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Lesson Learned: Life-Saving Survival Skills

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by George DeVault, author, Fire Call!

George DeVault

How one author overcame the challenges of marketing his memoir.

How do young firefighters become old firefighters? They learn early in their careers to always expect the unexpected. Then, they adapt to often rapidly changing conditions and capitalize on any and all opportunities.

In independent publishing, you can expect more “unexpected” than in a raging three-alarm fire—that makes firefighter survival skills a real life-saver.

Case in point is my self-published memoir, Fire Call! It’s the little-known story of how our country is losing its first line of defense against fire, floods, and other catastrophes as told through the highs—and lows—of a guy who spent 30 years on the business end of a fire hose.

Fire Call! started off strong. First came a bronze IPPY Award, then a Next Generation finalist, and a Chanticleer Blue Ribbon.

But, despite that, traditional marketing and PR efforts didn’t go very far or very fast. The first of the unexpected surprises were:

  • Discovering that staff book reviewers on newspapers are nearly extinct
  • Realizing prejudice against self-published books is so strong it’s like trying to teach a pig to sing—it just wastes your time and annoys the pig

When I sent review copies of Fire Call! to both the features editor and the news reporter who cover our area for the local daily newspaper, they were confused. Was Fire Call! “news” or “feature” material? They weren’t sure, so neither did anything. Never mind that the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has fallen by 80 percent, dropping from 300,000 in the late 1970s to about 50,000 today; the story is much the same nationwide—“The Disappearing Volunteer Firefighter,” The New York Times headlined it in 2014.

Then columnist Bill White wrote an article about a four-generation firefighting family in a nearby town. I sent him a copy of Fire Call!

“It’s a terrific read,” White later wrote in his blog. “Full of exciting stories about fires and other disasters. I know I came away with far greater appreciation for the life of a volunteer firefighter and the sacrifices that most of us take for granted.”

Great comments, but publicity didn’t gain much traction until Fire Call! was recognized by some decidedly non-literary types: my fellow firefighters.

Despite winning awards after being published, traditional marketing methods for FIRE CALL! didn’t go far. Publicity didn’t gain much traction until the book was recognized by fellow firefighters.

Within weeks of my receiving the prestigious Charles A. “Chet” Henry Fire Service Advocacy Award from the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute (PFESI) this past November, Fire Call! was featured in a full-page article with a color photo in the Pennsylvania Fireman, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 10,000. One of the things that grabbed PFESI’s attention was the fact that I donated a copy of Fire Call! to every one of the 39 members of Pennsylvania House and Senate committees that control funding for volunteer firefighters. I also donate a portion of the book’s proceeds to volunteer fire companies.

But the press releases I batted out went off in totally different directions. The results included:

  • A half-page article with color photo in the center of page B1 of Farm and Dairy, an Ohio-based weekly newspaper with 30,000 subscribers. The headline was “Vanishing Volunteers, Award-Winning Book Raises Awareness and Money for Volunteer Firefighters.”
  • Four paragraphs on page A3 of Lancaster Farming, a weekly newspaper with a national circulation of 60,000. The headline was “Lehigh County Farmer Wins Fire Service Award.” (Fire Call! didn’t instantly leap onto any bestseller lists, but pre-Christmas sales soared.)

Why the “farm press?” Simple: I also happen to be an organic vegetable grower. A “farmer-makes-good” story was naturally of interest to farm press.

A slightly different version of my press release went to the Pennsylvania Township News, an 8,000-circulation monthly magazine published by Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, because another hat I wear is that of township supervisor. Due to the long magazine editorial lead time, it’s too early to say what fruit that might bear, but I have my hopes. That press release also contained a bit of news of direct interest to all township supervisors in the state: In the Nov. 8 election, voters in our township overwhelmingly approved a modest (0.1385 percent) increase in the township’s 1 percent earned income tax to preserve farmland and other open space. It is the first open space tax in Lehigh County.

That proves what author and New York Times columnist Michael Pollan said in a writing seminar I attended a few years ago: “To be most effective, we each may speak in any number of voices to a wide variety of audiences.” In Pollan’s case, he said those include the voices of a father, journalist, Jew, activist, professor, human being, or just someone who likes to eat—and happens to care about his food, where it comes from and how it is produced.

Think of all the contacts outside of publishing in your life. They could be religious or ethnic groups, alumni or trade associations, fraternities or sororities, veterans groups, or even book or mothers’ clubs. Other custom-tailored pitches are somewhere in the works at:

  • Boys’ Life — That may sound strange coming from someone who just qualified for Medicare, but a knot I learned more than 50 years ago on the way to becoming an Eagle Scout helped save a man’s life in a water rescue described in the book, so it might make a good condensed excerpt.
  • AARP The Magazine — There are many ways we “seniors” can help our local volunteer fire company without ever getting near a burning building.

To paraphrase metaphysical poet John Donne, no publisher is an island. Everyone is a piece of something much larger. And, when it comes to marketing and PR, ask not for whom opportunity knocks, it knocks for thee.

A veteran of newspapers in Ohio and South Florida, and editor of Rodale’s New Farm magazine in the US and Russia for 25 years, George DeVault writes and raises organic vegetables, berries, and flowers with his wife, Melanie, on their small farm in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. He is a nationally certified volunteer firefighter (former fire chief) and township supervisor.

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