A strange smell wafts into a room and everyone panics. That line could start any number of the stories I recount in Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. Smell Detectives is a deep dive into the smells of nineteenth-century cities which explains how concerns about foul odors mingled with fears of disease and desires for fresh air in ever-growing cities. As urban residents acted on these beliefs, women changed homes, physicians created public health, and politicians built parks—ultimately shaping our modern cities around their aerial concerns. A strange smell wafting through a room also began any number of conversations that I have had since Smell Detectives was first published in 2017. As a first-time book author, I had not anticipated how great these conversations would be, or how much I would enjoy having them. According to my friends at the University of Washington Press, these conversations have also been good for sales. What follows are some of the things I did to get these conversations started, which I’m sharing in hopes that you will also have many exciting, fun, and rewarding conversations about your books.
1. Say yes!
Before Smell Detectives was published, I started to receive requests for media interviews and podcasts, some of which were quite surprising to me because I did not associate them with my field (history) or I had not heard of the venue. Most of these invitations came because of the hard work of the marketing department, whose members had been reaching out to venues and trying to set up interviews, like the Science Magazine podcast, for months before the book was published. Every time that I could, I said yes, because an interview is really just a conversation about my book and my research. Once I agreed to a conversation, I spent a little time thinking about the audience and what I wanted them to know about my book. For popular audiences, like those who came to the live taping of Tell Me Something I Don’t Know or who listen to Phi Beta Kappa’s Smarty Pants, I wanted to convey why a history of smell would be interesting to read. For audiences in my field, like subscribers to the New Books podcasts, I talked instead about the details of my research process and how thinking with smell and miasma theory adds to our understanding of environmental history. And for readers of my college’s magazine, I explained a curious history that did not quite fit in the book.
2. Have a book party, or a #virtualbookparty, to share the excitement far and wide.
Although I research cities, I live in a rural area because of my job and travel was often challenging. So when Christy Spackman asked if I would do a #virtualbookparty on Twitter, I said yes even though I was not sure what that entailed (see point 1). To prepare, I invited colleagues and friends, some of whom were teaching the book and could “bring” students along, to drop by (virtually) and ask a question on a set day. Not everyone could take part, but those who did kept me busy answering questions and talking about the book in a public space where people I had never met could see and get involved. (Since then, I’ve created a handy guide to the #virtualbookparty format, so anyone can have one.)
3. Use postcards to give your book a material presence.
I can’t take credit for this idea, since Conevery Bolton Valencius suggested it to me, but I can say that it was very effective because I directly targeted potential buyers. To get ready for the publication of Smell Detectives, I ordered postcards with my book’s cover on one side and a one-sentence description, book title, and publication information on the reverse. I mailed about 300 of these to friends and colleagues, digging deep into my files to make sure that every co-panelist, panel chair, and college friend was on my mailing list. I bundled the rest of the postcards into rubber-banded groups of 25, and tucked some into every bag. Then, whenever I mentioned my book to someone, I handed them a postcard as a glossy, tangible reminder of our conversation and of my book. While on a pre-conference tour of Philadelphia, the guide explained that we were standing over Dock Creek, which had been filled because of its stench. I only smiled (a bit nervous to self-promote in the week before publication), but a friend piped up to tell the entire group—twenty historians attending the Society for the History of the Early American Republic meeting—about my book. I capitalized on this moment by pulling the postcards out of my bag to hand out to this newly eager audience. Without fail, recipients told me that the postcards were such a good idea—and they admired the fantastic cover created by the University of Washington Press. (A great cover is another conversation-starter.) I also distribute the postcards to audiences at every book talk and conference panel, and keep some on my desk for curious students to grab when they stop in.
4. Don’t be shy; tell everyone about your book!
People want to know what you have been working on, and will be excited to hold the finished product in their hands—this is true for your dentist and neighbor as well as for academic colleagues. Let me underscore that this was never awkward: whenever someone asked me what was new in my life, I said that I wrote a book! Although writing a book is expected in our profession, book authors are pretty rare in the wider world. So when the waitress asked what we were celebrating at dinner, I told her that I wrote a book and gave her a postcard (see point 3). She was pretty excited—I think, in part, because my answer was a far cry from the birthday or anniversary she usually hears—and asked what the book is about. The conversation went from there.
5. Suggest your book for courses.
The primary audience for academic monographs is scholars and students, so I made sure to reach out colleagues who teach courses to which Smell Detectives would add a new conversation. Smell Detectives fits in classes on environmental history, history of medicine, urban history, women’s history, the long nineteenth century, sensory history, and even the Civil War. When I learned that someone was assigning Smell Detectives, I offered to video conference into the course to chat about the book and answer students questions—those are always fun conversations, especially when I inspired a student to explore some of the historical documents I used. I also let my marketing contact at the press know (see point 7), so that they could advertise the book for use in similar courses.
6. Offer to give talks.
I reached out to libraries and archives where I had done research and asked if they would like me to return for a public talk. There were many benefits to this: a built-in audience of people who had heard the research early on, a chance to conduct some new research during the visit, and tapping into their networks to advertise the book. I gave two public talks to audiences of about 30 each at the American Antiquarian Society and the Science History Institute. For each, I was able to highlight something from the collections, and got to know new readers in a familiar setting.
7. Stay in touch with your marketing contact at the press.
While there were some things that I could do on my own, like the #virtualbookparty, many other conversations happened because the marketing department knew what I was planning. By letting the marketing department know when I would be traveling to certain areas of the country, they could set up additional interviews, contact local bookstores, and include Smell Detectives in conference book exhibits. I also found the marketing department really helpful for additional ideas of how to start conversations, as well as for support—after all, the people who work in marketing know how to publicize a book, and they were happy to amplify my efforts as well as answer many, many questions.
Smell Detectives will be out in paperback this month. I’m planning to do many of these things again, as I look forward to the next round of conversations about fresh air, foul odors, and city life in the nineteenth century. Maybe I’ll get to chat about past smells with you!
Melanie A. Kiechle is assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.