Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Publicity: An interview with PR Coordinator Sara Dobie

sruble: Did you always want to do Public Relations?

Sara Dobie: Nope. I started as a news writer in college. Then, I realized that news writing was a touch dry for my taste. I also realized that on paper, I was a dang smooth operator. And what is PR but smooth operating in the spotlight? It’s more creative than news writing. There’s more room to stretch, and you can occasionally throw the whole AP style manual out the door. To me, “public relations” means freedom to have free thought. Sky’s the limit, and that’s what keeps things exciting—for me and the people I represent.

sruble: How did you get into PR for publishing, and how long have you been doing it?

Sara Dobie: Through a comedy of errors, I ended up in the wine industry after college, working as a sales rep for a distributor in the Midwest. I ended up hating it; I ended up walking off the job. Two weeks later, there was an ad in the city paper—an art gallery was looking for a manager. I applied. The artist/owner called and said I didn’t have enough experience to be a manager, but she liked my credentials. She wondered if I could promote her husband’s children’s book. I took the freelance job. I learned more real life stuff in one year than I had in four years at college. Once my contract ran out, I started my own book publicity firm, Tree Town Promotions, which I ran out of an apartment for over a year. Tree Town’s in hibernation for the time being, thanks to my full time position at Sylvan Dell Publishing, which I took back in May 2008. Overall, I’ve been in the publishing business for three years, but there are days when I miss Bordeaux and brunch from my short-lived sales career. Who wouldn’t? Right?

sruble: Can you tell us a little bit about Sylvan Dell Publishing?

Sara Dobie: Our mission statement reads as follows: “bringing science and math to children through literature.” It’s the brainchild of Lee and Donna German. Lee is a retired navy guy; Donna wrote bread machine cookbooks for years, hitting the New York Times Bestseller list. They homeschooled their three girls, which added to their inspiration and guided them toward picture books with educational value. They opened Sylvan Dell Publishing in November of 2004, and the company has grown to include over 55 authors/illustrators, 40 children’s book titles, and 70 awards. We’re not slowing down. Check out the website at

sruble: What’s the last book you read? If not a children’s book, what was the last children’s book you read?

Sara Dobie: Everything’s Eventual, by Stephen King. The best short story collection since Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House. The last children’s book I read was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. I’m a full-grown adult, and yet, the book still manages to make me cry every time.

sruble: What’s your favorite snack to eat or drink while reading a book?

Sara Dobie: Black coffee and whole-wheat toast with crunchy peanut butter. (Okay, and yes, the occasional glass of red wine…)

***And now for some questions from other bloggers.***

Ghost Girl: How important is an author website for publicity, and do you recommend a highly interactive site for the YA audience?

Sara Dobie: A website is not an option—it’s a necessity. Technology is taking over the world, even the world of books, and that can’t be denied. And although it may seem like a pain to go through the website design process, in the end, it serves to benefit YOU more than anyone else. For one thing, it saves you supplies. Instead of printing flyers, posters, etc, you can just send people to your website. There, they can learn about you, see your upcoming event schedules (and the higher attendance at your events, the better, right?), and even order your book.

In regards to a “highly interactive site,” I don’t know that “highly” is necessary, but “interactive” is useful. When I say interactive, I’m not talking bells and whistles and singing/dancing cartoon animals. I’m talking downloadable activities to go with your book. I’m talking lesson plans for your book. I’m talking puzzles and games. You can hit homeschoolers with downloadable activities. You can hit teachers and media specialists with lesson plans. Finally, you can hit the kids with puzzles and games.

And don’t forget about book trailers! If you’re talking specifically YA, book trailers are key. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t like to watch movie previews? Same goes for book trailers, if they’re well done. So include one on your website!

Ghost Girl (Mary Ann): What is the best pre-launch publicity strategy?

Sara Dobie: The easy answer? Brainstorming.

What, you want more? Okay… When I say brainstorming, I mean sitting down and thinking about who would want to read your book and/or who is going to care that you, Mary Ann, wrote your book. Start with your education. What about alumni newsletters? What about some old college buddy with a big mouth and good connections who could help you spread the word? Move onto organizations/associations of which you’re a member. How can they help with your publicity? Think mailing lists. Think conferences where you could speak. And what about organizations specifically interested in your book’s subject matter? Say you wrote a book about a heron. Go after the Audubon Society. A book about school bullying? Go after teacher conferences.

Oh, and then, there are the all-powerful bookstores. You have to go after them months in advance—I’d say about three months before your book’s release date. In this case, you will need printouts of your book, if it involves illustrations. They like to see what they’re buying and booking. Then, send them to your website. The key is to sell yourself to the bookstores. (Yes, I will be charming; don’t you see how charming I am? Yes, I will give a great presentation and sell many, many books.) Start the buzz way early. The better the pre-launch, the better the launch, the better the sales, etc, etc…

Ghost Girl: Do you recommend a separate blog for your book (as opposed to a general blog under your own name)?

Sara Dobie: Naw, a separate blog for your book is overkill. No one wants to hear from you that much. Stick to one blog, but make your book a focus. Include images of your book on your blog, and sporadically bring it in every couple of days. Think about it…if you already have a following on your general blog, why mess with a good thing by spreading your audience thin?

Carrie Harris: How do you see sites like Facebook and My Space fitting in to a publicity campaign, if at all?

Sara Dobie: That depends. If you’re using Facebook and MySpace as your only website option, it’s a bad idea. I don’t want to meet Ms. Carrie Harris and find out her only online presence is Facebook. We are not in high school anymore. I want you to have a website of your own. Otherwise, you come off as unprofessional and cheap.

However, if you are on Facebook and MySpace to “make friends” and use those “friends” as marketing sources, I’d say go for it. These networking sites were created for just that: NETWORKING! So if you’re going to have Facebook and MySpace, do NOT use those sites for drunk photos of friends. (Well, unless your book is about your drunk friends…) Use these sites to meet up with other authors, agents, publishers, and people in the industry. Use their expertise. Ask for their advice, and be sure to keep them updated on new releases, awards you’ve won, events, etc. NETWORK!

m_stiefvater: My question would be if you are targeting bloggers and reviewers with copies of your own book, ones that were missed by your publisher during the ARC period, what's the best way to find influential folks, other than through the usual networking?

Sara Dobie: Something I do about bloggers? I like going to their sites and clicking on “View My Complete Profile.” Once there, check out their “profile views.” You’d be amazed in the variance of numbers, from 500 to 22,000. Opt for the high numbers, and be SURE to see about doing an interview along with the book review. Say you’d be happy to send them a review copy, but how about running a Q&A a week before the review to stir up the dust? (All of this is assuming you’re already familiar with the blogs you’re approaching. Don’t go after a sports writer if your book is about flowers…)

For reviewers, do some research. Visit author sites with books similar to your own. Who reviewed their books? Look around as much as you can and look for a pattern, as in, who seems to show up everywhere? Who has quotes on book flaps? Who has quotes all over the web? Who has quotes in magazines? Certainly, there are reviewers you just can’t reach. (You’re not going to get an endorsement from Stephen King just because your book is about paintings that come to life and kill people, for instance.) Most reviewers, though, welcome ARCs. Just be sure to get in touch with them first. Introduce yourself and ask if they want to receive your book. Start a rapport. It’s a waste if they don’t respond to your inquiries; your book will end up in the reviewer slush pile.

sruble follow-up question: Profile views are easy to find on Blogger, but what about Live Journal, WordPress, etc.? Do you have a strategy or tricks for finding out about them?

Sara Dobie: For Live Journal, I go to User Profile. There, you can see how long their blog has been going. Compare that to their number of comments. In other words, if a blog has been around since 2007 and they only have 100 comments, I’d pass them by.
However, in all honesty, that’s just one example. Every site is going to be different. Therefore, a strategy or trick would be…drum roll…just ask! Don’t be afraid to contact the sites of interest. Ask them about book review policies. Ask them about website hits. Ask them about their target audience. How do they market their site? How do people find their site? There are millions of questions you could ask, so don’t hesitate to do so. People maintain blogs for a reason; they want people to read them. What better way to let them know you’ve been reading than to literally email them and let them know you’ve been reading?

dawn_metcalf: How does one get on "book tours" in electronic media (not just blogs, but places like Second Life and virtual B&Ns, etc.)?

Sara Dobie: The fact that I had to look up Second Life because I had no idea what you were talking about does not bode well.

I can tell you that getting featured on blogs can be fun and easy. Ask around, promise to send a review copy (if you think the blog is worth it), and have your own Q&A ready to submit, if the blogger doesn’t have time to create his/her own line of questions. Doing all this can make a blogger’s life easy, really, and they appreciate the extra effort authors are willing to put in.

Sorry, but Second Life and virtual B&Ns are just outside my expertise. I gotta tell you—nothing replaces getting out there, shaking hands, and signing books. Your fans want to meet you. They want to hear you and see you up close and personal. Don’t deprive them that.

sruble follow-up question: Do you have any advice for using alternative or unique marketing approaches, or examples of campaigns that worked well even if they were outside the normal marketing channels?

Sara Dobie: Sure! I mean, they’re not totally outside the norm, but…
1) Blog AND online radio tours. Get on a bunch of blogs, doing interviews AND getting your book reviewed. But don’t forget about online radio opportunities. A lot of my clients at Sylvan Dell have gotten involved in Author Reads Radio, Book Bites Radio, and Blog Talk Radio. Check ‘em out. Not only are you marketing your book, but your fans actually get to hear your voice and get to know you a bit better.

2) Review blitz. One of my authors is presently doing a review blitz. She’s gotten out there and researched every website known to man…or so it seems. She contacts webmasters personally, and she passes review copy requests on to me. In the past three days alone, she’s been reviewed on THREE websites. That’s good stuff, and it doesn’t cost her a thing!

3) Write an article/Be an expert. I’ve had a couple of my clients write articles about what they know—as in school visits, the writing process…even bird-watching. Write an article, and submit it to websites of common theme. It gets your name out there, it gets your book out there, and it establishes you as an expert. People like experts; they trust experts. An expert article will boost your book sales, and hey, maybe you’ll get people asking to do interviews with you, which starts the whole getting your name out there thing over again.

And just think…each of these options doesn’t cost you a thing! Talk about a cheap marketing campaign…

sookie06: What is the number one tip she can give on designing your own website? How can you use it most intelligently to market your books? And what is the number one mistake people do?

Sara Dobie: Jeesh. Number ONE tip, huh? Let’s go at this from a couple directions…

I suppose a number one tip for designing a website would be to have a professional do it. The last thing you want is to come off looking like an amateur, so unless you’re super-sookie06 in the tech department, leave it to the experts. It may be expensive, but if you play your cards right, the financial turn over could be huge.

Once your oh-so professional website is up and running, make sure people know about it. Print business cards with your web address. Make a running blog a part of you site, so that people can keep up on what you’re doing and who you are, beyond the mask of “author.” And please, please, please post your upcoming appearances and events. Fans want to see you; tell them where and when.

THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE? Not having an “Order Now” option. Getting people to your site is half the battle. The other half is getting them to buy your book, so make it easy for them and give them the order option smack dab in the middle of your website. ORDER NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!

Marissa Doyle: you've got a website, you're on MySpace and Facebook, you've got a blog (though it's not a me-me-me blog--it's more content-based), you're on AmazonConnect, blah blah blah. What else can or should you be doing while you're madly at work writing the next book (which needs to take priority over everything)?

Sara Dobie: Well, obviously, you’re all set with an online presence. The answer here is that you should still arrange a couple signings/events, regardless of how much time you’re spending on your next book. You still need to be out there—making appearances, showing your face to your fans, and signing and selling books. Nothing is more effective than a smile and a handshake. Make the time. Attend events and even networking soirees. Don’t lock yourself in your closet and give people the chance to forget how amazing, intelligent, and social you are.
(Great website, by the way, Marissa, but what about events? I’d suggest putting a schedule on your website. Keep those events coming, even if you are busy on your next beautiful book!)

sruble: Do you have any promotion advice for illustrators or author/illustrators that’s different from what authors should do to promote themselves?

Sara Dobie: It’s a lot more important for illustrators to have hands-on activities. In school visits/bookstore events, you should be able to display your technique to the masses. Example? If you use watercolors in your illustrations, you should be able to do some actual watercolor painting in front of your audience. You should then be able to bring them in to the experience—especially kids. Schedule yourself for art classes where kids (and even adults) can observe and imitate your technique. The more specific, the better; a detailed program will aid in your promotion process. It’s a sales tactic. It’s “look what I can do-don’t you want to do it too?” It makes teachers and bookstore owners feel better and trust you, because you have a detailed plan for your appearance. The audience won’t be bored, they’ll learn something, and nothing is better than word of mouth. If you give a good, organized, entertaining program once, it’s sure to happen again.

Thanks so much Sara for the great information on book promotion, and thanks to everyone that asked questions!

About Sara: Sara Dobie is the Public Relations Coordinator for Sylvan Dell Publishing. She has been featured on the ForeWord Publishing Insider blog,, and If you’re an author without a website, she will find you and throw tomatoes. Rotten ones.