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Something Book Publicists Love to Hear: "Will It Sell Books?"

07/15/2010 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The life of a book publicist is undeniably glamorous and exciting, except for about 98% of it. Mostly it consists of trying to extract useful contacts from outdated media lists and shoving books into Jiffy bags. Sure, sometimes you get to deal with Oprah and Colbert and the Today Show and NPR. More often than not, though, publicity opportunities come in the less sexy form of a local-market radio interview, a short item in a hometown paper, a bylined article in a small journal, a podcast or a guest blog.

When presented with this sort of comparatively modest publicity opportunity, some authors become finicky. They'll hesitate before committing. They want to be sure their efforts will be effective, so they'll ask their publicist: "Will it sell books?"

Book flacks have developed several sophisticated strategies for dealing with this delicate question. "Yes!" is one popular response. "You bet!" is another. "We've had luck with them in the past," is a good one too, a bit more mature and cautious. But when you get right down to it, the only truly honest answer to the question "Will it sell books?" is: "How the %&#@ would I know?"

Wanting to do only those publicity activities that are guaranteed to sell books is understandable. It's a grand strategy, logical and efficient. It really has only one significant flaw, but it's worth mentioning: There's absolutely no way to know with certainty what is going to sell books.

To be sure, an appearance on Oprah or Colbert or the Today Show or NPR or any of a handful of other top-tier media outlets will dramatically increase an author's chances of moving a ton of copies. But there are no guarantees.

That's because interviews don't happen in a vacuum. These shows can provide an audience, but it's up to the author to connect with that audience, and that involves a lot of intangibles. For example: Does the author come across as appealing, informed, entertaining? If so, there's a good chance of seeing some results. Smug, long-winded, drooling? No sale. Does the interviewer appear to be receptive and open to what the author is saying? Great. Dismissive and skeptical? Not so much. Did the host hold the book up to the camera? Perfect. Leave it lying face down on the desk? Not ideal. Use it as a coaster? Uh-oh. Did the segment allow enough time for the author to state some key points? Terrific. Did they cut the interview short to cover Lindsay Lohan's sentencing? Nuts.

Media interviews should come with the same disclaimer as investment opportunities: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." Just because one author hit the big time on Oprah doesn't mean you will. I know of an author who appeared on Ms. Winfrey's program four times and never saw a significant bump in sales.

Just as you can't be certain the big national shows will sell books, you can't be sure the smaller outlets won't. Thanks to the magic of syndication and the Internet, even the most modest media outlet has the potential to reach consumers beyond its initial audience, if not actually go viral. So if an author performs well on a relatively obscure Internet radio show, who knows what the results might be?

Looking for assurances that an interview will sell books is a trap. For one thing, you'll probably never know if it did or not -- generally speaking, there is no practical way to accurately measure the sales impact of any particular publicity hit.

For another, it almost doesn't matter. Yes, the ultimate goal of book publicity is to sell books, but it's not always the immediate goal. Sometimes you just want to break the space and make the impression. That way, if some lunkhead hears you on the radio and sees you quoted in the paper and reads your article in the journal and stumbles across your blog, then -- if you're lucky -- he might say to himself: "Gee, I keep hearing about this book -- maybe I should check it out."

My advice to authors is, don't get hung up about whether a specific interview will generate sales -- just take advantage of every opportunity to get the word out. And try to resist the temptation to ask your publicist "Will it sell books?" -- maybe it will and maybe it won't. The only thing you can say with certainty is, it won't if you don't do it.