Every Historian His Own Salesman

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a wide trail of destruction that includes tens of thousands of lives and millions of jobs. It has undercut our own sense of security and has left many of us with profound concerns about our immediate and long-term futures. I hope you and your families are safe and healthy. Ultimately, that is what matters most.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how this pandemic has impacted many of my historian friends who have recently published books. This is supposed to be an exciting time for new authors. All of the hard work that goes into researching, writing, and producing the final book can finally be celebrated with friends, family and the general public. Unfortunately, a new reality has set in. Book tours and other public presentations are not just being postponed, they are being cancelled altogether. The public’s attention will soon pass to new titles.

My latest book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, was published last September and I enjoyed a very successful book tour that stretched into February 2020, but like everyone else my events have also been cancelled. In fact, as it stands. every book event and teacher workshop through the summer that I was scheduled to take part in has been cancelled.

A number of historians have taken advantage of social media and livestream platforms to promote their new books. As someone who has long embraced social media this is great to see. One of the most innovative examples of this is Lindsay Chervinsky’s organization of the History Summit, which recently featured twenty-five historians. Each participant recorded a short video about their book and later fielded questions on twitter. This is something that could easily be replicated by others.

While the embrace of social media has been encouraging to see, the verdict is still out on the extent to which this is translating into book sales. Ultimately, the goal is to get books into people’s hands and the fewer steps it takes to do that the better.

Direct Sales

With that in mind I want to encourage my fellow historians to think seriously about offering personalized copies of their books for direct sale. I started doing this back in September. Since setting up a PayPal account in March sales have been steady.

Most if not all of you have been given an author discount from your publisher to purchase your own book. I pass this discount directly to the customer. Factor in envelopes, shipping, state tax, and PayPal’s small cut and you arrive at your sale price. Even with everything factored in I can still offer customers a personalized copy of my book, shipped anywhere in the United States, at a price below the list price.

I set up a landing page on my personal website that gives customers options as to where they can purchase the book, but highlighted at the top is the link to my PayPal site for a personalized copy.

Since the beginning of March I have sold just under 200 copies. Yes, it’s a bit tedious to get everything ready, but there is something incredibly satisfying about personalizing copies for readers across the country. People are appreciative of the effort and they clearly enjoy the opportunity to connect with authors.

Let me be clear, I am not making any money. I basically break even. Again, the goal is to get the book into the hands of as many customers as possible. Why else write the book?

Some of you are no doubt uncomfortable with the idea of pushing your book online or embracing the role of salesman. I certainly don’t want anyone to do something that makes them uncomfortable, but this is the world that we will occupy for the foreseeable future.

It is unclear when public book talks and other opportunities will start up again. Budgets will likely be slashed at institutions that bring authors to meet the public. Unless you are working with one of the large trade presses, your publisher’s publicity budget will also likely be cut. There will likely be fewer book festivals. We’ve already seen independent bookstores shut their doors for good and more will likely follow.

Folks, you are now your most important publicist. Your book will live or die depending on the steps that you take.

Think Out-Of-The-Box

It is very easy to set up PayPal or other platform to accept credit and debit cards, but it won’t hurt to think about ways to market your book. One of the things that I’ve done is partner with The Civil War Monitor magazine. They have supplied me with a limited number of issues, which I give away for free with the purchase of my book. It adds just enough incentive to take that final step and we both benefit.

The are countless other relationships that could be considered depending on the subject of your book. I can imagine authors working with historic sites, museums, and other institutions that might be interested in offering a discounted admission fee as a way to market their sites and attract visitors.

For those of you with books coming out in the next year start strategizing with your publisher’s publicity team NOW. Ask them to consider giving you a higher author discount that you can pass on to customers interested in personalized copies.

It goes without saying that a social media presence is one way to build relationships with readers and potential customers. If you are already on social media think about ways to up your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram presence. Waiting for the publication of your book to take these steps is way too late.

I am only beginning to wrap my head around the short and long-term implications of this pandemic on the book industry and how it might impact my next project. There is a lot I don’t understand, but I want to do everything I can to support my publisher and to promote the research that I spent years working to complete.

Please, if you have any suggestions feel free to share them in the comments below.

Stay safe.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

3 comments… add one
  • 65th NY Guy Apr 29, 2020 @ 15:22

    Thanks for your thoughts. I, too, have lost opportunities to do book talks for my book published last August. Luckily I have had a few successful ones before the pandemic shutdown set in.

  • Topher Kersting Apr 29, 2020 @ 10:30

    Thanks for the reminder. I had been avoiding buying any new books until I finished my master’s coursework (because I know I wouldn’t have the restraint to not read it until I did the reading and writing I had to do), so this post was timed perfectly for me.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2020 @ 10:33

      Thanks so much for purchasing a copy. I’ve got a box on the way and will get it to you asap. My primary goal wasn’t to sell my own book, but to encourage others to give it a shot, but perhaps seeing a real live sale will help make the case.:-)

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