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Harnessing the Potential of Publicity

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Publicity is free. Publicity is easy. Publicity is a given if your book wins an award. Publicity sells books.

These are only a few of the myths about public relations and publicity. You’ve undoubtedly heard many others, especially in sales pitches from people who want you to pay them to generate media releases, write social media posts, send out review copies, and arrange blog tours.

Of course publicity can translate to sales. Just as important, publishers and authors can use publicity to develop credibility and as a reason to contact booksellers, librarians, wholesalers, and distributors. In a well organized promotional campaign, publicity will help create momentum for a book, especially when a publisher and author receive advance notice of media attention. Then they can both issue alerts about the forthcoming publicity and follow it with reports that may generate additional media attention.

But promotion doesn’t always lead to publicity. There’s no guarantee that a release will result in media coverage, that reviews will be written, that bloggers will want authors to guest post, or that anyone will see awards announcements or posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or any other social media site. And even if promotion does lead to publicity, there’s no guarantee that any sales will result.

To help publishers and their authors better understand what kinds of promotion can lead to publicity, and how and why publicity can pay off, here are some examples of members’ recent promotional efforts, their media coups, and the results for book sales. As you’ll see, several of them show how publishers can try to leverage publicity so that it will boost book sales.

Major Publicity, Major Sales

As Long As It's Fun-v8-Cover only-1The most impressive media coverage of an IBPA member’s book this year may have been the Wall Street Journal’s review of a Pardey Books memoir about sailing and writing about boating. Now archived online here at wsj.com, the lengthy story about As Long as It’s Fun: The Epic Voyages and Extraordinary Times of Lin and Larry Pardey, written by Herb McCormick for the Arcata, CA, press, was accompanied by a “then” photo of the couple, who abandoned conventional careers in their 20s to go to sea.

“The 2000 copies of the first printing were gone in ten days, and e-book sales were just as strong, with 55 percent of the Amazon sales in the first two weeks being for e-books,” Lin Pardey recalls. “Midpoint, our distributor, received orders for about 600 copies within a week of the Wall Street Journal review.”

Sailing websites reprinted the Journal story or referred to it, sending the first month’s sales to 2,200. After that, sales dipped briefly and then, as reviews began appearing in sailing magazines, the daily sales figures spiked again. “For the second through the fourth months, combined monthly sales of the e-book and paperback ran between 1,000 and 1,200 copies,” Pardey reports. By the time the book had been out for five months, combined sales of the two editions exceeded 7,000. “Very nice start for a niche title,” she notes.

Another advantage of the Wall Street Journal coverage was visibility for the couple’s other titles. “We have seen an increase in sales of the other books mentioned in the biography,” Pardey says. “Overall, we’ve had an increase in sales of about 20 percent, with sales of some titles going up by as much as 30 percent.”

There are almost always several factors in a publicity success story, and there are several possible reasons that the Wall Street Journal set off a series of sales for the Pardeys. One important factor has to be the fit between the story and the audience. Imagine how this tale resonated with executives and managers, who, after a long winter week, opened up a Friday issue of the Wall Street Journal to find the tale of 20-somethings who ditched corporate life. Second, the Pardeys had instant name recognition with the sailing websites and magazines that followed up on the Journal story with their own stories and reviews, since they had written for such publications for decades. And Lin Pardey credits additional publicity to the fact that the author sent out signed review copies (at the Press’s expense).

The University of Oklahoma Press in Norman scored a Wall Street Journal review in September, when The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, by Richard W. Etulain, was praised in a lengthy piece called “Live From Deadwood.” Dale Bennie, the Press’s associate director and sales and marketing manager, says WSJ reviews always give book sales a boost, and estimates that this one increased sales in the first four weeks after launch by 200 copies.

MyBodyBelongstoMeFree Spirit Publishing also has a recent success story. This one features CNN and Jill Starishevsky’s abuse prevention guide for children, My Body Belongs to Me. The book sold 948 copies when launched in April. Then, after a CNN feature on April 30, sales topped 1,700 in May. And Barnes & Noble, which had not initially carried the title, began inventorying it.

Anastasia Scott, the Minneapolis publisher’s publicist, says she’s usually cautious about crediting a single story with all of a sales increase. But, she notes, “In this particular case, we had a lot of direct feedback from reps, buyers, social media followers, and other consumers who specifically referenced the moving CNN article on Jill, so we can assume it was influential.

“Of course, these prospective readers may have also heard about the book on Free Spirit’s blog, in our catalog, through our weekly e-blasts, or in other review publications,” she adds. “It often takes multiple contacts with a reader to make a sale.”

It also takes time. My Body Belongs to Me provides an example of how long it can take for a media hit, Scott explains. “Two years ago, Jill was a guest speaker at an elementary school PTA event in New York City. One mother in attendance happened to be CNN journalist Kelly Wallace. Jill’s work to eradicate sexual violence against young people stuck with the reporter and, years later, Kelly decided to contact Jill for a Sexual Assault Awareness Month interview. There had recently been several high profile cases of child abuse in the news cycle and the piece gained a lot of traction online.”

In this case, the timing was perfect. Starishevsky’s book, self-published in 2009, had just been revised and republished by Free Spirit.

Online Publicity, Better Sales

Contributing articles to websites and publications is another route to publicity, and for Jeff Gunhus at Seven Guns Press in Annapolis, MD, a feature story on the Amazon. com home page spiked sales of both his YA fantasy and
his parenting book.

Determined to get his own son, a reluctant reader, interested in books, Gunhus self-published Jack Templar Monster Hunter, and then, as he puts it, “dove into literacy issues,” especially about young readers. “I noticed a success story on Amazon.com featuring a self published author. It was an interesting piece, but even more interesting was the link for submitting my own story for consideration, success_stories@ amazon.com.”

Within a month, Gunhus heard that Amazon was interested in his story. “That was followed by another month of backand- forth as the story worked its way through the editorial process,” he says, adding that “the person who first received my submission became a real advocate and made the process fun and exciting. The Amazon team was an incredible pleasure to work with throughout.”

The story went live in June, headlined, “Kid Won’t Read? You’re Not Alone,” with a boxed sidebar titled, “Jeff’s 10 Tips for Reaching Your Reluctant Reader.” On the day it appeared, Gunhus reports, he sold at least 150 copies of his titles, and sales continued to be strong throughout the three months the story was appearing intermittently on the Amazon home page, sometimes exceeding 200 a day. About 60 percent of his sales were for the YA novel, with the balance for his parenting guide; 25 percent of the sales were for print editions. This exposure led to other sales: The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) Press bought rights to his parenting book, Reaching the Reluctant Reader, and rights to four of his Jack Templar novels for publication in Azerbaijan.

Other pluses: “Getting emails from friends around the country reporting that they signed on to Amazon to buy something and saw my face staring back at them.” And most exciting, “so many viewers clicked through to my tips about reaching reluctant readers. I received dozens of e-mails with positive feedback.”

So, besides using traditional and social media to promote books, Gunhus advises publishers and authors, “Be on constant lookout for opportunities to share your passion and to make the story about something more than your books.”

Social Media, Modest Upswings

At Possibilities Publishing Co. in Burke, VA, Meredith Maslich and her authors use social media to revive sales that slow after spikes. Her most recent release, Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations, by Nevin Martell, was included on the Travel Channel’s summer reading list in late June. In the first seven days afterward, Maslich reports, “we sold 17 Kindle and three Nook downloads, 68 paperbacks via Amazon/CreateSpace, and almost 100 more when the author spoke at a conference and at his two launch parties—almost double what my other books sold in their first weeks.”

After three days in July without sales, the publisher retweeted the Travel Channel link with, “Travel Channel put Freak Show on their summer reading list. Did you?” The tweet linked to the article and tagged Martell, who also retweeted it, prompting more than a dozen sales over the next couple of days.

“Since then we’ve averaged around a sale a day, with an occasional small spike in response (I assume) to a particularly good social media mention,” Maslich says. “For example, the day the author put a plea for Amazon reviews on his personal Facebook page, we sold five books.”

This is the ninth title that Possibilities Publishing has released since its founding in September 2012, and Maslich says Martell is the first of its authors whose sales can be attributed to social media.

Trade Media Vs. Today

Eileen Kennedy-Moore is a perfect author in the eyes of Parenting
Press publisher Carolyn Threadgill. An articulate, attractive clinical psychologist who follows up on every possible publicity lead with energy and expertise, she’s the kind of writer whose contact information media people save. And that’s why she ended up on the Today Show on September 2.

“This is a case where persistence—and being able to give good quotes—paid off,” Kennedy-Moore says, describing how a 2009 query via HARO (helpareporter.com), forwarded to her from Parenting Press’s Seattle marketing staff, led to several Working Mother interviews and they in turn led to Today.

Working Mother’s publicist arranged for the magazine’s editor-at-large to be on Today, and then they needed a psychologist to add some weight to the topic, which was labeling kids. It was the executive editor at Working Mother who recommended me,” says Kennedy-Moore, who is also the mother of four children born in an eight-year period and the author of a children’s book for Parenting Press and parenting titles for other publishers.

But timing and topic didn’t click as they had for the Pardeys sailing biography and Free Spirit’s Starishevsky title. In fact, the breaks may have worked against her. Kennedy Moore’s four-minute Today segment aired in mid-morning on what was the first day of school for many American children, a day when parents are likely not to have time for television. The Today producers refused to show the covers of any of her books because they were all more than a year old. What the camera did show was the cover of her Great Courses video, Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids, which was not yet available, even for advance orders. Despite the fact that millions of people might have seen Kennedy-Moore on TV, she received not a single inquiry regarding consulting or speaking.

Nor can any book sales be tracked to Parenting Press’s publicity, which started the Thursday before Today, as soon as Kennedy-Moore was scheduled for the show, with e blasts to libraries, booksellers, school librarians, and the cooperative extension agents who do parenting programs, and which continued after the show, when contacts who had opened the e-mails were sent links to the segment online and to free tie-in downloadables on the Press website.

BitingSolutionBy contrast, a May 2013 Library Journal review of the Parenting Press title The Biting Solution, by Lisa Poelle, spiked sales for at least six months, selling through the initial 2,000-copy press run before the book was a year old. Sales reports from the Press’s distributor, Independent Publishers Group, clearly documented the impact of that review, Threadgill says. IPG shipped only 36 copies of the title in April 2013, but 832 in the eight weeks following the LJ review. Sales continued strong through the fall, with 2,222 copies sold between May and December, and the sales late in the year may have been due in part to

Parenting Press’s continued promotion of the LJ praise in e-blasts to librarians and cooperative extension agents and in Twitter posts to some 1,200 followers.

Sad Surprises

Many members have publicity disappointments to report.

At North Star Books in Pearblossom, CA, Brenda Avadian has been interviewed for stories and then seen them postponed—indefinitely. “Two or three years ago, a writer for the AARP Magazine wanted to do a feature on my book Finding the JOY in Caregiving. I was their key source. But I was sidelined by a celebrity. Then three months later, when they wanted to do the same feature, I was sidelined again by another celeb,” she recalls.

Avadian’s advice: “Continue providing quality content, and one day, the right person will take what you’re doing and run with it, which will then catch the attention of other media. Then, be ready for your 5 minutes of fame! (Used to be 15 minutes, but our attention spans are much shorter today.)”

“The one marketing tip that I thought would pay off was a press release,” says Amy Larchuk, who writes as Java Davis in Media, PA. “So I hired a publicity firm that wrote a good release. Zero results. A year or two later, I had the same firm write another press release. Again zero results. Some things you expect could go either way—success or failure—but I thought at least one of these press releases would have some impact.”

FtJiA2Sending releases isn’t the only tactic for generating publicity that Larchuk has tried. “I’ve done guest interviews on author and reader websites. I’ve done giveaways. I’m networked with other self-published authors and indie readers on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I’ve joined author marketing organizations. I’ve begged for reviews and given away copies for that purpose. I’ve donated paperbacks to local libraries. I’ve advertised and I’ve networked at conferences.
I refuse to believe that I will never, ever find the magic bullet.”

Hits don’t necessarily work either. Loretta Breuning of Inner Mammal Institute in Oakland, CA, writes blog posts for Psychology Today, one of which recently got 60,000 hits and 9,000 likes. Although it mentioned one of her books, she reports that the sales impact was “Zero.”

Similarly, attracting thousands of YouTube views may not spur sales. Within a couple of weeks after a gastroenterologist endorsed Toxic Staple: How Gluten May Be Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do about It!, from Max Health Press, in a TEDx presentation in New Zealand, the video had been seen by 6,000 people—but author/publisher Anne Sarkisian reported only a handful of sales.

Another IBPA member, disappointed when a thriller that got a starred review in Publishers Weekly sold only 100 copies, has a warning for fellow publishers: “Don’t pay for ads or for ‘professional’ reviews or ‘targeted’ marketing e-mails or expensive awards programs.” His sales results from all those were identical to Breuning’s from online hits: “Absolutely zero.”


Experienced publishers and authors advise being realistic about whether publicity will result from contacts with media, and, if publicity does result, whether it will increase sales. They also have recommendations for people handling marketing communications for publishers and authors.

  • Pursue every reasonable opportunity to reach audiences with information specific to a title or an author that is relevant to them.
  • Pursue publicity with patience, persistence, and professionalism.
  • Be prepared to use media releases, e-mail, and social media to give booksellers, reps, and selected media people advance notice of stories, reviews, and appearances.
  • Follow up on publicity. Send reports about it, links to archived stories and appearances, and quotes from coverage. And use social media and e-blasts to publisher and author databases and personalized e-mails to selected media people to report on it as well.
  • Create a plan for fulfilling orders in the event of overwhelming response to publicity, but remember that neither a single story nor a series of stories is likely to generate a huge spurt in sales.

Linda CarlsonLinda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is promoting Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results: How to Buy Print, Broadcast, Outdoor, Online, Direct Response & Offbeat Media without paying for any media exposure. She is striving to be both patient and politely persistent.

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