The Key to a Swell Author Interview
We may be living in the future in terms of technology, but promoting a book remains a surprisingly personal exercise. No amount of social media savvy and fancy cloud-based apps have managed to replace that traditional standby: The interview.
Depending on your personality type, interviews are either great fun or a grueling ordeal. Or, if you’re like me, both: I tend to enjoy giving the interview, then spend weeks obsessing over my performance, convinced I am the most boring person in the world. Interviews are tricky because they’re blatantly self-promoting, but you have to somehow come off as if you’re not really promoting anything. A successful interview will potentially perform three primary functions for you: Introduce you to new potential readers, burnish your brand, and convince people who are already aware of you to buy your book or books. In order to do that, you’ve got some work to do.
Do Some Research
Many authors make the mistake of assuming that the interviewer is supposed to do all the work, that they just show up and the person asking the questions makes them look good. Like any conversation, however, it takes two people to make some magic. Just showing up unprepared for an interview is a great way to find yourself rambling, scrambling for points, and accomplishing the exact opposite of an interview’s purpose.
Your first step is some work:
The key to being a good interview is being comfortable. Since talking to a stranger can be stressful, one of the easiest ways to get comfortable is to know something about the interviewer. Whether it’s a live interview, over the phone (or Zoom), or via email, knowing the interviewer’s style and patterns is immensely helpful. Do they have standard questions they always ask? Do they like to shock and surprise their subjects? Listen or read a few of their prior interviews to get a sense of them.
It’s also a good idea to know something about your interviewer so the interview seems more like a conversation. If you can allude to their own projects or recent professional activities, it not only makes the conversation flow more naturally, it will endear you to the interviewer.
The person asking the questions can shape the tone and direction of an interview, of course, but it’s also helpful to know about the venue. Whether it’s the interviewer’s own blog or website or a larger media platform, you should know its tone and focus beforehand. When interviewing a writer, for example, a book-oriented blog might ask very different questions than a more general site. You can also see the tone of prior interviews—deadly serious or gently mocking?—which will help you prepare some material.
This also entails researching the audience. Who is going to be listening/
Prepare some stories
Did I say “material”? I sure did. When celebrities appear on late-night talk shows, they always come prepared with a few funny or interesting stories to tell, and so should you. You might not get the chance to tell them, but that’s preferable to being offered the opportunity to seem interesting and funny and having absolutely nothing to say. If you’re promoting a book, have a few stories tied to its inspiration, composition, or publication so your promotional efforts seem natural. When I sold my novel Chum, I had a great story about how long it took to go from an agent signing me to actually selling the novel (ten years!).
Offer up questions
Wait a second … aren’t the questions the interviewer’s job? Sure. But many interviewers will appreciate it if you offer them some pre-written questions because it spares them some work—and guarantees (hopefully) that you’ve got great answers to those questions. Not everyone will want this, but it’s a good idea to be prepared for those who do.
Get up to speed on the gossip
An interview may not focus exclusively on you. You’re part of a community and an industry. You may be asked to express an opinion about something that’s happening in publishing, or a writing trend, or a scandal at a literary agency. Before you sit down to an interview, take a moment to check your social media and see what people are chatting about. If you notice some trending topics, think about something to say about them. Remember—hot takes are almost always a bad idea. Put some thought into it.
Remember your brand
As always, when thinking about stories you can tell and generally preparing for an interview, keep your brand in mind. Whether you’re a futurist thought leader or a hilarious gossip, a gadget-loving geek or an epic fantasy nerd, make sure you maintain that brand in your interview. This could be as simple as tossing in a few references or in-jokes, or as involved as crafting bespoke anecdotes that reinforce your authorial image. However you choose to do it is fine—as long as you put in that work.
One of the biggest mistakes writers (or anyone, frankly) make when being interviewed is winging it. No matter how great you are at conversation, or how well you perform under pressure, you will do much better with your interviews if you approach them with a strategy. If you wing it, you’ll very likely realize later—when it’s too late—that you forgot key elements of your promotion needs. That translates into wasted opportunities.
What does having a strategy entail? There are a few things to think about:
Have a clear promotional goal
What are you promoting? If you have a debut novel or an upcoming or recently-published book, this is easy. But if you’re in-between projects or not focused on a specific title, you need to think about what you’re going to promote. This could be yourself, of course—you as an exciting, interesting author who has books, stories, novels, or some other kind of writing to offer the world. It could be an ongoing series that doesn’t happen to have a new entry at that moment. Or it could be something far off into the future. The key is to know what you’re promoting before you start answering questions, so you can look for opportunities to mention it. In many cases, a good interviewer will outright ask you (sometimes before the interview begins) what you’re promoting, and having an answer is way better than stammering and making something up.
Think about social media
We’re living in the age of Twitter and #hashtags, after all. In fact, your interview will likely be promoted heavily on social media, so it’s a good idea to come up with some pull quotes that lend themselves to hashtags and easy sharing. While your interviewer can (and will) pull material from the interview to use in their promotion, if you give them polished, ready-made choices you get to influence how the interview is marketed. An easy way to do this is to go back to your research and prep notes and add a pithy, quotable summary line or punchline to each, sort of like a “too long, didn’t read” version of your full answer.
Don’t be repetitive
Another part of your strategy is to take the preparation you’ve done—the stories you’ve thought about and the research you’ve done—and put it in some sort of order. Make sure you don’t have to repeat yourself. And definitely restrict the number of times you mention your projects or books. Slipping that into every answer becomes annoyingly repetitive to listeners and readers—not to mention off-puttingly self-centered. Instead, think about where you can insert those mentions gracefully in your prep material.
Let the interviewer guide you
The interviewer is (usually) your ally in this situation. They want the eyeballs or ears that your interview will attract (and may be genuinely interested in you), and they know that the more successful you are the more people will find and read their interview. They’re pulling for you, so trust them if they try to direct the conversation or course-correct you. The worst thing you can do is try to force your interviewer to talk about something they’re clearly not interested in—they know their audience better than you do.
Prepare questions to ask
The best interviews are conversations. The best way to achieve a conversation remains taking an interest in your conversational partner, so have some questions prepared to ask, and be open to talking about something other than yourself and your work. Not every interviewer is going to be skilled at generating a conversational tone, though, so having some questions to ask them is a good way to ensure you can get some back and forth going.
Think about a giveaway
This is definitely optional, but you’re being given access to the interviewer’s audience, so why not take advantage of that? Offer to give away some copies of your book, or get creative and craft a giveaway that matches the theme of your book and/
The Generic Strategy
Not every interview is set up weeks ahead of time. Sometimes interview opportunities just appear out of nowhere—for example, at conferences and other large events when podcasters and other media roam around and accost people for quick interviews, usually without warning or a schedule. If you have the opportunity to get yourself and your work in front of a new audience, you have to take it, but that means you won’t be able to do all the nice prep work we just discussed (aside from some frantic Googling, perhaps, to make sure you’re not about to appear on a sketchy platform). That makes having a generic approach in your back pocket is a good idea.
This doesn’t have to be anything terribly complex, and you can draft on the prep work you’ve done for past interviews—for example, you can recycle anecdotes when the need arises. The most important thing is to know what you would promote if given the unexpected opportunity to do so. Having a precise target will allow you to tailor your responses on the fly even if you’re totally unprepared.
There’s a short list of questions that every author should be prepared to answer in an interview. These questions are so common there’s literally no excuse for not having a smart, entertaining answer prepared for each one:
- What’s your book about? This isn’t because the interviewer hasn’t done their research—they’re giving you an opportunity to pitch the audience. Use it—by having a solid Elevator Pitch for your book at the ready.
- What inspired you to write it? People like to hear the story behind the book, so be ready to give them a version. It’s okay to be funny or serious, but you should have a response.
- What’s coming up next? This one is easy if you’ve already got your next project cooking, but if you don’t it can be a real Sad Trombone moment. If you don’t have another book coming out, talk passionately about something you’re working on. If you aren’t working on anything, you can always talk about being completely focused on promoting this one.
- What book is yours like/
Who are your influences? No matter how personal writing may feel, we’re all part of a continuum. Be ready with a few examples of books that inspired yours and/ or books that yours resembles. Don’t get salty about how your book is unique—comparable books are a tried-and-true way for people to figure out if they want to risk spending money on your writing.
- Crazy Ivan. Many interviewers like to ask crazy, off-the-wall questions either at the beginning or end of the interview. This injects a little fun and unpredictability into the process, but if you’re caught off guard by it, it can result in dead air and awkward silence. Before the interview, review some of their past work to see if they do something like this and get an idea what the question might be—but even if you can’t find any examples, relax and have fun. With crazy questions like this there literally is no wrong answer—so feel free to be goofy.
Rescuing a Bad Interview
Despite all the preparation in the world, you might find yourself embroiled in a sub-par interview experience. There are a couple of reasons your interview might go off the rails:
- Inexperienced or unprepared interviewer: If the person asking the questions doesn’t know (or care) who you are and why you’re there, it can be an uphill battle to forge an interesting, engaging conversation for people.
- Nerves. Even the most experienced interview subject can have an off day. Sometimes when you don’t feel comfortable immediately that anxiety can snowball into an awkward, unhappy performance.
- Technical issues. If you’re doing an interview by phone or Zoom, or if you’re relying on amplification equipment at a conference, you might have trouble with the technology—and nothing throws people off-balance more easily than technical difficulties. It can be very hard to regain your composure and rhythm after that.
So, you’re having a bad interview experience. You can almost hear your career crashing down around you, and your Amazon Sales Rank is getting worse with each syllable. What do you do?
First of all, don’t panic. One bad interview isn’t going to ruin you (trust Jeff—he’s done a lot of bad interviews). There are a few strategies you can employ to salvage something from a bad interview:
- Pivot. If the interviewer is off-topic or perhaps openly hostile to you, start answering questions they didn’t ask. The trick is to start with a short but direct response to their actual question, then segue into a more appropriate topic. This tactic should only be used when necessary because under normal circumstances hijacking an interviewer’s questions is pretty rude and unprofessional.
- Take a breath. If the interview is being recorded, there’s nothing wrong with requesting a short break. Use it to settle yourself, check equipment/
Internet connections, or just to break a bad rhythm. If the interview is live, you might not have that option, but you can buy yourself some precious moments to reset by asking your interviewer to clarify something, taking a drink of water, or tossing a question to the audience (if there is one).
- Resist the urge to ramble. When an interview isn’t going well, you might feel the urge to just keep talking and talking, desperate to change the vibe. Instead, do the opposite: Keep your answers short and to the point. If things are going badly, the sooner you get out of there the better.
Remember, the interview is probably going better than you think, so don’t overreact. Stay on message, remain friendly, and remind yourself there’s really no such thing as bad publicity.
There are a few fundamental things you can and should do when you’re being interviewed:
- Read your book! Sure, you wrote it—but if you’re going to be ready to discuss it in-depth, it’s a good idea to re-read it to make sure it’s fresh in your mind. Nothing fails to sell a book faster than an author who can’t even remember the basic details about it.
- Hydrate. The biggest rookie mistake people make is not bringing water with them to a live interview. Maybe your host provides some, but don’t leave it to chance—water is a superpower. It helps prevent dry mouth, it cools you down, and it gives you something to do when you need a moment.
- Invest in technology. It’s increasingly common these days for interviews to be done remotely via Zoom or Skype or something like that. Get yourself a decent microphone, and prepare a space in your home or office where you can sit for the interview without your entire messy life on display behind you (if it’s video). Even if it’s audio-only, having a good microphone and a quiet spot with good acoustics picked out ahead of time will give you every chance to look good.
- Practice. Interviews seem easy, but even if you’ve done them before you should take a few practice runs. Whether with a friend or by yourself, run through your prepared stories and probably responses to common questions. You can’t anticipate everything, but a little practice goes a long way towards making you seem natural and comfortable.
An interview is always a great opportunity to promote yourself and your work. The difference between a successful interview and a train wreck comes down to the prep work you put into it.