Questions and Answers about Book Promotion

At Upper Access, we have conversations with a great many of the hundreds of new publishers who set up business every year. Here are some of the questions they ask most often. Perhaps some of our answers may serve as a refresher for established publishers as well.

Q. When I'm still at the production stages of my first book, what publicity issues should I consider?
A. You need to know from the beginning how you intend to market the book. If you hope to attract major reviews and sell to bookstores and libraries, it is essential that you adopt very high standards for production. Editing, typesetting, and cover design must all be of professional quality. That is less true of a book that you will sell mainly just from your Web site, or at the back of the room when you give a speech, or a book mainly for your family and friends.

Q. I've got good computer skills. Is it okay to save money by typesetting the book and designing the cover myself?
A. If you hope to sell to the trade, you should seek professional help with your first title. It is usually a bad idea, for example, to typeset the book with software such as MS Word or MS Publisher. Major reviewers will be able to tell that it wasn't professionally typeset, so they will not consider it for review. And even if you are a skilled graphic artist, book-cover design is a specialized field. With time, you may develop the skills needed for professional book production, but it is safest to pay for professional help with your first titles. Again, this is less important if you do not expect to sell many copies to bookstores and libraries.

Q. Do I need to make arrangements ahead of time for distribution of my book?
A. If you are planning to sell to the trade, the answer is yes. Most bookstores, for example, prefer to buy from Ingram Book Co., a major wholesaler. Ingram, unfortunately, does not work directly with the smallest publishers. As an alternative, you can sign on with Baker & Taylor, the dominant wholesaler for libraries but also a significant player in the bookstore market. Or, you may wish to sign up with a distributor such as Book Clearing House Distribution Division, or Beagle Bay, which will handle your trade sales, including those to Ingram. If you have plans for a substantial ongoing publishing program, you may have a larger choice of distributors. A good one, which we use, is Midpoint Trade Books. These issues need to be sorted out before the book goes on the market.

Q. Is it better to publish my book myself, or to pay a POD publisher like iUniverse to publish it?
A. Again, it depends on what your objective is. Some of the POD subsidy publishers do good work for a low price. They'll save you the expense of buying a block of ISBN numbers and setting up your own business. However, major reviewers will not review books published under these imprints, no matter how good the book might be. Bookstores will "special-order" them at the request of a customer, but will not stock them. Therefore, your sales opportunities are limited. By contrast, a true self-published book, if it's well produced, can qualify for major reviews and sales to the trade. In short, if you are writing memoirs to share with your extended family, a subsidy publisher may be the best bet. If you have a hope of making your book a bestseller, you should either find a traditional publisher or start your own publishing company.

Q. Will I need to send out bound galleys prior to the publication date?
A. You should do so if you hope to sell to bookstores and libraries. Most of the biggest reviewers will consider reviewing your book only if they receive a galley (or some other advance version of the book) at least three months—and preferably four months or more—prior to the official publication date. For example, many librarians base their purchases on reviews in Booklist and Library Journal. Those magazines almost never review books after the publication date, and without those reviews, you will lose the opportunity to sell many books to libraries.

Q. Who else should get galleys, besides the library publications?
A. That's a judgment call, depending on the book and the budget. Most of the biggest and most prestigious reviewers will insist on galleys. For example, if you hope for a review in the New York Times, you must send a galley to the appropriate editor. But a Times review may just be a long-shot for your first book anyway, so you need to decide whether it's worth spending a few dollars to send a galley. What's certain is that you won't get the review if you don't send a galley. Also, if there are publications that may be interested in purchasing serial rights, you should get material to them as early as possible.

Q. My first book is a novel. Are the promotional considerations different for a novel than for a nonfiction book?
A. Yes. There are a great many ways to promote nonfiction. If you miss out on reviews, you can generate news and feature articles and talk-show interviews on nonfiction subjects. But to sell significant numbers of copies of a novel, you usually need reviews. And the major opportunities for reviews are before the book is published and immediately afterward. Also, most people buy novels at bookstores, whereas they're open to ordering nonfiction by mail or the Internet. In short, with a novel, you need good distribution and you need to concentrate your promotional efforts up front. If you miss the window of opportunity, it's a lot harder to pick up promotions later than it is with nonfiction.

Q. Are paid advertisements a good way to sell books?
A. Only in very specific situations. For example, we've found that if a book gets a great review in Library Journal, it may pay to buy small ads in subsequent issues and in other library publications, quoting the review. In other words, make sure that all librarians are aware of that good review. But if you don't have a good review to quote, you'd be wasting your money on an ad in a library publication. Librarians purchase books based on reviews, not ads. There are other situations that merit purchasing advertisements, but this should be a very small part of most promotional campaigns.

Q. What about mailing of flyers to libraries?
A. That can be very effective if the flyer quotes positive reviews from publications that are respected by librarians. But again, if you don't have reviews to quote, the flyer will be a waste of money.

Q. What about mailing of flyers to bookstores?
A. If you have good bookstore distribution (in other words, at minimum, if you are carried by Ingram), then a really well-designed flyer to a good list, sent by itself or in a mailing with other very good books, can be effective. But before you sign up for a mailing, reread all the caveats in the previous sentence.

Q. Are broadcast interviews a good way to sell books?
A. The short answer is yes. Interview programs on radio and television are dominated by authors. That wouldn't be true if they weren't selling books! That said, most new authors are surprised by how few books are sold as a direct result of their first few broadcast interviews. The best advice is to enjoy the interviews—which can be a lot of fun—and coordinate them with other events such as book signings. In the long run, consider them practice sessions for the eventual invitation from Oprah. Oprah, as we all know, sells huge numbers of books.

Q. Over all, is it better to pursue publicity from broadcast or print media?
A. In general, print media sell more books than broadcast media. Book readers are a minority of the population. Most of them also read magazines and newspapers. Not all radio listeners and television viewers read books. An article in a newspaper with 50,000 circulation will sell far more books than a radio interview with 50,000 listeners. But a comprehensive media campaign will take advantage of all forms of media. People are more likely to buy a book if they've heard about it several times—they may buy it only after they heard about it on the radio, in the newspaper, and on a Web search. In that case, you can't give credit to any of those individual promotions for the sale. The effect is cumulative. That said, some broadcast promotions are extremely effective by themselves. If you are a guest on a radio program syndicated by 200 stations, you may well sell two books per station, or 400 books, as a direct result. And many more of the people who were exposed to your book may well buy it the next time they hear about it.

Q. What should be included in a press release?
A. Press releases are the most misunderstood of all promotional tools. Journalists roll their eyes when they look at the crap they receive from most high-priced publicists. 90% are thrown in the trash immediately, and another 9% are thrown in the trash after a little reflection. A press release needs to be a news or feature story. The fact that you are announcing publication of your book is not news and is not a feature. An effective press release is an interesting story by itself. In most good press releases about books, the author and book title get mentioned by about the third paragraph. If you just want to say nice things about the book, a pitch letter works better than a press release.

Q. Umm. Given the above answer, does it ever make sense to write a press release about a fiction book?
A. Yes, sometimes. It's often possible to put together a news/feature article about a fiction book, although it's harder than with nonfiction. And there are occasions when it makes sense to break the rule. For example, in some limited situations, one can write a press release that is basically a sample review. Some journalists and reviewers will take quotes from it and use it with their own analysis. But this is an exception to the rule that needs to be applied sparingly. In most cases, a document labeled as a "press release" that is just praise for the book will end up in the trash. Even with a fiction book, a press release should strive for news or feature value.

Q. What is a pitch letter?
A. A pitch letter accompanies the review copy and other material. It describes how important and wonderful the book is, and why it will be appreciated by the readers or listeners. It may or may not be accompanied by a press release.

Q. What is a sell sheet?
A. A sheet of paper that lists the title, author, pub date, ISBN, LCCN, price, number of pages, distributor if appropriate, etc., etc., etc. If there's a big promotional budget or anything other that reviewers truly need to know about, that can be included too, but keep it short and simple. This is usually included with galleys and review copies, along with the pitch letter and other materials.

Q. What is the best way to distribute press releases?
A. First, of course, they are good inserts with review copies. But they are also an important vehicle to reach thousands of other media. By casting a wide net, you can find the media who are interested in your book, without sending copies to all of them in a cold mailing. Means of transmission are evolving. In the past, the U.S. mail predominated. More recently, there were broadcast faxes. Now, the majority seem to go by e-mail. At Upper Access, we keep track of the media that prefer to receive releases by e-mail, and we reach the others by broadcast fax. For any given book, we sort the mail lists by subject, and usually broadcast a total of about 2,000 by e-mail and fax.

Q. What results should I expect if I hire a publicist?
A. Sorry to say, there's no sure way to predict the results. At Upper Access, we do most of our own publicity and have sometimes provided publicity services to other publishers. We do a good job of bringing a book to the attention of all the appropriate reviewers, other journalists, talk-show hosts, etc. We can help move books to the top of the review pile, along with the books from Random House and other big presses. However, we can't force the reviewers and other journalists to like the book, or to consider it worthy of the limited space available for reviews. Therefore, even with a great campaign, there is never any assurance of major reviews. But a good publicist can improve the odds.

Copyright © 2002-2008 by Upper Access, Inc. Permission is granted to reproduce this document as long as it is reproduced in full, including this copyright statement and contact information for Upper Access, Inc. Partial reproduction or other use is prohibited unless permission is specifically granted by Upper Access, Inc.
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