Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Claire Grady-Smith on Freelance Publicity for Authors - The Why & The How

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Claire Grady-Smith

As the way books are published, consumed and marketed changes, so do the roles that authors, publicists and publishers play in the process of getting great books into the hands of readers. How are these roles changing, and what can authors do to ensure their books have a fighting chance in a crowded marketplace?

Claire Grady-Smith is a freelance publicist and writer. Today she shares with us about the changing landscape of Canadian publishing and the increasingly popular practice amongst both self- and traditionally-published writers of hiring freelance publicists to assist with book promotion. If you're an emerging writer or aspiring publishing professional, be sure to check out Claire's take on how changing trends, financial pressures and technologies are impacting the way we promote, discover and talk about books.
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Claire Grady-Smith:

The printed book industry in Canada has been rapidly changing tactics as a result of digital publishing and print-on-demand (POD). This is not news. For almost a decade, questions at book conferences and online fora have more to do with shrinking print book sales, brick-and-mortar closures, and reductions in print runs rather than trends in publishing or the next generational voice.

Ebook publishers and POD companies are sprouting up overnight along with their attendant army of marketing services designed to teach publishers and individuals how to market their self-published and boutique published books.

According to Trena White, Principal and Co-Founder of Page Two in Vancouver, “The Kindle launched in 2007, which started the dramatic rise of ebooks. Amazon gained dominance and North Americans moved to buying 50% of their books online rather than in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Indies and even the chain stores started to close out their physical stores. The rise of ebooks and digital distribution platforms led to a dramatic rise in self-publishing. In other words, the entire publishing ecosystem (has) changed.”

It’s the Age of the Little Guy. A rocket blast away from gate-keeping monoliths like HarperCollins and Penguin resulted in a shuddering landing on the world filled with individual curators and opinion-makers. The biggest publishing houses will survive provided they have the resources to withstand the rapid changes and meet the demands for affordable, accessible literature. The mid-sized companies will either adapt, fold, or amalgamate as we have seen with the Greystone Books and Heritage House, or Douglas & McIntyre and Harbour Publishing mergers. Print publishers, large and small, are focusing their resources on selling bestsellers, some of whom didn't need this much publicity before. Resources are stretched thinner and thinner for publicity and marketing, and many excellent writers are either not being published because they don't appeal to the mainstream, or not receiving (overworked) publicists' attention if they are deemed viable for print.

The obvious question amidst all of this change and confusion is a Foucauldian return to who speaks? Who determines what is to be published? Who decides what content and form merits resources, attention, and publicity in a highly competitive economy of book production and distribution?

“The answer is ‘everyone’,” says a friend who has been working in the book world as a developer and programmer for close to 20 years. “We all decide. As with the music industry there has been a digitization of the book industry which is, like everything, both a boon for readers and a curse. Amazon will print anything if you send them a Word document of your manuscript, as will Blurb, or Lulu, and the list goes on. Nobody is editing these books, nobody is designing them, and with the proliferation of POD companies you can add digital publishers who sell books for Kindle and other e-readers without so much as running spell-check.”

I started this article by writing about what I have been doing in this industry for the past year. I have skills in design and website-building, as well as knowledge of the book industry, so I have been helping authors structure and build websites, business cards, and media kits for their recent print publications. I provide authors with the things they need to promote their work, and then set up book tours, blog schedules, launches and book reviews. A personal bias and general fear of the slush-pile of digitally published and POD books kept me away from self-published authors, but this strategy was maladaptive. Whereas freelance publicists used to work with publishers to assist their writers with finding interview and reading opportunities, publicists are now just as often working directly for writers.

The future of freelance publicity is to become more of a curator and agent than a book shill. With the dramatic increase of access to publishing comes the democratization of the book publishing industry. This means there is a potential for the subaltern voice, the emerging voice, the “unschooled” yet experienced voice: in other words, greater diversity. If you want to enter this whole messy game of assisting writers with getting their words out, you will need to spend just as much time writing and reading as you do thinking about marketing and communications. You will need to start your own blog, Twitter feed, and Goodreads account. You will need to post on social media far more than you think is appropriate. And you will need to read, and read, and read. Read the great literature and read the popular and fluffy. Read the Western Canon. Read the list of books from a Cultural Studies roster, to understand why the Western Canon is incomplete. Read about history. Read about contemporary events. And when you’ve done all of that, read around a particular niche and target your expertise on an area that makes sense for you.

However, this methodology does not account for the other problem: how do freelance publicists separate the wheat from the chaff of ebook and POD titles? Well, you will need to enter the fray. The only way to guide others through this mass of voices all speaking at once is for you to stand above the crowd, pick out one writer who seems to know what they are talking about, and elevate that person’s output using the skills you have as a marketer. You need to be more than an agent. You need to be a one-person theme magazine, with an editor in chief, bank of writers, and a publicity and sales team. And you need to do the majority of that work on your own time.

It is easy to walk away from this amount of work. It is difficult and unrewarding at times, and of course there are the accompanying feelings of fraudulence and incapability. But if you have a passion for books on geology, streetLit, sci-fi for young adults, documented spiritual happenings, or whatever weird and wonderful niche you have been following or consumed by for years, please, for the love of literature, take a stand. Know the difference between good and bad writing, and then speak, speak, speak!


Claire Grady-Smith is a freelance publicist and writer who lives part-time in Kingston, Ontario and part-time in Montréal, Quebec. She has a masters degree in Cultural Studies and an undergraduate degree in Art History. To read about the work she does with writers, musicians, and visual artists, visit her website at http://www.clairegradysmith.com.

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