Insider Tips from a Publicity Pro: Positioning Books for Success

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I’m delighted to welcome to In Cold Ink Brian Feinblum of Media Connect, a major book publicity firm with a tent large enough to include Al Gore and Dick Cheney on its client list—so you know that’s got to be a huge tent. Amazon Publishing and the Penguin Group are on the list, too, along with writers as diverse as Maya Angelou and Jackie Collins. It was great to have the opportunity to pick the brains of a real publicity expert. I learned a lot from this interview; I think you will, too.

 Brian, tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on book promotion and author publicity?

Brian FeinblumI am the chief marketing officer for Media Connect , the nation’s leading book publicity firm. I have been here 15 years and the firm has helped thousands of authors over the past 50+ years. I love working with authors and helping them to grow their brand and have their voices heard. When I graduated from college 25 years ago as an English major I planned on being a journalist but ended up staying in book publishing. I like working in PR and working with the media from the other side.  I can’t see promoting too many other industries. I love books because they represent ideas and values. Books make the world go – from entertainment and literacy to recording history and sometimes creating it. I value words and the language. Other than writing scripts for the adult entertainment industry (any offers out there?), I can’t think of a better field to be in.

Once, at a publishing dinner, I heard one publisher declare that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded agreement. Do you know? In your experience, what sort of promotion or venue moves the sales needle significantly?

There is no magic formula, but there are things that are logical and make sense. For instance, where possible, diversify your media portfolio, just as you would your finances. Don’t just work at social media and ignore the opportunities with radio, print or TV. Further, most authors/publisher need to start their campaigns on time (four months before a book’s release) and to do things prior to that, such as building a social media platform, creating a Web site, and lining up distribution. Too often, people sabotage their potential success by missing deadlines and ignoring the way the media asks that you interact with it.

Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity strategy, and if so, how?

No. How people buy a book doesn’t matter for the sake of getting media coverage, although I personally support printed books and physical bookstores because they bring about a richer reading experience and develop a community. More important than who sells books is who publishes them. The consolidating of major publishers into just five owners poses a threat in terms of the diversity of voices being published and the lack of competition for authors looking to sell their books to a publisher.

Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity firm?

homeless manFirst, don’t mortgage your house just because you believe in your book. They say don’t gamble money you can’t afford to lose, when it comes to casinos or investing.  Same with book publicity. But you do need to spend some money, take some risks, and be willing to support your financial commitment by also dedicating your time to the process. No matter how much is being spent it needs to be well spent, meaning an author should have a plan customized to meet his or her needs, desires and goals – and it should be a plan that a publicist believes will be successful. For instance, I would recommend online media and radio to novelists but would never, ever recommend pursuing national TV unless it was an unusual circumstance.

I realize there are many levels of service available from a company like yours, so this is not a simple question, but I’ll ask it anyway. What should writers expect to pay for publicity campaigns? A range is fine.

Authors should be ready to pay between $3000 – $5000 per month for a PR campaign, one that lasts 3 -6 months, BUT one can’t buy PR like a commodity. What one publicist does for the same amount of money another charges may not be apples to apples, either in the scope of the campaign or the results. I like to target a campaign that makes sense for an author, rather than ask the author to simply pay a set fee for services that aren’t relevant to that particular author.

Given that most writers have limited budgets and could not afford professional representation on a long-term basis, at what stage of the publishing process should writers bring publicists on board? 

Time can be a friend to writers or a cancer. The more advance notice you have to prep and lay groundwork, the better. For instance, to set up speaking engagements could mean you need to work six-nine months in advance. To contact book reviewers at major publications, you need to send advance review copies four months prior to publication date. Writers should consult publicists early and ask them what they can do for them, how much they’d charge, and what are their plans to make them a success. Then the author should figure out what they can do vs a publicist. For instance, authors don’t need to pay someone to do social media for them – they should do it themselves (but some may need coaching and consultation). Authors should use publicists for things that seem most foreign or difficult for them to do, or things that are time-consuming or where the success is based on media relationships and knowledge that authors just wouldn’t have.

Do you represent both published and self-published writers? Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media?

Oh yes, I represent a lot of self-published authors, accounting for maybe 40% of my client base. Most mainstream media is warming up to self-published books and the barriers to acceptance are the lowest they have been. But standard, old guard book reviewers at newspapers and magazines still hold prejudice against them. Online media and radio don’t care who the publisher is. Major TV looks and takes it into consideration but the medium is more personality-driven than publisher-driven. If a person with great credentials and/or a great story has something to say, that will dictate whether TV interviews the author.

blink1One of the books on your firm’s long list of best-selling campaigns was Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. When that book came out, it seemed to be everywhere: TV, NPR, print media features. It was a very successful campaign for a high-concept nonfiction book. I’m wondering what an agency such as yours can do for literary fiction or genre writers who aren’t great fodder for the “ Good Morning America” circuit.

Yes, we have worked with all kinds of authors and genres over the years and there is room for good literary fiction. Certainly with online media and NPR or targeted radio interviews, one can get the word out. TV is not likely and some select print is possible.

I often hear from writers who have self-published first novels, put them out on Amazon, and sold nothing beyond a few copies to friends and relatives. Would you advise such writers to invest in a professional publicity campaign?

It depends on the author’s goal. People don’t just utilize a publicist to sell books. Writers need PR to brand themselves, build their media resume, get a positive message out there, come off as an expert or build a case for a literary agent to agree to represent them. Some books sell few copies because they aren’t promoted well. Others suffer from poor distribution. Some books are well-written but the cover is ugly and the price is worse. Some books are published that never should be – the topic is limited, the book is done poorly, oversaturation for the genre, or the author lacks qualifications for penning the book.

A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Yes, this is an important area to focus on. First, look at the reputation of the people you are dealing with. How big are they? Too many promoters are one or two-people shops and although some can do a fine job, many are taxed, spending just as much time looking for business as they do in executing it. They have no depth or backup plan should they get sick, go on vacation, or hit a rut with the media. A bigger firm, such as Media Connect, has many resources and works as a team, rather than a solo act. Authors should ask who will they work with, how will things be communicated, how often will they receive an update, and what results are to be expected, though not guaranteed. Look at their Web site or social media – what tone do they give off? Do you like the person you are talking to? What success do they have for books like their book? Is the author being asked smart questions about them and their book or is the publicist just sweet-talking them and lavishing praise without even knowing much about them? I think if the publicist expresses a sincere passion for your work or your topic, that goes a long way in determining who to work with.

What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

They don’t get started soon enough to plan and execute a PR campaign. They don’t invest in promotions, thinking a publisher will do everything. They put too much weight in one thing and don’t spread out their approach. Some spend unwisely on advertising, which rarely pays off for authors. They let fear, laziness, ego and being cheap get in the way of executing a comprehensive, timely and targeted campaign. They don’t fully understand that media begets media and that grass roots campaigns are good ways to establish media exposure. Authors are blinded when it comes to looking at their credentials or how they can be positioned to the media. They also don’t always work well with their publicists, such as not being available for calls, failing to provide things a publicist asks for, or forgetting to provide all of the information and resources necessary for a publicist to successfully promote them.

What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Start by reading my blog, . Ok, shameless plug, but I think my 1100+ posts over three years on the topics that concern authors and book PR and marketing should help them a lot. Next, think of everything you do as a long-term event. Books may come and go but a writing career is constantly in flux. You build on everything you do. Don’t think something is too small to do to promote or market your book. Don’t let your ego convince you the book will sell itself without you doing everything possible to position it for success. Don’t focus on competing authors and get jealous or critical over what they do – worry about yourself and take care of business. Stop day dreaming and drawing up plans – get to work and day in and day out build up your social media platform and then find a way to collaborate with a publicist to help grow your brand and take you to the next level.

Thanks, Brian. Lots of great advice here–well worth a “shameless plug” or two!

In fact, I’ll follow that advice and your example by mentioning that my latest book,  A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking Press), was called “required reading” by the New York Post, and “an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end” by NPR.  Though I am, admittedly, prejudiced, I’d be curious to read any book endorsed by that unlikely pair.  It’s a thriller set in the high-stakes NYC publishing world, and if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll give it a read.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school,
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6 Responses to Insider Tips from a Publicity Pro: Positioning Books for Success

  1. S.P.Bowers says:

    Great info and lots to think about. Thanks.

  2. Zan Marie says:

    We all needed to see this. Thanks for the info and the interview, Barbara!

  3. deniz says:

    Really interesting interview. And now I’ve got a couple of questions…
    One thing that bugs me is the whole publishers-not-handling-promotion thing. If an author might have to hire a PR firm on top of signing a contract with a publisher (when they could just hire an editor and cover artist instead and self-publish), then, really, what are publishers for in this day and age? I ask as one who’d still like to be published traditionally, if only for the cachet. But it’s frustrating, especially for authors who still hold down full time jobs. Then we’re expected to do our own marketing, and write the next book, and have some sort of family/friend life. I know a few people who manage to do all this, but not many! Anyhow, that’s my mini rant.
    I guess I hadn’t realised an author could have a publisher and yet still need to hire a PR firm on the side.
    My other question is about international authors – would it make sense for, say, a Canadian author to even approach an American PR firm? How international are the packages/opportunities offered?

    • Deniz, I’m hoping Brian will stop by and respond to your questions. In the meantime, here’s my perspective on your first question. It’s not true in my experience that published writers need to hire independent publicists. One of the best parts of being published is getting those services for free. It’s true that writers are expected to help themselves through an online presence–to make themselves accessible and try to build a following. I do that—it probably takes me around 10-12 hours a week, including time spent on this blog. 10-12 hours is not nothing! But that’s just one part of the PR effort, and the only one writers can effectively do for themselves. The other stuff—getting reviews in mainstream media, getting off-the-book page features, speaking engagements, mainstream media coverage, etc.–all that is handled by the professionals on the publishers’ staffs. Is it enough? No writer ever feels he’s getting enough attention as long as other writers get any! But it’s a lot more than we can do for ourselves. Very few writers I know hire outside publicity firms. In many cases, it’s the publisher who does the hiring, to supplement its own in-house staff to promote books with best-seller potential. To those who have, much is given.

      I don’t know the answer to your second question but will pass it along and get back to you–so keep an eye on this comment stream.

    • Brian’s response: “If you want media exposure in the US for a book that can be purchased in English in the US, then yes, contact an American publicist. I have promoted authors who are based in UK, Canada and Australia — and got them media exposure in the US.”

  4. Deniz says:

    Thanks for the further details, Barbara and Brian! I’m not sure why this didn’t show up in my email — I’d have replied sooner!

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