2017 BIO Conference – Beyond the Book Review

This panel explored the work most writers are now expected to do: to expose their books to readers through social media and beyond. Session moderator Lisa Napoli was joined by Andrew Richard Albanese, senior writer at Publishers Weekly; Rachel Cass, head buyer at the Harvard Bookstore; Marjorie Kehe, book editor for the Christian Science Monitor; and Taryn Roeder, a senior publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Roeder said she begins planning a publicity campaign a year before a book is published, which includes determining who the audience is. Then, she said, “six months out, I’m really pitching to the media.” During the process, she looks for all the help authors can provide, such as writing op-eds or reviewing other books relevant to the subject.

Bringing in an outside publicist is not necessarily a good investment for authors, explained Roeder, but they should tell the house publicist, “I will support myself on a tour” and ask for help booking events. Roeder added that authors need to remember that “nobody in a publishing house doesn’t want the book to work” but that does not guarantee a book will be reviewed. Newspapers receive about 1,000 books every week and only review between 20 and 40. At the same time, fewer newspapers are reviewing books.

At Publishers Weekly (PW), Albanese said his publication’s 20 critics review about 9,000 titles in print and online annually. Even on the Internet, he said, it’s tough to get space for a review. At PW, Albanese said, they pay attention to social media campaigns for books not yet released, and he stressed the importance of authors building a following through a website and other social media. “The way [the public] comes to you is through the device in your pocket,” he said. And, he added, “Not only talk the story of your book but promote your book,” aiming to get advanced sales.

At the Harvard Book Store, Cass said, publishing sales reps start trying to create interest in a title about six months before its release. Factors that influence the store’s decision to buy include: whether the author is local; if there is an event, will it draw press; and whether or not the biography is a fresh take on a well-known person. The store does handle some self-published titles, limited to local authors. Cass said comments on Twitter and reviews also shape the store’s buying decisions.

The Harvard Book Store puts on 300 to 400 events each year. And so, Cass explained, “Obviously we care about book sales, so we are looking for local interest, press, also works on diversity.” Roeder added here that the number of potential sales is important in considering whether to hold an event. Cass then stated that it also pays off to “be a good citizen of your community,” by patronizing local bookstores, joining writers’ groups, and starting the word-of-mouth publicity about a book.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Kehe said her audience is well educated, global, interested in travel, and are tremendous book readers with a strong interest in biography. Kehe and the others agreed that there is a danger in “spoiler reviews” that give away too much. Cass added that this is true at book events in stores, as well. “Don’t give it all away,” he declared.

Moderator Napoli, who has been promoting her recent biography of Joan Kroc, added that local radio appearances are very helpful. When she was a producer for NPR, “a well-crafted personal email” always caught her attention. [JG]