Of Blogs, Web Sites, and Presses

As we’ve been discussing university presses lately I’d recommend everyone take a few minutes to read Scott McLemee’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed on blogs and university presses.

McLemee points out that in general university presses are woefully ignorant of the power of the web, which confirms my own impressions of the admittedly small sample that I’ve dealt with.

Consider something I learned while talking to a couple of people who run fairly high-visibility venues in the world of what we might call “general interest academic blogs.” One is Ralph Luker, the founder of Cliopatria – a group blog devoted to history, which has been online since 2003. Cliopatria recently announced that it has been visited by 400,000 distinct readers, so far.The other person was Alfredo Perez, profiled in my column last year. His site Political Theory Daily Review is not, strictly speaking, a blog. It provides a running digest of scholarly papers and serious journalism covering a variety of fields of the humanities and social sciences. The site gets around 2,000 visitors a day, though that probably understates its influence. “Aggregator” sites like PTDR have a way of quietly affecting what gets noticed and discussed elsewhere online.

I asked Ralph and Alfredo how often they receive books from university presses “over the transom” – that is, strictly on the publisher’s initiative, in hopes that their sites would help make it known. As a reviewer, I get several books that way each week, usually in a pre-publication editions that costs the publisher relatively little to produce.

My guess had been that Ralph and Alfredo examined at least a few forthcoming books this way each month. It only stood to reason. but it made sense to ask.

Both of them replied that it had happened just three or four times – in as many years. They also confirmed what several other people have indicated in conversation: A few academic presses are willing to send a review copy to a blogger who asks for it. But most won’t. Often, publicists just ignore the request entirely.

I’ve heard complaints from various bloggers also about the poor way university presses market their books on the web. Often all you get is a short blurb and a cover shot, which is not much with which to decide if you really want to sink $40 into it. Even a table of contents would help, as would an excerpt or something from the author. Yet that’s rare.

I don’t know how many university presses send books to people who blog on related subjects, but I sense that it’s fairly rare (am I right? comments?).

My plan from the beginning included CW bloggers, and I sent out a number of advance POD copies to various people. Some were happy to get them and did excellent reviews (thanks!), some refused, and some ignored me.

It fit in well with using the web site as both an educational and marketing tool, and meant that I could link to the reviews from the web site. And I have to say that some of those reviews, particularly Drew Wagenhoffer’s and Brett’s, were not only favorable but were some of the best thought out I’ve gotten yet. As a bonus I’ve even ended up guest blogging here, which has allowed me to expand on some subjects for which there was no room in the book.

Yet I’ve talked to editors and university presses who have pretty much dismissed the idea. A book web site? Too expensive. But surely, I said, there are plenty of people on campus who can do web sites for cheap? Why not involve the authors? Nope, too expensive.

My web site wasn’t cheap, but has brought results, and I think anyone who publishes now, especially if you’re a self-publisher or small press, is cheating themselves if they don’t have one.

McLemee agrees:

It would also help if more publishers were inclined to make extracts from their new books available online. For his daily roundup at Political Theory Daily Review, Alfredo Perez is always on the lookout for chapters of scholarly books to which he can link. “Very few presses do it, as far I can tell,” he told me.He also finds that signing up for e-mail notifications of new books from university presses rarely pays off: “They don’t send out updates very often,” he says, “and sometimes they don’t do it at all.” Academic publishers are now more likely to put their catalogs up online than a few years ago. But most seem not to have made the additional commitment of resources necessary to get the word out about their books.

So, what do you think?


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