This post is the fifth in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan. She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap.
In the first post of this series, I took as my starting point the importance of recognising that publication is inevitably a commercial activity. Pitching a book to potential publishers involves a degree of salesmanship, which doesn’t always come naturally. In the publishing workshops I give for early career researchers, participants do an exercise in pairs, much like the well-known ‘elevator pitch’ in which entrepreneurs must make a concise and compelling case for the value of their enterprise to an investor. The process of seeking a publisher for a book is, if you like, a kind of Dragon’s Den, in which presses will be looking for projects which will repay their investment. Doing the exercise in pairs ensures not only that participants produce their own sales pitch, but also that they get to be a consumer of someone else’s, to encourage critical thinking about how the case for publication may look to an outsider.
This commercial turn is not about selling out on your academic values, but encouraging others to buy into the importance of your research. It’s a difficult transition because most academics dislike the idea of having to market their work. For some this spills over into disdain for anything so vulgar as promotion, and even a sense of hostility towards commercial values. In an article in the TLS, addressing the recent controversies in the UK surrounding the introduction of impact as a criterion for funding research, Stefan Collini set out a dystopian future in which academics will have to become ‘accomplished marketing agents’ and ‘door-to-door salesmen for vulgarised versions of their increasingly market-oriented products’. Collini’s desire to defend the independence of academic research and stand up for the cultural values of the humanities is of course commendable. But it’s interesting that he sets this in such bitter opposition to a pejoratively framed notion of marketing and commercialisation. I recognise in this a familiar, deep-rooted cultural cringe, most pervasive in the arts and humanities, based on the sense that scholarship and business are not just different worlds, but mutually hostile value systems.
Working in publishing has increased my respect for what marketing can do, in finding wider audiences – bringing greater recognition and impact – for academic research. In retrospect, one of the most important lessons came surprisingly late in my publishing career, when as a publishing director I sat in on a copy-writing workshop run for my team of editors by the marketing department. Our marketing manager spelled out a fundamental law of salesmanship – basic stuff in the shopping mall but a new way of thinking to most ivory-tower types. This was the difference between features and benefits. Features describe the characteristics of what you are trying to sell – for a book this might involve the content, coverage and approach, all of which is a good start but could still provoke the ‘so what?’ response in a jaded sales rep, bookseller or customer. Benefits go further and make a more effective sales pitch, by making explicit how those elements will be useful and beneficial to the reader (whether in scholarly, pedagogical or even non-academic terms). These might be methodological tools or analytical models with transferrable applications, new resources for further research, insight and guidance for policy-making, information and techniques for professionals and practitioners, and so on.
My experience is that most academics can elaborate for hours on the features of their work, but find it surprisingly difficult to articulate the benefits. You would not sell a disposable coffee cup on the basis that it was made of cardboard (a mere feature), but rather by pointing out that it was heat-resistant and recyclable (two resulting benefits). When you put together a book proposal you will likewise need to articulate not only the features but crucially the benefits of your research for your prospective readership.
Here are five tips to help you make this transition effectively:
i) Work out the features of your project – as many as you can think of!
ii) Convert each one into a benefit – explain why and how it will be of use to your readers
iii) Clarify who will benefit– e.g. researchers, teachers, professionals, practitioners, policy makers, or any other stakeholders you can identify.
iv) Concentrate on those benefits which are unique to your research
v) Be concise in communicating this as part of a publishing proposal – can you distill them into bullet points couched in terms that are accessible to non-specialists, rather than burying them in more elaborate, detailed or technical description of your research enterprise? This will help to highlight your USPs more convincingly (see tips in Blogpost 1 in this series) and make clearer the reasons to publish your work.