Friday, May 31, 2013

For Publicists: How to Approach a Book Blogger

Several months ago one of my favourite online contacts whom I’ve never met stepped down from her job. She was a publicist for a mid-sized Canadian publisher who had approached me a couple of years ago asking if I’d consider reviewing on this blog a novel she was promoting. I still marvel at the way she introduced herself. Instead of including me on a huge, impersonal email blast, as most publicists would do, she wrote me a friendly, individualized email. In it, she cited a previous blog review that I’d written of one of her publisher’s other books (which I had discovered on my own), told me how much she enjoyed my analysis of it, and asked if she could send me the current novel she was promoting.

I agreed, and about a month later the review appeared on this blog. The piece was, to put it mildly, quite negative. But I sent her a link to it anyway (that was part of our agreement) and wholly expected a terse, rude email back from her, questioning my critical faculties and telling me to please fuck off. In fact, the opposite happened. She wrote to say that she appreciated the review, even if it was negative, and asked if she could send me more books. Over the next two years, I continued to receive regular missives from her—always individualized, always friendly—about various titles in her employer’s latest catalogue. I wrote reviews of many of them—some positive, some negative, some mixed.

I’m going to miss our interactions because this woman really was a paragon of class and a delightful ambassador for her profession. I get occasional correspondence from other publicists at other presses, and it frustrates me that many of them don’t put as much thought into their jobs as she did. I must confess that I have a deeply ingrained and rather reflexive need to mock and be suspicious of publicists, marketing managers, PR flaks and other corporate spin doctors—this is what journalism school does to you. But I thought I’d lay out some tips on how publicists might interact with book bloggers, and base them almost exclusively on this person’s behaviour.

As a proviso, though, I do want to point out my knowledge that book blogs, including mine, have a very limited impact on our country’s overall literary culture, and so they should. The vast majority of book blogs out there are utter garbage—poorly written, sporadically updated, with no clear mandate or voice—and no one should think that this medium will ever replace professionally run book sections in professional publications (even as they increasingly shrink or outright disappear). My own blog is often hastily written—I started composing this post at 4:30 this morning when I really should have been working on a poem—and I know I battle exhaustion, hangovers and a paucity of time to keep this blog updated and relevant. But still, it plays enough of a role to attract the attention of publicists, so let’s go ahead and help them do their jobs better.

Tip 1: Write a personalized introduction. I hate being included on mass emails, especially when the correspondent wants something from me. I work hard to show there’s a working brain behind this blog, so you should show that there’s a working brain behind your marketing efforts.

Tip 2: Read my blog beforehand and cite previous reviews I’ve written. You get extra points if can do so with books I’ve reviewed that weren’t published by your press. In this era of Hootsuite and Google Alerts, it’s pretty easy to keep tabs on what people are saying about your own stuff. But I’d be mightily impressed if you mentioned a post that had nothing to do with the company you work for.

Tip 3: Don’t get huffy if I write a negative review. I know there’s a burgeoning culture out there of censorship and antagonism toward negative reviewing, and I want no part of that. I’m often shocked at how sycophantic a lot of book blogs can be. Most posts tend to follow a similar formula: the reviewer spends the first 40% of her review reciting a personal anecdote or confession, often tangentially related to the book in question, and then spends the remaining 60% basically parroting back the book’s publicity materials. If that’s the kind of blog you’re looking to send books to, then Free Range Reading is not the place for you. I try to review every book I read, and I try to be as honest in my assessment of them as possible.

Tip 4: Don’t just automatically send me every book you publish every season. A number of small presses do this to me, and it’s fucking annoying. Touch base with me first, either via email or through a mail-out of your latest catalogue. Describe the books you’re flogging and then ask me if I’m interested in any of them. Don’t send me books I’ve already reviewed on my blog. Don’t tell me when you’d like me to review the books—I read on my own timeline. And most importantly, keep all correspondence with me individualized.

Tip 5: Keep the hyperbole to a minimum. I know you’re tasked with promoting your authors’ works, but try to keep some perspective on the quality of their books when writing publicity materials and correspondence about them. You shouldn’t have to tell me how great a book or author is: it should be self evident from the work itself.

Tip 6: Know which kinds of books I don’t read. This blog is called Free Range Reading for a reason, but there are still certain types of books that just don’t interest me. Go through the blog and figure out what they are. (And no, I’m not going to tell you.)

Tip 6: Keep the conversation with me going. This is especially important if I write a negative review of one of your titles. If I feel like our relationship is contingent on me writing a certain type of review, then I’m less likely to touch one of your books in the future.


  1. Even though I don't review books "for serious", I agree with all of this. It also applies to individuals who are doing their own PR. I got a note this week from someone who said, basically, "I see you've written on this topic before; would you like to look at my materials and talk about them on your blog?" She'd clearly googled the topic, found my ONE post on it from 4 years ago, and sent me a two line email asking me to promote her work. She didn't even explain what it was she had to promote; not a book but some sort of...poster? I doubt even she knew what she expected; she probably just had some friend tell her, "If you want good PR, reach out to bloggers!" Oy! So basically, everyone needs this post.

  2. Common sense advice that so often isn't followed.

  3. Yeah, very true. Thanks for the comment, Nigel. Much appreciated.

  4. Care to name any of those "sycophantic... book blogs"? Think of it as a caution to others. :~]

    Seriously, good advice, Mark.

  5. Thanks Jeff. I may pass on naming names, just because I don't want to bait people unnecessarily or start any feuds. Too much else going on in my life right now. I should point out, though, that I find infrequency as annoying as sycophancy. But this a problem throughout the blogosphere. I should also point out to those who are reading that there are some tremendous book blogs out there: yours (naturally), Pickle Me This, Brian Palmu's, Alex Good's, to name just a few that are out there.