What it Takes to Get on NPR

A-List Final.jpgLast week I heard a snippet of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert has a new book out and was on the show to talk about it.

A bit earlier in  the same week, an author client had asked if I’d pitched her to NPR shows, including Fresh Air.  My answer was, “Yes, of course.” It always is, because I always pitch the authors I represent to  NPR — and to all the other dream-caliber, A-list outlets. But does that mean I expect interviews to pan out there for them?

Sadly, no.  Not at all.

It’s an uncomfortable dilemma.  Authors want to know their publicist is reaching out to A-list, dream outlets like Fresh Air, The New York Times, Oprah and The Today Show.  Isn’t that one reason they’ve hired a publicist in the first place?  And it wouldn’t make sense to simply leave those outlets off the list of places I reach out to even though the chances for the overwhelming majority of authors are virtually zero.  For one thing, there’s the crucial dream factor for authors.  As I’ve said before here on WU, I’m all for dreaming big!   I also feel that as a matter of principle those outlets should continue hearing from all authors who’d like a fighting chance at recognition.  They should be made aware again and again of these authors’ utterly staggering numbers, the variety of stories they’re writing about, their talent, their accomplishments.

But people like Terry Gross aren’t just looking for a good read to talk about: they’re looking for news.  News, by definition, is something that’s not only new and timely, but is some combination of the following:

  • Important
  • Counter-intuitive
  • Disruptive
  • Relevant

Of course, many of these words are subjective, so each news outlet defines them based on its audience’s demographics, preferences and tastes.  What’s important or relevant to followers of Writer Unboxed or The Nervous Breakdown, for example, may not be to NPR’s 26 million listeners from all walks of life nationwide.

Elizabeth Gilbert is important in NPR’s eyes because she became an international household name with Eat, Pray, Love — both a book and a movie.  Her fame gives her an automatic, open-ended invitation to speak on all the shows we mere mortals only dream of whenever she has something new to say.

Take a look, for example, at these books whose authors NPR has recently featured:

Notice a few things about these authors and their books, aside from having been published by major houses and garnered all the right reviews:  Anchee Min and Scott Lynch are already phenomenal bestsellers.  Min’s books talk about the important, disruptive and highly relevant Chinese cultural revolution and its reverberations here in the U.S.; Lynch’s book is touted on NPR’s web site as “long-awaited” — meaning by…everyone.  Stephen Kinzer writes about a topic of extreme historical relevance.   He also happens to be a veteran New York Times reporter, making his expertise all the more venerable.  Ditto Daniel Lieberman’s expertise due to his Harvard professorship; and his book is on a groundbreaking topic that fits right in to the ongoing conversation about health and concerns us all.

A-list outlets with a stronger focus on fiction use similar criteria in determining which books and which authors’ stories are “news.”  In addition to the usual penchant for fame or big platforms, they look for signs that an author could potentially become big if he or she is not already: an MFA from a top school, high-level prize nominations for short and long fiction.  They also tend to lean toward books they know publishers are giving a lot of marketing support to, because those are the books more people are bound to be reading and talking about over the next several months.  In other words, those books will be news.  How, you ask, do they know about books’ marketing budgets?  Publishers meet with reviewers or producers at these outlets regularly, presenting their latest forthcoming titles and highlighting those they’re most “excited” about.  (Read: “invested in.”)

So where does that leave authors who don’t have the A-list resume and backing? Luckily, there are many hundreds of other outlets out there.  And above all, there are those big dreams that motivate us all to keep reaching for the stars, to work hard and keep striving for the day when we, too, might be on national radio or TV.



About Sharon Bially

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s an active member of Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s 2nd largest independent writing center, and writes for the Grub Street Daily.


  1. says

    Add to this they want someone who is going to be a good interview as well. Some months back, Fresh Air had Daniel Handler on (the artist formerly known as Lemony Snicket). While he had a new kids book out, there was nothing particularly newsworthy about him at the time. However, he was a fantastic guest–witty, engaging, very active.

    Hmm, I wonder if they ever do any sort of ‘pre-screening’ of new talent to make sure they end up with something good….

    • says

      Hi Jeffo! Thanks for this. Note though that Lemony Snicket is famous in his own right: he wrote the books that became a Hollywood movie starring the likes of Jim Carrey with voiceovers by the likes of Dustin Hoffman. That puts him right up there at the level of notoriety that’s attractive to NPR. I’m sure the Fresh Air producers also appreciated his charisma, but sadly, that’s not at all the first thing they look for. Al lot of radio stations do however hold pre-interviews, usually to prepare for the actual interview, but every now and then guests get screened out at that point. Few if any have time to actually pre-screen — one more reason for being extremely selective and look for an existing media platform up front.

  2. says

    The rich get richer… If you are already famous, you are a known quantity – for NPR to attract and keep their own listeners.

    If they could get only known quantities, and keep their listeners happy every day, they would.

    Fortunately for the rest of us, many of the A-listers are too busy to go on NPR today.

    So then it becomes a game of how down into the pool do they go – at which point being special at a lower level provides some opportunities. The plan is to be ready.

    I think it is a good idea to at least have in mind while writing how to make yourself more attractive to the publicity sources you will eventually need. Preparation includes being professional, using whatever talents you have that make you stand out from the crowd, and being as good as you possibly can: especially if you intend to do it yourself, your quality must be superb.

    Also fortunately, many, many DIYers are not superb – they are not the competition.

    Thanks for the reminder to write with the end in mind.


  3. says

    Love this post, because I love the interviews on NPR. I’m guessing a similar process is in place with the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I love their spin on really serious topics.

  4. says

    Great perspective. Would you recommend to new authors to focus on local outlets or things like podcasts? What are some of your favorite smaller market interview opportunities?

    • says

      Susan – there’s so much new authors, small press authors and indie authors can do! Identifying those opportunities is a much more important part of the publicist’s role than fruitlessly pitching the likes of NPR. There are many online author radio shows. There’s local media (although some markets are more open to author coverage than others). There are book blogs, online literary publications (I mentioned The Nervous Breakdown above, for example) etc. Check out this WU post in which I gave a couple of examples of the results of one self-published author’s successful campaign

  5. says

    With the number of books coming out per day, I’ve read something like over forty novels and over a hundred non-fiction works, it’s not surprising that outlets like NPR can set such high hurdles. I thought I’d jumped a big one when taking to my periodontist about my books and he said he had a good friend whose daughter is a producer for Oprah. He talked to the guy but he said he’s always getting hit on because of her connection so they don’t discuss her work any more. Darn! But Sharon, I’m going to keep trying because you never know!

  6. says

    I’ve always wondered if those outlets really help to sell books or if the author’s name had already sold them. What about us newbies? Does it makes sense to contact local radio stations? We have to use our limited time wisely, so I’d hate to waste any if it’s only to hear my own voice on the radio. Although I would love to be interviewed by Frank Beckmann on WJR in Detroit!

    • says

      Ron – there’s definitely a bit of a mystery surrounding the media coverage-sales correlation. In the very least, coverage (especially high profile) can cause a momentary spike in sales. Sometimes this can cause a book to “catch on” via the ripple effect. But the rule of thumb is that one thing’s sure: nobody is going to buy a book if they haven’t ever heard of it!

      Re: what makes sense for newbies, see my response to Susan.

  7. says

    Thank you for this, Sharon. I’ve never thought about what makes a book newsworthy . . . I guess we fiction writers need to learn to be a little more disruptive if we want to chat with Terry.

    I so appreciate your thoughts and insights! Makes me see publicity in a different light too!

  8. says


    Great insights. It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that even though we’re dealing with the arts, the people who convey the arts are business people. Or trying to be. Thanks much!