The Publicity Paradox

February 23rd, 2010 · 12 Comments
by Pam Jenoff

Today, we welcome back author Pam Jenoff, who wrote a great article for Booksquare called “A Rose By Any Other Name: Has Genre Become Irrelevant?”. Today, Pam explores publicity challenges facing authors, including shifts in world of literary agents as they develop programs to help authors in the wild world of publicity.

As you’ll see, there are no easy answers to the questions Pam is asking, and she invites new thinking into her paradox.

The Publicity Paradox

After four book releases at two different publishers (a status I would call not-quite-new-to-this-business yet far from a seasoned veteran), one of the issues that still vexes me the most is book publicity. What works? How much should I do myself, or pay to have done? How much should I rely on outside help and, if so, what kind?

I suspect I’m not alone in my confusion and if I could find the answers, they might be worth more than the remuneration from actual writing. With each book release, I put forth my best efforts, beating the pavement from one bookstore or library event to the next, well or sparsely attended. I shake the trees of my alumni and regional publications, mill the Facebook network and mailing lists. But aside from the time that it takes (a whole third job, it seems on top of the day job and the writing), I’m aware that there is only so much I can do on my own. The in-house publicists with whom I’ve worked are talented and dedicated professionals, but in many cases, they are overworked. How then to supplement?

Seemingly in response to this question and the needs of their clients, some literary agencies have developed a publicity department which can supplement their authors’ efforts. These services are generally not part of the agency’s included services to clients, but cost an extra fee depending upon the scope of the publicity campaign. I am not in favor of this model because I believe that when a client pays for agency services, it threatens the alignment of interests between author and agent that is generally in place under the commission model and creates a conflict of interests. For example, if a publicist who works independently or for your publisher does a less than adequate job, your agent can — and should– advocate zealously on your behalf. However, if a publicist who works for your literary agency doesn’t perform, the agent is placed in the position of defending that person’s work at the same time as he or she is trying to secure you good publicity.

I am also wary of hiring independent publicists. Aside from the very significant costs associated with doing so, I always have this nagging (perhaps unsubstantiated) fear that the overworked in-house publicist might be tempted to do less if he or she know that I am paying someone to supplement his or her efforts. Additionally, a bigger problem seems to be that there is no way to hold publicists accountable – they are often unwilling, understandably, to share their proprietary lists of contacts to whom publicity materials are being sent, leaving the author in the dark as to the scope and nature of the publicity campaign. And the effectiveness of their work is difficult, if not, impossible to assess. My pie-in-the-sky solution to this problem would be to have publicists work on a contingency model based on the results achieved. For example, a publicist would get paid x for every media placement he or she secured and y for every “bounce” or secondary placement. Difficult to quantify? Perhaps. Unpalatable to the publicists? Definitely. But it’s the best solution I’ve got and I bet a lot more authors would be willing to invest their hard earned money with some certainty of return.

But in the absence of such a solution, what is a writer to do? As for me, I approach the publicity for each book release like a cake recipe that I didn’t quite get right the last time: a little more of this and less of that, taste and repeat, hoping this time it comes outs better. This blog tour, for example, is a new ingredient and is proving delicious, though the effect is yet to be seen. And if you have a recipe for publicity you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it.

Learn more about Pam Jenoff at her website. Her new novel Almost Home is available now.

File Under: Marketing For Introverts

12 responses so far ↓

  • Diana // Feb 23, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Pam, welcome to the biggest conundrum of a writer’s life. You have to publicize to sell what you’ve written, but if you spend the time publicizing, the next book ain’t getting written. Especially since few writers have the luxury of writing full-time and squeeze their writing time in around a day job (am I correct in determining you among this majority? You did call publicity a “third fulltime job”).

    Like you, I find the niches where my precious hours can be best spent, adjusting and adapting with each new social network, venue for publicity or technical gadget that comes along. Unlike you, I have no inhouse publicity agent since I write for a small press. But I don’t think it matters. Writers are expected to have a “presence” in the cyber world with or without the help of their publishers.

    Whether that’s a good thing or a bad I leave for others to determine. Me? I’ll sit and compare recipes with you and hope that someday we’ll find the magic ingredient that makes our names household words. 🙂

    Good post!

  • Maryann Miller // Feb 23, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    You are so right. If you knew the formula for what works best regarding publicity and how much to do, you could make a mint marketing that book. It is so easy to get pulled into promotional business that the writing suffers. All things in moderation is my motto.

  • David Henley // Feb 24, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Yeah, I think this is the new big thing for writers, especially as more and more you need an audience before you even get the book deal.

    I’m not sure only paying publicists for results is fair. I know publicists, both in house and out, who constantly beat their heads against a wall trying to get attention for their books and authors. Sometimes there’s no success to be had, especially with dwindling review sections. This model would force publicists to analyse the potential of every book before agreeing to a job, which they should do anyway, but it would mean a new level of rejection for many authors.

    The problem is not the publicists, the problem is that there are too many writers wanting publicity.

  • Naseem Rakha // Feb 24, 2010 at 7:42 am

    I woke this morning to the sound of seagulls fighting over trash. I had no idea where I was. I opened my eyes. The room was dark, and I still had no idea where I was. Then, it came back, a car ride, a talk in a library, a book signing. I am in Olympia, Washington. I head to Seattle today to speak at Elliot Bay. I wonder if I will get some time to write. Then I remember, no, today I must finish rereading my book for edits for the paper back. Then I remember, I also have to put some finishing touches on an article I am doing for the Oregonian. Plus, my agent wants to talk about book 2, and 3, and 4…. And I have to plan my son’s birthday party. He is turning 10 in two weeks. Ten. Double Digets. Yesterday he was four, today he is ten. And as I sit in my hotel room drinking hotel coffee versus my husband’s freshly roasted Sumatran, I wonder if all this “publicity” is worth it.

  • Melissa // Feb 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    As someone who has worked independently with authors to help publicize their work, a publicist SHOULD get paid x for every media placement he or she secured and y for every “bounce” or secondary placement – it encourages them to WANT to make placements. However you have to remember that even if there are no takers, that individual is still making calls and sending emails on your behalf – so SOME base pay is necessary. But I can agree it should be a lower rate and then the majority of their income should be via the per placement method.

  • Broos // Feb 25, 2010 at 9:47 am

    You’ve put your finger right on it, Pam. I need a publicist but have no idea how to find one who will work on getting my books out there at a rate I can afford. So meanwhile–nada. I like the idea of a base rate with incentives for actual results, though. Thanks for the article.

  • Theresa M. Moore // Feb 25, 2010 at 10:37 am

    As a self-publisher and author I have tried just about everything. For a while there was potential in making a book trailer video, parking it on a hosting site and going away to work on my next book. But in the last year I have seen a marked decline in viewership for book videos in general, and unless one has written something which can compete with cute kittens, car crashes, and the disaster in Haiti, one is left dangling. Print ads are too expensive to justify the cost. Placement is not the issue either, since one has to compete with the literally *thousands* of books on the market already. And email campaigns are not trackable, I can’t talk about sleep without thinking I am guilty for taking the time out, and is all this effort worth it anymore, when people can just download whatever they want to read without paying for it? Publicity is not the main problem. The culture is.

  • Mardi Link // Feb 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Since all writers face this dilemma, I found one way to approach it is to team up. I write true crime and last summer two friend who write mysteries and I went on a library tour together. “Murder Takes A Road Trip” visited 20 Michigan libraries, sold a bunch of books and the trip itself was treated as news. Plus we had a blast and covered our expenses with speaking fees. It was so fun we’re doing it again this summer. And, the audience gets a much more interesting event than just one writer giving another standard read.

  • Mitzi // Feb 27, 2010 at 6:44 am

    Try figuring out publicity if your book is an erotic romance published under a pen name. Granted, my writer friends know about it, but not too many of my work friends or friends of various other categories.

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  • Marian Schembari // Mar 22, 2010 at 7:43 am

    God, you make some excellent points here Pam. I definitely think that outside publicists can be needlessly expensive, can mess with publisher efforts and sometimes just doesn’t work.

    However, in house publicists ARE overworked and if I were an author (I’m not) I would want to know that my baby was well taken care of and wouldn’t want to rely on someone overworked.

    This is why social media is such an awesome and amazing thing for authors – fiction and nonfiction alike. If said authors know how to work a Facebook fan page, guest blog, make their own contacts and work Twitter then that can explode as authors without the help of a publicist.

    I realize this is shameless self promotion, but I actually work freelance helping authors use social media (themselves) to sell books. That being said, there are a million and one resources for authors online teaching them how to use free online tools to get their book noticed.

  • Ron Mills // Aug 18, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Very interesting. For years I have gone around in ever decreasing circles in trying to get some of my manuscripts published in Australia. Writers forums and guilds treat one with contempt and total disinterest without even assessing one’s works. I decided to publish myself with the aid of a budget price company and now face even more contempt. At least I have the inspiration that Ian Fleming went through the same process.