The Stakes of Mis-Identifying or Refusing to Narrow Your Audience

Case Studies Illustrating the Stakes of Mis-Identifying Your Book's Main Audience

Read the following case studies, which are based on real-life examples. See which one (or ones) sound most like your project.

Case #1: Inappropriate Feedback from a Conference Workshop

This author was working on a project in a burgeoning area studies framework, let’s call it Great Lakes Studies, at the intersection of two major disciplines: American studies and history. Her main claim is that performances in the 18th-century served historical functions, but her training/degree is in performance studies in a program that specializes in American (US) performance, not history. As a result, the author identified that she was speaking to many main audiences: Great Lakes Studies scholars, performance studies scholars, and historians.

Since her degree is in performance studies from a program specializing in US performance, but she hopes her project to speak to Canadian studies scholars and historians, she applied to participate in a conference (the Canadian History Conference—again, this is invented) that operates as a multi-day seminar designed to help authors workshop their research.

Her work was fairly well-received and she was delighted to find that scholars found her overarching paradigm useful. However, she was a bit perplexed regarding their comments and whether and how to address them. Specifically, a main focus of the chapter in question is performative commemorations of the surrender of Presqu’Isle (June 17, 1763) during Pontiac’s Rebellion. At one point in her argument, she evokes the status of captives during the larger conflict of which this battle was one part. Though in her mind it was a minor point, her reviewers/readers unanimously agreed that she should develop this point much more broadly and do extensive archival and philosophical research about the way of conceiving of captives in British, French, and Amerindian cultures at the time. Upon further reflection, she realized that many of the comments she had received at that workshop were in a similar vein: the audience wanted her to develop and flesh out archival research on pretty much every point she made, no matter how “tangential” or “minor” in her work.

Though some of the conference workshop comments she received were helpful, it was much more clarifying in helping her realize that while her research could and would be of interest to historians (who found her framework helpful), to actually speak to historians as a primary audience would require engaging in the type of archival work they had wanted in the chapter throughout the book.

In her view, while interesting, these types of claims were of secondary importance to her book, which was much more interested in developing performative arguments that have, in her view, historical implications rather than “doing history” per se. So, she was able to recognize and put aside many of the comments that she received as valuable if and only if she had intended to speak to historians, and plans to present the project as a “performance studies” work (with historical implications) in her proposal and manuscript, rather than continuing to represent it as a work of both performance studies and history of the Great Lakes region.

Case #2: True Target Publishers Reject; Bad Fits Send Manuscript for Review and Wants Entirely New Project

In this case, an author is working in international diplomacy and her book focuses on the factors that allow one Christian NGO to successfully liaise with various actors in South America (boot camp participants will recognize this example from the curriculum).

This author squarely sees herself as participating in international diplomacy studies first and foremost, but her book’s approach (and the way she represents her book in her proposal) heavily emphasizes the NGO’s Christian dimension, using certain facets as part of her organizing principle.

She sent out a round of book proposals to the top presses specializing in international diplomacy, but was dismayed when only one responded to request the manuscript. (Note: As you know, this is likely because of the misalignment between claims and scope).

She was further perplexed, however, when the peer reviews of her manuscript came back and were quite negative, wanting her to take the project in a radically different direction. Put simply, the reviews revealed that the editor had taken the project not as a study in international diplomacy, but rather as a Christian studies project, and had sent it to readers specializing in Christian studies. The reviewers, for instance, wanted her to develop a much broader discussion of Christian history and culture in the region, effectively turning the book into a different project altogether.

With feedback from mentors, she realized not only the misalignment between claims and scope but also that the way she had been presenting her book played up the Christian studies angle to a degree out of proportion with the claims she was actually interested in making in her book and, as a result, editors were misunderstanding the true nature of her project.

Case #3: Negative Book Reviews in Adjacent Discipline

This case is a bit different from the others; it involves a book analyzing literary representations of an important historical figure. The book was successfully accepted at a top publisher in literary studies for the particular geographical area it focuses on and was well-received in literary studies.

The problem, however, comes not in how the book traveled through the publishing system (that is, it was not sent to historians for review, for instance), but rather stems from the claims the author makes in his introduction: that it is both a work of literary studies and of history (rather than a work of literary studies that also happens to have specific, limited historical implications).

After publication, the press sent the book to top journals in literary studies, area studies, and history which focus on the region in question. While the literary studies and area studies reviews were overwhelmingly positive, the history reviews were overwhelmingly negative, chastising the author for making claims too large for his corpus and for not engaging in enough true archival work. That is, the historians (rightly) pointed out that while fictional literature can take up and reimagine historical events (which can, in turn, have limited historiographical import), merely studying fictional works does not amount to writing a history of an event. Had the author framed his intervention through this lens and been much more reserved about the types of historical claims his book could actually make using fictional literature (and, perhaps, not said that the book should be sent to purely historical journals for review), he could have been spared the pain of negative public reviews.* (Note that these reviews did not negatively affect the scholar’s tenure bid—he is tenured at a very good R1 for his discipline—however, they could have easily done so).

Case #4: Years Invested in a Project that Needed to be Two Projects

This is a case study that illustrates the potential consequences of not choosing to speak to one audience in particular, but also illustrates that it is liberating to choose.

A boot camp author came to boot camp working at the intersection of history and anthropology, studying labor practices in Southeast Asia. Her degree was in anthropology, but she had done both extensive fieldwork (participant interviews) in the region and extensive archival research. She regularly presented at three types of conferences: anthropology conferences, regional studies conferences, and history conferences.

She had spent several years trying to revise her dissertation into a book, and was finding three interrelated dimensions particularly challenging: first, distilling her main claims; second, identifying the best possible structure for her claims (a book with two parts versus alternating chapters); and third, dealing with the sheer volume of “background information” she needed to present in order to get her anthropology audience up to speed on history and vice versa.

Early on in boot camp, we identified that she was trying to speak to two different audiences. The author was effectively hoping to present material through both anthropological and historical means, but the only way she could envision doing so was a disjointed structure: she would either need to have the first full part of her book focus on the history (and her historical interventions) and the second part of the book focus on the anthropology (and her anthropological interventions) or she would need to alternate chapters: the first would tell the historical piece of the topic and the second the anthropological piece.

When I asked her to reflect on how she could present the disciplinary background information in such a way that historians would not be alienated by the more “basic” information anthropologists would need and anthropologists would not be alienated by the more “basic” information historians would need to accommodate both audiences, she had an epiphany. Though she could speak to both audiences and both audiences did find value in her work (as evidenced by her successful conference presentations at both history and anthropology conferences), when she did give such presentations, historians were only interested in her archival findings, while anthropologists were really only interested in her anthropological findings.

She realized that when she veered more into presenting her participant observation findings at history conferences her panel’s attendees were less interested (and vice versa).

So, she realized that trying to speak to these two different audiences in one book would necessarily frustrate both audiences. If the anthropologists were really only interested in the anthropology-framed material (as evidenced by her conference presentations) and the historians only interested in the archival findings, they would necessarily only gravitate to those parts of the book (and not the whole thing).

Instead, she would need to choose one audience; in this case, she chose the anthropological audience.

She could, of course, keep some of her historical findings. In this case, those findings ended up being necessary background information to frame her anthropological arguments. But, that material would necessarily have to always work in service of her anthropological claims and also be woven throughout the anthropological chapters, rather than becoming standalone chapters in their own right.

Once she made this decision, it was much easier for her to distill her main claims, settle on a book structure, and understand which material to cut from the book (prior to this decision, her book was about 150% too long).