Most academic book proposals ask you to address your book’s market or audience. With ever shrinking library budgets, you definitely want to be able to make the case that your book will reach a wide audience.
But, you also need to be realistic about who you’re actually writing for, not only for the proposal, but also because this will shape how you write your book.
In fact, you should have a good sense of your scholarly audience well before you complete the manuscript–like when you work ON it before working IN it.
Below, I address key issues relating to your book’s audience and propose questions you can use to distill yours.
Are You Writing Primarily for Scholars, Undergraduates, or Intelligent Non-Academics?
This question is probably the easiest to answer. Do you hope your book will count for tenure or advancement? If so, you are likely writing first and foremost for scholars.
Yes, portions of your book might still be suitable for undergraduate courses. Yes, perhaps a few intelligent non-academics might eventually stumble on it. But your audience is scholars first.
Still not sure? I show you how to assess whether your academic book can be adopted in undergraduate courses in another post.
Who is Your Book’s One Primary Scholarly Audience?
Which one set of scholars is your primary audience?
This is the trickier question that first-time book authors sometimes don’t even realize is a question.
You might think that all scholars in your broad discipline will be interested in your book. Or, you might believe that writing for a narrow audience will limit your chances of being published.
On the contrary, writing for a narrow, well-defined audience will help your book resonate more strongly with its readers and can make your book’s interventions more impactful. In fact, most publishers prefer to see that book authors understand they are writing for a very specific audience.
That’s not to say that your book won’t be of interest to other scholars as well. Your book will certainly have secondary and tertiary audiences. But, you should write first and foremost for one primary audience.
Below are some of the most common problems first-time book authors struggle with, when it comes to audience.
Problem #1: You think you have a broader audience than you do because you think you’re writing a different book than you are.
This is the problem that William Germano addresses in From Dissertation to Book (ebook). In the short section on audience, he imagines that an editor receives a book proposal for a book on representations of neighborhood and neighbors in 1950s TV. The proposal immediately grabs the editor’s interest. “Imagine the course adoption potential!” she thinks.
But the editor’s enthusiasm for the project quickly wanes when she discovers the book’s extremely narrow focus. While the author presented it as a study of neighbors and neighborhoods in 1950s TV, its actual focus is exceedingly narrow: representation of neighbors and neighborhoods in one radio program-turned-TV show–The Goldbergs. The editor passes on the project.
What to do: Realistically assess whether your book’s evidence and analyses actually adds up to the claims that it makes. Does your study of the Wonder Bread factory really allow you to make generalized claims about southern US labor history? If not, what claims do your analyses allow you to make? Is there a large enough scholarly audience interested in those claims? If not, can you broaden your corpus?
Problem #2: You are intentionally trying to speak to different disciplines.
Here, I defer to Rachel Toor, former acquisitions editor at Oxford and Chicago:
believing that scholarly books will cross disciplinary lines is mostly magical thinking. Sure, historians and anthropologists could, theoretically, be interested in books on literature or sociology, but not if they’re filled with discipline-specific jargon. (“Ph.Ds Are Still Writing Poorly”)
Especially when different methods are involved, trying to write an interdisciplinary book can be a recipe for disaster.
For instance, let’s say you’re writing a book on conceptions of liberty in Latin America, looking at archival sources and present-day ethnographic fieldwork. To make this book work–to speak both to historians and ethnographers–will likely require too much “background.”
The time you spend getting the historians up to speed on ethnography to understand the significance of your findings will likely frustrate (and potentially alienate) the readers who are already well-versed in these discussions. And vice versa.
What to do: The last thing you want to do is frustrate and alienate your readers. So, generally speaking, you should write your book for one scholarly discipline. Consider cleaving your book in two.
Problem #3: You haven’t clarified your book’s main interventions and which disciplinary conversations they enter. (That is, you are unintentionally refusing to prioritize one audience).
This is the trickiest problem of all. Most first-time book authors I work with think that their book’s audience is all scholars interested in their corpus or broad topic.
While a wide swath of readers might read your book–precisely because of your corpus–that does not make these readers your primary audience.
For instance, let’s say you’re writing a book on French films. You think you’re speaking to film scholars and to French cultural studies scholars, and you’re right. But your book’s main claim probably only intervenes in one of these scholarly conversations.
So, you must decide: are you making an intervention into the field of film studies that happens to use French films as its main source of evidence?
Or, do your book’s claims give French cultural studies scholars new purchase on French culture, using film as its main source of evidence?
This choice will affect how you write the book as well as where you publish. If, for instance, you choose film studies scholars as your primary audience, you should look to publish with strong presses in film scholarship. If the latter, you would want to look for presses that excel in French cultural studies.
What to do: Lay out your book’s main intervention, methodology, corpus, and context (historical and geographical). Review the relationship between your intervention and methodology and between intervention and corpus. Is your book’s main intervention to illustrate how applying a new methodology offers new purchase on an existing topic? For instance, is your book’s main focus to show Caribbeanist literary and cultural studies scholars how reading plays through the lens of performance can complicate existing notions of citizenship? Or, does your book show performance studies scholars how Caribbean drama can offer new points of entry in how citizenship can be performed?
How do the questions outlined above cause you to see your book in a new light? What have you discovered about your book and your audience? What questions do you have about identifying your book’s audience? Let me know by email!
Humanities First Book Author Inner Circle
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