Thursday, June 10, 2010

Publicists: Are You the Next Samantha Jones?

I'd guess that the second most popular job in publishing after editor is probably publicist. I'm guessing it's due to a combination of A) applicants having actually heard the word and having a vague idea what the job entails and B) the quantity of job postings in the department. B should scare people. A ton of job postings often means the job lends itself to a high burnout rate. That said, obviously some people are going to love this job and be fantastic at it. and who are those people?

Publicists need to be outgoing, enthusiastic, and good at schmoozing. If you were a social chair at a sorority or fraternity, this could be the perfect job for you.

They’re on the phone constantly, talking to reporters, talk show management, and radio stations pitching the books and authors they’re assigned, trying to get them any sort of media attention. They're also talking to authors, agents, and editors to update them. They write and send out press releases along with review copies (usually galleys or ARCs). These days they are dealing a lot with book bloggers in addition to the usual reviewers, both industry and trade. The press release is really important because sometimes a "review" will include large parts of the PR, lifted nearly verbatim. They try to get authors reviewed, interviewed, and featured in the media. If they get an author a spot on radio or TV, they then need to prep the author and be sure they're ready for the media, which could be quite time-consuming (authors tend to be not very socially savvy.) The success rate is low with this so you can’t be easily discouraged.

Publicists go to book launch parties, show tapings, take magazine features editors out for dinner, and occasionally meet famous people. There is a high burn-out factor with this job though, as they tend to be very overworked. Like with editors, they will be assigned anywhere from 10-25 authors a season (in publishing there are 3 seasons a year in Adult, 2 in Children's.)

And when a major event happens, they also need to be familiar with their publishers' entire backlist. For instance, when a volcano erupts, if you have a vulcanologist who wrote a book for your house 4 years ago, you can pitch him to major newspapers as an expert they can interview. Almost any nonfiction author can be pitched as an expert on something and even some fiction authors. Backlist is what really makes the house money, so when you can do this, it's really important. When an oil spill or a major flood is in the news, it's important to scour your backlist of authors for anyone pertinent. Even if you have no experts, if you have a native of the gulf coast or Nashville, you can still pitch them to national papers as someone to talk to about the experience of living through one of these traumatic events.

When an author goes on a tour, Publicity is the primary contact. At larger publishing houses there's normally one person in Publicity whose job is to coordinate tours - contact bookstores, find out how many copies they need, get the order placed and expedited and tracked, as well as providing any information to the store beforehand such as a poster, biography, photo, etc. Publishers rarely pay for a tour these days but authors will often self-fund one, particularly when it's to cities where they are from or went to college or lived for a few years. These can be successful. Not only do they have a connection with the location, but that should mean that they have locals they know who would be willing to turn out. If an author just goes to a random city, they could have one of those spectacularly awkward events where no one shows up. Making authors pay for tours themselves has decreased the odds of those since authors often will be looking to save money so will visit cities where they can crash on a friend's couch. The publicist still needs to be sure that local media is alerted and coordinated, as well as the books getting there, even when the publisher isn't organizing or paying for the tour at all.

Publicity can be exciting, fun, and anxiety-ridden. It can also make or break a book. One book I was editor of proved this well. Originally published in Australia, then in the UK, I bought Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber for a token amount of upfront money (don't worry - the author didn't get screwed. She got royalties!) It was destined to be a small midlist book and we arranged for a print-run of 10,000 copies. The publicist had sent to book out to all and sundry, including of course some long-shots, and one of those came in. The editor of Cosmopolitan loved it! Yippee! So it was featured in the Summer Beach Reads section. Then, the Cosmo editor went on "Live With Regis and Kelly" and told Kelly Ripa how much he loved the book! Kelly insisted on taking his copy right there, on the air, instead of waiting to get her own! Score! And just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Kelly decided she wanted a "Reading With Ripa" Book Club (this was in the late '90s, the heyday of TV book clubs.) To make hers different, instead of looking for Deep, Serious books (read: depressing), she wanted to focus on summer beach reads. And Confessions was book #2! So, 4 print runs later, we were officially on the New York Times list, and the author came over to tape the episode of "Live" (you know, they're not always "live", huh?) This was an unknown author, with no US platform, and the book would have normally had an unremarkable life, except for the enthusiastic publicist, and some serious serendipity.

If this sounds like fun, by all means dive in! If it sounds exhausting (because it is!), be wary and be forewarned! Publicists are under a lot of pressure to make every book into the success story I detailed above, but that is a one-in-a-million. If you do want this job, be sure to emphasize your organizational skills as well as your social ones. On your résumé, any kind of event planning is fantastic, but also coordinating large, complicated projects, dealing with difficult people, and finding connections. As with all jobs, keep the job description very much in mind when discussing your skills and talents.

PS. Confessions was later made into a TV movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and Joseph Lawrence (no, not "Joey" on this one), hehe. A funny guilty-pleasure movie.

1 comment:

Jillian said...

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