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Getting Good Press
by Robert J. Sawyer
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."
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!
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.
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: