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How to get the names of journalists

You may be familiar with many names from reading the papers. But these are often either staff or freelance writers who work under the direction of the ‘section editor’ for a particular area of the paper or programme. It is the section editor who directs what gets written about, and who can commission new features on forthcoming matters of interest to the audience/readership. So how do you get hold of their names?

Firstly, you can build your own lists using a copy of a media yearbook. For example, writing yearbooks include the names, addresses and contact numbers for national and local press and broadcast media. If you have time to do a personal mailing piece, you could ring each specific medium and ask for the names of those you wish to contact (checking difficult spellings) and the address (usually email) to which they would like material sent (often not the same as the general address of the paper in question). If you have less time, you could just send your information to the relevant editor by job title at the address given.

Be rigorous in keeping records of those you have spoken to. Which is their day off, when is the best time to contact them? Journalists working on Sunday papers generally have Monday off, but their life becomes very frantic towards the end of the week as publication gets nearer.

Alternatively, there are several media agencies that specialise in maintaining lists of journalists. You can order names by subject specialisation (for example, all journalists dealing with children’s products) in a variety of formats (email file, labels, etc.).

What to send out to journalists

  • A press release
  • A copy of the book, or a proof or ‘reading’ copy, or the offer of a free copy on request.

How to write a press release

A press release is an information sheet sent to a journalist to try to stimulate media coverage. This is usually achieved in one of two ways:

  • The journalist uses your press release in its entirety, inserting the words you supply into the paper or medium they write for
  • The journalist decides to write or commission a feature based on the information you send in – usually an author interview or an article based on the issues your book draws attention to.

The main point to bear in mind is that most journalists receive hundreds of press releases every day; the more desirable the medium you are pursuing, the more press releases they will receive. The best advice is to:

  • Keep it short (a single side of A4 is plenty; readers on a website don’t want to scroll down more than twice)
  • Divide up the copy with subheadings and into short paragraphs so that it motivates the reader to get involved
  • Make it interesting.

The last point is easier said than done. To start with, cut out long sentences of introductory copy about the publishing house and background information on the author (unless strictly relevant). Try to bring the atmosphere of the book to life, or to highlight the issues it raises, rather than give a complete account of the content. For example, is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca the story of a local landowner’s second marriage to a much younger woman – or a compelling tale of one woman’s jealousy for a dead rival?

Bear in mind too that publication of yet another book is not really news to a journalist – there will be at least 400 other titles published the same day! What the journalist wants is a story, so what kind of ‘peg’ can you offer on which to hang one? This may be something in the book, but equally could be something in your background, or in the news, or a publicity event tied to publication.

Email or paper version?

Both are needed. Most journalists like to receive press releases by email, as the material can then be used immediately, but a printed press release inserted inside books sent out for review can hold attention, particularly if it is visually attractive. Similarly, you should have printed copies of your press release available at any author interviews or publicity events you attend. It can be handed to the producer/manager looking after you. One will probably have been sent ahead, but having it there, at the ready, is helpful.

Other facts to bear in mind when preparing press releases:

  • Give your press release a headline, not just the book title. A headline serves to draw the eye in; it does not need to be a complete summary of what follows.
  • Put the main facts in the first paragraph (the journalist may get no further, and if the press release does get included whole, it will be cut from the bottom upwards). You have not got time for an eloquent, mood-filled paragraph to set the scene. The former editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans, said that the opening paragraph should have the ‘who, what, where, why and when’ made really clear.
  • If you are trying to get feature coverage, make the press release specific to the medium you are approaching. For example, a mass market and a highly professional magazine might cover the same book, but the angle taken would be different in each case.
  • Ensure that your grammar and spelling are correct, particularly when writing to literary editors. You are writing to people who care about words; if the press release is poorly compiled your readers will assume that the book is of the same standard.
  • Do not repeat the book jacket copy in the press release. This looks lazy and is wasting a separate opportunity to communicate with the market.
  • Always put a contact name, email address and telephone number at the bottom of the page (it could be someone in the publisher’s publicity department, or perhaps your own). If you are available for interview, or could give an explanation/do a stunt that could make a press event, then the press release should say so.
  • Try to make the press release visually arresting. Can you include illustrations – perhaps cartoons, an author photograph, a cover shot or an illustration from the book? In a further bid to make what you send stand out; can you print it on coloured paper? If 99 per cent of the postbag is printed in black ink on white paper, a coloured sheet will draw attention to itself.
  • Be wary of using quotations on press releases. If you do, it must be clear that they draw attention to the book’s great interest and don’t imply that every angle has already been thought of. For this reason, at the end of the quotation, give the name of the contributor rather than the medium in which it appeared.
  • Don’t send press releases out too often or if you don’t have particular news to impart: you will devalue your future impact. What is news? Peter Hobday, radio presenter, provided this useful litmus test:

News is something that is unusual enough to be noticed that the reader will want to talk about it to his wife at home or in his local with his mates.’
From Managing the Message, Allison & Busby

  • An associated freebie can work to attract a journalist’s attention. Review copies of Confessions of a Southern Lady (Silver Moon Books) were sent out with a (very well packed!) miniature bottle of Southern Comfort. Be very wary of using humour, however – ideas that seem hilarious at 4.55 p.m., just before you go home, can appear very different in the cold light of day when the post is received. A reviews editor commented that finding out the Valentine she had been sent was in fact a publicity stunt to draw attention to a new book made her feel very disinclined to oblige with either interview or feature.
  • Provide a picture of the author with a caption. Remember that images with lots of colour are more likely to be used than those with little, and that an interesting photo (with a fascinating caption) is more likely to be used than a photograph showing a line-up of people holding drinks.

Local press

Don’t assume that only national media are worth pursuing. Local coverage can be very helpful, as it offers:

  • A direct vehicle to a particular market. If a book has a strong regional flavour, or the author strong local connections, try to get coverage in a local paper.
  • Less of a hard-nosed approach than the nationals. This gives authors inexperienced with the publicity process the chance to practise dealing with the media.
  • Extra opportunities for coverage. These exist where the author was born, went to school or university, where they live now and have lived previously, where their family came from and so on.

What to do if a journalist won’t take your calls or never takes up any of your ideas

Don’t despair. Get to know the other people working on the desk: even if it is not an extensive department there will almost certainly be a ‘number two’. It follows that:

  • They get fewer calls, so may be able to talk to you for longer
  • If the ideas you suggest are sensible and interesting, they are a direct route to the main editor. Their voice behind an idea you suggest will have more weight than your own
  • One day they will probably be the lead journalist themselves (either on the current slot or elsewhere), and if you have built up good relations you will have someone who will always take your calls.

Extract from Alison Baverstock's Marketing Your Book: An Author's Guide


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

How to give an effective media interview

What (and why) authors need to know about marketing


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