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Fishing For Ink: Getting Noticed By The Media
By Scott Nicholson

Okay, you have the book out, you’ve just won a contest or award, or you think that October would be a great time for the local media to do a piece on a horror writer. You know about it. How do you let everyone else know?

The first stop should be the Internet, of course. Post on your favorite newsgroups or message boards, e-mail your friends, send your tidbits to the appropriate webzines. This costs nothing but time, and I’ve noticed that most writers are already wise enough to take advantage of this medium. But now you want to reach beyond the same old circle.

The good news is that getting ink or bandwidth space isn’t as hard as you might think. I have been on both sides of a thousand press releases in my experience with newspapers, radio, and television. About half of the releases are awful, and nobody has the time to rewrite them. It’s easier to write a good story than rebuild a flawed one. However, if your press release comes in all spiffy and ready to dump, you might get that valuable free space or air time.

Journalists, whether print or broadcast, are like most everyone else in the world. They are overworked and underpaid. I write between 8,000 and 10,000 words every week for my paper, plus material for special inserts and seasonal editions. The staff also is expected to post daily news updates on our website. I produce one or two video pieces for our weekly cable television show. If an easy or interesting story walks through the door or crawls through the fax machine, I will embrace it, kiss it, and get it before the public. So will every other journalist I know.

As an author, your job is to make your story easy, interesting, or preferably both. Maybe one or two of you already have substantial six-figure promotional campaigns for each new book, but I doubt you’ve read this far if that’s the case. The more responsibility you take for your career, the better off you’ll be, no matter what level you’re at. Here’s a little secret: most big-name authors don’t trust their publicity entirely to their publisher. They employ outside consultants or promotional firms to augment what the publisher does. Sometimes these representatives work hand-in-hand with the publisher, sometimes not.

Most likely, you will be putting together your own press packets, compiling your own lists of media contacts, and arranging your own book signings and presentations. Before you groan, look at it as an opportunity to learn, not as yet another chore that drains away your precious writing time. Immerse yourself in all aspects of the business if you have ambitions of being a professional writer. Merely banging out the sentences is not, and has never been, enough.

As a first step, you should have names, addresses, and phone numbers of your hometown papers. Don’t overlook the little arts and entertainment papers, which might be your prime territory. You can find information on radio stations, television stations, and regional newspapers by conducting Web searches. I also suggest investing in copies of media guides, usually put out by state or national media associations. While individual editors and reporters may come and go, the basic listings usually stay the same, so you only need to update every five years or so.

While you’re compiling the contact list, you can put together your packets. Let your budget determine the contents, but remember to think of it as a long-term investment rather than a one-shot return. I did a series of signing in the spring for the Writers of the Future anthology, since I won the contest. The publisher had some impressive packets, but was too busy to do much after the initial flurry of mailings. I put together my own promotional material using my own money.

This isn’t as horrifying as it sounds. For my photos, I posted a flyer at the local university’s photography lab. I didn’t offer pay to the student, but I purchased materials and promised to give a credit whenever the photo was used. For about $20, I got 40 5" x 7" photographs, but more importantly, I have the negatives, so that I can mass-order more copies at any local studio. The photo also appears on the back of my forthcoming story collection.

I wrote my own press releases, of course, so the only cost there was paper and toner. I bought a slightly better grade of paper than I use for manuscripts. I wrote three different versions of the release. If the package was going to a newspaper, I included the photo and a three-page story about winning the contest. A separate page contained a condensed, fact-filled version of the event, opening with an enticing lead line and then quickly going on to the all-important Ws: who, what, when, where. Don’t worry about "why," because nobody nowhere knows the answer to that one.

Mary Beth Gibson, who as Gibson Media Consultants has promoted such authors as Sharyn McCrumb, John Gilstrap, and Jerry Bledsoe, says that she first determines the goal of each specific package or release. Is it designed to secure an interview, a book review, or merely to get a mention in a crowded listing?

"I consider who will be reading the information and how much lead time I've got," Gibson says. "For instance, if an author is scheduled to speak at a library or university, I'll include lots of information and mail the package early so posters and fliers can be printed and distributed and author profiles can be published in newsletters, magazines, school newspapers, etc. If I'm trying to solicit an in-studio radio or television interview, I'll boil the pertinent information to one page and fax it two to three weeks in advance, then follow up with a phone call."

In my experience on the receiving end of press packets, I want as much information as possible. Sharyn McCrumb’s last packet included an original essay on why she writes about Appalachian people. Boom. Instant regional interest. TOR’s packet for Orson Scott Card and Ender’s Shadow included a piece on promoting literacy and reading among young people. The campaign featured Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace and is a candidate for the movie role of Ender. I didn’t use this material in my story, but I easily could have.

With Card, I had a three-for-one. Since I had met him before, I conducted an e-mail interview which ran in the issue just before his local appearance. I also reviewed the book and did an update on his movie projects. While he was in town, we did a television interview. I took my son to the book signing, and I’m sure the store was in violation of the fire code. They probably sold 400 books, a record night for this little independent store in a town of 15,000.

Of course, we’re not all Orson Scott Card or Sharyn McCrumb, but the principles are the same. A local woman released her first novel with her husband as publisher. Their press packet included an interview, photo, blurbs, a copy of the book, and the "inner flap" copy. Another dirty little secret: rarely do journalists have the time or interest to read your book. But you can still get a write-up if your jacket copy or synopsis is good enough to go right into the article.

This woman was lucky. I was short that week and used almost everything she gave me. Here’s the best part: all of the material was on a floppy disk, and all I had to do was arrange and edit the elements, not retype the whole thing. Maybe you think this is a cop-out, but a lot of journalists aren’t worried about methods, only results. I do hard news and time-consuming investigative stories all the time. If I find a shortcut on a feature, I’m going to take it. My boss is satisfied with my work, the authors are always delighted, and I sleep well at night.

Remember that you will want to gear your packets to the specific medium. I worked four years in radio, much of it as a news director for twin stations. Again, this is a time-stressed job. I had 65 newscasts a week, and each had to be different. If a press release about a book signing came in, I used it, especially if it was "mic-ready." For radio, you want two paragraphs, three at the most, and the style is slightly different. Read your radio releases aloud to make sure they work for the ear instead of the eye.

The same is true for television, that Nirvana of all media for anybody with a book to plug. Television is an extreme long shot, since writing by nature doesn’t make good TV. It’s not that sexy, doesn’t move fast, and doesn’t have a lot of visual lookaways. Still, your goal here should be to secure a studio interview. I got two after winning the Writers of the Future contest, so my face and name appeared to countless thousands of late-night news junkies.

As you do when shopping fiction, make sure you’re sending the right material to the right market. When Gibson is deciding where to send packets, she takes into account the medium as well as the messenger. "I first read the book to determine whether the readership/media appeal is local, regional and/or national," she says. "I also consider the author's personality. For instance, if an author is shy, I may lean toward phone interviews rather than in-studio interviews. An author who is articulate and entertaining would be a good candidate for television."

Phone interviews also work well with radio, since newscasters love voicers or sound bites to help move their casts along. Pitch yourself as an interesting morning-show guest for radio. Look for timely angles. How about the advent of electronic publishing? The recent popularity of horror movies? Are you an expert in any obscure or interesting field? Morning deejays are like everybody else, they like to be associated with smart people, though always remember that you shouldn’t upstage your host. From working in radio, I can advise you that bringing a bag of donuts or fastfood biscuits (make sure there’s enough for everyone) will increase your chances of being invited back.

You should always get your material into the proper hands in timely fashion. Many papers have lead times of at least two weeks. For radio and television, two weeks or so is adequate. Obviously, photos aren’t necessary for radio material. A follow-up phone call or e-mail should be standard operating procedure, but don’t be a pest. Press releases can be e-mailed initially, but I consider these far too easy for a reporter to disregard and delete. Hard copy has a much stronger presence, so use the postal system for the initial contact.

Few of us can afford to send a copy of the book with every packet. This is a choice you’ll have to make. You might want to reserve your scarce review copies for those papers more open to literary features. Always include contact information in case a reporter gets hooked. If he or she bothers to call, that means your chances of getting in the door are pretty good. You can send a review copy at that time.

Even if you send a review copy, don’t mourn the lost revenue. A small ad in a paper, depending on the circulation and other factors, costs somewhere between $40 and several hundred dollars. My experience is mostly in small markets, but the principles are similar for large urban media outlets as well. Competition for space is higher in the big city, but so is the constant and endless demand for copy.

Hopefully, the bookstore or publisher will buy some advertising, but don’t count on it. Most chains aren’t allowed a local advertising budget. If you have the money, you might consider chipping in with the publisher or store in a co-op arrangement. Truth is, buying an ad greatly increases your chances of getting a feature article. Pick up one of those Book Page papers that the chains give away, and take note of who is buying ads and which books are featured in the copy.

If someone writes an article about you, it’s okay to send a card or e-mail of thanks. Don’t ever complain about an error, or you’re guaranteed to be blackballed from that paper for a decade or so. A local sculptor bugged me about doing a story, I finally relented, and ended up having to get material from his website because he was unavailable with deadline approaching. He complained about seeing his "artist’s statement" in print, but he wasn’t half as unhappy as I was. He’ll never get another inch of ink out of me.

So what will I use in the packets when my own collection comes out? I am buying a box of pocket folders, I have the photographs ready, I have my press release and blurbs. I will include a brief interview. Some writers send clips of earlier articles, but those are practically useless since the material is copyrighted. By the way, don’t use a byline on your press release. That implies ownership, and reporters and newspapers want to "own" it for themselves.

I won’t put a review copy in each packet, but I will enclose the cover as a postcard if the reporter needs to scan the image. I have contact information handy. Best of all, I will also include a version of all the material on a diskette. Rich text format is the most universal for text files, GIF or JPG for graphic images. Not many press packets contain disks yet, but I think it’s a good investment at an extremely low additional cost.

Even if you are a bottom-line type of person, look at it this way: for my Writers of the Future signings, I sent out between three and fifteen packets each week. Even with postage, I only spent about eighty-five cents per packet, or less if I omitted the photo. Most press releases of any kind wind up in the recycling bin, but I got five or six very good feature articles out of my efforts. Though I wasn’t getting royalties from the anthology, this was a great investment in my future. Those reporters will likely remember my name the next time I come to town, and so will some of their readers.

To crunch it down to dollars, if I had to buy the space for those articles, I probably would have spent between $500 and $1,000. I don’t know whether or not any of my radio releases were used, but some of the material appeared on newspapers’ websites. As it was, I spent maybe $25 during my entire promotional campaign. Of course, I knew what to do, and now you do as well.

If you would like to see a sample of the press release I used, click on www.hauntedcomputer.com/promo1.htm. For my complete media materials, visit my online press kit. Read them over, and take note of the straightforwardness. I’m sure you can do better, because, after all, you’re a writer, aren’t you?

--copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission

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