Writers always want to know what they can do to help facilitate publicity efforts for their books, especially during that unbearable wait between the last pen stroke and publication date.
First, it’s important to get into the mindset of a publicist, and think about what she actually does. A publicist’s main job is to signal to the media why your book is significant, why it stands out above the many, many books they see each week. She does this by pitching the media directly, sending out press releases with advance copies of your book, asking influencers in appropriate industries to read and talk up the book (especially for nonfiction), booking events for you in order to secure local media, and spreading the word through social media. She’s also utilizing the author’s (hopefully) vast personal network to help get the news out.
The one who knows best what’s new, what’s interesting, what’s relevant, what’s controversial, what’s appealing, what’s different, what’s crucial about you and your book is you. That’s the ammo your publicist needs, and what you should be thinking about even as you’re writing your book.
That’s not all. Whether you’re working with an in-house publicist from a major publisher or you’ve hired a freelancer, there are steps you can take to give your publicist her best shot at getting the media to pay attention to you and your book.
Learn to talk about your book succinctly.
You’ve probably heard about the “elevator pitch.” Imagine you have only a minute or two to describe your book in a way that’s informative and appealing. Practice jotting down just one to three sentences that describe who you are, what your book is about, and why it matters. This is helpful to your publicist because she must respect the media’s time with a pitch that is short and to the point. She can use your pitch to help craft her own. It will also prepare you for live broadcast interviews that are generally between 5-8 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to entice someone to buy your book!
Write down everyone you know who could help sell your book.
This is a list of people you know personally who have expressed interest in your writing. Anyone in the media, in the book industry, in a field relevant to your book’s themes, your mom, your best friend, you cousin’s aunt’s neighbor’s friend you met at a party a year ago who happens to be an avid reader. Try to get emails if you can. This helps your publicist utilize your network. While she undoubtedly has strong media contacts, it’s helpful to use that personal “in,” and/or you may list someone from a smaller source (like an alumni magazine, or a journal on a remote island in the Pacific) that she may not be familiar with. This will also help you define your own mailing list early, so you can share news of your book (publication date, tour dates, that big New Yorker rave) with your supporters and biggest fans. As an added bonus, spend a few extra minutes researching non-media influencers and big-mouths who you don’t know personally, but you know based on their own work would be interested in hearing about your book.
Create a self-written interview and list of talking points.
A self-written interview, where you write the questions and the answers, should be designed with the media in mind. You’re asking yourself what you imagine a public radio host might ask you on air or a reporter might ask you for a print feature. Stick to eight to ten questions, but feel free to add a few more if needed. Include deeper questions like why you wrote the book, where you found inspiration for your main character, why you chose your particular setting, where or how you did your research, and what’s next for you. This is the place to include meaningful anecdotes, to go a little further than your elevator pitch from above. Talking points are short, bulleted snippets that relay surprising and/or compelling information about your book that you could elaborate on in an interview.
For example, a talking point for a book about child development might be “playground bullies are more often girls, not boys.” Wouldn’t you want to know more? Perhaps hear the author talk about his findings, and how they fit in the larger scheme of his work? Talking points are often better suited to nonfiction books, but can be a useful exercise for reality-based fiction or historical fiction. These exercises help your publicist craft pitches and other written materials that call attention to the value of you as an author and your book. They help you hone your message, and draw out the important themes in your book.
Record yourself talking about the book.
This step is for debut authors or for those who have never been interviewed on television or radio, or have but don’t have access to a recording. Find a friend or hire someone with good quality recording abilities (preferably in a studio), and have another friend (who should remain off-camera) interview you about your book. Look directly at the camera, and answer your questions calmly, clearly, and in a pleasant manner. Don’t wear solid black or solid white, and make sure your face is prominent in the shot. Broadcast media producers like to book guests they know are good on camera, and so you’re helping your publicist provide them with a sample of the way you look and speak while answering questions on air. This isn’t a beauty contest by any means, but producers like to get an idea ahead of time what a segment could look like. This is helpful practice for you, and who knows? You may be compelled to re-write your self-written interview, or start a series of videos you can post online.
Boost your online presence.
Seems obvious these days, doesn’t it? If you’re not on social media, you don’t exist? That’s not necessarily true. If you’re a master at social media, by all means keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re not, don’t sweat it. There are other ways you can boost your visibility online—you can start a blog, create a website, or join book-specific social networks like Goodreads or Litsy. You can submit short stories or opinion pieces to online publications and journals. You could choose one social media network to join (I recommend Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn), and commit fully to that one, instead of trying to be everywhere. By boosting your online presence, you’re helping your publicist maximize her own social media efforts and outreach, and you’re increasing your network and extending the life of your book by continuing the conversation long after your publication date.
Strike a communication balance with your publicist.
Once you’ve signed on with a publisher and have been assigned to a publicist, it’s generally still about a year out from your publication date. It’s important to remember a few things: 1.) Your book is not the only book your publicist is working on (she probably has about twenty-four others she’s actively working on, possibly that many even before your book comes out); 2.) Aside from an initial meeting where you’ll go over your campaign strategy, you probably won’t hear too much from her until you’re about six to seven months out from pub date, particularly if you’re not touring; 3.) Your publicist works for the house, not for you (unless you’ve hired a freelancer), and so every decision she makes will be based on what’s best for the publisher; 4.) She already knows to pitch your book to The New York Times. You don’t need to remind her to do that.
I send these gentle reminders because it’s easy to sit at home and press refresh a thousand times on your Amazon page, wondering at each and every jump or dip in pre-orders or sales. It’s easy to watch books comparable to yours see a ton of review coverage and wonder if your publicist has thought to pitch similar publications. It’s intimidating to know that your publisher may be publishing a name bigger than yours, and wonder if anyone cares about your book. She does, and we do! A lot happens behind the scenes that you’re not privy to, and it may feel like your publicist’s silence means she’s not actively working on your book, but that’s very rarely the case. It’s perfectly okay to check in with your publicist and offer suggestions that may aid her efforts, but constantly hounding her will just annoy her.
Ask questions, complete the tasks I’ve outlined here, and find ways to keep busy while you wait to share your masterpiece with the world.
Michelle Bonanno Triant was a guest instructor at Hugo House’s Publishing Intensive I, and she teaches again in May 2017 for Publishing Intensive II.
Michelle is a senior publicist with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and a consultant for amateur writers and students. She has worked with authors such as Temple Grandin, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oats, Alexander Chee, Sam Wasson, Peter Singer, and James Nestor. Her work has appeared in Readers Digest, Huffington Post, Poets & Writers, and Fresno Magazine. She has an M.A. in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College in Boston, and B.A.s in Theater and Mass Communications from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter.