Choosing a Publicist (Again): Assessing Your Changing Needs

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Today’s post is by author Barbara Linn Probst.

Should I hire publicist?
How can I choose a good one?
Is it worth it?

These are questions that many new authors ask, regardless of their path to publication. I did too. In fact, a year before the launch of my debut novel, I wrote an article that offered guidelines for choosing a publicist, with an emphasis on personal fit, based on factors like temperament, communication style, and how involved you like to be.

The 2019 essay grew out of my own experience selecting a publicist for my first novel, Queen of the Owls. The choice I made was perfect for my needs at the time. I wanted impressive announcements to share on social media—national hits that would enhance my bio, build credibility, and gain followers. I understood the warning that all publicists issue, if they’re candid: “Publicity is not sales. Publicity is buzz.” That was fine with me. I wanted buzz, and I got buzz.

Two and a half years later, however, as I look to publication of my third novel in fall 2022, I’m in a different place. That realization has come to me gradually, since it’s natural to assume that one ought to keep doing what’s worked. But the situation can change, and I had to stop and examine what I need and want now.

A major difference between spring 2019 and fall 2022 is that I now have experience to draw on. Although every book has to be viewed in context, and it’s tricky to apply “lessons learned” from one launch to the next, there is still a qualitative difference between no experience and some experience. As a third-time author, I have a better sense of what to expect. I also know what didn’t feel “worth it” to me, personally, and what did.

Since I’m no longer a debut author, it means that my forthcoming book is not a debut novel. This may sound like two different ways of saying the same thing, but it’s not.

A debut author is a greenhorn, dependent on the advice of others—and thus at a disadvantage.

A debut novel is a mysterious package—which can be an advantage.

A first novel will attract attention, precisely because it’s unknown.

There’s a sense of curiosity, of limitless possibility, of uncovering something that might turn out to be important. A second, third, or fourth book doesn’t typically have that mystique. On the other hand, there may be a ready-made audience of readers who’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books.

With a debut, you’re announcing your arrival as a writer, and you want the world to know. For that reason, it might make sense to go big and spend big on a first novel. You might want to cast your net as widely as possible and test a range of waters, since it’s hard to know where a cache of interest may lie. You might also want to collect some stellar media hits that will always be part of your track record and can be incorporated into the “praise sheets” and press releases for future books, as well as permanent fixtures on your website.

For a later novel, a different marketing strategy might make more sense.

You might want something more targeted and strategic, aiming at sales rather than buzz. That could mean allocating a larger portion of your resources to “hard” marketing (that is, paid advertising) rather than “soft” publicity, or narrowing your outreach according to geography or demographics—or simply spending less because there are things you’ve learned to do yourself or have decided you don’t need.

The best way to figure out which PR firm, package, or combination of a la carte services will meet your present needs—e.g., if you want to hire a separate social media consultant or someone to create and manage a newsletter—is to do a forward-leaning assessment based on where you are now, as an author, and where you might be able to go next. As hockey great Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying: A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.

How to do a forward-leaning assessment

This assessment starts from the understanding that, as a second- or third-time author, you have a history and are no longer an “unknown voice” for whom all things are—or seem—possible.

If your first book did well, the stakes may feel higher, bringing pressure and the expectation, perhaps unrealistic, that subsequent books will garner or even surpass the kind of high-level interest that your publicist was able to secure for your debut. You may be fearful of making any changes in what seemed to work, even if the strategies used for your debut are no longer be the most appropriate.

In contrast, if your first launch felt disappointing, there can be pressure of another kind—a doubling-down of the stakes, leading to a “grass is greener” hope that a new publicist will deliver the kind of high-level results that the first one did not.

Both attitudes have their pitfalls. There’s no general principle about the merits of staying with the same publicist (consistency of relationships and approach) versus changing publicists (a fresh perspective)—and there can’t be, given all the factors such as timing, context, genre, budget, turnover, and availability.

All that can really be said is that your goals, as an author, will likely be different over the course of your career, and thus the strategies for achieving those goals may be different. Strategies and strategists are not the same thing. It is certainly feasible to switch strategies while utilizing the same publicist.

At the same time, any new arrangement, by definition, will be unknown. It’s natural to wonder if it’s worth the risk. That’s why the process has to be undertaken thoughtfully, beginning with a realistic self-assessment.

Here is a four-step approach that can help you identify your needs and goals—which, in turn, will help you find a publicity firm or combination of services that can help you achieve them.

  1. Prioritize your goals for this particular book—just the goals that are reasonably achievable right now, not your long-term goals. It’s helpful if there are one or two goals that are more important to you than the others. For example: Is your priority securing reviews in top-tier media, getting into libraries, making it onto those “best of” lists, reaching a particular community, selling a lot of books even at a discounted price?
  2. Make a list of marketing and publicity strategies you are most interested in. You might want to color-code them. For example: blue for those you found to be effective in the past, red for those you never or barely tried but find intriguing, green for those you’re on the fence about due to cost or other factors.
  3. Place your two lists side-by-side and (literally) map out the likely relationships. For example: if one of the strategies you want to utilize is “podcasts,” draw a line from podcasts to the goals that podcasts might help you achieve. Reaching a particular community—yes. Getting reviewed by Booklist and Library Journal—no.
  4. Examine the density of connections, and circle the strategies that offer the highest potential for helping you reach your top two goals. These are the strategies you want to use. That means you need to look for people or services that can provide them. Forgo the bucket-list items that would give you the greatest thrill but are unlikely to contribute to your goals. Be a pragmatist.

Here’s the tough part

You might have a publicist you feel loyal to and guilty about “abandoning.” There might be a publicist your friends swear by, who seems to have achieved enviable results for them, or one whose high-profile client list you’re longing to join. But are any of them the right fit for you, at this particular time, with this particular book?

Perhaps you can stay with your current publicist, but renegotiate your arrangement. Can you use her for certain things, while outsourcing some of the services you now want that she can’t provide? Or do you need to thank her for her help and move on?

This attitude is likely to feel different from the one you had as a brand-new author who didn’t really know what she needed. Born of experience, it is more collaborative and empowered. Choosing a publicist for a second or third book, even if you end up re-choosing the same person you used before, is a choice based on knowledge, not just on hope.

To return to the questions at the beginning of this essay: Should I hire publicist? How can I choose a good one? Is it worth it?

“Should” and “worth it” are personal judgments that can only be assessed in relation to your aims and resources (e.g., time and money), as well as the larger context in which you are publishing. What others have done might not be relevant; as I’ve tried to indicate, what you did earlier might not be relevant either. Among the questions to ask yourself now:

  • What can you do yourself to promote your book (without paying someone else to do it), and do you want to?
  • Are you willing to spend more than you’re likely to make in royalties for the sake of a long-term aim?
  • For a second- or third-time author: do you feel differently about this book (or yourself as a writer) than you did about your previous book/s?
  • How comfortable are you with risk and change?

As with everything in the world of publishing, there is no formula. Sometimes we grab on and sometimes we let go. We make the best choices we can—remembering that what we really want, at heart, is to reach people with our words and offer something that matters.

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