Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Beyond Just Content: Making our Literary eBook Matter

One of the problems of a traditional literary education is that it puts such a high value on private, introspective reading and enjoyment that the idea of actually communicating one's thoughts about a book seem very secondary. This is reinforced within traditional academic settings, ironically, when students of literature think and write critically about a text, but do not think as critically about their current context. In short, one is taught to analyze and make claims about literature, but one is not taught to connect this analyzing or persuading to real audiences.

"Literature is equipment for living," said Kenneth Burke, a dictum I often repeat to my students, and which I believe is all the moer applicable in the digital age. The works of literature my students are reading truly are vehicles for understanding and coping with their present world, and not simply escapes from that world into a place of fantasy or academic philosophizing.

But old habits are hard to break. What I realize now is that we should have been marketing our eBook even before we hatched it. That may sound backwards, but I now think we should have done more market research to really know who it is that cares about our topics. But we will do the best we can now, with one week to go before our launch date.

I've been reading eBooks about publishing eBooks (one by Scott Boyd, and another by Robert W. Bly). Now, these authors are targeting an audience that is intent upon creating nonfiction, informational eBooks for money. I think some of  my colleagues would recoil in horror that I am asking my students to consider the marketing techniques of such books. We are not in the business of setting our students up in business, and (at least in the humanities), we often take pride precisely in keeping a fair distance from the crass and superficial world of markets and business.

However, I wish to challenge that vantage point. My belief is that the dynamics of marketing (for money) are pretty much the same as the dynamics for marketing ideas (not for money). Put another way, people in business online are studying attention dynamics and niche marketing, using sophisticated tools (that students may also use) to find and address specific markets. What's the difference, then, if I want my students to find and address specific audiences, to "market" their ideas? So I do not feel shame in learning from those who are actively using the new dynamics of online attention.

Finding Our Niche Market
Online marketers are adamant, and rightly so, about identify a specific target market. This means doing some research about what is out there regarding your topic, and who it is that is talking about it. We don't always think in these terms with academic subjects with no commercial goal in mind, but the question is truly relevant when we ask, "What is the competition?" The marketing gurus are right when they say that if there is no competition, there really isn't a market.

Applying this idea to our eBook, the question I'm asking my students and myself relates to identifying our niche in these ways:

  • What is "out there" on the subject of writing about literature in the digital age?
  • Who are the experts or prominent voices discussing these issues?
  • What is the competition?

Answering these questions can be done through various kinds of online searches, including searches for scholarly sources (though these are problematic, since academic discourse is largely quarantined behind toll access barriers). Our class has already explored different modes of social discovery, and so finding books, reviews and reviewers of books, is a primary way to begin answering these questions about our niche. We can search on Amazon, on Goodreads, and on other book-related sites. We could tap into educator communities (such as Educause, Classroom 2.0, etc.), forums, events, and organizations. We could tap into the realtime web and discussions about educational technology (the #edchat or #edtech hashtags on, the lists of literary teachers on Twitter, and the blogosphere. How I wish we'd done this earlier! But we must work from where we are at. I really wonder if there is any competition for the eBook we've dreamed up. I'm scared we may find we are all alone, and that's not ideal.

Researching Keywords
It turns out that marketing ideas today, just like marketing products, requires more than just finding specific audiences. If you want your knowledge to have a market, you have to play by the finding rules of the Internet, and those are based upon keywords and search engine optimization (SEO). Now, I'm not going to get my students into SEO very far. But I do want them to understand the basic notion that people search for information using clusters of related terms, and the best way to engage with others on topics of common interest is to find and use those terms.

Authors on this topic that I've consulted urge that any eBook writer spend time researching the keywords relevant to one's chosen content by using these tools:

  • Wordtracker
  • Google AdWords
  • ClickBank
  • PayPal
Again, these may seem only to relate to commercial purposes, but people "sell" ideas online even if they are not selling actual products and services. We need to learn the terms around which such "sales" cluster. Are we too late to maximize the impact of our eBook through keyword research? Perhaps. But we should check.

I want my students to start thinking about composing not just their ideas, but aiming for specific audiences. To take one's ideas to market need not involve money, but it requires the same respect for how knowledge has most "currency" online.

1 comment:

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