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Pitch Perfect

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Publicists discuss their evolving role in a shifting landscape, success stories, and working with authors.


Erika Dreifus

Erika DreifusMedia Editor, Fig Tree Books. FigTreeBooks.net

How do you define the goals of a publicist? What do you believe is your most important function?

Perhaps I should begin with what isn’t my function: My job is not to acquire, edit, produce, or distribute books. At its core, my job is to inform and engage the reading public (along with key constituencies: booksellers, librarians, and the like).

What special skills and/or experience do you bring to the table in your work? What skills would you recommend other publicists acquire?

Experience in other roles is helpful. For instance, I’ve worn the author hat—my own book of short fiction, Quiet Americans, was published in 2011 by a brand-new, independent press. Since that press was so small, I assumed an active role in publicizing and promoting it: getting the book to reviewers and bloggers, entering it in contests, arranging my own events, and so forth. I’ve also worked as a freelance reviewer and maintained blogs, so I have some sense of what works and what doesn’t when reaching out to people in those communities.

Can you provide an example of an innovative campaign or approach you took that led to success?

We are always grateful for collaborations with the Jewish Book Council (JBC), an essential resource for everyone in the “Jewish-lit” world. Early on, Jessamyn Hope’s beautiful debut novel, Safekeeping, proved to be especially popular with members of the JBC Network program; Jessamyn has received invitations to visit an array of communities around North America. We have equally high hopes for author Ben Nadler, whom we have enrolled in that program most recently along with his latest novel, The Sea Beach Line.

I think it was also helpful for Fig Tree that I attended last year’s Annual Conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries, where I was able to meet and speak with so many fantastic librarians. That was a wonderful opportunity to introduce them to Fig Tree and to several of our first books. Plus, I had a terrific time—what a great group!

What are some frequent requests you receive from authors? What do you think is reasonable for an author to ask of a publicist?

Our authors are often quite interested in having their books entered for award consideration—and they’re reaping some excellent results.

Fig Tree wants to enter our authors’ books to such programs. It is absolutely reasonable for authors to ask us to submit books on their behalf, especially when an award program stipulates that. In fact, entries can be made only by the publisher. But there are many competitions out there. When award programs welcome submissions from either the author or the publisher, it is helpful to divide the efforts and resources between the two.


Nicole De Jackmo

Nicole De JackmoDirector of Publicity & Marketing, Quirk Books, quirkbooks.com

How do you define the goals of a publicist?

The goals of a publicist are to work with an author to build his or her platform in order to help establish buzz for a book so that six months post-sale, the book is able to stand on its own and backlist.

What do you believe is your most important function?

A publicist’s most important function is to guide authors and connect their book with the correct audience.

What special skills and/or experience do you bring to the table in your work?

The most important skills a publicist brings to the table are resilience, flexibility, and problem solving.

What skills would you recommend other publicists acquire?

Problem-solving skills are invaluable. There are a lot of times when something isn’t working, or a challenge is posed, and being able to think on one’s feet and clearly envision solutions can help in identifying a new angle for gaining attention for a book.

Can you provide an example of an innovative campaign or approach you took that led to success?

I love collaborating with authors on their ideas because that’s when the best plans come to fruition. For example, Instagram sensation Momo, and his coauthor and owner Andrew Knapp, have embarked on multiple 20-city tours in their Volkswagen Vanagon to promote Find Momo and Find Momo Coast to Coast. I wouldn’t normally send an author on such a large tour, but Andrew was up for the adventure and engaged fans by hiding a free copy of the book in each city where he hosted an event, and then posted a photo of Momo in the location on Instagram as a clue for fans to find the book. It was a fun treasure hunt in each city that engaged fans both online and offline.

How has the job of publicist changed over the last decade?

The job continues to evolve and the biggest change has been the loss of book critics and dedicated space for books in newspapers across the country.

It is often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Do you find this to be true?

I don’t believe that publicity alone sells books; the function of publicity is to gain attention and to contribute to larger marketing campaigns that will create word of mouth. Therefore, bad publicity, while controversial, may cause a pop in sales, but consumers are smart and don’t necessarily jump on the media bandwagon.


Michael Seidlinger

MJSeidlingerDirector of Publicity, Dzanc Books, dzancbooks.org

How do you define the goals of a publicist? What do you believe is your most important function?

A publicist, much like an editor, needs to believe in the book in order to meet its goals. This means not only ensuring that the book gets in the hands of potential media venues, but also having the creativity to tailor a publicity campaign to both the author and the book. It’s simply not enough to send out galleys and aim for formal press coverage; you need to get people’s attention and that means coming up with something fun, interesting, and fascinating that buoys, and perhaps fosters, the author’s platform (via their social media presence, local community, readings/performances, and similar outlets). If the author is a debut, it’s important to brainstorm ways to promote the author. Always promote the author over the book. If you [focus] simply on the product rather than also on the message—the voice—you will find that the campaign feels brittle, inert, and even desperate.

Can you provide an example of an innovative campaign or approach you took that led to success?

For my book, The Fun We’ve Had, I live-tweeted while living in an airport for 48-hours. The concept involved being in a purgatorial state—in line with the book’s content—where one has neither sanctuary nor home. The modern airport is one of those purgatorial states. What could have been a sincere failure turned out to be a resounding success for my platform as an author. It has since gone on as a case study at universities in regards to social media as identity/performance.

How has the job of publicist changed over the last decade?

I’ve only been in the industry since late 2012, but I have spoken to countless publicists, agents, and editors about how drastic of a change the internet, social media, and even Gmail, has had on the publishing (and publicity) landscape. Nowadays, it’s all email when a decade ago it was the phone, the power lunch, and so on. While in-person meetings still exist, I feel a lot of networking now happens between the margins, in our interactions across different apps and conversations, rather than just the face-to-face business events and junkets.

It is often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Do you find this to be true?

Bad publicity exists and we see it every day. It’s that type of publicity that fits the same specifications as spam mail. Basically anything that feels automated, inhuman, done by a machine without any human enthusiasm or compassion, is bad publicity. It’s important to remember that publicity isn’t just getting interest or reviews; it’s promoting the energy and enthusiasm for an author’s voice.


Stacey Lewis

Roundtable_StaceyLewisVice President, Director of Publicity, Marketing and Sales, City Lights Publishers, citylights.com

How do you define the goals of a publicist? What do you believe is your most important function?

The simple goal is to make the public aware of the author you’re working with and their book project. My most important function is to figure out the news angles and stories related to both the book and author that will interest the media. Then, I have to figure out a way to communicate those stories in a succinct and convincing manner so that I pique a busy journalist’s attention.

What special skills and/or experience do you bring to the table in your work? What skills would you recommend other publicists acquire?

I’m on year 21 here, so I have the advantage of time and experience in experimenting with strategies and making mistakes. I’m very interested in books and journalism, so that helps! Good writing and communication skills are essential for publicity, as well as empathy and having a deep interest in other people’s lives. I think if the latter doesn’t come naturally, publicity work will be a challenge.

Can you provide an example of an innovative campaign or approach you took that led to success?

Here’s an anecdote about working on our New York Times bestselling children’s book, Rad American Women A-Z:  This was the first kid’s book ever published in City Lights’ 60-year history and we took the project on because we believed in the book’s mission. Featured in the book is Angela Davis, an author we publish, among many other inspiring women, so it wasn’t a stretch to see how this title fit into our list.

Since we had no experience in the kid’s book market or with media interested in children’s books, we had to start from scratch. This was the perfect time to solicit advice from publishing friends who worked in this area and had success. Consortium, our distributor, had already created a children’s book marketing guide for its clients and this was the perfect tool to use to get started. Fellow Consortium publisher Lee Byrd at Cinco Puntos was extremely generous in sharing her own media and bookstore lists. I met with a local children’s marketing person at PGW [Publishers Group West], as well, and queried parent friends who were big readers for blurb ideas and comparable titles. Since we already had long-term relationships with feminist media such as Bitch magazine and Bust, we found very receptive editors there. Author Kate Schatz and illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl were completely wonderful to work with, accepting invites to schools and bookstores all over the map, and being available for interviews. The success of the book was way beyond all of our expectations, and it continues to sell well a year and a half since the publication date!


Cassie M. Drumm

Cassie Drumm headshotAssociate Publicist, Running Press Book Publishers, runningpress.com

How do you define the goals of a publicist? What do you believe is your most important function?

The main goal of a publicist is to bring attention to books. I believe that getting reviews and features in all types of media is one of the most important elements to selling books.

What special skills and/or experience do you bring to the table in your work? What skills would you recommend other publicists acquire?

It’s very good to be persistent and have an effective process for pitching. Reviewers and other press get so many pitches that they need to see something that stands out to them in order to answer. Concise and punchy is always better for a pitch before getting interest from a reviewer.

Can you provide an example of an innovative campaign or approach you took that led to success?

I think the best examples of success always come when marketing and publicity work together to create an effective campaign. Last year, when Go Set a Watchman was about to release, I set up a campaign for Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird to align with the release of Harper Lee’s book. With the help of an intern, I created an event kit for bookstores to hold a cocktail party to celebrate the Go Set a Watchman release. I distributed the PDF event kit to multiple bookstores that Tim Federle had contacts at, to my sales team, and through social media. This marketing-based technique led to a lot of good publicity with bookstores holding release parties and posting pictures on social media of their displays that featured both Harper Lee and Tim Federle’s titles.

What are some frequent requests you receive from authors? What do you think is reasonable for an author to ask of a publicist?

I’m frequently asked to get books into the hands of celebrities. It’s great when a celebrity is seen carrying a book or voluntarily plugs a book in a social media post, but when I send books to celebrities and their publicists, this rarely happens. Despite this, I always try to encourage authors to bring any ideas and questions to the table. I think a publisher should always provide support for an author by sending review copies to any contacts requested and looking into the feasibility of any publicity ideas that they might have. Even if an idea costs too much money or would take too much time, it sometimes may lead to a more reasonable and creative publicity strategy that may not have been thought of before.


Jason Wells

jwellsheadshotExecutive Director, Children’s Publicity and Marketing, ABRAMS Books, abramsbooks.com

How do you define the goals of a publicist?

A publicist balances working well with an author, the media, and booksellers to manage the expectations for what a book can achieve. Every book should be able to find its audience and it is the publicist’s job—working in tandem with sales and marketing—to do their best [to make this happen].

What do you believe is your most important function?

The most important role of a publicist is being a clear communicator.

What special skills and/or experience do you bring to the table in your work?

I was very fortunate to get to work on author tours in my first six months as an assistant. That experience put me ahead of my peers and allowed me to grow faster as a publicity professional. In 2007, I graduated from Pratt Institute with a degree in information science. This broadened my knowledge of the industry as a whole and has allowed me to connect more dots ever since.

What skills would you recommend other publicists acquire?

Diplomacy is something that can’t necessarily be taught but is crucial in a publicity job.

Can you provide an example of an innovative approach you took that led to success?

For the launch of The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, based on content of the book that featured cows, we created a real milk carton with fake funny text. An advance copy of the book and a coffee mug were inside. It was a huge hit and the book and its sequel went on to be New York Times bestsellers.

What requests do you think are reasonable for an author to ask of a publicist?

No question is ever out of limits for me. I will always give an honest, thoughtful response. I am happy to say no and explain why not if I really don’t think the idea will move a needle. But I am also happy to say yes if the author is on to something.

What should a publisher always provide for an author?

A contact for a book. I hear so many times from newer authors that they have no idea who their publicist is.

Can you offer an example of “bad” publicity that wound up helping sales of a book?

When a kid’s book is banned, you almost always see a sales increase. When we published Lauren Myracle’s TTYL in 2004, its banning (including by my parents’ own school district, much to my shock) was covered all over—and sales increased.


Elisabeth Ferrari

Roundtable_ElisabethFerrariPublicity Assistant, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers hachettebookgroup.com/kids

How do you define the goals of a publicist? What do you believe is your most important function?

A publicist helps generate free awareness for a person, place, or thing—differentiating it from both marketing and advertising. Awareness is spread by cultivating and fostering media relations, finding target-specific demographics, and, ultimately, by believing in your product in a way that will make others believe in it too. A publicist essentially builds a bridge between the product and the public, [and is] responsible for the amount of traffic that bridge gets. If it’s built too narrow or is filled with holes, fewer people are going to cross it.

How has the job of publicist changed over the last decade?

I wasn’t in publicity 10 years ago so I can’t say for certain, but it seems as though the changes have been monumental! I believe it’s gotten easier in some ways and much harder in others, thanks to the digital age. There are so many mediums generating information and outlets to pitch, that audiences have become significantly more defined and a bit easier to target. However, the massive amount of outlets means that most are seeing less traffic. We’re saturated by the constant flow of information, which makes it harder for content to stand out. Ten years ago, if we wanted to read about pop culture, we were forced to go Duane Reade and buy an issue of People magazine. What we saw in that issue was generally it! Now, [pop culture] is everywhere!


About the Author:

Lynn Rosen

Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rosen was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College. She is the author of Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests and currently serves as editorial consultant for the IBPA Independent.

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