Get the Best from Author Questionnaires
by Linda Carlson
Want to create buzz about a new book—or its author? Then make the author questionnaire the starting point for your promotional campaign.
A detailed author questionnaire—completed either by the author alone or by the publisher when speaking with the author—can tell you how, where, with whom, and when to promote a book. It can also tell you when canceling publication of a title might be the wisest move if the questionnaire is, as it should be, completed during the proposal process, when you are evaluating the sales potential of a title.
Although many of us look at the author questionnaire as a source of ideas for media stories and speeches, it can also provide information that fuels other sales promotion.
“When I do up a marketing plan, I think about whether it makes sense to contact any company listed in the author questionnaire as a potential partner,” says Shel Horowitz at Frugal Marketing in Hadley, MA. “One client informed me that Paramount Pictures was making a movie that tied in very closely with her book, so I contacted the studio, got her in touch with the director with an offer to help at the premiere, and got her noticed.”
The result? Horowitz’s client became an informal consultant to the film, attended the premiere, got interviewed by CBS News and The New York Times—and the book was in a third printing after less than a year.
Nancy Curtis at High Plains Press in Glendo, WY, cites another use for some questionnaire responses: “We make sure we enter applicable contests. For instance, an author we published spent time in the military in Oklahoma and then attended college there. That makes his book eligible for the Oklahoma Book Awards. We would not have known that without gathering extensive information about where he’d lived early in his career.”
Because such organizations as Westerners International, press associations, and religious denominations offer awards programs open only to their members, a list of current memberships is important on a questionnaire, Curtis adds.
Membership lists have proved valuable in another way at Sage Press in Murrieta, CA. “We have successfully contacted authors’ fellow alumni association members via Facebook and Twitter when we wanted to send galleys to get prepublication review quotes,” says Sonja Struthers.
Yet another list that authors should be asked for? Keywords. At Houston’s Gulf Publishing Co., a technical scientific publisher for the oil and gas market, Katie Hammon, director of data products and books, points out, “Our authors know the search engine keywords that engineers would type in. This drives traffic to our Web site.”
Hammon has advice for other publishers who issue titles for specialized markets: Ask the author for information on trade shows where the book might be featured, and where talks or signings might be booked. Like many other publishers of nonfiction, she also asks authors which universities and employers should be contacted about using their books as texts or for continuing education.
Several IBPA members recommend that publishers do more than send authors the questionnaires.
“Make it only a starting point,” suggests Denise Hitchcock, president of Hitchcock Enterprises in Hendersonville, TN. “When an author is very ‘buttoned up,’ I’ll spend time with him or her to get the ‘factoids,’ the interesting stories that he or she might have thought irrelevant for the bio. These are often what catch the eye and ear of the media.”
Tom Wacker of Denver’s Toon Ice Books echoes Hitchcock. “We would rather speak with the author and ask the questions. This not only gives us the answers to help with target marketing; it brings us closer to the author, opening valuable discussion while determining any verbal weakness or lack of knowledge that may need to be addressed.”
“The more time we spend schmoozing with the author, the more nuggets we mine,” adds Dave Marx of PassPorter Travel Press in Ann Arbor, MI. “While I wouldn’t consider what we do the equivalent of the classic literary lunch, I think there’s a good case to be made that a martini or two can be an ‘ordinary and necessary’ business expense.”
That All-important Platform
“Whether they know it or not, each author has a promotional platform to launch their content, and marketing questionnaires help us determine what that might be,” says Shanna Knowlton, publicist at The Mountaineers Books in Seattle. “Our questions go over authors’ experience with media interviews, their contacts, and their schedules in terms of determining author events and book tours. We ask them to identify key markets for their book as well as media outlets to get their perspective on what they think should be done to market their book.”
“We use the author questionnaire to determine what kind of platform an author has to sell his or her book, and what kind of marketing support this author can give the book,” says Pam Knowlton. “Our new foodie title, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, has greatly benefited from author Langdon Cook’s strong connections with the Seattle food media and local food organizations such as Good Food Strategies and Chefs Collaborative. His commitment to blogging and Twittering with fellow food bloggers has increased that viral spiral of outreach and awareness on the Web that is now necessary to generate more sales and visibility for a new book.”
“If authors expect to sit back and do nothing while the publisher makes them overnight successes, they’re in for a rude awakening,” says Pam Tolen at Comfort Publishing in Concord, NC. As some publishers report, that rude awakening can involve withdrawal of a contract offer. When the author of a self-help book completed his questionnaire for an IBPA member by indicating that he would not promote the book through his friends, colleagues, workplace, or alumni or professional associations, and that he would not allow the publisher to solicit local newspaper interviews about him, he was shocked to receive a telephone call notifying him that the book would not be published.
Another publisher, Gene Grossman, says his Venice, CA–based Magic Lamp Press has a similar philosophy: “Before accepting a book to publish, we screen prospective authors very carefully to make sure they have the access to promotional avenues, and the motivation to get out there and ‘sell.’”
Using Author Questionnaires to Tailor Promotional Material
I’ve never met Francine Trevens, the publisher at New York City’s TnT Classic Books [and author of “What IBPA Affiliates Can Do for You” in this issue], but I could tell we’re kindred spirits when I read her note about using author questionnaires: “As a former theatrical publicist,” she wrote, “I use every conceivable source for obtaining quotes on a book, getting reviews, interviews, and articles.”
Of course, this doesn’t always lead to success for any of us, but details on hometown, hobbies, previous successes, author visits to cities, and current headlines are all what Trevens calls “fodder” for her PR mill.
Tie-ins can be created simply by changing the headline or lead paragraph of a press release to reflect the author’s connection to the locale or the audience for the release, as both Robin Surface (president at Fideli Publishing in Paragon, IN) and Shel Horowitz (of Frugal Marketing in Hadley, MA) point out. Or a “Note to Editors” at the beginning or a cover note may serve to peg the same release to different targets.
For example, the release one of my clients is using has this headline and lead for East Coast media:
Treating Back Pain with Yoga
Topic for February Teacher Training
Internationally recognized yoga therapist and author Robin Rothenberg will present a week-long training intensive Feb. 7–12 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, MA.
To make the same release work for Seattle-area media, we added this cover note:
Almost everyone has back pain sooner or later, and from my practice, I know that’s true of those of us in the Northwest. If you’d like to tell your audience how a locally run study proved that certain yoga exercises are effective in treating back pain, give me a call. As you can see from the press release that follows, I train yoga instructors across the U.S. and Canada to address back pain with their clients and students.
Quizzing authors on how a book’s content can be publicized to special media will give you more opportunities to create buzz. Judith Ivie, at Mainly Murder Press in Wethersfield, CT, says she works especially hard to generate local publicity, using leads from author questionnaires: “When one book featured a car chase through nearby Glastonbury, we checked the details with the local police chief and played up his input in our release to a Glastonbury weekly. The resulting story covered half of the front page of the next issue.”
What to Ask in Your Author Questionnaire
Answers to questions such as the following will give you contact information, an idea of the scope of the author’s platform, information about media experience, and possible contacts for field testing, prepublication testimonials, and bulk sales. They’ll also supply other background material that may prove valuable in publicizing the book.
Besides the date the author is filling out the questionnaire, full legal name, and the name to be used in promotion, you’ll want to ask for home, office, and seasonal addresses, phone and fax numbers, email addresses, birth date, and names and locations of colleges and universities attended with graduation dates and degrees. In addition, you need the URL of the author’s Web site.
Here’s what else I include in the author questionnaire I use:
• Please provide information regarding your education that may have promotional value (for example, did you spend part of your childhood in a foreign school?).
• Besides attaching an updated resume, provide other information that may have promotional value (for example, regarding interesting early jobs or volunteer experience).
• What is your birthplace and/or hometown, and what are the dates you lived there?
• Have you lived in other cities for significant periods? Where and when?
• List your publications, including media names and publication dates.
• Describe any online resources, including Web sites and email newsletters, for which you provide content.
• List professional or civic organizations to which you currently belong and major offices you have recently held in these organizations. Does your writing appear in any organization’s newsletters? If so, please describe.
• Have you had speaking engagements in the past year? For which groups, and on what topics?
• Have you been interviewed by newspapers or magazines or on radio or television programs in the last two years? Provide names of publications, programs, approximate dates, stations, program hosts/anchors, and show producers if known.
• If you are a regular columnist or commentator for any media outlet, provide information regarding the outlet and the frequency of your appearances.
• Have you been interviewed or made appearances to promote earlier books? Provide examples of the media that interviewed you and describe the kinds of appearances you have made (book signings, bookstore talks, breakout sessions at conferences, etc.).
• Are you prepared to be interviewed by newspapers? By radio and television hosts? On call-in shows where you must quickly respond to questions from the audience?
• Will you write magazine articles on your book’s topic (sometimes on short notice)?
• Can you lead mini-workshops or demonstrations at bookstores, libraries, conferences, and professional association meetings?
• What are your local independent bookstores?
• What are the chain booksellers in your area?
• What other retail outlets in your area might host a mini-workshop or other appearance?
• Are you able to teach workshops and classes on topics related to your book? If so, please describe your experience with large and small groups.
• What is the purpose of your book?
• Why did you write this book? (This is a question you’ll be asked in almost every interview.)
• Write a dynamic, one-line promotional statement for your book.
• How will readers benefit from your book? What will it teach them to do? Help them do? What problems will it solve?
• Analyze other books that are similar to yours. Note title, author, page count, price, publisher, and publication date for each book. Briefly describe each competitor on attached sheets.
• What makes your book, your perspective, or the format of your book distinctive?
• Is your book likely to be used as a textbook? If so, for what class(es)?
• Who would you recommend to write a foreword or introduction for your book?
• Please list recognized authorities on your topic who might be willing to review and comment on your book for publication. Please provide each person’s full name, title, address, phone number, and email address, and a short description of his or her qualifications.
• Tell us who you see as the primary market for your book. As you think of the most important markets for your book, what about your book will be most important to each group? Please complete one sheet for each of the three most important markets for your book. What about your book will most appeal to these readers? What experts or endorsements will be important with this group? How will these potential readers learn about your book?
• Please identify several sources of information other than general bookstores, online retailers, and public libraries that would be interested in your book. Include specialty bookstores and specialized Web sites (include names and contact information if possible), specialized libraries, professional associations, conferences, and others who display, review, or promote books.
• List trade or professional publications, broadcast interview programs, and online resources that would interest each target audience. Please indicate the editorial contacts at each publication and asterisk (*) those that you know.
• What personal contacts can you use to market this book? List potential endorsers, media editorial contacts, and others you know well enough to write or telephone.
• For your geographic area and professional/industrial niche, list daily and weekly neighborhood and metro newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations (including public and student), newsletters, and other specialized publications. Please include each publication’s telephone number and Web site URL. This list may include your church newsletter, your children’s school newsletter, and local Web sites with news content.
• Occasionally, press releases will interest media in a smaller community where you have relatives. If you have parents, siblings, children, or in-laws living in communities that might be interested in your book, especially if you will be making promotional appearances in that region, tell us about the communities and their media.
• Tell us about the regular or occasional newsletters and magazines issued by your college, your major department, any special programs (such as Honors), the general university alumni publication, and any relevant graduate school alumni publications.
• Provide editorial contacts and addresses for the newsletters issued by the local chapters and the national headquarters of the organizations to which you belong.
To supplement these questions and those suggested in “What the Author Questionnaire Can Do for You,” ask your distributors what information they want. This recommendation comes from Casey Swanson, publisher at Dailey Swan Publishing, Pinole, CA, who notes that its distributor, Midpoint Books, “is very proactive, and many of the additions to our info sheets have come from its staff. Some of our booksellers are very specific about what they want too, with hometown information being a must, for example.”
Finally, if your author has a spouse, partner, or children, ask a few questions about them in a conversation. It’s important to know both whether they have contacts valuable for promotion and whether their backgrounds might create challenges in promotion. One publisher who was evaluating a proposal for a child guidance book did an Internet search when the author was vague about her husband’s work. It turned out that he wrote how-to sex guides.
Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle.