purposes. It’s a blast to talk to people who’ve read your book. It’s an even bigger blast to bring your research back to the communities that made it possible in the first place. 

There Will Be Bumps In The Road, Roll With Them. I once turned up to a packed book event out of state only to discover the store’s shipment of books hadn’t arrived. An event in Northern California had a smaller turnout than expected because wildfires had ravaged the surrounding area two weeks before. Another time, a snowstorm shut down the entire city of Philadelphia the day of an in-store event, leaving me with four people in the audience and no public transportation options to get to the next stop on my itinerary. Don’t take it personally. Weather happens. Natural disasters happen. Business snafus happen. Don’t be deterred. Roll with it and keep plugging away.

Social Media is Your Friend. Don’t be shy about signal boosting your media mentions and events. You wrote a book. That’s a big deal! If your book is getting press, share that. Your friends and colleagues want to know and they also want to celebrate your success. Your successes also serve as inspiration for up-and-coming scholars. When they reach out to you for mentorship and advice, make time for them. Pay it forward. That way, everybody wins.