Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Should you hire a book publicist?

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In my last post, I wrote about some of the questions authors might want to get clear on when it comes to publicising their books, especially when it comes to understand a publisher’s commitment to promoting a new title.

Now, I’m going to talk about what happens if you decide to maximize your chances of getting press for your book by hiring a publicist.

Notice how I said maximize your chances of getting press? That’s because publicity is often a game of odds. Sure, we all want to believe our books could be The Next Big Thing, but we also need to remember that there are no guarantees in publicity. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try.

That gamble is one of the reasons is makes it so hard to know whether hiring a publicist to help promote your book is the right thing to do. It’s a significant financial investment, and it’s also a decision that could make or break your book.

If you choose the wrong publicist, you can end up wasting not just money but time. After all, your book is only new for a short window of time.

When my third book came out, I decided to hire a publicist to help me out. I’d put a lot of work into promoting my last book by myself and while I felt like the efforts were worthwhile, it was also an exhausting process in a lot of ways. I also felt that there were opportunities that a publicist might be able to leverage better than I could.

I also just didn’t want to do it on my own again. My father had just died and my book was due out in six months. I had no idea what I would feel up to when it was finally released and so I decided to take the pressure off myself completely.

One of the things I really wanted for my book at the time was to get some coverage outside of Canada, so I looked in U.S. publicists in the hopes that they would have some leads on where my book might get some coverage.

I talked to a few different publicists but was really listening for someone who was excited about my book and who understood what it was all about. After exploring a few options, I found a boutique agency I really liked and decided to go for it.

It was an investment, but I had some savings that I was willing to use. I really believed in my project and I felt confident in being able to choose a publicist on my own. I’d been working as a publicist myself in a different industry for a number by then, and I felt my goals were clear and my expectations realistic.

We had agreed on a campaign that would begin in August. My book was scheduled for an October release, and the campaign would last for three months – enough time to get it out there in advance of the launch.

In the proposal, the publicity team suggested some ideas for a tour, which I would have to fund myself. Given that I was already putting my budget into the publicity campaign as it was (and, to be honest, I wasn’t up for being on the road much that year), I said I really wanted to focus on reviews, blog tours, and press.

I sent some suggestions for places I hoped my book might be pitched to, and I also asked if they could look into some guest column opportunities that I’d seen some other authors participate in.

As we got closer to the end of July, I started to wonder when I was going to see any press materials. I had put down a deposit for my campaign and had provided all of the information I’d been asked, but there was no sign of a media kit or a press release and the beginning of August was just around the corner.

When I ask when I could see something for review, they told me that they weren’t going to start working on the campaign until August. Which is a big difference from saying the campaign is starting in August.

In all of my experience in PR, campaign start dates had always implied the day a campaign would begin. The work leading up to that date would always be done in advance to make sure everything was ready to go.

They brushed it off, thanking me for highlighting this as a learning experience about how they can better communicate with future clients.

This was a red flag that came too late for me. It was almost August and my campaign wasn’t going to be ready yet.

I started to question what this meant for timelines: If they weren’t starting to work on anything until August, that meant my campaign had no real start date.

I'd signed a contract with these people that basically had no specific timelines for when they would start promoting my book. What I thought was going to be a three-month campaign suddenly shrunk down to an indeterminate length of time.

I started to worry: What if they were “working” on materials for two months? There was no actual deadline for them, I realized. My campaign could be launching on August 15 or September 1 or anywhere between or beyond.

I also felt really dumb. I wondered if I hadn't asked the right questions. I wondered if I'd gone in feeling too confident about my own experience with promotion.

I looked over my contract and all of our past communications and there was nothing to indicate that my campaign would be starting any later than August 1.

Things were starting to get fishy, and I was getting nervous. I knew this was putting my book at risk of losing opportunities. Even if it wasn’t chosen for the Fall coverage I was hoping for (because let’s face it, the Fall is a busy season for books), I at least wanted it to be considered. But if it wasn’t even making it into an editor’s inbox in advance, it had no chance.

But I was already in and I needed these people to work with me, so in the end I let it go. It was too late to do anything else.

When the campaign did get going, I was set up on a “blog tour” which had sounded like a great opportunity on paper. I’d seen some friends participate in something similar and was excited to try it.

Some of these opportunities were great. Others…not so much. A few simply took the description from the back of my book and used that as their blog content. Another blog had a theme that married food and books and wow, what a misalignment that was for my novel, which talks about blood and vomit at least 100 times throughout.

That blogger gave my book a one-star rating, but I couldn’t take it personally. It obviously wasn’t her thing and shouldn’t have been pitched to her in the first place.

I had paid the publicist to put the book up on NetGalley, where reviewers can grab books for free in exchange for honest reviews. A lot of people took the free copies, but did nothing with them. It did some Goodreads ratings, but this isn’t the same as press, which was what I’d asked for from this campaign.

When I did start getting reports of where my book was pitched to, some of the suggested outlets I’d hoped for contact with weren’t even included. I had to ask why they weren’t on the list and was assured they had been pitched to, though I couldn’t know for sure.

I also noticed that there were a number of music magazines listed that didn’t review or write about books at all. But because I had a background in music journalism – even though my current book wasn’t about music – they thought it might increase “the odds.”

In reality, my odds sucked. Trying to get a magazine to work outside of their editorial mandate is a futile effort. And what made it worse was that there were so many other publications and book blogs that my campaign hadn’t reached out to at all. If they wanted to increase the odds, they should have pitched my work to more places that are actually interested in books.

Their report also included a huge list of U.S. bookstores and venues they’d contacted about signings and appearances, even though that wasn’t my goal for the campaign. Why not pitch more magazines, newspapers, and blogs? I wondered.

At the end of October, I had very little coverage to show for my investment. I was bummed. And even though I’d done what I could to avoid taking on my own publicity again, I hunkered down and started putting together my own media list.

I also looked back at the outlets that the publicity team had pitched to and circled back to some that sounded promising. Many said they hadn’t heard from anyone about it before I reached out. It could be that the original messages got lost somewhere, but again, I’ll never know for sure.

I ended up being able to salvage some publicity. It took hours to do it all alone, but I didn’t have a choice. I also couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if I’d worked with a different team, or if I’d just done it myself from the start back in the summer.

So what’s my advice for anyone looking to hire a publicist?

1. Start your search early. Give yourself six months, at least, if not more. You don’t want to feel rushed in making a decision. It will take time to have conversations with prospective publicists, and they will also need time to craft their proposals for you. You don’t want to rush it.

2. Do your research and get references beyond the testimonials they make available through their website. Don’t think that a conversation with the publicist is enough. One mistake I made was that I didn’t ask other authors how their experiences had gone with the agency I hired. Even though this agency did have some great reviews, you don't know what isn't being said.

3. Ask who will be working on your campaign. The person I talked to at the agency I hired was not the person who ended up running my campaign. In hindsight, I should have asked for more communication with more of their team.

4. Make sure you get deadlines and dates in writing for everything. Ask when you will see a first draft of their pitch or press release. Ask when they are going to start working on your campaign, and when it will go live.

5. Ask them where they see your book being covered. Get them to talk about their own ideas for it to see if they align with your goals.

6. Don’t be afraid to be a boss. It’s your book and it’s your money and if something isn’t working right, you need to say so.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth

Liz Worth is a Toronto-based author. Her first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, was the first to give an in-depth account of Toronto’s early punk scene. She has also released a poetry collection called Amphetamine Heart and a novel called PostApoc. You can reach her at http://www.lizworth.com, on Facebook or Twitter.

You can contact Liz throughout the month of October at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Liz Worth’s Author Page