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Publishing in a Pandemic: An Insider Interview with a Book Publicist

The first half of this year has been a monumental test in flexibility and resilience for authors and everyone in publishing. My debut novel, The Kindest Lie, will release on February 9, and that publishing date has changed several times as the William Morrow team attempted to position my book and others in their catalog for optimal success during these uncertain times.

Recently, I joined the team of A Mighty Blaze [1], a new organization that formed to help authors and books find their readers during this global pandemic. That’s how I met Laura Rossi who leads publicity for A Mighty Blaze. She worked in-house at top publishers, including Random House, Viking Penguin, and W.W. Norton before founding Laura Rossi Public Relations.

Laura was incredibly generous sharing with me nuggets of wisdom about promoting books during a pandemic, buying the right equipment for all the Zooming and Skyping, making publishing more diverse and inclusive, as well as pulling back the curtain on how some books get on those elusive, coveted “most anticipated” lists. I’ve edited our interview for brevity, but it was seriously so good that I wish all of you could’ve been on the phone with us.

Nancy Johnson: How has the pandemic impacted our ability to get our books out there into the world?

Laura Rossi: The first thing that happened to many books is their publication dates changed. That was a huge pivot for lots of authors, seeing their early summer pub dates move to fall or in some cases 2021. Summers work well for commercial fiction and beach reads, but it’s often not the best time for bigger books. That was a big trend I noticed. Authors had to give up control and let their publishers do what they thought was best in a very different world. Some books published and didn’t live up to expectations the authors had. Lots of books with March, April and May pub dates—copies were already printed and warehouses were still able to mail books—pubbed during a pandemic. But before May there wasn’t a lot of space for book coverage and some of those books that weren’t able to move didn’t get a lot of media or sales. However, if your book came out in hardcover during the pandemic, you still have a shot at pushing that paperback a year or more later. That second chance is encouraging.

NJ: How has publishing had to adjust now that we don’t have hand-sales in bookstores and in-person author events?

LR: All real-life events were paused or canceled, and many went online. Conferences, workshops, big in-person events like BookExpo and the intimate author lunch with someone from a magazine went away. Those schmoozing opportunities to hand-sell your book were gone. Some authors in the past would get pre-sales visits to New York to meet with booksellers. That personal touch has had to go virtual. People are not going on tours visiting 25 bookstores anymore.

NJ: This all sounds terrible. What do you tell your authors about how to pivot in this new environment?

LR: A Mighty Blaze came in and filled up this space for something that didn’t exist, and we immediately embraced going virtual with our authors. That pivot where you’re not hand-selling and being in-person, it’s been all about making an effort to be virtual and live with your fans. Like with Writer Unboxed, you all can still network in a real way using social media. That kind of interaction is important and it’s resonating.

Work with your publicist early. That stigma of me connecting an author to meet directly with a newspaper or magazine editor is gone. Now the editors will say yes to a Zoom call with authors. Authors must swallow their fears and embrace social media. Figure out how to use it. Get yourself on Twitter. Start an author Facebook page. Figure out Instagram in case Katie Couric wants to interview you live on Instagram for IGTV; you want to know what that is.

NJ: Authors are participating these days in so many Zoom, Skype, Crowdcast, Facebook, and Instagram interviews. We can’t turn our homes into film studios, but we want to make a good impression. What is the essential equipment we need?

LR: If you have an old laptop that is just creaking to life when you turn it on, now is a great time to upgrade. You can get a solid Dell with good features and an HD camera without breaking the bank. That will last you two to five years. If you’re doing a lot of interviews, it’s cheap to get a nice microphone and headset from an online retailer. Most people I’m booking for interviews who have newer laptops and good Wi-Fi connections are doing fine and the interviews are coming out clean. Good lighting is key so consider buying a ring light or prop a desk lamp behind your laptop. Also, it’s more professional to do interviews from your laptop, not your phone or iPad. If you’re trying to look at comments to be engaged, the phone can be difficult to manage. Also, phones can drop the call and that connection can be unreliable. Another thing: prop up your laptop and don’t leave it flat on your desk. Usually, three hardcover books will do it so that you’re eye-level with the camera. Do a practice run to get comfortable with the technology and setup beforehand.

NJ: I’ve been watching everyone from big-name authors to midlist ones and debut authors doing these in-conversation events online. I never would’ve been able to attend all these book events around the country in-person. Is this going to be a game-changer for authors who can now reach wider audiences?

LR: Yes, those of us who love books have access to our favorite authors now. Before, if you weren’t in New York, Chicago, LA, Houston, Minneapolis or another major city, you didn’t get those authors. I had to drive to see my favorite authors because they didn’t all come to Providence, Rhode Island. We have unprecedented access now. A 10-city author tour in-person can now go to 20 or 30 locations virtually. I predict that post-vaccine, we will see a hybrid model. All of us, including booksellers and event planners, are brainstorming behind the scenes. We don’t plan to get rid of virtual events. A bookstore event planner is going to have a better chance getting a big-name author now that there’s the option to do it online.

NJ: The other big story this year has been the push for racial justice and equity, the need to amplify the voices of Black authors. What changes do you foresee in publicity and publishing?

LR: Our eyes are wide open to everything with the pandemic stripping us bare. It’s time for change. I came in the business in 1991, getting the great privilege to work with Terry McMillan and I helped book her on Oprah. I’ve been fortunate to work with Black authors throughout my publicity career. But when I gaze around editorial, publicity and marketing tables, it’s very white and there isn’t a ton of diversity. This industry is dying for change.

We all love books and writing. The first thing we are all doing is reading more and listening more to our Black colleagues, even though they’re not in large numbers. That has to change at the hiring level. Also, publishing one Black author a season isn’t reflective of who’s reading books. Black people don’t read. Black people don’t buy books. These are things I’ve heard in my career in publishing. I know that’s not true. Black people do read. That’s a thing!

In terms of media and storytelling and readers, are people in publicity consuming any Black media? Are they watching BET? Do they listen to Black podcasts? Do they read magazines like Essence? If we’re not reading and watching that media, we’re devaluing it. I’m in editorial meetings where people have never heard of The Root. If you’re not familiar with that media, you will never pitch those editors. Read books by Black writers. Be more open to books. Bring those books to the table and give editors the money to acquire them.

NJ: Yes, yes, yes to all of that! There’s a lot of author angst about the “most anticipated” book lists in online publications. What’s the secret to getting on those lists?

LR: Early and often is the secret. Your editor is your cheerleader. Maybe she writes a handwritten note for the galley: When I first read Nancy Johnson’s book, I stayed up the rest of the night finishing it… Those personal touches are put on galleys that are sent to industry influencers. That creates buzz about the book. Already, agents, editors, and industry people are talking about the book. Booksellers and librarians have early galleys. They’re getting starred reviews and articles in trades. There might be pre-sales events. It means the book has a good marketing, advertising, and pre-sales budget. Some of that noise makes that book almost unignorable. These may not be the best books of the season, but they’re qualified by their publishers as being their biggest, most important books on the list. You start seeing that book getting repeat mentions on Buzzfeed, PopSugar, People, Vanity Fair, and USA Today. The previews get the fuel from all the pre-selling in of that book to bookstores and reviewers.

When I was working in-house in the old days, we’d position our really big books. I remember going to The Today Show, Dateline, and Good Morning America to meet with producers. We’d seed those books everywhere very early. I met with book editors at Good Housekeeping, Esquire, Essence, and NPR. Some books come out quietly though, and then boom, they’re on every list because the writing is pure gold. There’s something that resonates, and that book just blows up.

NJ: There’s so much that’s outside of our control as authors, so how do we distinguish ourselves and build our brands during these unsettling times?

LR: Get in and dip your toes in social media. Understand your demographics and know where your message will resonate best. Maybe Twitter is wrong for you, but Facebook is where you need to be. Claim your Goodreads author profile. Be online. Don’t just save your social media for when your book comes out. Make it part of your brand identity now. If you have an old website that isn’t responsive, put money into refreshing and upgrading it. Get an art student in design to do it if you’re on a tight budget. Make sure the content speaks to people and there’s a way to contact you on the site. Include buy links that are democratic, being inclusive of indies and online chains.

This is a special time of change, a moment in history. Think about what beyond your book and writing matters to you. What social causes do you want to be vocal about? Do you want to get involved with Black Lives Matter by setting up a bookshop.org store under your name and figure out how to donate to your favorite indies or Black booksellers? You could do volunteer work that changes your local community. Use this time to make something happen. We have the time now to be thoughtful about how we live. It just can’t be business as usual. Get in it and be part of it. Hopefully there’s something on the other side of all this that we can all proud of.

How has the pandemic affected your publishing journey? What have you done to adapt to the virtual book world? How have you been successful promoting your book during these challenging times? How will you use this unique time to define your brand as an author and a human being?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.

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