Investing in a PR campaign opened up a world of readers for my book and helped me learn valuable lessons that I will put into practice with every future book. As I was writing Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, I often wondered if anyone would care about a movie star who has been dead for 72 years. Fireball recounts the life of the “Queen of Screwball Comedy,” her association with “King of Hollywood” Clark Gable, the circumstances leading to her death in a plane crash right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the federal investigations into the crash (which could find no cause), and Gable’s grief as it led to spiritual growth. I knew I had a strong story, or rather, a set of strong stories, and Scott Eyman, author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, commented that my concept for Fireball was “commercial.” Scott said so with what seemed to be envy. But I realized that achieving success in the marketplace would be a challenge, and I decided to shop for a PR agency. Because I thought it important that the media not perceive me as a self-publisher (after all, my company released three titles in 2013 and only one was by me), I proceeded solely in the role of author. And because I’d had experience with a dud PR campaign, I fired some tough questions when I met with people at Smith Publicity of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They gave me reasonable answers, and we agreed on a campaign that would begin with galleys and end two months past the official book release. The cost was substantial, but Smith believed the storylines in Fireball had potential to attract significant interest in major media markets, which would allow the investment to pay for itself. In effect, I believed this was a title that required me to push all my chips to the middle of the table and go for it. During three full months with Smith—one month at galley release and two months at book release—plus a one-month extension to the campaign, I learned ten valuable lessons about PR that can benefit any author and/or small publisher.
1. Work hard throughout the campaign.
Going into the partnership with Smith, I assumed that I was handing off publicity to my rep, Sarah. I figured that the book was written, and now Smith would go sell it. But the process doesn’t work that way. Sarah and I agreed on a set time for check-in meetings and went over the pitch, tailoring it to potential audiences. We leveraged her national list of contacts, but it turned out that my contacts were important to the campaign as well. For example, I know a reporter at a major New York City newspaper, and that connection led to a full-page article about my book.
2. Trust the publicist’s instincts.
Less than two months after the book’s release, Malaysian Air Flight MH370 vanished in the Pacific. Sarah’s initial thought was, could we tie this aviation mystery to the crash of Flight 3? I balked at first, because I couldn’t imagine capitalizing on a tragedy and told Sarah so. But her gut told her that I had an important contribution to make, and so I banged out the 1,000 words she requested. Less than one hour later, my op-ed, “Mysterious air tragedies are nothing new,” got picked up by Fox News and I had my first national byline. This exposure for Fireball then led to four national radio interviews and one regional interview as producers saw the op-ed on Fox News page one during its 24-hour run.
3. React ASAP to opportunities.
When Sarah made it clear that time was of the essence for my op-ed, I produced the piece in 17 minutes. In another 5, she had pitched it to the people in her network, and 10 minutes after that she got the nibble from Fox. The lesson I learned that day was a reminder that those who hesitate lose. Having a day job, I can’t always drop everything and bang out 1000 words. Luckily that particular opportunity occurred when I was at home, but whenever a producer calls about being on the radio with 15 minutes’ notice, I now know to say yes and then figure out the logistics. Saying yes often enough can lead to becoming a go-to resource for major outlets. For me, saying yes as a matter of course applied to offers from TV, radio, print, and the web. Usually the query came in the form of, “Can you do a half hour with so-and-so Friday at 2?” If I absolutely couldn’t say yes, I offered two or three alternative times with my apologies. Everything happens so fast with media that you have to say yes right away or you risk losing their interest.
4. Be careful about launch date.
Fireball launched on January 16, 2014, the 72nd anniversary of the plane crash detailed in the book. The logic was that we would release into a wide open post-holiday marketplace. However, with book kickoff events scheduled for L.A. on January 16, we fell into a trap that I’ll never repeat. Books and pitches went out to L.A. media prior to Christmas, and the blackout week leading up to New Year’s Day, with reporters on holiday, nullified all we had done. As a result, coverage was spotty and attendance at the events, although acceptable, was below the levels I had anticipated.
5. Adapt when strategies don’t work.
PR people need angles and key dates to pitch to. For a story 72 years old, these were difficult to come by, but I felt that a significant date was March 29, 2014, the 75th anniversary of the Lombard-Gable elopement during production of Gone With the Wind. Sarah asked me to craft an article for her to pitch; I gave her 1,200 words about events around the elopement as described in Fireball, and we got nibbles from Vanity Fair and Huffpost. But nobody pulled the trigger on my “sure thing” and we moved on to other markets and ideas.
6. Expect ripple effects
The idea of signings always made me uncomfortable. To me, a signing was an author sitting at a table in a bookstore as patrons avoided eye contact and gave the table a wide berth. But scheduling a series of lectures with supporting video and autographing provided a foundation for a tailored media pitch to relevant cities, resulting in print, TV, and radio opportunities. In Indianapolis, where Carole Lombard spent the last day of her life, we got a TV interview, two radio interviews, and an Indianapolis Star feature. In Las Vegas, where the plane crashed, we got a couple of print mentions, two more radio interviews, and a whopping four TV appearances, so the surrounding media attention reached an entire metropolitan area for over a week. And exposure often leads to more exposure. After the Fireball e-book was chosen by Amazon as a "June Big Deal" with a price drop from $10.99 to 1.99, our rankings shot to their best ever. Within 24 hours, our book was in the top 10 on three Amazon bestseller lists, peaking at number 2 in Entertainment Biographies. I can't even imagine what this will mean for still more attention and reviews, but I know it's all another outcome of a PR campaign that got Fireball on the map in the first place.
7. Know the downsides of top markets
I had figured that interest in Fireball would be highest in Hollywood, and that L.A. would be eager to learn of this story. But L.A. is a sprawling and segmented market, and penetration is difficult. If you don’t make the Los Angeles Times with your Hollywood-related story, you have to rely on capturing the attention of smaller media outlets. Then there’s the competition. Every night of the week, every week of the year, something big is going on in L.A. On January 16 (that quiet time we had banked on for the book launch), right across the street from our event, a Director’s Guild award ceremony featured limos, stars, fans, and paparazzi—how does a small press compete with that? Some of Fireball’s prospective customers couldn’t be at our event because they were across the street at somebody else’s, and our crowd even had trouble finding a place to park.
8. Grasp the difference between hits and runs.
This was one of my biggest “aha” moments of the campaign. A PR firm will count a hit every time a media person bites on a book or a pitch. You will get a “Congratulations!” and a “We did it!” from your rep and it feels great. But sometimes nothing ever runs; the reviewer loses interest; other books come along and claim the space; other stories push yours out. It’s still a hit in PR terms, but hits that never run, like the Fireball review in the L.A. Times, became my greatest frustration in seven months of campaigning.
9. Assess opportunities.
The number-one-rated TV station in the city wants me for an interview? Great! A 50,000-watt radio station needs 30 minutes? Wow, I’ll be heard in 12 states! Both opportunities are exciting, but the question is, what about availability of a digital file after that initial 5 minutes on TV, or 25 on radio? Will the TV interview live on via YouTube? Will the radio interview be podcast on the station’s web site? Ideally, links will be available to the content of the interviews. You need to be able to drive people to these great interviews via social media (Facebook and Twitter, primarily). The New York newspaper article benefitted me in many ways. It appeared in the Sunday edition, in print and on the web, and remains one of the most popular and accessed pieces of the year for that newspaper. And the Pittsburgh PBS station, WQED (home of Mister Rogers), did a mini-documentary on Fireball that has been rebroadcast several times and is available on YouTube, making this an ideal media score. However, some of my appearances on Vegas television ran only once, so unless you were tuning in, you missed me that day. Availability after the initial interview is key to determining the importance of the appearance in the long run.
10. Always say thank you.
Sarah made it clear at the end of the campaign that I should reach out to those in the media who were interested in a Fireball story and who interviewed me or in some way furthered the Fireball cause. I was happy to do this because I wanted to learn more about these talented professionals—the TV hosts, radio personalities, print journalists, and bloggers who crossed my path over the course of many months. My thank-you emails met with many warm responses, which made for a great way to end a successful marketing campaign for what has proven to be the book of my life, so far at least.