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Adventures in Web Publishing

June 18, 2009

Two years ago I was confronted with a problem faced by many academics. An author of three previous scholarly books, I had written a manuscript intended for a much wider and more general audience. Called Government is Good: An Unapologetic Defense of a Vital Institution, the book was a response to the conservative campaign to label government as “bad,” and the ongoing Republican effort to cut taxes, slash social programs, and roll back regulations protecting consumers, workers, and the environment.

Unfortunately, I could not find a popular press to take it on. And while a few university presses expressed interest, I was concerned that their relatively small budgets would mean little advertising and thus little readership by the general public. Then it occurred to me that there might be another way to get a larger audience for the book: put it up on the Web. Not just a sample chapter or two, but the whole book. It took a while to get comfortable with this idea. It would mean giving up royalties and losing the academic imprimatur of a published book. But the potential payoff of a much larger readership was tempting, so I took the plunge.

I quickly realized that simply putting up 300 manuscript pages onto the web as a plain PDF file would be pretty unappealing to most potential readers. So I got a small grant from my college and hired a Web design firm to turn the book into a Web site with an esthetically appealing format. I shortened many of the chapters and turned each into an “article” that could be clicked on and read independently of the others – so people wouldn’t have to feel like they had to read the whole book. I also added some interactive bells and whistles, like a short quiz people could take on myths about government.

I launched the site – Government Is Good – in the fall of 2007 with absolutely no idea of how it would do. Today, I’ve had over 75,000 visitors to the site. Only half of those stayed long enough to read some of the material, but that is still an impressive number. I can safely say that more people have read this online material than have read my other three books combined. Two of these books were published by university presses and were considered successful. But for these publishers, good sales are often measured in the hundreds – numbers which now seem very modest in comparison to the tens of thousands of readers who have visited my Web site.

Besides the larger readership, there have been several other interesting, and unanticipated, advantages to going this route. For example, I’ve had readers from over 50 countries. Most have been from Western and Eastern Europe, but I’ve also had readers from China, India, Russia, Thailand, Nigeria, Argentina, Pakistan, Malaysia, Jamaica, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Korea, Qatar, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico. This kind of broad geographical readership would clearly not have happened with a conventionally published book.

I have also received a surprising amount of feedback on my work. I could probably count on both hands the number of letters or e-mails I have gotten from strangers about my other books. But I’ve received hundreds of e-mails about the materials on this Web site. Undoubtedly, part of this is due to simple convenience: Readers merely have to click on the link “Contact the Author” to send me a message. But also, the culture of the Web is a very interactive one, with people used to making comments and discussing issues online.

Even more intriguing has been seeing how my site has been talked about in online discussion groups. My Web traffic software allows me to track back along the web and look at any discussion forum that has put up a link to my site. So, for example, I could go to a Libertarian discussion group and see how they reacted to my arguments. Not surprisingly, they uniformly hated my pro-government ideas and took great pleasure in calling me an idiot -- and worse.

On the more positive side, it has been quite gratifying to see people in a political discussion group using material from my site to bolster a point they are making. One person urged other people to visit my site to “see how government programs improve our everyday lives.” Being a fly on the wall as people discuss one’s work is a very odd experience, but it is another unique advantage that comes from publishing on the Web.

My Web traffic software also allows me to see which parts of the book have the most readers – again information that one would never have access to with a conventionally published book. For example, in the last few weeks, 175 people read the “Taxes are Good” chapter, versus only 86 reading the “Capitalism Requires Government” chapter. At first I was disturbed to see that most people were reading only three or four chapters, or less. But as a friend pointed out, I was simply assuming that anyone who bought one of my previous books actually read all of it – which was probably not true. In any case, it has been informative to learn what the public thinks are the most important and relevant parts of my book – in contrast to what I think.

Web publishing also makes the material much more accessible for classroom use. Other political science professors have been able to assign parts of this book for their courses without having to get permission, charge a fee, or put in on reserve in the library. They merely put the Web address in their syllabi – simple and cheap.

One final advantage: I can rewrite or update material whenever I want. I don’t have to go through the time consuming process of putting out a second print edition. Political attitudes toward government have been changing considerably with the election of President Obama and the need for federal intervention in the financial crisis – which has threatened to make my two-year old book outdated. But I have been able to revise many of the chapters to take these recent developments into account and to keep the book timely.

I have a few practical suggestions for anyone considering putting a book or other material up on the Web. First, the size of my site – 300 pages in the form of 24 “articles” – is probably too large and intimidating for some readers. Half that size would make for a much more reader-friendly site. Also, as I mentioned earlier, you need to spend some time and money making your site look professional and attractive. An amateurish, do-it-yourself site will put off some readers.

Finally, don’t assume, as I did at the beginning, that “if you build it, they will come.” Few people will simply stumble upon your site. My readership did not begin to grow until I sent out dozens of promotional e-mails to political scientists, political activists, journalists, bloggers, politicians, etc. The biggest boost in readership came when the site got mentioned on several popular political blogs. One link to my site on The Daily Kos brought in several thousand visitors in a few days. So you really need to be willing to put considerable effort into promoting your site if you want it to succeed.

While I have been extremely pleased with the results of using the Web to publish my work, this strategy may not be for everyone. For example, some professors seeking tenure or promotion may be in departments that frown on this nontraditional way of publishing one’s academic work. But if you are at an institution that believes professors have a responsibility to be public intellectuals, and if your main concern is getting your ideas out to the broadest audience possible, then this kind of Web publishing is certainly an intriguing option worth considering.

Bio

Douglas J. Amy is a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College. His book can be found here.

 

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