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Publicising your book - Maria McCarthy

by MariaM 

Posted: 15 September 2007
Word Count: 2666
Summary: Talk at Society of Authors, Nov 2006

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Workshop leader

Maria McCarthy is a freelance journalist and teaches journalism at Bath University. She has also written a book about learning to drive – The Girls’ Guide to Losing Your L Plates: How to pass your driving test to be published by Simon and Schuster in January 2007.

Big Question - Does publicity actually sell books? Is it worth it?
Maria began by saying she didn’t know! Some books have been huge successes through word-of-mouth (Captain Corelli, Chocolat, Harry Potter). But then others such as as Gillian McKeith’s diet books – owe their success largely to the coverage given by her TV series.
And there’s evidence that lots of publicity won’t necessarily make people buy books if they don’t want to. For example –
David Blunkett has been on radios 2 and 4, on TV etc, lots of coverage for his book which to date (Nov 06) has sold less than 2,000 copies, (he got a £400,000 advance)
Rupert Everett, the actor, was on every chat show going – got £1million advance for his book and it’s sold about 15,000 copies in hardback so far
On the other hand, Jordan shifted 900,000 copies of her autobiography (and got a £7.5k advance).
Maria said that the level at which you get involved with publicity is up to you – if you’re tremendously shy and find public speaking etc harrowing you might prefer to confine your efforts more to writing articles/promotion on internet forums. If you’re outgoing and sociable you might find you enjoy being interviewed on local radio or giving talks, even if you’re unsure how many extra copies it shifts. Her aim was to present some options and leave it up to the individual author.

Targeted publicity or blanket coverage?
If you write astrophysics textbooks, you might feel that it’s only worth trying to get coverage in magazines such as Astrophysics Today, The New Scientist etc and that appearing in your local paper or Woman and Home isn’t going to shift copies in the way that it might if you’d written a more mainstream book such as romance and crime. And you’d probably be right! However, Maria pointed out that it’s a case of planning what sort of media profile you want – if you want to stay within academia that’s fine, but if you have aspirations to say, get involved in popular science TV programmes then showing you’re capable of talking about your specialist subject to lay people can be worthwhile.

Do you have to be young, beautiful, famous or have had terrible childhood to generate publicity?
Maria acknowledged that it can feel as if it’s only possible to get publicity if you’re young/beautiful/well-connected – or maybe if have led a life that’s involved being a mercenary/drugs runner/drag queen/ being beaten and locked in the coal hole by cruel parents or been unusual in some other way.
And that if you’ve led a relatively blameless life (a job, marriage, children) then you’re dead in the water where publicity is concerned. But no! Whatever your background, there will be something interesting about it. She also pointed out that you’re guaranteed to have strong opinions on the themes of your books, as if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have written them. You’ve also got the ‘how I became a writer’ story to go on. So lots of material really. Don’t be disheartened – is a question of teasing it all out.

Publicity and Your Publisher
Some publishers love it when authors get involved in their publicity and approach journalists independently, others feel uneasy. Maria advised that you find out where yours stands and added that personally she didn’t mind at all being approached directly by authors and found them far better at describing their own work, etc, than publicists.
She explained that it was a good idea to have a meeting with your publicist if at all possible to find out what they’re doing, and how you can work together. It’s a good idea to look over any press releases they’ve written for your book, just to make sure you’re happy with them.
Author photos – Maria urged participants to make a bit of an effort with these and to allow themselves a little vanity! If you don’t have any family or friends that can take a good photograph, then having a session with a professional photographer is a good idea. One participant had had a good newspaper photograph taken and was able to arrange to buy the copyright.
Supporting bumph – business cards, envelope stickers, postcards
Maria recommended vistaprint.co.uk – an inexpensive online company. Other participants had also found it useful, and some had uploaded copies of their book cover onto business cards and postcards. However Vistaprint do tend to bombard you with emails of ‘special offers’ so be aware of that!
Websites Maria said that one of the advantages of having a website is that journalists can find you directly, by googling you rather than going via your publicist. Also you can put samples of your work up, so journalist can get up to speed on you more briskly. She considers her own website, www.mariamccarthy.co.uk to be one of the best investments she’s ever made – it’s 3 pages and cost £350.
Should you ever consider using a freelance publicist?
Maria advised caution. There are good professional PR people out there, but as a profession they’re notoriously dippy – promising the earth but not producing very much. If you decide to go down this route, shop around for personal recommendations.

Maria advised doing some small local groups first – Wis and Church groups to get a feel for public speaking and to see if you like it. Going to other author events at local bookshops etc will give you a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Once you’re comfortable with it, you could approach Literature Festivals directly (she did this recently and will be speaking at the Daphne Du Maurier Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival and Salisbury Festival during 2007).

Local paper, local radio – Maria suggested the following strategy
 Decide what your angle is. You’ve just had a book published/you’re giving a library talk/there’s a relevant date in the calendar(for example, if a romantic novelist could get in touch around Valentine’s Day and offer to chat about love/romance on radio). Also some local papers and magazines do features on ‘local characters’ (local postie, local headteacher, local writer) so might be able to get in on that.
 Find out who the right person is to contact
 Then send a press release (outline in handout).
 Call up (in a nice way) and ask if it will go into the paper. Incidentally, if you invite journalists to a do (book launch/library talk) don’t be surprised if they don’t turn up… are worked v hard these days, and difficult to get out of office. Maria said she once went to a National Trust events launch where there were tables groaning with wonderful food – only two journalists turned up!
 Local radio – will probably get a 2 minute slot if have had book out. If you want to extend your presence, maybe approach with idea of an occasional book review slot (Maria did this for Radio Devon). Maria canvassed the group for experiences of local radio, most of which had been extremely positive.

National Media
 Writing magazines – Maria said it might be worth approaching Writing magazine and Writers’ Forum. Mslexia have a section on ‘How I did it’ (got published).
 Trade Papers and magazines - If your book relates to zoology or dentistry or being a publican or an estate agent or a swimming coach, magazines in these areas are likely to be interested in hearing from you.
National mags/newspapers
Maria explained that national magazines and newspapers can be more difficult to break into than local ones.
‘Having an angle’ is important – it’s important to think hard about what’s so special about your book (its ‘Unique Selling Point’ or USP), how this might appeal to different publications and how to approach them.
Personal involvement – The media love personal links … If a character in your book has Alzheimer’s disease and you’ve cared for a relative with this, or your heroine is a teacher in an inner-city school and that’s what you’ve done, the media are likely to be interested. If this is the case then when approaching it’s best to come straight to the point and say that you’re willing to share your story, rather than going down the more formal press release route.
Women’s magazines – can be a rich source of publicity – they love ‘I wrote a book at 40’ or ‘I wrote a book after being dumped by my love-rat boyfriend’ ‘triumph’ type stories, so again, can approach directly with these.
Writing articles yourself – it can be worth pitching feature ideas to relevant publications – you could get paid, but can also be worth doing even if you’re not (Maria is doing a paid piece about her book for the Sunday Express, and also a short free one for an undergraduate glossy magazine, because the readership is so much her target audience).
Making contact with national journalists
- Can get details of relevant mags via Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – call up, ask for email address, email either a press release or the angle you think they might be interested in.
- If at all possible, go along to all the writing meetings that you can and always have cards handy in case you run into anyone who might want to use your story.
- Save any clippings that you get to show journalists. Will help them see that you can make good copy.
 Might want to try googling journalists with your area of interests… eg ‘health’ + ‘journalist’ or ‘gardening’ + ‘journalist’ or ‘education’ + ‘journalism’ – freelancers often have websites, - can contact them via that… might not get instant results but at least it gets you on their radar.

Ideas for helping journalists contact you
 Make it clear to your publicist, on your website, via any professional associations that you’re into being contacted by the media. The British Psychological Society, for example, has a media contacts register which one participant had found useful.
 www.starnow.com This website is aimed primarily at actors and models – however, clicking on the ‘magazine’ or ‘TV’ section is something of a revelation! This is where journalists who are looking for case studies often advertise…. for example
TV examples
- People with phobias wanted for new BBC show
- Contributors wanted for Russell Brand’s Got Issues programme
Maria said you might not be allowed to mention your book much (or maybe even at all) but could put ‘appeared on TV on your CV’.
Magazine examples
 Have you been caught in an avalanche? Zest magazine
 Have you traced your family tree? Sunday supplement magazine
 Did you have a breakthrough at 40? Top Sante magazine
 Are you a single dad? Eve magazine
Maria said it costs about £25 for 6 months membership (membership allows you to contact journalists via the site, and to put your profile up) and that she’d found it worthwhile. But you can browse the site for free if you’re curious!
 www.expertsources.com – Maria thinks this might be useful and is going to go on it herself as a ‘learning to drive’ expert – but can’t recommend from personal experience yet.
Maria said this can snowball from print media.
Also worth approaching programmes direct. And if you want to practice your radio technique then lunchtime phone-in programmes can be useful – for example Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 (and afterwards, can put ‘has appeared on national radio’ on your CV!).

Maria said that dealing with the media isn’t so much a case of going into lion’s den as into the monkey’s cage. Like life in the monkey’s cage contact with the media can be lively and fun, but it’s also got a superficial chattery quality to it - so be prepared for the pitfalls you might encounter and be ready to tackle them!
Don’t expect your interviewer to have read your book
Be willing to give them a brief potted version and let the interview go from there.
If you do decide to use personal stories to publicise your book, think ahead.
What are you willing to talk about, what do you want to avoid? Anything you want to gloss over and how could you? Be prepared for awkward questions and have answers for them.
And even on non-personal topics, words can get twisted
Maria gave an example of being interviewed about her creative writing classes. The journalist asked her if she thought you had to be good at writing at school to be able to do it successfully later on. She said no, not necessarily because people develop at different rates. However the introduction to the article then read… ‘Do you hate grammar and are rubbish at spelling? Well, don’t worry, because Maria McCarthy says you can still be a bestselling author like Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins!’
Talking about your writing
Maria said that you should be prepared to talk about what inspires you, the themes, settings etc that inspired this particular book, also your writing methods. If you’re an insomniac and write at 3am, or write in a potting shed listening to heavy metal music, do mention it, because it makes good copy.
Be a good interviewee
Maria urged participants not to be shy. Journalists are short on time so important to get to the point and tell them what’s special about your book.
Basically journalists are fishing for interesting stuff…so speed it up by just handing over the fish!
Some interviewers might want to make fun, tease you about your writing (for example if you write romance – might want to ask you if you wear a big pink hat, make Barbara Cartland jokes)
Unless you particularly enjoy fighting your corner Maria suggested avoiding conflict and changing the subject as quickly as you can to something you’d rather talk about. Don’t get drawn into squabbles and aim to come away as the bigger person.
Participants had had very mixed experiences with journalists – some being badly misquoted or the angle of their interview being skewed towards some minor, irrelevant point of their book rather than encompassing the whole. One participant found herself having to field questions about a famous ancestor rather than the focus of interviews being entirely on her book. Overall, caution when dealing with the press was advised! The point was made that one of the advantages of local radio is that they can’t twist your words – you say what you say and even if it’s not perfect, at least it’s all you!
Avoiding errors/copy approval
Maria explained that most journalists won’t give copy approval (ie, where you get to look at what they’ve written and approve it before it goes into the paper/mag). And the reason for this isn’t just journalists’ ethics! It’s also because once an interviewee is given a feature, they find that people tend to show it to their friends/neighbours/mum and want to tinker with it endlessly and have lots of changes – whereas the journalist just wants to get shot of the piece and get onto writing the next one. Asking them to read it out over the phone can be a good compromise. This is a ‘recognised’ compromise and gives you the opportunity to correct anything too glaringly wrong. They might not agree but is worth asking.

Maria ended the workshop by gathering participants into groups to share what they felt the Unique Selling Points of their books might be and to discuss publicity ideas and share experiences.

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Comments by other Members

snowbell at 14:42 on 16 September 2007  Report this post
Maria - that's brilliant, so helpful. Thanks so much for putting that up for people.

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