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Your Book’s Calling Card: The Press Kit
by Mitchel Whitington

I recently had the pleasure of walking through the beautiful Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, a restored old Victorian dating back to the 1880’s. I should have been soaking up the history and enjoying my vacation, but as the tour started I just couldn’t help thinking about press kits. Sounds a little strange, I know, but let me explain.

Our docent for the tour asked us to gather in a small receiving area just inside the front door. It was a rather plain room, with chairs and a small table, and could be separated from the rest of the house by large doors. She went on to explain that the original owner of the house, William Haas, was a businessman in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and people would often call on him in the evenings. Such a visitor would present a calling card to one of Mr. Haas’ staff, who would seat them in that receiving area and take the card back to Mr. Haas, who would then decide whether or not to receive the guest. As everyone else was listening to our tour guide continue on, I just smiled and shook my head – that mapped so well onto how we use press kits, it was perhaps the best analogy that I could possibly imagine.

And think about it – we’d all love to place our books in the hands of the editors, reviewers and producers that could provide us so much promotion, but they are sequestered inside of their offices, hidden away from our view. Our best chance to reach them is by sending in a press kit, which will be opened by one of their assistants and then presented for consideration. A book review, guest appearance, interview, or polite rejection – all are decided in a matter of minutes as the press kit is examined. The press kit is indeed a calling card for a book. Press kits transcend all genres: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, any form of writing that you can imagine. If you are promoting your book, you must have a press kit.

While researching press kits several years ago, I picked the brains of the people who read our press kits: newspaper editors, segment producers for news shows, magazine editors, etc. The vast majority shared a common complaint: ALL PRESS KITS LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME! Everything that you will hear or read concerning book publicity provides the same instruction for building a press kit: Attach your book cover to the front of a folder, then stuff a black & white photo inside, along with a rigid press release. The people who read our press kits are humans, though! They have good days and bad days, get a little bored when their job becomes monotonous, and crave any splash of creativity that comes across their desk. That is exactly what you have to do with your press kit.

To achieve that goal, let’s start by looking at the press kit folder – the first thing that the reader will see. If you simply glue your book cover to the front, then your press kit will appear exactly the same as every other one in the pile. Look at it from a different angle, though: no matter what your genre or topic, as a writer you know that your opening paragraph has to hook the reader into wanting to buy your book to read more. In fact, studies show that when someone picks up our book in a bookstore, we only have a matter of seconds to grab their attention before they return it to the shelf and take another. Why should your press kit be any different? Put something on the front cover that will draw the reader into the press kit – something that will make them want to open it and examine it further! My last book, Uncle Bubba’s Chicken Wing Fling is a humorous look at life in the small Texas town of Cut Plug. Instead of slapping the cover on front of the press kit, I chose a glossy, 2-pocket folder with a maroon marble pattern. On glossy paper, about 3 x 6 inches, I printed the title, "Honorable Order of the Armadillo: New Member’s Manual", along with a cartoon of an armadillo. At first glance, no one would know that the Armadillo Lodge is the secret organization that all the men in Cut Plug belong to, or that the ladies of the town just shake their head and think that they’re all crazy for doing so. But the cover is so different from all of the other press kits on the reader’s desk that he has to open it up to find out what is inside – many editors who did stories on the book told me just that. Other authors have successfully used the same technique. Dorothy McConachie, while promoting her book Our Texas Heritage: Ethnic Traditions and Recipes, used a press kit that had a royal blue folder with a beautiful bluebonnet on front. No mention of the topic of her book, genre, etc. Still, the reader could speculate that it had something to do with the state of Texas, since that is nationally recognized as the Texas state flower. Of course, curiosity is a wonderful creature, so the reader was drawn to open the press kit and find out more.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the press kit cover, it’s time for a peek inside. Here is a list to get you started with some useful items to include:

Synopsis: Long before a reviewer or interviewer gets your book in hand, someone is screening incoming queries for them. This person will be sorting through a heap of mail on their desk, and will only be able to give each item a few moments consideration. If your book comes clunking out of an envelope, it may be easier just to ignore it than to try to sift through the story and decide if it merits further consideration. A one-page synopsis in your press kit, on the other hand, is easy to read and takes very little time -- something that will be greatly appreciated, and will be a mark in your favor when the book is being considered.

Author Biography: A short biography one page at the most should be given to tell the reader exactly why you're interesting. If you are being considered for a radio interview, it doesn't matter if you got the attendance award in third grade, but if you've just completed a perilous canoe trip down an Alaskan river to research your new book, then you've just given the program a slant that they'd love to feature! Stick to the relevant facts, and add as much color as possible.

Clips: If your book has been reviewed in periodicals, be sure to include photocopies of the favorable articles. Quotes from radio and television interviews or reviews should also be included. Be prudent with what you include, however. Fifty photocopied reviews will turn off the screener, while two or three interesting ones will help to pique their interest.

Reviews/Quotes: Many books contain quotes from other authors on their jacket. Whether yours does or not, it's worth contacting some of your writer-friends for a sentence or two on your book. List several of these on a 'What They're Saying' page, and be sure to credit the author with their latest book. It helps them out, but it also lends credibility that a published author is commenting. These should be in the form:

"Riviting. A fantastic read. The best action tale on the market today!"

- Mitchel Whitington, author of the new novel Uncle Bubba's Chicken Wing Fling

Author Interview: Many interviewers will state that they don't use scripted questions, but this item is still a must. It gives the reader a flavor for the kind of responses that you might have during an interview. It provides background to use in an article, and it gives them questions to ask whether they admit it or not! Stay relevant and interesting, and keep the questions and answers to a single page.

Unique Information: If there is anything unique about your book, be sure to incorporate it into your press kit. If you have a cookbook, for instance, you may want to include a representative recipe.

Send-A-Book Cards: You can give the reader an opportunity to request the entire book by including a self-addressed, stamped postcard to return to you. If your book doesn't fit the venue that you've targeted, then the price of a promotional copy would have been saved by sacrificing a stamp.

Don't take these examples as a finite list for your press kit. Be creative, and include the items that make the most sense for your book. It’s not enough, however, to simply print off the materials and put them in your press kit folder. Each item needs to carry the theme of your press kit forward. I’d mentioned Dorothy McConachie’s book earlier – since her book dealt with various ethnicities that had settled in Texas, she used map and flag themed paper as accents. For Uncle Bubba, I made letterheads from different organizations in cut plug to print the items from the press kit on: the police department, garden club, etc.

With a little work, you can make your press kit interesting and unique. It will catch the attention of the reader, and draw them into the world that you’ve created in your book. By doing that, you will have made your book’s calling card a promotional tool that will get you through any door, and springboard your book onto the next level!

© Copyright 2001, Mitchel Whitington

Mitchel Whitington is the author of the The Press Kit Constructor. His web site is www.Whitington.com.

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