Getting the Word Out: New Books Network

New Books Network ImageYou are reading. Yes, right now. You are reading. You probably like to read (though you may not like what you are currently reading—you have my apologies for that). Most people who work in the Ivory Tower and adjacent buildings like to read, so you are not unusual in that regard. So power­ful is our love of reading that we think everyone should do it, a lot. For this purpose, we supply the people of the world with loads of reading material, mostly in the form of longish books published by university presses (we’ll leave articles and journals aside for the sake of brevity). Our books cost between $25 and $100. That’s not cheap, and we know it. In fact, most of us don’t buy “our” books. We don’t have to because we are members of an elite club that purchases “our” books for us and then deposits them in a nice, climate-controlled building where all said books are neatly arranged for our convenience. And you might just be able to get a cup of coffee there as well.

This is a pretty good setup for us, lovers of reading and holders of library cards at academic libraries. Alas, it doesn’t really work well for all the people we believe should be reading the things we write. Painful as it is to admit, most people don’t spend a lot of time reading. The average Ameri­can, for example, reads for pleasure for about 15 minutes a day, and we can be pretty sure that he or she isn’t reading what we write in that quarter of an hour (not when The Onion is available on-line). Moreover, even if the average American took an interest in what we write, he or she might well not be able to afford to buy it: $50 is a lot of brass when baby needs a new pair of shoes. Average Americans could go to the library; but the free public library is not going to have our books, at least very many of them. And let’s not forget that in much of the world there are no free public libraries at all (or safe drinking water, for that matter).

You probably see where I’m going and don’t like it. You’re thinking, “It’s not my fault that Joe and Jane Public don’t read, or that the books they should read (“ours”) are out of reach. Besides … my books are not a means of popular com­munication; they are a means of scholarly communications.” No doubt there is some truth in this. Your job description, narrowly construed, does require you to spend endless hours in meetings with deans. It does not, however, require you to brow-beat people (other than students) into reading more, to fix the broken university press system, or to make sure the world has good libraries on every corner (or safe drinking water). You teach, write books, do service, and that’s plenty.

I suppose. But doesn’t it rankle just a wee bit that no one outside your field pays attention to the books you write? Perhaps I’m the only ego-maniacal author in our field, but it bothers the heck out of me. I think that what I write is entertaining and enlightening (though I could be wrong). I think people would profit by reading it. I think that in order to have a working democracy you have to have a thinking citizenry, and my books can help people think. Maybe you feel the same way. And maybe you have no idea what to do about it. If so, read on.

About five years ago, while researching a book on the history of communications, I had a startling revelation: people don’t like to read, rather they like to listen and watch. Consider this. Over the past fifty years or so we have been conducting a natural experiment on media prefer­ence. We’ve given millions of Americans (and people in the developed world generally) the opportunity to read or listen/watch at roughly equal and very low cost. What did they choose? Well, the answer is obvious: Americans read a little bit, but they listen (to radios, CDs, iPods, etc.) and watch (TVs, films, DVDs, YouTube, etc.) all the time. The conclusion one should draw from this natural preference for listening/watching seems clear: if you want to get the word out about what you do, audio and video are a much better way to do it than text in whatever form. To put it simply, I was doing it all wrong. 

Then it oc­curred to me: all I needed was a computer, some software, and a fair-to-middling Internet connection to produce pretty decent audio and video all by my lonesome and on the cheap. Thus was “New Books in History” or “NBH” born. NBH is a podcast featuring historians with new books. I invite them, the publishers send me their books (gratis), we talk for an hour about the book, and many thousands  of people around the world listen. Some of you reading these words have appeared on the show, and I hope many more will. So successful (and fun) was NBH, that it dawned on me that I might be able to use the model in other disciplines. Thus was the “New Books Network” or “NBN” born. The NBN is a consortium of podcasts featuring writers (mostly academics) with new books in 90 fields. Each pod­cast is hosted by an area-expert, just like you. We’ve built a large, international following: we have thousands of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and RSS subscribers. We download over 1400 interviews a day, and that number is growing at a mod­erate but steady pace.

This is an invitation for you to join us in get­ting the word out, audio-wise, about what you do. Some of you already have: the golden-throated pair of Sean Guillory and Kevin Rothrock host “New Books in Russian and Eur­asian Studies” and I’m certain these folks would love to hear from you if you have a new (or even recent) book in one or the other field. New Books in Eastern European Studies is currently seeking hosts interested in conducting interviews with authors of new books on Eastern Europe, broadly construed. Hosting the channel is a good way to bring the work of scholars of Eastern Europe to the attention of large audiences.

But there is more. We don’t know what needs to be cov­ered. Originally, the NBN had 25 channels. I thought that was all we needed. Then, however, people started to contact me saying “Why don’t you have a channel in this, that, or the other thing?” I had no good answer, given the fact that it costs virtually nothing to launch a new channel. And so the number of channels on the NBN grew and is still growing. If you, then, see a gap in our coverage, a field, sub-field, or sub-subfield that deserves a channel, ping me and we’ll talk. “New Books in Finno-Ugaric Studies” is probably too narrow, but how would I know? If there are books regularly published in it, someone to host it, and even a small audience, I’m game.

Our mission at the NBN is two-fold. First, we want to help you do what you do better. Like it or not, researchers—be they graduate students, lecturers, professors, think-tankers, or independent scholars—are in the business of teaching some public. Outreach might not be our primary goal, but it is an important goal nonetheless. The trouble is that the princi­pal means we use to accomplish this end—expensive, poorly distributed books—is not the right tool for the job. Books are great for “us”; they are not great for “them.” We at the NBN are here to give you another means—freely distributed audio on the Internet—to find and reach your public. Sec­ond, we are dedicated to saving the republic from death-by-ignorance. Elitist as it may sound, there is an enormous gap between what we know and what the citizenry should know to operate a thriving democracy effectively. Since we don’t run things (thank God), we have to do our best to get the public to pay attention to the “Modern Democracy Owners Manual.” The NBN is an effort to do just this—educate the democratic citizenry so that they can continue to be demo­cratic citizens. Please join us.

Marshall Poe (Department of History at the University of Iowa) is the Editor-in-Chief, New Books Network