For an industry with such a staggering concentration of brilliant minds, it astonishes me to no end that so few of them have set themselves to the task of decoding the limited mysteries of the Internet. Online publicity is an art form, and yet too often treated like a dismal science.
It’s easy to stereotype bloggers as operating at odds with traditional publicity, and to then shift the burden of what is potentially the most electric and relevant component of media outreach onto authors. So what if bloggers are perceived as a surly, incorrigible lot (which most of them aren’t)? They’re also too important to dismiss.
Although it’s fashionable to decry the emergence of online media as akin to the gates of culture crashing open for the unwashed masses, the honest truth is that many publicists’ dealings with bloggers lack sophistication, and sometimes basic common sense. As a blogger myself, albeit a not very dedicated one, I often find myself the unwitting recipient of heavy-handed and presumptuous inquiries. If by “anti-traditional publicity,” a phrase often tossed around, one means the awkward, aggravating feeling of receiving unsolicited books up to a dozen times per week, then yes, that’s fairly accurate. Perhaps bloggers have been less than reticent to call out the worst pitches that they receive, but then again, the best of publicity is not often what sees the light of day. More to the point, nobody spells “Oprah” wrong, nor do they send emails that say “Hey Kathy Couric...”
People often regard blogs, especially those of the literary variety, as though they have been discovered in an unexpected universe that wasn’t supposed to harbor life. In reality, online media are simply another avenue for getting the word out about a worthy book (are you equally as suspicious of radio?). With the same ease that one can look up the arts editor at The San Antonio Express-News, it’s possible to locate a blogger’s email address and send her a casual, thoughtful note that demonstrates that you have at least glanced at the site.
Any investment in familiarity with the online world is bound to return higher than expected yield. Blogs have an authenticity that many readers feel mainstream media lack, and their influence as a whole is growing exponentially. Dynamic, fascinating and personal, online outlets can present opportunities that would never exist in the “traditional” world. A flurry of user-generated comments on a blog post can spark a fascinating debate that encourages casual readers to seek out the book and decide for themselves, even if only to return armed with wittier ammunition. Best of all, connectivity is the buzzword and buzz can make all the difference in whether a book flies off the shelf or takes a nosedive into the remainder bin.
Publishing professionals bemoan the state of publicity to no end, and many hardworking publicists are unfairly maligned, but bad publicity is just a symptom of a larger problem. Too often plans for the future are ominously dictated by exactly what worked, or didn’t, the last time around. There is no effective metric for measuring the results of a media outreach campaign. The power of positive branding, increasingly central to the corporate outlook in the mainstream business world, is rarely considered in publishing, where any publisher contains a jumble of imprints all vying for influence and resources in the marketplace. The long-term benefits of an author’s presence are too frequently overlooked in favor of the publisher’s short-term goals, and in-house publicists always juggle too many books at once.
This industry faces many challenges. At the dawn of what is arguably the most promising century in human existence, publishers are trading information much as they did at the opening of the last one. Galleys come out six months in advance and they are expensive to produce. Newspaper reviews, even as their reach rapidly diminishes, are still considered the cornerstone of any campaign. There is never enough alcohol at literary events in bookstores. Book parties exist for the sole purpose of impressing one’s colleagues and feeding the interns. But for today, let’s start small: never begin an email with “Dear Blogger.”