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Book Publicity: What Works and What Doesn't
A Guide (sort of).
In college during the early 90s, an English Lit professor told me I should read The New York Times Book Review. Since digital media wasn’t upon us yet, I schlepped to a different town every Sunday to buy the Times because none of the convenience stores in my town sold it. I had never read a book review section before, so devouring literary criticism on the weekend sounded pretty good as a 20yo English major. That book review section introduced me to Diane Johnson (who wrote the screenplay for The Shining) and her book Le Divorce. After reading a stellar review, I bought it and fell in love with Johnson’s writing. Little did I know I’d be the publicist for her follow-up, Le Mariage, in a few years. Diane Johnson's books were widely reviewed in the late 90s and early aughts partly because plenty of magazines and newspapers had dedicated space to book reviews. Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of Johnson’s book Lorna Mott Come Home. The publishing trades and important places like The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reviewed it. The New York Times reviewed it but only paired it with Joyce Maynard’s new book that year. Good Morning America mentioned it…along with 26 other books. To add context, Le Mariage, published in 2000, was reviewed in all those places, including Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair, USA Today, Glamour, LA Times, and much more. Times sure have changed.
I’m using Diane Johnson as an example because she is a big deal in the literary world. When I was her publicist, it wasn’t challenging to get her books reviewed. Critics had reverence for her, and I suspect some still do. It’s undeniable, though, that the media landscape has turned upside down and inside out since my first few years in the business. A question I’m often asked to address in this newsletter is, “What does work to promote a book?” Let’s explore the answer.
NOTE: There is nothing that guarantees book sales. Many factors are at play in a publicity campaign, so please understand the following is general information based on my experience and knowledge.
Publicity vs. Sales:
I consider myself more of a strategist than a publicist because I want to promote a book so it sells. What does that mean? It means that I’ll be excited that your book is mentioned in People magazine’s summer reading section along with 20 other titles while thinking, “Those two sentences in People are not going to sell many copies of this book.” It concerns me because I know from a publisher’s standpoint that an author is only as good as their sales track record. I’ve heard more than one agent or editor talk about a handful of big publicity hits, but wonder why the book didn’t sell. One answer is that media consumption has changed so much that big publicity isn’t necessarily effective (the exceptions are Fresh Air, 60 Minutes, and CBS Sunday Morning). I realize many authors dream of being reviewed in The New York Times—it’s a good dream!—but a review there rarely sells many copies of a book. Don’t get me wrong: I still believe in book reviews and national media. A book will likely sell when a publicist can get a critical mass of reviews and interviews. The problem is that critical mass is increasingly difficult today. That’s why I’d like you to combine two mindsets as you read the rest of today’s newsletter: the sales and publicity mindsets. When I mention “sales,” I’m not referring to the sales department for a publisher. Instead, I mean “sales,” as in what will sell a book.
I’d love to write that reviews sell books, but I’d be lying. The correct statement is, “A critical mass of reviews mixed with other media and marketing efforts can sell a book.” I understand why reviews are essential, and I respect book critics. Literary criticism is necessary. However, reviews and book sales don’t often align. Further, such a small percentage of books are reviewed that authors, agents, editors, and publishers shouldn’t heavily rely on them for sales. Conversely, reviews are important for literary cred., and I get that. There are instances when a critical mass of reviews is reached, and we see the results on the bestseller list. Reviews can also help with foreign rights sales, speaking gigs, and placing other pieces of the author’s writing somewhere. Just don’t put all of your author eggs in this basket.
There’s no doubt about it—an interview on NPR sells books. Fresh Air is the holy grail, but any NPR show will boost book sales. No data points show the average number of books sold after an NPR interview, but I wish there were. NPR is still on terrestrial radio (meaning non-satellite), which helps. There are also terrific NPR affiliates around the U.S. with shows that interview authors. Talk radio still exists, too, depending on the market. Granted, radio is competitive, and nonfiction is usually preferred, but you never know if a fiction author has an interesting personal story.
Satellite radio, like Sirius XM, has plenty of shows that interview authors. Unfortunately, you don’t see much of a sales bump from any of them, save for Howard Stern (and that is an impossible get). A reason to do satellite radio is to expand your author profile, which is valuable. It’s not the end-all, though.
Satellite radio tours usually involve an outside firm that books them. Authors are either in the studio or on the phone remotely, and the satellite tour firm schedules up to 25 quick interviews in one morning. The tours cost anywhere from $4k-$15k or more, so they are usually reserved for high-profile authors. In the past, I’d schedule the tours for the week after the book went on sale, hoping to extend its time on the bestseller list.
Podcasts are wonderful. There are tons of them, so there is something for everyone. Podcasts can effectively sell books depending on what the show is and its listenership. I do a lot of research on podcasts and build lists to pitch. This requires an investment, though. I have a database of podcasts that I pay for. It has loads of information about each show, its demographics, its listenership, how current it is, and more. The important thing to know about podcasts is that they tend to book guests further in advance than people realize. Suppose you’re an author booked on a podcast; listening to episodes before your interview is in your best interest. You should familiarize yourself with the host and format. Investing the time to do so will create a good vibe.
Television is competitive and hard to book. When publicists pitch morning show producers, the experience is like this: You have 15-20 minutes to pitch an entire list. They know their audience and what the show's executive producer wants, so it’s not easy to turn a no into a yes. It is also challenging to book fiction authors on morning shows. More on that later. Do morning shows sell books? It depends. Celebrity and other high-profile books can experience a sales bump. Lifestyle books (cookbooks, self-help, relationships, etc.) don’t usually see a substantial sales bump from morning shows, but an appearance can help publicists book additional media.
Daytime talk shows include The View, Drew Barrymore, The Talk, Kelly Clarkson, and more. I can only speak to the effect The View has on sales because I haven’t yet booked someone on the others. The View sells books, but they are very particular about guests. Think: celebrities and political figures. There aren’t exceptions to this.
Late-night talk shows can boost sales, depending on the show and book. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Late Night with Seth Meyers sell books. They’re more likely to have political figures, journalists, and celebrities. Jimmy Fallon only books celebrities. David Letterman has a show on Netflix and only interviews celebrities. Anything Oprah does on Apple+ involves her book club.
60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning
I separated these two shows because they are in the unique position of always jettisoning a book onto bestseller lists. That said, they are SUPER competitive, even with each other. It can take months to secure a segment, so publicists start working on them up to six months in advance, with breaking news being the exception. If a publicist knows an author who fits into breaking news coverage, CBS Sunday Morning is amenable to doing something on short notice. Otherwise, the norm is for them to interview high-profile people.
Morning Show and Celebrity Book Clubs
The Today Show’s book club is Reading with Jenna, and they start looking at books in manuscript form about 6+ months in advance. Good Morning America’s book club requires the same amount of time as does Oprah’s. Reese’s book club sometimes looks at manuscripts before they are acquired by a publisher or nine months in advance.
Blog tours don’t sell books and are hard to quantify. I haven’t experienced a case where sales increased after a blog tour. Yes, blog tours are still exposure for a book. I’d just say that you don’t want to be in a position where a publisher says, “All of these blogs covered the book and it still didn’t sell.” Well, no, the book didn’t sell because blog tours don’t boost sales. It’s not the book, it’s the medium.
I’m closely watching newsletters (on Substack and other places) because they are still a relatively new medium to promote books. I like the idea of them because they arrive directly in people’s email.
Trade reviews serve a purpose: they are read by booksellers, librarians, and others in the industry. Here’s the thing: They aren’t consumer-facing. They don’t sell books but help inform agents, salespeople, and buyers about specific titles. My advice is not to obsess over trade reviews. They’re selective and don’t have the space to review everything. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get a trade review. It is also unfair to blame your publicist if you don’t get one. We don’t have any say in whether or not PW, Kirkus, Booklist, or Library Journal choose your book. Sometimes we lean on editors with whom we have a relationship, but it’s never guaranteed they’ll review the book.
There aren’t many print magazines, but the ones that have survived don’t sell books. It’s great to see a book in People magazine; it’s difficult to quantify what, if any, effect on sales it had. Circulation numbers for print magazines have dropped significantly, so I wouldn’t belabor over them.
I am an avid reader of op-eds, but I’ve never bought a book because of one. That’s not to say other people don’t, but an op-ed’s purpose for authors is to cement them as an authoritative voice on a topic. Writing an op-ed isn’t easy! When I work with clients who are good candidates for op-eds, we brainstorm ideas and where we can see the piece running. There are several rounds of edits before I start pitching it to opinion editors. Fun fact: The L.A. Times asked me to write an op-ed a couple of years ago, which I did, and it stunk. I went through several rounds of edits, but I couldn’t get it right in the end, so the piece was killed. I have written pieces for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Much like op-eds, personal essays are difficult to place. Further, a publicist can only help so much when an author writes a personal essay. You have to get your pitch right and fine-tune your piece. Publicists generally don’t pitch personal essays because editors prefer to hear directly from writers.
Print vs. Digital
We live in a digital world. I realize many authors want to see their books covered in print, but there is no denying that more eyeballs are looking at digital media. Sadly, I couldn’t tell you when I last bought a newspaper or magazine because I read everything online or on an app. It is important to remember that digital media can be shared on social media, so there’s a better chance more people will see your review or interview. The idea that only print matters is antiquated. Digital should come first.
Instagram Book Tours
Instagram doesn't sell books unless you are an author with a substantial following. Instagram book tours are another item to appease authors because other publicity didn’t happen. This has nothing to do with Bookstagrammers—I am grateful for what they do. Some services offer Instagram book tours, which aren’t cheap, so save your money. If your ego dictates that you must have a long list of places where your book appeared, think about how your ego will feel when book sales are weak.
I will write about Goodreads separately, but most of you are probably familiar with the problems they’ve faced. The platform can be toxic. Just because everyone is on Goodreads doesn’t mean it works. I’ve never attended a sales meeting where someone attributed book sales to Goodreads. I have strong opinions about it, so I’ll save them for another time. Just know that a Goodreads giveaway is like throwing ARCs or books out of an airplane to see what happens. SORRY.
TikTok Influencer Campaigns
I’ve touched on this before. Marketing departments at big publishers must appease authors (or many of them, anyway). Some publishers conduct TikTok influencer campaigns, which consist of a list of 20 or so BookTok accounts that will receive a copy of the book. If it sounds like a lot, it’s not. Most accounts have small followings, and their videos aren’t viewed more than 300 times—and Tiktok is all about the views. The content is oddly ineffective to me: an influencer shows the book, opens it, and reads jacket copy. If you use TikTok and enjoy watching videos, you’d skip over this. I know I would. This is also something to include on a list of things that were done for an author so they won’t complain. It doesn’t sell books.
I’ll write a second part of this newsletter soon, including what kind of marketing works best for books. I’ll also write about author events and local media. For now, I hope this was helpful and not too depressing.
What I’m Watching: Pre-season NFL football. Go Pats!
What I’m Reading: Resist by Ava Harrison. Ava is one of my favorite romance authors. She’s great at writing moody characters and usually incorporates some part of the entertainment industry. Resist is an “enemies to lovers” romance, which means the two main characters hate each other until they don’t. This one is about two talent agents who meet—and then meet again—but assume the wrong things about each other. Right now, they are stuck on a remote island as they attempt to get their respective clients to cooperate while making a movie. It’s fun.
What I’m Listening to: I’m very much in a Stevie Nicks phase right now. I’m not mad about it.
Where I’ve been: The wonderful Brad Listi had me on his Otherppl podcast to talk about why publishing is broken and what to do about it. You can listen here.
As always, please write to me with questions/suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org