When is a Publicist Not a Publicist?

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When is a publicist not a publicist? When she’s the author.

But can’t she be both? Five questions to ask.

By Lucine Kasbarian

Published in the national newsletter of the Women’s National Book Association

Spring 2011

I’ve been on leave from my own firm, Progressive Book Publicity, since my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Somehow, in the throes of eldercare, I managed to meet, fall in love with and marry my husband (also a writer), and produce a book -- my second -- an Armenian folktale retold.

Upon graduating from NYU with a degree in Journalism, I landed my first job as a promotion assistant for Alfred A. Knopf. From then on, publishing was my thing. Sometimes writing for consumer and trade magazines, at other times writing for newspapers, and still at other times promoting books for publishers.

Publicists often say they’ve “worked on the other side of the fence,” meaning that they, too, have been journalists. As such, they know first-hand how to find a news hook in a book, what kind of stories journalists like to see, and how journalists like to be pitched.

But how about when “the other side of the fence” means that you’re an author as well as a publicist? And what if you’re about to come out with a new book? Will your publisher welcome your dual background or cringe at the thought of unwanted interference? Some questions for the publicist-cum-author:

1. Savoir Faire: During your first conversation with your publisher’s publicist (at least 6 months before pub date), have you made it clear that you would like to apply your acumen to your book campaign? If you demonstrate your chops but do not besiege your publicist, chances are that you’ll develop a great working relationship. Since most in-house publicity departments are understaffed, it’s an advantage if tasks are assigned to each of you. Perhaps the most important outcome from your dialogue is that you’ll avoid duplication of effort that sometimes happens from lack of communication between author and publicist.

2. Managing expectations: Even though you’re a publicist whose job it is to make magic happen with books you promote, can you realistically assess a books’ media potential when you are its author? Authors can be as subjective about their literary offspring as they are about their biological ones. If yours is a children’s folk tale, as is mine, is there still a news hook or human interest story you can weave from the book? Can you live with the fact this book may not have the budget for a book tour? If yours is a midlist book that will get limited publicity attention from your publisher, and you’re currently working full-time as a publicist for other books, are you prepared to put in the time and funds necessary to boost visibility and sales for the book you authored?

3. Contacts: I’ve promoted practically every literary genre except romance novels and children’s picture books, and my Rolodex shows it. Researching to customize a list for a book is nothing new. But cultivating personal relationships -- something that can influence responsiveness to your book -- is not something that happens overnight. Thankfully, my publicist offered to compare our contact lists to weed out duplication, and supplement it with contacts I don’t have.

4. Ingenuity: As the author, are you ready to absorb the cost of obtaining promotional copies beyond what your contract stipulates? It can really add up, when you consider the cost of postage and mailing supplies. Is your publicist willing to ship review copies to your media contacts, as mine offered to do? He also invited me to craft the media materials for the book, and generously offered to duplicate and mail them from his office. This is a win-win situation. The publisher gets an extra publicist without paying for one, and the author doesn’t have to dip so deeply into his/her advance to cover expenses.

5. Brevity: Even the most concise can filibuster when talking about a book s/he authored. When approaching the press, can you pitch your book succinctly as if you are the publicist -- that is, with passion, and knowledge, but some emotional distance? Since journalists are pressed for time, publicists master the art of the sound byte when following up about a book, article, or story idea. As such, you as a publicist may be able to pitch a book or idea in 10 seconds or less. But does that same axiom hold true when the book has been written by you? Authors are brimming with more ideas than an in-house publicist has time in which to listen. When on the phone with your publicist, get to the point and then let your publicist go. My publisher’s publicist prefers weekly contact, and asks that all requests be put into one email. This helps him to stay organized and to focus his eyes on the prize: garnering media coverage for books in his stable. And isn’t that what everyone in the industry would most like to see?

Lucine Kasbarian is a journalist, political cartoonist, WNBA-NYC member and publicist-on-leave. Her forthcoming children’s picture book, The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale, debuts in April 2011 with Marshall Cavendish Publishers.