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What to Do About Reviews (and Other Media Coverage)

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by Linda Carlson, Staff Reporter, IBPA Independent

Photo of Linda Carlson

Linda Carlson

Book reviews and author interviews have traditionally been goals of a book launch, and with a good publicity campaign, publishers expected at least a little media exposure—the author’s hometown paper and the appropriate industry and alumni publications at a minimum. For a niche title filling an obvious gap in its area, press releases sometimes generated dozens of author appearances and feature stories.

Coverage had at least two results. Since publicity can breed publicity, exposure in one important paper often led to interviews with other media. And all that visibility often established such a strong reputation for a book that it kept on selling, perhaps at a rate of a thousand (or several thousand) copies a year.

When I asked independent publishers and publicists whether the same kind of campaign would be effective now in creating awareness and jump-starting sales, most responded with words like “eliminated,” “expensive,” and “impossible.” In other words, now it’s a challenge.

What follows describes how publishers are meeting the challenges of getting reviews, interviews, and media mentions. An article coming soon in the Independent will report on the effects of switching to digital galleys, and on whether paid reviews offered by some publishing trade journals can increase sales.

Trying Different Targets

Now that many newspapers and magazines have eliminated book pages, published reviews are often the ones syndicated by the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Associated Press. And, no surprise, these focus on books from A-list publishers and/or books by authors with strong or unusual platforms. The media that do continue to publish or air reviews have such limited space or time for them that they refer readers to Web sites for additional information, and that information may be available only for a fee.

As Doug Canfield, the marketing and sales director at Seattle’s Mountaineers Books, points out, “We’ve seen the publicity function change dramatically in the past two years. Most of our traditional media outlets—newspapers and magazines—have either stopped running book reviews or cut them to a bare minimum. What that’s done is shift our publicity focus to feature editors, and that’s where we’re having success.”

At Sleeping Bear Risk Solutions in Williamsburg, MI, managing director Ed Lee has a similar assessment: “It could be the genre I’m in—travel books—but good reviews and a large number of them seem somewhat elusive.”

Cynthia Shannon

Cynthia Shannon, publicity manager at San Francisco’s Berrett-Koehler Publishers, emphasizes the same point: “I can tell you from personal experience that advance reviews have declined by more than half in the last five years. Thinking of all the book review pages and outlets that have closed or been relegated to the Arts section makes this not a surprise. We now try to get Amazon or blog reviews.”

Getting an author interviewed or a book mentioned in a feature story is also a challenge, because the Lifestyle sections of metro dailies and their predecessor Women’s and Society sections are almost gone. The features and human interest stories that do appear are often from wire services or such syndicates as King Features and Tribune Media Services, and the stories may be too short to do more than mention an author by name.

If you read the writer requests posted on HARO (helpareporter.com), you know that many refer to stories referencing several experts that will be as short as 600 or even 300 words. Items in today’s magazines sometimes run only 35 or 50 words. And even longer stories that logically should mention a book often don’t. Consider, for instance, a recent article about an early photographer in the online Wall Street Journal. It started out, “Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) was for a time partially overshadowed by his more familiar contemporaries Eadweard Muybridge and William Henry Jackson. But with the recent publication of Weston Naef’s full catalog of Watkins’s mammoth plate photographs, we can see that this photographer was not only prolific, but also creator of some of the most beautiful landscape photographs in America.” Although this was a lengthy article, that’s its only reference to the new title, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs, from IBPA member Getty Publications, the publishing arm of Los Angeles’s Getty Museum.

Sometimes reporters quoting authors don’t even refer to their books, especially when an author has impressive credentials. For example, the two doctors who wrote 14 Ways to Protect Your Baby from SIDS for Seattle’s Parenting Press are both recognized experts in SIDS prevention, so reporters mention their faculty and American Academy of Pediatrics positions in articles, rather than the book they wrote.

A Boost for Backlist

Canfield also notes that what editors want to write about may not be what you’re launching. “Unlike reviewers who focus on new books, feature editors are only interested in what’s hot right now—and so we can’t always get them interested in frontlist,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot more media requests for backlist.”

Of course, some writers and reporters still focus on books published in the past six to twelve months, but Mountaineers publicist Emily White reports that, in the last year, newspaper and magazine writers have publicized titles as much eight years old, including A Blistered Kind of Love, a 2003 narrative on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and Soggy Sneakers: A Paddler’s Guide to Oregon Rivers, issued in 2004. Two early 2010 titles, Urban Pantry and Pacific Feast, were both continuing to attract new media requests more than 18 months after launch.

No title seems too old for primetime exposure by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. The best case: at Red Wheel/Weiser, where sales of the 10-year-old The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo skyrocketed to more than 120,000 within weeks after Winfrey recommended it in late 2010. It hit the New York Times bestseller list and has now been translated into 20 languages.

Additional Options

Publicists often turned to broadcast talk shows for promoting books when stations met Federal Communications Commission requirements by running “public interest” programs. Some talk shows still exist, although outside of National Public Radio and public television, many focus on celebrities and sensational or polarizing topics.

The hosts of Internet-only broadcast programs would like us to believe that they’re filling the talk show gap, but that’s hard to accept without significant promotion of these programs or verifiable statistics on audience size.

Still, there’s one advantageous change: If you do get an author on the air, the show will probably be archived as a podcast or video that you can publicize indefinitely, and these archived appearances will be indexed by search engines for years to come. “Chariots of Iron does podcasts and has an extremely long tail,” Jennifer Hancock observes. The Ellenton, FL, author/publisher of The Humanist Guide to Happiness, adds: “My first appearance resulted in me selling more than 100 books that week, and I’m still making sales, months later.”

Two other providers of reviews and mentions are Web sites and blogs.

Web sites that are extensions of other media, such as broadcast stations and print publications, often carry expanded versions of stories that have been aired or printed, and many also have online-only news and features (for example, IBPA member Interweave, based in Loveland, CO, has several Web sites linked to the online pages of its magazines).

And standalone media sites such as the Huffington Post and online remnants of now-defunct print publications, such as Seattle PI (what’s left of the morning Seattle Post-Intelligencer), pay some attention to books.

Then there are the blogs. Those sponsored by or “partnered” with traditional media like the Wall Street Journal (see blogs.wsj.com) may have experienced journalists as writers or editors. Other blogs feature specialists covering topics that print publications couldn’t afford to cover in the same way. Librarian by Day (librarianbyday.net) is one example. Steve Spangler Science, with how-to’s on kids’ science projects at stevespangler.com, is another.

Which Media Are Worth It?

When you’re creating a dissemination list for media or responding to media requests for review copies, one challenge is determining whether the show, periodical, or blog has an audience large enough to warrant the expense of a review copy and media kit.

Cost is not the only issue, especially now that many media people use NetGalley or accept PDFs for reviews. Even if it costs you next to nothing, you may not want your books or authors associated with some blogs if they are simply diaries, full of rants, rumors, or proselytizing, or riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings. This means publicists must review online publications carefully before responding to review copy requests or adding the blogs to a release dissemination list.

Some media are likely to claim high circulation numbers, especially if their circulation is “controlled” (free). Others have lower circulation figures but higher readership. Then there’s “pass-along” readership, a publisher’s estimate of how many people read each physical issue. A blogger may report the number of people subscribing to a blog’s RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. But, like circulation figures, RSS statistics don’t necessarily reveal readership.

“When publications and blogs contact us, we research through Nielsen and our media programs—Cision and BurrellsLuce—to verify their circulation or VPMs [visitors per month],” says Catherine Steen, marketing manager at Creative Publishing International in Minneapolis. “We also survey our consumers at shows and on our Web site to see where they are going for inspiration,” she adds.

Smaller publishers that do not subscribe to services like Cision, which owns the Bacon’s Publicity Directories, can evaluate blogs for appropriateness on a one-by-one basis. A couple of summers ago, that’s what Parenting Press assigned a college student to do while creating a “mommy blog” database. When a blog sounds appropriate, look for the number of comments made by readers, as recorded by the blog’s counter. For example, Alicia Pearson, a Portland, OR, designer/author who blogs at Posie Gets Cozy, had between 50 and 300 comments on each of her routine posts in one recent two-week period, and she sometimes has as many as 2,000.

The Goal Is a Good Fit

Media research can pay off, as Da Capo vice president of publicity Lissa Warren points out. “It’s so important to pull together a targeted media list for every book. For a nature book, a review in E: The Environmental Magazine might generate as many—or even more—sales than a review in the New York Times Book Review. For a music book,” Warren adds, “we’d try hard to get Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly. For a book about the craft of writing, we’d hope to land coverage in The Writer or the AWP Writers Chronicle. For a health book it might be JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. For a military history book we’d aim for WWII magazine or America in World War II.”

Because Da Capo is part of the Perseus Books Group, Lissa Warren may have more resources than smaller publishers, but many agree with her strategy.

At Berrett-Koehler, Shannon also targets media carefully. “As BK publishes primarily business books, we try to get authors featured as ‘experts,’ even if noted only as ‘author of ___’ in an article or TV segment. When possible, we try to get niche media—I’d much rather have a full-page article by one of my authors in a relevant publication with a small circulation than a two-line mention in USA Today—no lie!”

One of Shannon’s favorite publications for coverage is Leadership Excellence, despite its circulation of only 410. And she adds that Florence Stone at American Marketing Association is “also always very supportive and will do interviews and podcasts.” AMA, the Society for Human Resource Management, and the American Society for Training & Development’s T & D magazine are all important to BK, which launches about 40 titles a year and has a backlist of about 500.

At Connecticut Press, Peter Malia says, “We solicit review requests with tailored email and snail-mail campaigns for each title. That approach has led to some very positive coverage through feature stories in newspapers as well as in some specialty magazines.”

Patricia Fry of Matilija Press, whose latest title is Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author (Allworth Press, 2011), provides more detail: “I generally spend at least a week locating magazines, newsletters, and e-zines related to the genre/theme of my book and soliciting reviews in those that are appropriate. While promoting my book on presenting Hawaiian luaus on the mainland, I landed reviews in dozens of cooking, foods, and barbecue publications. I also got reviews in some general, regional, and home entertainment-type magazines and newsletters. Sales tripled as a result.”

The Mysteries of What Works

For most publishers and most titles, identifying what generates sales is rarely possible. “It could be a print media hit—or several—but it could also be TV, radio, or, these days, social media. Even in-store co-op (such as front-table placement at Barnes & Noble stores) can generate a blip,” says Warren of Da Capo, adding, “In the best promotional campaigns all these things are happening at once, which makes it even harder to tell what caused the sales increase.”

At Passporter Press, publisher Dave Marx makes a related point. “In our 12 years, only once has a print review or article generated an immediate, measurable result.” Moreover, he says, “I can’t recall a single media inquiry triggered by either a review or an article/interview. Some have been triggered by Google searches that lead reporters to our Web site.”

But keeping a careful eye on online forums and social media does help Passporter Press assess the value of publicity. “We can often trace bump-ups in sales at our Web site and Amazon to discussions of our books at online forums, Facebook, and similar sites,” Marx says. “Word-of-mouth from ‘real people’ seems to be most effective in triggering immediate action.”

By contrast, he reports, author appearances in and on traditional media and online coverage tend to build awareness instead of directly stimulating sales.

“I’ve learned not to get my hopes up,” says Seattle author/publisher Amy Lang of Birds+Bees+Kids. Most of her interviews come about because of relationships she has established with local writers and broadcast program hosts. “They call me because they are doing a story on talking to kids about sex. I’m one of two or three local experts.”

Lang, who was quoted extensively in a recent Wall Street Journal article (“To Skip the ‘Talk’ About Sex, Have an Ongoing Dialogue”) credited that publicity to “a friend who knows the reporter and my PR guy. I emailed the reporter, too,” Lang notes, “but she didn’t bite until my PR guy worked his magic with a subject line like ‘Sex Educator Struggles with Talking to Her Son.’”

Does all this sell her books? “I see tiny spikes in sales based on this stuff,” Lang says. “Radio, nothing much. Print, ditto. The WSJ thing was bigger, but not much: 30-plus Facebook likes, 50 or so books sold, one direct email.”

Publishers have difficulty determining what spikes sales partly because they often do not know about mentions. “No one sends me copies of reviews, so I have no idea how much is out there now on my books,” Penny D. Weigand points out. CEO at Bellissima Publishing, Weigand does a Google search on her titles each day and also relies on a Google Alert–style notice set up with her email. Recently, she found a review on Turkish Delight: A Kid’s Guide To Istanbul, Turkey in the online edition of an English-language newspaper in Turkey. “It took me completely by surprise,” she declares.

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she has always customized media dissemination lists for her books and those of her clients.

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