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Publicity on a Shoestring

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Some Background. In the September issue of the “PMA Newsletter” in an article entitled “Getting Picked Up by the Chains,” PMA members were introduced to two entrepreneurial, self-published authors, Mary and Don, who run Picture Perfect Press (PPP). These two PMA members have requested anonymity, but I can assure you that they do exist and were interviewed extensively to prepare this article.

As you learned in the September PMA Newsletter, Picture Perfect Press got started because the principals, Mary and Don, were outstanding professional photographers. They enjoy their craft tremendously and their friends have encouraged them to share their creativity and unique photographic tips with amateur and professional picture-takers. Thus, Mary and Don founded Picture Perfect Press and now have three published books. A well-known publisher handled their first two titles. And the third and most recent book is their first self-published venture.
One thing that Mary and Don do best is to practice “the small press/self-published author’s creed” (which is): “Always plan for a sizable special sales outlet for your book. Understand that you must be the first, loudest and strongest promoter for your book(s). Be prepared to become an endless self-promoter, using every scrap of creativity, energy and street-savvy. And recognize that you must do this even after your book becomes a success.”
The second thing that Mary and Don do best is “publicity on a shoestring.” The tips and techniques presented in this article have helped them to sell tens of thousands of copies of their books to bookstores, camera stores and hundreds of specialty outlets, many of which you would never think would buy copies in bulk. Mary and Don’s publicity efforts are simplistic and refreshing. They do a lot of the same things that giant publicity departments and high powered freelance publicists do, but they also practice some creative and entrepreneurial techniques that you may find helpful to your own publicity efforts.

Talking Tours

One of the things that Mary and Don incorporate into their books is the concept of “Talking Tours.” As they go from location to location doing some very exciting travel and fashion photography, they come in contact with a large number of people who are instrumental in helping them to make their photographs better. There’s always the local camera store that they religiously visit every time they go on location. But beyond that, there are hotel staff members, local travel agents, members of the tourist board, tour operators, restaurant managers and local area experts. Often these people are ready to offer a helping hand, suggest a shooting location, talk about special equipment they may need, or be of help in a myriad of ways.
Mary and Don have made it a policy to capture the names and addresses of all helpful people they meet along the road and include references to them in their books. Therefore, if you’re going to the Cayman Islands and are planning to take your camera to do some professional or personal photography, you’ll find numerous references to the “talking tour people” they have met on previous trips. When their most recent book was published, Mary and Don made sure to send copies of it to all of the helpful people mentioned. They also enclosed a note indicating the page where the person’s name was and asked them to help sell additional copies.
The result of this activity is the establishment of a large number of roving local sales agents (ambassadors) for their books. These are people who are unabashed promoters of the titles and, in many instances, these people have been responsible for hundreds of copies in sales. Mary and Don’s talking tour people also include tour group operators who buy the book in bulk for resale and local bookstores who receive word-of-mouth requests.
The real key to this technique lies in the letters that Mary and Don send out. They send a personal note with each book and ask the talking tour people to “please talk up our new book-we really need your help!” (More on this later.)

Review Copies with a Twist

It is not uncommon for a large publisher to give away 3,500-4,000 review copies to the media. Obviously Mary and Don, doing publicity on a shoestring, do not have the budget to compete with the big guys. So they handle the subject of review copies in a different manner. Mary and Don have sent out about 250 review copies of their new title but every one has been preceded by a phone call asking the reviewer to take a personal interest in the title. With a strong personal appeal both verbally and in writing, Mary asks editors and reviewers to write about the book and to recommend it to their readership or customers. Mary devotes about half of her day to this activity and their phone bill shows it. She is constantly on the phone pitching the book, suggesting articles, offering to write an article or send an article to a newspaper or magazine. Her persistence has paid off both in terms of increased book sales as well as articles that have been published about their books.

“Modern Bride”-Again!

One of the other techniques that Mary and Don practice in doing publicity on a shoestring is to keep track of previous contacts. When they published their first book, they were fortunate to receive a nice full-page article in Modern Bride quoting from the book and mentioning the title in several places. This was such a great article, that Mary called the editor to thank her for doing it and has periodically made call backs to this editor to stay in touch. So when the new book was published, it was a natural for Mary to go back to her friend at Modern Bride, pitch the book, and secure a promise to mention the title in a future article. It’s always easier to call a friend and someone who knows you and your work when asking for a review or favor.

Don’t Forget the Trip

down the Amazon!

Mary and Don are not computer geeks, but they have quickly learned the value of having the book cover as well as full and complete listings on Amazon.com. As soon as their new book was published, they made sure that the cover was put up on the Web site along with copy that accurately described the title. But they didn’t stop there! The next step in their Amazon.com strategy was to contact close friends and relatives and ask them to write positive reviews about the book and post them to the site. Mary even went so far as to write up four reviews and send them to her reviewer friends giving examples of the type of thing she would like to see them mention. (It is very easy for a publisher to put up a cover or for someone to post a review to a title in Amazon. The instructions for doing it are located right at the site.) The more copies of a title that are sold through Amazon, the higher the rating that book receives. If your book sells enough, Amazon will buy the book directly from you and will position your book to come up as a bestseller in the category.
The nice thing about Amazon.com is that when they need copies of Mary and Don’s new book, they send an e-mail directly to their warehouse placing the order. Their fulfillment operation is able to receive the e-mail order and turn books around within 24 hours. It’s a very efficient process.
As a bookseller, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com are two Internet sites that are a must for small publishers. They are rapidly becoming the fourth bookstore chain in America, and if you’re not registered with them and taking advantage of all their bells and whistles, you are missing easy sales. Adventuretravel.com is another Web site that sells travel and travel-related books. Mary and Don have sold “a ton” of books through them as well.

Ya Gotta Have Lists,

Miles and Miles of Lists!

One of the things that Picture Perfect Press does not have is a big promotion budget! Don and Mary have estimated that they spent about $3,000 to promote their new title and some of that money was not well spent (more on this subject later in this article). Most of this money has been directed at publicity and the heart and soul of their activity has been focused on preparing press releases and filler articles which quote from the book and give it strong endorsement.
But Don and Mary don’t have the money to rent publicity lists. Oh, they’ve tried a few lists from some of the popular publishing books on the market, but found they were getting up to 10% returns from bad addresses. So Don and Mary have tried a different, more economical approach: they went to the public library. Living in a large metropolitan area, Mary found a wealth of list information at the local library. She went through the Gale Directories with a fine-tooth comb and carefully reviewed the Bacon’s book of editors and publications. The library even had the Bacon’s CD-ROM on hand which proved most valuable because it was the most up-to-date reference of names available. All the lists they needed for magazines, newspapers and radio were here in the latest editions and best of all were available free!
The thing that Mary and Don discovered even when they used current references was that many editorial listings were no longer accurate. These people tend to move around a great deal, and if they’re no longer at the magazine or newspaper you’ve sent the release to, no effort is made to forward your release or respond to you to let you know who the right editor is. Your release gets a fast trip to the circular file. The only solution is to call up the editor before you mail the piece and make sure they are the right person to receive your release.

If You Want Ink,

You Have to Make Them Feel Responsible

Mary knows that getting publicity for her book is a challenging task. She’s at the job for four to five hours a day five days a week. She is competing against some of the best freelance publicists and publicity departments in the business, and she knows how hard it is to get any attention for her title, let alone an actual article devoted to her book. But Mary practices a few exceptional techniques. These help her to be successful so hopefully they will work for your book too.
In case you don’t already know it, there’s a very slim chance you are going to get to speak with an editor when you call. Oh it happens occasionally that you connect with the editor-but only occasionally. What you get, of course, is voice mail. Mary’s rule of thumb with voice mail is: “never leave a message longer than one minute.” Mary actually practices and times her pitch to make sure she can say everything she needs to say, succinctly, clearly and directly within one minute. She also takes a few minutes before every call to “pump herself up.” This is a natural for Mary because she is a genuinely warm and enthusiastic person, but she wants that feature of her personality to come through in voice mail too! No one likes to listen to a voice drone on or say the same thing in three different ways!
The other thing Mary never says is: “I’m calling to see if you received the book I sent.” That’s what everyone else says! Mary’s pitch is: “I’m calling to entice you into writing something about our book!” She follows this statement with some hype about the book and some facts and statistics about the audience interested in this subject. And she gets it all on tape within one minute! Experience has shown that these little baited hooks are frequently the morsels that grab an editor’s attention and interest. Sometimes these little tidbits are just the elements that will get the editor to call back or dig out your press release for more!
Perhaps the most important thing that Mary does to conclude her one-minute speech is to say, “I would really appreciate it if you could mention our book in an article because we really need your help.” Mary confides that this personal appeal will sometimes make the editor feel responsible and frequently gets her a mention, a blurb or a short snippet.
“I know that some publicists would disagree with this technique,” states Mary. “Most publicists recommend that small publishers stand on their own feet, and not beg for attention, but I have worked on the staff and as a freelancer for big magazines in the past. I feel comfortable in approaching editors as a peer and this does not work for everyone. Consequently, I get results,” says Mary. “No one thinks I am small or unprofessional. Quite the contrary, my appeal for assistance usually brings forth a positive, professional response and that turns into articles and that turns into sales!”
Furthermore, Mary believes that pitching herself as a “little guy” is very much to her advantage. It works well for her and she learned this technique from the big guys. Most publicists don’t take the time to personalize their appeals. Consequently, they’re treated in a very routine way. Mary makes the personal connection. She asks for help and she makes sure the editor knows that she knows what she is talking about. What she has to offer is top quality. If you aren’t having success with the approach you’re trying now, perhaps Mary’s technique will work for you.

Persistence, Persistence & Persistence!

Even with these creative and enthusiastic one-minute messages, Mary knows that she has to keep calling back and calling back and calling back! Persistence is the name of the game. She doesn’t say this, but her unspoken persistent message is: “I’m going to keep calling back until you acknowledge me.” Mary walks a fine line here. She has to be persistent, but does not want to take it so far as to be annoying. She is especially persistent with editors who have requested a review copy or have had some previous contact. Lots of times, Mary will send a self-addressed, stamped postcard with her release or review copy. Many editors will take the time to fill out the card and let her know their decision or when they expect to run the article. Mary types the questions on the card so all the editor has to do is write one or two words or check a box: expected date of review, do you wish to receive similar books on this subject?
Occasionally, however, she has crossed the line and the editor has blasted her for pestering. When this happens, Mary backs off and stops calling that editor for a period of four to six months. Then she starts calling again with a fresh, even more creative approach! Mary truly believes in persistence!

Make Some Money

While You’re at It!

Mary has learned that it’s very smart to have several general “filler articles” written and on-hand when she calls to pitch her latest book. These articles run about 1,000 words, quote liberally from her book, and provide appealing information about her pet topic: how to take creative and compelling pictures of popular travel scenes. To help her land articles and get coverage for her book, Mary offers these filler articles to the newspaper editors she calls on a daily basis. The articles are well written and informative, and Mary has been successful in getting editors to print them. (Remember that newspaper editors have to prepare columns every day-they need editorial.) And often a well-written article of general topical interest written by a local author will have strong appeal. When calling local papers, Mary always stresses that she lives locally and subscribes to the paper. As Mary puts it: “I make sure that everything is working for me when I’m pitching my book!”
Often, Mary will volunteer to write an article and ask for payment. She has often earned several hundred dollars for a short magazine article as well as obtained some excellent publicity for her book.
When the article is published, Mary makes a stack of copies and places them in a file. If the article mentions one of her “Walking Tour” people, she sends them a copy with a note that says: “This article was read by one million people and you’re in it!” One example of how this cross-promotional technique has worked can be seen from the mention of a friend’s rental house in the Cayman Islands. The name of the house is “Soon Come,” and Mary makes it known in her articles that the house is available for rental. It has a beautiful view of the beach, and there are tons of picture-taking locations within easy walking distance. Mary gives the phone number to contact if people are interested. People planning a trip to the Caymans have read her article and have called the phone number to investigate. The house has been rented many times over!
This kind of publicity washes both ways. Mary’s friend has made several rentals as a result of referrals in Mary’s articles and Mary has earned the unending promotion and enthusiastic support for her book from her friend! Moral of the story is: never be afraid to pass some support on to others in articles you write. You may find it washing back over you before you know it!
Mary also uses copies of the articles that have been published to send to store and chain buyers. When pitching a buyer on her new book, Mary will often send along a half-dozen press clips to show what a strong promoter she is. “There’s no better way to prove to a buyer that you’re a strong self-promoter than to include copies of clips you gotten,” says Mary.

Working Backward:

Distributor on the Referral Trail

Some time ago, Mary tried to get one of the leading photographic distributors to carry her book and sell it to their photo store contacts. The distributor was reluctant to do it. They took a stack of flyers, but that was as far as the distributor would go. Mary started working the stores this distributor sold to. Every time she called a store, she would tell them to contact the distributor for additional copies. Ultimately, the distributor had so many calls for the books that they began to carry the title.

Mistakes New Publishers Make

According to Mary and Don, the following list of mistakes include some things that new publishers should avoid at all cost.

  • Taking One-Shot, One-Publisher Ads in Publishers Weekly. Mary and Don jumped on a special offer from PW for a 1/9th of a page for only $295. What they didn’t realize was that this was the issue that ran during BEA and publishing people were too busy to look at it! A better idea than the one-shot approach are the one-page group ads that like-minded publishers purchase together. 
  • Taking an ad in a related magazine. Mary and Don spent $900 to take an ad in a related photography magazine. The ad got stuck in the back of the book. Rule of thumb: space ads often just work for the really big guys; save your money! 
  • Forgetting to make sure you’ve got books before you launch your PR. For their previous book, Don and Mary launched an aggressive PR campaign only to learn that their publisher was out of stock. Their book was being reprinted overseas. They received some excellent publicity for the book, but there were no copies to be sold! 
  • Being annoying. Mary admits that she is very good at stopping just short of being annoying to editors. Calling back again and again has resulted in more articles than angry editors. But remember: being a nudge is good; being annoying is bad. “Be careful,” warns Mary. “If you really anger one of these editors, they may decide not to have anything to do with you-forever. You have to change your name and start over!” 
  • Leaving long phone messages. Keep your messages short and tell the editor what you want right up front. Keep the proper frame of mind with a happy, positive tone. Practice these words: “I need your help!” 
  • Not being wary of publicity lists published in books. PR lists change daily. Look at the copyright date of the book you’re pulling lists from. If it’s several years old, pass on the lists. If you’re getting more than 10% returns on a list-it’s a bad one. 
  • Sending out too few press releases. Mail out as many press releases as you can afford. Include a flat book cover with the release to keep it distinctive (order extra covers when your book is being printed.) After your mailing, focus on the top 75 media and contact them by phone. 
  • Not offering to write (or sell) an article. You should have two or three articles written and ready to mail on related topics for big magazines. You can also send them a one-page article to wet their appetite. Be sure to mention some statistics in the article that will give the editor a feel for the size of the market. Your statistic should go something like this: “There are 23,000 people who visit the Cayman Islands each year, and each one shoots an average of 38 rolls of film!” 
  • Neglecting to send interview questions. For radio shows, you need to send the production manager a list of interview questions that can be asked over the phone. Some of the questions should be straight, but be sure to include some that are offbeat, to generate interest. Be sure to include lots of unusual facts and lots of specifics. With TV, you can use the same approach, but the spokesperson or author needs to be media coached, attractive and articulate. 
  • Not considering the value of your time. What is your time worth? You could spend an entire week doing follow up and making phone calls. Ultimately you have to measure this activity against the number of books you sell. 
  • Being impatient. It takes about four to six months of hard, continuous work to start hitting pay dirt in the publicity game. It comes in bits and spurts and rarely when you expect it. The three Ps are important: personality, persistence and patience!


How to Send Your Package

Mary always sends her books via priority mail (envelopes are free, courtesy of Uncle Sam!) She sends a book with the release wrapped around the outside. She doesn’t use folders or fancy stationery-that’s for the big guys. In fact, recent surveys of magazine and newspaper editors indicate that sending press kit folders is a NO-NO. Editors just don’t want to deal with the folders, and many will throw out the material without even looking at it. You’re better off to simply send your book wrapped with a release and NO MORE!
But Mary still wants her package to be distinctive. The way she accomplishes this is to put cute stickers on the outside of the Priority Mail envelope. She likes dogs and flowers, and little children with great big eyes. “It’s amazing!” says Mary. “When I call up an editor and tell them my book is the one with the cute little stickers on the outside, they always remember my package!” She also has a stamp with the PPP logo on it, and she frequently stamps this logo all over the envelope for emphasis. Editors get a ton of mail and a distinctive envelope is one of the best ways to get noticed. Mary’s technique encourages opening and recollection.


Here’s a list of Mary and Don’s best resource picks:

  • Holler, Swab and Partners is an excellent PR Company, and Mary and Don have had excellent luck with them. You can contact them at 201/963-5544 or fax to 201/963-9280. 
  • John Kremer’s Book Marketing & Publicity Update is excellent. It is frequently revised and has some excellent information. The cost is $170 per year or $317 for two years plus bonuses. Contact them at 800/784-4359. 
  • Bulldog Reporter’s Book Marketing & Publicity is another excellent resource. It’s worth its weight in gold at only $259 a year (frequently advertises specials at $229). It gives excellent tips with phone numbers and addresses. Contact them at 510/596-9300. 
  • A large, public library with a good reference department is also on Mary’s list. She likes the LMP (Literary Market Place) for syndicated columnists (this is also available online). Bacon’s also has an excellent reputation for the accuracy of their lists. 
  • Bradley Communications has excellent lists of radio and TV contacts. Contact them at 800/989-1400, ext. 432. 
  • PMA Co-Op Mailings have worked well for Mary and Don in the library and bookstore market.

That’s Mary and Don’s story and I hope it is helpful to you. If you have questions for Mary or Don or a comment about this article, feel free to contact me via e-mail at robin.bartlett@berlitz.com.Robin Bartlett is a PMA Board Member.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor January, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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