Booklife Excerpt: General Tips on PR

UPDATE 10/22/09–Check out Booklifenow, which went live Monday, for content from the book and new material. The TOC below is slightly out of date, btw.

UPDATE 5/15: Added the full table of contents for the book to the end of this post, for those who are interested.

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for 21st-Century Writers will be released on October 15th, and is available for pre-order. It’s a lazy Tuesday, and I’ve got nothin’, so here’s an excerpt from one of the general sections on PR. Please keep in mind: half the book is devoted to your Public Booklife and half to your Private Booklife. Any quotes out of context lose the cross-pollination between career and creativity. Which is to say, I don’t advocate being a PR hound in the book—I advocate being a balanced person who puts creativity first, while acknowledging you have to do some public things if you want your books to reach an audience… – Jeff


“New media” allows for amazing interconnectivity and cross-pollination of ideas. Because the primary purpose isn’t for PR, new media has also changed PR forever. However, some things will always be the same:

– Your sincerity and honesty make a huge difference. Try not to act like a telemarketer or a walking info-mercial. If you can have fun promoting your book or other creative project, all the better, because that means readers will probably have fun as well.

– The quality of your creative project must be high to gain leverage. A high-quality creative project could be anything from an esoteric experimental science fiction novel to a heartbreakingly tragic literary novella posted on a website, a book of poems about your neighbor’s talking chicken or a techno-thriller about zombies. The genre is irrelevant. All that matters is creating a great book. If you don’t create a great book, most of the advice in Booklife won’t help you.

– The form of the creative project affects your ability to promote it. Currently, it is still easier to get leverage for a “book” that has a physical presence in the world. An electronic version of the book provides opportunities for leverage as well, but despite all of the ways in which the physical book has been put into competition with other forms of itself, it is still, as of this writing at least, the anchor and the goal sought by writers and given the most respect by the highest number of gatekeepers. Also remember that although I am defining “book” generally as a creative project, it will always be harder to create ongoing or “permanent” leverage for a short story or an article (and yet simpler because of the limited options) than for the bulwark that is a novel or story collection or nonfiction book.

– The integrity/quality of your brand across products affects your ability to gain leverage across your career. Inconsistency from creative project to creative project breeds indecision among readers. Variety between projects, so long as quality is high, may slow your progress but result in rewards that are just as great. But, again, for the long-term, your work must be high-quality. (Your “brand” across time also refers to your public image and other elements that may not always have much to do with your core creativity. However, these elements have impact because reader perceptions are so often driven not just by their opinion of your writing but of you.)

A writer usually has little direct effect on marketing or sales, but can have a huge impact on publicity. To be most effective, you must:

– Understand your audience and the commercial or noncommercial appeal of your creative project. Selling a thousand copies of a nonfiction collection might be an excellent result, while selling a thousand copies of a mystery novel might be seen as a huge failure.

– Understand the relationship between PR efforts and sales, PR and your reputation. The simple fact is, your PR efforts can greatly enhance your reputation without having as large an effect on your sales. Good PR is as much about setting you up for future opportunities and making sure you stay in the public eye as it is about readers making purchases. Studies show that readers may need to hear or read about a book as many as seven times before deciding to purchase it. Thus, a strong PR effort will influence sales over time, but the primary impact is to position you in other ways.

– Make sure to fit the scale of the PR to the scale of the project. You don’t send copies of your saddle-stapled 42-page chapbook on armadillo farming to Publishers Weekly. Nor do you send a techno-thriller to the book reviewer at Armadillo Farming Quarterly. (Except, of course, in the remote eventuality that armadillos play an integral role in the plot.)

(Thanks to Bill Ectric for the image…)

– Make sure to create quality, professional-looking materials for your PR effort. You would be better off not creating that website banner ad if it isn’t up to professional standards. Similarly, you will do yourself more damage putting out a boring YouTube book trailer that’s four minutes too long than if you did no trailer at all.

– Test out new ideas through research and by finding other examples before implementing them. You can waste a lot of money putting an effort behind “bleeding edge” PR ideas that are in some way faulty in conception or execution. Make sure that someone, somewhere, has been successful with a similar approach. Be very careful to avoid doing anything that makes you look silly or amateurish.

You might be surprised by the kinds of things writers have done to attract attention, only to find that the attention attracted wasn’t what they wanted. One writer used to send nude photos to magazine editors along with stories. Another would review their own work online, using their real name, and describe its brilliance. The worst reading I ever saw—and a reading is a type of PR for your work—included one poor soul who stopped in mid-sentence to reminisce on the glorious day when inspiration came for a particular phrase, making things worse by also stopping to read reviews of the story. One writer’s website used to include an image of himself in a stereotypical velvet-Elvis style, with a halo above his head. Doesn’t sound as bad as the other examples? If you’d seen it, you’d put it at the top of the list.

Less heinous crimes include what I call useless PR—like sending readers buttons advertising a book that could be pinned on a shirt or blouse. This is the kind of PR effort that writers often want to focus on–a campaign that has little relation to reality. How often have you personally asked someone about a product based on a decorative button they were wearing? And how many times have you been handed a button and thought, “I really don’t want to pin something to my clothing.”

How did some of these people arrive at bad places? Horrible advice. Always keep in mind that advice, especially advice on promoting yourself, is often anecdotal or a Received Idea—received from a time machine from the Distant Past. Sincerely-given but idiotic career advice can be a shiv in the side, an icepick through the eye. Worse, it can result in a slow malarial fever from which you never recover, performing actions you later have no good rationale for doing. The worst career advice attempts to separate you from your work, you a shucked oyster wondering what happened, and why.

On the other hand, despite this warning, don’t be afraid to test out new things on a limited basis (limited in terms of time and money spent). I’ve done all kinds of experiments with online media. I’ve even used talking greeting cards to send out announcements about my books, because nothing gets past a person’s defenses like being addressed by an animated squirrel. I’ve also tried anti-publicity, surprising reviewers and bloggers with an anthology project that was top secret until the day of publication. I’m not saying you should emulate these admittedly risky approaches, but playing around with PR concepts and having some fun isn’t always a bad thing. Just be mentally prepared to crash-and-burn if you experiment.


And here’s the full TOC for the book, since so many people are visiting this post…

Are You Ready to Embrace a Booklife?
How to Use this Book
Sampling It
Following the Structure
Re-imagining the Book
What This Book Is Not
Further Resources


Part 1: Building Your Booklife
The Pillars of Your Public Booklife
Creating and Managing Goals
The Discovery Process
Choosing Your Platforms
Public Platform Example: The Blog
Managing Your Involvement

Part 2: Communicating Your Booklife
Dealing with Editors and Publicists
Understanding Creative PR
PR Opportunities
PR Tools
Leveraging Your Ideas
Creating a PR Plan
Five Minimum Elements for Success

Part 3 Maintaining Your Booklife
The Importance of Persistence
Paying it Forward/Community
Against Trends
Positive Survival Strategies

The Search for Balance
Your Health
Positive Choices
Avoiding the Negative
Multi-tasking and Fragmentation
White Noise and Dark


Part 1 – Living Your Booklife
The Pillars of Your Private Booklife
Reasons for Writing
Attitude and Creativity
Finding Inspiration
Being Receptive
Room to Think
Relinquishing All Fetishes
Writing and Revision: The Experience of Others
Work Schedule
Habit versus Process
Permission to Fail

Part 2 – Protecting Your Booklife
Re-vitalizing Creativity
Support from Your Partner
The Long View


Appendix A – Additional Information on Relevant Roles
Booksellers (by James Crossley)
Marketing Versus Publicity (by Colleen Lindsay)
Publicists (by Colleen Lindsay)

Appendix B – Content-Related
Marketing/PR Campaign Summary (Example)
PR Plan (High-Level Example)
Press Releases (Example)
Book Reviews

Appendix C – Additional Notes on New Media (by Matt Staggs)

Appendix D – Nurturing Creativity
Chasing Experience (by Nathan Ballingrud)
Sacrifice (Matthew Cheney)
Luck’s Child (by Marly Youmans)
Workshops (by Cat Rambo)
Writing a Novel in Two Months
Evil Monkey’s Guide to Creative Writing

28 comments on “Booklife Excerpt: General Tips on PR

  1. Terry says:

    Great stuff. I’m sending it on to a friend who has just published a thrilled.

    Now — tell me how to make it as a reviewer, and I’ll be forever in your debt!

  2. jeff vandermeer says:

    For my part, I just worked my way up the food chain, with reviews in smaller venues leading to reviews in larger ones. Nothing fancy. Just do good work, keep leveraging it. Having books out doesn’t hurt re getting a foot in the door–many reviews editors will assume that means you know something about how a novel works. But consistently good, honest work is the only thing that sustains gigs.

  3. Hellbound Heart says:

    i’m going to order some of your books from one of the more enlightened literature purveyors in my area…..since i’ve only got shreik, i gotta ways to go…..what books do you suggest i start with?
    peace and love…..

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Really depends on what you like. If you liked Shriek, you might want to pick up City of Saints, since it’s the first in the cycle. Although each book is meant to stand alone.

  5. Hellbound Heart, I highly recommend City of Saints and Madmen. It’s top notch in every way – a sublime mixture of genre, literary, and meta fiction, with books within stories within other stories, absurdist humor, nightmarish fear, all based around the secret history of the city of Ambergris, where once a year, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid plunges the city into decadent mayhem.

  6. Jeff–What a gorgeous cover on this new book! I am a fan of yours, and have read two of your books (Shriek and City of Saints). Love your whacked out imagination! My published work is historical fiction, but I’ve always been a scifi junkie. I just wrote a YA spec fiction and hope to write more. I will definitely buy this book and look forward to reading your sage advice and tips.
    Catherine Stine

  7. Wow. This must be the worst article about book publicity I have ever read. Is this a line out of 30 Rock? “I’ve even used talking greeting cards to send out announcements about my books, because nothing gets past a person’s defenses like being addressed by an animated squirrel.”
    Go, animated squirrels, go!

  8. jeff vandermeer says:

    Somebody’s having a bad day. Would you like me to send you a talking squirrel e-card? Hmmmmmmm?

    Seriously, though, I do say that’s the outer edge. The point is to be playful when you can be playful. A sense of humor is required.

  9. Ben Moor says:

    Interesting thoughts.
    But I do have to disagree on button badges.
    I have found them enormously successful in promoting my shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and make a nice free gift to folk buying my book from my website.
    An intriguing and uplifting message on a badge _does_ make people want to wear it (not all the time obviously) and people (strangers and friends) _do_ ask each other about the meaning of the phrase.
    And anything that gets people talking is good, right?
    Plus, it’s a relatively cheap marketing tool.

  10. Runa says:

    I think it looks like a great book. Maybe something I should put on my summer-reading-list.

  11. jeff vandermeer says:

    Ben: How do you know it makes a nice free gift for people who buy your book? Have you conducted a poll or is that just anecdotal. Same with passing them out at a festival. Is your intel scientifically tested? Are you sure it’s more effective than passing out a postcard? And in a larger strategic sense, is passing out anything at the festival more effective for your career than other efforts you could be making?

    I talk to publicists and editors at big publishers all the time, and they tend to roll their eyes at authors who fixate on needing things like buttons. Still, if you’ve found a way to leverage buttons, good for you. One thing Booklife asks you to do is to test it, and in testing it take what’s useful to you and discard the rest.

    Just make sure you’re not always using tactics without an overall strategy, because you’re just treading water otherwise. (All of this kind of thinking, how to take the long view, etc., is covered in the book.)

  12. Hi Jeff. The editor of Overland Literary Journal recently posted an excerpt from your excerpt on the Overland blog. The fact that this post was made under the title of ‘DIY book promotion’ without providing any further context, such as a discussion of the merits of your book, seems to me to be highly unbefitting of a Literary Journal that claims a prominent place within Australian literary culture.

    I am interested to know whether the Overland post was made on your behalf. If so, I will happily go away and find another problem to vex. If not, do you believe the Overland post has merit?

  13. Lee says:

    I fear if I read your book, I’d stop writing altogether. And the last thing I’d ever want to do is write a novel in two months: whatever for?

  14. jeffv says:

    Lee: I’ve only ever written one novel in two months, and I don’t recommend it to anyone, but the lessons learned in doing so are useful to writing novels in general.

    As for the rest, if you truly feel that way then I don’t understand why you write. I write because I can’t not write, from a very personal place. Do I want an audience for it after I write it? Of course. The book is divided into Public and Private Booklife. Just read the private part first if you’re worried about being overwhelmed. But, as with anything, if you haven’t read it how can you have an informed opinion about it?

  15. Karen says:

    Wow, excellent–just the thing I need to clip me in the jaw and make me pay attention–actual practical attention–to the writing and publishing life. Following hard on the heels of Wordstock here in Portland, it’s just the thing. One copy ordered!

  16. KFB says:

    Save the animated squirrels!

    Jeff, if you’re writing on a Mac, the em dash is shift-option-hyphen. If you aren’t on a Mac, then you’ll need to revise the “Choosing Your Platforms” section for the updated edition of Booklife. ;)

    BTW, I’m pretty sure that you cut and pasted (and didn’t re-transcribe) the above excerpt and that the em dashes (and other things?) were left behind in the cutting and pasting. No biggie, I guess, but it does represent an ittybitty PR hiccup. Something like: “If the guy can’t make sure that the book excerpt on his blog is bulletproof, what business does he have telling other people to dot their i’s and cross their t’s?”

    No matter. I’ll probably buy the book anyway.

  17. jeff vandermeer says:

    If you don’t want to buy the book because of my dashes, then by all means don’t buy it. LOL. I’ll fix it, of course, but I hope you enjoyed the actual content. Remember: I didn’t typeset the book so you can be assured your reading experience will be smooth with no orrible bad dashes. LOL.

  18. KFB–oh, “platforms” aren’t defined as operating systems, etc., in Booklife. Platforms are opportunities for visibility for your creative programs. Everybody’s brains are wired differently when it comes to Macs and PCs. I use a PC, but have been told I’m an idiot for that many times. Trust me when I say I don’t have any recommendations as to computers in the book. It’s a strategic guide. The tools are just tools.

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