The Current State of Publicity

by Kathy Alexander, publicity manager

Book publicity in 2013 is drastically different from what it was a mere ten years ago. Traditional print media has declined, broadcast journalism continues to be fickle and fad-driven, and digital media options have exploded. Numerous print venues are cutting their review sections; even academic journals such as JAMA have eliminated book reviews. Newspapers, previously a mainstay of review coverage, have migrated from print to online (or just closed up shop entirely). Even large newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune—have reduced space for book reviews. Magazines are likewise disappearing or shrinking, and many train their focus on the latest celebrity gossip or fad diet. Thank goodness for The New York Review of Books, one of the few print venues in the U.S. that still seeks out and reviews scholarly nonfiction.

Media contacts move much more frequently than they used to. Joe Smith may be writing for one company this week and another next week, or he may be freelancing for several outlets at once. These days we need to double-check our contacts each time we prepare to distribute review copies.

Radio/TV is another tricky nut to crack. Unsurprisingly, network producers want big names, but local and cable stations will often take a chance on a relatively unknown author—especially someone with a local connection. They are looking for a good topic, a news hook, a good voice, and someone who can answer questions for the layman (translation: leave the big words and jargon home).

Many of our authors have broadcast experience. For those who don’t, we offer “Interview 101” training, during which we provide authors with such tips as: don’t wear a black turtleneck (floating head); prepare a few questions/answers in advance (helps interviewees gain confidence when one of them is asked); and mention your book whenever you can. We also teach them the most critical lesson: it is YOUR interview. YOU own it; YOU control where it goes.

And now, let’s reach into our bag of new tricks. Online publicity and social media are critical for today’s book publicity. Book buyers go online to find their next book. Journalists rely on blogs, Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook to find their next topic and/or expert.

It isn’t always easy to plug into these cyber-opportunities. Take blogs, which offer the best forum for a review and discussion. Finding the blog is easy; finding the blogger is another story! Contact information is often buried on the site; sometimes it isn’t visible at all. I do whatever I can to find them, often sending messages through Facebook and LinkedIn. Once I even begged a student intern to find me the contact! We are now using a number of programs to reach these new reviewers. I’d love to say it gets easier, but new obstacles pop up, so the challenge remains. When we are able to get blog coverage, the sense of accomplishment is all the more thrilling.

Bookstore readings and signings were easy to find 15 years ago, but these days they are much harder to secure. Bookstores today are looking for authors with significant sales potential, leaving little space on the calendar for non-marquee names.

When one of our authors wants to do a signing at his or her local bookstore, I suggest that author visit the store and ask permission. It is so easy to turn down a publicist; it is much harder to say no to a friend and regular customer. The author should be ready and willing to give the store an email list of friends and acquaintances; that list of contacts dramatically improves attendance and sales potential. If the store declines, the next question an author asks should be “Will you be carrying my book? I want to know where to send my friends.”

One thing hasn’t changed: the importance of the professional relationship between the publicist and members of the media. We cultivate those relationships and nurture them with regular visits. That personal, and constant, relationship is still key. Between visits, I know that my contacts are reading my emails and listening to my phone calls.

A few years ago, I attempted to cut back on my publicity calls, using phone calls and email instead of actual visits. That was a big mistake! Since I have reinstated the two visits per year, I have seen a marked improvement in our coverage.

Reliability and dependability are also key. As publicists, we work hard to establish ourselves as reliable sources of experts and story ideas. Once we’ve gained the trust of the media, we stake our reputations on keeping it. We have to do our homework to ensure that the author we’re pitching for television knows how to look at the camera, that the author we’re pitching for radio has excellent diction, that the author we’re pitching for a Skype interview knows how to use Skype. That is priceless in the publicity field.

Another constant? The need to train, guide, and reassure our authors, who are as varied as the topics they cover. They run the gamut from eager beavers (“Can I? Can I? Can I?”) to veritable hermits who prefer research to human interaction. We get to know our authors to the point where we know what and how much they are comfortable doing. I see myself as partner (explaining the pros/cons of setting up a Facebook page vs. a website), a teacher (how to do a Skype interview or write a blog post), a coach (reminding/encouraging them to mention their book when they have an appearance or interview and explaining why it’s not a good idea to promote your book before it’s actually available), and a mom (congratulating them on a good interview or review and comforting them when they are less than satisfied).

The job of a publicist is a constant challenge. No two authors are alike; no two days are alike. But it’s rewarding, too. A few days ago one of my authors contacted me to say “Thanks, Kathy, for your guidance and advice. I could have never done it without you.” That kind of message makes it all worthwhile.