Web-present: A conversation with PR diva Yen Cheong of "The Book Publicity Blog"

We started Monday with Sharon Mignerey's idea pitching tips, then heard some hard-ass writing advice from Harlan Ellison. Seems like we're having a very reality based week here at Boxing the Octopus. Perfect time to talk about what to expect when your book launches--and what you can do to help your baby bird out of the nest.

From her vantage point in the PR department at a major New York publisher, Yen Cheong pays close attention to what ranks and who tanks. In a recent communications/tech article in the New York Times "You've Got Voice Mail, But Do You Care?", Yen discusses the importance of velocity in day to day book industry dialogue. And there's a steady stream of pragmatic insight on her "Book Publicity Blog." I caught up with Yen long enough to press her with a few questions about the constantly changing (but always challenging) art of promotion as it relates to both established and pre-published authors.

Thanks for your time, Yen. Let's start with your take on the importance of the pre-pub web presence. You offered some great thoughts on your blog this week.
Typically, four to six months before the hardcover publication of a book, the publicity department sends out galleys to magazine and newspaper book editors as well as to some broadcast producers and online journalists. When I follow up with galley recipients, I’ll include some information about the book in the text of my email message, but it’s helpful for me to be able to link to more information online — links are an extremely effective and unobtrusive way for book publicists to provide the media with the additional details that could sell a writer or editor on a book. They are also vital tools for bloggers whose posts are lent credibility by links that direct readers to further information.

I’m not saying the complete author website needs to be up and ready six months before the book’s publication date. I’m not even saying the author has to have a web site at all. But I am saying it’s a really, really good idea for *something* — a website, a social networking profile, a blog — to be accessible when galleys are mailed out. An author without a web presence is a bit like the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around.

Is there any effort being made to educate authors on how they can better participate?
We are trying to educate authors about how they can better participate regarding web and social marketing initiatives. I’ve written about this a fair amount on The Book Publicity Blog and if you’re interested in something in particular, you can do a keyword search on the site to find posts about social networking / marketing in general.

Is there some methodology in place for measuring what (if any) effect blog tours have on actual book sales?
We don’t have any methodology in place for measuring what effect blog tours have on book sales – although this is a good idea and makes sense, we just don’t have the manpower to track much beyond Amazon rankings!

Do you think the growing effect and credibility of grass roots marketing on the internet will make mid-list authors more attractive to publishers?
As you point out, grass-roots Internet marketing can be very effective, but in order for it to make a mid-list author more attractive to publishers, we’d need to see evidence of its success. (In other words, an author would have to show such marketing success with a previous book or at the very least with their online “persona” – it’s unlikely that simply the promise of a grass-roots initiative would affect an editor’s or an agent’s decision to acquire a book.)

For books being launched into the current economic gloom with squashed budgets for PR and touring, will there be additional sweat equity invested on the part of the publisher's PR department? If so, what will that extra effort be? And if not, what can authors do to compensate?
In publicity we’re certainly all aware of the effects of the recession, whether it be fewer ads or folding book sections, so we’re doing our best to get the most out of reviews / interviews / mentions / etc. which are free. Not surprisingly, we don’t have plans to add more staff members, if that’s what you mean by investing “additional sweat equity.” As at all publishing houses -- and probably all companies these days -- we need to make the most of what we have. Authors can certainly help by networking with bloggers and readers online. As you’re well aware, there’s no way one person can successfully reach out to everyone who could potentially be interested in a book and the more hands we have on board, the more successful an effort will be.

Thanks, Yen.

Readers: Any questions? Yen is out of the country on vacation, but she'll be checking comments below and answering your questions today and tomorrow.

Comments

Joni Rodgers said…
From calbroman via email:

"My first novel (thriller with a supernatural edge) will come out next year. Small but gung ho west coast publisher. No tour planned but lots of web. What would you say is a reasonable dollar figure I should invest in web design? Can you recommend a good design resource? Thanks in advance!"

(I have my own thoughts on that, but lets hear from Yen first.)
Mylène said…
Dear Joni and Cal:

The interesting thing, I've found, with web design is that "you get what you pay for" doesn't always hold true in the field. I paid three times as much for my previous website design versus my current one--and the current one is much better. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on finding someone whose design sensibility matches yours, who is willing to work with you, and who has experience representing those of us who work in creative fields. We don't need a lot of bells and whistles; we don't need to break the bank. What we need is impact and clarity.
Joni Rodgers said…
I totally agree with you, Mylene. The only web design I've ever paid for I ended up using only briefly because I had to pay for updates, and -- astonishingly! -- my first novel from a tiny literary press was not a massive breakout bestseller. (I was a gallactically unlearned debut novelist, and the internet was very new.) I now do my site myself with BlueVoda, but I don't feel confident about it at all. I keep meaning to find the time and money to have it done.

What do you think about DIY author sites, Yen?
Jen Singer said…
Let's be honest here: Isn't it true, Yen, that the vast majority of authors will receive little to no help from the publicity departments at their publishing houses? Unless you're a famous actor/politician/Joe the Plumber with a book or Elvis' long lost daughter, you are largely on your own when it comes to promoting your book.

As a result, you need more than a stagnant web page on the Internet to help whatever your publicist is doing. You need to be constantly building a fan base and cultivating a relationship with them through blog tours, Twitter, Facebook and dogged determination and relentless self promotion.

Don't you agree?
Mylène said…
Don't know why you don't feel confident about your site, Joni. It's fab!

And re Jen's comment: The biggest "pushes" my books ever got were when I was with a small press, and then an imprint within a larger press that acted as though it were still small. The minute I stepped up to the big-time--well let's just say that was the first time I hired and paid for my own publicist.
Yen said…
Calbroman -- Budgets for web pages range from free to $10,000+. Many authors end up paying $2000-$3000(in my experience, although I'm sure you'll find those who pay a lot less / more).

To find a web designer, I'd first check with your publishing house (and fellow author friends). They should have names of designers who have created successful sites for similar books.

I myself am not heavily involved in web design -- I deal more frequently with the media (both offline and on) rather than with online marketing in general. But you might investigate a site like The Book Report Network -- they review a lot of books, but they also offer a host of other services including internet marketing campaigns and website design: http://www.tbrnetwork.com/content/services.asp.
Yen said…
Joni -- Personally, my authors haven't used DIY sites (which can be found if, say, you Google "free website template"), but this is what I've noticed.

DIY sites very much look DIY -- which is not necessarily a bad thing depending on your goal for the site. Some authors really just want an online flyer where they can post some basic information -- bio, author photo, book cover, contact information, etc. -- and that's easily accomplished with a template. On the other hand, many (most) other authors want more robust sites where they can post lots of information about the book and themselves, photos, video, etc.

My feeling is that if an author is thinking of going the DIY angle, rather than using a website template, you're better off creating a profile or fan page on Facebook or creating a site on Ning. (Ning is a little difficult to explain -- best to visit at www.ning.com -- but the best short description I've heard is that it's an "interactive website," sort of a combination of website and social networking profile.) You do need to be somewhat online savvy to use either Facebook or Ning (but then, anyone reading this blog pretty much is!) but after that, just following the directions will pretty much get you where you need to go.
Yen said…
Jen -- the amount of publicity and marketing support that a house provides will differ from imprint to imprint and publishing house to publishing house. But I can tell you that everyone at the house will be doing everything they can to promote all books -- why publish a book if we're not going to do our darnedest to promote and sell it?

What is also true however, is that a lot of books are published. And as the online reviewing community has evolved, a lot more sites have emerged that cover books. So yes, this means resources are limited.

Book publicists (and people in online marketing departments) will contact blogs, but given the number of sites out there, online outreach is that much more effective when authors pitch in.

When it comes to social networking, authors do need to take the bull by the horns. Some houses require that all authors set up profiles on their own; some houses will set up profiles for authors, but then require authors to maintain them. I write about social networking a fair amount on The Book Publicity Blog: http://yodiwan.wordpress.com/category/social-networking/. You can find some tips there (and links to other helpful sites on my blogroll).

As for the issue of websites vs. social networking profiles, I guess it would depend on the goal (and sensibilities) of the author. An author who doesn't have the time to maintain a social networking profile, for example, shouldn't set one up simply for the sake of setting one up. In that case, a website, stagnant thought it might be, is the better way to go. (And for certain types of books -- history, for example -- social networking doesn't do as much for the book as it might for others.)

For some general information about authors working with publicists, you may want to check: http://yodiwan.wordpress.com/category/author-publicist-relationship/.
Yen said…
Joni -- one additional note: when you said "DIY site," I immediately thought of "free." But of course, there are free DIY sites (which don't look so great) and DIY sites that you pay for (that, not suprisingly, look a lot better). My own blog, on Wordpress -- which is free -- does, in fact, look absolutely horrible on certin computers / with certain operating systems. It could look a lot better with more time / money, but that's just not something I can / want to pursue at this point!

Your site, which I think you mention you pay for, looks nice and offers important information like details about yourself and your books, contact information, etc. (But as you point out, it's hard to find the time to maintain a site yourself and write / speak.) Since none of us have an umlimited amount of time and money, I guess it boils down to personal choice!
Joni Rodgers said…
Yen, thank you so much for your time and insights. And thanks for chiming in Mylene and Jen.

This brief discussion sparked an interesting flurry of emails from emerging/ debut authors who felt much the way Jen does about in-house PR but didn't want to post here for fear of appearing to bite the hand that feeds them.

All I can say about that is that I know several really terrific, caring, very smart PR Hildes at publishers big and small, who love books and tirelessly champion the authors they launch. The few folks I know who were phoning it in disappeared with the down-sizing of recent months.

I don't want to distract you from your well-earned vacation, Yen, but another time, I'd love to get some words of wisdom from you about what authors can realistically expect from in-house PR and how to make the most of it.

Meanwhile, I'll be watching your blog. Happy trails!
Yen said…
Although I do firmly believe that all houses set out to promote the heck out of all the books they publish, I'll admit that the reality is sometimes not the ideal.

It's important for an author to have a conversation with the publicist early on, "early" meaning six months or so before the book comes out. This will likely be before galleys are sent out (if galleys are being made for the book), but it's a great time to talk about publicity, what's being planned, expectations, etc. Without the pressure of needing to do something "tomorrow," it's the perfect time to ask questions, brainstorm, try things out. (Just keep in mind that the publicist will be working on other titles, so the amount of time they can spend working on a title six months out isn't unlimited.)

Some authors do want to hire a freelance publicist (some houses are very small and simply don't have the bodies in the publicity and marketing departments, for example) and many freelancers appreciate being brought on several months before a book's publication date.

You can read more about freelance publicists (and see a list) at The Book Publicity Blog: http://yodiwan.wordpress.com/category/freelance-publicists/.
Christie Craig said…
Great info, Colleen and Joni.

Thanks.

CC
Yen,
Thanks so much for coming and sharing your knowledge!
Joni Rodgers said…
That's great advice, Yen. I do think communication about expectations is key.

I had fantastic support for my first novel from a tiny press (which I didn't appreciate because my expectations were totally uninformed) and even better support from an even smaller press with my second novel (which I appreciated ENORMOUSLY, having been kicked to the curb by the long-suffering editor at the first place.)

When I went to Harper Collins with my memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, I had terrific support -- better than any of my celebrity clients have gotten for their memoirs. (God bless you, Leslie Cohen! You rock!) But my next novel at HC was a PR orphan and died a quick (but not painless) death.

So what do we extrapolate from all that?

I'll let you know when I figure it out...
EmilyBryan said…
Fascinating as always, ladies!

I'm always amazed that no one (including publishing professionals) seems to know what makes a book pop. There are no metrics for determining "what works."

Sometimes, I think the stars just have to align.
www.emilybryan.com
jennymilch said…
Wow, this was a fascinating discussion, which I came to late. Thank you, Yen, for your insider's take, and Joni, for showing us what kinds of issues the the soon-to-launch author might come up with, and Mylene and Jen for sharing your own perspectives.

If the conversation continues, I'd love to hear a little about the old-fashioned side of things, making author appearances (those that can be afforded and scheduled and all that) count, speaking to local media, and whether anyone thinks advertising of any sort (print or radio) works--even just to announce a signing versus plugging the book.

On a related note, I heard a great debut author speak last night, and it was really interesting to see him go about getting the word out about his wonderful thriller. (James LePore, A WORLD I NEVER MADE). Although it's clearly a challenge, filling a room, he made it happen and offered the kind of personal take on his own material that sometimes just doesn't emerge until you have a real, face-to-face discussion going with the author (although blogs like this do create a cyber version of that sit-around-and-chat atmosphere).

Thanks again, everyone!
Yen said…
It does seem weird (not to mention tremendously inefficient) that no one knows what makes a book "work." Then again, the same thing happens with movies -- why are some blockblusters, some surprise breakouts, and some unexpected failures? If any of us knew the answers, you could bet we'd be using the magic formula every time.
Good points, about the inexactitude of publicity. That's pretty appropriate in an industry where half (if we're lucky) of the books printed end up pulped or remaindered. If only someone could come up with a better way. E-publishing/the Kindle/Sony Reader are all a start, but we're still a long way from scrapping the old model.
Joni Rodgers said…
My dad always says, "Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity."

It's a fact of life that there aren't enough (wo)man hours to go around, so authors who bring the most to the table are going to get the best results from the numbered minutes of attention in-house PR can devote to each project. Which goes to Yen's original point about pre-galley web presence.
Yen said…
Definitely. Having a book published isn't just about writing the book -- it's about promoting it too. The publishing house knows about publicity and marketing, but no one at the house will ever know more (or even as much) about a book as the author.

It may not seem "fair" that an author has to promote a book as well as write it, but the reality -- given the number of books and media outlets out there -- is that the most successful publicity campaigns are the ones in which author and publicist work hand in hand. Communicate early on about ideas and expectations and this can be a very fruitful relationship.
Joni Rodgers said…
Yen, by any chance have you posted on The Book Publicity Blog any sort of wish list -- what PR Hildes would love and appreciate in an author? What would be your dream talking points for a pre-pub lunch with an author?
Yen said…
I haven't yet posted about what authors should know about publicity on The Book Publicity Blog (although that's a great idea and I'll try to get to that) although I did write about the book publicity timeline (http://yodiwan.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/the-book-publicity-timeline/) that might be helpful.
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks again for your time, Yen. Have a wonderful trip!
Gary Gach said…
very good inter view, and Q&A!


Met an author recently whose books haven't sold terrifically enough for her publisher to do her next one -- 'cos, as she admits, she likes writing but not promoting. And she's a great speaker, when she takes to a lectern.

Am in process of mounting campaign for a new book of mine, with the publishing team, and will pass both your fine urls along to them.

My website of 10 years fizzled one day and I'm reconstituting a 2.0 version out of remnants at http://archive.org plus new materials (esp. for the book); also am updating my list of reviewers, inter viewers, and bookstore events coordinators ...

(Speaking of the latter, seems like Powells has a 3-month window from pub date in which they can do an event; have never read there but may be worth the out-of-pocket expense --- for the book, my publisher, and my own bookophilia.)

Good luck on you all!

May all beings be well.
Yen said…
Powell's isn't the only store with a three-month lead time. Most bookstores and event venues set up author talks at least two months and sometimes more than a year in advance. (They need time to promote the events.) Here's some more information about bookstore events: http://yodiwan.wordpress.com/2009/02/23/when-to-schedule-bookstore-events-and-when-not-to/.
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