Friday, November 30, 2007

Publishing is not for the faint of heart.

There’s a proverb that goes, “Competition is the whetstone of talent.” If you’re in a competition with someone, does it push you to try a little harder?

The publishing industry is certainly not an uncompetitive one. The big publishing houses are always looking for the next best seller. Conn and Hal Iggulden’s Dangerous Book for Boys shot to the top of the best seller list shortly after its release in the U.S. last May. The book, published by Harper Collins, remains at number three on Amazon’s best seller list. It covers the topics “every boy should know,” including how to build a tree house, diagrams of the Battle of Waterloo and how to tie various knots. Now from Feiwel & Friends, the children’s imprint of Holtzbrinck, comes For Boys Only: The Biggest Baddest Book Ever. The back cover blurb paints it in the same vein as Dangerous, except a little more intensity in the content. Boys can supposedly learn how to land an airplane in an emergency, make a blockbuster movie and find buried treasure. Both Harper Collins and Holtzbrinck have the ladies covered as well with The Daring Book for Girls and the forthcoming For Girls Only, respectively. Then, of course there is the controversial example of Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious cookbook (from Harper Collins) and Missy Chase Lapine’s The Sneaky Chef (from Running Press.) The books are eerily similar and whether or not their similarities were calculated or coincidental was the gossipy publishing debate this summer. For Lapine, it probably became difficult to successfully set her book apart from one authored by Jessica Seinfeld. Yes, THAT Seinfeld. Deceptively Delicious remains at the top of the best seller list.

Literary agents want a manuscript that shines amongst their sea of submissions. Sometimes it all hinges on a title being compelling as to whether or not an agent will request a “full” after reading your query letter. From our PR perspective, when we look at the media potential of a book we always have to consider what’s already out there. This especially becomes important when the book fits in to saturated genres like Business and Self-Help. What makes your personal finance guide for twenty-something women different or better than the very successful On My Own Two Feet or a book by Suze Orman?

Don’t panic! You don’t have to have a famous last name to get your book noticed. Here are some things to remember if you’re thinking about jumping in to the shark infested waters of the publishing industry:

  • Credentials. An author’s credentials can really set a title apart and can help a publicist position the message as new, dynamic and just plain different. Moreover, consumers want information from a trustworthy source. For example, let’s say we have two books that teach you how to plan for retirement. Author A is a financial whiz kid. In addition to her amazing academic resume, she worked for several years at one of the “Big Four” auditing firms and Fidelity Investments. Later in her career, she began her own financial planning agency and recognized the need to share her knowledge with the burgeoning baby boomer demographic, specifically women. Author B has an identical resume and an identical goal. But, Author B has also carved out quite a niche for herself on the internet with a financial planning blog that receives over 500 unique visitors each day and a Q & A forum on her website. This has led to her second career as a speaker on financial issues that affect women. Thus, Author B has a larger platform and it might give her an edge when it comes to querying agents and when her publicist pitches her as an expert source to media outlets.
  • Content. With over 175,000 books published each year, there are bound to be some similarities between titles. However, if you feel you have a unique message or (sticking with the financial planning motif) a new, better way for consumers to manage their nest egg, don’t be afraid to put pen to paper. As far as fiction is concerned, remember that people have many different tastes. If you’re a little bit less than confident about your writing skills, join a local writers group or attend workshops in your local area that offer the opportunity to meet with editors throughout the year. Also, you can seek out the services of a reputable, freelance editor to help you with your grammar and mechanics. When you’re ready to start writing, it helps to think like a publicist. Think “media potential” throughout the writing process. What news cycles will be best for your book? What issues covered in your book can be connected to staple media topics?

So, what are you waiting for? Get started already! You’ll never know if you can run with the big dogs if you don’t try. Start looking at ways to enhance your resume and build up your “street cred.” If you’re in the midst of the writing process, start thinking about the media potential of your book.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When PR Disasters Happen to Bad Publicists

In Sunday’s Washington Post, humor columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a scathing article railing against PR professionals who inundate his voicemail with product pitches he cares nothing about. He continues:

“The reason I get these calls is that, many years ago, someone apparently furnished my name to several companies that publish media contact lists for PR people. And, for some reason, I was identified as a ‘lifestyles reporter.’ So far as I know, ‘lifestyles reporter’ is a newsroom designation that doesn't actually exist except in the wishful thinking of PR professionals who need to believe there are people whose job compels them to be interested in "news" releases about upholstered lawn tractors, hip-hop accordion music and lemon-scented dental floss for dogs.”


Though Weingarten’s diatribe against the PR industry fails to make the distinction between good PR and lazy PR, he is right to lament having to deal with bad pitches. In late October, Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson went public with his battle against lazy publicists when he posted the email addresses of those who he considered to be “spamming” him with product pitches. The list was comprised of PR people that he called,

"Lazy flacks [that] send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can't be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they're pitching."

Once the list was posted, marketing assistants, publicists and others in the industry scoured the list with one eye open—praying they had not included Anderson's name in a blast pitch. If you read through the comments below his post you will see an interesting combination of journalists cheering Anderson's zeal and PR firms lamenting their presence on the list.

Where is the love big media? Why the name calling?

The last question is rhetorical, as I know exactly why many members of the media get fed up with unprofessional or lazy PR people. We’ve all received those pestering calls during dinner time from solicitors who are just trying to sell us something. That’s the way the media feels when they get a call from a marketer pitching a product that they have no interest in.

Though Chris Anderson makes a point of recognizing a difference between quality PR contacts and lazy flacks, Weingarten does not. So, what's the difference?

Professional publicists are those who know how to pitch to a media contact. How do they like to receive information (email, phone call, fax, mail)? When is the reporter’s deadline? What have they written about recently and what is their usual beat? A publicist that has been working with a reporter for years knows how they like to receive information, when they have some free time to talk about new story ideas and most basic of all, what stories they are interested in.

Here are the differences in a nutshell:

Lazy PR Professionals:
- Blast general pitches out to thousands of media members
- Do not do their homework on a reporter or news outlet before pitching
- Leave the same message 14 times instead of honing their pitch and trying again
- Push products, books, slogans

Good PR Professionals
- Spend time preparing targeted pitches that will interest specific media contacts
- Stay tuned in on what’s in the news, looking for ways their client can contribute to the topic at hand
- Build mutually beneficial relationships with the media members they work with
- Know exactly how their media contact wants to receive information
- Pitch story ideas and expert sources, not books or products

Some might read Weingarten’s and Anderson’s articles and get the false impression that the media has no need for public relations professionals. However, a majority of media professionals rely on and appreciate quality PR assistance. They like to receive original story ideas and hear about experts they can add to their source file for stories within their beat. They don’t want to hear about a product, but how that product/message/author is making an impact. An added bonus: publicists supply logistical support for reporters in setting up interviews and providing the contact information in an organized fashion.

The American media is a powerful force, and good PR professionals know that journalists deserve to be treated with respect. As literary publicists, we have the privilege of working with members of the media every day, and thus have the ability to help place powerful, positive messages that can change the social landscape of this country.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

What the “It Girl” Knows: The Power of Charm

There’s a reason Britney Spears is still the name on everybody’s lips.

No, she’s not the model of parenting. Yes, she has a well-documented substance abuse problem. But for her fans – of which there are still legions – this is a time of mourning for the Southern success story Britney Spears once was. Say what you will about her music, but girl knew how to give an interview. Don’t believe me? Observe:

Engaging. Self-deprecating. Plenty of laughter, smiles, and polite thank-you’s for her companion, Rosie O’Donnell (and enough charm to make up for that outfit, no?). Ultimately, Britney knew this truth of artists: in an interview, it is not your product you are selling. You are selling yourself.

PR professionals know this all too well. Here at Phenix & Phenix, we train our authors to give interviews that are compelling, to-the-point, and memorable. But of all the pointers we offer – mention your book title this many times, always use a landline telephone for phoner interviews – I think the most important tip for any author is simply this: charm your reporter.

Easier said than done, I know. But the reason I believe rapport-building is so crucial is that I used to be a reporter myself, and the sources I enjoyed speaking to most – indeed, returned to time and time again for stories – were the ones who made me laugh, were polite, interesting, asked me about my day, etc.

The advice is somewhat self-evident. However, I want to share two stories with you from a reporter’s point of view that will hopefully illustrate my meaning.

In college, I interviewed a very esteemed author for my school newspaper. Now, this is an author who has published 35 novels and 30 short story collections, is the recipient of a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and has a hallowed place in Oprah’s Book Club: in other words, a freak of intellectual nature. So she doesn’t exactly need the media anymore (and certainly not the Southwestern Megaphone) to increase her fame. And it’s a good thing for her. Because as an interview subject, she is beyond terrifying.

Me: So! Tell me about your new book.
Very Esteemed Author: I thought you had read it.
Me: Oh, yes, I have – um, almost finished! – but for our readers…
VEA: I did very little research.
Me: On the book’s subject, Marilyn Monroe, you mean?
VEA: (Withering tone) Yes.
Me: Huh! Isn’t that something. So what inspired you to write about Marilyn Monroe?
VEA: Are you a runner?
Me: Pardon?
Me: Oh, uh, yes…from time to time I like a good run. Um, how about you?

…And it only got more awkward. That is because this author’s genius is so large that she is not a mere mortal who speaks like mere mortals do. Anyway, I was happy to finish the interview early, write my story, and never get back in touch with her again for a follow-up interview. Yikes.

My second story does not involve an author, but a tattoo artist named Bob. Bob runs a small tattoo studio here in Austin that’s been around since the 70s, and is world-famous among industry types. When I walked into his shop, he immediately invited me to take a seat. Asked me how I was doing, offered me tea. Before I knew it, an hour had passed, and what was supposed to be an “interview” turned into an intimate conversation in which Bob told me funny stories from his life, listened to my questions as if they were the most fascinating queries ever posed, laughed often and heartily. He was authentic, he was kind, he was utterly charming. I loved talking to him.

By the end of our interview, I felt so comfortable with this man that I did the unthinkable (for me, anyway): I asked Bob to give me a tattoo. My first.

As an author, it’s obviously not tattoos you’re selling, but your book. Likewise, when the “It Girl” of the month makes her rounds to Conan, Regis & Kelly - all the hot exposure stops – you’ll notice she spends just a fraction of the time talking about her latest movie/CD/signature fragrance, and more time just being generally pleasant while answering the interviewer’s questions. This is tough to do when you are Paris Hilton, you’re launching a new perfume, and all David Letterman wants to discuss with you is…jail food. And jail outfits. And like a champ, she indulged him.

Here at P&P we emphasize the importance of using supporting statistics during your interview, as well as frequent mentions of your credentials, along with other tips that are absolutely helpful. But for the example at the tattoo parlor, I was actually there to interview someone else – a different artist at the same studio – and I ended up writing the story using mostly quotes from Bob because he was more fun to talk to.

So my #1 Interview Tip is this, authors: get thee to Charm School. To get on a reporter’s good side, it’s not just your book you’re selling. It’s you.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social networking for authors, Entering Hades, props to Norman Mailer

What can authors learn from the social networking efforts of Coca Cola?

Social networking platforms, like blogs, can do wonders for increasing your web presence. What is a “social networking platform” you ask? Without descending into the depths of geekery, it’s a web tool that brings people with like interests and activities together. MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook are excellent examples. More and more corporations have started using these social networking sites to their advantage. It helps with brand awareness, dispels information to potentially millions of unique visitors, and can help position a company to a broader demographic range. Some great examples of companies jumping on the social media wagon include recent Cherry Coke and Adidas media campaigns on MySpace. Adidas currently has 80,879 friends. P&P has a MySpace page where we count authors and media contacts in our FriendSpace. It’s been a great networking tool for us. If you’re an author looking for a dynamic way to get your message out there, it might be time to try a social networking site. MySpace is one of the most popular among authors. It’s easy to set up, and it’s free.

John Leake’s Entering Hades-The Double Life of a Serial Killer published amid excellent reviews

Entering Hades (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, November 2007) is the true crime story of serial killer Jack Unterweger and his international reign of terror throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century. It’s an interesting, albeit gruesome look at one of the most sadistic, meticulous serial killers in recent memory. Leake, a native of Dallas, has already received great reviews for his well researched look into the twisted mind of Unterweger. Check out his mention in the Texas Pages, the books blog of the Dallas Morning News. The book’s private launch party is this evening in Dallas. For more information, including his list of upcoming appearances, please visit Leake’s website.

Norman Mailer passes away at the age of 84

Prolific American novelist, playwright, journalist and screenwriter passed away last Saturday. Professionally, Mailer was perhaps best known for his 1948 piece The Naked and The Dead and his 1979 book The Executioner’s Song, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was considered one of the preeminent innovators of the creative nonfiction genre and was a founder of The Village Voice, now one of the country’s most well-known alternative weeklies. Clearly, Mailer did so much for American literature. He had a colorful life that included six marriages, nine children and a run for mayor of New York City. Gay Talese told the Associated Press, "He could do anything he wanted to do — the movie business, writing, theater, politics. He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He‘d go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism." The Economist sums him up best. (registration may be required)

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Online Book Fair kicks off tomorrow

Anyone ever been to an online book fair? If you haven't, you are missing out on a growing trend within the literary community. Our colleagues at FSB Associates, a leading PR firm focusing exclusively on online publicity for books, launched the first "Love of Reading Online Book Fair" last year and hosted tens of thousands of visitors during the three day event.

Tomorrow marks the start for the 2nd Annual Book Fair.

I have been invited to host a forum during the fair tomorrow from 10 AM - 4 PM EST called: How to get more publicity for your books. I will be answering questions from authors and publishers about strategies for increasing the visibility of their books. I encourage you to stop by and tour the event and even post a question on my forum.

Here is the announcement from the Love of Reading website:

The second annual Love of Reading Online Book Fair will be held November 14-16 at from the hours of 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

A cause for celebration and connection for the burgeoning online book community, the three-day fair has something for everyone, according to Fauzia Burke, a pioneer in online book promotion and president of FSB Associates, host of the successful event. With its “Love of Reading” theme, the event is designed for a wide audience—authors, publishers, booksellers, bookworms, bloggers, reviewers and anyone looking for a gift for the holidays.

“Participants will have non-stop interaction and information at their fingertips,” says Burke, along with a variety of special events and giveaways. Among the online happenings:

- Free raffles—including 3 free books an hour and one large prize giveaway per day

- Ongoing Podcasts and author readings by popular authors such as Alan Alda, Kim Edwards and Pulitzer Prize Winner Rick Atkinson.

- Guest bloggers and reviewers will blog at the fair

- Forum and discussion groups

- Reader’s Choice Award for favorite book jacket. Last year’s winner was the mega bestseller, The Thirteenth Tale.

- Roundtable discussions with topics including How to Get Your Book Published

“Today’s online book community is more vital and vibrant than ever” says Burke. “Throughout the book fair, we want to celebrate their increasingly important voice and connect people who love books in a whole new way.”

Friday, November 9, 2007

Media can breed more media

You might often hear PR professionals say, "Media breeds more media," which is a phrase used to describe how interviews, reviews, feature stories and other types of coverage for a client typically can lead to more media opportunities. I know from personal experience that the phrase rings true. Recently, a number of our clients have witnessed this media-breeding-media magic at work. Here are a few examples:

- Amy Currie, publicist for Michael Gilbert (The Disposable Male) got a call from MSNBC just days after Gilbert’s op-ed piece ran in the Christian Science Monitor.
- Vicki Courtney (Logged On and Tuned Out) was on FOX News shortly after her appearance aired on CNN Live.
- Philip Carlo (The Ice Man) was on The Montel Williams Show a few short weeks after his appearance on Larry King Live.

When our publicists begin pitching national media outlets for our clients we know the producers are going to ask for footage of previous interviews. Not only do they want to see the author's stage presence, but also whether they are entertaining and informative on the air. Previous interviews often serve as "pre-interviews" for additional opportunities.

In each of the examples mentioned above, authors were able to generate additional interest because of how well they did in their initial booking.

So, what can authors do to prepare to go on the air? How can you make the most out of each opportunity you get to interview about your book?

I always recommend that authors attend a media training workshop before their first interview. If you are working with a publicist, some firms even include media training as a required activity before they will begin pitching a client to top media contacts.


How an author does on the air reflects on the publicist as much as it reflects on the author. If a publicist recommends an unprepared author for a national television spot and they bomb on-air, who do you think that producer will blame? The publicist. Relationships between publicists and members of the media can be damaged if the publicist offers an unprepared guest or interview opportunity.

Most media training sessions involve sample interviews, sound byte development, tips for what to wear, how to prepare for an interview and variety other things. As an example of some of the nuances we cover in our media training, here are a few tips we go over:

- Bring two copies of your book with you to the interview. One to use on set as a visual during the interview, one to give to the producer. It's always a good idea to leave a signed copy of your book with the host when you leave the interview as a thank you. It's a small gesture, but shows your appreciation.

- If you have an upcoming signing or even you are promoting, bring a note card that lists the event details (who, what, when, where.) Hand it over to the producer before the interview and they might post the information on the station's website, or have the info appear on the bottom of the screen during the interview.

- To avoid slouching during the interview and to portray the best body language, try sitting in the middle of your chair verses against the back of the chair. This will help you maintain good posture and makes you look more engaged in your conversation with the host.

- Don’t wear a solid black, solid white or bright red outfit to a television interview because it will make you look either washed out or too dark, depending on your complexion.

Homework assignment: Watch at least five interviews this weekend and think about what you notice about the interviewee. What are they doing well? Where are they making mistakes?

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Pat Conroy has words for censors; Texas Book Festival is here!

Don’t make “Conrack” angry-

There has been quite a bit of buzz lately about the banning of Pat Conroy’s well-known novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music from discussion at Nitro High School in West Virginia. Apparently, parents have a problem with the profanity and violent scenes throughout the novels. A few months ago we discussed whether or not getting banned could be good for your book. Challenged and banned books are generally way more interesting to consumers and media outlets. When controversy is packaged correctly it can be a great thing for your book sales and your publicist. Always the fighter, Conroy stated in a scathing letter to the school board in the Charleston Gazette, “Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works — but writers and English teachers do.” Will the recent controversy around Dumbledore do anything for JK Rowling? On second thought, driving sales is probably something JK Rowling never worries about.

Texas Book Festival-

This weekend, thousands will convene at the state capitol building here in Austin for the 12th annual Texas Book Festival. If you’re in the area or if you’d like a fun weekend getaway, this is the perfect opportunity! The festival offers attendees the chance to rub elbows with well-known authors, including Jenna Bush, Kristin Gore and Sherman Alexie, learn more about services available to writers and sample tasty Texas cuisine. The festival will also feature discussions and readings with authors, art and even the sweet sounds of former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. It’s this Saturday and Sunday. We’ll see you there!