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Penny Sansevieri Tells Writers: How to Hit the New York Times List


If you ask any aspiring writer what their greatest dream is (besides being on Oprah), many would say they dream of hitting the New York Times list. But how do you do it? Is it possible for an author to hit list without the full support of their publisher? How many copies do you need to sell exactly to hit the list? And where does Twitter, Facebook and YouTube fall into the scheme of things? For these answers, and more we asked, Penny Sansevieri of Author Marketing Expert, an online book marketing firm whose efforts have resulted in numerous New York Times bestsellers.


Penny, you and I have known each other for a few years and I’ve seen first-hand how you’ve successfully built authors’ campaigns and we even shared a client at one time. You didn’t just wake up and start doing this. How did you go from zero to hero, where did this journey begin?

First off thanks for interviewing me, I’m really honored to be a part of this. How I got started was quite accidental, actually you could call me an accidental entrepreneur. In the space of less than a year I lost my job not once but twice when two companies I worked for were shuttered. I took that as a sign and decided dip my toe in consulting. I figured I’d do it for 3 months and see what happened, that was almost 11 years ago now. While I dreamed of a company this size, I had no real intention of it when I started, in fact I didn’t even have a business plan. I just decided it was time to do what I loved. I also realized early on that there was a keen need for a company that devoted itself to authors who were either just starting out, building their platform, or from small publishers or self-published. That’s where I focused and because of this, we created a company that was wildly different from any PR firm out there. The reason for this is that because of the nature of the author that we managed, we were forced to be super creative. We didn’t have the luxury of books being in bookstores, we had to develop campaigns that drove folks into the stores. As it turns out, this has served us well for all of our authors, not just the small press folks.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve helped quite a few titles hit the New York Times list. Which titles and what did you do specifically to make that happen?

Some of the titles we’ve worked on have been Happy for No Reason, The Answer, The Go-Giver, and the notorious If I Did It all of these books were in our Internet campaigns which as very different from any other programs out there. I say this because first off, I have an amazing team and we are always a step ahead of the curve when it comes to online marketing. We were using Twitter 2 years before anyone knew what it was, that’s how these books succeeded. While we were focused on reviews by bloggers, we quickly realized that reviews don’t always create the inertia that a title needs to soar up a list, they need inbound marketing which we’ve always done, but now thanks to all of the Internet guru’s out there blogging on inbound marketing, it’s becoming a more mainstream term. The idea I think for any author really is getting their book (via their website) to come up in searches, so for example if someone is searching on a particular term the book comes up. It’s really all about getting in front of consumers who are looking for your message. And for some books it’s not about the consumer finding the title. For example, when we worked on The Answer we realized that consumers were looking for the terms “grow any business”. No one was searching for The Answer, well lots of people were but it was for different things that weren’t part of the author’s market. So we branded this campaign to those search terms, that inbound marketing, combined with any reviews we got for the book really helped to position the title for success. That’s the key. Relying on reviews alone to drive the success of a book won’t work, at least not anymore.

People say that hitting the New York Times list or any list is luck but is that true and if not, is it as simple as having everyone buy the book at a certain location within a certain window of time?

Well each list reports differently. For example the New York Times uses reporting bookstores, meaning certain stores (around 30) spread throughout the country. These stores report into the Times with their most successful titles for that week. USA Today is based on sales as is the Wall Street Journal.

While no one knows the secret to hitting a list, there’s a metric involved in this process. The metric is this: books are sold into stores by publishers early on, months in advance. The publisher starts building interest for this title via its sales team and also something called the announced first print (which is often higher than the actual print run). Publishing is about perception, so the first piece of this is the perceived momentum that a publisher is putting behind a title which will encourage bookstores to order it. The second piece to this is having enough copies on hand to surge the list. How many copies? The average changes because the amount of books published but historically it’s been around 30,000. Then comes the magic word: availability. Sometimes self-published or small press authors will associate an Amazon listing with availability. Amazon is neither an indication of availability or distribution. Yes, you should have a book listing on all the online store sites but a listing and distribution are two very different things. So advanced sales, print run, and distribution all factor heavily into a book surging a list. There are, however, always exceptions to this rule. If a book surges suddenly and in a short period of time it can hit a list. Last year I was having lunch with a publisher who said a book they were working on hit the top 10 of the New York Times with little marketing and only a 4,000 print run. How did this happen? The author had done some of their own online marketing and the viral factor kicked in, sending people into bookstores, and it surged up the list.

Authors often know that they should blog, build a fan base on platforms such as Facebook but they can often feel like they’re spinning their wheels. What works and what doesn’t in terms of turning online promotion into actual sales?

That’s a great question and one I get all the time. Authors get so caught up in participating in online promotion they almost always forget one thing: measuring success. It’s easy to get caught up in the Twitter-stream of conversation and dialogging with your Facebook buddies but the numbers don’t lie. Here are some things to ask yourself to determine if your campaign is really paying off, or just a waste of your time:

1) What are your goals for your social media campaign? Before you dive in you should determine why you’re doing this: to build your brand, increase incoming links (and traffic) to your website, increases newsletter sign ups?) Start by determining your goals and then let the campaign unfold to support those goals.
2) Are you increasing traffic online, meaning to your website? If this is one of your objectives then you need to keep a close eye on your analytics.
3) Are you expanding your network to include people who will make a different to your campaign or are you just finding old high school buddies who aren’t really your target audience?

You’ll notice that the one thing I didn’t mention was book sales. Yes, this factors in but there are a lot of other pieces that come before the sale. Getting more traffic to your website, networking with others in your market, increasing the exposure for your brand.

Don’t get into online marketing and say “I want to sell books” yes, that’s (hopefully) the eventual outcome for all of your efforts but there are many steps that come before the sale.

If we’re starting from scratch, what is the fastest and most effective way to build an online platform?

The first and most effective is to launch a website. But not a personal “hey, learn more about me and oh, here’s a picture of my new puppy” website, a real, author-focused site that’s branded to you, your book, your business or your message.

Second, make sure the site includes a blog and start getting into the online conversation. Blogging twice weekly at a minimum will really help your site grow in online exposure and, consequently, grow your platform.

Third, participate on social media that’s right for you and your book. What I mean by this is don’t just jump into the deep end of the social media pool and just because someone in your writing class is on 350 social networking sites (yes, there are that many) doesn’t mean you need to be. I live and breathe social media for a living and I’m only on three. Why? Because it makes sense for me and my market. Do what makes sense for you and your market. The worst thing you can do for your author platform is start up a bunch of online sites only to abandon them. When you abandon a social media site it’s a subliminal message to your reader that you’ve abandoned your market.

The authors that have the greatest challenge in promoting their books online are novelists, what can they do to build their fan base other than blogging?

Interesting that you should ask this question. In my spare time I write fiction and one of the reasons I developed our Internet division was to support the fiction author. There are a *lot* of places to go for a fiction author: sites dedicated to their message, whether it’s mystery, romance, thrillers, or sci-fi, there’s always a market for it online. You just have to dig in and find the community. I don’t know whether this phrase is unique to us but I call them intentional communities: a gathering site for authors looking for everything related to their particular interest. Once you identify these sites, why not pitch them yourself as a guest blogger or pitch them your book for review? Join groups on Facebook that are dedicated to your market and participate in those groups, follow opinion leaders on Twitter in the area you write about and then comment on their tweets. Also, if you have the time and budget, consider doing a book trailer for your novel. Especially for fiction it’s a great way to promote a book and if you’re good on camera consider doing some short video posts. Jeff, you did this and they were great, very impactful and well done.

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