The humble press release – a basic but essential publicity tool, which, if it’s to do its job successfully, if it’s to stand out as a ‘must use’ from the pile of other releases on the editor’s desk, needs to be put together properly. Here are a few thoughts on how to achieve that from FWC member Peter Corbett who has had many years’ experience, both as a writer of press releases and as an editor of them.
To start with, can I stress that while I’ve taken the drafting of a release about the launch of a book by a local author as the basis for these notes, the advice applies whatever the topic and the target readership.
Right, the important thing is to get your message across as quickly and easily as you can in your release. The first paragraph, the ‘intro’, is crucial.
DON’T start by saying ‘XYZ is delighted to announce’ or anything like that. Dive straight in. For example if your release is aimed at the Standard or Frome Times, ‘A Frome estate agent is to have his/her first novel published by a major book brand’.
If you’re targeting the national press, you’ll need to change the emphasis to something like, ‘A debut novel by an estate agent is to be published in the autumn by one of the country’s leading book brands.’
Follow that with the author’s name and wee bit about him/her eg ‘Jinty McLean, a founder member of Frome Writers’ Collective, spent three years writing ‘Off the Record’ and had received four rejections before he/she was contacted by Portcullis Books who said they liked it and wanted to publish.’
Then a quote or two. “Even though it had been turned down so many times I still felt it had something to offer and had decided to re-write it,” said Jinty. “So I was flabbergasted when Portcullis’s new author manager rang me to arrange a meeting. She said they wanted to take the book on, to discuss what changes I needed to make to it, how they would promote it and so on. I can still hardly believe it.”
Portcullis’s Martha Pearson said she and her colleagues had been very impressed by Jinty’s manuscript and could see straight away that it would be a success.
“We’re delighted Jinty sent us ‘Off the Record’ and are looking forward to seeing it in bookshops in September,” she said.
Something about the book. ‘Off the Record’ is a crime story set in Frome, featuring the owner of a record shop who discovers evidence of a major fraud. As that evidence is based on hearsay and not yet strong enough to take to the appropriate authorities, he decides to investigate it himself. The book follows him his adventures as he explores some of the darker areas of the music business before risking his life to reveal the truth.
If you want, add a few more details about Jinty – married? children? lives where? and anything which adds more colour to his/her story.
The final paragraph should contain details about where to buy the book and other relevant information. For instance, ‘Jinty will be signing copies of ‘Off the Record’ at the Hunting Raven bookshop in Cheap Street, Frome, on September 21 st , the day the book is published nationally. It will be available for £8.99 as a paperback from book shops and via the internet. Visit jintymcleanauthor.co.uk and portcullisbooks.com.
OK, notice anything about that format? The heart of the story is in the first two paragraphs and while each of the other paragraphs adds something to it they can all be deleted from the bottom up without the point of the story getting lost. That’s important if the sub editor doing the page layout wants to include the story but hasn’t got space for all of it – or the time to tweak and twiddle it.
So don’t keep anything back to the end, no stings in the tail, no Columbo-esque ‘One last thing’, no cleverly contrived punch line.
Now, style. Use the KISS principle, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don’t use ‘posh’ words when something simple is available. Don’t include details which don’t add significantly to the story. Keep your sentences short. Don’t be too tekkie – use the everyday language you’d use when talking to your friends and family. DON’T put bracketed initials after a title, e.g. United Nation (UN) – they are completely unnecessary and annoying (that’s a personal request by the way – I know some people and publications favour their use but I hate it).
Next, you’ll need to identify your target readership. It’s no good sending a release about, for example, something specific to Frome to a newspaper covering Barnstaple (OK so that’s an exaggeration but you see what I mean). Nor is it any use sending a release about a novel for men, by a male author, to Mslexia or a handbook about breeding dachshunds to Horse and Rider.
If you can, check out copies of the publications you want to target. They’ll give you a clear picture of the sort of news items they carry. And in most cases they’ll also give you the contact details of the member of the editorial team you should send news items to. You can usually get that information from the net as well.
Timing is also crucial. Weekly newspapers like the Frome Standard have a pretty short deadline, assume it’s Monday lunchtime for publication that week. Don’t depend on it, however – they often hold stuff over for a week (a fortnight in the case of a release I sent them about the FWC poetry anthology) so if your release is time sensitive get it in early!
The same goes for local and regional radio and TV stations and regional newspapers. They have a longer but still reasonable run-in period but national publications are a different kettle of fish. I’m writing this towards the end of February. I’ve already had the March issue of Writing Magazine for some time and I think it would be safe to assume that the April issue will be popping through my letterbox any time soon.
This means, of course, that the April issue is already in preparation and that its preparation is pretty well advanced too. It may even be on the point of going to print. I sent them a release at the beginning of this month and would not be surprised if the story doesn’t pop up until the May or even June issue (assuming it will pop up at all).
That sounds complicated but I’m afraid it’s something we have to live with. I would suggest that if you hope to have a story published in, say, the June issue of a national publication, which could hit the streets in early May if not sooner, you should get it to them by the end of March. It’s probably safest, however, not to target national publications with any press releases that are time sensitive.
As to the overall format of the release, it used to be normal to place a logo or something similar at the top of the page but that has almost died out now with email taking the place of good old snail mail. A simple Word doc or something similar is fine, but not, repeat not, a pdf. Date it, give it a headline and pop the word ‘ends’ at the foot of the body of the release.
If you’re sending a picture with your text, you’ll need to add a caption, but make sure that you include reference detail with each picture so the editor is clear which picture the caption’s about – even more important if you’re sending more than one image with the release.
Then end the whole thing with your name and contact details in case of any query.
One last thing. I mentioned at the beginning of these notes that editors often have a pile of press releases on their desk/in their inbox and more often than not there’s insufficient space to use all of them. You may be lucky. You may not. If your release is different from the others, you have a better chance than if it’s on the same lines (‘only the names have been changed’ sort of thing) but even then there is no guarantee that it will be used.
Count it as bonus if it is, rather than a disappointment or a criticism if it isn’t. It’s not a paid for advert, and the editor’s decision, as they say, is final. Good luck!
PS – the April issue of Writing Magazine arrived on February 23 rd , the ditto issue of my other subscription mag, Kitchen Garden the next day. See what I mean!
(Written in February 2018) By Peter Corbett