Book Publicist Wanted: But not just ANY book publicist

Book promotion is a career option with a big future. This is what my ideal book publicist – the book publicist of the future – looks like.

Media technologies conceptI am looking to hire a book publicist, so this post is sort of a job posting. It is also a blueprint and discussion paper for other writers who are looking for really effective people to help them promote their books, and it is a primer on the state of the industry for people starting out in the book-promotion business.

In future (starting now, for some of us), a freelance book publicist will be one of the two truly essential members of an author’s team – the other being (of course) the editor. Soon, great book publicists (like great editors) will only represent the books they love and believe in, and the fact that a specific publicist has taken on your book will act as a credential for the quality of the book itself.

Needless to say, for that to happen, the world is going to need a lot more freelance book publicists than it has right now. Unfortunately most of the ones who are around today – they mainly work for publishers – are just not going to make it past the jump.

I am going to tell you why existing book promotion methods have become ineffective, what does work, and why book promotion is becoming a really exciting and potentially profitable income option for enterprising, creative people who love books.

Why Traditional Book Promotion Doesn’t Work

In the past, book publicists have worked primarily with traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) on behalf of traditional publishers. There are two reasons why this approach is of no use to those of us who are producing quality books independently today – and, in most cases, not to traditionally published authors either.

For self-published authors, traditional outlets are next-to-impossible to crack – no matter how good our books are. Unless our sales suddenly skyrocket as a result of years of dogged hard work, or there is a spontaneous word-of-mouth epidemic, or we engage in some ridiculous public stunt — in other words, unless we become “news” – no one in the traditional print media or the broadcast sectors is going to even look at our books, much less review them, or interview us about anything. To them, we are pariahs.

There are several reasons for our pariah-hood: 1) If traditional media open the doors to one self-published author, kazillions of others will inundate them with their books and demand equal time. At least when media receive books from traditional presses, they can be fairly sure that the books have some merit – no matter how slight it may be. There are no such guarantees with self-published books, many of which are garbage. Who has time to sort the wheat from the chaff? 2) It’s a lot easier to work with the devil you know: publishers’ promotions people and writers’ agents make sure authors and their books arrive on time for interviews, and may even supply book summaries and questions for the interviewers to ask. And if media outlets say “No” to those publicists because they aren’t interested in a book, the publicist doesn’t take it personally. God knows what a self-published author might do if media outlets said “No” to them. To them, it is better to say nothing. 3) Publishers and media people know each other. Many have been friends for decades. To promote a self-published author over a traditionally published one would be like cheating on a spouse. Besides, isn’t it better to go down on the Titanic with your friends than to try to survive alone? 4) Publishers and booksellers buy ads in newspapers and sponsor events. Nobody wants to threaten that (very) thin thread of income.

But perhaps of even more import than the pariah status of self-published authors is the fact that, increasingly, book promotion through traditional media doesn’t work for any author. (Not that it ever was that effective.) People just aren’t reading newspapers and magazines cover to cover they way they used to. TV audiences are no longer captive, either: thanks to PVR/DVR, people only watch the programs that they want to watch. How many people download a book review or author interview from Netflix?

So what does book publicity look like today? Well, aside from the inundations of book promotion by self-published authors on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful.

What Book Publicity Must Look Like Now

Those of us who have chosen the freedom of self-publishing over the traditional route need to get creative. We need to think about how our books are going to be received, by whom, and where. We need to think about unusual ways to tell the people who we know are going to love our books that they exist. The routes we need to take to find these people are not the traditional promotional routes. Trying to get reviewed or interviewed in the places where every other writer goes to be reviewed or interviewed just doesn’t work. (Not that it helps traditionally published writers much, either: traditional promotion is like throwing blurbs at blank walls to see what sticks: it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that fits about as well as one-size-fits-all fits anything.)

What we need is a promotional program that is specifically designed for each of our individual books. If I have two books to promote (which I do right now, although several others are waiting in the wings), I need two promotional programs. I need to sit down with my book, think clearly and honestly about its prospective audience (and recognize that it is not for everyone–no book is for everyone), and devise really ingenious ways to find its audiences and tell them about my book. Once I’ve found them, I need to make contact. After that, the quality of my book will do the work for itself. People will love reading it, and they will tell other people, and once the ball is rolling, I’ll be able to turn my attention to one of the other books I want to tell the world about.

In my case, for example, when it comes to the novel Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, I want to reach women everywhere who love reading good fiction and are interested in body-image issues. Men will be interested too, but my primary audience is women. I know how to find these women: I just haven’t had the time to do it. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid is likely to attract a very different audience. Here, John (my co-author) and I are looking for readers who love to read an unputdownable, thinking-person’s romp. We have a particular focus on those who love Westerns or historical fiction set in the early 1900s, but also on those who have a passing acquaintance with the story of Don Quixote (which includes those attending performances of Man of La Mancha and the opera Don Quichotte), readers of lesbian fiction, and several other groups. I have tons of specific ideas (some ingenious) as to how to reach my audiences for both books.

As authors, we can come up with a lot of great ideas for book publicity ourselves, but such lists are potentially endless and we can’t think of them all. We need creative input. We need help from someone who approaches our book as a reader, rather than a writer. We need to brainstorm ideas, and then focus on the best ones … and then we need to act on them. Consistently.

We can’t do a great job of book promotion on our own—especially when we’re writing the next book at the same time. It’s too time-consuming. It’s also disheartening to us and frowned upon by others. If we do it the wrong way or too often, it can damage sales rather than improving them. We need someone who loves the books we are promoting to help us. And we need to pay them. (And I don’t mean promising them a share of royalties. I mean paying them a reasonable hourly rate that is based on their education, experience, and the ideas and energy they bring to the table.)

Who Is NOT the Publicist I am Looking for

I am not looking for someone who has done a lot of promotion for the books industry, who thinks that he or she knows how to do it and that traditional methods are the way to go. Yes, I am interested in being interviewed on Between the Covers and getting my books reviewed in The New York Times – who wouldn’t be? –  but that’s not likely to happen in the near future (see section on “pariah-hood” above), and it doesn’t matter anyway because such coverage will only reach a tiny part of the audience I want to reach. My audience is a specific segment of the huge huge world of readers, and most of them don’t listen to CBC or read the NYT.

My audience is also international. The new books world breaks down all borders. Therefore I am also not interested in promotions people with a purely Canadian focus.

Publicists who offer to help me create an effective social media strategy incorporating Facebook and Twitter, and to help me build a great website and an attractive blog, are not welcome either. These platforms ONLY sell books for people who are already selling tons of books, and even then they probably don’t –  in and of themselves – sell books. As I’ve explained before, you can’t sell books on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, I am not looking for former or current literary agents who are trying to earn a few shekels because their traditional paths to riches are closing down (which was the logical future given the state of the industry five years ago, as I described in the first-ever post on this blog: “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them.” That was then.)

The Publicist I AM Looking for – Right Now

I am looking for a book promotions person who wants to work with me because he or she has made him- or herself familiar with the range of writing I have done and do, loves my fiction, and wants to work with me to promote my books (specifically Rita and Don Valiente at the outset) in unexpected, fun ways that no one else is using. I want him or her to have an Internet focus and a real-world focus rather than a traditional-media focus.

I am looking for someone who is already interested in the kind of work I am describing. Someone who is just starting out in the field would be ideal. An advanced student in a communications program would be welcome. This is a very part-time gig to start with.

The candidate must be an avid reader of literary as well as popular fiction, and must be creative, energetic and gutsy. Promotion is the really fun part of writing and publishing, and I want to work with someone who gets that. Someone who moves as fast as I do, and thinks as fast as I do. I want someone from whom I can bounce ideas, and who will bounce his or her own ideas back.

I want someone who will see me as a mentor as well as a client and employer. After many years in the books business myself – as former editor in chief of a publishing company, former executive director of a writers’ organization, and an author with more than thirty years of experience, I have been involved with all kinds of traditional books promotion. I know what works and what does not, and I have been intimately involved in the transition to self-publishing (read back through the history of Militant Writer blogs for evidence of that.) I have a wealth of innovative and unusual ideas for my books. To a book publicist who is building up a stable of clients, the ideas I am exploring and want to test are going to be valuable in promoting other people’s books as well.

If you’re in Toronto, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

This will be a very part-time position at the start, but the hourly rate will be reasonable (you will need to suggest a reasonable rate at some point in our discussions). Just because I want to work with people who have new ideas who also want to learn doesn’t mean that I think that they should work for free.

Those who are interested in helping me promote Rita and Don Valiente should contact me via mary at marywwalters dot com I’ll get back to all emails within a day or two.

To my writer friends: comments and additional thoughts are, as always, sincerely welcomed and appreciated – not only by me, but also by other readers.


52 responses

  1. Am I first in here? I hope so because this post should attract a lot of attention and I can bask in your reflected glory. Really, very astute Mary. I think the publicist, or agency of publicists, who can crack this new code will have a world of authors beating a path to his/her door. I think your criteria are spot-on. I hope you find that person and that your books find the audiences they deserve.

  2. Very interesting, Mary. I certainly hope the new kind of publicist will present him/herself. And yes, someone who can produce successful results certainly deserves to be well compensated. Date: Mon, 28 Jul 2014 15:14:31 +0000 To:

  3. Mary–
    I essentially agree with everything you’ve written in your post–especially as it pertains to agents, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of it. I did, though, wince when I came to the place where you described how your ideal, boundlessly energetic New Age publicist would be adept at discovering “unexpected, fun ways that no one else is using.” Good luck with that.
    I think one truth emerges from the cognitive dissonance related to marketing self-published books: the crucial importance of connecting on something like a one-to-one basis with readers. When readers enter into what they see as a connection with the writer as a person, the writer’s work is now separated from that of all the hundreds of thousands of other writers. But how can this be accomplished? Through email, newsletters, and the like. My ideal publicist would be someone who knows how to advise me on this: what to write for the purpose of generating these personal connections, AND how use that writing to make it happen. I’m perfectly willing to do my part, but I need professional help, someone no doubt much younger than I am who sees how to approach the problem, as I do not.

    • Good feedback, Barry. Thanks. We all want/need different kinds of publicists depending on our personalities, the types of writing we are doing, etc. So innovative approaches are in order. They used to call it “thinking outside the box.”

  4. I don’t disagree with a single thing you said, Mary, which is unusual for me!

    Certainly, everything traditional I’ve tried, sometimes at a significant cost, hasn’t resulted in any measurable sales improvement for any of our books, and the one potentially good result (one book optioned for the movies or TV) had nothing to do with any of the efforts by me or by the book’s publicist; it was simply random luck.

    I know a publicist who is great at organizing events (e.g., book signings), but book signings aren’t drawing people any more, even for authors who are relatively well known. At a book signing in Santa Barbara, a community that reads and buys books, two slightly-above-mid-list SF authors drew five people, all of whom had already bought the book.

    I organized a book signing here in Mexico for Farley Wheelwright (TWICE-TOLD TALES) and we sold 66 books because Farley has a local tribe but made no profit because of the duty on the books. Based on that experience, I won’t be doing a local book signing for my own book, although if I lived in Canada or the US, I might. But I won’t be doing any book tours either.

    Press releases are, again, a waste of money unless the author is already one of the biggies, although since luck plays a huge role, if you send out a press release through the free vehicles, it might be worth doing.

    All in all, it’s damned depressing for a new author, and as you’ve proven, damned depressing for an established one, too.

    I know you’ll keep us posted if you find the gem you’re looking for. I’ll keep my ears and eyes opened, too.

  5. I can see paying a fee in the beginning, but personally, I don’t think I’d want a publicist who depended on the fee alone. Where is the incentive to only take on books they believed in? If you want to just pay a fee, there are offerings out there, but there is no guarantee that they will produce any desired effect. To me, if a major part of their income isn’t based on a percentage of sales, then any shyster could entice the unwary. If agents work on commission through traditional publishing, and promoters of any other venues such as conventions, fund-raisers, etc., why wouldn’t a book promoter? Sure, charge a reading fee to keep from being inundated with every book an Indie author sees as being the best, but warn the person that afterwards, they will only accept the book if they believe they can make money from it. That I might trust, but I’ve already found dozens of places which claim they can make a book successful if you fork over enough money. I have no intention of doing that when they have no stake in the game.

    • I am hiring this person the way that I am hired as an editor. I don’t expect talented people to work for nothing, and the royalties will be close to that at the outset. I am certainly not going to hire someone who “promises they can make a book successful.” I will be interviewing and evaluating. I am very experienced and knowledgeable in this area, and I know what I want to do to promote my books: I just want someone to help me do the work. When book sales reach a certain point, the publicist will have the option to share in the proceeds. (P.S. Don’t get me started on agents.)

    • No one really knows if a book will be successful unless the author is extremely well known or a celebrity, and even then, books will flop. Most books don’t even earn out their advances.
      I doubt very much that any publicist worth his or her salt will work for royalties alone until, as Mary says, the book happens to take off, even if the publicist believes in the project enough to take it on.

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  7. We’re thinking along somewhat the same lines, although in a piece I wrote a few days ago I proposed that what authors need today isn’t a new kind of publicist, but a new kind of agent – one who represents the author to the marketplace, rather than to traditional publishers. Being a publicist would be part of this, but working on commission, would, too, so that the financial interests of the author and the agent were once more aligned.

    That’s a big difference from today’s marketing services providers, who get paid whether they produce results or not – and almost none of them do (including the publicists). That’s why they’re happy to continue selling naive authors press releases, teaching them to tweet, and so on – because people keep buying these services despite the fact that they don’t work. One can only assume that it’s a type of authorial Magical Thinking. You can find that piece here:

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  9. I should probably moderate my comment a bit. It’s not that some of the things that marketing services providers provide aren’t useful (e.g., a web site), or even using Twitter, as an adjunct to other efforts. It’s just that putting up a nice Web site, without more, doesn’t do anything. What an author really needs, as you point out in above, is a whole lot more. Authors needs a carefully thought through campaign, pursued consistently and over a long period of time, using tools and practices things that actually work, rather than an expensive punchlist of deliverables that just sit there.

    • I absolutely agree. The website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. should be used primarily to attract interest in our voices, points of view, areas of interest, etc. from people who happen to see them. But they are passive. And if we aren’t careful, promotional efforts on those platforms can turn people off, rather than on.

  10. You have bravely put your finger on the heart of the novel-selling problem. ‘Traditional’ publishers’ methods do not work. Perhaps they never have worked – the oft-quoted but never-substantiated claim that the average novel sells 250 copies is evidence suggesting that the publishing industry knows only the shotgun approach, spitting out 4000 titles in the hope that one of them will sell a million and compensate for the others that each sell ten. The publishers cannot predict the vagaries of public taste, they can only gamble. But that kind of expensive gamble is not available to the lonely and impecunious self-publishing author.

    The current conventional wisdom is to use ‘social media’ to self-publicize. There is a fatal flaw in this approach. The methods used to attract a following for your blog, twitter tag or facebook page are in principle identical to the methods needed to publicize the book itself directly. If you can find an audience for your blog, the same techniques should work for finding buyers for your book. The problem for both is having the first reader/follower [who is prepared to propagate his/her enthusiasm] find you. Crack that nut and you are on your way. Admittedly there is a difference in degree; the free 1000 word blog demands less attention and conviction than even the 99-cent book. But the work involved is the same for either and doubled for both, so why not concentrate on the book alone? I think you have already pointed that out.

    It is nice if an author loves to market herself as much as she loves to write; but it is unusual. Writers often tend to be introspective, marketers to be extroverts. We are the way we are.

    So, after that prologue, how may a single novel be promoted nowadays? Putting it in a position visible to millions is the traditional and expensive approach, ineffective because the millions don’t care. It needs to be made visible to the hundreds who do care. Who are they? Your suggestion of identifying your target market is good common sense, refreshingly so. Amazon is making money that way by using its bigdatabase to suggest ‘you bought that, you might like this’ and ‘other people like you bought this, why don’t you’. Can we do the same as individuals without access to the database? Or can we inexpensively buy access to it? Can we put Don Valiente in the face of those few people who bought Destry Rides Again or Don Quixote or cow-odor-remover in the last six months?

    Another possiblity is the affinity marketing approach. Put Don Valiente in the face of self-identified lesbian cowgirls – of whom I am sure there are thousands – by finding out where the Lesbian Cowgirl Monthly Gazette is published, or its subscriber list, or even the newsstands where it is sold? Now we are looking for an investigator rather than a publicist, a scout for thirsty horses rather than a watercarrier for loosely-specified mammals. Don’t try to sell the book, just find the likely readers and stand back?

    Of course, this rather goes against the mantra of ‘establish your brand’. The herd of lesbian cowgirls and the other herd of body-image-conscious women with literary inclinations probably do not mingle to any great extent. Each novel becomes a separate selling task, with no carried-over momentum between the campaigns. But that is your choice and I am sure you have already thought over the handicaps inherent in genre-switching.

    Let me finish with a dig at publishers. A modern company tends to outsource as much work as possible. It makes sense when communications and logistics are cheap and effective, because it transfers a lot of the mundane risk to specialized sources and helps keep the core unit alert and flexible [at least in theory]. Publishers, whether traditional or individuals, can do this. A self-publisher can buy an editor’s skills, leave the paperback manufacturing to c-space, let amazon handle the distribution and most of the accountancy and then settle down to write…and market. Publishing firms can do the same, plus buying the rights to their selected works, and end up as what? Mere publicizers, I suggest. Sadly they are not adept at that, so they try to shuffle off all but the financing to the authors themselves. And then they are merely financiers of the marketing efforts. Banks or kickstarters can do that job equally well, and will do so willingly once you can show that you have solved the marketing difficulty. My conclusion is that if you can find your publicist to dream up a successful novel-marketing technique, you will have sounded the death-knell for publishing as we have known it. A game-changer, a disruptive innovation, the birth of a new age is what you seek.

    I am a writer, and a lazy one at that, and definitely not a publicist. Yet I’d love to act as part of your sounding board for fresh ideas. I wish you the best of luck in finding your publicist. Perhaps the place to seek him/her is not among the literary crowd but in a totally different industry with a similar problem. For example, the garment trade? Subject to the whims of fashion, depending on individual tastes, selling relatively small numbers of many designs to individuals but hoping for mass-market acceptance too, there may be successful publicists there who would welcome a chance to apply their knowledge in a new field of endeavor.

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  12. Great post thank you! Over at Australian eBook Publisher we do not have a one-size fits all approach to marketing, and we are keen to develop skills in book promotion along the lines you have described. Would love to chat if you’re ever in the country!

      • I’d love to. Canada is the number one country I’ve always wanted to visit. In fact I’m planning a trip with my hubby and our 2 kids in a few years time. Here’s another tip, which I’m sure you’re already onto Mary, but will be helpful for indie authors – use the Google Keyword Tool to check all the terms you have brainstormed that you think potential readers might be searching for on Google.

        • A couple of people who have read this post where it was posted on other sites have accused me of not being serious about looking for a publicist and thinking I already know everything. At the risk of reinforcing that impression, I will admit that yes, Google Keywords is something I know about, and don’t have time to do anything about. Thanks for reminding me that I know it: I’ll add it to my to-do list.

          • Mary, I don’t understand how people could have interpreted your post as meaning that you think you know everything. I suppose, in a way, it’s good news that people feel the need to criticize, because when you sit in the weeds and do nothing, you don’t attract attention. You’re attracting attention. Bravo!

            El Jueves, 14 de agosto, 2014 7:08 A.M., The Militant Writer escribió:

   Mary W. Walters commented: “A couple of people who have read this post where it was posted on other sites have accused me of not being serious about looking for a publicist and thinking I already know everything. At the risk of reinforcing that impression, I will say that Google Key”

  13. Three months away from publication in a completely different genre (family memoir) I’m about to step back on the book publicity merry-go-round. Thank you Mary and commentators for outlining what’s wrong with the old models of book promotion. I’ve just signed up to your blog and do hope that there’s a keen publicist out there ready to rise to the challenges you’ve set.

  14. Mary, I would love to work with you–I was recently interviewed for Joel Franco’s blog and talked about the same things you discussed. Publishing, film, music, and art have all merged into one business because of technology. Smart publicists have to be dynamic and they have to work hard AND smart. I can be reached at SherryFrazier@FrazierPublicRelations or 703-431-7895

  15. Just waiting for a follow up to this post. I feel like I read a first chapter and then the pages were blank! I recently “launched” a new novel, and it is sinking despite my best but flailing efforts to keep it afloat. Under my real name, I was a bit more successful a few years ago with an even less commercially viable book, but nowadays their is such a flood of books. I’ve been tracking “Rita” since it was “Whole Clove” and wish you the best of luck.

    • Thank you so much for this very encouraging message. Nice to know that people (or at least one person) are/is awaiting news. I have made progress! And I will keep you updated, once I have a clearer plan of how I will proceed. Thanks again. Till soon… Mary

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