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Attempting to Control the Outcome of Book PR or Marketing Can Backfire (and Usually Does)


When your book launches, you naturally have a vision of where you’d like it to go and what you’d like to see happen. Reviews, interviews, readers, sales… Maybe fame and fortune! (Truth be told, many of us do harbor this dream [2] deep down inside.)  Yet, whether this vision is clear or blurred around the edges, a part of you knows that realistically, it may not take the exact shape you hope for in the end.

If you’re taking proactive steps to promote your book, staying grounded in this reality takes on a whole new meaning. After all, setting up a plan usually starts with laying out specific goals, then writing up — and plowing through — the to-do list that will bring them to fruition.  Should you decide to hire a marketing or PR pro to help, the word “realistic” can easily lose its meaning altogether. Now, there’s money on the table. You’d like it to buy you exactly what you want.

As one providing these marketing and PR services, I see what often happens next: the vision morphs into a veritable checklist of desired outcomes. Specific events to speak at, specific media outlets where coverage should happen, specific social influencers who should be convinced to send out a tweet.

How I wish it were so easy! The truth is, book PR can be as messy and unpredictable as a first draft. It’s very much an art, not a science. The process is a lot like querying agents: we make hit lists of people to contact, draft press releases and email pitches that we tailor in as much as possible to specific individuals or groups, and send them out. Despite follow-up and pavement pounding, often our efforts are greeted only with radio silence.

In working on campaigns, my wonderful team and I always have our own wish lists and hopes for each book. There may be a particular news site we see as a perfect match for a specific novel we’re promoting. Or a radio show we would love to see interview this novel’s author. But even in cases where we have a strong hunch that coverage will pan out, the odds are fairly low that it will.

But there’s a beautiful flip side to this: even as we get the silent treatment from the outlets and people on our wish list (including from people we know personally), we inevitably wind up getting interest from all sorts of other wonderful outlets we had no expectations for at all. Those interviews on MSNBC, NPR’s On Point? Those articles in Marie Claire or The Washington Post? They always come as a huge, and thrilling, surprise!

Which brings me back to control. Focusing too much time or energy on a checklist of desired outcomes can actually impede your PR or marketing pro’s efforts to do what it takes to generate wonderful surprises. If an author implores us to keep trying The Today Show, for example, we may not have the bandwidth that allows the next great idea for a pitch that will really get traction to pop into our head. It’s kind of like in David Milgrim’s delightful children’s book Cows Can’t Fly [3]: you can’t see the amazing flying cows if you’re “much too busy looking down.”

Control takes all sorts of other forms, too. We’ve worked with authors who are determined to be covered nearly exclusively by A-list outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic, even when we advise against it. They ask us to limit their press lists, or to simply turn down offers of coverage from lower-profile outlets. One author wanted us to avoid pitching entire sectors of the media where she did not want to appear, although those sectors would have been a terrific fit for her story. In all of these cases, the efforts backfired. The campaigns generated painfully few media opportunities, and the biggest results were disappointment and frustration.

Sadly, I see this time and again.

How, then, can you approach a book promotion project in a way that honors your goals without setting you up for disappointment?

Accept that goals can be a moving target

As a writer, you’re in familiar territory here. Rather than non-negotiable destinations that must be reached, view your goals as wishes that will inform and inspire your journey. Then keep moving forward.

Embrace uncertainty

After so many years of working on your book and all of the emotional ups and downs this brings, it’s only natural to look forward to the publication phase where the process and potential outcome seems more well-defined. But guess what: having a book out in the world can be just as uncertain as writing a draft. Embrace this uncertainty. Even as you promote your book, remember that the greatest rewards are the ones you did not expect.

Make a wish list – then tuck it away

So you want to be on Good Morning America? Or Fresh Air with Terry Gross? These are inspiring possibilities to dream about, but converting them into a series of to-do list items you are determined to act on will most likely leave you feeling dejected, and drained. So keep the wish list as an amulet of sorts. Share it with your publicist with the mutual understanding that it it is a pie-in-the-sky, then tuck away in a place where you can take a peek if you need inspiration but are not pressured or distracted by it.

Remember: it’s all about the surprises

It’s an age-old dilemma: “Why would I pour time, energy or money into a project with no clear checklist of results?” From my experience, it’s those wonderful, thrilling surprises that make it all worthwhile a thousand times over. That one obscure blogger who loved your book so much that she recommended it to several book groups, each of which spread the word further until the whole county was reading it. The young woman who reached out to you after reading to tell you how your book had helped her make a difficult decision that changed her life. The conference organizer who heard an interview with you and invited you to speak at a prestigious event. And on and on…Without taking action, none of this would happen at all.

Letting go of attempts to control the outcome may sound like a frightening leap of faith, but then, isn’t that what writing is all about?

Have you carried out a PR or marketing plan for your book? To what extent did you feel in control of the outcome? What surprised you the most?

About Sharon Bially [4]

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially [5]) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR [6], a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap [7], she’s a member of the Director's Circle at Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s largest independent writing center, and writes occasionally for the Grub Street Daily.