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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Secret to Fiction Publicity

Reprinted with permission

Tess Gerritsen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University. Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and was awarded her M.D. in 1979. After completing her internal medicine residency, she worked as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1987, Tess's first novel was published. CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, a romantic thriller, was soon followed by eight more romantic suspense novels. She also wrote a screenplay, "Adrift," which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson. Her thriller, Harvest was released in 1996, and marked Tess's debut on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Film rights were sold to Paramount/Dreamworks, and the book was translated into twenty foreign languages. Now retired from medicine, Tess writes full time and lives in Maine

By Tess Gerritsen

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

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.”


  1. Well, I'm a long way from needing this advice, but it makes sense. Thanks, Tess.

  2. But Janet, it's never too early to begin to build a platform now. It will only benefit you when you hit that bestseller list!

    Tess, this is a terrific post. I wholeheartedly agree that novelists would do well in publicity if they chose to specialize in a backdrop topic. My first two novels deal with childhood sexual abuse. As an "expert" in this area, I've had the opportunity to be on radio and TV.

    It boils down to value. What value can we bring to a book signing? If it's a come-to-me-and-get-my-signed-book event, where is the value to the person walking through the door? Instead, think of your audience. And give them something. In your case, it's expertise and a history lesson.

    I also think having a unique topic is extremenely helpful. Yours fits that well.

    Mary DeMuth

  3. I'd stay and listen, Tess.

    I feel an itch to get my hands on a copy of The Bone Garden. Just because you shared creepy historical tid bits.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great and tangible advice.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. What an innovative idea. Thanks for sharing this. This gets me thinking about the issues/details in my book that may be interesting, aside from the plot itself.


  6. I'm going to use this. I've had to give a few speeches and trust me it is NOT my gift.
    But this is great advice. I'm doing it.


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