Nowadays, many writers elect to hire their own publicists. That’s especially true for those who publish with small, independent, or nontraditional presses, since that may be the only way for them to secure media attention. It’s also true, however, for writers who take the traditional route. Unless you’re a major name, your publisher will have limited time and resources to devote to your book. If you want more exposure, you’ll have to make it happen yourself.
Getting a book on the radar of potential readers is a complex, multi-faceted process. An author can do a lot of the networking herself, but it’s rare for her to have the knowledge, contacts, and clout that a professional can offer—and, without which, the radius of her outreach will remain limited. Thus, a partnership with an experienced publicist can be invaluable.
However, there are a lot of publicists out there. How can you pick the right one?
The author-publicist relationship is a particular, time- and task-specific partnership. While publicists do turn down people who want to work with them, in general the choice is the author’s. It’s a critical decision, intuitive as well as analytic, requiring awareness of oneself along with evaluation of the publicist’s skills and strengths. That is, it’s a look in two directions.
Other essays on this site have described what a good publicist does (and doesn’t) do or given advice on how to prepare for a productive relationship. Posts elsewhere suggest questions to ask a potential publicist—e.g., can you tell me about sample campaigns you’ve overseen, have you ever worked with a book similar to mine, how much do you charge and what is included in the price?
These questions are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. They don’t get at the heart of the matter, which is the fit. Without the fit, the relationship won’t work, regardless of the publicist’s stellar credentials.
As Socrates said: Know thyself. The corollary to that is: Know what you’re looking for. You can’t embark on an intelligent search for a publicist until you’ve examined your own needs, expectations, and transactional style. There are, in fact, two aspects to the search: finding the right expertise, and finding the right relationship. Conflating the two, or focusing only on the first, can lead to an unproductive, unhappy experience. You entrust your book to someone, and then feel let-down when things don’t turn out the way you expected.
The good news is that this kind of disappointment can be avoided by asking the right questions—and then adjusting (right-sizing) if needed—before you hire someone.
Step One: Ruling Out
The first step is to identify publicists who are reputable and affordable. You need to eliminate those you would not want to work with—e.g., people with no references or no experience representing books similar to yours, people who are not transparent about cost or whose fees are beyond your means.
An initial screening should include ethics, competence, and clarity about the nature of the agreement, should you decide to engage the firm. This should be clearly stated on the person’s website or in her written material. What are you paying for: hours, tasks, or results? If you’re buying professional time, the publicist’s proposal should state how many hours are included and/or what the hourly rate is. If you’re buying the accomplishment of certain tasks, regardless of how long they take, those tasks should be listed on the proposal. If you’re buying results—be careful. No publicist can guarantee results. Whether a pitch leads to a placement, or a placement leads to sales, is outside the publicist’s control. There are just too many other factors. All a publicist can guarantee is what she will do, not how the world will respond.
It’s during the ruling-out stage that talking to other authors can be useful. Their experience will help you eliminate any publicist who’s unresponsive, has hidden fees, has misrepresented her experience, or has never represented anyone with a book like yours.
Assuming you’ve covered the questions above, you now have a list of good publicists. The next task is to decide who, among these candidates, is good for you.
In other words, the fit.
Step Two: Ruling In
During the ruling-in stage, when you’re looking for the person who’s right for you, talking to other people may not be helpful. It might be just the opposite, since you’ll always find someone who loved Publicist Mary and someone else who hated her. Too much subjective information, without a way to sort and rank that information, can be confusing rather than useful.
How can you decide, then? People will tell you, “Follow your instinct.” But what is “instinct?” What are the components of the highly personal inner sensitivity that can serve as a guide?
In my experience—as a therapist and teacher, long before I became a novelist—there are three primary areas to consider when seeking the right fit: expectations, temperament, and communication style.
From my conversations with authors and publicists, I’ve learned that the biggest source of discord and disappointment is a mismatch in expectations. You need to be clear about what you want, what you can realistically expect to get, and what the publicist can realistically deliver. Mutual understanding is critical; without it, problems are inevitable.
To get to that mutuality, you may need to right-size your expectations, especially if they don’t map well onto the kind of book you’ve written, your author platform, and the amount of time and money you’re willing to invest. The publicist who tells you how much she adores your book or offers a laundry list of promotional activities—with no priorities, options, or ways to tailor efforts to a book like yours—may be inflating your expectations in a way that will backfire later. In contrast, the publicist who delivers a dose of “tough love,” right at the outset, may have your best interest at heart.
It’s important to distinguish between marketing and publicity so you’ll understand what you’re asking for—and what you’ll be getting. People may identify themselves as publicists when, in fact, they’re offering marketing services or just marketing advice. What’s the difference? Other articles have addressed this question. Simply put, marketing refers to the things you pay for, in order to become known (like ad placements), while publicity refers to attention from the media (like interviews and reviews) that you do not pay for. You pay for them indirectly, of course, by paying for the time (that is, the connections and clout) of a professional publicist.
There’s nothing wrong with paying someone to help you with marketing. Just think through your priorities and look for someone who does the kinds of things you want to focus on. After all, there are countless ways to promote a book.
Questions to ask a publicist in order to identify your expectations:
- For my particular book, where do you expect to focus your energy? (What works for one book won’t work for all books, authors, or publicists.)
- What are you really good at?
- Which parts of this process do you enjoy least? (Will you need to find someone else to handle these aspects, are they things you could do yourself, or are you fine with shifting energy elsewhere?)
- How will I know if the campaign has been successful?
Temperament has to do with the kind of person you are—whether you flare up quickly or have a slow burn, switch gears readily or need time to adapt, have intense feelings or take things in stride. People are different, so it’s natural that they will have different responses to the same situation—or the same publicist.
Think about your previous experiences and relationships. Do you like to plan and know you can rely on that plan, or do you enjoy spontaneity and surprise? Do you gravitate and get along best with people who match your tempo and style, or with people who provide balance?
Think back, too, about other professionals you’ve hired. Do you need to be closely involved, or do you prefer to step back when you know you’re in the hands of someone you trust? Do you need a sense of human connection, or is it enough if the person knows his or her job?
With this self-knowledge, consider the author-publicist relationship and ask yourself: are you looking for a partner (a collaborative relationship) or an expert (someone who will work on your behalf)? Do you need someone who’s passionate about your particular book, or is it enough to know that she’s good at publicizing books, in general? Will you feel disappointed or de-personalized by someone who’s very businesslike?
Questions to ask a publicist in order to identify your temperament:
- Will you read my book? What if you don’t like it?
- Have you ever signed a client, only to discover that the arrangement isn’t working? How did you deal with it?
- What is it about my book that excites or intrigues you? Why would you want me, specifically, for a client?
- Can you tell if a client is going to be a good fit or a poor fit for you? If so, how?
Do you want to be included in some or most of the decisions, or would you rather receive a report of what’s been done, after it’s been done? Some people want to be closely involved and kept in the loop at all times. They need frequent communication and a chance to voice their views. Other people want to hire someone they trust and then step back; frequent communication feels like a burden.
Each interactional style has its pros and cons. The highly involved client has to be careful not to demand constant reassurance, slip into trying to micromanagement, of details, or tell the professionals how to do their job—after all, that’s what you’re paying them for. On the other hand, the uninvolved client risks feeling disappointed and unhappy, later, when the publicist didn’t read her mind or things didn’t turn out as she’d imagined.
Questions to ask a publicist in order to identify your interactional style:
- What kind of reporting or accounting do you send me? How often will I hear from you?
- Which tasks might I be able to handle myself? Which would be better for me to handle myself, in order for you to use your (paid) time strategically?
- Describe the client from hell.
- Tell me about a time when you had a misunderstanding or difficulty with a client. Why do you think it happened, and how did you resolve it?
The twelve bulleted items above are questions that the publicist will be answering. However, your response to her answers can also provide important information. If some of her answers make your heart soar (or sink), that’s information you need to pay attention to. Can you live with what she’s told you? As with all relationships, you can’t embark on a partnership with the hope that the person will be different once you get to know each other.
At the same time, there’s no perfect fit, so you will need to prioritize. Which of the elements above are “must have,” which are “nice to have,” and which are deal-breakers?
This is a crucial decision, so it needs to be approached with care. After all, the purpose of a book is to be read. Your publicist plays a pivotal role in helping to make that happen.
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Queen of the Owls was a medalist for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association and the Sarton Award for Women’s Fiction; it also placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize.
Barbara’s second novel The Sound Between the Notes, recipient of starred Kirkus Review given only to work “of remarkable merit,” launched in April 2021. Her third novel will be published in 2022.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for a number of award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, visit barbaralinnprobst.com.