Anne Mitchell Whisnant: A Ph.D. hits the road to promote her crossover book about the Blue Ridge Parkway





"I thought I'd read a few passages from my book," I told the young man, as he arranged the chairs, tested the mike, and set out a bottle of water before my first book-signing event at a small bookstore in the North Carolina mountains.

A surprised look crossed his face. "I guess that would be OK," he replied earnestly, "but usually only our fiction writers read from their books."

A few weeks earlier, I had spent an evening with 45 such writers at an independent booksellers' convention in Florida's Gaylord Palms Resort, an enormous air-conditioned indoor paradise (complete with alligators and a faux Everglades). The plan was for me to talk with bookstore owners in a literary speed-dating event where, like a hopeful single, I would move from table to table when a bell rang.

I was one of only two nonfiction writers there; the other had written a book on Florida wildlife. My book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) is a serious study that had its beginnings as a dissertation called "Parkway Politics: Class, Culture, and Tourism in the Blue Ridge."

Since earning my Ph.D. in 1997, I had become interested in "public history" -- history that is engaged with public audiences or with current public and policy issues. My dissertation topic fit that niche nicely since the Blue Ridge Parkway has long been the most-visited site in the U.S. National Park system. In turning my research into a book, I consciously sought to expand its intended audience and shape my writing to address not only scholars and policy makers but also Blue Ridge Parkway enthusiasts.

By publication time, I had a "crossover" academic book. It retained the scholarly apparatus of documentation, engagement with relevant literatures, and theoretical framing, yet also told riveting stories, developed colorful characters, and sought to inspire greater public concern for the parkway's future. A reviewer called it "stylishly written," and I hope that is true. In any case, I tried to craft a clear narrative infused with the passion I have for the parkway, its history, and its future.

Fortunately, my publisher adopted a trade-book marketing strategy designed to publicize the book more widely than would be normal for an academic work. It appeared first as a beautifully designed hardcover sold to wholesalers at a steep discount and backed by an aggressive promotion plan that pitched review copies far and wide (no, I didn't make The New York Times, but not for lack of trying), arranged interviews on six regional radio programs, and launched me on a 35-event book tour.

That is how I ended up at the mountain bookstore and the booksellers' convention. Accustomed to academic settings, I was a bit bewildered by the world of big-time publishing, where prolific authors churn out book after book in short order, advances run into the millions, and marketing budgets exceed six figures....


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