Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?
“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.
It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.
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So how do I measure the success of my books? It depends on the book:
The Way of Improvement Leads Home: I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian. I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America. In that sense, I think it has been a success. But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people. Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book. K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life. So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.
Confessing History: I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller. The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind. But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition. In this sense, it has been successful. I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons. First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity. Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.
Why Study History? I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses. I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.
The Bible Cause: In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell. The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history. It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump: This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump. 2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends. 3). Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3. Has it been successful as it relates to point 1? Only time will tell.