Transcending “Business As Usual” in Publishing

This is a call to action for publishers, editors, and writers alike to think boldly and critically when engaging with social justice movements, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement. Public relations and optics should not be the sole motivation for an ethical operations practice. You might be hoping for an explicit outline of anti-racist strategies in the style of White Fragility––this is not that. The process of unlearning privilege and integrating anti-oppressive ethics into one’s life is messy and cannot be articulated in a how-to format. Committing to being a white accomplice is to subject yourself to discomfort in order to reconcile hundreds of years of complicity.

Publishing, like all areas of industry, has much to aspire to in terms of racial equity. In Portland and the Pacific Northwest specifically, publishing houses must represent the vast, rich histories of the region’s Black and Indigenous writers who have been historically underrepresented in literature while simultaneously pushed out of our cities. Because those who create, engage with, and publish literature are very real people, the industry is rife with the social problems that plague our greater society. We must share stories about the flooding of Vanport that displaced Black Portlanders in the early twentieth century. We must document the modern and historical narratives of the Indigenous tribes of Oregon whose people lost their lives and their land to white colonizers. Literature provides us a safe space to learn, reflect, and evolve. We cannot do this without amplifying the voices of Black and Indigenous communities in all forms of media.

The current uprising and weeks of protests make one thing apparent: “business as usual” has never been a justification for inaction. Posturing through performative allyship (posting a black box) or demanding emotional labor from the Black community during times of mourning reifies the misconception that it is the onus of Black folks to tell us how to do better. If publishers are only concerned with their viewership as it correlates to generating income, the consumer should and will hold them accountable. During a global pandemic, when we are all relying on social media to provide us with factual information (when news conglomerates continue to fail us all), we are navigating through an exponential amount of noise. As of this current socio-political moment in American history, brands and businesses need to take pause.

What I can offer you is a starting point. Throw everything away. Reimagine your mission, broaden your scope, hire Black staff and Black contributors. Don’t circulate redundant narratives of the white experience. Commit to doing more than a sensitivity read and if a manuscript reeks of an oppressive voice, leave it in the slush pile. Sometimes we have more questions than answers. I urge you to begin with Audre Lorde’s Questionnaire to Oneself, then push further. What have you, as a representative of your writing community, done differently in the last thirty, forty days? If you could quantify your anti-racist labor, could you sustain this work for a year? The rest of your life? Are you actually reading the resources and texts that you’re recommending? Have you budgeted your future earnings for reparations? Do you understand the necessity of abolition? Are you listening?

Nonfiction Publicity vs. Fiction Publicity

The tricky thing about book publicity is that there is no exact formula—no preset way to promote a book. That’s because no two books are the same, and so no two publicity campaigns are the same. However, depending on the type of book, we can use some general guidelines as a starting place. Nonfiction sales have been on the rise as of late. As book publicists, we must embrace current market trends and learn how to use them to our advantage.

Here at Ooligan, we publish all kinds of titles, both fiction and nonfiction. At any given time, chances are we are working on promoting at least one of each. We can’t treat fiction and nonfiction books the same when creating marketing and publicity campaigns for them, because they are different by nature. So what are the key differences when promoting a nonfiction title as compared to a fiction title?

One perk of promoting a nonfiction book is that they have clear, strong pitching platforms. While fiction books tend to be more vague, nonfiction titles have a more defined target audience. The easier it is to pinpoint your target audience, the easier it is to frame your promotional message.

Nonfiction titles are also good to pitch to news media, including TV, radio, and podcasts. This is because they provide information on their respective topics. If the book provides new information or a new perspective on its topic, it can easily be converted into a spotlight or feature story.

Speaking of podcasts, they have thrived as publicity tools in recent years. It turns out that over half of adults in the US have been listening to podcasts, and this type of platform is expected to continue growing in the future. Regular podcast listeners also tend to be more active on social media than non-listeners, so the odds are greater that they will act as grassroots intermediaries in helping to spread the word about your book.

The last important thing to remember when conducting a publicity campaign for a nonfiction title is to focus on timelines. This includes key dates, events, and other timely news topics. If the topic at hand can be connected to any holidays, important anniversaries, or other current events, use these to your advantage and pitch your book in relation to these dates. This can also sometimes apply to fiction titles, but nonfiction themes often have stronger ties to particular dates than fiction books.

Similarly, nonfiction authors make excellent interviewees. If you write a book on something, you are assumed to be an expert on that subject. Simply put, journalists love to interview experts. This expertise can also extend to additional feature stories, expert commentary, and other byline articles. This is especially useful if your author already has their own platform in their given field. For example, Jeff Alworth (author of Ooligan’s latest nonfiction title, The Widmer Way) has his own popular beer blog and corresponding Twitter presence that came in handy when promoting his new book.

So remember that while fiction and nonfiction books should be treated differently when creating a publicity campaign, each has its own advantages. When working on a nonfiction title, plan according to timeliness, utilize your author as an expert, and take advantage of news media, because in this era, the truth is more valuable than ever.

Write to Publish and Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Write to Publish—the annual conference that Ooligan hosts to demystify the publishing world for writers—has come and gone. By all accounts, it went pretty well. For an event that housed two concurring panels and a room for publishing vendors, the rooms were filled and it was well attended. Of course, the logistics of hosting an event is one thing (securing food for the event, finding speakers who were willing to talk, etc.), but getting people to buy tickets and come to the event is another, which is where marketing comes in.

I was able to talk to a few of the attendees at Write to Publish, and according to them, Ooligan’s social media pages and posts were what drew them to the conference. Social media (like Facebook posts) is an important marketing tool because it can seem like a more authentic and personal connection between brand and consumer, since the consumer has made that connection. A Forbes contributor argues that word-of-mouth marketing is one of the strongest aspects of marketing because it’s trusted, it can be shared, it holds influence, and it can go viral. Looking at your Facebook or Twitter feed is like having hundreds of people yelling their opinions at you, but the opinions are usually from trusted sources that you have carefully selected. You feel out of the loop by not knowing or going to what other people are talking about. A Nielsen survey found that 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family over any other form of promotion. Social media is a form of word-of-mouth marketing, since consumers follow brands they love and trust. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and the American Marketing Association (AMA) decided to find out exactly what brands were doing about that fact. In a recent study, 64 percent of marketing executives indicated that they believe word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing. Stats like these show why businesses are so gung ho about stepping up their social media presence, and Ooligan is no different. For next year’s Write to Publish, and other Ooligan events, it’s important to engage Ooligan’s audience in social media to raise awareness about our events.

I joined the team just weeks before the event was taking place, so I came in a little late on the marketing efforts. However, I was able to help the team by following up with vendors to ask about food donations; sending out a press release to just about everyone on Ooligan’s contact list; sharing the Facebook page with local writing groups; putting up posters at Powell’s; handing out postcards at a book reading; and, of course, talking up the event with friends and family.

What does that all entail? A press release is written like a journalistic article and is sent out to organizations and businesses that would publish it. The press release gives all the pertinent information and is able to be published as is, or it can be edited as the company sees fit. This is good for the press release writer because it gets all of the event’s information out there. It’s also good for the newspaper, since it’s a free article that can be popped into their own publication. When a new product comes out, there’s a press release; similar to when the government does something, there’s usually a press release. You may be surprised by the number of articles that you read that are actually just reworked press releases.

Write to Publish was great this year, and if we start talking up next year’s conference now (or as soon as possible), we might get enough attendees to fill four rooms!