Jessica Sager from Smith Publicity’s Lifestyle team discusses how to stay relevant in the news cycle and appeal to media professionals on this month’s Open Book episode.
The Open Book series airs on a monthly basis and includes brief interviews with Smith Publicity employees. Each episode will offer an inside look into book marketing and publicity, as well as tips for publishing professionals and authors alike. Keep an eye out for more!
Olivia: Hi, and welcome to this internal episode of All Things Book Marketing. I’m your host, Olivia McCoy, and today I’m joined by Jess Sager, one of Smith Publicity’s publicists on the lifestyle team. Hi Jess.
Olivia: It’s so nice to have you on!
Jessica: I’m very happy to be here! Thank you.
Olivia: Of course. So why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, your responsibilities, how long you’ve been at Smith and all of that goodness.
Jessica: I started Smith actually not long before the pandemic, October, 2019. And I’m on the lifestyle team. But I dabble in some business stuff too here and there, especially where they kind of intersect. Same responsibilities as most people, just pitching, praying, and then hopefully getting something.
Olivia: Whenever I tell anyone I’m a book publicist, they’re like, “Wow, that sounds so interesting. What does that mean?” I’m like, “It’s a lot of begging the media to pay attention to our authors.”
Jessica: <laugh>. Right? Yeah. It’s calling in favors, you know, things like that.
Olivia: But you also do things outside of Smith as well, right?
Jessica: Yeah, so I do some freelance writing for a couple different lifestyle sites and pre-pandemic I did a lot of standup. Now I just do a little bit of standup, mostly via Zoom.
Olivia: Totally fair, I understand that. So, you’re on the lifestyle team, which means you work primarily with nonfiction authors, correct?
Olivia: That’s memoirs, health and wellness, you said some business in there… What other kinds of genres?
Jessica: Let’s see. There’s a lot of health and wellness. In terms of business, there’s a lot of like DEI and a lot of them also focus on work life balance, which is kind of the sweet spot. I’m trying to think. I’ve also worked with a lot of political authors and a lot of authors focusing on social issues. I have a client now—it’s actually one client, but it’s two people because they co-authored the book, but, they focus on prison reform and the hazards and the kind of traumas associated with solitary confinement, which is really cool.
Olivia: Oh wow.
Jessica: Yeah. Well, I should rephrase. Solitary confinement, not cool at all. But the work they’re doing very cool. Very cool to be a part of that.
Olivia: Wow, okay. How do you go about relating all of these different topics to the new cycle that’s constantly changing and updating?
Jessica: Honestly, so much of it is just—it’s really funny. It’s so stupid, but it’s been stuck in my head for like a week. The song “Haven’t Met You Yet” by Michael Bublé, there’s one line in it where he says, “I guess it’s half timing and the other half’s luck.” And I wouldn’t say that’s half of it, but it’s like a quarter of it for this. I was actually explaining this to the authors who were working on the book about solitary confinement. I had two prior clients actually who focused on police brutality and it almost felt sometimes like wearing a blood diamond, but whenever there was something in the news regarding that, I just jumped on it and offered commentary basically immediately. So, it definitely helps to just pay attention to the news cycle. And if you have someone who can’t really fit into that, finding weird ways to almost shoehorn them into certain things or just coming up with something kind of off the wall that will get someone’s attention.
Olivia: There’s a lot of creativity and pitching angles and headlines to kind of catch the media’s very fickle attention. How do you come up with those? I mean, where does that come from?
Jessica: Actually what helps me is looking at not necessarily what’s trending in the news, but what people search for on Google because a lot of outlets tailor their content to things that people search for. And some of the questions people search for, I won’t go into too much detail, but some of them are real weird. You know, some of them are unsettling, and others are weirdly comforting knowing you’re not the only person who has wondered what that specific thing does or is. But yeah, so I think in part because of the recession, a lot of outlets that typically relied on advertising are now relying on search traffic to get more money from their advertisers. So looking at search terms and phrasing things in a way that fits with an SEO headline, I think is, at least for me, has been weirdly successful. And a lot of times it’s not necessarily phrasing something in a way that sounds interesting, but in a way that sounds conversational, like something someone would type into their browser if it makes sense, you know? I definitely think that helps.
Olivia: I feel like going back to those keywords and the search results, you get a whole different slew of results when you search “Covid vaccine” versus “Where do I get my covid vaccine?” and “What are the benefits of the Covid vaccine?” Like actually typing out the whole question sometimes is more beneficial. It’s got those Who, Where, What, Why keyword questions. It really gets down to the point that people are looking to learn about.
Jessica: Absolutely. And it also helps you kind of filter out stuff that’s irrelevant. So like you said, like if you’re searching for “Covid vaccine,” just searching for “Covid vaccine,” you’re likely to get a bunch of misinformation in your results and news articles about it that don’t necessarily have the information relevant to what you’re looking for. So typing out like “Where do I get a Covid vaccine near me?” you’re going to get results almost immediately and Google specifically, depending on whether you have cookies enabled and if you have an account and whatever, they’ll tailor it to your zip code and things like that. You can use Google Trends also to compare different terms. So you can look at, for example, “Coronavirus vaccine” versus “Covid vaccine” and see what has a higher search volume and you can work from there, which is really interesting to have. Because, for example, if you were doing like a celebrity book, “Jennifer Lopez” has like three times the amount of search as “J-lo”, but sometimes people are tempted to use “J-Lo” because it’s shorter, so it fits in like a small character count.
Olivia: Interesting. So when you are writing those angles, those email subject lines to get media to click on your email, on your pitch, you are really looking at what keywords everyone’s already searching, what they’re already looking for?
Jessica: Yeah, because a lot of stuff is evergreen. So if it’s not a topic that’s already like in the news cycle, but something that people just look for often… for example, I have one client who I’ve been with for, I think since I started, she was one of my very first, but she specializes in mental health awareness, especially for people of color. So just searching for like “Black mental health professionals,” things like that can really, really help. And it’s hard to explain it, but there’s a lot of things that people search for that don’t necessarily hit the mainstream right away. So it’s almost like a slow burn. Like if you’re thinking of like the billboard 100, this would be like the bubbling under chart if that makes sense. I used to work as a music publicist, so I think that was that part of it, that part of my brain like unlocked something just now.
Olivia: That makes sense. What are some other ways that you connect with the media and get them to interact with your pitches?
Jessica: I think just appealing to them on like a personal level. Like just remembering like, “Hey, there’s a human being opening this,” definitely helps. I like appealing to them as individuals, you know, like asking how their kids are. If it’s someone you know, that you’ve gone back and forth with a few times. Obviously you can’t do that for everybody or else it gets creepy. But if it’s someone you kind of have at least a cordial relationship with, just kind of mining that and just treating them like human beings because they are and not calling them. It’s very annoying. As someone who used to work in editorial, it’s like if you send them an email and they can’t get to it right away, they can hold onto it until they get a free moment. But if you call them, you’re interrupting something. Even if they don’t take the call immediately, they have to stop what they’re doing to ignore the call. You know what I’m saying? So, unless they specify otherwise, don’t call anybody up, leave them alone. Don’t call them unless they tell you to.
Olivia: That’s something that’s changed in recent years. Something that’s changed from what we were doing even 10 years ago.
Jessica: Definitely. Because I had one client previously whose best friend was a former publicist, but she retired in like 2004. So she was kind of getting in the client’s ear and telling her like, “No, they need to be calling people up every day, following up emails with like three phone calls a day.” And I was like, “No, no, no, never do that.” They just didn’t quite understand because they’d been out of the industry for so long. You can call someone’s desk, but especially now, post pandemic, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be sitting there. A lot of those records that people had of people’s office lines are irrelevant now because everyone is remote and you’re just calling cell phones now.
Olivia: And so much of our work has become more flexible. I mean, you have people that are working irregular hours or that are jumping on after they pick up their kids from school and things like that. And so you don’t even know when they’re going to be there, when they’re going to be working.
Jessica: Exactly. So that’s another reason why I’m always very reluctant to call anybody because they might be working or you’re interrupting like their kid’s soccer game or something, you know what I mean? In the current landscape, unless specified otherwise, I would definitely avoid phone calls for sure.
Olivia: So then moving on to what you do in your personal time when you’re not working. What are some of the things you do outside of work? Some fun things.
Jessica: Honestly, it’s really hard for me to leave the house only because I hate leaving my dogs. Anywhere I go and anyone I go out with, I have to like them as much or more than my dogs. And I like my dogs more than I like 98% of people I’ve ever met.
Olivia: That’s a tough ask.
Jessica: Oh yeah. It’s a high bar, but yeah. I love standup. I also enjoy trivia. I’m big on trivia nights. I have a mind like a steel trap, but only for completely useless nonsense information.
Olivia: Any specific areas that you specialize in trivia wise?
Jessica: Not necessarily. I’m really bad at geography. Never ask me to do a math problem of any kind. Like even basic addition, it’s not going to fly, but something like, I don’t know, like the chemical formula for table salt or who Dream Girls was based on or anything like that. Just nonsense. Just nonsense that you don’t need ever. I’m sure someone somewhere needs the chemical formula for table salt. NaCl if anybody needs it. I also really like escape rooms.
Olivia: Oh, ooh. I have a meaning to get into that. I’ve played those escape room board games, but I’ve never actually been physically to an escape room.
Jessica: Oh really? See, I’ve never played the board game. What’s the board game like?
Olivia: It’s really interesting. It’s just a set of clues and you have to work through it with your partners, but you can only play it once because you’re cutting things up and tearing things and matching things up, coloring things in to try and figure out each of these individual clues to escape the room in the story. It’s kind of like if an escape room was D&D.
Jessica: Oh, that’s really cool.
Olivia: They’re really fun. I definitely recommend looking those up.
Jessica: That is really cool. The first escape room I did was in New York City. And it was really funny. So it was a group of my friends and I, and then there was just like a random family and they were like, “Oh, you guys can do it together.” It’s up to however, like 10 people I think at that time. And I was like, “Yeah, whatever. More the merrier come in.” There was one particular clue, and I don’t want to go into too much detail just in case someone ends up getting like the same room at some point, but, chances are if there are a bunch of chapter books on a shelf, you’re not expected to read all of them from cover to cover in 45 minutes or an hour or however much time you have, which is what those people assumed you needed to do. And I was like, “I need you to give me those so I can put them in Dewey decimal order and get us out of here.” And I was right and they were wrong and we made it out, but it was close.
Olivia: Oh my gosh. Salty. I like it.
Jessica: Yeah. Oh, oh yeah. I’m, I am very vengeful. Maybe that’s why that’s the only chemical formula for anything I know. Everything is coming full circle right now.
Olivia: So you work remotely. Tell me how you balance work life and home life. Do the dogs help with that? I mean, how do you keep yourself from working too much?
Jessica: Yeah, so they force me to get out of the house because they’re very social. So my husband also works remotely. Throughout the day, obviously weather permitting, but we’ll take them on like three or four walks a day to kind of break up the day a bit. And that also gives me almost a deadline so I don’t procrastinate things. So I’m like, “Okay, I have to send out these three reports before they’re 12 o’clock walk,” or something like that. But part of why I like working remotely also is that every once in a while, I’ll just have an idea off of normal work time. So I can hop on, schedule something to go out during like a normal work hour, but I’ll still be able to kind of get that done without risking forgetting about it. I also have a strict cutoff of 6:55 no matter what time I start. No one interrupts Jeopardy for me. That’s my rule.
Olivia: There goes the trivia again!
Jessica: Speaking of Jeopardy, I don’t know if anyone has been watching the Tournament of Champions, but I was rooting for Ryan Long, I loved him. He was not as successful as I wanted him to be and I was real bummed about it.
Jessica: Yeah, he’s the best. I don’t know if he’s still doing it, he might be, I don’t know, but he was a ride share driver and he was just raising the money so he could give his kid like a better life. And I was like, “This guy needs to win everything.” And I realized part of why I wanted him to win was so he and his kid would have health insurance and I was like, “This is Squid game, not Jeopardy. I’m doing this wrong.”
Olivia: Here’s a weird fun question. I’m going to put you on the spot. If that were an author with a memoir of his story, which you know at least vaguely, what kind of angle would you use to pitch it to media today?
Jessica: Ooh, for Ryan Long? My Teddy Bear Jeopardy favorite? I would just do “Jeopardy fan favorite’s journey from Lyft to…” I don’t know the exact amount that he won, but I would put the number in there in the headline. So, I’ll just say like, “Journey from Lyft to $300,000” or whatever it was. Because he is a fan favorite. People love this dude. I’m not alone in it. I wasn’t a bandwagon fan. I loved him before everybody else did, but everyone loves this dude.
Olivia: I like that angle. That’s got some good keywords in there. And where can our listeners follow you, connect with you?
Jessica: You can follow me on Instagram @ohheyJessSager. My dogs also have their own account that’s very political. So if you’re not into that, don’t follow them. Even though they’re cute, they’re going to annoy you. But their account is @progressive.pups if you’re into that sort of thing.
Olivia: Well, I’ll be following. My dog also has an Instagram, so I think we actually do already follow each other. We were talking about how our dogs look so similar. We keep getting them mixed up whenever we see posts.
Jessica: Yes, yes. I actually gave my dog Nemo who is like, your dog’s like fraternal twin, basically a DNA test on Embark, so if you ever use it, it’ll tell us if they’re related, so.
Olivia: Oh yeah. Okay. Well, I mean we did the DNA test, but I didn’t do Embark’s. I don’t know if they’re related, but I do know his breeds.
Jessica: Ooh, what is he?
Olivia: Oh gosh. He’s 25% Pitbull, 13% Cocker spaniel, 13% Basset Hound, 13% random things, just totally mixed.
Jessica: Wait, so Nemo is all of those plus like a smidgen of Husky and like, he’s mostly Lab, but like, they may have the same like grandpa or something.
Olivia: Yeah, they might! We don’t have any Husky or Lab. Some sporting dog. He’s much smaller than he looks in pictures. He’s only 40 pounds. He’s a baby.
Jessica: Oh yes. See, Nemo is also a baby, but he’s 80 pounds. He’s still, and he’s still growing and I’m like, “please stop. I don’t have the upper body strength to pull you like this.” That’s so funny.
Olivia: Well, thank you for coming and chatting with us today.
Jessica: Thank you for having me. This was fun.
Olivia: Absolutely. We’ll see you next time.
You can follow Jess at jessicasager.com and on Instagram at @ohheyjesssager. Discover more about Smith Publicity at www.smithpublicity.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, & LinkedIn as well.