The Business Side of Writing: Publicists

These days all authors are expected to invest in their own publicity, and most feel entirely unequipped. Whether you’re traditional or indie, this is your reality. A publisher will ask this of you. If you’re indie, you’ll find you’ll sell nary a book without it. Obviously, I write a lot about publicity in general, so this month I want to focus on publicists. Are they worth it? What types are there? And then I have a few case studies of authors who made good use of publicists. Let me begin this piece by saying that there are more options than people realize. Pay heed to all the horror stories about publicists who cost too much with no results, but don’t swear off all publicists as a result. There are success stories out there too.

What is a publicist? There is no official degree or certification. The term can apply to someone who just sends out press releases (which I don’t recommend) or someone who builds personal relationships with book bloggers to actually deliver reviews and features for your book. Publicists can be in-house with a publisher, or independent. They can be trained in marketing, or have no formal education whatsoever, and can work from swanky offices or their coffee table in their one bedroom apartment. What’s important is to realize that just because one kind of publicist doesn’t work for your career, that’s no reason to disregard them all.

How do I find a good one? Okay, here I’m going to split the reasoning into traditional and indie publishing. Let’s start with traditional publishing. There are a couple of types of publicists worth looking into. First off:

The one who works in-house for your publisher. Now the thing about the in-house publicist is that they have a limited budget and a lot of books to market. For this reason, people tend to leave them alone and complain that all they do is send out review copies. Here’s a case study for you about a friend of mine who is a New York Times bestselling urban fantasy author with Tor:

Whenever she plans to do anything that might boost her book sales, she tells the in-house publicist, and the results have surprised her a few times. The publicist has cut her checks for travel to a convention. They have sent a boxload of free books for her to give away at a signing. Everything she’s asked for lately, she’s gotten, and sometimes they add in a little more that she wouldn’t have thought of. The moral of this story is that you should always coordinate with your in-house publicist. Perhaps they’ll just nod and ignore you, but make sure they aren’t ignoring you because you never asked.

The privately hired publicity firm. This is where you hear a lot of nightmare stories. Before you hire a publicist, learn what they do to support books. Find out if they even specialize in books. Learn whether they have a strategy or if they just send out press releases and call it good. Press releases can be a waste of time if you aren’t already famous. It’s like when you hire any kind of independent contractor, learn what they do. If it’s an agent, you want to know if they sell books. If it’s a web designer, you want to see sites they’ve already done, and if it’s a publicist, you want to see the kinds of campaigns they put together. Then you want to gauge whether they’d give you enough time and attention – they might go all out for a big client but not for you. Now for the case study:

A friend of mine hired a publicist for the first novel of his most recent fantasy series. That series took off, burned up the charts, got picked up by HBO – and now you know who I’m talking about. I overheard someone asking him about that publicist and they asked, “Did they earn you back the money you spent on them.” The answer was something to the effect of, “No, not immediately, but that’s not the point. You have to look at the long term picture.” He credits that publicist with getting that book into Publisher’s Weekly, and that to him was worth the money even if it didn’t pay back right away. So it’s important to look past the end of your own nose. A regular old publicist of the type that most complain about can still make a difference to your career. Talk to other authors who write in a similar style to you to find a good one, and don’t treat their work as a wasted effort right away. Build on what they did do for you.

All right, now let’s talk about indie publishing. Indie authors can hire the kind of publicist above, of course. Indie publishing has evolved its own kind of publicist, though.

The evolution of the indie publicist. Back when indie publishing got started, four or so years ago, enterprising authors were their own publicists. I was in this category. At the time there were a lot of bloggers who loved to read, and who were happy to read free books in exchange for an honest review. I and others like me spent a long time querying bloggers and sending out books, and let me tell you, this worked. I got my first book to the point where I out-earned my husband some months.

Then more and more indie authors stepped into the field, and book bloggers began to burn out. They couldn’t accept books from everyone, and some just shut down their submissions altogether, because they couldn’t discern which authors were even worth reading. So a lot of us authors, me included, turned to blog tour companies. A blog tour company consisted of one person or a team of people who formed relationships with book bloggers. A book blogger no longer had to deal with individual authors, but could work with one or more tour companies and pick and choose from what was touring each month.

This didn’t take very long to blow up and become unsustainable either. More and more authors purchased cover reveals and blog tours and soon the situation was just like before. Too many authors and exhausted book bloggers.

Enter the indie publicist.

Quite a few indie publicists are former blog tour operators, but they cost quite a bit more. While they are cheaper than traditional publicity firms, they’ll still be in the mid-three figures per month or more. What makes their business sustainable is that they are selective about who they take on. Now, if you want just any old indie publicist, you can surely hire one, but the reputable indie publicists turn away a lot of potential clients. InkSlinger is the most prominent firm in the kind of indie writing I do right now and has a huge list of people who want to be repped by them, but they take only a few, and those few tend to do rather well, which builds up the publicist’s brand still more. (And no, I am not repped by them.)

You do not need to be an indie author to hire an indie publicist. I use the term “indie publicist” because of the history of how they came to be. Their skills are still of value to authors of all publishing models. Here again, you need to look at the specific publicist and what they specialize in. Okay, now for the case study, or general trend in this case:

I own a book formatting company, so I see a lot of indie authors launch books. While I can’t say that a publicist is a magic bullet, in general, the authors with indie publicists sell more books, stay higher in the charts, and move on to getting agents and traditional publishing deals faster. It can really pay to outsource your publicity activity to someone else who takes on the role of the enterprising indie author of yore (four years ago). A good indie publicist helps you time the release of your book, gives you guidance on what you may want to write next, and then just puts in the hours, talking to bloggers and reviewers to get your book out there. A good indie publicist keeps you visible, and while that may not lead to sky high sales, it keeps you out of the deep dark well of obscurity, where you tend to make no sales at all.

If you’re at a stage of your career when you can afford $400-500 or more (at the time of this writing) per month to spend on publicity, look into indie publicists. They don’t tend to have marketing degrees, firms, or even offices. If you ever talk to one on the phone, there may be children crying and dogs barking in the background. However, they’re well integrated into the online book publicity ecosystem, and what they do, they can do quite well. To find a good one, look at who other successful authors are using.

Do I have to have a publicist? No, of course not, but you do need to generate publicity in some way, whether it be from your own efforts, a side business that you do that builds name recognition, or dumb luck, such as an opportunity to save a baby who falls from a fifteenth story window (but people will still accuse you of setting that up as a publicity stunt.) What I want to stress is that “publicist” is a broader category than some people realize. Are you underutilizing your publisher’s in-house publicist? Did you give up on that publicity firm too easily? Have you ever heard of an indie publicist? Keep publicists on your radar. There will come times and stages of your career when they can benefit you.

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2 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: Publicists

  1. Wm says:

    The number one thing when hiring any publicist is that they should be realistic with you in what you can expect. Beware the publicist who promises the moon.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Yep. As is the case with anyone you hire. A cover designer who says their cover will get you on the bestseller list is also blowing smoke.

      So it helps to have an understanding of what a publicist can and can’t do. They don’t have a magic hotline to get you on Oprah (though there are probably some very high powered ones who are friends with her, and I bet they cost accordingly). They don’t have superpowers to get you high profile reviews. A lot of what they can do is stuff you can do. What they’ll have is more practice, more experience, relationships with certain publicity outlets, and that sort of thing. It also makes sense, economically, to outsource to specialists once your career reaches a certain point.

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