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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Blogger Payton L. Inkletter said...

Thank you Katie for more practical yet superb advice, the principle of which, namely, connection to broader issues of interest to far more people, can also be applied to literature well beyond the memoir and auto/biography genre, but why do I seem to recall that Phenix & Phenix have already covered this very point with regard to other genres? No doubt because your team has.

What an effective term is ‘newsworthy hook’. Please keep the great advice rolling.

January 30, 2008 at 3:07 PM  

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