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How do you get journalists to want to talk about you? How do you get them to talk about your book?
One classic tool in the toolbox for every author is the press release.
Some authors think press releases have gone the way of the dinosaur.
“Not so,” says Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases. For 22 years, he’s been helping small businesses and authors increase their visibility and credibility through press release marketing.
I interviewed Mickie to find out how authors can use press releases to get media coverage for their books.
Thomas: Are press releases still a thing?
Mickie: Yes, they are, and they still work. In some cases, a single press release can get considerable media pickup. Last year during the pandemic, we had a press release on a dining bond initiative. They took the concept of war bonds and applied it to the dining and restaurant industry. They were selling dining bonds to help local restaurants, and they got picked up. We stopped counting after about 150 news outlets responded. We had responses from The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and all the big media outlets, including some international media. It drove hundreds of thousands of people to their websites, and as a result, millions of dollars went back to local restaurants.
A single press release made it all happen. Typically, a favorable outcome might yield two to four articles from a successful press release.
Thomas: I used to host a drivetime radio show. For two hours every weekday, people would listen to me talk about news and politics. I had to fill two hours of airtime with interesting content for my listeners, so I had guests on the show every day. As a journalist, I wanted to receive press releases.
Certain services would pre-create radio shows. They’d have all the press releases ready to go for different news stories. My job was to sort through the tsunami of news releases and find interesting stories to adapt for my audience.
Press releases were very useful to me.
What is a press release?
Mickie: It’s an announcement to the media. It’s generally written in the third person, and it often includes first-person quotes from you.
A press release must include the following:
- Author’s name
- Press contact
- Dateline ( For authors, it doesn’t have to be where you’re located.)
- Who, what, when, where, why, how information.
A press release is fairly easy to write. The more difficult task is strategizing about how to use it. People need to spend more time figuring out what they’re going to write about instead of making sure it’s well-written.
Thomas: The most important aspect of the release, from my perspective as a radio show host, is the hook.
Journalists want to know how this story is interesting. A classic, boring press release says, “Acme Company Hires New Vice President of Operations.” The industry rags may cover it, but it’s not an interesting topic.
How do you find that hook? How do you find that interesting element for your press release?
How do you write a good hook for a press release?
Mickie: Articulate what’s unique about whatever you’re announcing. A novelist should be able to explain what makes their novel different from everything else out there.
Find a unique element for any of the following:
- the twist
- the protagonist
What compelling thing can you say about your novel without giving it away?
It’s difficult for a novelist to get media pickup through a press release because it is so difficult to translate. People often love a novel because of the writing style or how the story is conveyed. Those elements are hard to articulate in a press release. It’s challenging, but it can be done.
Thomas: How do novelists articulate those things effectively? What’s the secret?
Mickie: Persistence. One of our authors, Sam Jane Brown, write dozens of releases with us. She stayed true to it. She kept trying different hooks and angles.
We kept asking what she could say that she hadn’t said already. What’s a different perspective? We brainstormed and came up with many different hooks and approaches until she finally found some traction.
One thing that helped was that Sam Jane Brown had done a few releases with us, and our media outlets were a little bit familiar with her. People had skimmed her releases before, but maybe they hadn’t covered it yet.
Eventually, she started getting some media pickup. Being persistent and trying different bait will eventually land you some hooks.
Thomas: Journalists have an incredible bias against “boring.” When you write a book, it doesn’t feel boring to you. It feels interesting. But the job of a press release is to make your book interesting to a stranger.
Journalists are always asking, “Is this newsworthy?”
One way to make your novel newsworthy is a technique called newsjacking.
When you connect your story with something that’s already going on in the world, or when you position yourself as the follow-up story, it’s called newsjacking.
News happens fast. Let’s say there’s a terrorist attack, and in the morning, the opening story is about the attack. More information is coming out. It’s all anyone can talk about.
But the next day, every journalist has to write another story about the terrorist attack, but there’s been no new information. Everything is still under investigation. The police chief is giving hour-long press conferences where he’s not saying anything new. Journalists are desperate for experts to interview to continue the story.
And that’s where you, the author, can have that next part of the story.
Perhaps your story is about something less salacious. Still, there’s just the one story in the news. Journalists need a follow-up story because it’s got some heat, but they don’t have any more information. They need an expert to interview. Believe it or not, by being an author, you can position yourself as the expert.
What tips do you have for using press releases as a way of newsjacking?
Mickie: Carefully consider the quote you include. Your quote is important because it’s where you can shine and be original. Compelling quotes that cannot be easily paraphrased are often included in articles. Journalists want to reach out and talk to that person because they can tell they’re going to get strong and relevant content.
You can also use newsjacking to elevate the conversation. To elevate the conversation of the terrorist attack news story, you could talk about how people can prepare or discuss other vulnerabilities we might be facing. As you think about how to elevate the conversation, be prepared with useful and additional information that readers and listeners can use.
Thomas: Think ahead about what kinds of news stories could be a good fit for you. Almost every book has some kind of news story it could attach itself to.
You hear a lot of the same stuff every day, but each story has a different face.
If your novel or memoir features a blizzard, you might wait for a winter weather event and offer useful tips on how to survive extreme temperatures or power outages.
If you have an idea ahead of time, you can start preparing your thoughts. When the time comes, you’ll only have to write the portion of the press release that connects your book to the current event. The rest of your press release is your pitch, and it’s already ready to go.
Besides newsjacking, what else can we do?
Mickie: Provide data and statistics. Look for numbers, statistics, and data that tie in with your book. Can you say something interesting about them?
One of our authors wrote a semiautobiographical novel. It dealt with the concept of “comfort women” from the Philippines during the war. The issue of human trafficking is prevalent now, and there are a lot of available statistics and relevant news stories. She was able to connect the two because, during the war, these things happened. Sadly, very few people talk about it today. Many who went through it just live with it don’t discuss or deal with it. This novel creates an opportunity for discussion. Because there is so much light being shown on human trafficking right now, there’s a real opportunity to start the conversation and to get people talking about what happened and what they experienced.
Thomas: The term “human trafficking” didn’t even exist 20 years ago. They just called it prostitution. Now the conversation has changed, and that’s why it’s important to be familiar with what’s going on.
There are media narratives, and each day the media is harmonizing with the previous day’s news. Trends change. Issues come and go, but you can only notice those if you take a step back.
There was a time when concern over cameras on phones was the thing. The media was scaring people about these camera phones that would allow people to take a picture of you at any time. Everyone was spooked.
That media narrative has run its course. People are no longer afraid of camera phones, but it’s important to be aware of media narratives.
Your author was able to take nonfiction research she did for her fiction book and weaponize it for PR purposes. It helps vindicate novelists for all the time they spend researching for their stories.
It won’t work as well for fantasy. But sometimes you’ll see sci-fi novelists interviewed on scientific topics, so don’t rule it out.
Eight Steps for Generating PR for Your Book
Thomas: Can you walk us through your eight-step process for creating a PR strategy for your book?
Mickie: I have several different mechanisms for coming up with a strategy.
Own Your Story
Audit your story and take an inventory of what you’ve got. Brainstorm types of press releases you could do. If you wrote a novel about a blizzard, try the weather angle. Is there a survivalist component as well? Take an inventory of everything in there. Find out what would be a strong lead for a press release.
Research the Genre and Setting.
Mickie: If you write about a particular subject, make sure you know the industry well and then determine what new and interesting information you can bring to that audience. Maybe you see a blind spot in the industry, or maybe it’s something obvious that everyone in the industry is familiar with. What does your book talk about that’s different? How does it add to the conversation?
Thomas: You can also research some of the top authors in your genre. Search for their names on news sites and see how they’re getting interviewed. What are they talking about, and what angles are they using? You don’t want to copy them exactly because you can’t Stephen King better than Stephen King. But if other authors like you get interviewed, take note. Those journalists may be looking for more folks to interview.
At my college, the newspaper had a rule that articles had to include at least three student quotes. I had gone through a political media training right before I went to college, so I knew exactly how to give good quotes to journalism students. They would call me for a quote on whatever was going on in the news. In fact, they did it so often that the journalism department established a new rule that they couldn’t quote Thomas anymore.
Journalists can’t keep going back to the same authors. They have to bring in new authors and new voices.
Find similar authors, see where and how they are being interviewed, and reach out to those journalists. Say, “Hey, I saw that you quoted this person here.” Then you specifically send that journalist a press release.
When you research, you learn where others have had success, and you increase your own chances of success.
Mickie: The next mechanism for developing a strategy is using quotes.
Develop compelling quotes that stand on their own. You’d be surprised at the number of stories that get written because the journalist wanted to build a story around your compelling quote. They didn’t want to lose the quote.
Be the Friendly Jerk
Another approach is to be the friendly jerk, also known as “the contrarian.” Is there something you can say that goes against the prevalent view? It’s almost the opposite of newsjacking.
If everybody’s saying X, can you say Y?
It’s easy for a journalist to find someone who is saying what everyone else is saying. It’s much harder to find a person who says the opposite but is still fair and balanced. If the journalist hears the opposite viewpoint, they’re certainly going to include it in anything they write on that subject.
Thomas: That’s the ultimate newsjacking strategy because it makes the story more interesting. If you set yourself up as the antagonist, you get all the media you want. That strategy doesn’t work for every brand, but if you have the courage to present yourself as a contrarian, you’ll have an easier time getting media attention.
Mickie: You can be a contrarian and still be completely levelheaded and reasonable. You can also come across as the crazy uncle, and you definitely want to avoid that.
Thomas: Don’t be the crazy uncle, but don’t write this off just because you’re going to get criticism. That heat is exactly what makes something newsworthy. That’s what gets you quoted. People are terrified to buck what society is telling them to do and think. The world needs levelheaded and respectable contrarians. We need more people who are willing to say, “The emperor has no clothes!”
Mickie: Use data, statistics, and surveys to pull out interesting and meaty numbers a journalist can work with.
Sometimes a survey can be interesting. For example, if your novel starts when an auto mechanic finds something interesting left in a car, maybe you could survey auto repair shops about the strange things they find in people’s cars. Then tie the survey answers to your novel.
Mickie: Newsjacking is another method we’ve talked about where you connect an aspect of your book to a current news event.
Become a Local Media Darling
Mickie: You don’t realize how difficult it is for local journalists to find content. It’s very easy to get local media attention. There are probably only about ten journalists in your area to contact, and that includes TV and radio.
When you contact TV and radio shows, you’ll want to reach the producer or booker. For newspapers and magazines, connect with the actual writer.
It’s as easy as calling and asking for the email address. You can also search on Twitter to find contact information. Journalists seem to love Twitter. Find out where they are, reach out to them, and form a real relationship with them.
Even if you don’t have something to promote right now, reach out to them. You could provide information about something that’s hot in your industry or tell about a trend you’re seeing that might help them write an article. Journalists appreciate that kind of help. They’re much more likely to reciprocate in that relationship later when you want to promote a book or a reading tour.
These strategies are ways of analyzing the types of news stories that run and discovering how you can tie your book to them.
Read your local publications and other authors in print and try to determine the message of that story and how it worked. What was the lead? Is there a relevant piece that would apply to you?
Thomas: Local media is a great point of contact. Many local news organizations have instructions from the editor to find the local angle for any story they’re going to do. Every single story you see on the nightly news has a local angle to it. Half the stories your local news reports are national stories, but they report on it like it’s a local story.
For example, I was listening to a news show called The World and Everything in It. They did a humorous story about a medical school that only had 40 slots open, but they accidentally emailed acceptance letters to half a million students, most of whom had never even applied to the medical school.
A local Houston affiliate interviewed someone from their viewing area who’d received that email.
If you wanted to newsjack or establish a relationship with the media, you could have emailed and said, “Hey, I received one of those emails,” and they would have been happy to interview you.
Most people would have gotten an email like that and deleted it. But if you would have contacted the media and offered to forward the email or give a quote, you could establish a relationship with them.
As you watch the national news at six o’clock, start paying attention to how the local news covers the same topics from a local angle. Then start thinking about how you can be the local angle for that story.
Most stores won’t be a fit for you, but some of them will. You never know when you will get selected.
Let’s say an author finds that perfect angle or a relevant statistic to include in their press release. What are the elements that need to go into that press release?
What should be included in a press release?
Mickie: The headline is the most important element. The headline must get the journalists to click through and review the rest of the release for consideration.
Your opening sentence and first paragraph are the most important. They must pull the journalist in and give information on the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the press release.
There can be a boilerplate or an “about” section near the end about the author, but that’s not required.
Include a contact number so that the media can reach you. They love to get quotes and talk with you to feel things out. Most of these journalists aren’t going to read your novel, but they want to know about the setting, characters, age appropriateness, and whether there is colorful language they need to be aware of. They love to talk to writers to get information and determine whether a book would be a good, safe thing for them to write about.
Thomas: Prepare and be psychologically ready to jump on it. The biggest shift in thinking for an author is that there’s no rush to anything. Some authors believe deadlines aren’t real, and everyone’s really laid back. Traditionally published authors will wait two years for their book to come out.
For journalists, it’s much different. A journalist needs your cell phone number right now because they need a quote when they go to print in 30 minutes. They need to get in touch with you. Include your phone number and email address where they’ll get an immediate response because there’s urgency for journalists, and the news moves quickly.
Speaking of getting press releases out to the world, how does your company help authors get their press releases out to journalists?
Mickie: Twenty-five years ago, I was in grad school for creative writing with an emphasis in poetry. It was an MFA program, and I just assumed I was going to be a waiter or a server the rest of my life. I did that for one summer and realized that didn’t work, so I started an office job.
One of my tasks was to program the fax machine and hit send when we had a press release. The fax machine held 100 fax numbers, and we had 190 journalists to reach. Each day I would program it with 100 numbers and hit send. It took all day for the fax machine to send that press release. The next day I would delete it and add the remaining 90 numbers and send it again.
We started to get requests from journalists who would call us and say, “Could you just email that as a Word document?”
We published a lot of telecom traffic statistics, so they wanted to cut and paste the numbers easily. A light bulb went off, and I realized emailing press releases was very natural, and journalists seem to like it. I mentioned it to my boss, and he said, “That sounds like a great business. You should create it.”
So I did. I spent a year contacting journalists, and when I launched a year later, I had about 10,000 journalists in my database. I would email them relevant press releases for their beats and topics. Over the years, it’s grown.
At one point, PR Newswire reached out to me and asked to be included in the distribution. I told them, “Well, you charge $1,000, and I’m charging my clients $200-$400, so it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense for me.” Eventually, we found a win-win solution, and now we’re able to include a custom national distribution over PR Newswire without charging clients $1,000.
Including PR Newswire gives you that that wide reach and that possibility of getting major coverage if your story is newsworthy or interesting enough that it strikes someone’s interest.
We email your release to our journalists, and then we send it over the news wire through PR Newswire. It’s a great opportunity for small businesses to basically have the same lottery ticket that the large companies do. I think journalists like to cover small, hidden gems rather than the big companies. It’s a way to get major media attention and prominence. News coverage is not only for the rich or famous.
Thomas: Some authors are hesitant to pay for a service like this, but paying for the service adds a filter. Many journalists get carpet-bombed with press releases that are not relevant. A service like eReleases.com doesn’t send every press release to every journalist. They have a filter according to beats. They send tech releases to journalists covering the tech industry and human interest stories to journalists who normally cover those.
When eReleases sends a press release, they send it to a specific list. The fact that you had to pay means that the journalist isn’t getting a ton of emails from you every day. They’re only getting a handful, and that’s where the value is.
Some people don’t believe press releases work, and if they’re going to a spam box, that’s true. Using a service like eReleases keeps your release out of the spam box and gets your press release in front of traditional media.
But that service doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have a good press release. If somebody has a weak press release, do you help rewrite it to make it stronger?
Mickie: Yes. When you call our office, you only speak to editors, not salespeople. We will look at your release, review it, and give you ideas. Sometimes we can get back to you on the same day, but we ask for 24 hours to get back to you because sometimes things are busy. We can give you some tips and suggestions to make the release stronger. We might feel that your third paragraph is stronger than your opening paragraph, and we will recommend a change.
Authors are very close to what they’ve written, and sometimes they take for granted what might be compelling to the average person. I always recommend that authors talk with different people to ask about the most important aspect of the story, the work, or whatever you’ve created.
Each answer you receive could be an approach that you lead with.
Thomas: When your strongest point is in the third paragraph, it’s called “burying the lead.” I audited journalism 101 in college because I knew it would be a valuable skill, but I didn’t want to pay for the class because I didn’t need the credit.
The journalism professor gave a classic example of a press release about a faculty symposium. We were supposed to do a write-up on this press release about the faculty symposium. All the faculty were going to it to be trained on something on Friday, blah, blah, blah.
We were all writing essays, and she asked, “Did any of you figure out what this is about? What’s the headline?”
The headline was, “There’s No Class on Friday,” but it was buried in all of the nonsense about the faculty symposium. If all the faculty are at an all-day event on Friday, that means they can’t teach class, and there’s no class on Friday.
The lead gets buried. Journalists are trained not to bury the lead, but it’s a classic press release mistake. I’m glad you help authors with that.
For the right book, a service like eReleases can be a good investment.
Should authors embargo information and keep it only for release by the media?
Thomas: Should authors embargo certain information to be just for the media, so it only hits at a certain time instead of releasing it on their blog beforehand? What’s the thinking in terms of strategy?
Sometimes you have big news that no one can talk about until a certain date and time. Other times, when there’s no urgency, you want to get it out broadly and publish it as a blog.
What’s the right strategy there?
Mickie: For most people, an embargoed release doesn’t make sense. On the newswire, it’s never publicly released. It stays hidden on the back end for journalists forever. If you don’t embargo, you could be getting additional exposure. A lot of bloggers and other people check out the public releases on the newswire. You’re missing an opportunity if you do embargo.
For large companies, and maybe for Stephen King, an embargoed release makes sense if you’re launching something. But for the average person, it doesn’t.
I am a big supporter of taking your press release and putting it out there yourself. You can put it on your blog and website yourself. People who are part of your community will be your strongest champions. You should make it very easy for them to see your content and share it with others.
Thomas: One hack is to create a category on your blog called “News Releases.” Any time you write a press release about your book coming out, put it in that category.
If you’re using Divi, it’s easy to show posts from just one category on a page. On your media kit page, you can create a little module to “show all posts from the news release category.” Maybe you only have one or two press releases a year, but on your media webpage, you can have a professional-looking, automatically updated list of all your news releases.
If a podcaster is trying to figure out whether to have you on his podcast, he can go to your media page and see all your other media kit elements.
Check out our episode on how to put together a media kit. Media kits inform people about who you are and what you offer. Press releases are specific and explain what you have to say about a certain topic. They go hand in hand, but they often live on the same webpage.
Get into the practice of writing press releases. They are like lottery tickets. You can’t control what journalists will pick up. Distributing your news release on a newswire doesn’t guarantee you’ll get picked up, but in general, it’s a lottery ticket, and it could be really big. It doesn’t happen often, but you never know.
Don’t ignore the media and assume they’ll ignore you. They are looking for local voices. They’re looking for unheard voices, and they’re looking to scoop the other outlets. Allow them to be that scoop. Present yourself as that scoop, and you might get featured.
Thomas: Do you have any final tips or encouragement for authors?
Mickie: Many people feel they’re not worthy of press, or they’re very shy. Some of my most successful clients were very resistant to doing press releases. One author had contacted his local newspaper, and they didn’t want to cover him. He was doing a book reading, and they didn’t even want to put it in their calendar, so he didn’t think anything would happen with a press release.
We wrote the release and positioned his novel as well as we could.
He got the front-page entertainment section of USA Today. I told him to scan that page and send it to his local newspaper and say, “I’d like you to rethink that article about me.” Guess what? They did. Sadly, he only sold a few hundred copies of his book from the USA Today coverage. He was hoping it would be tens of thousands of sales, but still, USA Today thought his novel was relevant enough to share with their audience and put it on the front page of the entertainment section with an image of the book cover as well.
Thomas: That’s a great credibility builder because now he can put USA Today on his media page. If you go to ThomasUmstattd.com, you’ll see logos from all the media outlets that have interviewed me about various topics.
While journalists are looking to scoop each other, they are also looking for media-friendly and mediagenic people. Journalists want to know you’ve been interviewed before. Normally you start with small blogs and work up to big blogs. Eventually, you’ll get into radio, cable TV, and then main TV.
But it can go the other way as it did for that author. If you’re placed on the front page of USA Today, you can trade down the chain with your badge of credibility from major news sources.
Where can people find out more about eReleases?
Mickie: You can visit our website eReleases.com. All our social media is on the lower right. I have my direct LinkedIn there as well, and I do respond to LinkedIn. When you call us, you won’t ever speak with a salesperson. You’ll speak with one of our six editors, and they’re ready to walk you through the process and explain things to you.
To connect with Mickie or learn more, visit his website at eReleases.com.
Fascinating episode, Thomas. I understand the power of PR. In 1980, I published my second chapbook of haiku. I played volleyball with a reporter for Champaign-Urbana News Gazette. I asked him if he would review my chapbook, Empty Playground. To my surprise, he interviewed me and wrote a four-page story for the Sunday magazine including photos. Two years later, my wife and I had a garage sale, and I also had a table for my books. A woman who worked at the local NPR station stopped by expressed interest in the chapbook. She had read the newspaper article and wanted to interview me for the radio. The story was picked up for national broadcast on PBS. Unfortunately, this was all before the internet and websites. I did receive a call from someone in Colorado who tracked me down and bought a book. PR can be powerful but it is also serendipitous. More than 30 years later I contacted the reporter who still worked at the paper and purchased the rights to use one of the photos. Now we are both retired and connected on Facebook.