Getting Good PR For Your Novels

By Mark Alpert

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I learned about PR twenty-six years ago when I was a reporter for Fortune magazine. For most of 1989 I was a prime target for the Great American Public Relations Machine.

I’d been working for the magazine for about a year when the editors assigned me to write the Fortune People column. Every two weeks I had to fill a page-and-a-half feature with entertaining tidbits about the movers and shakers of Corporate America. The other reporters and writers at Fortune passed some of the tidbits to me, and I got a lot of story ideas from simply reading the newspapers. And every week I received dozen of story proposals from PR firms, many of them sent in the mail as pitch letters or press releases and some delivered very earnestly over the phone by young, eager publicists.

As I sifted through all the proposals I quickly learned the first important lesson of publicity: Before sending a story proposal to any newspaper or magazine, you should do a little research. Read a few issues of the publication to make sure your idea at least comes close to the kind of story that the periodical actually publishes.

The Fortune People column, at least when I wrote it, was all about the titans of Big Business, the chief executives of GM and Ford and IBM and all the other Fortune 500 companies. When pressed, I would also write about loudmouths such as Donald Trump. And whenever I got the chance I’d try to insert some wacky outliers into the column. For example, I had a nostalgic weakness for writing about celebrities from the Seventies, the era when I was an impressionable teenager. I gushed like a schoolboy when I interviewed Olivia Newton-John, who started a chain of clothing stores in the 1980s that later went bankrupt. (The cutline that ran under Olivia’s photo in the column: LET’S GET PROFITABLE!) I also rushed over to the Plaza Hotel one day so I could interview Seventies tennis champ Björn Borg, who was starting his own fashion label at the time. There were some reports in the tabloid press back then that Borg had made a suicide attempt, and I felt a journalistic duty to ask him if the reports were true, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pose the question. The closest I came was: “Björn, are you happy now?” He gave me a bleak look, an expression of pure Scandinavian despair. Then he replied, in a dead monotone, “Yes, I’m very happy.”

So, if any publicist had taken the time to peruse my columns, they’d have gotten a pretty good idea what I liked to write to about. But practically no one did this. The young eager PR people from Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller just kept sending me their pitch letters and press releases and calling me all day long, proposing stories that were completely inappropriate for the column. The envelopes piled so high on my desk that eventually I stopped opening them. They went straight into the trash. And I bet that’s what still happens to most pitch letters today, although the vast majority of pitches are emails now and the trash bin is virtual.

Worse, I began to suspect that some of the more experienced PR people were fully aware of the futility of their efforts but didn’t really care. One time a publicist invited me to have lunch at Aquavit with him and one of his clients. I told the publicist there was no way in hell I’d ever write about the client, but that didn’t deter him; he urged me to come to lunch anyway. So I said yes. I’d always wanted to have lunch at Aquavit, and I couldn’t have afforded it on my own dime. During lunch I listened politely to the client’s spiel while thoroughly enjoying the restaurant’s exquisite seafood. And it occurred to me that this was a weirdly dysfunctional situation, because everyone at the table was happy for a different reason. I was happy because I got a delicious lunch for free; the publicist was happy because he’d impressed his client; the client was happy because he had a chance to talk to a Fortune reporter; and the waiter was happy because he was going to get a great tip. I knew that no story would come out of this lunch meeting; the publicist knew it too, and maybe the client himself suspected as much. But it didn’t matter: everyone was happy even though nothing was accomplished. It was a strange inefficiency in our capitalist economy, I thought. Even Karl Marx hadn’t foreseen it.

So now let’s talk about PR for books. The same rule applies: Before you start promoting your books to magazines or websites or TV and radio programs, you need to do a little research. Do these media outlets ever publicize books like yours? If not, pitching your book to them may be a waste of time.

Second, my journalistic experiences have made me a little wary of PR in general. I definitely appreciate all the efforts of publicists employed by book publishers; they work hard to get reviews and feature stories for the books on their lists. But I’m skeptical about the value of hiring a freelance publicist, especially for a novel. (Nonfiction books are relatively easier to promote because media outlets are more like to run stories about them.) I have to admit, my knowledge on this subject is limited; I’ve never hired a freelance publicist, and I’m not even sure how much it costs. So I’ll put the question to all TKZers: Has anyone out there ever hired a publicist to promote his or her novels? And if so, was the experience worth the money?

Postscript: I can’t resist providing a link (right here) to one of my Fortune People items. It’s a squib from June 1989 about a 42-year-old businessman in the oil industry who benefited from some powerful family connections. I spoke with him over the phone, and he seemed pleasant but forgettable. That just proves what a bad judge of character I am. (Hint: His initials are GWB.)

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8 thoughts on “Getting Good PR For Your Novels

  1. No. I’ve had PR people in house, and have hired out PR on a couple of occasions. Never saw any return. (Note: fiction is a tougher PR sell than non-fiction.) I also note that there are vanity publishing services out there that offer different “packages.” I saw one such “package” that ran into several thousand dollars, of which the biggest add on was a PR “service.”

    Translation: Someone will generate a one-page press release for you, send it to an email list, out of which no one will respond.

    Now that’s money well spent!

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  2. As someone who’s been in the news for 40 years (man and boy, as the saying used to go) let me offer one bit of advice that I’ve given over and over – the more you can make your press rel4ease sound like an actual news story, the better your chance of getting ink (real or virtual.) Take some time to learn a little about AP style. Actually read news stories. Avoid hyperbole, cite sources, keep the copy tight, even a little terse. Don’t call it an “exciting” story or “a tender romance that will touch you to your soul,” without citing someone who says that. Most crotchety old copy editors (like me) will nip that right out, grumbling as we do it. We still deal in “just the facts, ma’am.”
    The less an editor or rewrite desk (do they still have those?) has to do to it, the more likely it’ll see the light of day. Be the editor’s friend, not his daily chore.
    A well-written news release will, at least, get into the news column somewhere. And with luck, it’ll entice someone to follow up and call you for an interview and a story. But not if you’ve pissed the editor off.

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    • Very good advice. Unfortunately, most of the young publicists I met back in the 1980s had no journalism experience. I don’t know if that’s changed.

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  3. I hired a freelance publicist twice. It did get me a spot in Nail Pro magazine but otherwise I spent a lot of money for little results. I think you can do more today hiring a virtual assistant but you have to know what tasks you want her to do.

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  4. I’ve hired a publicist as a three-month experiment for fiction. We’re now in the third month, with only a couple of reviews and a few blog talk radio interviews (one in Singapore) to show for her efforts.

    However, two of her neighbors and acquaintances are big-name TV people who have interviewed authors in the past, and the subject matter/themes in my novel are ones they’re interested in. She’s supposed to be meeting with them next week. It will be a hard sell because I’m an unknown (despite various awards, etc.)

    If nothing results, I won’t renew the agreement.

    Whether it’s worthwhile hiring a publicist for fiction depends on the publicist’s contacts. Otherwise, it’s generally not cost effective, i.e., there are better ways to get visibility. But only a third party can say your book is “brilliant,” and the third party has to be well connected in one way (with big names) or another (tons of followers who happen to be in your target audiences.)

    My traditionally published friends, authors of fiction, have been disappointed, in the main, with their publicists’ efforts. Notice how few authors these days get newspaper reviews; their books are blurbed by other authors.

    If I get any exciting news, I’ll share it with you. If nothing results, I’ll move on to other PR and marketing efforts…and lick my bank account’s wounds.

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  5. As someone who plans to (self) publish their own novel this year, this is great insight for a newbie. I was under no illusions I’d get any press but this article makes me think about the approach if I even attempted to go that route.

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  6. Great column. I won’t go into detail, but I cut my teeth on the other side. I was a publicist for several years working for BM in NYC. I represented technology and pharma companies and it was brutal. So very, very brutal.

    I think Sheryl hit it on the head. A lot of the benefits of PR is in the relationships. Clients never hired me for my ability to write a press release, they hired me for my relationships with editors and journalists (namely made through fancy lunches at expensive restaurants, which is the REAL reason your flack was happy). The struggle we always had was measuring the value of PR. I’ve been out of the biz for more than a decade (now I write crime novels), but I assume the industry has the same problem. How do you measure an effective publicist? Sales? Ink? Interviews? The easy answer is sales, but that’s not always the case.

    The other issue with PR is it takes a long time to reap the rewards. The good news is there isn’t anything a publicist can do that you can’t do yourself, given the time of course. It takes a lot of time to build a solid media list, to approach journalists, and to convince them to cover you, but it’s time well spent. My advice is to build and cultivate your own media list (your publicist won’t give it to you, it’s a trade secret) and put it to work for you. Approach the media with real news and how it ties in with your book (hint, the fact that you wrote a book isn’t news). Help the media. Make their job easier, and they’ll cover you.

    We used to say “you pay for advertising and you pray for PR.” There’s a lot of truth in that.

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