Ah, the best-laid publicity plans of authors and publishers always go astray.
Well, not always, but what’s an author to do when a tragedy dominates the news cycle the week of a book’s release and all those carefully scheduled television and radio interviews are canceled?
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“Be flexible,” says publicist Mike Onorato. “When we are pitching media, there are things that are beyond our control. Let’s recognize we need to be flexible. I counsel my clients: when they worry, we reposition. There are a lot of other things we can do that aren’t at the level of national media.”
Onorato has been in book publicity for about 15 years, as an in-house publicist at John Wiley & Sons, as a publicist at a small boutique firm, and now as the executive director of publicity at Smith Publicity in New York City.
When national coverage is disrupted, he says, authors often turn to “secondary” and “tertiary” media.
“In the book world, maybe we’re going after bloggers that cover books, maybe we’re focusing on social influencers, maybe local radio,” Onorato says. “[And] I say secondary not in a pejorative way, but just in terms of the exposure.”
Whether an author is self-published, with an independent or university press, or published by a major house, a publicity plan is essential to the success of a book, but the extent to which that plan can be implemented in the midst of a tragedy may vary.
Authors with smaller publishers may fare better since those houses may have fewer books and more time to devote to promotion, but large publishing houses like the Big Five (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) “tend to have a window when they promote the new book and if, for any reason, that window is closed, they just go on to next book,” says John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books.
“When the media is hitting, you want books to be in stores. If for some reason the media is lost, then the whole plan has fallen by the wayside,” Kremer says.
“It’s just a certain amount of time and certain amount of books,” he says. Though publicists will pitch authors in their backlist for timely events, “the focus is always on the new titles.”
One person’s tragedy, another person’s TV appearance?
When tragedies happen, not all publicity opportunities are affected in the same way.
“TV is the main place where you are impacted by shootings and tragedy and news events,” says Kremer, who began his publishing and book marketing career in 1985. “Sometimes you get kicked out of newspaper, but not often. Once in a while, a radio interview will get bumped, but for most places, you will still get interviewed.”
Onorato was working at a small boutique PR firm on 9/11.
“The coverage was so dominating in the weeks to come, we had to be cognizant of what we were pitching and recognize the national media would not be picking up anything that had nothing to do with search and recovery,” he says.
And the unexpected event doesn’t have to be a shooting or bombing, Kremer says.
“Hurricane Sandy,” he says, referencing the 2012 storm, “…shut down an incredible number of speaking opportunities because that wasn’t the news at the time.”
“We always tell our clients: You’re confirmed – barring breaking news.”
Onorato recalls a client who was flying in to a national morning show during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the day before his arrival, officials found E. coli in the water in New Orleans and the show canceled the guest.
“We always tell our clients: You’re confirmed – barring breaking news,” Onorato says. “They are pretty understanding [about] what drives those particular shows. They recognize they are going to be bumped, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Kremer says though many TV shows book their guests two to three months in advance, an author’s first goal should be rescheduling.
“If they are really interested, they will work with you to rebook,” he says.
Some authors may turn to the publisher for help, which, Kremer says “probably isn’t the best place to go” because of the publisher’s commitments to upcoming books.
“It would probably be better for some authors to contact a publicist, and that’s expensive,” he says. “Most authors don’t have money for a good publicist with media contacts. Those tend to be fairly expensive because they have built relationships over the years,” notes Onorato, who says his company works with clients with a range of budgets.
At Smith Publicity, Onorato says staying on top of bookings and re-bookings is a priority.
“If something like that is canceled, of course we would check back,” he says. “We will work with the producer on trying to get something scheduled.”
Fixed events, like elections, can also get in an author’s way. Onorato describes the 2016 election and the period leading up to it as “a very tough news cycle.”
“We weren’t even going to pitch a client that couldn’t speak to an angle from that,” he says. “If we had a children’s book or cookbook, we had to recognize the media is not going to want a particular story at that time.”
In those cases, publicists may have to “take it down a notch” by going after more appropriate venues and not necessarily national media, he says.
“We need to recognize that we are not able to get this [booking] right at this moment, so what else can we do?” he says.
But what if the tragedy is a private one instead of a public one?
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to be promoting when you are dealing with a personal tragedy,” Kremer says. “Your heart won’t be in it. Your heart has to be in the promotion.”
He advises writers to “deal with your tragedy first,” though he recognizes that may be a risk.
“With the New York publishers, if you wait three months, they will have told the stores to take it off the shelves,” Kremer says. “Work with a publisher or agent to say ‘I am dealing with this – what can we do to keep the book alive so we can relaunch?’” Onorato says most of the producers his firm works with are understanding.
“We can’t predict when things will happen,” Onorato says. “If something is happening, I don’t want you hopping on a plane for five hours when a family member is sick.”
Kremer recognizes that canceling a book tour or appearances will depend on the nature of the tragedy and the person.
“Let’s say that your spouse dies,” he says. “A serious question is ‘What would they want me to do?’ If I were in the middle of it, I know my wife would want me to continue. Some [authors] would have spouses who would want them to take the time to mourn because they know that’s what you need.”
Dealing with personal tragedy
Author Carla Buckley is no stranger to tragedy.
Her novels often feature characters navigating life in the midst of affliction and adversity: rare medical conditions, flu pandemics, horrific accidents, and even deaths.
But Buckley’s first novel, The Things That Keep Us Here, faced its own near-death experience. The novel’s publication was pushed back 10 times.
The sixth-month delay was partly due to internal issues at Random House, Buckley says, but mostly due to an untimely coincidence: the spread of H1N1, the “bird flu.” Ironically, Buckley’s book was about a flu pandemic that exhibited the signs of the one in 1918 but was caused by a different strain of the virus. The book finally hit stores in 2010.
“I was worried on a personal level about H1N1,” says Buckley, “[but] the selfish writer part of me worried that after writing for 12 years and not getting published, that it may never be safe to release that book.”
In 2012, her novel Invisible hit stores in December, the same week of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Buckley says, “I found myself as a writer retreating, going quiet. Not wanting to talk about my novel. Not wanting to do events. Really grieving with the country as a mom. It was such a terrible thing; I felt it deeply.”
While she didn’t cancel any interviews, she did cancel her events, which were scheduled in January.
“I actually canceled a really important one,” Buckley says. “I don’t think it made a difference in my sales. I honor my obligations, and that’s my only regret: That people went to the trouble to make something happen [and it didn’t].”
Buckley says Invisible’s subject matter influenced her decisions.
“Sandy Hook lost lives, and I have lost lives in Invisible, too,” says Buckley, “and so I have to be sensitive to those that are actually dealing with the things that I’m only imagining.”
Buckley’s fourth novel, The Good Goodbye, which was released last year, is about “a mother who has just sent her first child off to college, and she gets a phone call that her child has been in a serious accident.”
“Here I was writing about a child in the ICU – and [now] here I was sitting next to my son in the ICU.”
“I was in the middle of writing that novel and promoting my third one,” Buckley says. “I was on my book tour when my husband called to say my son, who was in college, had been in a serious accident. I had to drop everything and rush to him.”
Buckley recalls the irony.
“Here I was writing about a child in the ICU – and [now] here I was sitting next to my son in the ICU,” Buckley says.
Her son survived (“a miracle,” she says) and she recognizes that many people in a similar situation are not that lucky.
“In the end, because it had a positive outcome, it helped me finish the book because I could understand my mother [character] in a way I had not been able to before,” Buckley says. “I could feel her.”
Aspen Matis, author of Girl in the Woods, had to literally write her way through a personal tragedy.
In 2013, when she was in the middle of writing a memoir about meeting her husband, he went missing, forcing Matis to write about him while she was mourning.
“For me, the stakes were too high to just not write about it,” says Matis, who explains she was emotionally and contractually obligated to finish the manuscript.
She’d received her advance and had already begun living off it; not writing the book would have meant paying back the advance.
“I would have lost everything,” Matis says.
Even though she completed the manuscript, she suggests otherwise if writers have an option.
“I think the healthiest thing is to not write about that stuff,” says Matis, who credits finishing the book to the support of her family and close friends. “I would say wait until you’re ready.”
Stay on your toes
Even though unexpected events may hamper one author, they can help another.
Experts are often booked on shows to analyze an event and provide supporting information and context.
Kremer notes that when Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared in early 2014, it presented an opportunity to certain authors.
“If they wrote about Southeast Asia or airplane safety, there were different writers that had the opportunity” to speak about it, Kremer says. “Even people who wrote about loss and what you do when you lose a family member. They may have had a book that was older [but] because there was a news story, that made people interested.”
Onorato says much of publicists’ days are spent monitoring the media for angles.
“We figure out who we have within our client database that can speak to a certain subject,” he says. “If we can find an angle, we can pitch that out.”
“One of the key things for authors is that you have to keep your name in front of the media.”
While a publicist might search their backlist for relevant authors, Kremer says a writer should always be employing their own strategies to be called by producers.
“One of the key things for authors is that you have to keep your name in front of the media. [So] whenever they do have a breaking news and you match it, [they will call you],” Kremer says.
He suggested doing an “old-fashioned” mailing of Rolodex cards, headlined with your name and the topic that you can talk about.
“For an author, I would do it probably every three months,” he says. “You want to be front of mind. A lot of reporters and editors remember the people they were recently contacted by.”
Some writers may have a conflict with promoting themselves on the backs of someone else’s tragedy, but Kremer believes it can be done morally.
“Be principled and ethical in your heart,” Kremer says. “The main purpose should be ‘How can I help people by being interviewed?’”
All hands on the publishing deck
When the best-laid plans do go astray, it might be best to call in some backup.
“One of the publicists I’d probably go to first is media-connect.com,” Kremer says of the 50-year old company formerly known as Planned Television Arts. “Some of the services that they do are TV placements, and they will bring an author into the studio and do 20 interviews from around the country – they call it a ‘Satellite Media Tour.’ They have good relationships with the top shows. They work with a lot of authors, and they are reasonably priced in terms of [what] an author [will] probably make [in book sales].”
Whether a writer is working with an in-house or independent publicist, Onorato says all authors should adopt the same philosophy when they approach a publicity campaign: Be flexible.
“Books have – pun intended – a shelf life,” he says. “Yes, we want as much to happen in a certain amount of time…[but] if something is going to happen to prevent media from taking a look at it, we can try other things.”
Keysha Whitaker’s work has appeared in The Writer, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. She has an MFA from The New School.