If you’re a traditionally-published author, you might be assigned a publicist. The job of that person is to help get your name out there. By ‘out there’, I mean articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines (both print and digital) and blogs too. If there isn't a dedicated social media person available, then they might cover social media too. To be clear, a publicist is often different from the marketing team who will usually be in charge of retail placement and ads. A publicist, or PR, will be the person trying to get 'free' publicity for you.
The contact you have with your publicist will vary depending on which publisher you’re with. At the beginning of your relationship, there will often be a long questionnaire to fill out to give them an idea of any ‘newsworthy’ potential you have. You might be lucky enough to get a phone call, Skype call or face-to-face meeting with them too.
In my view, a publicist can be just as important a person to an author as their agent and editor. You can write the best book in the world but how will people know if word doesn’t get out there about it?
So how do you make the most of that important relationship… and how can you troubleshoot any problems? Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Preparation is key
If physically possible, then I recommend meeting your publicist face-to-face as soon as you can then again 2-3 months before each book is published. If you’re popping in to see you editor, for example, try to get some time with your publicist too. Or ask to arrange a phone chat or Skype.
I know for some authors, this first chat with their publicist can be a daunting prospect. This is why I advocate as much prep as possible. You'll have a head-start if you’ve written the thoughts document I recommend in this article as it will help you understand how you want them to pitch you: so what media and angles do you think will work for your readers? Of course, your publicist will often know best, but at least you'll go in armed with knowledge. Also prepare some ideas of your own and a list of questions.
In an ideal world, you will have had a publicity plan when you got your deal or soon after which you can discuss with them. If there is no plan, then ask them to email you their plan after the meeting (or even better, ask if they can bring one in when you arrange the meeting). This will usually make sure they do! As the weeks and months go on, you can refer back to their plan to check all is in order.
If you're not getting any requests to write articles or posts in the lead-up to publication, and it's only a month before publication then a quick polite email to your publicist checking in doesn't harm. Then the week of publication, I recommend popping them another email to confirm where they're at with their plans for publication day itself, especially if they handle social media (and if they haven't sent their publication day plans already, of course!).
2. Don’t be scared to chase up
One of the biggest issues I hear from authors is a lack of publicity support, despite initial promises. Some authors have even told me that, despite getting a big advance and a beautifully-presented publicity plan as a way to win them over, all they got on publication day was one tweet. One tweet!!! The advice above will help, but if you've done all this and still nothing, don’t just sit there and cry into your vanilla latte. Contact your publicist, or ask your agent to, and ask what's going on.
As Sabah Khan, my brilliant publicist at Avon says: ‘I think the relationship between an author and their publicist is so important and part of what makes it strong is being able to be honest with each other. If I felt an author needed feedback on a piece or felt they needed some media training, I would hope I could tell them quite simply and honestly. I’d also hope they could be honest with me and so if they felt that they weren’t getting enough publicity, they need to be honest and tell me what they would like to see.’
But please be polite and understanding... and do NOT email every single day, one polite email will suffice. I used to work in PR and it is so difficult drumming up publicity. Journalists make promises of interest then don’t follow up. You even get told a piece will be published only to discover it’s been bumped off by a bigger news story. Understand it's a challenging job and your obnoxious email isn't going to help. Yes, it's important to get the best 'service' you can. But it's also about a happy medium between asserting yourself as an author, but not being rude.
3. Be realistic
I’ve said it countless times: publishers have lots of authors on their rota and the simple fact is, some will naturally get more publicity then others, so don’t get too precious about it. But you absolutely should expect promises to be kept and decent publicity support too considering the percentage publishers take off your royalties (and even if you got a huge advance, even more reason a publicist should be working hard to make sure they make that advance worth while, right?)
But be realistic. As I say so many times, only you can dedicate 100% of your time to YOU. Don’t expect your publicist to be able to dedicate 100% of his or her time to you. There is nothing worse then authors who harass their publicists for updates as though they are the sole author on their rota. As Sabah says: 'I’m very lucky to do the job that I do, and I really love that my authors trust me with their secrets and the precious gift that is their novel – so I need them to have every faith in me when I say I’m on the case!'
So while you should expect your publicist to do work for you, you should also use your contacts and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities as well (just make sure you let them know anything you’ve committed to so you avoid avoid duplication). As Sabah says: 'A publicist would love to spend hours and hours on each author but we have to be realistic about how much support any one author can have so anything an author can do themselves is a huge bonus.'
4. Show willing… within reason
Publicists like it when authors show willing. If you put in the effort your side and reach deadlines, then they will do the same for you. So fill in those questionnaires, send them ideas. When a request comes in, do what you can to say yes.
However, I completely understand how busy life is and if you’re sacrificing precious writing or family time to write a 2k article for a blog that has 5 followers, then you are perfectly within your rights to push back. You should also not share anything you feel deeply uncomfortable about. I’m personally quite open about my life, and have numerous articles placed by my publicist Sabah in the national press about my infertility and other issues. As Sabah says, her ideal author is one who ‘shares things about themselves and be vocal (not too vocal!) about what they think, and contribute to topical conversations.’ Of course, not everyone is as open as me. If you’re not, then you have to accept you might not get as much media coverage.
5. Keep YOUR promises
If you have a deadline for an article, stick to it. If you’re going to pull out of something, have a bloody good reason. A big part of a publicist’s job is nurturing relationships with people who are very influential among readers. You let them down without a good reason and it makes your publicist look bad.... and you.
In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. Maggie writes great teen fiction and her Shiver series focusing on werewolves are a huge hit. And yet in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, specifically a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
I found this a bit vague though. How can a mood be the core of a novel?
When I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with a brilliant editor called Eli Dryden. When she sent me the revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, I remembered Maggie Steifvater's blog post again and it suddenly made sense. As my editor Eli wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when the focus on ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title to match the core, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
Let's look at some other examples from books, TV and film. Many of these 'cores' are up for discussion, but this is my take on them and the core ranges from a sentence to a mood to one simple word.
Bodyguard (BBC series): Crushed vulnerability of the seemingly strong (breakdowns, wavering, fear)
The Greatest Showman: Expressing what makes us different (a show being the ultimate expression)
Big Little Lies: The ebb and flow of female connection (like the sea, a strong focus of the novel)
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town, but also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: a landslide and, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, the ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?
My advice? As you toy with ideas for your novel, or tackle revisions for your novel, think about the core that brings it all together
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