I’m trying out a new blog format today, in which I ask industry professionals to answer questions on a misunderstood topic. And today’s topic is definitely misunderstood, or at least underappreciated: publicity. I have the advantage of being friends with several publicists, so I hear the horror stories of author ignorance (my favorite question being “how will you make my book sell a million copies?”). I also know from working with publicists at several different houses, as well as freelancers, that there are some basic rules of thumb that can help you get more coverage and ensure that publicity professionals are excited to work with you.
Today, four awesome publicists have agreed to let us peek in on their world. I’d like to introduce Amy Green, fiction publicist at Bethany House Publishers; Amanda Woods, publicist for both fiction and non-fiction titles at Tyndale House Publishers (full disclosure: she’s my publicist); Audra Jennings of Audra Jennings PR; and Lori Twichell of Beyond the Buzz Marketing. Apparently, you have a higher chance of working in publicity if your first name begins with an “A”…
Thanks to all of you for taking time out of your very busy schedules to answer my questions. My first question is the one on every author’s mind. What can authors do to make themselves more attractive to media outlets?
Amy Green: If there’s an interesting angle in your story, be sure your marketing team knows about it. For example, if a secondary plotline is about rehabilitating wounded veterans, or if your historical novel was based on a real-life shipwreck that’s about to have its 100th anniversary, mention that. Your publicist may not be aware, and you never know what they might be able to use in pitching your book to media.
Amanda Woods: A book with solid and/or “newsworthy” media hooks is more likely to be picked up by outlets. The more relevant your topic, the higher the chance for coverage. If you are a Christian author who is hoping to land secular media, it’s also helpful if your book’s message can appeal to both a Christian and non-Christian audience.
Audra Jennings: Be willing and able to speak on a topic with authority. Media outlets want to talk about a subject or issue rather than a story (that’s why it’s hard to get media placement for fiction writers). Story can be a part of the answer to a topical question.
Lori Twichell: I feel like it’s always important to be relevant to the reader. If you can look at the book from the reader’s perspective, get the angle that will serve the audience, then that will help traction and buzz in media. Be different. Remember they are getting pitched a lot and often. What’s different about your book? What do you talk about that no one else is?
It sounds like the topic of the book is of utmost importance. I know that fiction can sometimes be hard to place for publicity opportunities; is there anything else that authors can do to help their chances?
AW: Media outlets prefer an author who’s easy to work with. Someone who responds to their requests (via the publicist) in a timely manner, meets deadlines, is prompt for interviews, etc., is more likely to be asked back. In addition, media outlets who are looking for an interview, want authors to be engaging to their audience, and someone they feel their audience will get value out of hearing from.
AG: Yes, prepare well for any interviews you have. Practice a bit, have information about the book handy, and be as confident as you can (even if you’re nervous). Especially if you link to past interviews on your website, you’ll establish a reputation for being a great guest who others would want to host. The equivalent for this in print interviews is keeping to your deadline and self-editing before submitting. Also, never underestimate the value of local connections. A small opportunity—speaking to a gathering of librarians in your county—might lead to a larger one, such as speaking at a regional book fair. Sometimes you might receive offers directly instead of through your publisher, and it can be a great way to build a following and reputation.
AW: It is often a joint effort between the publicist and the author to cultivate relationships with media outlets. We want to know who you know, and how we can work together to leverage that to your benefit!
So let’s look at the “negative” now. What hurts an author’s chances for publicity opportunities? What’s on the top of your Do Not Do lists?
AW: Lack of professionalism, missing deadlines, being late or forgetting about interviews, being non-responsive to their requests.
LT: Constantly trying to sell their product. If you sound like an infomercial and are constantly in sales mode – you come off more like a used car salesman and you can’t be trusted. But if you’re passionate about your readers, that resonates.
AG: Be careful of being overly negative or controversial on your public social media. Some outlets and contacts are very active online and might be turned off when you use your author page in an unhelpful way. Also, it’s really helpful to come up with a system to manage your publicity deadlines so you don’t miss a call or a guest post submission. Some authors have their One Deadline to Rule Them All (their manuscript or revisions deadline), and forget other commitments they made.
AJ: On any given day, you can log-on to Facebook and see people arguing over any and everything in an effort to be right. Don’t take that kind of approach to interviews. Be able to talk open-mindedly. Media outlets may search out your previous opportunities or social media to see how you might interact with them. Not being readily available or hard to schedule is also an issue. Show you appreciate the opportunities put before you. If you drag your feet on answering a request or aren’t available for one reason or another, it looks like you aren’t really interested in taking advantage of the opportunity.
Those are all great points. It sounds like it all comes down to professionalism and humility. Which, come to think of it, is a good standard for every activity in publishing!
Now, for the nitty-gritty. What one thing do you wish authors knew about working with a publicist?
AW: We appreciate an author who is willing to work hard with us to publicize their book. We can only do so much to pitch their books to media outlets. It is helpful and makes the process much easier and more fun when authors are engaged and working with us to spread their book’s message. We’re here to partner with and be advocates for our authors.
AG: It’s okay to tell your publicist “Sorry, but I can’t fit that in right now.” Or, probably better, ask, “Can you prioritize these requests? I’m on deadline and won’t be able to get to all of them, but I’d like to do what’s most important.” Or say, “I was thinking about doing XYZ, and wanted to see if there was any way to be more effective with it…or if you’d recommend not wasting my time.” I can’t speak for all publicists, but I appreciate when authors are wise about time management, especially when it comes to smaller requests that require a lot of investment to complete. The best thing you can do to help your marketing team is write a great book, so if your next book will suffer because you can’t say no…learn to say no.
AJ: However, your publicist isn’t your personal assistant. Their job is not to make your job easier, it’s to give you more to do. You need to be flexible to what they ask you to do, not the other way around. Don’t complain about how busy you are or that you are to your limit, or that you only want to do one interview a week. We know you have deadlines because we have deadlines too. Do you want to earn some money from that book you worked so hard on writing? That’s what your publicist is trying to help you do. Please don’t give them grief.
LT: Yes, there’s still going to be work that they need to do. Emails and communication still need to be answered. They need to be available to work with us. We are publicists – most often working on behalf of the publisher. Not the author. We work with the author. It’s a dovetail relationship. Each person’s part should work together and maximize the potential and leverage of the other person’s work.
I find it so interesting to see the different perspectives between the in-house publicists in this group and freelance publicists. It sounds like time-management and flexibility is key from both sides, though; and authors definitely need to understand that getting their message out there will take work on their part.
Let’s zoom out a bit: what do you wish authors knew about publicity in general?
LT: That having a publicist does not mean I can immediately get you on Fox News or in Oprah’s book club or on Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.
AW: Not all books/authors are attractive to all media. It’s important to work with your publicist to identify the most realistic and appropriate contacts for your message. Knowing your content well and having realistic expectations makes the publicity process much smoother.
AJ: Your job isn’t finished when you turn in your manuscript. Most of the time you have a small window to make a big splash when your book releases. You need to be able to give it your all when a publicist is working on your book. This season won’t last forever. Do whatever you can to make opportunities work.
AG: It’s a changing world! Publicity for fiction today probably won’t look like Juliet Ashton writing an article for the London Times and having her publisher arrange multiple signings and readings (which she skips to flirt with the cutest pig farmer ever, am I right, Guernsey Literary fans?). You may have expectations your marketing team can’t fulfill, or you may be skeptical of new tactics they’re excited about (or nostalgic for old strategies they say are a waste of resources). Keep an honest dialogue and communicate your ideas and hopes, but be open to trying new things and willing to adjust your vision for what the publicity process will look like.
It sounds to me like the key is to manage your expectations and keep the lines of communication open. I can say firsthand that the months around a book release are exhausting and filled with a lot of trial and error. I’m an author who’s willing to do something crazy on the small chance that it will help my book break out…what do you really have to lose?
Okay, last question: What makes you happy to work with an author again?
AJ: I know this keeps coming up, but someone that is flexible to work with and willing to take on whatever may come up. I love working with authors who are engaging and able to speak to a number of topics.
AG: I love it when an author looks out at a trend and asks us what we know about it and whether it would be strategic for them. Rather than assuming every Shiny New Thing will work for their audience and be worth the investment of money/time (remember, you can’t see the results of whatever other authors are doing), it helps to evaluate each opportunity objectively. Can you talk to other authors and see if they have advice? Does your marketing team have the ability to help? What would your goal be in doing it, and is that goal a good one? Those are all great questions to ask.
LT: When they take my guidance and want to work with me (but not expect me to do all the work on my own like an assistant) then I will bump them to the top of my list every time!
AW: Responsiveness, a great working relationship that feels like a partnership, a relationship of mutual respect and professionalism, and enthusiasm for the project. An author’s enthusiasm for their book is contagious and makes us want to work that much harder for them.
These are such great insights! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and share your expertise with the writer audience today.