Monday, August 17, 2009

Hiring a Publicist

A frequent discussion with all of my published authors is whether or not a publicist should be hired, and while my answer to this is always “it depends,” one of the things I want to address here is that there is no magic a publicist can perform.

I think that oftentimes authors feel that a publicist is a necessary expense to success in publishing and that the publicist has some sort of magical ability to move books and create sales. While I think a publicist can help when done right, I also fear that frequently an author pays a lot of money and misunderstands both what the publicist can and will do as well as what the publisher will do for you. Let’s be honest, it’s been rare that I’ve been impressed with the work a publicist has done for my clients.

I don’t want to bash publicists (although I seem to be doing a good job), but I do think authors should go in with a very clear idea of what a publicist will be doing and how much the author will be spending. In other words, does it sound like the plan will actually earn you back that money in book sales or does it sound very similar to what the publisher will? So here are some of my thoughts...

If you are writing a series of any kind it does not work to hire the publicist once sales have started declining. A sinking ship is a sinking ship, and throwing money at it is not going to save it now. A publicist is best used to launch the beginning of something new or to take what you already have (and what’s working) to that next level.

Check with your agent and the publisher’s publicist (if you have one) or your editor before finalizing any deals. Find out what the publisher has planned and ask specifically their thoughts on whether hiring a publicist would be beneficial and what a publicist could do that the publisher is already doing. I have had plenty of discussions with publishers who felt at certain points in an author’s career hiring an outside publicist was a waste of time. At other times I’ve had publishers express enthusiasm for the idea, feeling the time was right.

Do not hire a publicist to send out review galleys. Your publisher does and should do this. If you have a list of your own (to knitting magazines for your knitting mystery, for example, or alumni magazines) ask if you can send the addresses (already on labels) to your publisher for them to add to their mailing.

Make sure any publicist you hire will work in conjunction with your publisher’s publicist and make sure your publisher’s publicist feels the same way (in other words, don’t hire a publicist your publisher has had bad experiences with). It will not do you any good if the two people trying to get you publicity are working at cross purposes.

Hire a publicist with interesting and new ideas. Guaranteed radio spots? Where? If it’s NPR, go for it, if it’s the local radio station, my guess is you might be able to make that call yourself. More important though, does radio really sell books? I’m not the expert here, but that sounds very old school to me. I’d be much more interested in a new and different Internet blast of some sort (a Facebook page is not new and different) or unique ideas for viral marketing.

Is your publicist promising a press release? Guess what? The publisher does this too. Do you really need to pay someone when you can probably get a copy for free?

Okay, I admit, it sounds like I’m telling you publicists are useless. They aren’t, not at all. In fact, I think a publicist can do a great job, if it’s a publicist who is innovative and fresh. Most of what I see, I admit, is stale and boring. In fact, most of the best publicity is not coming from publicists, but from the authors themselves. So go ahead and spend money on a publicist because someone with fresh ideas can make a huge difference. Just make sure that the ideas she’s promising are fresh.



Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since I have a background in marketing. When the time comes, I plan to discuss all options with my agent and, together, decide what is the most appropriate and compelling plan of action regarding my book promotion.

Jessica - how do you do it? How do you keep coming up with fascinating, informative posts every day? I blog a few times a week and it practically kills me! (Read: prone to exaggeration.) Seriously, thanks, once again, for a great post.

MeganRebekah said...

Thank you so much for covering this topic! It's something that I have thought about and go back and forth on. A publicist would likely have more connections than me, but I feel like I have great ideas that I could implement myself with enough time.
Awesome post!

RC Writer Girl said...

I would totally agree with Jessica on this.

I've worked as a journalist, as both an editor and a reporter, and there are a lot of crappy publicists out there. A lot of publicists just send these horrible press release blasts out to every news organization available, whether it's relevant to that news organization or not. It's lazy and doesn't do their client any good.

The ones I saw were the best, knew what they were trying to sell and who to sell it to. If they were education products, yes, they tried to get some play in the Washington Post or New York Times, but they realized their bread and butter were trade magazines that educators read and trusted on buying decisions.

With buying, people tend to buy what they already like/know. So you have to preach to the choir, so to speak. The good publicists know who the choir is. They know how to reach this target audience. They know where this target audience goes for thoughts on purchasing decisions, and tries to get publicity there. And better yet, they have contacts there.

The better publicist also knows their client has to do a good job selling, too, and gives them pointers on how to make the best impression/get their point across when at events arranged for publicity, or out on the interviews.

So, I would definitely say, talk to the publicist about his/her overall strategy about selling and what it is they plan to do. If the plan doesn't resonate with you personally, it may be a waste of money.

And, from what Jessica says, it sound like the publisher has a publicist, too. So, certainly, you might be able to get some free advice from that publicist about things you can do yourself to promote the book, and try to do that, first, before hiring a publicist.

Again, another great post on a useful topic.i

Debra L Martin said...

Thanks Jessica. This is a very informative post. I've read a lot on this subject and there doesn't seem to be any magic bullet to success. As with anything, hard work, persistence and a bit of luck thrown in seems to be the winning combination.

Mark Terry said...

"Do not hire a publicist to send out review galleys. Your publisher does and should do this."

Wellllll.... should, yes. Does, um... maybe. My last publisher, Midnight Ink, told me they send out a grand and glorious 3 review copies for The Serpent's Kiss. I assume they were Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus, none of which reviewed it. I did get some reviews--from a couple of the 20+ copies I sent out at my own expense to review outlets.

Would a publicist have helped? I don't know. Publicists are expensive and the return on investment isn't likely to be obvious in terms of dollars and cents. Most of it you can do yourself if you have the time, energy, money or stomach for it. On the other hands, it's possible a publicist will do some of the things you thought your publisher was going to do.

Kimber Li said...

I do think authors need to really do their homework when hiring publicists. I've often been stunned to realize I, as a blogging book reviewer, know the authors, their books, and upcoming news about their books waaay before their publicists do! And their publicists didn't read their books. I do.

Lesson Learned- You can't buy enthusiasm.

There are good publicists, obviously. Take the time to find out who they are.

Kate Douglas said...

This is one I've tossed around, but I honestly enjoy connecting with readers on my own and my publisher has been great about getting my books out and about. I feel that an Internet presence is important, and it allows me to get to know the people who read and enjoy my books. (Facebook, MySpace, my newsletter, chat groups, etc) The amazing thing is, a lot of them will go online to talk about my stories on various readers lists, and that "word of mouth" is better promotion than anything a publicist could possibly do for me.

I've got a new series that's not erotic coming out in March, and I'm STILL tossing around the 'publicist or not' question...and will probably still be tossing it when March comes and goes...

Becke Davis said...

If an author has time, there's a lot you can do yourself. Blog tours, book signings, speaking engagements, printing up promotional material and sending out press releases -- none of that is hard to do. Be prepared to invest some money in this, and to do spend your own dime on travel.

My garden books are out of print now, but the woman who was marketing manager for my publisher told me that one reason they contracted with me, over and over again, to write for them was partly because of my willingness to market myself. Apparently, a lot of authors either don't know how to do this or are unwilling to invest the time and money in marketing.

No one cares about your career as much as you do. You can hire a publicist, but be aware that they have a lot of other clients and their best-selling authors are likely to garner more attention than a debut author.

I've met a lot of publicists, and most of the authors I know do use them. For myself, I'm not so sure I'd go that route.

Anonymous said...

As a journalist who's also worked in PR, I can tell you that most editors et al are very wary of PR people/publicists. Why can't an author do the exact same things to promote themselves? Who's more creative & knowledgeable than the author? Most folks are fascinated w/ authors but they tend to turn up their noses at anything that smacks of PR--you do the math.

Kim said...

It's overwhelming enough to try and find an *agent*, let alone worrying about a publicist.

As a newbie to the vast world of writing with publication as the goal, it's downright refreshing to know that I can cross "looking for a publicist" off my to-do list (even if it's, perhaps, just for now).

I find it helpful to be my own cheerleader, but I have that kind of personality. I'll go out on a limb and assume that there are some writers who don't, and for them, a publicist might be very useful. Certainly, if you choose the right person, her contacts are way more connected than yours might be, but there are still no guarantees.

Thanks for the insight!

Jess Haines said...

This is of great concern to me as well. Thank you so much for giving us this data, I hadn't considered that they might be covering ground you could very well handle yourself, or that your publisher might already be taking care of for you.

Do you have any examples of when a publicist did well by one of your clients? I'm curious to hear any successes or insight onto what they did right.

Eileen said...

Also if you need legwork done there may be other options. For example I hired a college student for $10 an hour to call bookstores, get the name of the YA section head and create a mailing list so I can mail out personal notes. She's also made a list of on line YA book review sites. All of this for less than $200. She's a creative writing student so she's loving this chance to have a front row seat to the publishing process and she's been a huge help for me. win-win

Anonymous said...

Who the heck needs a publicist unless your last name is King, Rowling or Meyer?

It's all web-based these days--anyone can do it if they take the time to learn, and then actually do it.

Got a million "friends" yet? Why not? Would a publicist get you a million friends? Nope. they just want your $$$.

Allison Brennan said...

I considered a publicist after 9 books, then decided to save my money. There is really very little a publicist can do for me. They can't guarantee mainstream reviews, they can't guarantee major television, radio spots or unearned media. I may decide to hire someone when I move to hardcover, but it's still 50/50.

Authors need to know what they really NEED. When I discussed this with my agent, we realized that I really needed an assistant. I spend a fraction of what I would have spent on a publicist, and my assistant sends out packages, does all my accounting, orders supplies, and helps on special projects as needed. For example, I once sent out a bookstore mailing and she printed, stuffed, addressed, and mailed my letters. Once a year I send out a mailing of bookmarks and other fun stuff to fans who've shared their address with me. She does that, too.

I've seen too many authors waste too much money on publicists who are great people, smart, good--but in PBO, can't really do more than the author herself, or a cheaper assistant.

Also, talk to your publisher before you do anything. I had a list of ideas and they took some of them. It wasn't a publicist thing, but a marketing thing. (They are different.) Also, you need a decent print run to justify a publicist. IMO.

Great blog, Jessica.

Jenna said...

When my first book came out - or rather four months before my first book came out - I hired a publicist, and I have nothing but good to say about the experience. I've been on TV, I've been on the radio, I've had reviews and feature stories in newspapers and media in the part of the country where my books are set and the part of the country where I live. I might have been able to do some of this, if not all of it, for myself, given enough time, but the way I saw it, and still do, is that it was a choice between trying to figure out how to get it done myself, or hiring someone who already knew how to do it. My publisher is the second largest in the world, which means that in addition to mine, they publish many, many books per month. Inhouse publicity departments are usually understaffed and overworked. There's very little personal attention. Not because my inhouse publicist doesn't want to give it to me, but because she has 12-15 books to work on EACH MONTH. I'm a debut author; I don't rank high on the list. And I had two more books to write and deadlines looming. To me, it made more sense to hire a professional and focus on writing the next book, and I see the financial outlay as an investment in building my career.

My O.O2.

Anna Claire said...

I'm a journalist, too, working at a mid-size daily and also editing a regional magazine. I automatically delete e-mail blasts from PR companies. They nearly always suck and I feel sorry for the small companies who are paying these people who probably say something like "I have thousands of press contacts" when what they really mean is they have a bunch of e-mail addresses.

If an author or the maker of a product contacts me personally, that gets WAY more of my attention and I'm much more willing to work with them. A personalized e-mail from a press person who's obviously done a little bit of research into what I handle is also effective. It's a time-intensive process, but it can pay off.

Leigh KC said...

This post and ALL the comments were invaluable, and I was glad to get to Anna's post at the end as this is exactly what I did. After receiving quotes from PR firms and calculating how many books I'd have to sell to pay for the cost, I decided that there was nothing they were offering that I couldn't do for myself.

I also know that paying thousands of $$ to a PR firm can result in absolutely no outcome, except for a hole in your pocket. A media release can be sent to thousands but if no one prints it ...

Unknown said...

This is a great post + discussion. I'm a novelist who has done a lot of my own publicity. It takes time and effort, but it works. I love my publisher's publicist (Berkley/Penguin) and we work very well together. Thanks for interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

Only way I'd take on a publicist is if they agreed to work on a % of royalties. That way their success is tied to mine. What re you willing to do for 5% share of royalties on the book? 7%? 10%?! You find out real quick that way how much they really believe in your book!

glovin said...

Thank you so much for covering this topic! It's something that I have thought about and go back and forth on.

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