Marketing books is never easy. But now that COVID-19 has changed the world in so many ways, the literary landscape has altered accordingly. Face-to-face book signings are out. So, too, are live readings and other in-person activities that authors depended on to drum up interest in new titles.
Given that, what’s a PR-seeking author to do?
I ran into this dilemma earlier this year. I had a picture book come out this summer from a regional press, and the first PR-related thing I did when COVID-19 hit? Confirm my website and social media were current and had clear, easy-to-use ways to contact me.
Thankfully, Mike Onorato, vice president of publicity at Smith Publicity, advises doing exactly that. “Be ready to be active. There’s still the need for books and authors, and you’ll need to be ready to work. Media is asking for quicker and tighter turnaround times on interviews and byline article requests. We’ve seen some media prefer email interviews that can quickly be turned into quotes to run in a piece. You’ll need to be ready to go when asked.”
As a magazine writer who regularly interviews people for my articles, if I can’t uncover how to reach you in, say, 45 seconds, I’ll move on versus keep struggling. I assure you that one of your peers has their vital information readily available and can offer me what I need to complete my piece. Don’t think that just nonfiction writers get approached for quotes, either. My 2011 novel-in-verse about a school shooting, Unlocked, earned me multiple unsolicited interviews in the first year alone.
But if you don’t want to wait for PR to come your way – which it doesn’t always do – you can generate interest in yourself and your work via social media. Onorato says, “It’s the one connection we all have to the world now. Be active on social media, and use it to share opinion pieces you’re featured in and otherwise connect with the world. You want to strike that balance between offering commentary/opinion and encouraging others to buy or check out your book.” Though he warns to “be aware of sounding too salesy.”
To see what Onorato means, I give you New York Times bestselling suspense and kidlit author Jonathan Maberry. Check him out yourself on Facebook, Twitter, or his “Three Guys with Beards” podcast. Why? He’s a master of keeping audiences engaged while still sharing the 411 on his (many!) new products. Additionally, he’s translated the growing interest in his work into a well-attended series of affordable Zoom webinars that he offers on topics such as “The Art of the Pitch,” “Writing Fight and Action Scenes,” and “Act Like a Writer.”
Florida-based picture book author Rob Sanders has a couple of suggestions for getting work “out there.” His first? Make recordings of your books available.“When I receive requests for recorded book readings,” he says, “I work with my publishers to seek permission. Then, using pages of the books I’ve already poured into a PowerPoint presentation, it’s easy to record myself reading on Zoom and share the screen to show the PowerPoint of the book as I read. I then upload that recording to a personal YouTube channel, so I have a link to share with the person who had made the request.”
(For those who worry that Sanders might be giving too much away, he only makes the link available to the person making the original request.)
About his second tip, Sanders explains, “I have two books releasing this summer, and I’m working with my local indie bookstore and The Writing Barn out of Austin, Texas, to produce virtual book launches. One launch is being sponsored by one of my publishers, and the other I’m doing independently. The illustrator of each book has been invited to participate in the launch of the book he illustrated.”
Why include the illustrator in a book launch? It’s polite, for one thing. A good illustrator is truly a co-creator for a picture book. For another thing, that’s someone else who can carry the conversation in a meaningful way. Perhaps most important, though, is this – working in collaboration means that a virtual launch’s audience is larger than what Sanders could’ve gathered solo. Leveraging networks beyond your own is a great strategy to get new eyes aimed your way.
Michelle Houts, the author of a dozen books for young readers, is taking full advantage of Zoom sessions. She reports, “I recently had Zoom visits with students in Texas and California. Normally, I talk about how I write from a one-room schoolhouse in Ohio. Last week, I decided to put my computer on the ground and go ring the school bell for my Zoom audience. How amazing is it that a bell rung in Ohio can be heard in Texas and California!” The kids loved it, Houts says, and why wouldn’t they? This is just one creative way to leverage a virtual encounter with readers that you couldn’t replicate at any in-person event.
Kidlit author Alethea Kontis – who goes by Princess Alethea – has been doing live virtual readings in makeup and costume every day for weeks. She’s now shifted this to a twice-a-week format with a special “Deprincessed” Q&A on Saturday. “It’s simulcast on Instagram and Facebook,” she says, “with a personal profile live preshow where I get to chat with my friends. I’ve seen an increase in sales (though not huge) as a result, and I’ve made some amazing new friends (which is the better part). As a result, I’ve now been asked to teach a couple of creative writing classes to teens, which I’m very excited about.”
The school district of San Angelo, Texas, recently invited picture book author Carol Gordon Ekster to be part of a Zoom author flash to share with students and teachers the love of reading and writing. Ekster also became “Talkabook certified” – a new network venture aimed at “connecting children’s authors and illustrators with the young readers inspired by their work.” She adds, “I’ve also done Instagram Live readings and discussion of picture books with TutoringYoutoExcellence.com.”
More and more services like Talkabook are emerging as people realize the thirst for virtual literary entertainment and education supplementation is bigger than ever, and, quite likely, growing.
“Social media is more important than ever as a tool for connecting with potential readers.”
My last case study in book PR is with children’s book author Ruth Spiro, who had a busy spring preparing to launch a new book on April 7. Then everything changed. “It was supposed to be a big book for [publisher] Charlesbridge, too, and I’m imagining boxes of books just sitting in warehouses and empty stores…so disappointing,” she says. After a short moment of feeling lousy about bad luck and unfortunate timing, Spiro got to work on creating fresh plans.
“Social media is more important than ever as a tool for connecting with potential readers,” she says, echoing what Onorato and others told me. “I’m really focusing on these connections – one at a time – with personal responses to teachers and parents who mention my books. I’m also trying to be helpful by amplifying independent bookstores whenever I can on social media. It’s a win-win because when I link to an indie and tag them, they often like and retweet/repost, which helps the visibility for both of us.”
Spiro also takes the initiative to reach out to organizations because they have much larger followings than she does. “I recently did a webinar for an international STEM group, which resulted in a nice bump in book sales,” she explains, “and this week, I’ll be recording a ‘Live from the Library’ video for the Chicago Public Library Foundation – previous guest readers have been the Obamas, Oprah, and Chicago’s own mayor, Lori Lightfoot.” That’s some pretty good company.
I’ll end with one final idea that some writers will love, and some writers will despise. The blog. If you have the time, interest, and dedication to do one well, it’s a fantastic way to be found online and help establish yourself as both a quality writer and a subject-area expert.
For example, I’ve been running OnlyPictureBooks.com for some time now, but quite recently I’m starting to see real momentum: My number of unique visitors per month has nearly doubled in the COVID-19 age, likely because people are at home more, consuming more digital content than normal to pass the time. While I don’t run ads on my site, I do have affiliate links to allow guests to buy any mentioned books, and those sales numbers now bring in more than a couple of Starbucks Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brews each month. Best of all, my visibility in the kidlit world has vastly increased thanks to this blog.
Let’s be clear – it took two years of steady, standout work to get to this point, but the reality is that book PR is far more of a long-term commitment than an only-when-a-book’s-coming-out task. While we all may hope and pray that the world returns to a pre-COVID-19 sense of normalcy, the capacity to reach people without engaging them in live face-to-face fashion is necessarily a cornerstone of any sensible book PR plan of today or tomorrow. Pandemic or not, these PR tips will serve authors well moving forward.
Here’s the thing to hold onto – each and every writer I spoke with about book PR agrees on two encouraging points:
Books can still find new audiences.
Books can change people’s lives.
The path to your book’s success is now likely different than what you’re used to. But stay focused, try new things, and – above all – don’t give up. We need good writers and good books in the world more than ever.