Of all parts of books publishing, there is no element that consistently causes more ambivalence than the publicity program. When we undertake marketing and it doesn’t achieve our goals, at least we have a pretty ad or some other sales material to show for our efforts. With publicity, however, all we’re paying for is someone else’s time and effort. If deployment of that time and effort results in zero publicity hits, the only evidence we have in the end is a lighter bank account.

To further increase our anxiety, there are nervous moments surrounding even a successful placement, because such an eventuality only provides an opportunity for the author and her work to be further tested. A publicist may get someone to agree to write a review, but he can’t guarantee a good review. He may get you on television, but he can’t guarantee you won’t freeze. He may land you a radio interview, but he can’t guarantee you won’t babble like an idiot and forget to mention your book. He may get you a feature article, but who knows what the reporter will decide to write.

Worst of all, he may get you all of these things and watch them blow up when a major news event drives everyone’s attention away from your book at a critical juncture in the publication process.

For these reasons and more, the best publicists will promise effort but will never promise results.

Yet, we need to have these people working for us. They present a front of professionalism that an author working for herself can seldom pull off. More important, they can anticipate how reviewers, bloggers, reporters and producers might view a work, and do so in a way that the author — being so close to it — seldom can. Though publicists rarely live up to all the hopes we vest in them — and they can’t necessarily provide the golden carriage to carry us to and from the royal ball — they may just get us that ticket to the media dance.

My ticket to the dance is being provided by Brian Feinblum, chief marketing officer and vice president of Planned Television Arts, which is a division of Ruder Finn, a bigger public relations outfit. I interviewed several agencies before choosing PTA, but I liked the fact that Brian said he’d have to read my book before agreeing to represent me (no one else even asked to look at it), and I liked PTA’s reputation for having invented the Morning Drive Radio Tour.

In early June, I conducted a Q&A with Brian over the Internet, for the benefit of readers of this column. To wit:

JEF: What can a paid publicist do for an author that the author can’t do for herself?

BF: Technological advances and the public sharing of information and resources over the last few years would appear to have leveled the playing field. These days, anyone can look up contact information for a specific journalist or find out which TV producers like to have certain types of guests on their shows, provided they know where to look online or have a paid subscription to certain databases. But the vast majority of authors lack the time, social skill, confidence, and detailed knowledge required to produce a successful media campaign. Besides, they are better off using their time to do the things they are better suited for and actually enjoy more, such as writing more books.

A trained publicist, one with relevant experience and a college degree in communications, is in a better position to get media attention than an author. PR can be time-consuming, especially if you are learning on the job. You must juggle tracking down accurate and useful media lists, trying to reach journalists who are trained to ignore you, and finding out the best time of day or day of week and the ideal means to contact them. Writing a pitch to the media and communicating directly with them is an art form. Publicists think like the media and understand their needs and desires. Just as doctors would never treat themselves, authors shouldn’t promote themselves if they can afford to hire someone to help.

The traditional media landscape is shrinking while the digital one is expanding. The savvy publicist understands the intricacies of each type of media. Authors are better off using their time to secure speaking engagements, networking, and participating in the social media conversation but leave the heavy lifting to the pros!

That said, I do know of a few, rare instances when unknown and first-time authors landed some terrific media coups. They are the exception, however.

JEF: But the expertise you’re speaking of doesn’t come cheap. Given the serendipitous nature of the media world, how does an author judge whether he’s getting his money’s worth?

BF: An author should have clear goals on what he or she expects to get out of publicity, although often there are unintended benefits, some of which aren’t realized until long after the campaign is over.  For some, the goal is to get a positive message out there that can help people; for others it’s to sell books or even to make a bestseller list. It can certainly be all of the above. But there are many other reasons and benefits behind PR. For instance, I had an author whose book only sold a few thousand copies, but as a result of promoting it he got a deal with HBO to consult on a TV series that relates to the book’s topic.  Other authors are looking to use book publicity to help advance their careers, their business or their consulting efforts.  Authors benefit from PR when they have good trade distribution, when they have additional books/products/services to sell, or when they want to build up Web traffic. Some authors promote a book in hopes the PR will help them get a new book deal from a publisher or get discovered by a literary agent. Others do PR because they are ego-driven and need their fifteen minutes of fame. The author should determine the value of PR based on things that contribute both to short-term and long-term success.

JEF: Let’s get back to your touching upon social media in your previous answer. It seems to me like a certain degree of disillusionment with social media is setting in. I wrote a piece recently calling it “a shiny object” and expected all kinds of push-back, but hardly received any disagreement from commenters. To what extent has social media displaced traditional media and to what extent are our expectations for social media (versus traditional media) overblown?

BF: Yes, social media can be a piece of the puzzle – but it shouldn’t be the centerpiece or the only thing one does to promote the book. There are probably twenty significant ways to promote or market a book; social media is only one of them. Radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines are others. Book signings and free appearances are another element, as are paid speaking engagements. Contacting libraries…gift shops…seeking sponsors, participating in affiliate sales, and there are many other things you can do. Social media needs to have a return on investment, just like a paid PR campaign. Authors should budget their time to do what is most effective; unfortunately they have to experiment and often learn the hard way what works and doesn’t work. Personal comfort level is a factor, too. Some prefer posting videos to blogging. Others value guest-blogging over their own blog. Some like to Tweet. Some think Facebook is a magical island with treasures to be discovered. Others do a combination of these activities or like to do podcasts, book trailers and webinars. It helps to be working within your comfort level, but authors shouldn’t be too easily seduced. Like anything else, social media is a tool that should be used proportionate to its payoff.

JEF: This inevitably begins to sound like a laundry list, which is one of the things authors find so overwhelming, not to mention time-consuming. I’d like to ask you which five of the things you’ve listed would likely have the best return on investment, but let me anticipate your answer that it would depend on the book in question and therefore add more nuance. What relative weight would you give to some of these venues for a literary novel versus a commercial/genre novel versus a novel with an off-the-book-page hook?

BF: It really depends not just on the nature of the book, but the author’s future plans as a writer: is it a one-off or the first in a series, for example. It also depends on what the author is good at or comfortable with. For instance, forget speaking gigs if you’re shy. Others may travel a lot for business or pleasure, so a PR strategy can be built around that. It also depends on how big the marketplace is for a particular book – who is the readership? Determine the best way to find them…maybe it’s speaking at churches if the book has religion in it. Maybe it’s marketing to animal rights groups if the book covers issues relevant to them. Hitting mommy bloggers may be your best approach if the book touches upon kids and parenting. Whatever you do, you try to get a base of readers who will be your biggest fans, your army of supporters, who will then go out and tell others the book is great.

JEF:Can you talk more about the bloggers? How big a part of book promotion efforts do they constitute these days? Are there many instances where bloggers have taken a book into the stratosphere or is this more along the lines of spade work, essentially selling a few dozen books with each hit?

BF: Bloggers are increasingly an important part of the equation. I’d encourage every author to blog and to guest-blog and to approach other bloggers. Like anything else, size and influence matter – not all bloggers are equal, but when people get a quantity of quality support from the bloggers it gets noticed. Bloggers can turn something obscure into a viral must-have. They can discover some talent that has been ignored by others. They can influence consumers, other authors, other media, and other bloggers.

JEF:You’ve worked with dozens of novelists. What is the most common misperception that fiction authors have regarding how to get the word out about their book?

BF: I probably have worked with scores of novelists and met hundreds more, and I find the most common misconception is that authors published by a traditional publisher still believe the publisher will do all the work to make the book a success. Not true: it’s a collaboration, with more of the PR burden falling on the author. Second, authors think because their book is well written (sometimes it isn’t, but that’s another story) — or because they wrote about an interesting or popular topic — that everyone who hears about the book will want to buy it. Not true. Third, they look at big-name authors, believe their book is as good if not better than theirs, and expect it to sell just as well without doing all of the little things – and big things — that one needs to make a name for yourself.  Fourth, they believe they can social media their way to the top without engaging others to help in other areas. Finally, for the self-published crowd, they don’t always take advantage of the resources out there to make their books look better. Cover designers, editors and page design pros are out there to help them; having a professional presentation helps the publicist get others to take your work seriously.

If you want to know more from Brian, read his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 14: Who Stuck His Neck Out?

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 16: Dear MWA: WTF?

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

4 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 15: The Publicity Dilemma”

  1. dwoz says:

    Joel, I have to say that I found Brian’s point about “why the author should get a publicist” to be a tad boilerplate.

    I mean, insert dentist, doctor, audio engineer, explosives expert, calligrapher, tea-rose-pruner, farrier, real estate agent, or any of a hundred other craftspeople, and you don’t have to change another word.

    I think there’s a better answer.

    If I am my own publicist for my own book, then I have to represent to other people that my art is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I personally would find that to be crass and disingenuous. Even if it were true.

    Additionally, I think a pro publicist who has ongoing open communications with the movement-makers you mention, (i.e. reviewers, etc.) has a TRACK RECORD with them. If I were a reviewer, and I received a call from you, the publicist, I would indeed TAKE the call if you had given me 10 “hits” over the last 12 “at bats.” As an author cold-calling that reviewer, I have a zero track record.

    I don’t think a degree in communications would ever matter.

    your thoughts?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Sorry to be just getting to respond to this, Dwoz. I was out of the country and Internet was spotty. I pretty much agree with every word you wrote above. That’s why I noted that I partly chose Brian because he insisted on reading the book before committing. When he said he liked it, I didn’t think he was faking, and I knew for sure that at least he would be conversant with the story.

      With regard to business travel, the famous consultant Tom Peters said: “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there.” Because books take so long to consume, many people in the process don’t read all (or even most) of the books they’re working on. That commitment was important to me and I hope it will enable Brian and his group to pitch the thing with gusto. Terrifyingly (given the checks I’m writing) whether those pitches get over the plate is largely a matter of serendipity.

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