I just wanted people to read my books

In a previous post, I mentioned that my two books on the Qur’an had not sold very well. Of course, ‘very well’ is a relative term. At one level, all it represents is my disappointment in not having managed to reach more readers. Notice I did not say make more money.

Non-fiction books, especially those written for the so-called general public, rarely sell many copies. With academic titles directed at a narrower specialist audience, the primary buyers are institutional libraries, as they are the only ones able to handle the sky-high prices. Academic publishers may recoup their costs, but these books are likely to dwell on the shelf, duly cataloged and labelled, but for the most part unread. The authors see little, if anything, in the way of royalties.

Somewhere between these extremes are the handful of non-fiction titles that do well, at least in terms of sales. Whether they get read or not is another issue entirely. One need only think back to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988); probably the least read non-fiction bestseller of all time (10 million+ copies).

A bit of somewhat jaded advice

If you want to sell a non-fiction book, you have to start by selecting a feel-good topic that challenges neither the ideology or intelligence of potential readers. It must be full of uplifting personal accounts, as well as a few catchy, and likely vacuous, take-home messages that can be easily spread through social media and recited like mantras.

Of course, as you are writing your book, you should be devoting just as much energy to identifying and establishing the market. You need a web page. You need to use social media. You need an engaging personality. It helps if you are attractive, or at least eccentric looking. This is not new advice, and there are countless sources available to help you with these matters.

But none of this is my immediate concern. I wanted people to read my books. So, why didn’t they?

What’s in a name?

At the risk of oversimplification, I am going to suggest two reasons.

First, it would be easy for people to believe that someone with the name Robert Campbell might possess a certain expertise on the subject of bagpipes or the highland clearances. It is a stretch to think that anyone would associate my name with Islam, let alone think that I would possess an in-depth knowledge of a 1400-year old Arabic text. If my name happened to be Muhammad Campbell, then some interest may have been piqued, as potential readers pondered whether I was some sort of zealous convert, or an anti-Islamic nut case Hell-bent on fueling hatred and contempt. Curiosity around the personal interest story would have driven the agenda, rather than any genuine motivation to learn about the Qur’an.

Second, small publishing houses suffer from brand awareness, with their market usually confined to a local, and often loyal, audience. They don’t have the marketing reach (budget) of more established national, or international, publishers. Furthermore, they usually specialize in a particular genre of work from a well-defined group of authors. It is unlikely that anyone would expect a publisher located in a small Atlantic Canada community to be publishing books on Islam.

Compounding this issue, both books were published by a small university press. Readers are understandably correct to assume that books published by an academic press will be geared towards furthering the careers of faculty members, without any concern for readability, or broader relevance. How would they know that this particular university press (Cape Breton University Press) has established an excellent reputation for publishing works of local interest, culture, fiction, including books for young readers, along with academic titles? But then, how could titles on Islam from Cape Breton University Press hope to stand up against those published by university presses at Chicago, Harvard, Cambridge, or Oxford? Simple fact. They can’t.

So, books by a guy named Campbell, from a maybe academic Cape Breton publisher, on the subject of Islam — not likely.

Informed opinions

What I really wanted to accomplish in writing these books was to provide readers with an accessible resource for developing an informed opinion about the foundations of Islam. Was that too much to ask? Short answer. Yes.

Too often, people are more interested in finding a convenient outlet for their pent up anger, than they are in developing a reasoned view of any particular subject, even when the matter at hand can have a significant impact on their lives. Of course, since 9/11, anything to do with Islam automatically generates endless knee-jerk responses about the oppression of women, shariah law, terrorism, holy war against the infidel, and on and on.

We have not always lived in Donald Trump’s brave new world of alternative facts, but we have increasingly lived in world where facts are irrelevant. Ease of communication, or at least ease of access to various forms of broadcast (social?) media, has relieved people of having to take the time to actually learn something about an issue before expressing an opinion about it, let alone daring to engage in constructive dialogue.

If you have made it this far, then I thank you for indulging my rant, and I hope that you will take the time to share your comments on what I have said, share the post with others, or at least recommend it.

Until next time.