Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?

do you know what a book publicist does claire mckinneyDo you know what a book publicist does?

At lunch with publicist friends, there’s one question that we always seem to come back to: does anyone in this business know what we actually do? Yes, yes, every author says they “want” a publicist, but how many authors, and those who work in publishing, actually understand what a publicist does and, more importantly, what can reasonably be expected from their publicity campaign?

People in this business still assume that the only good thing a publicist does is book appearances on Oprah or The Today Show or Good Morning America. Even though this circuit is outdated—Oprah’s show is off the air, GMA is closing in on the Today show’s ratings, and The Early Show just went through another reorganization—people in publishing still think these are the rounds a publicist makes. This needs to change.

I came into the publishing industry accidentally, and took to the role of publicist quite naturally; I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I’ve worked on campaigns for everything from children’s books to adult trade; cookbooks to philosophy; literary fiction to self-help—and I’ll tell you, as I’ve told everyone who has ever worked for me and with me, making a book is a long, difficult process. Nonetheless, when there’s blame about how the final product fares in the market, it often seems to fall on the publicist. Why?

Why would an author take his frustrations out on the person most directly linked to the consumers in the promotional process? Why are the notions of what a publicist does so cloudy? And why, in an era where lack of publicity is repeatedly cited as a major reason books fail, are so many publicists with years of experience struggling to keep their jobs?

Blame it on the digital revolution. Blame it on the homogenized media culture.Blame it on whomever, or whatever, you choose. One problem, aside from the difficulty of getting good publicity for a book, is dealing with misunderstandings about what a publicist can reasonably do.

Right now there are still two overarching umbrellas that classify book publicity campaigns. There are the “big” books that are positioned and sold to the “big” traditional media, and there are all the other books which, well, aren’t sold to the “big” traditional media. And when I say this, I’m not saying all of the other books don’t warrant the same attention as the big books, or that they won’t get a national break, or that they are lesser in any way. I’m saying that, still, there are basically two tracks we think about, and that’s a problem.

That not every book will be right for the “big” media spots is one problem, but it’s a reality. Too often, though, there seems to be anger about not getting those “big” spots instead of an open admission that there are lots of great press hits to be had on smaller outlets and in nontraditional ways.

There are hundreds of television, print, and radio venues, just like the old days. But now there is the Web and there’s social media. You can do viral campaigns. You can give away content in the form of actual books on blogs, or digitally in chapters on any and all Web sites.Can you, the publicist, work with online marketing to coordinate a campaign using some of these tools? Yes. Do you need to know even more people than ever before, collecting contacts like a paper clip magnet? Yes. Will you be able to do this for every book on your list? Probably not. But it would help if these “nontraditional” campaigns stopped being tagged as such. Book publicity is no longer about organizing a “big” or “small” campaign, and publicists know this, but the rest of the industry does not seem to have quite caught up.

So if you are a book publicist like me and one of your more irascible authors is quoted in New York magazine basically saying that publicists are worthless, close your eyes, count to 10, and remember that you have the power and the skill set to go out there and brave a new frontier of media. You will do things that haven’t been done before, and while you accept the well-deserved pat on the back that so rarely comes your way, you can take comfort in the fact that others are quietly saying, “How did she do that?”

(This article was originally published in Publishers Weekly titled “Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?” and online here.)

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