Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How do you promote fiction?

I just returned from a great trip to Colorado Springs where I had a chance to meet with our friends at Alive Communications, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group and David C. Cook. It is always nice to connect with colleagues outside of the noise of trade shows and this trip was no exception. The weather was also incredible, though it's pretty nice in Austin this week as well.

This week I did an interview for Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine and I wanted to make it available to our readers as well. Randy is one of the industry's top fiction instructors and his E-zine is a great resource for novelists. He is also a former client of ours.

Since his E-zine focuses on fiction, his questions really explore the challenges of promoting novels:

Q: Tell us about your publicity firm, Phenix & Phenix. You’ve has a number of clients hit the best seller lists. Tell us some of your success stories!

P&P: Phenix & Phenix is a boutique literary PR firm that’s been promoting books for authors and top publishing houses since 1994. P&P has handled launches for authors like Vicki Courtney, Dr. Les Parrott and Philip Carlo, publishers like St. Martin’s Press, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, B&H Publishing Group and TOR/Forge and best sellers like Crucial Conversations, The Ice Man and Revolve. Over the past three years we have added 19 best sellers to our overall tally of 30. We also frequently work with literary agencies and are among the list of recommended publicists at top distributors around the country.

This has been a busy summer for P&P, as we’ve been named the publicity firm of record for Chicken Soup for the Soul, added new capabilities like viral videos, book trailers and satellite radio tours and booked interviews for our clients with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Family Circle, Martha Stewart Radio, Self Magazine, Women’s Health and many more.

Q: What can a publicist do for a novelist that the novelist can’t do for himself?

P&P Having a publicist represent you can give you an edge when it comes to attracting the attention of members of the media. First of all, dealing with the media is a very delicate art form. Producers, editors, reporters, reviewers and so on are all busy folks. It helps to know what time of day a particular producer likes to be contacted or whether an editor prefers phone or e-mail for pitching.

Relationships are really the biggest thing that a good publicist can bring to the table. The relationships that top publicists have with members of the media are very similar to the relationships that literary agents have with editors at publishing houses—they trust our judgment because we’ve been working together for so long.

Although relationships are pivotal, there are other factors that also come into play. As an example, the fall news cycle has introduced some very unique challenges to authors and publicists. With current events and print journalism in flux right now, reporters are being taken off their regular beats and are being assigned to election or stock market coverage. A large part of a publicist’s job is keeping track of what stories are drawing the most interest and finding ways to connect their clients to those topics. Face it, with the book signings, appearances and other marketing efforts that you’re SURELY conducting, you probably don’t have time to build relationships with the media. And think about it from a producer or an editor’s perspective. With the high volume of books they are receiving for review or story ideas, they want to be contacted by someone who knows what they want to hear about. A good publicist keeps tabs on this.

Finally, an experienced publicist knows how to approach fiction. Although sometimes it can be difficult to create newsworthy buzz for a novel, your publicist’s job is to identify newsworthy hooks and use them to create stories or find opportunities to pitch you as an expert. Having a publicist in your corner really lends a great deal of credibility to your project.

Q: Most publishers have a publicist already on staff. As an outside publicity firm, you work closely with the in-house publicist. How does that process work out in practice? What do you do that’s different from the in-house publicist?

P&P: One reality facing most in-house publicity teams is a lack of time to devote to each book the house releases. There are simply too many titles to give each one quality attention. What an outside firm brings to the table is the ability to give a book enough attention to explore a variety of publicity opportunities. Whereas an in-house publicist might only have time to do a mail-out to book reviewers, an outside publicist will be pursuing coverage across all four forms of media with an eye on generating coverage beyond the book page. When you hire a publicist, they are working for you and the publicity they pursue is typically focused as much on building your brand as an author as the book itself.

We really value the relationships we have in place with in-house publicity teams. We’re both working toward the same goal, so coordinating our efforts is a natural fit. The goal is to maintain a productive “triangle” of communication between an author and the in-house publicist so that each hit your outside publicist gets contributes to your publisher’s ability to sell books into stores.

A good way to narrow down outside firms to consider is to talk with your in-house publicity staff and ask who they recommend. Often they will point you toward publicists that do a great job of working with them and you’ll end up with a wonderfully productive team.

Q: What’s the process for a publicity campaign? How long in advance of a book’s release do you begin, and what goes on during the months leading up to launch day?

P&P: How much time do you have? There is a lot that goes into a national publicity campaign for a book. The key thing to remember is there really isn’t a boilerplate process for each book (or there shouldn’t be)—every campaign has to be different depending on the specific book you are working with.

Typically we begin coordinating efforts with our clients 4-6 months before the book releases. The first step is the galley mailing to book reviewers, which typically happens about five months before publication. After that is complete, an author can expect a lull in activity before the formal publicity campaign gets underway about between 45-60 days prior to a book’s official release date.

Most good firms begin a campaign with strategy development. This is a period where publicists do extensive market research for the book, identifying trends and newsworthy hooks, develop a strategy and draft press materials. The full press kit always goes out to the author and publisher for review an approval—it is very important that everyone have similar talking points when it comes to the book.

One thing that our firm does before the book release is put each client through formal media training at our offices. This day includes sound byte development, practice interviews, breakout sessions on each type of media and other preparatory steps to get an author ready to go on the air. This is as important to our firm as it is to the author as each interview our clients do reflects back on our firm.

Media contact typically begins about a month before the book releases with an eye on timing coverage to happen around the publication date.

Q: Is there a “time window” for the success of a book? I’ve often heard that a book has about 3 weeks to make a splash. Is this true, not true, or sorta kinda maybe true?

P&P: This is sorta kinda maybe true.

Most publicists would agree that the optimum time for media coverage surrounding the launch of a book is the 60-90 day window after its release. This is when sales reps at the publishing house are trying to sell the book into stores and publicity can have a huge impact on that success. Once the books are in stores, you also need publicity to drive interest and make sure they don’t come back as returns.

As with anything in this industry, there are always exceptions. Some books just simply take longer to breakout. There are times when the media ignores a book when it launches only to end up covering it months later after the book has become a word-of-mouth success.

We have also handled campaigns where we come on board a few months after a book releases and have been able to jumpstart the publicity campaign. The key question is how newsworthy is the book? If it has media potential, the media is going to be less concerned with when it released and more concerned with the story itself.

Q: Some of your success as a publicist depends on how well the novelist helps you publicize their book. What makes a novelist publicisable and what can we writers do NOW to make ourselves more publicisable in the future?

P&P: We review fiction with a very careful eye because a publicist has to have the right fit if they are going to run a successful launch. We pay very close attention to the nonfiction hooks within the novels that we review. To compete in the competitive media marketplace we have to have more than just a great story.

As an example, we recently handled a great novel from debut author Wendy Walker titled Four Wives (St. Martin’s Press) that was very successful. This campaign worked because we were able to take the book beyond book reviewers to feature editors at publications like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others. We did so by positioning Wendy to talk about nonfiction, newsworthy issues discussed in the book like opt-out parenting, what goes on behind closed doors in America’s wealthy suburbs, relationship dynamics when only one spouse works, etc. This allowed us to go beyond book reviewers to find a large audience for the book.

If you’re in the midst of writing your novel, start thinking about the book from the media’s perspective. What more do you have to offer besides just a good story? What issues does your book deal with and what research have you done that qualifies you to speak as an expert on that topic? No one can predict headlines years down the road but if you write with promotion in mind you can really expand the PR potential of your book in the future.

Q: Do you have any secrets for writing successful press releases for novels?

Again, think nonfiction with your release. I see way too many press releases that have headlines that either a) compare the novelist to someone named Grisham, Clancy or Kingsbury or b) provide vague praise for the quality of the writing. Your press release should not read like an advertisement or review of your book; if it does, it’s going in the trash. It should read like an article you would see in a newspaper or a short segment on NPR. It should contain statistics, quotes and other supporting facts to give the media some background on your topic. Headlines that play on buzz words or newsworthy topics work the best.

Here are some recent headlines we have used for fiction titles:

“Going Behind the Closed Doors of Suburbia: Author’s tale eavesdrops on housewives’ hush-hush secrets”

“Momtourage: Play group for mom: Moms unite, scrapbooking is common thread

“‘Tis the season for divorce: Marriage experts team up to help couples thrive through riskiest time of year”

The common thread across these press releases? Each deals with topics that are of interest to a certain demographic rather than generic praise for an author.

Q: Are there any red flags authors should watch for when hiring a publicist?

P&P: There are a lot of red flags authors should watch for but the main thing to consider is how closely a publicist is looking at your work before taking you on. The author-publicist relationship should be very similar to the author-literary agent relationship. If you call a publicity firm and they are offering to bring you on board as a client and send you a contract before they have even looked at your book, what does that tell you about how concerned they are with their ability to be successful with your book? Publicity firms should interview you as much as you interview them, so make sure any firm you are considering is taking a close look at your work.

Other red flags to watch for:
- A poor reputation with your publishing house
- Lack of formal weekly reports
- Vague answers regarding recent success stories
- A lack of experience with your genre.

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