You’ve spent the last three years pouring your soul into this, your magnum opus, and now it’s in the hands of your publisher. Finally, everyone is going to buy your book, read your book, tell their friends about your book, have their lives changed by your book.
NEWSFLASH. Nobody cares about your book. Even your publisher doesn’t seem to care, sometimes. But there’s hope, and it’s called PR. And where your publisher’s publicist can’t or won’t do it, or when you’re self-publishing, you can always use the DIY ethic.
With 140,000 books published in the UK each year, it isn’t easy to get the media interested in yours. The most obvious route is to get reviewed, but literary editors’ desks are besieged. Something has to make them want to invest the time in yours.
Tracy Chevalier took the initiative for her new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, by sourcing sequoia cones and rare apples. Hayley Camis, from Chevalier’s publisher HarperCollins, told me: ‘The apples came with a personalised tag from Tracy saying which page to turn to, in order to read about the rare tiny Pitmaston Pineapple, and what taste sensations to expect when you take a bite. The sequoia cone was a great companion to Tracey’s lush descriptions of the sequoia trees in the book. We wanted booksellers and literary editors to have a sensory experience.’
If a bestselling author can spare the time for a stunt like this, couldn’t you? Sending journalists something out of the ordinary can get you noticed, but it has to be the right ‘something’. According to Preena Gadher, co-founder and managing director at arts PR company Riot Communications, what you send ‘has to be meaningful, otherwise it risks being seen as a gimmick. Recently, for Finnish feminist fantasy Maresi, we sent out a bespoke mailing to key YA bloggers. Hair combs are a recurring motif in the book, so along with proofs we sent beautiful wooden combs personalised with the bloggers’ names. These went down really well and generated a lot of conversation about the book on social media.’
Search the supplements, know the news
Photo by Roman Kraft
Review spaces are scarce these days, but newspapers, particularly weekend editions (and their online equivalents) have pages upon pages to be filled. (Unlike a PR agency, you won’t have a media database, but most journalists’ contact details are easy to find.) Could your protagonist’s dysfunctional relationship with his adoptive parents be turned into a pitch for the Family pages? Keep your nose on the news agenda and consider how you could offer a fresh perspective on a running story. Does your lead character’s enlightening summer working in Portugal make a case for staying in the EU?
Gadher’s co-founder at Riot, Anwen Hooson says: ‘The book pages are fairly niche, so we are always looking for hooks that will allow us to place features in other sections of the papers. In Sapiens, Yuval Harari speculates about the future of humankind. We pitched this to the science correspondent of the Guardian and managed to secure a full-page news story.’
Bag that blog
Newspaper slots are not everything. Think about pitching to blog sites. The online behemoth the Huffington Post gets millions of views each month and is open to posts that are succinct, satisfying and shareable. You need to write the piece first (between 500 and 1,000 words), and you won’t get paid – but get your angle right, and there’s every chance you’ll make it. Search ‘pitch a blog to Huffington Post’ and you’ll find the details. On the day I wrote this article, Ruby Wax and Princess Michael of Kent made the home page with opinion pieces linking their new books to the news agenda. You may not have a TV career or blue blood, but just plain authors regularly make it onto the site.
Pop culture arbiter Buzzfeed also has a ‘community’ section where you can create your own list-based articles (although you’ll need to think of something more topical than ‘12 reasons you should buy my new book’).
Like a book tour but without the carbon footprint, a blog tour can be an effective way of taking your work to new readers. Many companies will charge you to set one up, but you can easily use a search engine (or tools like Book Blogger Directory or Blogorama) to find bloggers who might be interested in your book. You then approach them via email. The tour ‘stops’ by the different blogs on different days over a set time period. Your set list could be anything from a review, a Q&A or a first-person piece. The blogger essentially loans you their audience for your tour date, promoting your content to a community that trusts them. Offer some books or promotional items as giveaways.
Riot’s Hooson says: ‘For Trigger Mortis we invited three key James Bond blogs, all of which are approved by the estate, to submit three questions apiece. Author Anthony Horowitz answered the questions and the resulting blogs were posted in the days leading up to publication.’
Inspire the influencers
After I somehow found my way on to a ‘social media influencers’ list at Penguin, I received a copy of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men along with a signed letter from the author – months before release. I dropped everything I was reading to devour the book before sharing a picture online with my followers. Penguin’s personalised approach played to my ego and turned me into an ambassador. With a few clicks of the mouse (try the free tool Lissted) you can discover the influential voices in the online community that most matters to you, be that books broadly or the subject area of your masterpiece.
From manuscripts to microblogging
Photo by William Iven
Twitter is a brilliant medium for breaking down the barriers between writer and reader, but at its heart it’s a tool for conversations and not sales conversion. Hannah Sheppard, director at DHH Literary Agency advises: ‘Build relationships with other writers, bloggers and readers based on the books you’re reading. Being generous with your time and attention on other people’s books will come back tenfold when it’s time for your book. You’ll turn people off really quickly if you promote too hard – but a little bit of promo amongst general chat will be forgiven.’
‘Creating social media profiles for characters is a tricky one’, says Riot’s Gadher. I agree. My publisher’s PR started a feed for a character from my novel Half Plus Seven but the first I knew of it was when the character followed me. And I was uneasy with someone else writing in the voice of one of my creations. Better perhaps to extend your character’s life to the Twittersphere by previewing snippets from your own account. If you follow a few literary journalists you have a better chance of them taking notice of you when your book hits their desk.
Gadher tells me: ‘Hashtags can work really well for books. One of our most successful was #thatratbook for The Year of the Rat, a debut by Clare Furniss. The playful tone of the hashtag really captured people’s imaginations, so much so that the book was often referred to using it. It was even used in the Tube marketing campaign that came later.’ Before deciding on a hashtag for your book, use Twitter’s search function to check it’s not being used already.
Book into the club
Wherever you are in the UK, you’re only six metres away from a book club. In my experience, organisers love it when a local author can come along. Again, the internet is your friend. Try sites like my-bookclub.com and bookgroup.info, both of which have comprehensive listings of meet-ups across the UK. I approached the organisers of Wales’ biggest book club, Cardiff Read, to pitch my book for their schedule. At the meeting, I encountered 30 people who had spent a month with my book, reading it, thinking about it, liking it, not liking it (3/30 – I’ll take that), but more than anything, reacting to it. It was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had as a writer. They even made me treats inspired by my book, although I’m not sure there’s much call for fag butt and prescription-pill cupcakes at your average farmers’ market.
Ask me anything
In January 2015, Haruki Murakami opened up his website to a Q&A from fans. He especially welcomed personal questions about his favourite cats and the baseball team Yakult Swallows. While it’s unlikely that as many people are going to care if you’re a fan of Maine Coons and Coventry City, set yourself up with a goodreads author page and you’ll be part of a book-based social network with 40 million active users worldwide. Mimic Murakami and set up your own interview sessions with readers. The team at goodreads are open to ideas on the best exchanges of the month, which they then add to their regular newsletter. Readers are also encouraged to review, but be prepared for brutality. I think the one that hurt me most was ‘2 out of 5 – chick-lit for blokes’.
You’ve written a book. You’re a creative soul. So think outside the box.
I got together with an artist friend who turned one of my short stories into a mural on the wall of one of Cardiff’s hippest and busiest coffee shops. If you can’t break into the media, make the media yourself.
While recreating a 1950s study in a Waterstones, as Riot did for the launch of Trigger Mortis, might be out of the reach of all but the most well-supported of authors, children’s author Abi Elphinstone showed how marketing ingenuity doesn’t need to be the preserve of the creative agency. Last summer, she worked with the Exploration Society (an outdoor education organisation) to turn her book Dreamsnatcher into a real-life adventure camp for 9–13-year-olds in the Berkshire countryside. The weekend followed the narrative of her book, all gipsy craft and cooking, moonlit walks and campfire readings, bringing the pages to life and reconnecting kids with nature. And as if that wasn’t lovely enough, the Daily Telegraph gave it a big spread in its supplement.
(This article originally published in The Author, Spring 2016 Issue.)