How Tweet It Is

Is microblogging the shortcut to generating buzz for university press books? Scott McLemee works up the attention span to find out....

June 17, 2009

Only during the final week of 2008 did it become clear to me that Twitter is now a full-fledged widget within the discursive apparatus of academe. I had opened a Twitter account a few months earlier. (Everyman his own panopticon administrator.) But it was the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco that made me conscious, for the first time, that microblogging was something more than just another way for the Internet to get me to write things for free.

Professors were analyzing the microblogging phenomenon, of course; that should go without saying. For any given X, there is an “X studies” entrepreneur. But people I knew were interacting at the conference in real time via Twitter. Scholarly connections were being made, and no doubt other modalities of hook-up as well. (The convention was held in a hotel, so you figure.) And then, shortly after the start of the year, publicists at more and more university presses began using Twitter.

Note: In ordinary usage, there is a strong and probably irreversible tendency to turn the company name, sans capital letter, into a transitive verb. (Cf. “I googled it.”) An individual microblog posting is called a “tweet.” Mean people call microbloggers “twits,” sometimes even replacing the "i" with an “a” to give still more offense. I just hope nobody tells Edwin Newman, who recently turned 90 and shouldn't have to deal with this kind of thing.

The embrace of microbloggery by university presses is mildly disturbing at first, given that Twitter seems like the next step towards a future in which reading a whole footnote will count as a feat of concentration.

Be that as it may, marketing and publicity departments have turned to microblogging as a way to direct attention to their new books – or, more accurately, to their press’s "macro" blogs, if that’s how to put it.

Part of my interest in this turn to Twitter comes from disappointment with most university press blogs, which often seem more like PR vehicles than genuine blogs with discussion, disagreement, expressions of real enthusiasm or curiosity or whatever. Reading very many of them at one sitting feels like attending a banquet where you are served salt-free soda crackers and caffeine-free Mountain Dew that's gone flat.

By contrast, university-press publicists seem more inclined to experiment and to follow tangents with Twitter than they do on their own official websites. They link to material they have posted at the press’s blog, of course – but also to news and commentary that may be only obliquely related to the books in their catalog. It’s as if they escape from beneath the institutional superego long enough to get into the spirit of blogging, proper.

So much for my own two cents’ worth. Not long ago I got in touch with a few members of the university-press Twitterati to ask how, and why, they got involved with microblogging. Did the idea provoke any resistance? What benefits have come of it? What makes for a good tweet? And how did they build up their followings?

Not everyone I contacted replied, and the survey was by no means scientific. But the responses that did come in were substantial and convey some sense of how university press folks have moved into microblogging over the past six months.

As noted earlier, there is now a tendency to use the brand name Twitter without capitalizing it. Rather than alter or “sic” the responses on this point, I will simply let people’s comments stand as representative of the state of usage itself right now.

“I wouldn't say we were resistant to the idea,” says Jessica Pellien, an assistant director of publicity for Princeton University Press who handles its Twitter presence, “but we were definitely slow in coming to the twitter craze. I thought there would be a big learning curve with twitter which is laughable in hindsight given how simple the site is to use.”

She says the press has been “fairly passive” in building its following, which after four months is now shy of 400 people. “Initially, we posted information about our twitter account on our blog and added it to our email signatures. Currently, we get about 8 new followers each day, mostly through word-of-mouth or people who discover the blog.”

Columbia University Press began microblogging in late January; it now has more than 1,100 followers. That figure “is still below some other, bigger presses,” says Philip Leventhal, an associate editor and web marketing manager for Columbia University Press, “but the rate of growth has been fairly steady, gaining 100-200 followers each week.”

Leventhal says that the key to building up the audience has been regularity in posting. “I add at least 1 tweet each day. Also, I think referring to other posts and re-tweeting has been helpful.”

The expression “re-tweeting” refers to copying someone else’s microblog post and sending it out again so that your followers, who might not have subscribed to the original feed, will see it. That the post has been so copied and forwarded is acknowledged with the letters RT prefacing the tweet. This aspect of Twitter dynamics makes it resemble a listserv at least as much a blog.

Aside from being consistent in output, it helps to publicize the fact that readers can follow you via microblogging. Leventhal says that there are links to Columbia’s Twitter page on the press’s Web site and blog, and also in the e-mail newsletter sent out to subscribers. But most of the following, he says, “just seems self-generating.”

At Duke University Press, where Laura Sell is publicist and tweeter-in-chief, the following of some 1,600 people built up since November reflects both the quantity and quality of the links posted. The range and the interest of Duke's tweets make its presence exemplary, in my opinion. Between drafting and rewriting this column, for example, I followed Duke's tweets to a newspaper article about whether or not English was approaching one million words, a blog post about rock songs cued to Joyce's Ulysses, and the Twitter feed of Duke author Negar Mottahedeh, who has been posting about events in Iran.

With a colleague from the press’s journal division, Sell tweets “about 6 times a day, more if we find a lot of interesting links, less if one of us is out or very busy.” She says the readership appears to range “from other publishers to librarians to news media to interested individuals.”

Variety as well as regularity seems to help. “We tweet about Press news and reviews,” she says, “but also about non-Press-related things like higher ed news, literary culture, and publishing. We do not use the DUKEPress twitter account to post anything personal and try to be attentive to our voice and tone. We must be picking out interesting links, because a large percentage of our tweets are re-tweeted.”

Microblogging has also been an unusually efficient way to get out the word on a breaking development. “We have used it twice to spread news virally now,” says Sell, “once when Eve Sedgwick died and once when we put out the press release about Obama's mother's book. We were first out there with news of Sedgwick's death and I found it very interesting to watch my initial tweet get re-tweeted over a variety of networks. It worked similarly in Facebook.”

MIT Press has been on Twitter since mid-February and now has some 1,500 followers that include “authors, journalists, readers, academics, etc.,” says Colleen Lanick, the press’s publicist. “And because our list is so diverse, Twitter allows our followers to scan quickly through our news and click through on what they are interested in.”

In addition to posting links to material online concerning MIT’s books and authors, Lanick says the press’s tweets also cover “trends in publishing and in the fields we publish in, and we also post about what we are up to -- whether I'm on the road meeting with media, or at sales conference.”

She then makes a point that bears stressing given how often university-press blogs tend to be coated in institutional gray: “I think that any kind of social networking needs to have a personality tied to it in order for it to be successful. Also, I think you really need to participate in the media in order for it to be successful. We ask people for questions and opinions, offer giveaways sometimes. My main goal is to try to get people talking -- either with me or with each other about our books and authors.... You can't just provide information or news feeds to reviews and articles about your books. Involving the Press in what is going, contributing to the various discussions, and asking (and answering) questions is really the way to grow your following.”

None of those who responded to my queries could point to any obvious short-term effect of microblogging on sales. But Philip Leventhal’s comments seem close to the general estimate at this early stage of the process.

“The jury is still out, at least in my mind, about how effective Twitter is," he tells me, "but it is not very time-consuming, so I feel it is worth the effort and see how it develops. Again, with book reviews dwindling and so many pulls on people's attention, it is important to try and establish a presence on something as popular as Twitter. Sure, it might be next year's Friendster but you never know....”

My friend Bethanne Patrick has blogged for Publishers Weekly and is now managing editor of The Book Studio, a multimedia site hosted by WETA, a PBS television station in Washington, DC. I wondered what impression she had formed of how trade publishers were using microblogging, and what she might tell the university-press people.

She responded with some thoughts about Twitter and “marcomm” – a piece of jargon that was completely new to me. It induced a brief flashback to reading E. H. Carr’s multivolume history of the Bolshevik revolution, because "Marcomm" sounded like one of the early Soviet economic-planning agencies. It turns out to refer to the “marketing/corporate communications nexus.” No wonder I felt deja vu.

“What Twitter can’t do, yet or perhaps ever,” wrote Patrick, “is SELL books. It works for PR and marcomm, but not sales. You can’t monetize buzz, and Twitter is all about buzz/tweets.... All of us in publishing, trade and university, commercial and nonprofit, are competing for the consumer’s attention first and dollars second – because it is easier for that consumer to spend those dollars faster than ever before. The store is no longer bricks-and-mortar or even those Amazon cardboard boxes; it’s an iPhone.”

An important point, given that Twitter is best read on a handheld device while waiting for the subway. Such is my impression anyway. Looking at Twitter for more than a minute on a desktop computer makes my brain itch.

But then making the brain itch is what marketing is all about – and in that regard, Twitter is a great equalizer. It “levels the promo playing field,” says Patrick. “As long as you can fit your message into 140 characters (with a link, if you like), you’ve got a message that someone might choose to read. A major publisher can seem as impish as an indie, and a university press as well-muscled as Knopf, and both of them are just as likely to have their tweets read as a music label or a film studio.”

Microblogging also has the potential, at least, to reach “the elusive ‘verticals’: specialized niche interest categories that are one of the reasons the U.S. publishing industry releases approximately 3500 books each week....”

To folks in the university-press world, this must sound like a bandwagon worth jumping aboard – though you have to wonder how much freight it can bear before the wheels fall off.

In the meantime, let me remind everyone that you can read all about my conference-hopping, cat-herding efforts, and Sisyphean labor of keeping up with a fraction of those 3,500 books per week here.

Follow me! I am about to make a sandwich.


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