This past weekend, I had the honor of speaking at the San Francisco Writers Conference. While attending, I sat in on two sessions focusing on book publicity, with panelists Penny Sansevieri, Andrea Dunlop, and Natalie Obando (all publicists or marketing consultants).
Because marketing and publicity help is the most common request I receive, I was very interested in hearing advice from these publicists about what authors can expect from a professional firm and how the process works. What follows is a summary of their comments from both panels.
First: Understand the Right Mindset for Working with a Publicist
All panelists agreed that—even though you’re hiring a publicist—all authors have to be willing to learn how to market their book. Good marketing and publicity is a team effort, and the author is part of that team. Each publicist looks for clients willing to do some things on their own, and they also look for authors to be realistic. For example, if an author wants their book to be a movie, most publicists will not be able to meet those expectations if you’re a first-time author with no platform. The panelists seek clients who know marketing and publicity is a process and know that it will take some time to see the effects of an effort. (There are no overnight successes.)
All panelists emphasized the competitive nature of getting traditional media coverage, and the increasingly limited options when it comes to traditional publicity, especially for independently published books. Traditional outlets like print and radio have really shrunk, while at the same time the number of books being published has greatly expanded. So the competition is fierce for a small number of slots. Furthermore, although traditional media coverage feels very good when it happens, it doesn’t necessarily move the needle all on its own. The authors who work best with a publicist are those who understand what they’re up against, but feel positive about how much there is they can do.
Publicity seeks to find, identify, or target the audience to make them aware of your book. Therefore, Obando said, the best authors are those already familiar with their audience and who have aspects of their platform already in place. That way, when you do hire a publicist, the publicist has some starting assets: social media, websites, and other tools that are starting to connect with the book’s target reader.
Remember: You’re hiring a partner. A lot of authors tell publicists, “I don’t want to do it.” Yet that’s the job. Of course you can hire people to help you, and you can hire people to do parts of it. Especially in terms of pitching traditional outlets, that’s not something authors probably should do, but it is necessary to look at what you can do.
Does the age of the book matter? Sansevieri’s firm (and others) have worked with authors at all stages—even with books that were two years old. The main requirement for an older book is that it must still be relevant—it can’t be out of date.
How to Build Momentum Before You Hire a Publicist
Andrea Dunlop, who started her career as an in-house publicist at Doubleday and now helps authors with social media, says there’s a lot authors can accomplish on their own using digital media.
Obando recommends that authors learn all the social platforms that their potential or target audience uses. Being well-versed in those different languages of social media really helps—you begin to understand how to effectively reach potential buyers and develop a good idea of who your market is, and what they turn to for entertainment.
To be a good partner and marketer, all panelists discussed the need to understand your audience better than anyone. Even though many books have crossover appeal, you have to decide and focus on your core market. (And yes, one of the big things a publicist does is help you figure out who your audience is.) If you’re focused and clear about your target audience and your objectives in reaching them when you start your marketing/publicity campaign, you have a better chance later of reaching a larger or more national market.
Part of understanding one’s audience is also knowing what authors are your “competition,” or those who reach the audience you should also reach. Dunlop said, “I know we all feel like special snowflakes with our book, but you want your book to be like other books. Otherwise it can be really hard to figure out what the [audience] demographics are.” She recommended Goodreads as a good place to figure out what books are showing up in relation to other books.
Dunlop also encouraged authors to read anything/everything in your genre. When you like the books you read, talk about them on social media and connect with the authors. If possible, befriend those authors, talk about their books on social media, and try to do events with them. They will be your supportive community.
Publicity Cost and Its Payoff
Every publicist works differently—plus there are so many factors that can go into a publicity campaign, so it depends on what you want your publicist to work on the most. Brief consultations or assistance may cost in the hundreds of dollars, while intensive three-month campaigns can easily cost $20,000 and up.
As far as payoff, the overarching answer to this question is that authors should not expect to see each publicity dollar come back to them in the form of book sales.
Dunlop said directly, “There isn’t a one to one. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at that investment.” Furthermore, no publicist can promise or guarantee you specific coverage or sales. Unfortunately, authors get very focused on things they know and understand, like being on the Today show, or getting traditional reviews—and they’re great if you can get them, but you can’t rely on getting them, no matter how much money you throw at it.
Dunlop, aside from working in publicity, also hired a publicity firm to assist with the launch of her novel from Atria this month. She said, “This is an investment in my career; I’m not looking to make back my money in sales in six months. I want a lifelong career as an author. I don’t equate it in a hard way with sales.”
Obando agreed with Dunlop, and said that publicity is more about getting people to recognize who you are in a world of oversaturation (rather than book sales). Publicity elevates you above the rest of the chatter.
Some authors want to work with marketers by offering them a percentage of book sales, and Sansevieri explained that publicists don’t work that way. First, publicity firms are not set up to track long-term sales. But also, in the majority of cases, publicity is about the long runway of promotion. Sales or publicity hits may happen in those first 90 days of the campaign, but no one knows when it’s going to pop—you’d have to track books for years and years. Performance varies too greatly.
Remember that you’re hiring someone who can see the 30,000-foot strategy of everything that needs to happen. “I just want to sell books” is a terrible metric to live and die by, according to the panelists.
First Steps With a Publicist
Initially, when Sansevieri talks to an author, she asks things like: What are your goals? Is this just about one book—you’ll never publish another? Is it part of a series? Is this book going to be building your business? Then she asks, “What’s your dream—what do you really want?” Her strategy talks are about 30 minutes, and cover where authors want to be and what they want to focus on. She then puts together a proposal that looks at the first 90 days of publicity.
Dunlop tries to meet authors where they are and get a read on how they feel about publicity. A lot of authors are overwhelmed, so she tries to give them concrete marketing steps they can accomplish on their own.
Obando prefer to work with authors as early in the process as possible. She says authors should start thinking about publicity at conception of the idea, and while they’re writing the book. As far as working on a specific campaign, she generally starts three months before the release date. But most authors end up at her door when their book is not selling. By that time, it is a little late in the game—especially for a traditionally published author—but that’s not to say things can’t still happen. Much depends on the book and platform.
The big difference between a publisher’s publicity efforts and a self-publisher’s publicity efforts: Dunlop explained why traditional publishers focus so much on doing publicity around a book’s launch date, within a three-month or six-month window: It’s all because of the bookstore retail model. Publishers are focused on selling as many as possible right after the book goes on sale to avoid returns from bookstores. With self-published books, which aren’t typically distributed in high volume to the bookstore market, there is no pressure to sell to avoid returns, so the timeframe for success stretches over years rather than months. Indie authors don’t have to worry about establishing a solid sales track record right out of the gate; it can be a slow burn.
Keep in mind the publisher’s publicity team is working for the publisher, not you, and while you may have all kinds of great ideas about your marketing and publicity campaign, they’ll first focus on their goals for the book rather than your own. It’s important to communicate early with the in-house publicity team and understand what they have planned, which can help inform your own decision about whether to hire a publicist and what they should focus on.
Dunlop said that when she worked as an in-house publicist, she sometimes saw authors who would pay an outside publicist to do exactly what the in-house publishing team would’ve done on their behalf. So look for an outside publicist who will augment what the in-house publicity will do—which is all about communication. You want to have coordinated outreach so they’re not reaching out to the same people.
For Authors Who Get a Very Late Start
It’s fairly common for authors to end up seeking a publicist or marketing help after their book has already launched and not done well. This sometimes results in panicked authors, who realize they should’ve been developing a plan many months ago, and end up on social media with blatant self-promotional messages that command, “Buy my book!”
Dunlop says authors should try to avoid that panic: You’re going to build your audience by writing multiple books, and your social media efforts are about building community. If you’re an independent author, you don’t have to worry about your sales track record—you can wait and do it better the next time. She says it’s sort of like being on a diet: Forget the past, and adopt good habits moving forward. The book you have now (that isn’t marketed well) is a piece of content that will foster marketing for your next book.
All panelists said that marketing and publicity never really ends—it’s ongoing for as long as the book can or should sell, or for as long as you have an author career.
Regional Marketing: A Good Steppingstone to National Publicity
Sansevieri discussed that, especially for independent authors or those without much of a platform, regional marketing is a good place to start a marketing and publicity campaign. Authors can schedule events or tours in their city or area—not necessarily in bookstores, although that’s perfectly acceptable—but in wine stores or restaurants or libraries, or other nonconventional places. (Be creative.) As much as possible, Sansevieri tries to anchor regional publicity around an event the author is doing.
Sansevieri said that if you’re trying to land national publicity, then you should get media training. Media training is where you sit with a coach, learn how to have key talking points, and get trained to be in front of a camera. You come to understand how quickly the person interviewing you will have to put together the story—meaning, they’re not going to read your book. That means that whenever you deal with the media, you should go in with a cheat sheet for the journalist or interviewer.
For Authors Who Pitch the Media on Their Own
Nobody cares that you wrote a book. Or: Don’t lead with the book. Lead with the hook or the story, what that book will do for people.
The most important thing about your email when pitching is your subject line. Put the hook in the subject line. Keep your pitches short, about a paragraph. A lot of journalists and reviewers are looking at emails on their phones, so keep it succinct, and think about it in terms of a brief elevator pitch.
Most media won’t say “no” to your pitch; they just won’t answer. Sansevieri doesn’t recommend calling because of the pressures of the news cycle; if you do have to call, the first thing you ask should be: “Are you on deadline?” You don’t want to pitch if they’re on deadline.
To learn more from these marketing and publicity experts, visit their websites or follow them on Twitter:
- Andrea Dunlop (@andrea_dunlop)
- Penny Sansevieri, Author Marketing Experts (@bookgal)
- Natalie Obando, Do Good PR (@dogoodprgroup)
For more advice on marketing and publicity:
- Simple Tips on Finding and Working with a Publicist
- 5 Marketing Models for Self-Publishing Success
- Book Marketing 101
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.