Friday, February 29, 2008

So you want to write an op-ed...

It’s no wonder so many authors covet a spot on the opinion pages of top daily newspapers—not only do many readers today turn directly to the editorial section, but a well-written, controversial op-ed featured in the likes of The New York Times or The Washington Post can create a lasting national buzz. A successful op-ed can thrust a relatively unknown author into the national spotlight; and, unlike feature stories, you control the article’s content and message. But before you decide to give America a piece of your mind, there are a few things to consider to ensure your op-ed submission is a success:

1. Know the news cycle

Before you even sit down to write an article, do some research and brainstorming for topics. What are people talking about today? Keep in mind what news topics and social trend stories are hot at the moment, and how you can add to the debate. Just because they’re called the opinion pages, doesn’t mean the editors who choose the content don’t want newsworthy articles.

This past September I had success placing an article by Michael Gilbert, author of The Disposable Male, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was back-to-school season, so Gilbert wrote his op-ed on the merits of single-sex classrooms, a topic that related to the concepts discussed in his book and a current news cycle. The Christian Science Monitor requested an exclusive and syndicated the article to several newspapers nationwide.

2. Compliment your credentials

What is your expertise? If you’re an author of a new diet book, you’re going to have a hard time placing an op-ed about 401(k) legislation. But write an article about a new study on the benefits of retirees lowering their cholesterol, and you just may have something. Remember, don’t write the article about your book. Mentioning your book title in an opinion piece is a BIG no-no—this is what we call an ad-itorial rather than an editorial. Instead, center your op-ed on hard news and relate it to your book’s subject matter. The opinion page editor will include a short bio at the beginning or end of the op-ed that will mention your book title along with your credentials.

3. Stick to a reasonable word count

From my experience submitting op-eds, many opinion page editors say they prefer a piece to be no more than 750 words. Though this may not always be the case (The Christian Science Monitor ran the single-sex classrooms article in its entirety at around 1,000 words), it’s a good idea to keep your word count somewhere between 700-750 so you don’t discourage the interest of editors who might otherwise want to run the article.

4. Roll with the punches

No two opinion page editors work the same way. Some, especially the top dailies, will request an exclusive, while others will not. Some will simply decline an op-ed they don’t like, while others will work with you to make it better, offering suggestions for how to improve it. If you receive feedback from an editor, use it! These are valuable insights certain to benefit any future op-eds you create; and if you make the suggested changes quickly and re-submit, it may even influence the editor to feature your revised version.

5. Keep it simple

You’re not writing a dissertation, you’re writing what is essentially an opinionated news article. Read the paper and check out news sites online to get a feel for the simple language journalists utilize in their stories. Don’t say in 20 words what you can easily say in 10. Also, reporters begin their news stories with a “lede,” a tightly-written paragraph or sentence that tells the reader exactly what the story is about, before launching into other details and context. Model your op-ed in this way, and you’ll be sure to catch an editor’s eye—otherwise, if you bury your lede, they may get two paragraphs in and simply stop reading.

6. Source your assertions

Though this is an opinion piece, it doesn’t give you free reign to make wild assertions with nothing to back them up. Make sure to support your argument with recent statistics and research by either citing a study in the text, or providing a separate source document. This will make your piece more credible to opinion page editors and their readers.

Once you’ve written a stellar op-ed, submit, submit, submit! Opinion page editors receive hundreds of article submissions a week, so don’t be discouraged if your first choices don’t respond, or decline—if you’ve kept these simple tips in mind, your op-ed is sure to grab the attention of a top daily.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Support your local writers group

Rusty Shelton and I spent last Saturday at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Writers Workshop’s first annual Writers Conference. The event was held in Grapevine and had a mighty impressive turnout. I didn’t give a talk, but I truly enjoyed meeting the authors, agents and other industry professionals at the event. One of my favorite parts of this job is speaking with authors when they’re in the very beginning stages with their books. I love introducing them to literary publicity!

The keynote speaker was an author and entertainment reporter named Candace Havens. Havens has several books under her belt and has interviewed numerous celebrities for FYI Television Features. She gave an excellent and entertaining speech on the importance of perseverance when it comes to writing your book and she echoed my statement on this blog several times: publishing isn’t for the faint of heart. Havens reflected on the support that she’s had from her fellow author friends (including Britta Coleman, author of Potter Springs and Rosemary Clement-Moore, author of Prom Dates From Hell).

Havens, Coleman and Clement-Moore also happen to be members of the DFW Writers Workshop. Havens spent much of her speech attributing her success to the support she received from her local group. In an industry that is so cutthroat, a support group can mean the difference between shoving that manuscript in a drawer and setting aside time to revise it.

If you are new to the industry, here’s why you should be looking for a local writers group:

-They allow you to network and build friendships with other writers.
One thing that was immediately apparent to me at this particular conference was the camaraderie between the writers in attendance. They rely on each other for honest feedback on their work, celebrate one another’s publishing successes and lean on each other when an agent rejection letter comes in the mail. Joining a writers group could be a great way for you to expand your network of fellow authors who can give you frank opinions and empathize with you as you navigate the publishing world. The key here is "frank opinions"—a stark contrast to the praise you may be receiving from those who know you well (and are too afraid to bring up your run-ons).

-They educate you on the publishing and publicizing of your book.
Writers groups (like the Writers League of Texas, for example) that offer annual conferences are great because usually that entails panel discussions and lectures with industry professionals. Sure, you can probably find this information on the Web, but it’s helpful to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. I highly encourage you to attend these conferences, take lots of notes and ask the speaker questions. This is perhaps the most important component to advancing in this industry: building relationships.

-Simply put, they can help you make your writing better.

Many authors despise writers groups, but I firmly believe that you don’t have to sell your soul to the organization in order to get a lot out of it. Simply do a Google search for “writers groups” (or “writers groups in __” for your home state) and you’ll see tons of organizations devoted to authors in your area. There are literally organizations for everyone, from American Christian Fiction Writers to the North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop.

Here are the links to a few of our favorites:



DFW Writers Workshop

Mystery Writers of America

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Advertising and the book industry: When does it work?

I’m a big fan of creative advertising. One of my favorite ads in recent years is Honda’s “Cog” commercial

In addition to being flat-out amazing work, this was one of the first ad campaigns to join the Web 2.0 movement. As soon as the video was posted on the Internet, it became a viral success story as viewers began sharing the clip with their friends and other online social networks.

The goal of advertising is two-fold: to promote a particular product/service and to create brand awareness at the same time. In the case of the “Cog” commercial, Honda’s investment paid off. They were able to promote their latest car model and build their brand’s visibility by inspiring word-of-mouth (or in this case, click-of-mouse) among consumers.

There is little doubt that advertising is an effective way to sell cars, but is it an effective way to sell books?

I firmly believe that an author should only consider advertising after they’ve established a brand for themselves. What makes an author a brand? Although there are several indicators, an obvious sign is when the author’s name appears on their book’s cover in bigger, bolder font than the book’s title. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at recent releases by big-name authors like Stephen King, Suze Orman and Tom Wolfe (I use the term recent relatively with Tom)—you almost have to squint to see what the book is titled!

Think about your favorite, prolific author. Do you wait for rave reviews from The New York Times, USA Today or The Washington Post before you hop on Amazon to buy their latest release? My guess is no. Most readers develop such a level of attachment (or brand loyalty) to their favorite author that they don’t need to know much about a new release before they decide to read it.

Publishers know that when an author has a nice-sized pool of loyal followers, the only thing needed to trigger a buying decision is to let the market know that the newest book is available. Ads are a cost-effective way to do that.

When does it not work?

I always cringe when I see unknown authors empty their pockets on advertising because I know they lack the name recognition to capitalize on the exposure. If an author ponies up $45K for a one day ad in USA Today announcing the release of their debut novel, they aren't likely to trigger a large number of sales. At the same time, that exact ad space might be enough to send a Malcolm Gladwell or Nora Roberts book to the best seller list.

If you’re an unknown author, the name of the game is credibility. Consumers know that ad space hasn't been earned, it's been purchased, and they naturally view the information as biased. Focus your time and resources on establishing your credibility through “earned media” opportunities (IE: publicity) rather than “paid for” opportunities (ie: advertising). Once you have a loyal fan base, advertising just might be worth your dime.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Pitching a publicity firm: A guide for authors

Many authors don’t realize that pitching your book to a top publicity firm is a lot like pitching it to a prospective agent or publisher. Good firms are going to interview you as much as you interview them and will only take on authors that they feel are a) a good fit for their firm and b) have a message that the media is going to be interested in.


Like agents, publicists have two sets of clients. On one side publicists have the authors and publishers they represent and on the other they have the media contacts that they have built relationships with through the years. If a firm starts taking on bad books from poorly qualified authors, those media relationships get damaged and the brand takes a swift nose dive.

What key factors play into a publicity firm’s decision to take on a new author?

  • Credentials of the author
  • Timeliness of the message
  • Quality of the book
  • Realistic expectations (i.e. does not utter “I HAVE to be on Oprah”)
  • An author who is passionate about their message (i.e. willing to get up early for interviews)

All of the factors listed above play into a judgment on how much national media potential the book has and whether or not that publicist is confident they can be successful with the book. If not, there is no sense attaching the brand to an author.

So, for those of you that are out looking for a publicist to help promote your book, remember the following:

1. Do your research. There are hundreds of book publicity options out there: freelancers, boutique firms, large conglomerates and the list continues. Before you start sending your book to any of the numerous publicity firms you’ll find on the internet, it’s a good idea to take a little time to decide what’s important to you. Do you want to have one person that can throw 100 percent of their attention to you and your book? Or, is it important to you to have a team-based approach to promoting your book? Is brand recognition important? How far do you want to take your book? Thoroughly review a company’s web site and take careful consideration to how the firm (or freelancer) is presenting themselves. If you are not impressed with the way the represent themselves to you, you’ll not likely be comfortable with the way they represent your book to the media.

2. Follow the submission guidelines. If a firm says they absolutely don’t review poetry (or short stories, mysteries, or whatever genre,) don’t send them your poetry book. If a publicity firm asks you to provide a synopsis and author bio in addition to a review copy of your book (as P&P does,) do it. The reason they are asking for so much information is to get a good impression of how much potential your project has.

3. Provide any additional examples of media experience! We have a clause on our submission guidelines asking authors to provide “any other information you feel is important, such as your website address, endorsements, newspaper clippings, examples of past media experience, etc.” Now, if you haven’t received any press yet, don’t panic! It usually won’t make or break whether or not a publicity firm decides to take on a book. We like to have those interviews or press clippings as samples of any previous media coverage an author has gotten and to give us an idea of how they’ll perform on air. Go ahead and send ‘em.

4. Please provide your contact information. Believe it or not, I have received a couple of random packages from authors that contained their book and nothing else. Not even a return address on the envelope. No cover letter, no synopsis of the content, and NO CONTACT INFORMATION. I speak the truth. When you submit your book for review, make sure that you provide a good e-mail address or the phone number where you can be reached the majority of the time. And if you don’t provide contact information, please don’t call me angrily asking why you haven’t heard from anyone yet.

5. Help me help you. One of the best cover letters I’ve ever received from a prospective client contained an entire section titled, “Why is this book a good fit for Phenix & Phenix?” The author then gave several articulate, well-reasoned answers to this question. This was so nice because it gave us a good idea of where the author wanted to take his book. It also showed that the author had researched our firm and had an understanding of the characteristics we look for in books. I think this is applicable to querying agents or submitting manuscripts to publishers for consideration. Think of ways to make their lives easier. Why is it going to be advantageous for them to take a chance on you? And remember: be patient. Because of the nature of the media, publicity firms usually have a timely turnaround. Agents and publishers take longer, but think about how many manuscripts they have to go through each month!

Finding a good publicity firm is very important, but when you’ve worked so hard on your book, isn’t it worth it to be choosy? Keep these tips in mind when you start looking and remember to follow the rules when you start submitting.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Green news from PW: virtual galleys

As publicists, we rely on galleys, the unedited bound manuscipts that help us leverage long-lead coverage and pre-pub attention for our clients' books. But when a particular title doesn't make the cut, the galley graces more rubbish bins than book review columns and magazine spreads. Needless to say, we are thrilled today to hear of a new service announced in today's PW DAILY:

"Publishers Weekly has signed up with Rosetta Solutions to use the company’s netGalley service in connection with the magazine’s book review section. NetGalley, which Rosetta introduced last year, allows publishers to send and track galleys online. PW will use NetGalley to capture information on books—such as title metadata, press materials and promotional plans—when the books are submitted for review. At the current time PW will still accept printed galleys for review purposes, and will primarily use the service to collection title information, which publishers can upload."

We hope our publisher friends will join PW in taking advantage of the new environmentally-friendly service!

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Quick Hits: Book trailers, scammers and Fifteen Legs.

The Art of the Book Trailer (or lack thereof)

A trend that is gaining headway in book promotion is that of the book trailer. There is certainly an art to the book trailer and some “must-have” characteristics have emerged as they’ve gained popularity. I have seen some that are very effective and others that are pretty awful. Clearly, viral marketers are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The good book trailers I’ve seen set the tone for the book and help the reader imagine the plot and characters in a story without giving too much away. Snarky comic Lewis Black has a series of viral videos for his summer release, Me of Little Faith (forthcoming from Penguin) making the rounds online. I’m not sure that these viral videos necessarily qualify as being book trailers, as it’s just him standing in front of a white backdrop spewing his signature brand of comedy. Luckily, Black has a big enough personality (and his well-known brand) to be able to get away with it. The videos offer a great teaser for Me of Little Faith, but unless you’re Lewis Black make yours a little flashier. If you'd like to take a look:

Watch out for scammers!
Breanna at BookPros[e] had a great piece on avoiding literary scams this week that I highly recommend. Helping authors avoid literary scams is something that’s really important to me. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a submission from an unsuspecting author that’s been taken advantage of! As with any industry, you have to be careful when searching for the right fit for your book. Breanna has great advice and provides some excellent websites to check out so you can be armed with information when you’re ready to take your manuscript to the next level.

Underground Railroad…for pets?
One of the most interesting books on our plate right now is Fifteen Legs (Riverbank Press), by Bonnie Silva. Bonnie is a film-producer and author and wrote Fifteen Legs to accompany her documentary on groups that use the internet to link up with each other and transport needy pets to willing owners. Newsday did a great write-up on the book this week.

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Monday, February 4, 2008

'Green' to PR? Learn how ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ applies to you

Nestled in Austin, one the country’s most environmentally forward cities, Phenix & Phenix is driven to adopt green-minded daily practices for our agency. Because our industry is one built on paper and trees, we owe it to the environment and to future generations to find ways to lessen our carbon footprint.

But, in thinking about new ways publicists could “reduce- reuse-recycle,” a thought occurred. We’re already doing it – and even on a daily basis! Well, maybe not in the literal sense, but I think I’m onto something. Here are some ways you can apply “reduce-reuse-recycle” to help you promote your book, elevate your platform and enhance your credibility.

REDUCE your message.
Yes, you’ve written an entire book on the topic, maybe even several, but what you need to remember is that the media often just needs the highlights. Because of time and space constraints, practice reducing long-winded answers into a few well-spoken statements. You’ll do yourself a favor and be quoted accurately, coming across polished. You’ll also help the media by feeding them the vital morsels of information they need to tell their story. Don’t be afraid to invent your own media buzz words too! We have a lot of fun coining catchy terms that capture a trend or story hip to your message. For example, did you know many 20- and 30-year-old females are taking up hobbies traditionally reserved for the older generations, like Bunko and knitting? That’s right – it’s all part of a trend we’re calling “granny chic.” Other recent buzz words topping our list: “bromance,” ”evangel-atheist,” and “frenemy.”

REUSE your credentials.
As an author, if you’ve become a sustainable expert in the media, it’s likely that you’ve earned a coveted spot in a reporters “expert source file.” Congratulations, you’re among the top go-to experts in your field! Sustainable experts are those who will have the best likelihood of sustaining a long career in the media, so position yourself well and often. Look for secondary and backdoor credentials that could turn the heads of reporters covering different beats. For example, a medical doctor with a book on relationships would be pitched for pertinent stories to medical industry beat reporters, consumer health reporters, even lifestyle and love/relationships writers.

RECYCLE annual stories.
Every year, reporters will look for ways to put a fresh spin on seasonal stories such as back-to-school, Mother’s Day and even Earth Day. Because certain topics in the media are evergreen, you can get more mileage by appealing to them with new takes on those seasonal stories. Rather than pitching the same story, look for creative ways to package yourself as an expert. Last year, we pitched a client for Father’s Day stories – the clincher being that the client was a single mom whose message appealed to fatherless households. The idea was well-received and many producers sought her out for interview.

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