[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Getting Good Press

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1994, 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

First published, in a slightly different form, in the June 1994 issue of Alouette: The Newsletter of the Canadian Region of SFWA. Postscript added February 2000.

Okay, okay — I'm getting tired of being asked what's the secret to all the good press I keep getting. Actually, there are six secrets, and I'll share 'em all here.

1) Find some way to define yourself as a big fish in a small pond. In my case, that was easy: there are in fact very few English-Canadian science-fiction novelists (lots of fantasy novelists — de Lint, Duncan, Huff, Kay, Russell, Sagara, etc., etc.), but very few who actually regularly write SF — and most of the few others who do are in British Columbia, thousands of kilometers away from me.

There are lots of other ways to define oneself, of course. I've seen Gregory Benford make use of the fact that he's a real scientist who writes SF; Frederik Pohl make use of the fact that he's not a scientist at all, but still writes SF; Terence M. Green make use of the fact that he's a school teacher who writes SF; Élisabeth Vonarburg make use of the fact that she's a French-Canadian who writes SF that's translated into English; Guy Gavriel Kay make use of the fact that he's a lawyer who writes fantasy; and Michelle Sagara make use of the fact that she's a fantasy writer who has managed a bookstore.

For my own part, when the simple hook of "Canadian SF writer" (or the more elaborate, but equally true, "Canada's only native-born full-time SF writer") hasn't been enough, I've capitalized on the fact that I was a business writer for glossy magazines before I made a name in SF. Every journalist sees that there's a story in a writer going from Bay Street to Beta Draconis . . . Just remember: however you choose to define yourself, it's got to be something that makes you appear special in the eyes of the press.

2) "Special" will only get you so far. Find something else that will also make you newsworthy. For my Quintaglio books, it was easy. The series as a whole is about intelligent dinosaurs, and it came out around the time of the Jurassic Park movie. Within days of that film's release, I got on the CTV National News, a full hour on CFRB Toronto's "The Andy Barrie Show," a mention in Canada's national news magazine Maclean's, and 22 column-inches in The Toronto Star, Canada's largest-circulation newspaper. But Far-Seer, the first book of the trilogy, also came out in the 500th anniversary year of Columbus's voyage, and it told in part the story of an alien Columbus, so that was a good news hook, too. For local media, simply tying the book into an event like a public-library reading or a bookstore autographing is often enough of a hook.

3) Being thought of as only an SF or fantasy writer will normally just get you coverage in genre publications. So, find some way to make your work appear to transcend genre boundaries. For my first novel, Golden Fleece, that was simple: it was an SF/mystery crossover, and that was something the press found immediately appealing. For instance, The Toronto Star did a special book-review column headlined "Vicarious Travels with Super Sleuths" that reviewed, most favorably, both my Golden Fleece and John E. Stith's novel of a hyperspace starship, Redshift Rendezvous — and reviewed them as mysteries, not SF. Now, John lives in Colorado, but the crossover SF/mystery idea was appealing enough as a hook to get him reviewed here in Canada (and, conversely, to get me reviewed in Mystery Scene and The Drood Review of Mystery down south).

Likewise, for my Quintaglio series, the fact that they're parables about great human thinkers (Galileo, Darwin, and Freud) again lets the books be treated as being of greater than just genre interest. Indeed, Books in Canada magazine reviewed Far-Seer withough once mentioning the words "science fiction."

[Robert J. Sawyer] 4) You can't expect the press to hear about you on its own. Send out your own press releases. I used to write such things for corporate clients, so I'm pretty good at it, but they're easy to learn to do.

Also, get a decent photo of yourself, not some god-awful passport thing, and send it out with everything. My publicity shot, at left, has appeared in everything from Analog, Science Fiction Chronicle, and Something About the Author, to newspapers in Canada, the U.S., England, and even Australia. At least partly that's because (a) it's a good shot, well-lit and with good contrast, and (b) it was accessible — they had it on hand.

5) By the time your book is on the stands (especially if it's mass-market), it's too late for most publicity efforts. It's important to get word out to the media prior to the book's actual appearance. A perfect example is having a full-color caricature of me ending up being the cover illustration for the May 1993 edition of Quill & Quire (the Canadian counterpart of Publishers Weekly). Q&Q got a galley of my Fossil Hunter months before that issue appeared, and so were able to review that book during its actual month of release. Now, they'd have probably reviewed Fossil Hunter anyway, but no way they'd have put me on the cover of the magazine if they couldn't have done it to coincide with the book's appearance in bookstores.

Rules of thumb: get galleys into the hands of the genre magazines (such as Analog) ten months in advance of release, into the hands of trade publications (such as Publishers Weekly and Locus) three or four months in advance, and into the hands of newspaper reviewers two months in advance.

6) This is the hardest one, but you've also got to find some way to overcome the media's prejudices. First, there's a real prejudice against SF&F: they're seen as juvenile, or escapist, or poorly written, or crass, or commercial. Second, there's a prejudice against mass-market paperback originals, the most common format for SF books. Many media outlets assume anything of quality must be in hardcover (how soon they forget that possibly the most influential SF novel of the last twenty years, William Gibson's Neuromancer, was a mass-market original . . .).

I was extraordinarily fortunate in that my first book, Golden Fleece, got some glowing early reviews. Photocopies of those helped me fight these prejudices from the beginning. I've also made use of the fact that I've won twenty national and international writing awards, appeared in an anthology alongside such mainstream luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, and W. P. Kinsella (Ark of Ice), and had some publishing-related news hooks (books auctioned in New York, multi-book deals, foreign sales, film options). But there are so many SF awards, regional awards, best-of-year lists, bestsellers' lists, and so on, that there are possibilities for positioning just about any book of quality as something special, regardless of its publication format.

So, that's it: the six secrets of promoting a book to the media. Now, get to work — and good luck!

Two Postscripts:

In February 2000, Robert J. Sawyer was asked the following question:

For a writer with a debut novel is there a better means of getting reviewed than blindly sending one's book to dozens (hundreds?) of newspapers?
Here's his reply:
I don't know anything about your book, but maybe these comments will help.

First, if your book is self-published the chances of any reviews, anywhere, are very slim.

Second, if your book is a mass-market paperback, virtually no newspapers will review it.

If your book is a novel, it's less likely to be reviewed than if it's nonfiction; novels are most likely reviewed by papers in the author's home territory.

Scattershot submissions are unlikely to bear much fruit; if you can't think of a specific reason why the newspaper should review your book, the newspaper's book-review editor probably won't be able to think of one, either.

All of that said, the more copies you send out, the better. But make sure you're sending it to the right newspapers; many papers run only syndicated book reviews (ones provided by a wire service), or belong to newspaper chains, in which all papers in the chain run the same reviews. If the newspaper doesn't commission reviews, the copy you've sent is wasted.

Your book should be accompanied by a press release. Most newspapers won't run a picture of your book's cover (they consider that advertising), but may very well run an author photo, if you send one. A good black-and-white 3x5" or 5x7", labeled on the back, should go out with each copy of your book.

Good luck!

In July 2000, Robert J. Sawyer was asked the following question:

It sure sounds like you get more press coverage than do science-fiction writers here in the United States. Why is that?
Here's his reply:

1) Canada is not nearly so prejudiced against writers of commercial fiction / science fiction as the U.S. is. One rarely sees an SF or mystery writer on an American talk show; such people are common on Canadian ones. Also, in the States, your celebrities are TV stars and movies stars; well, Canada doesn't have many of either still living inside its borders, so our celebrities are writers.

2) I'm a good interview — quotable in print and personable on the air; about half the media I do in any given year is repeat business from earlier years. I spent eight years as a freelance print journalist, and I have a bachelor's degree in Radio and Television Arts. Formal media training is a real asset to anyone who wants to be seen on radio or TV. As one Canadian TV producer put it, "Sawyer delivers what producers want." I also used to write press releases and promotional materials for major clients; I'm rather good at creating such things.

3) This is a key point: I write science fiction set in the near future or present day, and I write issues-oriented science fiction. It's easy to get on the air to talk about a book related to the human genome project (Frameshift) or about the battle between creationism and evolution (Calculating God) because those topics are clearly of broad interest; it's very difficult to convince any producer that one's fascinating bit of worldbuilding about what tri-sexual aliens living beneath the ice caps of a tidally locked moon of Zubenelgenubi IV would be of interest to a broad audience.

4) I live in one of the Western world's media capitals. Toronto is the headquarters of Canadian broadcasting and of Canadian print journalism and of Canadian publishing. One of the crazy things about Canadians is they think everything should be decentralized, and that just because you live in rural northern Saskatchewan shouldn't mean you should have any less of a chance of being on TV or working in any industry. Americans know if you want to be in the heart of filmmaking, you move to Hollywood; if you want to be in the heart of the computer industry, you move to Silicon Valley; if you want to be in the heart of publishing, you move to New York. The same sort of geographic realities exist in Canada, but most Canadians try to ignore that fact, fooling themselves that location really doesn't matter. I embrace the facts of geography: I could live anywhere in Canada, instead of in one of its two most expensive housing markets (along with Vancouver) — I sometimes get wistful when I think of just how fantastic a house I could afford in Montreal or Halifax, for instance, but I understand the importance of being in greater Toronto for access to the national media.

5) My wife Carolyn has, for three years now, worked for me full-time as my salaried assistant — and a significant part of her job is booking me with various media. Tor and Tor's Canadian distributor, H. B. Fenn, do good jobs of promoting me and my work, as well, but still a significant majority of the media I do is because Carolyn sent out a press release and followed up with the appropriate phone calls. For instance, it was Carolyn who landed me on Canada A.M. this year, which is the holy grail for authors in Canada; it's Carolyn who has booked me on TV programs in Rochester, New York, and Syracuse, New York, for later this month; and so on.

More Good Reading

An interview with Rob about the process of being interviewed (1,500 words)
Crafting press releases for novels
Press Release Index

My Very Occasional Newsletter

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