While I had not planned on writing a book, the act of writing was healing during this period, as I immersed myself in one of the most profound experiences of my life. As a sociologist, it felt like second nature to be “inside” the experience, and yet to retain an outside observer stance. I kept notes that captured my observations and questions, and I wrote brief blog posts about engaged aging, ageism, and living in assisted living. I learned, after the fact, that this type of research has a name: auto-ethnography, which draws upon one’s personal experience and links it to universal issues. In my experience, the issues were related to caregiving and aging in the U.S., and more specifically the state of assisted living as an unregulated but increasingly used form of care for frail elders.
As I began to think that my story would be a book, I asked myself, “What is the book’s purpose?” I realized that I wanted to use my story to open a more universal conversation about caregiving in the U.S., recognizing that while nearly 30 percent of all Americans are caregivers, the experience is largely experienced alone. I imagine my father would have loved this book, in part because he loved telling and hearing stories about himself, and in part, because he was proud of me and my accomplishments!
I write this article because I believe that getting our work “out there” is public sociology, and I believe that many sociologists have a book that should receive an audience beyond academia. While this article is not a how-to, I will share some of my experience in touring with a book, and hope that you will consider bringing your work into the broader world as well.
When Caring for Red was about to be published, I began to think about who might benefit from reading the book as well as discussing the issues it raises. Vanderbilt University Press asked me to complete a form listing the people who should be notified about the book, including teachers, media, and “others.” Beyond academia, who else was there? The answer to that question was “anyone who is acting as a caregiver for another person.” This opened the field to include local independent bookstores, organizations that provide support to caregivers, and, of course, academics who teach about aging and the life course, gerontology, and ethnography. While I learned about promoting blogs through my experience writing for two—“Mindy’s Muses” and the national blog, “Feminist Reflections”—doing the same for a book was new territory. There is definitely a learning curve!
As a member of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), I sent a note to the organization’s listserv, asking members to suggest local independent bookstores that I could approach. I received 20 replies, with a number of individuals offering to contact stores on my behalf. The bookstores included: Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle), Busboys and Poets (Washington, DC), Bookworks (Albuquerque), Women and Children First (Chicago), and Flyleaf Books (Chapel Hill, NC). My strategy was to prioritize stores in cities where I planned to be anyway (e.g., Seattle for the ASA Annual Meeting or Albuquerque for the SWS Winter meeting), or cities where I had family or friends. I contacted the bookstores, mentioned the person who had referred me, and as my father used to say, “the law of averages” kicked in, and I had some successes.
When I identified a professor who taught courses aligned with my book, I looked at other professors in their department to see if I knew anyone personally. If I did, I’d contact them first and ask them for advice about being invited for a book talk in their department and/or university, as well as whether they might put in a word for me. I also submitted and was accepted to give papers at the ASA meeting and at a Carework Network conference, where I networked with people sharing similar interests. This resulted in a couple of invitations to speak in different universities. In all of these cases, Vanderbilt University Press was excited for me and was reliable in sending discounted books to venues where I spoke.
The key to getting yourself “out there” is using social media wisely. Facebook and Twitter are essential to informing people about your book, but there is an art to doing it with some humility. Remember that while you wrote the book, it was also inspired by someone or something, including the people about whom you wrote the book or are impacted by the issues you tackled. Moreover, it’s likely that your book took many hands to come to fruition, including editors, production, and marketing people. So when you put out your work, it’s essential to recognize the people who are impacted by the book as well as those who were involved in its development.
With small presses, the promotional work comes down to what the author has time and interest in doing. If you’re lucky enough to have your book reviewed, use it. I was able to get a few articles in local papers, including a column in the Boston Globe, titled “The Story Behind the Book.” I used that in my queries with other possible venues. At my request, Vanderbilt gave me the names of a few book competitions, which I then pursued. I submitted my book to the International Book Award, and earned Finalist status in the Autobiography/Memoir category, which was quite wonderful.
How do you do a book talk?
I had published another book in the late 1990s (Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture), and at the time, did one talk for colleagues at Boston College, where I was based at the time. But I had never gone “on the road” to talk with varied audiences. Making this decision was exciting, but I had no idea how to give a book talk. Seeking advice, I contacted my cousin, an award-winning Canadian writer, and a friend who is a librarian and avid reader who frequents book talks. My cousin told me to keep it short; don’t read from the book too much; and tell a story that has an arc. My friend confirmed that her favorite authors don’t read too much; they seamlessly move from storytelling to reading and back to storytelling. I experimented with storytelling, incorporating what I learned as a teacher is most effective, finding ways to engage audiences by asking questions at critical moments, “feeling” the crowd to sense if I was losing them with a particular passage, and always providing an opportunity for them to share their own experiences with caregiving.
I am no expert, but in these past nine months I did more than 20 book talks, won one award, and was invited to speak at a well-known book festival. I have slowed down my efforts to do readings, but they are still trickling in. Bookstores do not pay to have you speak, but I’ve probably broken even, given the university talks that cover my costs and possibly provide an honorarium. If you are at all interested, I highly recommend that you give it a shot. I believe that we have a responsibility as sociologists to take our ideas and share them widely!
Mindy Fried is the author of four books, including her new ethnography, Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press, 2016), and Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture (Temple University Press, 1998). She is a sociologist and Co-Principal of Arbor Consulting Partners (www.arborcp.com), and teaches Evaluation Research at Boston College. Mindy will be teaching a pre-conference course on Blog Writing at the ASA meeting in Montreal. To contact