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.
I 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.