Writing and Sharing DIGITAL DIVISIONS

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I published Digital Divisions, my first sole-authored book. Weirder still to think that I published it during a pandemic. This is an attempt to share a bit about what was great and not so great about the experience, and what I’d do differently next time.

Thanks to Farah Faruqi, Zach Levy, Diana Enriquez, Dana Moss, Burrel Vann Jr., Alison Gerber, and Angèle Christin for helping with some inspiration for this. I’ll start with notes about writing the book, and then talk about my experiences sharing it.

WRITING DIGITAL DIVISIONS

Back when I was finishing my PhD I remember thinking my defense went great. I thought, well, this means my dissertation is pretty much good to go when it comes to making it into a book. This was wrong for a whole host of reasons, but by the end of my PhD I had a draft of the book (my dissertation) and a book proposal. I used these artifacts when I interacted with editors.

Finding a book press is a whole thing. I can only speak for myself, but I got interest from editors through a few means. First, by presenting my dissertation at various venues where editors happened to be present and they then initiated conversations with me. Second, by cold emailing editors with a book proposal and intro chapter attached. Third, by being introduced to editors through members of my dissertation committee.

The second approach did not work for me. Lots of non-responses. Some half-hearted interest in staying in touch. One editor I reached out to at a press I really respected basically told me they weren’t really interested but they’d consider publishing an online-only book.

The first and the third approaches were most generative, and led to a short list of possible presses that I worked with at first to suss out shared interest. With these editors I learned about their work styles and interests in directions the book could take. I ultimately went with Chicago because I really, really enjoyed the conversations I had with my editor, I love the books they publish, and…well…Chicago is a killer press in my field.

Back to how I thought my dissertation was pretty much book-ready. This is something I laugh about still. It took 2–3 years of revision after finishing my dissertation to get it ready to publish. My editor mixed her own sets of feedback with rounds of external peer-review. Others may not have this experience, but I can say that nearly all of the feedback I got was important and essential to address. My belief is that for future books I’ve learned enough to really cut this turnaround time down by quite a lot.

Some of the earlier feedback was so extensive that I went through a phase of feeling pretty demoralized by the seemingly unending road ahead. Among the feedback was to literally double the word count.

Fortunately, I had some friends who were also writing their first book on similar topics and they invited me to be part of a book writing group. A structured writing process with social touchpoints was the reason why I finished the book and was able to create something I am really proud of. I tried to write daily from 7am-10am, and shared chapters with my book writing group quarterly for feedback.

I also was fortunate to have the resources to hire a consultant who proofread my chapters after the bulk of the revision was complete. I knew him for a long time — he’s a creative writer whose prose I really liked, and he was able to help with improvements to grammar, cohesion, and clarity without making revisions that robbed the spirit of my writing style.

Once the book was in, I started trying to figure out how I’d share it.

Image by Patrick Tomasso

SHARING DIGITAL DIVISIONS

I was really excited to see the book in print but I had no clue what one was supposed to do after that. Literally my only awareness of book promotion was Carrie Bradshaw’s book party replete with cupcakes and hotdogs. Further, a pandemic had just hit. All my dreams of having a fabulous book party with family, friends, and a signature cocktail were utterly shot. But I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of making the most of this book I had dreamed up and worked on for the better of a decade, so I set out to learn and try to make the best of it.

First, I reached out to everyone I knew who had recently published a book and seemed mildly open to talking about their experience. Some suggested I work on nailing the perfect book talk. Others suggested I reach out to departments to ask them to include me in their colloquia. Others suggested I create press releases, write opinion columns, even reach out to elected officials to have some form of public impact.

I decided to try to do all of it. I put together a doc that fleshed out my plan inclusive of each of these outreach workstreams, and set out to draft the artifacts I’d need for all of it so that I wasn’t caught off guard when the time came to actually pursue it. This planning, along with the process to execute it, was nearly as much work as writing the book itself. It’s no joke. What’s especially hard about it is that everything but developing the book talk (although, even still) was learning new sets of skills I had not done before. I’ll try to review them each in turn.

I knew that my target audience was fellow academics, so I first made sure I developed a book talk. Here I also asked a few colleagues who used similar methods in their books to give me advice on how to structure the talk. Then I created a 45 minute talk, practiced it with friends and colleagues, revised it, and was good to go.

I got some advice from other colleagues that I shouldn’t wait for invitations for book talks, and that I should reach out to departments to offer a book talk. This really freaked me out (introvert, hi) but I decided to suck it up and do it. I drafted an email sharing that I recently published a book, included a brief synopsis, and politely asked if they’d consider me if they have open slots in upcoming colloquia. I sent this to departments where I knew that faculty had clusters focused on my interest areas (education, race/class, inequality, digital technology). I’m glad I reached out in August, because by then I learned many departments were already well into colloquium planning for the rest of the academic year.

I know that there are a bunch of factors that shape response rates to outreach like this, but between this outreach and some unsolicited invitations I gave about 16 book talks this past year to university departments. Honestly, I was shocked. Digital technology research had been such a hard sell to faculty in my experience that the mere fact that I was asked to share about my work was both surprising and cool. It wasn’t all daisies, though. Lots of non-responses to my outreach from department chairs, including one who replied with basically one sentence: “I’ll pass.” Sure, Jan.

My calendar was filling up, and I was very excited to share my work. I wrote about kids and video games and school, and my talk was — at least to me — fun. I was eager to try to get others to see how fun this project was, too.

The academic book tour was a mix of ups and downs, where the ups absolutely outweighed the downs but the low moments will likely shape how I decide I’d want to do academic book outreach in the future.

Because I did this during a pandemic, everything was remote. This likely meant it was easier for departments to invite me to present, and it meant I could also be really flexible with calendaring (once I thought it was a good idea to schedule three talks in the same day). I soon learned that giving a book talk and delivering it in the way I wanted to completely took all my energy for the day. Juggling this with the demands of my actual job was very taxing. I remember RuPaul saying something at one point in their career about never turning down a gig, and I still mostly agree with this, but I’d definitely make sure to spread out talks as much as possible.

Giving these book talks was an experience. I went in half expecting sociologists to throw tomatoes at me for working in big tech. Instead, they were mostly just curious to learn about my research, hear my perspective on social science and digital life, and better understand my philosophy for research in industry. Some did have good, pointed questions about the role of big tech and inequality. I answered best I could, noting limitations in what I’m allowed to speak about. Many faculty even asked to meet with me after to learn how to better mentor their students for industry jobs or to meet with a group of graduate students interested in this career pathway.

I’m surprised I didn’t think of this beforehand given that I study organizations, but giving book talks turned out to be a way to get a pulse on department culture. Most departments were incredibly welcoming from start to finish — in how they scheduled the talk, helped me prepare for it, introduced me to the audience on the day of, guided questions, and thanked me afterwards. A couple departments, in particular, felt like an absolute dream to be part of because they were so kind, supportive, and asked the most thoughtful questions (I’m looking at you, UC-Davis Soc and Cornell Comm!).

Some of the questions I got during book talks were so insightful that they helped me do two things: figure out ways to revise my book talk to better clarify my main arguments, and identify open questions I hadn’t yet thought of that I may explore in future work. These talks had other benefits, too. Faculty with shared interests reached out to me about possible collaborations and relevant work I’d be interested in. I also met new people, graduate students and faculty alike, whose work I absolutely want to follow.

Okay, so the not so good stuff. While most departments were great, some were really gnarly. Like, I never want to present there again gnarly. One department invited me to speak but then forgot to schedule me. After I followed up, it was clear that they scheduled everyone already and didn’t have room for me, so they decided to create a new slot for me and schedule it with less than a week to prepare for the talk.

After all that, I show up and do my thing, and then several faculty in the department just straight up came for me. Now, mind you, my PhD program prepared me to handle tough questions. My committee was an absolute dream, and regularly gave me tough but constructive feedback. Our program was designed in such a way where some faculty intentionally thought it was like “preparing for a firing squad” — I don’t agree with this style of academia, but I learned to be able to handle most things that come my way during talks. During this book talk, one faculty member laughed and straight up told me in front of an audience of like 50 people that they didn’t believe my findings. I was so stunned that I flubbed on a question they asked after that and said I’d have to think about it. They then asked a “question” after someone else went to ask me why I didn’t answer their question. At the end of the talk, another faculty member made fun of a slide and activity I did at the start about Minecraft, a video game kids play, as a means to help illustrate a point during my talk — and said the activity was pointless.

This absolutely sucked. Fortunately, a few things happened that helped me bounce back. First, several graduate students reached out to me after the talk to tell me how much they loved my work and to apologize for the hostility, noting it was something unpleasantly durable about their culture. Second, my colleagues, friends, and family helped me process the experience and carry on. But I choose to never present at departments where I have experiences like this. This is not the academia I want to be part of.

Sharing beyond university audiences was super important to me, and I tried a few things to do this — some with more success than others.

First, I decided that I wanted to give all my book proceeds for the first year to an organization that I believe exemplifies the kind of work I talk about in the book. I realize not everyone can do this, but it brought me a great deal of joy and purpose while sharing my book with others. I found a school anti-racism organization in the region where I conducted my field work, and I reached out to their Executive Director to explore a possible partnership. My whole experience with them was awesome. I got to learn about their work, give a book talk to their community, and donate to their organization. I gave a few talks to middle school faculty and those meetings actually enabled me to connect them with this organization for follow-up work.

Second, I tried to work with media outlets to write about findings from the book. I pitched press releases, opinion columns, and new stories. Learning how to write these effectively was challenging. In all honesty, I think I really missed the mark here. Reporters were generally either nonresponsive or uninterested. One promising news story opportunity ended because they “needed quantitative evidence” of my findings, which were too ethnographic for them. I did have a few spots on academic podcasts that I garnered through direct outreach (and they were super fun), though I expect these worked out because we shared the same language, so to speak.

There was a point where I felt a mixture of disbelief and failure that that I didn’t get media coverage despite that I had literally published a book about digital learning and inequality at such a historic moment when schools nationwide were forced to go digital because of the pandemic. I don’t really know what went wrong here, but I likely am missing needed cultural or social capital (e.g., how to write and deliver good pitches, trusted journalists to reach out to) that could have helped.

But despite media outreach not going as well as I had planned, the experience gave me a lot of thought about who my intended audiences are. I was very happy with the connections I made with academics who share interests with my project. I loved partnering with a nonprofit and talking to teachers about this work, too. Maybe that’s ultimately who matters to me most.

LESSONS

All in all, I’ve had a really fun year sharing my book and I’ve learned a lot.

Here are some abbreviated takeaways that capture how I think about this process, and what I’d do differently in the future:

  • If I could do it over again, I’d network with more faculty as a graduate student to get them excited about my dissertation, and at the right time ask if they’d consider introducing me to editors at book presses.
  • Giving strong talks about my dissertation everywhere helped connect me with some really cool editors at book presses.
  • I would not have been able to complete the book without a structured writing process (daily writing 7a-10a) and social touchpoints (a book writing group).
  • Sharing my book during the pandemic may have led to more academic book talk invitations, though I wished I had spread them out from each other to help avoid exhaustion.
  • I prepared a bunch of artifacts before the academic year to help with book outreach: a well refined book talk, pitches to department chairs, press releases and op-eds.
  • Most people I reached out to and shared my book with were amazing. Some really sucked. I plan to never reach out again to people who suck.
  • Giving book talks led to a lot of great things: important revisions to my book talk, new questions for future research, discovering faculty and students whose work I want to follow, and possible collaborations.

Thanks for listening! If you have additional questions, or reflections on your book sharing process, I’d love to learn more.

sociology phd. tech researcher. author. digitaldivisions.org