what-do-book-publicists-doThanks to book publicist Claire McKinney for this guest post. This article was originally published in Publishers Weekly, online at www.publishersweekly.com and on Claire’s blog at www.clairemckinneypr.com

At lunch with publicist friends, there’s one question that we always seem to come back to: does anyone in this business know what we actually do? Yes, yes, every author says they “want” a publicist, but how many authors, and those who work in publishing, actually understand what a publicist does and, more importantly, what can reasonably be expected from their publicity campaign?

People in this business still assume that the only good thing a publicist does is book appearances on Oprah or The Today Show or Good Morning America. Even though this circuit is outdated—Oprah’s show is off the air, GMA is closing in on the Today show’s ratings, and The Early Show just went through another reorganization—people in publishing still think these are the rounds a publicist makes. This needs to change.

I came into the publishing industry accidentally, and took to the role of publicist quite naturally; I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I’ve worked on campaigns for everything from children’s books to adult trade; cookbooks to philosophy; literary fiction to self-help—and I’ll tell you, as I’ve told everyone who has ever worked for me and with me, making a book is a long, difficult process. Nonetheless, when there’s blame about how the final product fares in the market, it often seems to fall on the publicist. Why?

Why would an author take his frustrations out on the person most directly linked to the consumers in the promotional process? Why are the notions of what a publicist does so cloudy? And why, in an era where lack of publicity is repeatedly cited as a major reason books fail, are so many publicists with years of experience struggling to keep their jobs?

Blame it on the digital revolution. Blame it on the homogenized media culture. Blame it on whomever, or whatever, you choose. One problem, aside from the difficulty of getting good publicity for a book, is dealing with misunderstandings about what a publicist can reasonably do.

Right now there are still two overarching umbrellas that classify book publicity campaigns. There are the “big” books that are positioned and sold to the “big” traditional media, and there are all the other books which, well, aren’t sold to the “big” traditional media. And when I say this, I’m not saying all of the other books don’t warrant the same attention as the big books, or that they won’t get a national break, or that they are lesser in any way. I’m saying that, still, there are basically two tracks we think about, and that’s a problem.

That not every book will be right for the “big” media spots is one problem, but it’s a reality. Too often, though, there seems to be anger about not getting those “big” spots instead of an open admission that there are lots of great press hits to be had on smaller outlets and in nontraditional ways.

There are hundreds of television, print, and radio venues, just like the old days. But now there is the Web and there’s social media. You can do viral campaigns. You can give away content in the form of actual books on blogs, or digitally in chapters on any and all Web sites.

Can you, the publicist, work with online marketing to coordinate a campaign using some of these tools? Yes. Do you need to know even more people than ever before, collecting contacts like a paper clip magnet? Yes. Will you be able to do this for every book on your list? Probably not. But it would help if these “nontraditional” campaigns stopped being tagged as such. Book publicity is no longer about organizing a “big” or “small” campaign, and publicists know this, but the rest of the industry does not seem to have quite caught up.

So if you are a book publicist like me and one of your more irascible authors is quoted in New York magazine basically saying that publicists are worthless, close your eyes, count to 10, and remember that you have the power and the skill set to go out there and brave a new frontier of media. You will do things that haven’t been done before, and while you accept the well-deserved pat on the back that so rarely comes your way, you can take comfort in the fact that others are quietly saying, “How did she do that?”

Have you hired a book publicist? What was your experience, good or bad?

claire-mckinney-prClaire McKinney PR, LLC specializes in campaigns for books, authors, educational programs, websites, art, film, and other intellectual properties. They work carefully with clients to create messaging; branding concepts; and marketing and media strategies that integrate both traditional and new media opportunities.

19 thoughts on “Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?

  • September 19, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Great information.
    I am in the process of hiring a publicist as we speak. Initially, her fee was $1000.00 a month for five months, I told her I only had $3500.00 reserved for this, so please tailor her proposal to that amount. I’m still waiting to hear back. I’ll post an update if this gets off the ground and anything positive comes out of it.

  • September 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Hi Everyone,
    It’s so great to read these comments about my article. I am happy to hear about the positive experiences, but I also know that there are many people who have spent money and haven’t felt that they’ve gotten the kind of service they should have.

    What Shari says about a lot of effort and sometimes not much payoff is true. Publicity is extremely labor intensive. I’ve been doing this for a long time and prior to being in publishing I was a recruiter and did inside sales (very similar to calling media outlets and also a people business that is very service oriented). One thing I try to do with all prospective clients is let them know what I truly think is possible given their particular book. There is no one size fits all campaign these days with all of the different media outlets and types as well as event possibilities… I guess in a few words, I make it a policy not to “spin” to my clients so that both of us aren’t frustrated by the process.

    Another thing I might mention is that if someone charges $1000/month for a “traditional campaign” most likely he/she won’t be able to put in the time to deliver the kind of results you would want. For any client you have to figure you will put in at minimum five hours per week of work on average, so that’s about 22.5 hours per month, which would be less than $50/hr. A skilled publicist with media contacts and the ability to shift strategy when necessary to get the most out of every opportunity is going to cost more than that.

    I hope all of this is helpful and I look forward to reading more comments!

    • September 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      Fabulous insight, Claire and thanks for being open with your comments to authors – it’s how we all learn!

  • September 12, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you Shari for the informative article and to readers for sharing your experiences. I’m not at a point where I need a publicist YET, but you never know when the need may arise.

  • September 11, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    My agent gave me a list of 15 publicists and left it up to me to find the one I liked and could afford. She advised me that not all the great publicists are in New York. She said I didn’t have to meet my publicists in person in order to do a great job.

    I sent out queries to all 15. Got responses and culled from there. Interviewed five on the phone then reduced it down to three that happened to be in New York. I flew there with my husband to meet them in person. My choice. It turned out the one I thought I would not hire is the one I did. Why? He kept after me in the nicest and most persistent manner. I thought if that is how he goes after clients, he will do that for me. Justin at Mouth Communications. He put his entire staff on my account.

    As a first time, unknown author of a non-fiction book, he got me great PR. My publisher, Macmillan got me bookstore engagements and reviews. My publicist got me media. There was the difference. I had two marketing people at Macmillan–one for trade and one for academic markets. Justin got me TV, radio and newspaper interviews and articles. It was amazing. He worked very closely with my publisher and my agent.

    My agent was so impressed with him I know she has used him a lot since then.

    I am thrilled with my experience. I never could have gotten me the PR tour and attention on my own. A good publicist has what we used to call a good rolodex.

    • September 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks so much for this valuable intel Geri and very encouraging to hear! We’ll definitely put Justin on our recommend list… And kudos to Macmillan on their flexibility and YOU on doing the due diligence to find the right publicist to deliver your message. Continued success!

  • September 11, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you for this great blog post! The main reason publicists are misunderstood is because
    it falls under the umbrella of PR- which deals with marketing, advertising and publicity. In a nutshell , PUBLICITY you pray for – Marketing you pay for !
    Publicity is often intangible. It’s about making things happen for an author without paying for it yet generating book sales as a result. Ex: Getting your author to speak at a Rotary or Chamber event and
    tie it in with his book in a creative way.
    A publicist doesn’t get paid on the percentage number of books sold. And shouldn’t! Because it’s about so
    much more than the book. Publicists are always looking for angles, spin off products , quirky off beat
    attention grabbing ways to spotlight the author.

    An author must be an active part of the process, however. Once your book
    is published ….the REAL work begins!

    Be sure and read my blog post here titled “Pebbles in the Publiciity Pond.”

    See what I just did? Hey, it’s what a publicist does!

    Lynda Bouchard
    Publicist / Booking Authors Ink

  • September 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    As a first time novelist, I am struggling with traditional and self-publishing, but it seems either way hiring your own publicist might make a huge difference in sales and market impact. Thank you for introducing me to another facet of the publishing world.

    • September 11, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      It does indeed – Good luck to you and keep us up to date with your journey!

  • September 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I spendt $1000/month for 4 months and got a ‘traditional’ campaign for an indie-published book, a campaign obviously not tailored to my needs as an unknown writer of literary mainstream fiction. I was also reminded by my publicist that she was a publicist, “not a magician” and that she didn’t have the contacts to place a story about the unique inspiration for my novel, WARMING UP, in non-book media.
    So, I got one reading out of my hometown out of it, but not much else. I wish I’d met someone more willing to think in non-traditional terms and use non-book media.

    • September 11, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      Ouch – that doesn’t sound fun and suggest a publicist should go out and MAKE the contacts necessary for the project… or else not take on the project! Also not sure why a publicist would take on a book without some sense of what was required instead of backpedaling with the “not a magician” line. Frankly, that’s EXACTLY what a good publicist IS – a magician with plenty of tricks up their sleeves!

  • September 11, 2013 at 11:18 am

    What do you consider to be the difference between a publicist and a marketing expert?

    • September 11, 2013 at 11:52 am

      There are so many differences, more than a blog comment might encompass, and there are similarities, too. A marketing “expert” might get involved in the whole of an author branding and promotion, as we do with websites, coaching media training, vetting resources, etc. A publicist needs to take all that “goo” and stick it in the faces of media folks and everyone/anyone else who can help create more “buzz” around your book.

      Having come from the PR arena, I can tell you being a publicist is a tough, tough job, with little reward because it may take 30 press releases and a hundred follow up calls before you land a piece/interview; hours of planning for a 2 hour booksigning, etc. Labor intensive, in other words – but if/when you can find someone you can work WITH as Jacquie so astutely pointed out, then your publicist — even moreso than your marketing expert — can be the most valuable and invested member of your team besides you as the author!

  • September 11, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Excellent article and more fully speaks to how an author can work TOGETHER with a publicist in terms of lots of little things making a BIG difference versus one big thing that may be just a pebble in the pond.

    • September 11, 2013 at 11:08 am

      Great point, Jacquie – it’s the collective out there that builds buzz!

  • September 11, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I’ve worked with a few publicists. The publicist I hired for my first book was wonderful. For the little bit of money I was able to pay her, she went over and beyond what I expected. We’re still friends, and I’ve referred a ton of work to her. The publicist my publisher hired for my last book was from a well-known New York City firm. She knew nothing of my subject matter, but they still gave her my account. I had little say in the matter, but my gut feeling about her was realized. Believe me, I gave her PLENTY to work with, however, she did just enough to cover her butt. I’m not sure how much cash my poor publisher laid out for this publicist, (quite a bit, I’m guessing) but I wouldn’t give a chipped nickel for her services again, or for the way this big, fancy firm handled our account. Big, fancy PR firms do not always equate to bigger coverage for the writer.

    • September 11, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Excellent input, Pamela and why authors need to both ask the Q’s up front (or in your case, encourage the publisher to do the same) and expect an accounting of what was done and what was accomplished with the doing. If authors can keep portfolios of this sort of info, maybe more good publicists out there can get the repeat business they deserve and not lose out to reputation without substance!

Comments are closed.