Why Book PR Needs Lead Time. Lots of it.

“Dear publicist, My book just released and I’d like to promote it. How can you help?”

“Hi! My novel came out last fall and sales have been close to zero. Can we talk about what your firm can do to promote it?”

Ouch! These emails break my heart.

I typically get about two like this a day asking for help with a book that has already released. Or is releasing next week. Or tomorrow. Sadly, in those cases there’s little if anything I can do.

That’s because the work of getting a book onto the radar screen of people who will review it, blog about it or interview its author must absolutely begin well in advance of publication.

I know it sounds counterintuitive: at long last a book has hit the market, it’s time to tell the world! But in fact, this is a far cry from how things work on the back end.

To understand why, we need to get inside the minds of the people on the back end — those who will be writing those reviews, conducting those interviews or publishing your blog posts. In order to even consider a book for coverage, the person doing so usually needs to read first, and then craft a thoughtful news item about it — whether that’s a review, a feature story or an author Q&A. He or she will also have to get the news item approved and possibly revised by an editor, who’s equally swamped and running chronically behind. And chances are, said person already has a pile of about 20 other books to read or consider first. It’s not unlike the process agents go through where their slush piles just keep growing but there are only so many hours in a day.

Yet this is completely at odds with the imperatives of organizations offering coverage such as magazines, newspapers, radio stations and sites like The Huffington Post. These organizations are news outlets. So are may blogs, including book blogs. By definition, news is information about what’s new. Take a look at your daily newsfeed, or turn on the evening TV news: each article or story contains information or commentary relevant in some way to an event that has taken place that very day, or to one that took place very recently and is still being buzzed about. So news outlets have to give priority to what’s new or timely.

Your book is only new once: that’s on its publication date and for the 2 or 3 weeks surrounding it. In industry jargon, we call that date a “news peg:” it’s what makes the book relevant from a news perspective, thus “pegging it” to the news. So any news organization covering your book will only be able to justify doing so within that brief period on or around its publication date — unless you’re the guy who wrote the book Why Planes Crash published in 2011 and are invited to talk about its lessons on AC360 in 2014 in the context of the MH370 tragedy, which sadly provided a new news peg.

How, then, do reporters, reviewers, producers or others developing news stories about books balance the contradicting imperatives of needing time to prepare coverage, yet also needing to cover a book on or around its publication date? Simple: they prepare those reviews, those author Q&As or whatever else they have in mind in advance, and schedule the items to run later, during that crucial publication date period.

This even happens right here on WU. Authors and their publicists work with our beloved Teri many months before a book’s pub date to get a related blog post onto the very full schedule. I, for example, usually contact Teri about 3 months in advance about WU-worthy posts my clients might write. From a timing perspective, book review blogs function in a similar way.

To complicate matters, more broadly-focused news outlets like radio stations or consumer magazines must constantly negotiate between the imperative of focusing on timely, often critical, issues and events, and the luxury of adding in some stories that are of purely human interest with no inherent connection to current events. These are usually grouped generally under the category called “features.” Books fall into that category, even on the very date of their publication. Features coverage always takes back-burner to stories that are more relevant to what’s happening on a larger scale in the world around us. For example, I once had a client whose book interview on Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, was cancelled due to the breaking story about Occupy Boston. In other words: in the jungle that is the real-life news world, books are pretty low on the food chain.

This makes it all the more important for those reviews or author Q&As to be prepared in advance and get placed in the queue of news items scheduled to run when the right opportunity opens up within a given timeframe. That could happen earlier than expected, or much later. It all depends on the broader news environment. But if your item is not in the queue, it won’t happen at all.

Even at outlets like NPR’s Fresh Air that are focused exclusively on books and the arts, the same lead-time and advance scheduling principle applies. I can guarantee you that Terry Gross knows today what books she’ll be talking about in December. The only exception would be if a major news story broke between now and then that made her decide to swap out one book for another that’s more relevant to the news context. But even then, her staff will have already read and vetted that other book.

So what does this mean if you’re an author considering taking steps to promote your book?

First, bear in mind that books typically need to be sent out to the media 3 months in advance of their pub date date. And that the prep work for that process can take an additional month. So four months lead time is a good, safe horizon to work with.

Second, by all means, avoid the “wait-and-see” game. Before you know it, it’ll be too late!

Remember, too: on the flip side of a publication date’s short shelf life in the news world, it’s never too early to start.