"Any topic worth writing a book about has people who will be interested in it, if they know the book exists. The trick is to reach them."
The title of Harriet Hosmer's 1908 obituary in the Boston Globe was "Most Famous of American Women Sculptors." Another obituary, however, expressed surprise that she had not died years before. I have wrestled with that dichotomy—that Hosmer was both a celebrity and a forgotten figure—as I have written and promoted my book, Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography, published by the University of Massachusetts Press last November.
Hosmer's story is like a Henry James novel with a happy ending. Born in Watertown, Mass., in 1830, she moved to Italy in 1852. Hosmer's circle included the Brownings, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the actress Charlotte Cushman. Some of the most acclaimed sculptural works of her career include Beatrice Cenci, Zenobia in Chains, and her memorial to the Missouri politician Thomas Hart Benton. She had a passionate relationship with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, whom she called her wife. While Hosmer spent years working on a perpetual motion machine, she had a career renaissance with her model of Queen Isabella, shown in California in 1894.
When beginning the biography, I was conflicted about whether to pursue a trade or an academic press to publish. I thought Hosmer's juicy story—a circle of celebrated literary friends and scandalous same-sex affairs—might be best served by a trade book. A trade press's promotional power was also appealing. However, I had written a dissertation on Hosmer and wanted to retain the scholarly work placing the artist in her historical context. A literary agent warned me that Hosmer's story was too obscure for a trade press and suggested, even if I attracted one, I would get lost in the shuffle. The University of Massachusetts Press, with strong lists in 19th-century history and biographies of women, was a good fit.
Despite choosing an academic press, I still believe Hosmer's dramatic story has a lot of appeal to a general audience, if people get to learn about it. To ensure people do, I have tapped into the spirit of Hosmer herself, who was a great self-promoter. I set up a Facebook page and a blog (abiographersblog.com) a month before publication and alerted everyone I could think of, including alumni associations, members of workshops I have attended, and former co-workers. I use these spaces to announce events related to the book and post facts about Hosmer, as well as discussing items of interest to readers who would find a biography of a 19th-century sculptor appealing.
I have reached out to independent bookstores, especially those that identify themselves as feminist and gay and lesbian, those that focus on art, and those in geographic areas where Hosmer had roots, including Boston and St. Louis. When physically possible, I have gone to the bookstores in person, with a copy of the book and the press release. For those farther afield, I have sent e-mails and recruited friends to plead my case. I have also contacted book clubs and posted discussion questions on my site and written a post for the influential blog Book Club Girl.
In the biography, I trace the importance of Hosmer's supporters to her success. My own network has been similarly invaluable. Most authors are probably better connected than they realize. People are thrilled that someone they know has written a book and want to get the word out. A college pal who is a vice president of marketing at a major trade book house spent hours giving me tips. And friends and family have helped set up events everywhere from the Tattered Cover, the famed independent bookstore in Denver, to the Providence, R.I., Athenaeum. They have also requested that their libraries—academic and public—purchase the book.
While not well-known to the general public, Hosmer has pockets of fans strewn across the country, and they have been receptive to my overtures. The Watertown (Mass.) Free Public Library, which owns the artist's sculpting tools, for instance, responded immediately when I asked about speaking there. I also contacted all of the museums that hold her works and was rewarded with the thrill of seeing my book for sale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Any topic worth writing a book about has people who will be interested in it, if they know the book exists. The trick is to reach them. It takes research, time in front of the computer, and legwork, as well as putting aside any tendency toward self-effacement. But it is worth it to have your words read by an interested audience.
Kate Culkin is an assistant professor of history at the Bronx Community College in New York City.