Getting Good PR For Your Novels

By Mark Alpert


I learned about PR twenty-six years ago when I was a reporter for Fortune magazine. For most of 1989 I was a prime target for the Great American Public Relations Machine.

I’d been working for the magazine for about a year when the editors assigned me to write the Fortune People column. Every two weeks I had to fill a page-and-a-half feature with entertaining tidbits about the movers and shakers of Corporate America. The other reporters and writers at Fortune passed some of the tidbits to me, and I got a lot of story ideas from simply reading the newspapers. And every week I received dozen of story proposals from PR firms, many of them sent in the mail as pitch letters or press releases and some delivered very earnestly over the phone by young, eager publicists.

As I sifted through all the proposals I quickly learned the first important lesson of publicity: Before sending a story proposal to any newspaper or magazine, you should do a little research. Read a few issues of the publication to make sure your idea at least comes close to the kind of story that the periodical actually publishes.

The Fortune People column, at least when I wrote it, was all about the titans of Big Business, the chief executives of GM and Ford and IBM and all the other Fortune 500 companies. When pressed, I would also write about loudmouths such as Donald Trump. And whenever I got the chance I’d try to insert some wacky outliers into the column. For example, I had a nostalgic weakness for writing about celebrities from the Seventies, the era when I was an impressionable teenager. I gushed like a schoolboy when I interviewed Olivia Newton-John, who started a chain of clothing stores in the 1980s that later went bankrupt. (The cutline that ran under Olivia’s photo in the column: LET’S GET PROFITABLE!) I also rushed over to the Plaza Hotel one day so I could interview Seventies tennis champ Björn Borg, who was starting his own fashion label at the time. There were some reports in the tabloid press back then that Borg had made a suicide attempt, and I felt a journalistic duty to ask him if the reports were true, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pose the question. The closest I came was: “Björn, are you happy now?” He gave me a bleak look, an expression of pure Scandinavian despair. Then he replied, in a dead monotone, “Yes, I’m very happy.”

So, if any publicist had taken the time to peruse my columns, they’d have gotten a pretty good idea what I liked to write to about. But practically no one did this. The young eager PR people from Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller just kept sending me their pitch letters and press releases and calling me all day long, proposing stories that were completely inappropriate for the column. The envelopes piled so high on my desk that eventually I stopped opening them. They went straight into the trash. And I bet that’s what still happens to most pitch letters today, although the vast majority of pitches are emails now and the trash bin is virtual.

Worse, I began to suspect that some of the more experienced PR people were fully aware of the futility of their efforts but didn’t really care. One time a publicist invited me to have lunch at Aquavit with him and one of his clients. I told the publicist there was no way in hell I’d ever write about the client, but that didn’t deter him; he urged me to come to lunch anyway. So I said yes. I’d always wanted to have lunch at Aquavit, and I couldn’t have afforded it on my own dime. During lunch I listened politely to the client’s spiel while thoroughly enjoying the restaurant’s exquisite seafood. And it occurred to me that this was a weirdly dysfunctional situation, because everyone at the table was happy for a different reason. I was happy because I got a delicious lunch for free; the publicist was happy because he’d impressed his client; the client was happy because he had a chance to talk to a Fortune reporter; and the waiter was happy because he was going to get a great tip. I knew that no story would come out of this lunch meeting; the publicist knew it too, and maybe the client himself suspected as much. But it didn’t matter: everyone was happy even though nothing was accomplished. It was a strange inefficiency in our capitalist economy, I thought. Even Karl Marx hadn’t foreseen it.

So now let’s talk about PR for books. The same rule applies: Before you start promoting your books to magazines or websites or TV and radio programs, you need to do a little research. Do these media outlets ever publicize books like yours? If not, pitching your book to them may be a waste of time.

Second, my journalistic experiences have made me a little wary of PR in general. I definitely appreciate all the efforts of publicists employed by book publishers; they work hard to get reviews and feature stories for the books on their lists. But I’m skeptical about the value of hiring a freelance publicist, especially for a novel. (Nonfiction books are relatively easier to promote because media outlets are more like to run stories about them.) I have to admit, my knowledge on this subject is limited; I’ve never hired a freelance publicist, and I’m not even sure how much it costs. So I’ll put the question to all TKZers: Has anyone out there ever hired a publicist to promote his or her novels? And if so, was the experience worth the money?

Postscript: I can’t resist providing a link (right here) to one of my Fortune People items. It’s a squib from June 1989 about a 42-year-old businessman in the oil industry who benefited from some powerful family connections. I spoke with him over the phone, and he seemed pleasant but forgettable. That just proves what a bad judge of character I am. (Hint: His initials are GWB.)


The role of the publicist

Today, my guest is Tom Robinson, an independent publicist (as opposed to an in-house publicist at a publisher) based out of Nashville, TN and representing such great authors as Tasha Alexander, CJ Lyons, Laura Caldwell, and JT Ellison. Tom and I not only share a great love of writers and the art of writing, but we share the same hometown: Pensacola, FL. When we’re not chatting about the state of the publishing industry, we’re comparing lists of favorite places to eat along the Gulf Coast. I asked Tom to cover the basic question of the role of a publicist, a question that continually comes up in the discussion of writing and publishing.


By Tom Robinson
Independent Publicist

tom-robinsonSo what does the independent publicist do for an author?

It’s a question which gets asked up front when I talk with an author for the first time. It should always be the first question.

The objective is to promote the book (assuming I’m approached when the author has a new release on the horizon) and the author’s branding so that the name has recognition beyond the new book. Those are the important goals. I said “assuming” the author has a new release. I’m also seeing authors who want to continue publicity efforts while they are between books to stay in front of readers.

But let me get back to authors with a new book.

In a nutshell: from meeting with the author the publicist develops a plan to work from that will outline the use of press material, the engagement of blogs, interviews, reviews, social media, online advertising all geared to the author’s targeted audience. Social media has opened up the publicity avenues by leaps and bounds. It is an extremely successful messenger when used correctly.

The independent publicist is often extending the efforts of the publishing house. In-house publicists are usually juggling several titles. They are often understaffed and burning up long work weeks.

Beyond the plan implementation, it’s essential for the publicist to make follow up contact with targeted media outlets. That’s where so much effort is spent.

When the project is completed there should be a cross section of media coverage.

My job has seen incredible change since I first worked exclusively with authors seven years ago. I think it will continue to change, just as the publishing industry changes. But the goals will remain the same—promote the new book and the author brand.

Tom Robinson is an independent publicist for authors. Located in Nashville, TN. Robinson, a media veteran of more than three decades, works with authors of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers as well as authors of non-fiction and children’s books. He now also has his first cookbook author which is resulting in an expansion of his culinary attempts. You can find him at


Hiring your own Publicist

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last Tuesday, one of our readers asked a question about hiring an independent publicist in addition to the in-house publisher that is often allocated to publicize an author’s latest release. My first thought was a background check similar to those found at would definitely be in order. As someone who initially relied on my in-house publicist (basically, because I didn’t know any better!) and then hired my own independent publicist to help plug the gaps and get further media, here’s my advice to approaching the issue…

  • First, make sure you know exactly what your publisher is proposing to do in terms of in-house sponsored publicity. Are they sending you on a book tour? If so, where? Where are they sending your ARCs? What media, if any, are they arranging?…These are all critical questions that you need to have answered before you consider hiring your own publicist. In my experience, it can be difficult to get the level of details you want from your publisher so you might have to probe and push to get the information you need. I was given a publicity/marketing plan so I did have an overall sense of what my publisher was and was not going to do (though my publisher was still reticient about giving me specific details regarding media/other event contacts made). For The Serpent and The Scorpion, I was fortunate my publisher sent me on a book tour and that my in-house publicist was willing to work with my independent publicist on media opportunities and events in parallel to what she was organizing.
  • Outline your own publicity plan, identifying what you can do on your own – this will help you identify publicity needs that an independent publicist can fill. There are many things you can do on your own – it’s just a question of time and identifying the appropriate contacts – but you need to ask yourself how much time you are willing to devote to setting up media events etc. and whether you feel comfortable doing this on your own.
  • Next, you need to seriously consider what opportunities exist that an independent publicist can assist you with. Fiction can be a hard sell publicity- wise, so you need to consider what angle(s) a publicist may be able to take advantage of – and you need to be realistic in terms of your expectations. Just because you hired an independent publicist does not mean you’ll be appearing on Oprah…
  • You need to also consider what you are willing to do – and what strengths/weaknesses you have. For instance, are you willing to do radio? Do you enjoy public speaking? Are you an introvert who would simply die if you had to address more than 10 people at an event? It’s important that you play to your strengths and are honest about your own abilities…
  • When you have decided that an independent publicist could add value to your publicity campaign, then you need to think long and hard about that dreaded word – budget. You need to consider what are you willing to pay and what results you expect for the money you plan on plopping down. Remember there are additional things that you will have to pay for as part of the hiring process like a national crime check…which leads to my final point…
  • Negotiate so you set expectations up-front and so you know exactly what you’re getting for your money. Many publicists work on retainer and make no promises as to outcomes – this can be frustrating if you find yourself doling out the money and getting little in return. Other publicists work on a ‘per-gig’ basis so you only pay for the radio interviews/TV appearances/reviews/events they actually set up. In my opinion, the latter is the better way to go but you must still be up-front in terms of your expectations. There’s no point you envisaging an appearance on the ‘Today’ show when your publicist can only get you a community cable TV spot…that’s just a recipe for disaster!

So what other tips do you have in terms of hiring an independent publicist? Any horror stories to share? Any insights that might help your fellow authors in making this decision? If you’re looking to hire new staff, make sure you include a berke assessment in the process.

Cara Black Grills Her Publisher

CARA BLACK The Kill Zone just loves it when guest bloggers visit, especially when their posts provide an inside glimpse of the industry. So when Cara Black offered to rake her publicity and marketing directors over the coals for us, we applauded her (from a safe distance). Courtesy of Cara and the lovely people at Soho Press, today we’re bringing you answers to some of the pressing questions you’ve always wanted to ask but were afraid to…

Thanks for inviting me Michelle! I know the most important thing is to write the best book you can. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite as Voltaire said. But after the real work is done and the manuscript has been accepted, copy edited, and slated for publication, what happens after that? I’ve often wondered, and have frequently been asked the same question at conferences. So I thought I’d ask the experts, in this case Soho Press, who publish wonderful books (and mine, too).

I love my publisher and I know they share the love. We’ve been together for nine books over ten years. Soho is a fiercely independent book publisher, based in New York, and their specialty is crime fiction from around the world. The Wall Street Journal has described Soho’s books as, “Some of the most exotic crime fiction in the world.”

But I thought I’d use this opportunity to rake them over the coals, grilling them about what we all want to know: how do the publicity and marketing director of a publisher—in this case mine —promote, market and sell a book? Something that, as either pre-published or published writers, we’d all like to know, right?

I think the answers and insights will prove universal and, hopefully, helpful. So now with my ninth book, Murder in the Latin Quarter, available this week—yes, murder in the latinthis week-I thought I’d politely ask them about what the heck it is they do. I know it’s not a fluke that Soho authors are regularly reviewed by the New York Times and interviewed on NPR. So I spoke with Sarah Reidy, Soho’s publicity director, and Ailen Lujo, their marketing director, both superstars in my book.

Cara Black: Can you describe a sales conference? It’s a mystery to me…who’s there? I’ve heard that the chains can decide a book cover.

Sarah Reidy: A sales conference is basically a meeting in which we (publicity, marketing, and editorial) present our upcoming list (of books) to the sales force. The sales team consists of all the wonderful people who are responsible for actually getting your book into stores. They take the information we give them and share it with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and all the great indie stores out there. In terms of book jackets, that’s usually determined at pre-sales. I’ll let Ailen explain that one.

Ailen Lujo: In regard to presales: Twice a year an editor and I fly out to Minnesota where our distributor consortium is based, and we introduce our potential titles to the sales and marketing staff. In many ways this meeting is even more important than the actual sales conference because we talk about the minutest details of the book, from price and format (should we do this as an original paperback or hardcover?) to book jacket designs. If our account reps hate a jacket, we go back to the drawing board. We present titles at sales conference. We discuss titles at presales.

CB: What about blogs? Conferences? Bookstore events? How effective are each or do you recommend a combination?

SR: Oh, my. This is one of those questions that really depends on the author. I think blogs are great, and there is such a variety out there almost everyone can find a good match for him or herself. There are straight review blogs, of course, but there are also a number of blogs that do author Q&A’s, accept guest blog posts, or will post podcasts and book trailers. In addition, there are blogs that serve as extensions of “traditional” media outlets, such as Papercuts (The New York Times), Jacket Copy (Los Angeles Times),, and Washington Post Live Online. This is a market that is constantly growing and offering more opportunities. For any author, I would recommend researching literary blogs and reading them for examples and ideas. Once you get a feel for a blog, you can start coming up with ideas about how your book could fit in.

Specialized conferences are wonderful. As Cara knows, Ailen and I are both huge fans of Bouchercon for mystery authors. It’s such a close knit community, and it feels like every attendee is there for the love of a good novel. If you are a less well-known author, I think conferences and conventions are a much better option that a traditional book tour.

Bookstore events are good in some cases, and not in others. If you’re Tori Spelling or John Grisham, you should absolutely do bookstore events. People are going to turn out to see you no matter what. You lucky son of a guns. However, if you are a debut novelist with no real connection to a location, it’s hard to turn people out for these. Instead I typically recommend doing one big event in your home town, and perhaps somewhere else where you have a large community of family and friends who will come.

You should also look into reading series. There are some great series out there that set up a night with multiple authors…often at a bar! And everyone knows that drunk people are more likely to buy books (I just made that up, but I imagine it could be true). A reading series tends to have a built-in following, so it’s a good way to expose your writing to a new group of people.

Cara here. I really appreciated Sarah and Ailen taking the time to answer questions.Hopefully this parted the mist of publishing marketing and publicity somewhat. Does this mirror some of your experiences? Or does your publisher do things differently?

Cara Black writes the award nominated Aimée Leduc Investigations set in Paris. MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, the ninth book in the series, was just released and is available online and at fine bookstores everywhere. In MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, Aimée travels to the Left Bank unraveling the trail of a woman who claims to be her sister, murky Haitian politics and international financial scandals that lead to murder.



Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:

Robert Gregory Browne, March 15
Neil Plakcy, March 22
Liz Jasper, March 29