The wrong approach to publicity for Kathryn Schulz, aka. @wrongologist?

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

A couple of nights ago wifey and I were burning through some video podcasts on Apple TV and I, recognizing the author from some vaguely remembered recent audio podcast, pressed play on this:

Then, this morning, I discovered a bonus episode of PRI’s Technology Podcast featuring Schulz (note that at the link there they credit the video above wrongly, but delightfully under the circumstances, to TED). I listened to it right away.

So that’s 1 video and 2 audio podcasts and roughly an hour I’ve now spent with the author. It was all free and fascinating and you should totally go buy her book.

But I won’t be buying it. And I’m not likely to ever read it. I feel like I get it already.

It’s an interesting problem.

No summary, review, or interview can substitute for personal engagement with well-crafted prose and a compelling story. The selling of literature is a perpetually frustrated act, as it can only ever allude to an experience that’s inherent in the medium of the book. Novelists, poets, and the like can’t get too much exposure because exposure doesn’t diminish the value of engaging with their work directly.

But popular non-fiction authors have a curious problem. What they’re selling is a mix of information and perspective, neither of which strictly needs to be conveyed to the audience in the form of a book. 

If I tell you that Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestseller Blink is about how human beings can actually make really good decisions and gather huge amounts of information with no deliberation at all, you feel like you’ve read the first chapter. If you hear him talk about the study where analysis of the diction and tone of couples arguing indicates whether they’ll get divorced, you’ll feel like you’ve read another chapter. If you read an interview with the author that mentions the art experts who could tell a fake from the genuine article in a proverbial blink, you’ve pretty much got the idea of how the book goes.

And this is Malcolm Gladwell we’re talking about: the guy who wrote the book, as it were, on releasing the kinds of non-fiction bestsellers that burn for years on sales charts and in public consciousness. So if he’s writing in a genre that doesn’t sell efficiently… wow.

How to entice readers by giving away the goods of popular non-fiction on a sample basis — by giving lectures and interviews, guesting on podcasts, etc. — without giving the audience a feeling of (false) satiety isn’t something anybody’s figured out quite yet. And really, they probably never will. These books exist as books not because the nature of their art demands this form, but because the book was the right technology at the time for enabling the author to profit from the dissemination of their ideas. This all came about in the days before podcasted TEDtalks.

For authors committed to the book as an economic vehicle, I think someone needs to start a publicity business based on segmenting audiences to reduce the number of touches while maximizing the impact of each touch. How? If I knew how to do that, I’d do that. But my hunch is that there’s value in knowing the degree of audience overlap between two channels, and that there’s an optimal arrangement of topics to cover in each channel group (or at least, a means to organizing a book tour so everyone gets an equivalent little sample-size glass of milk and nobody walks away feeling like a dairy farmer).

Or I could be completely wrong. 

But if I can learn from being wrong, then it’s okay. I got that from Schulz’ book.
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