Should independent publishers hire a publicist? Should they recommend their authors hire one? As with much in the industry, these decisions hinge on the anticipated return on investment, not all of which can be measured in dollars and cents.
To invest wisely, publishers do well to consider when and why they might need PR assistance. They also benefit from knowing how to choose a professional who’s a good fit for the project and considering what sort of results they can reasonably expect.
Why a Publicist?
Publicists help publishers with overall buzz, but they’re especially adept at helping authors make the most of their promotional efforts, says Marissa Eigenbrood of Smith Publicity. “Today’s authors must be active participants in driving success to their book,” she says. “By bringing in the support of a publicist, publishers are armed with an outsider perspective in guiding authors through the role they’ll need to play through their book’s launch and beyond.”
Marika Flatt of PR by the Book notes that many publishers have limited PR resources in house. Abigail Welhouse, publicity manager at Scott Manning & Associates, explains that small publishers often bring in publicists for books they think will make a big splash. “Similarly, their in-house team might be overloaded during a particular season or lack expertise in a particular subject area,” she says.
As Welhouse points out, publicists collaborate with a publisher’s marketing department, each drawing on their expertise. “Small regional publishers likely have closer relationships with their local media than a publicist in New York City,” she says. “But that publicist in New York City may have closer relationships with national media. So, we all work together to make sure that everything is covered.”
Betty Lou Leaver, CEO of MSI Press, has found that, in general, authors who’ve hired publicists have more success with their books. But the platform an author brings to a project matters, too. “Authors with strong platforms and ready-made audiences can outperform authors with a publicist but a weak platform,” she says.
At the same time, Eigenbrood says that authors with growing platforms may benefit from PR help, too. “With bigger platforms and online followings often come more educated authors,” she says. “By having a publicity partner at the ready, publishers will be better prepared to maximize the digital footprint and engage the audience the author is bringing to the table.”
Hiring a publicist is a big investment, so publishers want to make sure they’re choosing the best professionals for the task. Flatt recommends talking to and gathering proposals from three publicists to evaluate which is the best fit for your project.
Knowing her children’s illustrated book would face “huge competition,” Sedro Publishing’s Abbe Rolnick wanted a publicist to help elevate the book’s exposure. “I focused my search on a few factors,” she says. “Knowledge of the children’s market with reach to areas I couldn’t contact on my own, interfacing with my distributors, and a personal connection with clarity of the book’s purpose.”
As Eigenbrood points out, there’s definitely some matchmaking involved in the selection process. “Certainly, past experience within the genres the publisher focuses on is important in identifying the right match,” she says. “But just as important as that experience is connecting with a publicity team that aligns with your strategic vision for a project. For example, do you see an upcoming title succeeding primarily with social media influencers? Or does the author’s background and platform lend itself to a heavy focus on expert commentary in addition to pitching the book?”
Because PR efforts require collaboration, Welhouse suggests asking about communication practices and how much the publicist can flex to meet your needs. “Do you feel like you could work well with them?” she says. “Can you talk openly about your ideas and concerns? Are you on the same page about budget and scope of work? How many books do they work on at a time, and would your project get the attention that it deserves?”
What to Expect
First-time author Julie Ryan McGue hoped a PR firm could get her memoir Twice a Daughter: A Search for Family, Identity, and Belonging in front of her target audience through various media channels. Drawing on recommendations from other authors in her genre, she interviewed several agencies and selected Books Forward, which counts both traditional publishers and indie authors among its clients.
Post-launch, McGue says she’s “beyond thrilled” with her experience for a first book. Her publicist helped arrange electronic newsletter campaigns, bookstagrammer contacts, Kindle promotions, book giveaways, interviews, and podcasts. From this exposure, McGue says she has sold over 4,000 copies in various formats since the book’s May 2021 release. She has also been invited to give a TEDx talk.
Tracee Dunblazier, president of GoTracee Publishing, wasn’t new to the business when she hired publicist Robert Newman of Newman Communications. “I can usually get about 40 interviews a year on my own,” she says. “But because the work in getting them is so time consuming, I just couldn’t do it for myself anymore.”
Arranging two radio and podcast tours, her publicist got her a similar number of interviews. “But the quality and notoriety of the podcasts and national radio shows has jumped to a whole new level,” Dunblazier says.
When Rolnick purchased a full publicity package from IPG Publicity Services for Bubbie’s Magical Hair, she knew exactly what to expect. “Before I signed the contract, we discussed the publisher’s role as far as local contacts, contests, submissions to niche programs, libraries, schools, advertisements, and social media,” she says. “I wrote a list of where I wanted to be seen. They delineated which were my responsibility to contact and which they would contact.”
Four to five months before launch, IPG Publicity pitched the book to trade and long-lead media, including a one-page press release that went out with advance review copies and media mailings. Two months before launch, advance copies went out to major daily newspapers, newswires, regional magazines, podcasters, and high-profile bloggers. Rolnick worked separately on reaching the Jewish Book Council and libraries. She also purchased ads through IBPA and PNBA.
“Using my publicity firm to send out queries to Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and other mainstream reviewers avoided the use of self-published or hybrid designations,” Rolnick says. “Bubbie’s Magical Hair was recognized by Kirkus Reviews, and various bloggers contacted me for articles which reached parents, schools, and their followers.”
Others who’ve hired publicists bemoan not getting a sufficient return on their investment. What makes the difference? One factor may be that expectations were simply too high. “A publicist should never promise particular results,” Welhouse says. “There are no guarantees in this business. That being said, we pride ourselves on having a good sense of what works and what doesn’t based on many years of experience working with media outlets. We only take on a project if we feel confident we can generate results reflective of
Client involvement helps turn expectations into results, Eigenbrood says. “Publishers should expect to work hand-in-hand with their publicists, supporting each other through the challenges and roadblocks that will likely arise along the way and celebrating the moments of success,” she says. “While we will take on all of the publicity work in terms of pitching, author management, follow-up, and coordination, we are always more successful when we have a publisher who is actively pounding the pavement with us, ready to share ideas and offer suggestions along the way. ”
Eigenbrood also points out the folly of defining results only in terms of national media coverage within a campaign’s stated time frame. “Publicity buzz never lives solely within the specific weeks of a designated campaign timeline, nor is it only about garnering interest from national outlets,” she says. “Seeing results in both of these areas is 100% important, but so is seeing diversity in interest and a continued stream of coverage well after the book is released. Ideally, we want to see a book and author have life for the long term, so the momentum of our work only continues building over time.”
While publicists can’t guarantee results, Eisenbrood points out that they excel at positioning authors at the forefront of public discussions. She notes a successful 2020 campaign her firm did with Scribe Publishing for Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses. PR efforts yielded reviews in Shelf Awareness and Book Riot, a food segment on NBC Miami, a feature in the national Argentine newspaper Clarin, and 19 other reviews, features, and interview placements. (For more on this campaign, see tinyurl.com/IBPA-Scribe.)
As an example of the power of collaboration, Welhouse points to a campaign her firm did for Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. “We knew we had an important story to tell,” she says. “Our instincts were that the media would respond accordingly, and they did.”
Welhouse’s team worked closely with the publisher’s in-house publicist at the time, Yona Deshommes, whose expertise includes amplifying the voices of authors of color. Deshommes successfully pitched an author profile in The New York Times. Welhouse consulted with the author on social media, and her boss, Scott Manning, secured an author interview on NPR.
“Between the three of us, we were able to leave no stone unturned and generate a lot of coverage,” Welhouse says.
With the advent of social media, publishers may feel they have less control than ever over the public response to a book. This is another area where publicists can help, whether it be by amplifying positive buzz or handling negative reactions.
McGue’s publicist helped her evaluate her website, and she also created graphics and posts for her to use on various platforms. But a publicist can also help by simply providing an outside perspective on social media efforts, Welhouse says.
“The key with social media is to think of it as an opportunity to connect rather than just promote,” she says. “Who do you want to connect with? How can you be part of the community with other publishers? How can you support good work that others are doing?” Publicists can help ensure a client’s social media activity doesn’t come off as purely promotional. “By showing the value, relevancy, and consistency of the content and the author’s expertise first, you can build trust and expectations with audiences that will ideally leave them wanting to engage further by buying the book,” Eigenbrood says.
Toward this end, she recommends online communities and influencers for her clients, and she discusses strategies for cross-posting. “Social media is also a powerful tool in amplifying media placements,” she says. “So, we’ll discuss the best ways to spark engagement with their followings and to thank media contacts for the opportunity.”
Despite the adage about all publicity being good publicity, a negative response can be challenging, especially if it starts to define the narrative. Welhouse says that a publicist can sometimes help avert such problems before they start. “Publicists can be a valuable sounding board for publishers and authors to evaluate any potential landmines prior to publication,” she says. “If an unforeseen problem does arise, we can strategize about how to respond quickly and effectively.”
Eigenbrood notes that publicists are primed to pivot, so they can readily work through various ways to respond to negative PR. “In some cases, when it’s the right strategy to pursue, we’ll explore leaning into more critical areas, assuming the publisher and author are on board, as it can spark unexpected and worthwhile conversation,” she says. Other times, she says, “the best response is none at all but simply giving it time to settle down, then deciding on next steps.”
Rising Above the Roar
Whether it’s launching an author’s first book or helping a seasoned author reach the next level in their platform-building, publicists can make all the difference in a book’s success. Without publicity, as Leaver says, “The roar from an ever-growing crowd of new authors can deafen the sound of individual voices, no matter how praiseworthy.”
But as with any set of professional services, authors and publishers need to weigh costs against potential results. To get the most from their investment, they need to choose a publicist who’s a good match for their genre, vision, and communication style. Most of all, they need to align their expectations with the realities of a publicist’s role and the demands of an everchanging market.
Deb Vanasse is the author of several books, including two forthcoming titles with West Margin Press. She also works as a freelance editor.