Winter 2011

Journalist to Marketer—With a Book In-Between

‘... being a great reporter is no guarantee that you can successfully sell your book, even when you’ve done cool stories about books.’

By Rochelle Lefkowitz
I've never met a journalist who doesn't have an idea for a book. But I do know many who would rather think up names for lipsticks than say, text and
Publicist Rochelle Lefkowitz still uses the telephone to pitch books by her clients. Photo by Felix Kramer.
e-mail, again and again, these words (or ones like them): "There's this fascinating author of a new book whom I know you'd love to interview."

"Who?"

"Me!"

Yet this—and much more—is what it takes to effectively publicize your book.

Even after more than 25 years of working hard running a social issue communications firm, where I prod journalists to talk, write, blog and tweet, among other things, about serious nonfiction books, I'd be hard-pressed to reduce what I do to a science, let alone to 10 tips. But I do have some pointers to share.

These days as books migrate from paper to pixels, as publishing and journalism undergo seismic shifts, as we're more linked but less loyal to authors, publishers, reviewers or booksellers, getting your book into the right hands, screens, hearts and minds demands as much energy and creativity as conceiving and writing it. Seriously. So pacing is vital—from writing that first word to selling every book you can. 

Journalists typically receive a small advance (especially on a first book), and most don't have a trust fund. There are precious few grants for authors to buy time to sell their books so a promotion budget is often out of reach. Hence, the first rules of thumb:
  • Put only a third of your time, sweat and smarts into writing your book.

  • Save, then spend the remaining two-thirds of all three to figure out for whom you wrote your book and how to reach them.

  • Resist the temptation to ask all your best-known pals to write blurbs for your book jacket since she who blurbs a book will not be able to review it.

Already I hear a grumbling chorus. With your day job as commerce, the book is often something else—your dream, your sweet revenge, your word sculpture, perhaps your legacy. But to get folks besides your family, students and Facebook friends to buy it requires a key shift in thinking from the start. Just as success in business doesn't lead automatically to effective philanthropy, being a great reporter is no guarantee that you can successfully sell your book, even when you've done cool stories about books. 

For one thing, most journalists I know are buyers, not sellers. Sure, you need to sell stories to your editors or executive producers and get sources to tell you theirs. But most journalists I've worked with like to ask the questions, not answer them. To promote your book effectively, you must successfully make that role reversal.

Complex and far from formulaic, until recently your job as a journalist ended when you turned in your copy, audio or video. Others worked to get your stories to an audience. Now, with social media and the multiplatform tug of podcasts, YouTube and webcasts, each one of us is expected to be media and message savvy. This turns out to be good training for successfully promoting books.

Some journalists believe that being in the business is an advantage for marketing their books. After all, knowing the editors, reporters, producers and bloggers whom publicists spend hours to reach ought to be a plus, as should knowing how news organizations work. But here's the catch: Did you ever try to get your editor to let you write a feature story about a book or interview a peer as an expert, only to get shot down with "if it was such a good story, why didn't you write it for us?" Though I love pitching serious midlist books by journalists, for just this reason, it's often more, not less, challenging.

“Moving from a journalist’s mindset to an author’s to a promoter’s requires conscious shifts in thinking,” Lefkowitz writes. Rebecca Skloot did so on her own, with enormous success.

The Sales Job

Moving from a journalist's mindset to an author's to a promoter's requires conscious shifts in thinking. As this happens, a lot can change—and for the better. Usually I break up each book's publicity campaign that Pro-Media creates into three parts: pre-publication, book launch, and post-launch.

Lead time is the key to success. Best results happen when the buzz starts to build three to six months before a book is published. This is the time to start writing op-eds and blog posts—for your blog and as a guest writer on others. Find news pegs like new films or minor holidays. One of my favorites is August 26, the anniversary of women's suffrage in the United States. No, not everyone's away and unplugged before Labor Day anymore. Besides, links can be forwarded and cross-posted for months.

Run a fine-tooth comb through your book to mine it for stories. Yes, you want to sell your entire book, but shorter stories are there to be found and used to promote the whole. Friends can help pick three to five enticing tidbits to highlight. Sometimes the best story is on page 79. Go with it. Your goal is to convince potential readers that they want to buy your book.

It takes a village (online and off) to get traction for your book. Early on, set up Google Alerts with your name and the book's title, and then have pals help you track where your op-eds, blogs, features and reviews get picked up. Alert the press office at your employer and college about your book's title and publication date. Don't stop there. Give op-ed editors exclusive pieces with several weeks of lead time. Create or update your author page on Amazon and your bio on Wikipedia. Have a friend take a new and flattering headshot. 

Though most major daily book review sections are long gone, some former editors have websites that fans still consult; add them (via Google) to your press list. Make and keep your media lists current, and know who prefers voicemail, text, e-mail, Twitter or Facebook. I still call, not just click, mostly early in the day. Though the days of thick, multipart press kits to launch books are long gone, I still send an occasional snail mail; since all of us receive so little of it, a handwritten note stands out. Write a quick, tight pitch paragraph, let a friend tear it apart, and send it to another colleague to read, cold. Practice a three-minute interview with a pal who will give honest feedback and record it.

Do all of this and more before the book is published.

For your book launch, be sure the subject line sings on e-mails you send about your book. Remember that these words are the only thing between a possible interview and the delete key. Clear two to three weeks a few months in advance for a launch window, and be sure your boss knows you'll need two full weeks of vacation then. Don't forget FM radio; sure, it's low tech but many of your potential readers listen while commuting or working out. Be sure to say the name of your book once or twice in every interview. Use humor!

Self-publishing is gaining traction among some journalists. Others believe that traditional publishers still give books distribution and marketing muscle. If you go with a publisher, watch out for who owns first and second serial rights. If you retain them, pick two or three strong excerpts from your book and try to get them published. Publications online and off crave free copy. Yes, you are giving away words you'd otherwise sell, but that's part of book promotion.

When your book is out, act on your mom's advice; send lots of e-mails with a simple two-word subject line: "Thank you." Offer to write more guest blogs. Get pals to "review" your book on Amazon or to add their comments when blog posts or articles are written about it. When a piece about your book is published, send it immediately to broadcast producers. Instead of identifying yourself as a journalist, identify yourself on e-mails as the author of your book, at least for the year after its publication.

So, quick, how many journalists does it take to effectively promote a book? If you can't afford to pay a seasoned, creative publicist, then it takes two (preferably both of whom are book authors) so you can swap contact lists of peers to whom to pitch each other's books. Oh, and when you next hear from a publicist trying to flog a book, please resist the impulse to hang up. Instead, hear her out—and learn from her.  

Rochelle Lefkowitz is founder and president of Pro-Media Communications, a 25-year-old social issue communications firm with offices in New York City and Redwood City, California. Its website is www.promediacomm.com.


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