Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some thoughts on publicists and publicity

Debby here, intrigued by Rick’s question about computer technology, and distracted by a thought that parallels Rick’s subject.

When I fired up my email this morning, I had a solicitation from a publicity firm that had apparently seen my latest book title somewhere. Who knows—Amazon? Barnes & Noble? A review? (I wish) Receiving this bit of spam reinforced Rick’s question, but I want to sidetrack to the whole question of author publicists. The publicity firm used a touch of fear to make me realize how woefully under exposed I probably am, and stressed their expertise in the burgeoning field of public relations.

There are authors who are excellent at PR—fellow blogger Charles Benoit is invariably creative and tasteful, and I love observing his latest train of thought. But if a writer doesn’t have experience in the PR field, the idea of getting publicity for one’s novels is daunting.

Writers spend a good deal of time alone just getting books written, and a whole author publicist industry has developed because: a) pressures to get publicity seem to be increasing, and b) many writers are unqualified by nature or experience, or don’t have the time to get the job done. For example, a recent Mystery Writers of America listserve has had long discussions on book trailers—how to do them, whether they work, to whom to gear them.

Meanwhile, I ponder how much good it all does. Part of me wants to believe the old expression about the cream rising. That if an author keeps trying to write a better book with each try, the books will eventually attract the attention they deserve. Perhaps this hope is blindly naïve. Word of mouth works, but to what degree? We all can name poorly executed bestsellers that far outsell excellent work by lesser known people.

The issue is complicated. Big publishing companies have huge publicity budgets. It appears that enormous publicity budgets follow staggering advances. But that’s not where most of us sit—we’re not Hillary Clinton or Patricia Cornwell. But we mid-list authors observe the phenomenon and surmise that a lot of sales are based on name recognition. And we figure we need to have a little of that, too.

So what’s the publicity worth? Does it help to hire publicists? Though I’ve now used a publicist on a limited basis for three books, I still can’t answer these questions. I pay this publicity firm per event, and most of them are for mainland radio interviews. The publicist charges me about $85 to set up a radio interview. This means that an interview would have to result in the sale of 34 books just to break even. I have no idea how many books I sell because of a radio interview. I don’t even know how to find out.

What does an author spend to get to the average book store signing? Even if you make great friends with the owner of a wonderful indie, will you generate enough sales in hard cash to make the visit worthwhile? I’ll answer this one—probably not, but the emotional satisfaction, camaraderie, and new friendships are probably worth it. But what if you paid a publicist to set up the signing? Was that worth it? And do these efforts translate into sales beyond that day in the store?

Let me know what you think. And I have the germ of an idea... Maybe we could share our best bookstore visits, the contact phone numbers for fun and interesting radio interviews, and favorite reviewers in an organized manner. Could we start our own publicist team?


Donis said...

Oddly, I was just wondering if there is any such thing as a "publicity co-op" among authors. It seems like such an obvious idea, yet I've never heard of anyone doing it. Of what would such a thing consist?

Rick Blechta said...

You're the one who came up with the idea!

Rick Blechta said...

Okay, now that I'm through being cheeky, here's what I think (for what that's worth).

You'd figure publishers would be interested in publicizing their authors so they could sell more books. Like so many things in the book industry, this is a paradigm that doesn't work. Publishers will put their big bucks down where they know it will sell lots of books. If they divided up the publicity money equally among their authors, they'd probably go belly up in short order. Their major authors sell tons and that allows them to publish the little guys -- like all of us.

Like so many things you get on the Internet, many of the PR firms that get in touch with you are a bit of a scam. Do you really need a PR person to set up a book signing for you? Of course not. All they're going to do is phone the bookstore and set one up and then turn around and charge you how much?

PR firms are like anything else: there are good ones and there are bad ones. Problem is, they cost a lot of money. I know of authors who've dropped 10k, and while they have gotten something from it, they freely admit they didn't get 10k's worth.

On the brighter side, signing in bookstores, especially indies who have a lively trade or specialize in CF can make a big difference. All of the Canadian mystery bookstores have sold good numbers of my books because I've made it my business to get to know them. One sold 200 copies of one book! "Hand selling" by booksellers who like your work can really move the product.

You're right, though, when you say that name recognition means a lot. Vicki will tell you when we were out doing The Rick & Vick Show, that many, many shoppers we spoke to had not heard of most of the big names in CF, let alone us.

We either have to keep plugging away at it, or give up and eventually get dropped by our publishers. Sadly, the cream doesn't rise to the top (usually). Just look at the music industry!

zhadi said...

Hi! I found your blog by a google alert for 'murder for hire' (no, I'm not looking to off someone; it's a book title) and am glad I did. As a very new mystery author with my first book out and trying to do marketing et al, the idea of a publicity co-op among authors sounds like a great idea. I know some authors join together to share costs for book tours, etc., and it seems like there'd be a lot of possibilities to increase exposure while decreasing cost with this sort of co-op.

Now excuse me while I prowl through your archives!

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Commenting back to my author buddies--first of Zhadi, thanks for getting in touch. We try to hammer out some of the challenges of being new-ish authors, plus we discuss a lot of societal issues relating to crime and crime detection, publishing, and writing.

Let's think about this publicity co-op a bit more.

zhadi said...

Hi, again, Debbie! To reiterate, I'm very happy I ran across this blog! It's informative, inspiring and fun to read! Which is, of course, the best part.

Another thing you all might be interested in (and maybe have already done) is the whole blog book tour concept. Dani with has been helping me with my first tour and started a group on Yahoo to share experiences/information/resources.