Guest post by Yasmine Z. Kaminsky
Kathy Alexander, the publicity manager in the books marketing department at JHU Press, is retiring this October after fourteen years at JHUP. In her retirement, Kathy is looking forward to spending time with her family, writing a cookbook, focusing on her music, traveling, sewing, and painting. She is the coauthor of Chessie Racing: The Story of Maryland’s Entry in the 1997–1998 Whitbread Round the World Race, published by JHU Press in 2001.
YZK: What made you decide a career in publicity was for you?
KA: I sort of fell into it. Years ago, I was the PR person for the local syndicate, Chessie Racing, in the Whitbread Round the World Race, 1997–1998. I quit a good job so that I could travel around the world with the crew. I flew from port to port, helping to set up camp, dealing with the media, and taking reporters out for a sail. It was a nine-month adventure. After I was over, I decided to write a book about it. I promptly convinced the person who financed the syndicate to pay me to write it. We called it Chessie Racing, and Hopkins Press published it. Not long after its publication, my publicist took another position at the Press and asked if I was interested in his position. I went in to my interview the very next day. Landed the job. The rest is history.
YZK: Could you describe a typical day at JHU Press?
KA: The answer is that there is none. Absolutely none! In publicity you are constantly reacting. You see something in the news, and you’re crafting your pitch and reaching out to reporters who are following the story. You’re searching your database, Googling around, and making cold calls all over the place. If you score an interview, you might have to teach your author/expert how to do an interview by skype, or just an interview. (Remember to smile; I swear you can hear a smile. A phone interview—stand up! It will keep you focused on the conversation.)
An author lands a review or an interview and suddenly you’re Facebooking and Tweeting and sending a note to the sales reps so they can utilize it.
A colleague calls in sick, and suddenly you’re working on her books as well as your own. That can bring a bit of a learning curve with it. You know the books and authors you are working on. You probably won’t know theirs as well.
And then there are always review lists and meetings, getting books to events, and who knows what emergency might pop up.
YZK: During your time here, you have worked with hundreds and hundreds of books. What, exactly, do you think makes a book marketable?
KA: That’s the million-dollar question. I’m probably better equipped to tell you what makes a book catch the media’s attention. If the topic is in the news, it has a shot. If the author is a willing partner and is available, it has an even better shot. For example, hep C, traumatic brain injury, and presidential transitions are in the news. I can pitch our books, Hepatitis C, The Traumatized Brain, and Before the Oath. A few years ago, these topics might have gone unnoticed. Now the media is interested. The next time there is a plane or train crash, we’ve got it covered.
It’s what’s in the news or of interest to reporters, and—and this is a key and—an author who is a willing partner. If an author says, “I’ve written this book and I’ve done my work,” that doesn’t give you a lot to pitch. I much prefer an author who is willing to get out there. I firmly believe their job is not over when the book is published. In fact, it has just begun. An expert with a book is a publicist’s dream come true. In today’s market, that means they have to be willing to take interviews, blog, lecture, etc., etc. I don’t want to take over my authors’ lives, but I do want them to be an involved partner.
YZK: What have been your favorite parts about working at the Press?
KA: I really like my colleagues. They’ve made it fun to come in every day. They are creative and kind and smart and thoughtful, and they always have my back, and I like to think they feel the same about me.
Then I have my authors! There are some authors that I absolutely love working with: Leslie Day, Martha Kumar, Frank Mondimore and Don Lincoln. It’s not the topic; it’s the author. These four have each had multiple books and recent books, so I’ve spent a lot of time with them and they are fresh in my mind. For me, the ideal author is a willing author who is proud of his/her work, has a sense of humor, and is open to new ideas and old ideas. Gosh, now I’m suddenly thinking of my other authors that I’m particularly fond of. There are so many.
YZK: What advice do you have to someone starting to dip his or her toes into publicity?
KA: I would try to get a job or an internship or volunteer position at a publishing company, a magazine or newspaper, and/or a radio or television station. Learn what they’re looking for in people and how they do things. As a publicist, you’re going to be selling your product to the media; you’re going to be selling stories, selling experts—learn what the media need, what they want, how they want it, and how fast they need it. Your future publicity/sales pitches will be much, much easier to craft and craft well. Get yourself comfortable online because that’s where the media is going these days. Talk to other people in the field. Talk to other publicists. Talk to PR people. If you can’t land an internship at a radio or a TV or a print place, ask if you can have an informational interview. You want to find friends or family who can make an introduction, and you want to ask if you can do just an informational interview. Network! Make friends with every single one of them. You want to get it to the point where they know your name six months down the road. Never be afraid to network. In addition to helping you find a job, it will help you WITH that job. Publicists can’t by shy.
Oh, and never leave a job on a bad note. You never know when you’ll need a former connection!
Yasmine Kaminsky, a student at Johns Hopkins University, studies English and interns in JHU Press’s marketing department.