As hard news takes up more space and radio conglomerates buy up stations, little space is left for coverage of new books. But tying a title to a certain topic can be a path to the best-seller list.
Like many other soft-news categories, book journalism and publicity have faced tough challenges in the past few years. The slow economy combined with international crises has caused many outlets to devote more space to hard news, resulting in fewer opportunities for reviews and author profiles.
Much of this is being felt not in the top-tier newspapers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, which continue to take pride in maintaining stand-alone weekly book sections, but in the circulation level just below. "In second-tier markets, we've found a number of book-review sections in newspapers have been cut back," says Louise Brockett, VP and director of publicity for W.W. Norton & Co.
It's not just the cutback in the amount of space that troubles book publicists. "A lot of sections in these regional markets are now picking up syndication from The New York Times or Dallas Morning News," says Lori Sayde-Mehrtens, director of publicity for publishing house John Wiley & Sons. "A lot of content is no longer being written within those sections."
Because of that trend, literary publicists are now increasingly focusing on coverage outside of the traditional book-review pages. Jane Wesman, president and founder of Jane Wesman Public Relations, says, "We look for reporters and columnists who are interested in the particular topics of the books, such as health or science. The New York Times Science section, for example, runs reviews of books connected to science."
Kim Hicks, assistant publicity director for Workman Publishing, also advocates looking to other sections for coverage. She notes, "It takes a lot more research. You have to find a story and then take it to the newspaper, so it requires more creativity."
Workman publishes a mixture of titles, including the popular What to Expect series for expecting and new parents. With this series, Hicks says she can rely on a large amount of brand recognition; she adds that the regular updates of the series never fail to generate media coverage. "Nine times out of 10, the journalist, if they haven't used it themselves, will know someone who has. So we've never had problems getting positive endorsements," she says.
Evaporating broadcast coverage
Though publicists bemoan the decreased opportunities in newspaper book-review sections, they say the biggest change has been the decline in broadcast, especially radio. There used to be a lot more local programming in many markets, notes Barbara Montiero, president of Montiero & Co. She adds that the consolidation of stations under a handful of conglomerates has dramatically altered the broadcast landscape as programmers opt for more nationally syndicated content. "In radio, we've found that a lot of these local programs have dried up," she says. "Local TV is OK. There's still some, but they don't always take authors."
The trend toward syndication can hurt some books, but it can also be a boon, especially if you can match the right title with the right radio or TV program. Sayde-Mehrtens says an example of this is conservative talk radio. "You can actually have a book that deals with a conservative topic hit the best-seller list just by doing those shows, because they're so extremely targeted to that market," she says.
On the TV side, Oprah Winfrey remains very influential, despite the fact that she's ended her book club. "When she gets behind a book, boy does that make a difference," marvels Wesman. "We've been working on a book called The Power of Full Engagement, and when the authors went on Oprah, the book shot right up the best-seller list."
This dearth of local programming and print opportunities means that publishers now think long and hard about the one-time staple of book publicity: the multicity author tour. "In the 1980s and '90s, almost every author would go out on a book tour," notes Kim Dower of Kim-From-LA Literary Publicists. "But now nothing is guaranteed in terms of interviews. The greatest heartbreak is having an interview get canceled after you've flown in the middle of the night to get there."
Moving the tour to the phone
"Media tours have become very costly," adds Wesman. "Whereas we used to have 10-city tours, we're now cutting them back to three- to five-city tours. Instead, we try to get coverage in a lot of newspapers and radio via phone, which puts a big burden on the author to become very good at presenting his or her message."
Some of this decline in traditional coverage has been offset by a rise in the number and influence of internet outlets devoted to books. "There are sites that are very influential, such as Salon, Slate, and Amazon," notes Brockett, though she quickly adds that the online versions of print outlets such as The New York Times Book Review section are just as important.
The internet's impact on book publishing extends far beyond editorial. "You don't have to worry about whether a book is on shelves at a local bookstore, because the internet makes books available to anyone in the country," explains Wesman. The result, she adds, "is that we're handling publicity much longer than we used to. Right now, we're working on a campaign for a book that was released in October."
As far as tools of the trade, Sayde-Mehrtens says she still sends out a lot of e-mail and press releases. But, she notes, "We're making sure the press release is not to announce a new book, but to announce the relevance of a book to a topic to make it completely newsworthy. We'll give reporters a couple of pullouts they can use, as well as a couple of bullet points."
Many publicists say the competition to get their authors covered seems to be getting greater with each passing year. But it's still possible to create a massive buzz surrounding a new book, even with an unknown author. Dower recently created a splash with The Black Dahlia Avenger, in which author Steve Hodel, a former police detective, builds a compelling case that his own father was in fact the killer in the famed 1947 Black Dahlia murder case.
"This was a very fascinating project because the story was embargoed until April 11, and we couldn't give galleys or review copies to anybody," Dower says. What's more, she didn't go to a book editor, but instead built suspense by setting up an April 11 press conference in Los Angeles in which the key findings of the book were revealed. That whetted the appetite of outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and NBC's Dateline, which all scrambled to be the first break the new revelations.
Where to go
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