If the reality of today's publishing environment hasn't sunk in yet, here's a quick reminder: After you get a book deal, it's very unlikely that your publisher will spring for a cross-country, all-expense-paid book tour. If you want to get publicity (and you do if you're hoping to sustain a writing career, even if you have no personal interest in fanfare and limelight), you need to do some work on your own. And the first stop should be plugging your book on the local TV news.
That's actually not as difficult as you might think, as long as you do your homework and learn what reporters want. What they want—just like you—is a good story. Like any story, a good TV piece involves a beginning, middle and end. It contains conflict, emotion, strong characters and perhaps an element or two of surprise. A good story also entertains as much as it informs, engaging the viewer until the end.
WHAT YOU'RE UP AGAINST
Unlike a book, television relies on more than words alone. It depends on video and sound. Without them, it may as well be a newspaper article. Media stories must be newsworthy, too, including yours. On any given day, a newsroom may debate the merits of dozens of potential stories, but only a fraction of them will make it on the air. It's all about time. A typical 30-minute newscast, minus sports, weather, commercials and station promos, contains only 12 to 16 minutes of news. The stories given the most weight are narrated by a reporter and include ``sound bites'' or comments from a newsmaker. The average sound bite runs 10 seconds; the typical story, a minute and a half. That's not much time to sum things up. In fact, if this story were being written for TV news, it would end right now.
Other stories, read by the anchors, are shorter yet. Some may run just 15 seconds. The news staff decides which stories make the 6 p.m. lineup. While many stories may be ``newsworthy,'' they still won't make the cut. It depends on many factors, including the day, the time of year, what else is happening in the world and whether there's a tie-in to another story.
Generally, the following criteria factor into whether a story is newsworthy:
• Proximity. Is it local? Television needs sound and pictures. If a story's outside the station's viewing area, it had better be good. Travel time is a big consideration.
• Prominence. Does the story involve a well-known person, place or organization?
• Timeliness. Is it happening now? Is it ``new''?
Yesterday's news isn't worth repeating unless there's a way to advance the story.
• Impact. How does the story affect the local community?
• Conflict and controversy. Are there at least two opposing sides? An element of suspense?
• Human interest. It may not be the most important story, but perhaps it's the most interesting or unusual.
Think about these things when pitching your story and know why you or your book is newsworthy. Ask yourself, Why should people care? What's the hook? Are you an expert on a hot topic? Does your book tie in to a current news event? Did you profile a well-known person? Was your story born of personal adversity and overcoming great odds? Can you summarize the newsworthiness in 10 seconds? If not, keep trying. Television caters to a broad audience, and you're up against short attention spans. If you're unable to boil it down, it's going to be a tough sell.
Do's and Don'ts of TV Interviews
• DO get to your interview early; bring along a brief bio and, of course, your book. • DO look at the reporter and not into the camera. • DO avoid jargon, numbers, stats and lengthy background. • DO ask the reporter to repeat a question that's unclear. • DO be natural and conversational and try to relax. • DON'T memorize or read a prepared statement. You'll appear stiff and, if you forget one word, you'll risk losing your train of thought. • DON'T ramble or switch thoughts in midsentence. • DON'T keep repeating the reporter's name. It may work in sales, but reporters hate it. • DON'T ask to see a list of questions in advance. • DON'T wear solid white clothes, busy patterns or excessive jewelry.
FIND YOUR FIT
Once you're confident you have a story to share, tune in to your local news stations to see how much and what kind of news they do. Most stations have a weekday morning show, plus early evening and nighttime newscasts. Many also have a noon report, as well as morning shows on the weekends. These shows usually run longer and often allow for more feature or human-interest stories, with live interview segments running two to five minutes. The 6 p.m. and late-night newscasts are usually the ``shows of record,'' meaning they focus on news of the day with less time devoted to features.
Your best bet is to target one of the non-prime-time newscasts, where producers tend to have more time and flexibility in what they cover. The weekend morning shows, which often enjoy a loyal following, are a great place to start.
Once you determine where your story fits best, get the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the shows' producers and the best time to call. Keep your correspondence short and simple, then follow up with an e-mail or quick call. Producers have a zillion things going on at once, so be persistent, but don't be a pest. Also, know what the news of the day is. The last thing you want to do is to call right as a big news story unfolds or on, say, Election Day. Be sure to pitch your story to all news stations in your local market, which will increase your odds of airtime (but know that many stations avoid doing stories they've already seen on the competition).
THE BIG DAY
After you've lined up the interview, spend some time preparing for your big debut. Think of ways you might make your story more interesting. Are there props you can use? Is there a neat setting or background you can suggest for the interview? Does the story allow for reporter participation?
If you're doing a live interview segment, you get one take only. Know your stuff and keep it simple. Speak in layman's terms. Television hates long-winded, self-important interviewees who drone on in a language no one understands. Shuck the big, showy words for sentences that are simple and to the point. If you're doing a taped interview, the reporter decides which sound bites to use. Rambling on means the reporter must work harder to edit your comments. Remember, the story will likely run no more than one-and-a-half minutes and your comments 10 to 12 seconds.
Whether the interview is live or taped, know the TV audience. Even if your book targets a specific crowd, television reaches a broad spectrum. The people watching you will vary in age, race, income and education.
TV producers rarely plan the lineup for their shows more than a day or two in advance. If news breaks, you'll be first in line to get bumped. But if you have a good story to tell, chances are you'll be invited back another day to share it. And you'll be ready.