The presentation of (ECR) self in higher education: insecurities, impression management and book deals
Dr Sherene Idriss dispenses some practical advice on the steps early career researchers can take to ensure their book makes the splash it deserves.
So your thesis has been examined, you secured a book contract with a major publisher and are working on the manuscript – awesome! Well done on a huge achievement. Unfortunately, the hard work doesn’t end once it goes to print.
In my experience, the hardest bit is working out what to do next.
You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great publisher that is doing the hard work of promoting your book. In the current landscape, most authors don’t get that. So like most aspects of academia, promoting your book becomes a DIY project. My book was published at the end of 2017 as an e-book and hardback with a major publisher. It costs over $200 to buy. The publisher kindly sent me 10 copies which I shared with family and friends and my PhD supervisors.
But then what? I did nothing. Months went by.
My former PhD supervisor forced me to have a mini launch at the institute. By then I was a casual, teaching in a different department, and feeling very disconnected from academia more generally. Grad students were impressed that I had published a book from my thesis and more senior staff kept reminding me ‘it’s great for the CV’.
I didn’t really feel that proud though.
Outside of my family and friends and a few academics, no-one knew about it. No one was citing it and I wasn’t exactly raking in the dough from royalties.
I am a pretty social person. But I have never been good at self-promotion. I usually cringe when other people do it. Occasionally I have posted something about being published to my Facebook timeline but it would haunt me every night until I eventually deleted it.
I’m not sure where that cringe comes from but I know many of us junior scholars feel it. Maybe it’s a cultural or class thing?
I’m the oldest of five kids to parents who came to Australia from the Middle East; we lived in low income suburbs and attended under resourced public schools; I’m the first in my family to graduate from university; the first in my extended family and ethnic networks to do a PhD; I was 28 years old when I got my Dr title. That’s not a humble brag but a way to say that, statistically speaking, I’m not supposed to be here.
For my PhD I examined the creative vocational aspirations of Arab-Australian young men. While I wouldn’t call myself a member of the creative class, I shared a similar experience as my informants who found themselves simultaneously praised for their success and cut down to size. In migrant working class communities, many face blocked pathways in their attempts for upward social mobility. Self-promotion is therefore usually met with a chorus of “you think you’re better than me?”
While I read up on the many ways to promote my work, a lot of the advice was premised on the idea that I already saw myself, truly, as an academic.
At the TASA conference some friends started harassing me about why I haven’t done more to promote my publications. I moped about the price of my book and that I just didn’t even know where to start. The next day I worked up the courage to put out a tweet asking the academic community for advice.
The response was wonderful.
I wanted to consolidate what I learned in a PSA for all my fellow minority junior academics who feel that imposter syndrome deeply and need reassurance that talking about your ideas and your research is just the done thing in our field, no matter what your bricklayer cousin thinks.
But in putting together this list, I want you to know that I don’t completely buy into it.
Part of me still thinks it can be valuable to slide under the radar sometimes.
I worry about the long term effects on academics at my level who, as time goes by, get anxious if they have nothing new to promote. A launch for a book, your first book especially, is a nice way to time stamp that moment and celebrate hard work. But marking it out could also mean that before you know it there’s this feeling of dread festering inside about trying to be more productive. That compulsion to be productive all the time is something that I know a lot of us try to actively resist.
Take from this advice what feels right for you and discard the rest. I don’t know in real time what that means because I’m working it out myself. Maybe I’ll check back in a few years to reflect on how it all panned out.
I want to thank the following people who contributed to this list: David Farrugia, Shanthi Robertson, Signe Ravn, Anita Harris, Greg Noble, Kim Toffoletti, Steven Threadgold, Pariece Nelligan, and Amelia Johns.
Getting the word out:
Promoting a book is pretty difficult but also fairly important now because publishers put very little effort into it. Social media is the first place to start – send out a tweet or a Facebook status about where people can find your book.
You should also make sure the link is in your email signature so people you are regularly in contact with know where to find it.
Send a copy to each of the people who examined your thesis with a thank you note. Examiners are usually important people in your field who can use/teach from/recommend the book to others and keep you in mind for career opportunities.
Ask friends to order copies for the library.
Send suggested chapters for course readings to friends teaching on various units. If people use it in their course readings you can use this in job / promotion applications to say that your work is being adopted in teaching materials which speaks to its quality and relevance to the field.
Generate a list of journals you’d like your book reviewed in, contact the books review editors and ask if they would like a copy of your book sent to them.
Send an email with a pdf of the flyer to everyone you think might be interested, even if you don’t know them and especially if they work in different parts of the world.
Book launches are good ways to commemorate the achievement that the book represents for yourself and with your intellectual community. But you shouldn’t see them as necessary for promoting the book because the main audience will be your friends and colleagues who know about it. You could host it at your department – there is usually a marketing officer who could help invite people or share info about it – or at a conference. For the latter, contact the convenors and ask for their support with organising a launch. You can then ask a colleague you respect to say some words about the main points of the book and its significance to the audience.
Building on the book:
Publish papers which draw on the research for the book but deliver it within a new set of debates or to a new audience. You can then refer to the book as the definitive publication of the project while maintaining its originality. This also maximises the productivity of the work you did for the book and provides an impetus to continue to develop the ideas and reach new audiences with that project.
If you read work by other people (local and international) that really chimes with what you have been doing yourself, contact them, share your appreciation of their work, tell them about yours and start a conversation that might lead to a collaboration.
Write a short piece summarising the book’s argument in lay language for a more public audience and send it around to alternative media outlets, online social policy or other relevant forums, and/or pitch to The Conversation. (Make sure you include details about the book itself, including a link to the publisher’s page where it can be bought!). Independent and even mainstream media pick up stories from these sources so this can lead to other opportunities like radio interviews about your research.
Try to capitalise on current events: if you see something in the media that relates to your work, contact the journalist and offer a counter-view or another insight into the topic. (You’d also be surprised how many of your former undergrad students work in media or related fields and are happy to help promote your work!).
Organise a panel at a conference around the book’s theme and invite others working on the topic to join you in a discussion.
Apart from these concrete suggestions, Professor Greg Noble offers the following words of encouragement:
Firstly, don’t think of what has to be done as ‘self-promotion’. This feeds into our anxieties about buying into the neoliberal agenda. There are many ways of characterising what we have to do once we publish our work: starting a debate, changing the world, justifying our existence, acting like a public intellectual, etc. Yes, many of the modes of academic ‘impression management’ can be dodgy, selling our souls to the company store, but many don’t (just as an interview can be self-aggrandising, and not). You can be ethical and act with integrity in trying to encourage engagement with your work.
Second, ask yourself: do I want people to read my work? Do I think it is important? Do I think I have something to [offer] other scholars? Do I think I have something to [offer] those outside academia? If you said ‘no’, I would seriously suggest you’re in the wrong game! If you said ‘yes’, then you simply have to work out the best ways of doing these things, ethically and practically – a blog, a launch, a tweet, a conference paper, etc.
Third, intellectuals have always had to grapple with competing demands – making a social contribution and being self-reflexive about our privileged position, being judged and judging others, running with the pack and running against the pack – and the consequent challenges of handling our academic ego. Many of us don’t negotiate them well. If in doubt, find someone (a critical friend) or something (‘applied’ versions of your work) that will, in Ali G’s words, ‘keep it real’ for you.