Using free ink and airtime to BUST THROUGH

Earned media — free ink and airtime — is worth a lot to reality stars like Snooki, The Situation and Kim Kardashian, who all extended their 15 minutes of fame into millions of dollars.

Ink and airtime are even MORE valuable for people with actual talent.

Yet if you’re trying to make it — as a writer, an actor, a director, rock star, whatever — it’s hard to get the mass media to pay any attention to you at all.

Read the first evil post: The Twitter, is it NOT for selling books

Getting serious ink and airtime is a great way to bust through, boost your name recognition and make a living at doing what you love. Whatever that may be.

If you haven’t read it, get educated with the second evil post: Forget the Twitter: free ink and airtime are your MOST DANGEROUS WEAPONS

So how do people bust through?

Not everybody is placing their faith in the series of tubes and spending their free time on the Twitter, the Book of Face or their personal blog.

Reporters, editors and producers get zillions of press releases and story kits about new authors, new rock bands, new actors and the latest indie movie made for $9,000 by some up-and-coming director.

They get pitched stories all the time. Most of these pitches go nowhere.

You have to hook the reporter or editor.

A hook isn’t about the quality of the product. Not at all.

Craftsmanship matters latter. I know, This is where we cue up Keanu Reeves:

A news hook is something a reporter can tell his editor, in a sentence, why this story is worth spending column inches on.


1) This book / movie / rock band is great!

Hype is typical and horrible. The press never buys it, even if you crank up the hype machine to 11.

In the first place: Even if the hype is true, it’s not newsworthy.

In the second place: Hype is never true.

But let’s pretend it’s true just this once. “Man writes great book / sings glorious song / directs amazing movie” still isn’t something a reporter can pitch to editors.

They know how to pitch “Afghan vet with no arms types novel on Underwood WITH HIS FEET” — because that’s a story, no matter how bad the actual novel may be.

I hate to say this, because quality matters, but in terms of news hooks to get a lot of free ink and airtime, quality isn’t a factor yet. Not unless you win the Nobel Prize of Literature, which is newsworthy. Though if you do win that, you won’t need to send out press releases about it, because the press shows up to the Nobel Prize dinner. They get free tickets. Sidenote: In my ancestral homeland of the Sweden, I toured City Hall in Stockhold, where they hold the Nobel Prize dinner and dance after that dinner in the Gold Room, where the walls of that room are tiled with real gold. It shimmers when you look at it. Sweden rocks.

So forget hype. Doesn’t work.

2) Standard stories / movies / songs, no matter how good

You know, thrillers where the hero is your standard an ex-Navy SEAL … trying to stop a Middle Eastern terrorist … who’s stolen a nuclear warhead.

Romances involving men in kilts, even if the heroine is a time-traveling World War II nurse. Yes, I read OUTLANDER and blogged about it. Yuck.

Mysteries starring a gruff, cynical detective battling his or her demons while chasing twisted serial killers who are brilliant — yet stupid enough to write letters to papers of news or otherwise purposefully leave clues leading to their capture.

See, it doesn’t matter how great a standard story is told. Reporters can use it as a news hook. Editors won’t buy it. Can’t publish it.

To make the story itself a serious news hook, it has to be completely new and bold — or absolutely bizarre, without being weird or creepy. This is hard.

Same thing with movies and bands. You’re doing a movie about vampires? OK. A speed-metal rock band where you all have mohawks? Have fun with that. Not a story.

3) Personal journeys, aka, Flight of the Narcissist

You’d be surprised at how often pitches and press releases focus on the person instead of the product.

The press release comes by FedEx instead of regular mail, because it weighs six pounds and tells you everything about the author / actor / rock star, from birth to high school to college, detailing with color photos their entire journey of pain and suffering, which finally led to creativity and joy. Or you get an email that’s not plain text, but an attachment with a 97-slide PowerPoint about the project along with a soundtrack, a memoir and links to the blog, website, Twitter account and YouTube “making of” documentary.


Some of these people have spent serious money to self-publish their book and hire a publicist — or get a producer and cut a professional album in the studio. They’ve spent real time and or money on this, and they do a publicity blast like you’ve never seen. But it’s all about them, and it never works.


1) It’s a local story.

All news is local.

The primary job of every newsroom is to cover news in their backyards, because that’s what have a pseudo-monopoly on. National and international news has plenty of competition.

Your hometown press will probably cover you, especially if there’s some kind of upcoming event to make it timely. It’s easy to think of that sort of thing: the book / movie / album is coming out next week, the thing got nominated for some award, there’s a book signing back home next month and so forth.

However, the bigger the city, the less attention you’ll get. It’s a big deal for somebody in a town of 10,000 to star in a horror movie, get a mystery published or be the lead singer in a rock band that has an album coming out. If you live in NYC, LA or Chicago, you may not get any ink at all except maybe in a neighborhood paper or blog.

So some hometown press is probably expected. On the other hand, hometown press isn’t going to go viral and generate national or international coverage.

This is not the goose that lays the Golden Egg of Free Ink and Airtime.

It is great practice. Cut your teeth here. This is probably the first free ink or airtime you’ll get, and it’s not that hard to acquire. Go for it.

2) New releases by famous people or celebrities

Newspapers, book reviews, film critics, rock writers — they have to cover new releases by big shots and celebrities. It’s their job.

If every theater in the nation is showing TRANSFORMERS 6: EXPLOSIONS AND CLEAVAGE IN SPACE, then every movie critic is sorta kinda required to sit through the thing and give their opinion on it.

In their spare time, they can watch indie stuff, or foreign things with subtitles, and talk their editor into giving that review some space. Same thing with book critics and music critic.

This is a given, just like hometown press is a given. Unless you’re some kind of celebrity moving from politics to books (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, every presidential candidate known to man), an acting career to a singing career (Selena Gomez) or singing to acting (Justin Timberlake), you won’t get this kind of free ink and airtime.

3) Catfights, scandals and train wrecks.

This is the Kim Kardashian and Snooki school of publicity: I don’t care what they say, as long as they spell my name right.

The press will cover fights, sex scandals, arrests and rehab.

Exhibit A: Oscar Wilde, Colin Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Grant, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath and EVERY ROCK BAND KNOWN TO MAN.

They got press attention by doing wild and often destructive things involving sex, booze, firearms, rehab and prison cells. Farrell and Grant put their wild days behind them and grew up, apparently. Hemingway, Plath and Thompson committed suicide.

Rock stars are expected to trash hotel rooms and go to rehab. It’s not news anymore.

Exhibit B: Charlie Sheen, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan  and Snooki.

This is Train Wreck City, and the press is required by law to report on train wrecks, whether infamous, famous or just plain bizarre.

Everybody knows about Charlie’s tiger blood and Adonis DNA, and Lindsey is now more well-known for her weekly visits to court or jail than her latest movie. Charlie and Paris were born into wealth and fame. They had famous last names already.

Paris (and Kim Kardashian, and about 20 other B-listers that I won’t list) also first got into the news in a big way via kefluffles about a leaked sex tape. Some B-listers and D-Listers have tried to follow this path to stardom. Which is horrible and stupid and a sad commentary on society.

Serial killers and whatnot also get Train Wreck City press. I suppose if you did something absolutely weird, like robbing a 7-Eleven in Florida while dressed up like a ninja, you might get on or News of the Weird.

This is not a path to success. It’s a one-way ticket to having your own mugshot on The Smoking Gun.

Exhibit C: Verbal battles.

Rap stars are famous for having public feuds with each other that get both their names in the news. They’ll even write lyrics about each other and put them on their next singles.

Authors sometimes get into verbal pissing matches with other writers, editors and celebrities. Pro athletes have famous grudges. This does generate press, and nobody dies.

Don’t run with all this, thinking it’s advice, while you ingest magic mushrooms by the pound, rob banks wearing a Klingon uniform and record a sex tape while reading aloud your letter to the editor about how Tom Clancy should write his own books or whatever.

Unless you’re best friends with Sir Mix A Lot and he’s down with having a big public fake feud with you, this path only leads to rehab, divorce, bankruptcy and stints in jail.

This reminds me: Baby’s Got Back is an under-rated, under-appreciated song. Go to the series of tubes and watch the video. Too funny.


1) Unique gimmicks, twists and pioneers

Ernest Vincent’s old novel GADSBY is now famous for not including a single letter “e” in the entire text. Such books are called lipograms. There’s a cello band that’s famous for covering heavy metal songs. You get the idea.

VOX got a lot of attention because it was a bold novel that was basically one big description of phone sex. This novel got a lot of buzz and attention and became Nicholson Baker’s first NYT bestseller.

PERFUME is a novel by Patrick Süskind that was mostly smells.

STAR WARS, JURASSIC PARK and AVATAR got tons of buzz for pioneering special effects nobody had seen before. Think about how cheesy science fiction TV shows (old Star Trek with styrofoam boulders) looked compared to Darth Vader and freaking lightsabers.

Who is gonna pay for Shatner’s therapy after lifting all those fake rocks?

JURASSIC PARK had the first real computer animation that didn’t look cheesy. The T-Rex looked real.

AVATAR is apparently mind-blowing enough that people are painting themselves to look like those blue monkeys. And if you think about it, JURASSIC PARK and AVATAR both had household name directors (Steven Spielberg and James Cameron), so they’re two-fers. There were getting ink and airtime for being big movies with directors who were household names. The extra hooks only amplified their ink and airtime.

Donald Westlake got buzz for THE AX, a novel about a married man with kids who just lost his job in a very specific field (managing pulp mill plants or whatever) and knows his competition for jobs is actually a short list of people. He takes out a classified ad in the Pulp Mill Journal or whatever, picks out the best resumes and starts killing off the competition. A great novel. Amazing. And it’s a good twist on the mysteries Westlake usually wrote. He made the bad guy the P.O.V. character and let’s him get away with it in the end. You sympathize with this anti-hero.

Donald Westlake also wrote tough novels under the name Richard Stark, including PAYBACK, which turned into a great movie starring Mel Gibson, back in 1999, when Mel Gibson was still cool.

Letting your inner freak flag fly does have disadvantages.

You’re walking on the razor’s edge, trying to keep on the side of quirky and interesting vs. wacky and weird. It’s easy to fall off that cliff.

Go to Book Fail for some success stories, like the WALTER THE FARTING DOG series, along with epic fails. Great site.

Is this method a possibility for smashing through? Yes.

Is it easy? No.

2) Something big and bold — or ripped from the headlines

If you wrote a non-fiction book about how the richest 1 percent of the population steals all the monies of the bottom 99 percent, and what the bottom 99 could truly do about it — and this book was coming out soon — all sorts of reporters would want you in their papers of news, radio programs and TV studios.

Occupy Wall Street is all over the media right now, worldwide. Big story.

If you said something insanely bold and new, even if it were fiction, it could get national or international coverage.

Here’s one: “What if a giant planet smashed into the Earth?”

That’s a quick little hook that’s getting press right now, because a director you’ve never heard of has a movie coming out where that very thing happens.

Reporters are running stories asking, “Could this happen?” and talking to scientists who say yes, it happens bazillions of years ago, when a Mars-sized planet smacked into young, molten earth and the collision helped form the moon.

This is the “ripped from the headlines” idea that LAW AND ORDER: WE’RE ON EVERY CHANNEL SOMETIME uses so well. The writers are cranking out scripts for what, 16 different shows, so they need all the inspiration they can get. There’s plenty of weird criminal stories out there, so they take them from the papers of news and put them on your Glowing Tube.

The trick part is timing. Books take years to write and get published. You need to be Nostrodamus to really pull some of these things off. Movies, too. TV is quicker, and rock bands have gotten famous doing quick parody songs they put up on youtube about current events.

Rather than shooting for being topical RIGHT NOW, which seems extra hard, and worthy of many bonus points, I’d suggest shooting for big and bold.

“What if rich people lived forever and working people died when they were 25 – unless they could steal more time?” (Cool idea for a movie, maybe starring Justin Timberlake.)

“What if a great white shark decided pretty girls in bikinis were yummy in his tummy?”

“What if in the future, cops arrest you before you commit the crime?” (MINORITY REPORT.)

“What if Hitler actually won World War II – what would a Nazi America look like today?” (This idea is so big and bold that five bazillion people have done it. Though it is good.)

Or you have alternative history where Brad Pitt and his boys kill Hitler.

You get the idea.

The thing about this — and almost every news hook that’s good enough to get national and maybe international in and airtime — is you gotta be first.

The first man to paint a canvas black, oooooh, that was edgy. He got his 15 minutes of fame. The second and third and 67th painter to try this trick got nowhere.

3) Controversy and excitement involving famous names

What if you went big and bold and put famous people or things into your story?


Clive Cussler did this with RAISE THE TITANIC, way back in the 1870s or whatever.

Everybody knows what the Titanic is (name recognition!), even if they didn’t know who Clive Cussler was. Clearly, finding and raising the Titanic from deep in the ocean would be some kind of epic story.

So yeah, with the title alone, you get something that the press might cover. It’s bold and it plays off something we already know.

Here’s the original trailer for the 1980 film, RAISE THE TITANIC, and yes, it is corny beyond belief. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

Let’s test our theory. Say that Cussler kept everything else about his story the same but changed the ship to a fictional vessel and titled his book, RAISE THE ENDEAVOR.

Does it fly?

No. Even if you handed Stephen King suitcases stuffed with twenties and got him to write RAISE THE ENDEAVOR, and Stephen the King turned every page into masterpiece, the story doesn’t have a news hook anymore. The press would ignore it, and I bet it wouldn’t sell one tenth as well, either.

James Cameron’s movie TITANIC would still be the same love story if he also used Cussler’s new fake ship, the ENDEAVOR, and had the ship sink. But that movie wouldn’t have sold 4,982 bazillion tickets.

Dan Brown pulled this off with THE DAVINCI CODE.

Brown was a midlist author before this novel got coverage on CNN and such. Why did the media lose their minds? It wasn’t because every word on every page was poetry.

Brown scored mondo free ink and airtime because he had a killer hook: DaVinci hid codes and such in his famous paintings that reveal a shocking secret people would kill to protect: Jesus had a bebe.

Or lots of babies. I forget. Doesn’t matter. That’s an idea worth some ink and airtime, isn’t it? Tough to think of something more controversial. And it includes all sorts of names we’re familiar with: DaVinci, the Mona Lisa, Jesus, the church.

Brown got coverage on CNN before the book came out, and this is back when CNN was the 800-pound gorilla of the Glowing Tube.

Talk about buzz.

The great thing about this is you don’t need to explain a thing. Everybody knows who Hitler was. They know the story of the Titanic sinking. They’ve seen photos of the Mona Lisa six zillion times and know that DaVinci painted it.

Name recognition again. It’s a shortcut. And a smart one.

Of all the news hooks, this one is the toughest to pull off — and the smartest possible route to getting earned media.

Think about how a thing like this goes viral.

You can sum it up in a few words. “What if Jesus had BABIES?” That gets people talking. Maybe they know somebody related to Jesus, or have some of his blood in their own veins. Whoah.

 (This is where people will say, “See? Word of mouth, that’s what sells books and movies and albums.” Maybe a few hundred, or a few thousand. Check out Dan Zarrella’s math on the science of retweets. It will blow away your faith in the viral power of word of mouth alone. The decay rate is just too high.)

Now, think of word of mouth as a flu virus. This is a subject near and dear to me, since the Spanish Flu of 1918 is busy trying to kill me right now.

If I’m a flu virus, do I want to start out by infecting three people and seeing how far it spreads — or do I want CNN to spread me to 100 million people and watch my zombie flu army TAKE OVER THE WORLD?

You can combine all three of the good hooks, if you make it something big, bold, controversial and involving stuff people already know and love.

That’s the power of mass media. Get yourself a nice, short hook like “What if Jesus had BABIES?” then spread it via mass media and you will get word of mouth out the wazoo.


Now, go find a piece of what the ancients called “paper” — it is the dried and processed husk of what once was a tree, and usually has lines on it.

Got one? Get a pen. DO IT NOW.

Write down 20 big, bold crazy ideas involving “What if’s” with famous stuff — or unique twists on stories.

Keep it under ten words instead of ten paragraphs, because ten words is probably the max you can do while still keeping the attention of the press and public. You get bonus points for keeping it under six words.

If you can do it in three words — Shark eats people, Cops read minds, Clint shoots baddies — you get Extra Super Bonus Points.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 7 Media Strategy Saturday, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Old Media, which is still Big and Strong, The Twitter, the Book of Face and the Series of Tubes, Viral media math

22 responses to “Using free ink and airtime to BUST THROUGH

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  2. Since you retweeted I thought I’d give it a try.
    People Heal Themselves
    Docs dump Drugs
    Hurricane Sandy Hoax
    George Clooney reveals Long Time Gay Lover
    Hemingway was a Woman

    How’s that?


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  4. Sam Kearns

    Hey Guy, great as always.

    I write fantasy. The best hook I have ever seen in fantasy is for Brandon Sanderson’s trilogy the Mistborn series. Why? It said it on the U.K cover:

    What if the Dark Lord won?

    Brilliant. Immediately wanted it. Six words of glowing PR perfection. A story that takes place after society has been ruined by evil? Sign me up.
    My first (alas, unpublished) novel summarised in a sentence:

    Two warriors seek to end the cycle of holy war that grips their world by uniting four rival tribes under one peaceful banner.

    I’ve seen worse, but it’s not nearly as succinct. That’s the jist of the story though. I’m not sure how to better paraphrase it or make it as juicy as Sanderson did. Any thoughts?


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  11. I love this post. Great information that includes some subtle gems. I have been devouring books by Indies, and reading blogs where writers bemoan the current state of ebooks on Amazon while they try to get their books out of the glut. You hit the nail on the head, here, I think.

    Even if a book is edited to perfection and has a sound story…if it is predictable, or even ripped from headlines–(last year’s headlines) which have been overdone… the degree of incline on the uphill battle every newbie fights to crawl out of obscurity… has been sharply increased.

    Though it may not have been intended on your part– via this post, it was like a light switch came on for me. An overdone or predictable story may very well briefly entertain, but neither will rise to the top. It takes the things you have identified in this post. And if we don’t believe the examples you cited…well then, just look at today’s break-out books, movies, bands…

    Insightful post…


  12. There’s homework?

    No, I’ll do it when my brain isn’t mush. This is chock-full of juicy goodness, thanks for taking the time to share.

    Incidentally, the email subscription to your blog isn’t working, at least for me. I am sad.


  13. Great post! Keep em coming! When I wrote Forbidden Mind my what if was: What if Prof. X of the X-Men wasn’t a benevolent do-gooder but rather started a secret school for the paranormal where he kidnapped kids and rented them out to the rich and powerful as spies. It’s XMen meets human trafficking. It hasn’t gone viral yet, but I’m holding onto hope :)


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