Friday, July 12, 2013

Straight Talk for Authors: What to Consider Before Hiring a Publicist

Ah, publicity.

As soon as a book is published (or sometimes sooner), many authors -- especially first-timers -- believe that hiring a publicist is the first step on the promotional to-do list.

But is it? Should all authors hire publicists?

You’d think, since I’m a publicist, I’d be the first to say yes. But before you hire a publicist, please consider the following:

1. Public relations, or publicity, is just one aspect of promoting a book.
Many authors assume that in addition to promoting the author and his book to the media, publicists will also issue daily Tweets, upload Facebook and blog posts, take care of marketing the book on social cataloging websites, handle distribution issues, create and place paid advertisements, send in contest entries, mail out copies to reviewers, set up blog tours, schedule signing events, etc. While many publicists have branched out and do handle some of these tasks, a number of them don’t.

Traditionally, publicists create press releases and media kits, handle media inquiries, and pitch their clients’ work (or the client himself) to print, radio, television, and Internet media representatives, including producers, editors, and reporters. Publicists also assist their clients with interviews and event appearances and (in the case of celebrities or better known authors) can help with damage control when public images become tarnished.

Some publicists have become adept at doing more than just media work and offer additional services, such as booking speaking engagements or setting up blog tours. But the majority of the publicists out there are focused on media relations. For this reason, authors shouldn’t assume that a publicist is trained or interested in handling all aspects of marketing. Publicity is just one part of marketing, and many publicists specialize in media work and nothing else.

2. Not every author has a platform or book that is promotable.
Many readers will shudder at the audacity of item 2 here, but it’s necessary to speak this truth. Not all authors have developed their platforms enough (in fact, some have no platform at all) to be worthy of attention from the media. And not all books (brace yourself here) are written or edited well enough to merit media coverage.

In order to be of interest to the media, an author or his book must be newsworthy; i.e., the author must have some specialty or area of expertise that is interesting to a news producer or editor, or the book must cover a topic that is relevant and newsworthy to a media audience. Before rushing out to hire publicists, authors need to first do a little honest soul-searching and ask themselves, “Do I have specialized expertise or some type of compelling experience that is news? Does my book cover a topic that is in the news right now? Am I or my book (or a combination of both) truly newsworthy?” If an author can answer yes to any of these questions, then the next question (and this one can be much harder to answer) is: “How so?”

If an author can’t answer these questions (or isn’t sure that the media outlets he’d like to approach would consider him or his book news), then perhaps it isn’t time to hire a publicist. This is often the case with first-time authors, who haven’t yet developed a track record with readers or haven’t created a unique and memorable brand for themselves.

Instead, those who need to develop a platform should probably work on that first. How? By creating and maintaining meaningful social networks, developing a following of dedicated readers (which might mean writing more than one book), creating a brand or image within a specific genre, developing a reputation as an expert through teaching, speaking, or writing articles, etc. Then, once there is something of interest to offer media outlets, consider finding someone to help with exposure.

3. Even with a compelling platform and/or a book that is somehow newsworthy, there is no guarantee that a publicist will be able to obtain media exposure.
This fact might be surprising to some, but here’s the honest truth: hiring a publicist does not automatically guarantee coverage in the media. An author can have a compelling background, and her book can touch on a topic that the author and her publicist consider a hot news item. But authors need to remember that producers and editors (along with book bloggers, book reviewers, and contest judges) are inundated with queries about authors and their books every day. So, even if you have a newsworthy story, and your publicist does a good job of pitching it, there is no guarantee that a media representative will be interested, or that she hasn’t seen/heard that story before. It may be a good story, but timing, saturation, deadlines, space issues, and a host of other reasons can cause even a good pitch to be ignored or refused.

Being passed over by a producer or editor doesn’t mean that the author hasn’t written a good book or doesn’t have a great platform (or that the publicist isn’t doing her job). What it means is that coverage in the news is a tricky – and sometimes serendipitous – business. A publicist cannot force a media representative to like a pitch about an author or his book. The reporter, producer, or editor who hears the pitch has to decide if it’s a story that a) he can use, b) will interest his audience, and c) hasn’t been covered already by that particular (or any other) media outlet. Of course, there is no way to know if an editor will to say yes to feature coverage, but authors should realize that even if their platforms and stories are good, they will sometimes (more often than not, in some cases) hear a no.

4. Publicity sounds good, until the first interview.
I can’t tell you the number of clients (okay, I can, but I won’t) who have hired me to handle publicity for them, and then panic as soon as the interview requests come rolling in. If you hire a publicist, then you have to expect that you’re going to be in the public eye, which may include speaking engagements and interviews. If you’re uncomfortable in front of a camera, a microphone, or a live audience, then hiring a publicist could be problematic. Yes, you can ask your publicist to only to obtain online or print interviews for you, but that might limit how much exposure you allow yourself. In general, you can bank on the fact that, if you and your book are newsworthy, a publicist is going to help you to be seen in the public eye – and that usually includes public appearances and radio and television interviews.

5. Publicity costs money that you may not have budgeted.
Many authors become so wrapped up in the aspects of writing and publishing their books that they forget that marketing the book will require some capital. Generally, most publicists charge a monthly retainer or, like me, work on an hourly basis. It’s a good idea to shop around and see what agencies and individual book publicists are charging, so that you have a clear idea of what a publicity campaign might cost. It’s also important to know what kind of publicity you’re looking for and how much you’d like to spend on that aspect of your marketing budget before you contact a publicist, so that you can ensure that there is a good fit between you and the professional you’d like to hire.

So, now that I’ve discussed caveats to consider before hiring a publicist, when is it safe to do so?

The best time to hire a publicist is when:

a) You have a well-written, professionally designed and edited book and its contents are somehow newsworthy.

b) Your book is set up for distribution in both online and print versions.

c) You have a platform that is newsworthy.

d) You have a clearly distinguishable brand image for you and/or your book.

e) You have a clearly defined genre and audience (your book may fit into more than one category and appeal to more than one audience; if so, that’s good – just be sure you can articulate it/them to your publicist when you’re ready to hire her).

f) You are comfortable with being in the public eye and are committed to making appearances once they’re booked.

g) You have a budget for publicity.

h) You are willing to trust your publicist’s expertise and let her do her job.

Once you feel you and your book are ready, pay attention to what your potential publicist requests from you in the way of information. Most will want to read the book first and discuss with you what you’re looking for in the way of publicity, so be ready to provide that info. Network with other authors for recommendations on publicists they’ve worked with who might be a good fit for you and your book, and always ask for references before you hire.