Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Memoirs and literary publicity

My role at P&P involves fielding new submissions from authors interested in learning more about the PR potential of their book and introducing them to the often muddled up world of publishing and literary publicity. In recent months, I’ve seen quite an influx of authors looking for publicity for their memoir or autobiography. This trend has been mirrored in the publishing industry at large over the last year or so, with a number of great success stories. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is absolutely unstoppable at this point. It has been at the top of every best seller list in the known universe, with this week marking a full year on the New York Times Best Seller List—at number 1, nonetheless. There has also been Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength, Eric Clapton’s ultra successful autobiography Clapton and Alan Greenspan’s tome The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. The common thread among all of these memoirs: they were written by very famous people. Even Gilbert was a pretty well-known essayist prior to the Eat, Pray, Love juggernaut. It’s true—promoting a memoir is often easier when you’ve got a big name attached to it.

One of our most successful memoirs of the past few years was Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C.S. Lewis by author and film producer Douglas Gresham (B&H Publishing Group, 2005). Gresham’s memoir of life as C.S. Lewis’ stepson offers an intimate perspective on one of the 20th century’s most beloved Children’s authors and Christian theologians. The book was released on the heels of the 2005 feature film “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” to which Gresham was a lead producer. We spent much of the campaign fighting Disney for his time—we wanted him promoting the book and they wanted him pushing the film. Throughout the campaign, our team was able to capitalize on Gresham’s family ties to Lewis and use the universal appeal of Lewis’ stories to generate hits in both Christian and general market media outlets.

What can you do if you haven’t lived a life of Super Bowl victories, rock n’ roll excess or US economic policies?

Of course you think your life has been very interesting thus far, but you have to find ways to make readers believe this as well. Many publicists treat memoirs from unknown authors like the plague because they are typically extremely hard to promote and for the most part, that’s true. However, there are ways to connect a relatively unknown author’s memoir to a larger market.

Two words: newsworthy hooks.

To effectively connect your story to a larger group you have to relate it back to a broad topic and trend by making the pitch less about you and more about the issues or experiences you lived through. In other words, it can’t just be the story of a housewife in Topeka, KS who dealt with an abusive husband; it has to be pitched as a first-hand account of what happens behind closed doors for housewives around the country that deal with domestic violence. By tailoring the pitch to a broader trend and even connecting it to a timely hook, like domestic violence awareness month in October, a publicist can broaden the appeal of this message.

Another example might involve an author with an even more normal, Middle American upbringing. When she graduated from college, she became a teacher at one of the toughest high schools in the country. Through her hard work and determination, she was able to make a significant impact on the school’s dropout rate by setting up after school programs and finding new incentives to get the students to study. She brought student’s reading levels up. After twenty years in the school system, she penned an uplifting and inspiring memoir about her experiences as a teacher. When a publicist looks at such a book they think not about this author’s specific story, but how it can be related to broader issues of education and public schooling in the US (especially during an election year). The author might be pitched as an expert source on the long term effects that the “testing era” will have on education or how policies could change based on who wins the election this fall (and what it will mean for students). These expert source opportunities are a great way to leverage exposure for the memoir.

Obviously, in either case there is definite potential for human interest stories. When packaged correctly, and coupled with the right news cycle, a memoir from a less than famous author can garner solid media attention. For authors looking to promote a memoir right now, think about what you’ve seen in the news and in pop culture lately and how you can connect it to your own story!

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thanks for striking, writers!

The ongoing WGA strike may be bad news for TV, but as it turns out, it could rain down good things on book publicists.

Ok, just like everyone else, I’ve grown weary of reruns. My DVR is hungry for first run episodes of my favorite shows (thank you LOST, whose 2-hour season premier is Jan. 31), but I’m starting to warm up to the idea that here in the land of literary publicity, this deadlock in negotiations might just work out in our favor. The strike may a golden opportunity for us.

Take for instance, my client Traci L. Slatton, author of Immortal (Bantam Dell/Jan. 29), an epic “rags-to-riches to burnt-at-the-stake” work of historical fiction about an orphaned boy in Renaissance Florence. Traci landed a spot on the Sundance Film Festival circuit – if you happen to be strolling Main Street in Park City tomorrow, email me for the inside scoop on her reading.

With a portion of the entertainment industry crippled, Traci has received higher than anticipated press coverage at the film-driven festival. There’s also been talk by the BBC that the strike has brought more distributors and buyers than normal to the festival. Eleven weeks into the strike and news of possible breakthroughs, I’m actually hoping for a few more weeks of negotiations.

So, thanks to a darkened Hollywood, authors like Traci are reaping the benefits of the otherwise unfortunate writer’s strike, turning the heads of TV news-starved entertainment reporters who normally wouldn’t include literary headlines on their daily beat.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Media Relationships 101: Publicity from the media's perspective

As a publicist here at P&P, it’s interesting to be on the other side of media relationships. Why? I used to be the one answering pitch calls. Let me explain.

When I was a journalist, I made it a point to answer the phone – you never knew when a hot tip may be calling in. However, the voice on the other end was usually not a story insider, but a publicist plugging a new product or local talent. It was interesting to hear the different tactics they used when “pitching” story ideas to me. Some would recite a mechanical “how are you today?” before cutting me off to launch into a “That’s great, but have you heard of this great new widget...? You should really be writing a story about it...”

Like many of my colleagues, if I sensed the person on the other end of the line was reading off a teleprompter of some sort, I’d reply with the customary “uh huh’s,” but I wasn’t hearing the words that were leaving their mouth – not really. My brain had already shut off, and at this point I was just being polite by not hanging up.

Not only were those calls obnoxious, but it’s likely the publicist on the other end of the line was dreading the inevitable “I’m not interested” or “email me more information” reply that I had mentally cued up the moment they ran out of breath.

Though the majority of calls I received from publicists sounded identical to telemarketers, I also built a handful of relationships with quality publicists more interested in helping me do my job than promoting a product. As a journalist, the best publicists were the ones I didn’t view as “publicists,” but friendly people who helped me get the info I needed. They didn’t call to “pitch” me, but rather to explore ways they could help me do my job.

Now that I am working as a publicist, I have the luxury of using my experience as a journalist to my advantage. Our founder, Leann Phenix, was no different. Having worked in the media before founding P&P back in 1994, she knew that to effectively promote books, you can’t “promote books,” but rather pitch ideas based on building relationships with media contacts. To this day we consider our media contacts our most important client base—and it’s our job as publicists is to keep them as happy as possible.

So, how can you go about building relationships with the media? Here are a few things that I focus on when working with top media contacts:

Phone pitching can be one of the most intimidating aspects of promoting a book. For those authors that do not have established media relationships, here are a few tips for successful phone pitching:

-Be nice and personable.
Leading straight into your pitch for the sake of brevity isn’t effective. Instead, ask if they are following the ___ story, and if so, you’ve got someone they might be interested in.

-Know when to call.
3:00pm – 5:00pm: Typical daily newspaper deadline
10:00am – 11:00am: TV morning show planning meetings

-Make non-pitch phone calls/emails.
Not every correspondence has to be a pitch. I loved it when people called me just to say they liked my last piece, and I remembered them, too. Plus, it pays off: Catherine Saillant at the LA Times says:

"Being friendly is a big part of building relationships with us. Just let us know that you’ve read a story recently. If I did a piece (which I did) on mobile home park conversion, then a good call would include your referencing the piece and saying, for example, that you represent an expert on law around that issue. If it’s a continuing story — which stories about legislations usually are — then I might be able to come back to the expert later."

-Always offer to follow up your phone call with an email.
Carrie Crow from Rare Magazine writes:

“Offer to email me a document with a recap of everything discussed, with elaboration on the full story pitch. Funny thing – half the time, I never even get the follow-up document…but, when I do, 9 times out of 10 I find a way to work it into the mag (since the person went to the effort.)

Crafting pitches / pitch lists is an artform for good publicists. The key to putting together pitch lists is effectively targeting specific contacts that are appropriate for a certain story idea. Assuming you are pitching members of the media that cover your topic, here are a few ways to improve your pitch:

-Always mention previous hits.
The media tends to take other media seriously. Stefanie Boe from KOLD-TV in Tucson (a CBS affiliate) writes, in reference to good guest ideas: “stars are always a hit.” If you or your author has been on Oprah, The Mancow Show, or even a local affiliate, highlight the media experience in your pitch.

-Don’t underestimate the power of contributed articles.
Even if you have to put in a lot of time writing or editing the piece, it’s worth it! In the best case scenario, an author can be quoted or used in a syndicated story, which is a great way to rack up national print exposure. OR a TV producer can read the piece, and call to invite an author to be on the program. Both have happened to our clients within the past few months. So for almost every client I work with, I require them to write me something that I can use down the road – it never, ever hurts, since you’re doing the journalist’s work for them.

-For breaking news, have contact information READY.
It’s likely a news source doesn’t want to formally “set up an interview” with a source on the day a huge story breaks – they just want to call them, now. Lidia Pringle from United Press International writes:

“Make sure the client you're writing about is available for interviews (and not out of the country or otherwise unreachable). Make sure your client is willing to talk to the press – with our without you formally setting up an interview, since a reporter may call/email directly. Work with your client, prepping him/her for using media-friendly language, or being ready to explain complex issues in reader-friendly fashion.”

-Know your “people.”
Do you pitch to lifestyle editors often? Again, a great way to build relationships is to call without a specific pitch for them. I sometimes call contacts to give kudos for a recent article or comment on a story I know they have been working on. I want certain beat reporters and editors / producers who ALWAYS write on /air similar topics to know me, since I’ll likely have clients in the future they can use. You want the same name recognition. Even if you are a publicist with an established brand behind you (be it a publishing house or PR firm), you still want them to know YOUR name.

Mailing packages / responding to requests is another important part of securing coverage for clients. What can you do to give your package the best chance at being opened?

-Add a personal touch.
Half the battle with huge media is getting them to open the package. Take a tour of your local newsroom for proof: there, you'll see unopened packages stacked high on journalists’ desks (especially book review editors). Still, with media outlets you really want to score a booking with, try something unique. Stefanie Boe at KOLD-TV says that she used to get packages from a guy who sent her candy with his pitches. “It wasn’t necessary at all, but a nice touch – and it helped me remember him. Each time I opened one, I’d say ‘oh yeah, the candy guy!’” I haven’t tried candy yet, but I do add a handwritten note to some of my packages – and have indeed scored bookings this way.

-Beware of “cold mailing.”
Media people often don’t know what to do with packages out of nowhere that arrive with no contextualizing information – even press materials don’t get the job done sometimes. So include a cover letter with big mail-outs, explaining who the author is, and why they’d make a good guest/contributor.

Media appreciates PR people/authors who feel like they are trying their hardest to help them. The best feeling is having a reporter or producer thank you for passing along a great guest, or getting them a desperately-needed source in the nick of time. Not only are you able to score a booking, but you will also be kept in mind for future guest ideas!

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday thoughts

Here are a few things to keep an eye on this weekend:

1. Look for a review of Entering Hades this weekend in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. You will notice the review includes quotes like "Leake has written the definitive book--dispassionate, superbly detailed--on Jack Unterweger." The Times joins The LA Times, Men's Vogue, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Morning News, Publishers Weekly and others who have praised Leake's debut release. Kudos to Kathy Daneman at Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books for a job well done with reviewers.

2. Did anyone see the story this week on GalleyCat about the author that got busted for creating his own publicist? The author, Troy Tompkins, sent press releases out to promote his book and instead of signing the release with his own name, he used the alias "Alan Chase." You will notice from the article that there are differing opinions within the industry on whether or not the author was out of bounds in doing it. One thing is for sure, he has gotten a lot of real publicity from using a fake publicist.

3.What would the soup nazi have to say about the cookbook scandal that has erupted for the Seinfelds this year? Wow, this is starting to get messy. The New York Times has an interesting article about the copyright infringement suit filed this week by Missy Chase Lapine, the author of The Sneaky Chef, against both Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica. Chase Lapine has accused Seinfeld of "brazen plagiarism" in her book Deceptively Delicious. Some have said that a suit could have been avoided had Jerry not been so harsh as to call Chase Lapine a "wacko" during his appearance on Letterman last fall. This should be a fun story to watch this year.

Finally, congrats to Tolly Moseley and Amy Currie for being receiving promotions to Senior Publicist this week!

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Resolution Roll-Call

If the swelling crowds at my gym are any indication, it seems that many Americans are resolving to get healthy in 2008. Big shocker there. But me? That’s a different story. I spent the better part of New Year’s Day ‘08 defiantly rejecting any “notion” of “resolution.” Who needs the gym when you’ve got pizza? Who needs to catch up on Faulkner classics when you’ve got 24 reruns?

I was intrigued, however, by this bit of research from The New York Times, released on New Year’s Day. Apparently, people with regrets about their lives are less happy.


Here’s a taste:

“The ideal New Year’s Eve party would come with a psychological voucher, redeemable the next day for a post-mortem session with friends. A chance to relish the night’s humiliations, take bets on who went home with whom, and nominate the guest most in need of therapy, present company included.

An opportunity, that is, to forestall the traditional morning-after descent into self-examination, that lonely echo chamber of what should and could be.”

Should be. Could be. Those words do smack of regret, don’t they? Sometimes, all you need is a good dose of judgment from The New York Times. I went to the gym that night.

With that in mind, the staff of Phenix & Phenix is eschewing regrets for resolve in 2008. Before you, an informal survey of New Year’s resolutions from our very own publicists. At the top of the resolution list? Quality reading, of course.

Rusty Shelton

BOOK in ’08: No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

“I'm going to go with the pop culture flow and read No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy this year. I need to see the movie too.”

Rusty also resolves to…

Buy less coffee and play more golf. I also need to supply GalleyCat and Gawker with less hits.

Katie Andrews

BOOK in ’08: Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy

“I resolve to read Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities on the Plain. It'll probably take me until next January.”

Katie also resolves to…

Run in my first 5K this year. I always make this a goal, but I've never followed through on it. This year I WILL.”

Stephanie Mayabb

Book in ’08: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

“I really want to read Love in the Time of Cholera, but not because the recent motion picture is nominated for a Golden Globe. Nope, I owe my inspiration to a little '01 sleeper with John Cusack & Kate Beckinsale, Serendipity.”

Stephanie also resolves to…

Live more green. I've held this belief that because I'm just one person, that my footstep on the environment wasn't meaningful or one of impact. But I'm throwing that school of thought out the window. I started last week with canvas grocery bags. Baby steps, right?”

Amber Childres

BOOK in ’08: More non-fiction

“Nothing specific, but I do want to read more non-fiction. I'd like to read some new political books/biographies to get in gear for the 2008 election.”

Amber also resolves to…

"Start back up with my old hobbies - dance and piano. I hope to regularly attend dance classes this year, and re-teach myself how to play the piano. I already bought an electric keyboard for Christmas, so let’s just hope I can still squeeze into my old ballet tights!”

Tolly Moseley

BOOK in ’08: The Revolution Will be Accessorized by Aaron Hicklin, ed.

“I have a copy of The Revolution Will be Accessorized by Aaron Hicklin, ed. that I haven’t read yet. It’s a collection of essays from writers like Augusten Burroughs (writing on Christmas with his mother), Meghan Daum (writing on L.A. bourgeois), etc.

Tolly also resolves to…

Get more sleep. I really take sleep for granted – there’s too much stuff I want to do at night. But more energy and a healthier body will help facilitate my other New Year’s resolutions – like taking fire dancing lessons.”

Cody Goehring

BOOK in ’08: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

“I resolve to read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. As morbid as it sounds to read about what would happen to the world if all humans suddenly disappeared, I'm curious to find out if the world presented by the movie I Am Legend is accurate.”

Cody also resolves to…

Watch less ESPN and more CNN. I also resolve to use the Internet more for learning new and interesting things instead of watching grainy videos of some unfortunate skater falling down three flights of cement stairs after failing some stunt he had no business attempting.”

Amy Currie

BOOK in ’08: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I'd like to re-read On the Road this year, just to see if I like it any better than I did when I first read it years ago. My hopes aren't that high, though, which is why I guess I haven't been motivated re-read it yet.

Amy also resolves to…

Just keep being awesome. As far as resolutions go, a friend of mine and I decided this would be it. Because that's what we are: awesome. To more of the same!”

Shelby Sledge

BOOK in ’08: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Shelby also resolves to…

Work on my posture. The women in my family have long had terrible posture. I grew up listening to my mom constantly remind me to stand up straight. Well, maybe to rid myself of having to hear her say this every time I visit her or maybe just because I really want to do better at this, I am resolving to work on my posture. Prepare those stacks of books for me to balance!”