by Patricia Smiley
I’ve hired a freelance publicist twice in my writing career, the first time out of naïveté and the second time out of necessity. It was expensive, but I have zero regrets. We all know publishing is a business. As it turns out, so is writing. Authors have to invest in their careers if they hope to succeed.
You’re doing great, but …
In the current publishing environment, with fewer book-review sections in major newspapers, authors are left with limited options to reach readers. Let’s assume you’ve already accomplished the basic necessities of book promotion. You’ve created a website and included a link for your fans to sign up for your mailing list. You’re also active on at least one online site or social-media platform with people who share your love of reading.
However, as many authors have learned, constantly hyping your books on Facebook, Twitter, or similar sites can alienate the very people you hope to reach: potential readers.
Many marketing experts believe it’s more effective to cultivate an audience with your brand of wit and charm—and yes, pictures of your cats—in a voice that mirrors the style of writing in your novels and to leave the heavy book promotion to friends, fans, and your publicist.
Authors with a background in sales, marketing, or product branding may be able to create the perfect publicity campaign without help. Minus that expertise, most traditionally published authors are at the mercy of in-house publicists who are often young, inexperienced, or overwhelmed by the lack of resources for all the authors on their list.
You could use the piecemeal approach: hire somebody to increase your Twitter or Facebook followers or place ads in convention programs or in magazines. The downside is the cost of those services quickly adds up, and the lack of an integrated game plan may render them ineffective. The other option is to hire a freelance publicist, a monumental decision for most authors. Freelancers, at least the good ones, are expensive, and the book advances used to pay for those services seem to be getting increasingly meager.
A business plan
Before my first book was published, I’d attended numerous writers’ conferences and meetings where authors warned that publishers did little or nothing to promote books that weren’t already New York Times bestsellers. It was an “every woman for herself” scenario. Fearing my book, if it were ever published, would land in remainder-bin hell, I used my MBA skills to write a business plan for my writing career. One bullet point in that plan was to apply whatever amount I could afford from my advance to hire a publicist as my personal “force multiplier.”
After my first novel sold to a major publishing house, I implemented that plan. As it turned out, my fear of abandonment was overblown. My publisher did a lot for me, but hiring a freelance publicist was still the absolute correct decision. Working in concert with the publisher, she amplified their efforts and pushed me onto the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. I know how lucky I was.
Sadly, most publishers these days won’t support an author the way mine did then. That’s why I hired my second publicist—out of necessity.
Who to hire?
It hardly needs stating, but if you are contemplating hiring a freelancer, it’s important to choose wisely. Ask fellow authors for recommendations, read testimonials on the candidates’ website, attend seminars, or read blogs that feature advice from marketing experts. Conduct interviews. Good publicists tend to be in high demand so target more than one in case your first choice is unavailable. Line up someone at least five to six months before your book’s release date.
What a good publicist does
A good publicist will read your book to make sure it’s something they want to promote. They will ask questions about your goals and expectations and if you need help with blurbs or setting up book signings or blog tours. They will send you a detailed proposal of the work needed to get your book in the hands of readers and reviewers and a timeline of when each task will be executed. Once you’ve settled on the scope of the work and the financial terms, be reasonable. There are no guarantees their efforts will land your book on a bestseller list.
A good publicist comes with contacts, likely many more than writers have accumulated on their own. They have professional relationships with bloggers, reviewers, magazine editors, bookstore owners, podcast hosts, and high-profile authors who might be willing to blurb your book. They can set up book signings and contact local media about your appearances. They can host Goodreads giveaways to create buzz. The right publicist often nudges the publisher to do things for your book they wouldn’t have otherwise done. They also answer your emails in a timely fashion and offer encouragement throughout the process. Like an agent, they can ask for the impossible and serve as a buffer when your publisher resists.
Before starting any work on your behalf, a good publicist will contact the publisher to discuss the division of labor and make assurances that their goal is to support the publisher’s established marketing plans. Failure to clearly define roles could lead to duplication of efforts that might create conflict and jeopardize the success of your book. You, your publicist, and the publishing house should continue to work together throughout the campaign.
My first publicist booked me for interviews on cable television programs. She also contacted the librarian in the small town where I grew up and coordinated multiple hometown-girl-makes-good events, including book signings, interviews on the local radio stations, and an on-camera interview with the NBC affiliate. She booked me as a speaker at dozens of events. But most of all, she kept in constant touch, calling to tell me she’d just spoken to the owner of Bookstore-A in a faraway city who simply loved my novel and was eager to host a signing should I ever cruise into town. She orchestrated my first launch party and when all copies of my novel sold out, she provided the bookseller with an additional box of books from the trunk of her car. She pressed bookstores to pair me with well-known authors at signings, and suggested what to put in my raffle basket at my first Bouchercon as a published author.
As I mentioned, hiring a publicist is expensive. Some may be willing to negotiate a more modest plan to fit your budget. Don’t be afraid to ask. All they can say is no. If your advance isn’t large enough to cover the cost, search online for nonprofits that offer grants for writers and artists or set up a crowd-funder page on one of the many available websites. An author friend used Kickstarter to raise money to promote his first novel. In exchange for donations, he gave away books, coffee mugs, and T-shirts.
Be creative. Be engaged. Be proactive.
Hiring a freelance publicist to promote your novel is a weighty decision, but it’s your career. So when an author, a publisher, and a freelance publicist walk into a bar and the bartender says, “What’ll it be?” fingers crossed your response will be, “Champagne all around. We’re celebrating a successful partnership and a triumphant book launch.” And isn’t this the ultimate goal? Even though we authors often have to pick up the tab.
What do you think is a wise investment in your writing career? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook!
Patricia Smiley is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of four Tucker Sinclair mysteries. Her Pacific Homicide series includes a trilogy of hard-boiled police procedurals, and features LAPD Homicide Detective Davie Richards (Pacific Homicide, Outside the Wire, and The Second Goodbye). The novels are based on fifteen years as a volunteer and Specialist Reserve Office for the Los Angeles Police Department. BookReporter.com rated The Second Goodbye as one of the top ten crime novels of 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. For more information, visit www.patriciasmiley.com or on Twitter @SmileyWriter.