More Best Practices: Strategies for Positioning your Publication

In Making Public we investigate how the publishing process can be enhanced using digital tools and methods, with a focus on speed, positioning, and quality. After presenting some best practices that deal primarily with the question of speed, and the comparative tools analysis part 1 and part 2, here I will look into examples that have to do with positioning. (Find the last installment of the best practices series on new formats for online and hybrid quality content here.)

Positioning a publication may be thought of in the concrete sense that the concept calls forth: How does the book end up in the right hands? How can an online article find its way to the browser tab of the interested reader? In what ways can our contents – thought up, written down, edited out, taped, filmed, designed, visualized, what not – play its desired role in society and research?

We’ve all seen and used the marketing and communication plans from the grand old days of PR. Probably we still apply them in some way or another. The examples below shake up some received ideas about positioning and offer  inspiration for formats which are good at attracting attention.

0. Licensing: Creative Commons and other ‘open’ licenses

I put this under zero because it is the absolute start of the positioning process. Of course, it is not feasible for everyone to publish their work under an open license, but especially for researchers it is something to consider firmly. If you want your research contents to travel beyond the confines of academia, making it publicly available is the best way to go. In many cases researchers are obliged to make their work available to the public, and there are grants to provide for it. It can be worthwhile to look into this. Licensing can also be a point of negotiation. Ask about the strategies a medium has when it comes to sharing and hosting content: Can you host a PDF on your own (institution’s) website? Is there a time limit to restricted access? The more people talk about it, the more normal such discussions will become, which is good for everyone.

1. Publishing by surprise

This point has very much to do with speed, too. One of the great annoyances of authors is that their work, which might be on topic of debates happening right here right now, have to deal with the traditional way publishers organize their PR: first announcing a publication, then doing the rounds with the bookshops, deciding on the print run, etc., which leaves the book to come out months or even a year later, when the hot topic has lost its peak moment. (This was the main drive behind starting this project.)

While everyone understands that it takes time to make a high-quality publication – and quality is one of our three pillars of success for a reason – this way of making public the result can certainly be handled differently. Das Mag, a literary publishing house in the Netherlands, broke the standing tradition of first building a catalogue of books-to-come before putting them out. Books come when they are ready.

Another example could be heard on the Urgent Publishing night in Amsterdam, where Clara Balaguer told about the habit in her zine publishing practice to print just a few copies (25 or so), distribute those very neatly and then to see what happens and how many to print next. ‘How many copies do you need to get your publication in the right hands?’ was the question she asked.

I’ve put this under the header of ‘publishing by surprise’ as a reminder of what is also done in the music industry from time to time, where artists ‘drop’ new songs with just one day’s announcement. And why not, in the age of streaming, printing on demand, and viral marketing?

2. Interviews with authors

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not a standard practice at all. I want to highlight two examples, one focused on text, the other on video/audio.

I really like the short interviews with authors done by Princeton University Press. It’s such a simple concept: a few questions that start out generally (‘What compelled you to write this book?’) but soon move to a probing of the specific content. Always accessible, interesting, in other words, compelling you to read on and maybe buy the book. And even if the reader doesn’t go on to buy the book, they’ve learned something to remember and come back to. This goes for press and events organizers too, of course.

Verso Books is a publisher that is mentioned in many ways when it comes to the art of positioning. They manage to repeatedly secure the center of attention (see also the next point). Here I want to highlight their author videos, posted on YouTube and of course on their website. There are both long interviews and short clips. An excellent way to get an introduction to a new title and its author, using the platform that increasingly functions as a prime search engine. See for example this recent publication.

3. Setting up a hybrid collection of materials around a book

Verso’s not just about video interviews, they deserve a mention of their own for their truly hybrid positioning practice: using newsletters, blogs, video, and the different social media in a thoroughly interconnected way, pivoting on their website.

4. Re-upping old articles

Dutch online media outlet with some international renown and/or infamousness De Correspondent are innovative in different ways, but here I point out their practice of using the archive in a responsive and active way. Articles are re-upped and contextualized under the caption ‘relevant again’. An easy gesture that makes use of an existing back-catalogue. Take note however, that this is something different from having automated ‘suggestions’ based on tags or categories. It seems the curation and contextualization are what make up the positioning aspect.

5. Reading groups and social gatherings

A last example, that is also further investigated in the project (so I’ll just mention it shortly here), is taking positioning most literally: bringing people together and placing the publication in their midst. The most concrete expression is the reading group. An interesting example was organized by literary magazine nY, who discussed materials and related questions in a series of evenings amongst readers.

However, this can also be imagined in an online environment. More on this to come.

Z. Not so good practice: anything quantified

There are some interesting tools to track how your publication’s doing, such as AltMetric, or to measure the impact of research and researchers, such as Pure. While these tools may be helpful on the back-end, providing insights, focus or organizational structure, we’ve found that they are not useful in external positioning. Rather, the intended audience seem to oppose such quantified appraisals.