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Side-Dooring: The Best Way to Publicize Fiction

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard colleagues say, “You can’t publicize fiction.” Let me state here and now: fiction can be just as newsworthy as nonfiction. The only limits are the boundaries of the imagination conceiving the campaign.

I teach courses on book publicity at New York University and the University of Chicago. I often tell my students there are two kinds of publicity pitches–front door and side door. The front-door technique is presenting the straightforward, obvious media angle, and it’s effective only when the premise of the book itself can be positioned as news and the author’s credibility is explicit.

Otherwise, and often with fiction, the side-door method is a useful creative solution. “Side-dooring” is providing alternative angles to the press that frame the book and author from a perspective not easily apparent. For example, you’re publicizing an espionage thriller set in modern-day China. The author lived and worked in China for three months while researching the book. If you take the front-door route and pitch the feature writer at a newspaper to do a conventional author interview, it’s likely the editor won’t bite, because the book is fiction and the author isn’t an academic expert on China. However, if you seek a side door, you open up a whole new spectrum of possibilities. For instance, you could pitch the newspaper’s travel writer on doing an article about China as seen through the eyes of a celebrated novelist. Or you could pitch the reporter who covers the Far East for the paper’s international section on interviewing your author for an article about the experiences of American writers who’ve lived in China. Opportunities abound!

Make no mistake about it, side-dooring is a powerful weapon in a publicist’s arsenal of persuasive techniques–as you will see from these examples.

Taking Aim at Televangelists

The Soul

, a controversial thriller about televangelists, was published in the early 1970s. The author, Ron Gorton, was an entrepreneur who had enjoyed diverse careers–from truck driving, farming, and construction to writing books, directing B-films, and teaching high school. Fiery and gregarious, he was the quintessential Renaissance man. Gorton’s novel, which reflected his passionate sentiments about evangelism, shot to the New York Times bestseller list. Shortly thereafter, he took a hiatus from writing, resurfacing two decades later with The Hucksters of Holiness, the sequel to his first blockbuster, which I was assigned to publicize.

This project presented a hornet’s nest of challenges. Because of the author’s eclectic professional past, he would be perceived by the press as a jack of all trades and master of none. The fact that 20 years earlier he had written a book that became a short-lived bestseller made him the literary equivalent of a one-hit wonder. On top of that, his only link to televangelism was his personal conviction that most of its practitioners were unethical and manipulative. Feelings and opinions don’t constitute author credibility. In addition, his publisher was a small press with limited resources and distribution. Author and publisher were in dire need of publicity coverage, because without it, they couldn’t get books on or off the shelves.

My associates and I knew that to circumvent the hurdles we had to probe beyond the obvious and aggressively explore every option from as many vantage points as possible. How could we turn the author’s emotions about evangelism into legitimate expertise? Was there a way to create a news story from the theme of the book?

We interviewed Ron in depth, inquiring about everything from his childhood memories, hobbies, education, proudest achievements, worst failures, and pet peeves to his marriage, political convictions, religion, future goals, and motivation for writing The Hucksters of Holiness, among countless other areas. Our central objective was to extract fragments of information that could be used as the building blocks for a campaign premise.

It didn’t take long before we had our blueprint. During the course of our Q&A with Ron Gorton, he explained that he wrote both books to ignite healthy debate about the role and responsibility of televangelists in America.

We engineered a public-awareness crusade, positioned Ron Gorton as its leading spokesperson, and presented him to the press as the Exorcist of Evangelism. We contacted all the major media outlets in the country, encouraging them to host a panel of televangelists, with whom Ron would spar verbally on air. Even we couldn’t have predicted the colossal response from journalists. Ron was interviewed on the nation’s top-rated television and radio shows and featured in dozens of gripping newspaper and magazine articles.

What Makes Novels News

Remember, there’s no such thing as a book that’s impossible to publicize. Good publicists engage their investigative instincts until they unearth the most enticing angle. Then, they mold and sculpt that angle to conform to the needs of each targeted media outlet. In the case of The Hucksters of Holiness, if we had taken the front-door approach and pitched the media on interviewing author Ron Gorton about his novel, we would have secured little or no coverage. By employing the side-door technique, we were able to shape the message of the book into a consumer-advocacy campaign and establish author credibility on the consistency of Ron Gorton’s commitment to focusing public scrutiny on televangelism.

Sometimes, especially with certain types of fiction, it isn’t the message of a book that offers the best media angle, but the provocative questions raised in the book that can be packaged as news. In The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a couple struggle to save their marriage after the mysterious disappearance of their youngest son, who shows up on their doorstep nearly 13 years later, completely unaware of the truth about his past. A bitter custody battle ensues between the boy’s biological parents and the family who raised him, who never knew he was a stolen baby.

Although the story was fictional, the book struck a chord with the media because it prompted real questions about the rights of children caught in nontraditional custody battles. Additionally, it explored the subject of missing children from the intriguing perspective of the parents’ psychological and spiritual struggle. The publicist who handled the campaign for The Deep End of the Ocean did a wonderful job ferreting out and focusing the media on the newsworthiness of the book.

Another approach when publicizing fiction is to examine the what-if angle. The campaign for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park provides one of my favorite examples. The plot was based on the scientific hypothesis that a dinosaur could be cloned by extracting its DNA from mosquitoes fossilized in amber. When the film version was released, hundreds of newspaper articles featured interviews with renowned scientists from around the world, who speculated on the plausibility of such an experiment. Though Jurassic Park was fiction, the what-if-it-could-really-happen pitch provided a nonfiction angle that could be massaged into substantial coverage.

Sculpting the Clay for Coverage

The bottom line is that to execute an effective campaign, you have to look at fiction in a whole new way. See novels as news stories made of clay. The substance is there, but you have to sculpt the clay into the proper shape and dimensions.

When you’re devising a campaign strategy for a novel, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What are the main themes of the story?
    • Does the book address these issues from an uncommon, controversial, or provocative perspective that’s newsworthy?
    • Are there parallels between the author’s life and the novel that could be used as media hooks or to reinforce credibility?
    • Can the author share entertaining anecdotes surrounding the research and writing of the book that could be publicized as news?
    • Does the book focus attention on an issue of specific concern to any professional organizations, foundations, or other special-interest groups that would benefit from a co-promotion?
    • Can the premise of the book be tied into any stories currently being covered in the news?

Then use a three-step process.

Step 1: Read the book as if you were an investigative journalist searching for a story idea. For example, say you’re publicizing a romance novel about a May-December relationship. Your first job is to analyze which theme or themes featured in the book could be packaged as media angles. In this particular example, the May-December angle is powerful because it’s controversial and relevant. You may even be able to piggyback current events. For instance, if you had been mounting your campaign during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that would give you the perfect tie-in pitch.

There might also be another news angle lurking in the story line. Perhaps the heroine gets impregnated out of wedlock by her older paramour. That’s an interesting theme. You could develop an intriguing human-interest angle with the idea of older men fathering children and the impact of this on the family. Using this angle would also open up opportunities for co-promotions with special interest groups, such as foundations and support groups for unwed mothers.

Step 2: Interview the author thoroughly to uncover elements that could either establish the author’s credibility as an expert or be used as news stories. Ask for as many details as possible. Perhaps the author was involved in a May-December relationship in the past, and it was one of the primary motivations for writing this book. Such a personal connection to the subject matter is good fodder for a human-interest article. Or maybe the author was a couples counselor, and the novel was inspired by real case histories. Dig as deep as necessary to discover something with an interesting edge that you can use to establish author credibility and engineer a campaign.

Step 3: Sift through the subplots of the story for possible peripheral media angles. Every time a media contact says “no” to a pitch, you want a bucket full of other ideas that you can pull out in a flash.

In other words, if the idea of publicizing a novel makes you shudder with insecurity because, on the surface, fiction seems like such a tough sell to the media, don’t panic and shut down creatively. Look at how it can be done, and not why it can’t be done.

Jodee Blanco, the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Please Stop Laughing at Me and a founding partner and former president of the PR firm Blanco & Peace, has publicized dozens of books that became regional and national bestsellers. This article is excerpted from the new edition of her book The Complete Guide to Book Publicity. To reach her, call 312/961-3430 or email tbg32@aol.com. To order The Complete Guide, send $19.95 plus $5 for shipping and handling (New York residents must add sales tax) to Allworth Press, 10 E. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010; visit www.allworth.com; or order toll-free from 800/491-2808.

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