Case Study: From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union by Katya Cengel

How University of Nebraska Press uses NetGalley for their trade titles

Academic presses face unique challenges and opportunities in the publishing landscape. Their connection to universities, university funding, and grant funding is a great support as they often publish in more niche areas, but because of this they can’t always count on a built-in audience the way a big romance or YA publisher can. Plus, their books target a range of readers – from academics researching incredibly specific topics to a general trade audience. Because of the particularities of academic publishing, the way that they market books is slightly different from general trade marketing. 

Here, University of Nebraska Press shares their NetGalley strategy – from how they decide which of their titles to make available to the NetGalley community, to how they help authors promote their own books, and how they capitalized on a surprise cultural zeitgeist months ahead of the publication of the memoir From Chernobyl with Love

As an academic publisher, what is your overall NetGalley strategy? 

We are an academic publisher and university press. However, we are lucky to have two trade imprints (Bison Books and Potomac Books) as well as a robust list of Nebraska books that are truly for general readers, i.e. creative nonfiction, poetry, sports history, and much more. Because of our unique list, and limited profile on NetGalley, we tend to make books available that we feel appeal to the larger NetGalley audience or books with authors who are well-connected, active on social media, and ready to promote their forthcoming book.

NetGalley widgets have been most helpful when a contact is overseas or they need the book asap for an interview or short deadline. I also love the feedback activity snapshot, along with the reviews. It’s so encouraging to see a cover that’s been “liked” 52 times or that a description is really resonating with readers.  

How do you think about promoting titles to both academic audiences and to commercial ones? How do you encourage your authors to promote their books? 

Each of our books are important, but not every book has the luxury of multiple audiences. The fact is, some academic books are meant for scholars in their respective fields and not for the casual reader interested in the subject. And that’s ok! NetGalley users can expect our digital review copies to be readable, different, and occupying an area where perhaps larger publishers wouldn’t publish. Those who Favorite our page will see trade books of Western fiction, memoir, poetry, and sports (usually baseball!).

Know your authors’ strengths (and weaknesses). If an author isn’t comfortable doing speaking engagements, set them up for success with an op-ed opportunity to share their expertise with a larger readership that normally wouldn’t come across their book.

I always encourage authors to talk about their book in public spaces. Whether that’s online or at a bookstore or library event; if an author is engaging with their potential audience their book will likely have more success. My advice for academic publishers is to know your authors’ strengths (and weaknesses). If an author isn’t comfortable doing speaking engagements, set them up for success with an op-ed opportunity to share their expertise with a larger readership that normally wouldn’t come across their book.

What are some of the unique challenges you face as an academic press competing with big trade publishers for reader attention? 

It is a challenge going “up against” the big houses. I can’t count the amount of times we’ve had a very similar book set to publish and then a big house announces their title publishing right before ours. Usually their book will drown out our own because of the sheer volume of resources they have compared to ours. But on the other hand, sometimes those situations benefit us because our book will get grouped in with a bigger title’s national review. We also offer books that bigger houses are simply not publishing. That fact alone makes our list unique and hopefully intriguing to our readers.

How do you engage your authors in the pre-publication process?

Katya Cengel is a repeat author of ours. She’s a journalist and no stranger to how difficult it is to promote a new book. We wanted to give her the tools she needed when promoting her work and having the digital galley available [via NetGalley] was a part of that plan.

Katya’s previous books are Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012) and Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac Books, 2018). The former was published just as I was beginning my career at Nebraska but the book’s topic came up years after when one of the baseball players, Jose Altuve, was named the American League MVP in 2017. For the latter, the focus for Exiled began as regional California but soon became a more national story as immigration and refugees dominated national headlines. She writes about that experience here. For her Chernobyl book, we knew there was interest surrounding the show, so even though it wasn’t to be published until November 2019 – we worked together to get coverage beforehand (Cengel wrote an essay called “Doing Homebrew Vodka Shots in the Shadow of Chernobyl” for the Daily Beast in May 2019, for example).

It seems like there’s a big surge of interest in Chernobyl lately, in part due to the HBO show, Chernobyl. And maybe a general anxiety about climate disasters. How does From Chernobyl with Love fit into this trend?

The interest in Chernobyl and the publication of Katya Cengel’s book was sort of fortuitous. She writes about it eloquently in a blog post here.

She writes, “I was counting on interest in Russia and the region [after the 2016 election] to help sales of my next book, From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union, but I didn’t expect the younger crowd to recognize Chernobyl. I had learned this the hard way while lecturing college students about Chernobyl—considered the world’s worst nuclear accident—and being met with blank stares.

Then the summer before From Chernobyl with Love [published], HBO released Chernobyl, a television miniseries starring Emily Watson that dramatizes the 1986 nuclear plant disaster. Suddenly Chernobyl was all over the news. There were stories in USA Today, the New York Times and Vanity Fair. A generation born after the explosion suddenly was interested in what happened more than three decades ago.”

You left From Chernobyl with Love on NetGalley through its publication date and into its post-pub phase for a month. Why is that the right timing for you?

We left the book available through its publication month because often times, that is when interview requests come in. It gives us and the author a bit more time to provide quick and easy access to the book. The extra time also gives NetGalley readers a chance to finish the book and post a review if they haven’t already.

Any academic press wanting to utilize NetGalley should! My advice is to be honest and realistic about your books – what titles cross into the trade market? If you are promoting a book on NetGalley, have a purpose or plan behind it.

How do you grant access to your books? 

We tend to be pretty liberal when accepting requests to download our books. If you’re a reviewer for a widely known media outlet, ALA librarian, or a bookstore owner or employee, you’ll likely be Auto-Approved. But we love to see readers with blogs or book clubs as well. Some of the best reviews have been from dedicated readers and I’ll try to share those with the authors when we receive them. It’s always nice to hear someone has read and enjoyed your book whether they work for the New York Times or are an avid reader.

How important are consumer reviews to your trade books?

Speaking only for myself here, I think consumer reviews are so important for our books! With all the never-ending-online chatter thanks to social media, it makes it more difficult to promote a book. I think a lot of people are more likely to get a book from a friend’s recommendation. So when I see a bunch of Goodreads reviews that came from NetGalley users, it makes me happy! We normally wouldn’t see that kind of response without engaging in a readerly community.

We love that so many NetGalley members are posting to Goodreads! [As of Jan 28, 2020 52% of the reviews on Goodreads mentioned that they received the book via NetGalley.] Typically those are all organic reviews. For From Chernobyl with Love, I did follow up with users who hadn’t posted a review yet to let them know that the digital galley would be archived by the end of the month. And for users who did, I simply thanked them for their reviews, whether they enjoyed the book or not. All feedback is useful.

What advice do you have for academic presses on NetGalley? How can they get the most out of their title listings? 

Any academic press wanting to utilize NetGalley should! My advice is to be honest and realistic about your books – what titles cross into the trade market? If you are promoting a book on NetGalley, have a purpose or plan behind it. Maybe the author is well connected and willing to share widgets often, maybe you expect a ton of review copy requests and can’t send physical review copies, or maybe you want to experiment and see what the NetGalley community is interested in. Whatever the reason, just have one!

Rosemary Sekora is the publicity manager at the University of Nebraska Press. She is on the board of the Nebraska Literary Heritage Association and coordinated the Nebraska Book Festival for four years. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is currently working on her masters in creative writing. You can follow her on Twitter at @rasekora.

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