Novelists need a media hook

I’ve just returned from a terrific 10-day promotional tour in England and Scotland, where I was once again impressed by how book tours really can make a difference, especially in a country that’s as geographically compact as the UK.  In the US, touring novelists are challenged by long distances, frequent airline flights, disinterested media, and lackluster attendance at store events.  In the UK, distances are manageable and I’ve been delighted by the numbers of people who turn up at my signings.  In the U.S., I’ve sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to find only two people waiting to hear me speak.  (One of them being the bookstore manager.)

But no matter where we go in the world, novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to getting media attention.  Our books are fiction.  Our characters don’t exist.  Why should a newspaper or radio station want to interview us about a story we simply pulled out of thin air?  “Fiction is hard,” publicists will tell you.  And they’re absolutely right.  Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or you’re already a celebrity of some kind, no one really wants to hear how you made up your story.  

My solution has been to focus instead on the real-life background behind my stories.  At store events, I never read from my books.  Instead, I try to teach them things they didn’t know, things that they’ll find fascinating and even useful.  For THE BONE GARDEN, I spoke for 45 minutes about the history and horrors of childbed fever, and about the 19th-century medical heroes who eventually ended the scourge.  I told of the tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis and the genius of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the primitive conditions of hospitals in 1830.  I read a passage from an early surgical textbook on how to amputate a thigh, which invariably made people squirm in their chairs.  (But they did stay and listen.)  I probably spent only two minutes total describing the plot of THE BONE GARDEN.  Almost all of my talk was focused on an era in medical history that would give anyone nightmares.  I wasn’t playing the part of novelist, but of history teacher.

No doubt there are many readers who’d prefer to hear an author read from his work, but I’ve aways loved hearing a good lecture, so it’s the way I’ve always done it.  For MEPHISTO CLUB, I gave a talk on ancient religious texts.  For VANISH, I discussed the phenomenon of people being mistaken for dead.  (Believe me, a few hair-raising examples was enough to get the audience squirming.)  I like to think that by the time they leave, they’ve learned something they didn’t know before.  Something interesting.

One of the benefits of doing it this way is that it can snag the media’s interest.  I’m more than just another novelist who’s made up a story; I’m someone who can offer educated commentary on a real-life topic.

Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be a guest on one of the most popular shows on BBC Radio, “Woman’s Hour,” hosted by Jenni Murray.  I was invited on the show not because I was a novelist, but because I could talk about childbed fever.  Along with medical historian Dr. Hilary Morland, we covered a topic that was both scary and useful to Jenni’s listeners. 

Plus, Jenni promoted my book.  Which is about the best advertisement I could hope for.

Would I have been invited on the show if I’d written just another psycho-killer tale?  I highly doubt it. What could I possibly have said about my psycho-killer novel that would be relevant to her audience?  “There are creeps out there, so watch out”?  That’s hardly special, and something any other crime writer could have spouted.  

If you’re a novelist headed out on tour, try to talk about more than just your plot and your characters.  Think about the cool stuff you learned during your research, or something about the setting or the science that the public would love to know.  Give them nuggets of information that they can’t wait to share with their friends.

Maybe if we all did this, publicists would stop telling us “fiction is hard.”


And now:  photos from my UK tour!  I had such a terrific time and wanted to give you a glimpse of some of the places I visited:

With my reader Fabrice in Milton Keynes: 


In Oxford with my UK team of superwomen!  My publicist Alison Barrow and my editor Selina Walker:


 There were huge promotional posters in the London Underground for THE BONE GARDEN.  Here are my friends Wouter and Marie-Jose standing beside one of them:


And in the Borders Bookstore in Glasgow, here I am giving my talk on childbed fever to a very nice gathering that spilled up into the stairwell:


 And here I am at the Gosforth Library, with my publicist and my two wonderful library hosts:


18 replies
  1. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    Tess, that is a great suggestion. I’m doing a presentation tomorrow, in front of a Phi Beta Kappa group, no less. I’m usually pretty blase about these events, but this one’s a bit more formal, and I’ve been wondering what to do…I think I’ll try this out.

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I don’t think the books I write would warrant a 45-minute discussion on their themes. I mean, there’s definitely controversy in them, but nothing compared to the amount of scientific knowledge you’re able to dredge up for a book like TBG. Though, it is something I could think about when I finally have the opportunity to go ON a book tour!

    Glad you’re back, by the way!

  3. ali
    ali says:

    Hi Tess –

    Great to see the photos and report – I was hoping to see you in London, but a meeting over-ran – But look forward to seeing you at Harrogate this summer as you’re one of the GoH’s



  4. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Maybe it’s me, but if I wanted to hear an author read from her book, why buy the book? You were so right to talk about the inspiration for the book. Making people squirm in their seats means one of two things…either they have to pee, or what you’re telling them does, indeed, make a difference.
    When I heard you talk in NYC, you talked about your ideas for The Mephisto Club. You didn’t read from the book. That’s why we buy the book. To read it for ourselves.
    So whatever you’re doing, keep it up. Whether it be the US or the UK, just remember…UB #1 wherever you go.
    (oh, by the way…you’re right. Fiction is hard…diction is harder)

  5. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Hi Tess, welcome home!

    I’m hearing more and more authors from the US giving up on the touring gig. Like you said, to travel hundreds of miles to have an audience of one or two, or heaven forbid, no one, just doesn’t make sense anymore. And are we authors actually selling more books by traveling? Doesn’t sound like it, in the US anyway.

    With the advent of podcasts and blogs such as this, we can get to know our favorite authors a different way, but one that is certainly easier on the author.

    I agree with you on giving a reading. It shouldn’t be from the book itself, and I feel audiences are more interested in hearing our process and inspiration for the writing. If they are intrigued and we can tell a good yarn, then they’ll buy the book anyway.

    And on the flip side of this whole subject, if you’re in the area on Feb. 1st, hope you stop in to The Fertile Mind in Belfast for the Valentine’s Day 5-author signing that I believe you had a hand in starting. We’d love to see you!


  6. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    You’re very popular here in Ireland too Tess, in the major bookstores your new novels are prominent. I haven’t seen any posters though, but maybe when they build the metro here in Dublin.. Oh and well done for getting onto Jenni Murray’s show, its very popular in the UK! 🙂

  7. jtmillsny
    jtmillsny says:

    It sounds like you had a great time in the UK. I’d love to hear you speak sometime. You should totally consider coming to Rochester, NY!

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    so sorry I won’t be at the Fertile Mind this weekend! I’ll be speaking at the Love is Murder conference in Chicago.

  9. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-welcome back-i hope you didn’t have the horrendous weather you did the last time you were in the UK-i recall that you drew a really good sized crowd at a non-commercial venue,the Plymouth,MA public library-the failry large room was filled up

  10. therese
    therese says:

    OK, MEPHISTO CLUB and VANISH are my goals to purchase this week in spite of life, school, reconstruction in my home and a very dedicated focus on an upcoming football game. Few would understand my interest in a book over a Superbowl party…

    This was a very personal post for me, like a direction, motivation and affirmation on how to accomplish what I am working to create. Which is non-fiction with enough newspaper articles to verify the dates. But my heart is always with fiction, myths and legends because there’s a deeper truth than we get in news.

    I agree with your comment that a good lecture that teaches me something is more interesting than an author reading. I attended one event with a multi pubbed author who did nothing more than answer questions about the characters in her books. Since I had only read a few sporadically, I was almost bored and spent my time contemplating the ‘real-ness’ to readers of these fictional characters.

    Fiction may be a hard-sell but I think you’ve given many of us a key with this post regarding how to promote what mattered to us enought to write the book. What about the story matters in our history and life and why us authors are motivated enough to dedicate a year of our lives to craft a story.


  11. clare
    clare says:

    Glad you enjoyed the UK – you know Wales is nice too? 😉

    I was in London last week and really excited at the chance to come to your signing; unfortunately I couldn’t change dates and got there a day late. I still dragged hubby to Waterstones to get a signed book though. Not read much – he hid it from me in order to get a two-way conversation! Really interesting so far though.

    Straggler – thanks for the link

  12. VoiceOfNoOne
    VoiceOfNoOne says:

    Hi Tess,

    I’m glad to hear that your tour of the UK was a success, I wish I could have been at one of your talks. It sounds like it would have been really interesting. Alas, I live too far away from any of the place you went to. I really hope you come to the UK again some time, oh and I just finnished THE BONE GARDEN it was amazing.:D

  13. nikkibarr
    nikkibarr says:

    I’m glad you had a great time over here. It was lovely to meet you and I hope you enjoyed my article!

    Thanks for talking to me and I hope sales go well (I’m sure they will)

  14. helen
    helen says:

    Hi Tess. I just wanted to say that I came to hear you talk at Waterstones Milton Keynes in the UK and I found your talk absolutely facinating. As a wannabe writer myself I found your background research and how you came to write that particular novel really interesting – so much so I wrote a blog post about you. I’ll also be reviewing The Bone Garden for the book site I write for. (I can’t wait to read it but as a reviewer my TBR pile is enormous).

    Thank you very much. It was a lovely (and informative!) evening.

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