Ask an Award-Winning Literary Publicist #1: Press Releases and Tragedy
Sandra Goroff is a veteran award-winning literary publicist with Reedsy. Over her illustrious 30-year (and counting) career, she has worked in-house at Houghton Mifflin and represented authors the likes of Clive Cussler, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, and former president Jimmy Carter.
In this, her first guest post, Sandy will answer questions submitted by authors, shining some light on how to best approach publicity as an author.
R. Read asks, “Can self-published authors hope to submit press releases to news outlets?”
The answer is an absolute and resounding YES! Self-published authors can always submit press releases to news outlets — in fact, they should.
Anyone can submit a release about their book (self-published or otherwise) to various print and broadcast media. The key is to make it worth the time and effort by creating an effective release and making sure it gets to the right contacts.
Research your contacts first
First of all, you will need the names and email addresses of newspaper reporters, editors, and television bookers and producers. The old-fashioned way to find these (which still works) is to ever-so-politely call the assignment desk and simply ask. No explanations needed. You don’t even need to introduce yourself or say why you are calling unless asked. In fact, the less you say the better.
Create a media list for yourself and your project with these names so you can easily reference them. Today, various media websites and service providers such as CISION offer listings for all outlets. While an excellent resource, the downside to companies like this is that they charge you. You can also simply Google the newspaper or media outlet and find the information there for free. I do this all the time as contacts change frequently.
Perfect your press release
Make your release informative and interesting — also, make it brief — one page is best. It may seem like a no-brainer but don’t forget to put the date and subject in the release and make sure you have included your own name, email address, and phone number.
Your first paragraph is the most important. Like a reporter, make sure you include the who, what, why and where. I always ask my authors to think about the answer to the question WHAT IS IT AND WHY NOW? This is what I try to convey subliminally every time I pitch a book or author because I know it is really what the contact is waiting to hear from me.
Don’t save the best part of the release for the end. If you have created a website for yourself and the book, don’t forget to include the address on the release along with the contact info. If you are writing a local newspaper or one with a particular interest that aligns with you or your subject — bring it up quickly. If your subject relates to something currently in the news mention it. The news is an incredible facilitator. I call it “publicity grease."
It is important to include the book (if you have enough copies) with the release. Don’t send it on a “slow boat.” Spend a little bit more to get it there promptly. Releases and books should be sent at least a month before your official publication date.
Don’t try to play outlets against each other
Now for my “dating” rule. Don’t tell one newspaper or television outlet about being covered by another, hoping to convince them of your importance. Many of these newspapers and broadcast outlets are competing with one another.
A self-published author may start with the basics by sending releases and books to their local newspaper, local library, groups interested in your topic and alumni publications.
Finally, don’t be offended if you don’t get a call or email back. In all fairness, reporters, editors, and producers are inundated every day. This happens to high-level book publicists and publishers all the time. Always follow up with a call or email.
Don’t feel because you are new to publishing or unknown that you can’t grab the attention of a contact. People in the media love to make discoveries and to be first.
Metaxia Tzimoulis asks, “What is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a publicist?”
Without question, some of the most challenging situations for publicists come during times of breaking news, world events or big stories. The missing Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014, mass shootings, elections, assassinations, terrorist attacks, hurricanes and blizzards, tsunamis are all examples. How can one gracefully and professionally call a big media outlet about a lifestyle or other softer book when war has just broken out in the Middle East or on the morning of 9/11. In some instances — the answer is simply that you cannot. This depends in large part on the scope of the news.
Publicity after tragedy
On the morning of 9/11 here in the States, there was no other story. To try and manufacture one would be beyond foolish. In the long run, we build relationships with media and showing good judgment — including when or when not to call — is not only about being professional but also about being respectful.
As the days wore on after 9/11, newspapers still produced and printed stories in other sections of their papers. I stayed away from broadcast media and national assignment desks and focused on other kinds of sections and stories — be they food, travel, fashion etc. If I did not have anything that fit those other categories, I just did not call at all. I was forced to postpone or to wait.
Again, this depends on the scope of the news. 9/11 was all consuming. When the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded after liftoff, I had a bestselling author booked for a day of media. That night, he was scheduled to give a talk at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. We made a decision to go ahead with the talk, as planned. The book was ADRIFT: 76 Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan — a brilliant and articulate young man, retelling the dramatic story of being shipwrecked and surviving aboard a rubber raft in the Atlantic. The auditorium was packed, the talk went on as planned and the event was a huge success and an uplifting antidote to the tragedy of the day.
Here in the United States, a woman named Susan Smith drove her car into a lake with her two young children inside. The death of her young boys shocked the nation and was on the news non-stop. During that week, I had been pitching a profile of famed internationally known ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson (Field Guide to the Birds) to ABC-TV’s “Person of The Week” segment with anchor Peter Jennings.
Depending upon what was happening during the ongoing investigation of the Susan Smith story, the segment I pitched was on and off all week. In that last day, I spoke to the assignment editor at the network, suggesting that an uplifting and inspiring story might create a much-needed break from the horrific news of the week. And that is exactly what they did in the end — my pitch and my story about Roger Tory Peterson appeared on the news that Friday night.
A publicist needs to use good judgment, be respectful, have good contacts and make quick decisions based on circumstances. These are dramatic examples of hard decisions and tough events but hope will shed some light upon what takes place. It also reminds us that being realistic — both author and publicist is vital.
Is there anything you’d like to ask Sandy about book publicity? Drop your question at this link and it might feature in our next column.