Marketing “How to Write an Essay.”

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Last year I wrote a book on the subject of: how to write an essay. So far, sales of the book have been rather modest. That’s despite the 5-star review some kind person gave it on True, it’s a good review, especially since it’s apparently from a teacher, but how do I get other people to give positive reviews? Well, by getting more people to buy the book, obviously. But how can I do that when I’m not a college lecturer or tutor and have virtually zero contact with students? How can I get access to students and persuade them to buy a book on essay-writing? I sat and mulled over this question for quite some time.

It occurred to me, looking at that review, that mention was made of “writing instructors.” That seemed like a good place to start. So I looked up the 10 biggest universities and colleges in Michigan, my home state, and eventually tracked down the person who runs the Writing Center in each establishment. Most universities and colleges have writing centers where students can go for advice and help about how to write essays, and where they can learn to polish up their punctuation and grammar. I composed a letter to each incumbent and sent it, along with a copy of the book, asking them to recommend it to students. There was a marginal increase in sales, but still no move to shuffle my book to the top of the bestsellers list. Of course, a lot depends on the time of year, or, more accurately, where students were in terms of their semesters, since many essays are set at the end of a semester or academic year.

It did dawn on me that there couldn’t be that many students who were conscientious enough to traipse all the way to a writing center for help. How could I get access to the students who never thought of going to one? I had another look at the problem and realized that not all academic subjects require essays. Math and science subjects have very little demand for writing skills. Liberal arts, social sciences and humanities, on the other hand, lean heavily on the essay to gauge students’ progress. I went back to the 10 universities and colleges I had originally targeted and, after an inordinate amount of web surfing, at last came up with the name, mailing address and email address of the dean of liberal arts or humanities for each place. I don’t know why that information isn’t easier to access online. After several hours of following various divergent trails on university websites, I felt like a computer hacker. After tackling Michigan colleges, I turned to New York, Texas, California and Florida and did the same with their 10 biggest institutions. I composed letters to each dean recommending the book to their students and suggesting it be added to the reading lists of their various subjects.

I also began to realize that the book cover didn’t really look like a text book at all, but more of a hobby book. Here is the original cover:

I decided to change the cover for something that looked more academic. What I had in mind were the text books that we used in high school during the seventies which were mostly composed of geometric shapes in different colors. So I came up with an initial design, which looked like this:

It was a gallant attempt, but according to my son, who runs his own design company, Highland Creative, the thing had a number of flaws: excessive use of transparency (i.e. using translucent shapes and colors), the design was too busy, the placement of the elements was not regular enough to be satisfying, the typography was unattractive etc. I agreed. So he then set about redesigning the book cover using some of the element from my original design. (You might cynically suggest that the only reason I produced a crappy design in the first place was to get my son to come up with a good cover. Well, shame on you….)

Here’s what he came up with:

As you can see, it is much simpler, regular and cleaner. I also like the way he rendered the title down at the bottom of the page. I could easily imagine a university lecturer holding up this book cover and saying, “Everyone should have a copy of O’Neill’s “How to Write an Essay: A Beginner’s Guide.” 🙂

The last thing I did was to proofread the whole book again. Luckily, very little was amiss and so I didn’t have to change much – a few commas here and there, one word which had been repeated, and a couple of examples that needed slight amendments. I changed the text of both the paperback and the eBook and republished them. I then ordered 53 copies of the book (50 for sending to university deans and three to have as samples to give to prospective victims of my marketing charms whom I may stumble across in the course of my busy schedule). In all, the unit cost to me of sending a copy of the paperback to each university is around about $5. I think it might be a worthwhile investment if it has the effect of getting even one university dean to recommend the book to students. In a month or so I will write a follow-up email asking for any response to the book. We’ll see if anything comes of that.

So I am now sitting waiting patiently for a box of books to arrive, so that I can spring into action and belabor the poor post-office assistant with my 50 mail shots. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted as to whether all this has any effect on sales, or whether I’ve just flushed a heap of money down the toilet. It may be difficult to tell….