What I Learned from Publicists

Josie Leavitt -- June 16th, 2011

Yesterday the New England Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council had a wonderful educational session about how best to work with publicists. What made this session so informative were the three publicists who came to Storrs, Conn., to share what they look for when selecting stores for stops on author tours. Many New England stores, especially those of north of Boston, sometimes feel that authors don’t come our way because of travel time, but I learned yesterday that there are many factors that go into designing a tour.

We were joined by Lara Phan who does account marketing for Random House; Marisa Russell, who does publicity for HarperCollins; and Elyse Marshall, associate director of publicity at Penguin. The panel was moderated by Suzanna Hermans who began the session by asking what publishers like to see in an event proposal. Most publishers use event grids as a way for all stores to request touring authors. The grid is a massive Excel spreadsheet that needs to be filled out in with lots of  in-depth detail about what you can do for the event: how many books will you order, what size crowd do you expect, what is your marketing plan for the event, etc.  Generally, booksellers do not like the grids, but after hearing from the panelists, I understand better why they’re good for the publishers: it allows them to compare apples to apples, not different emails written different ways about how a store will handle an event. Honestly, the grids can only help us. And one very exciting innovation that Random House is spearheading is the use of Edelweiss as a way to request authors. This had the room fairly abuzz, as it can literally save hours of work.

The publicists all stressed a lot of the same things, and I’ve made a list of them:

– The number one thing is enthusiasm for the author. All three women said that excitement about the author and a love of that person’s work will go far to distinguish one proposal from another.

– Cross-promotion: who can you work with to make your event richer than just a reading and a Q&A? Can you work with the knitting store down the street? Are you going to bring to people to the signing who might not otherwise come to a bookstore?

– Can you make your event special? Will you rent a costume to make the event seem more fun? All of these things are important to making your event stand out from the hundred or so requests the publisher gets for each author on tour. With so many stores competing for the very limited number of events, the more your store can do to really make an event sound fresh, energetic and fun can really only help your store’s chances of getting some authors.

– Share with the publishers a map of your area. Google Maps lets you create a map that you save as a link and include in all your emails. No one knows your state better than you, and it’s in your best interest to let the publicists know how many other stores an author can visit while in your area.

– Suzanna shared with us her remarkable Author Event Confirmation letter, which all the publicists said they LOVED. What they loved about it was the thoroughness of it. Suzanna went beyond confirming date and time, she included media contacts with their addresses for review copies, a very nicely worded paragraph suggesting that visiting authors include a link to the store or to add Indiebound.com to their author page. This is brilliant. It’s a nice way of reminding authors to support indies on their websites.

– Try to get media attention for all your events. All the publicists said their dream media attention was morning TV, a large newspaper article, and then a radio interview. Several of us just started laughing as we don’t have local morning news programs. So, helping the publishers get the media that exists in your market is really important. Have a good media list. Smaller markets often have lots of little newspapers and it’s hard for an outsider to know which one is the most effective, and any good info is always welcome.

– Give the publicity team as much info up front as possible so they don’t have to hunt for it. Just like we like a complete press pack for all events, it works the same way for the publishers. Know where an author can stay and what those places generally cost.

– Remember that the event guidelines often come from the authors themselves. There’s a reason we’re told where to put the post-its with the name of the person the book is being signed to. If the post-it is where the author looks, the signing line will go faster and more smoothly. Guidelines exist for a reason; adhere to them and things will go well.

Each house has a different view of author tours. Random House is only touring five authors nationally, Lara said Random House wants bigger events rather than smaller regional tours. While they only tour five authors, those five authors go more places and have a longer tour than other houses. Both Harper and Penguin have 20 national tours this fall. All the women spoke of “author care” as a major component of their jobs. Honestly, I’d never thought of this, but it makes sense. Authors need tending, especially when they’re on tour for weeks. Personal preferences for airlines, number of connections they’re willing to make to get from A to B (there are authors who refuse to make connections, thereby they’ve pretty much eliminating much of New England and many smaller markets) and a host of other personal preferences can make planning a tour very complicated.

Lara, Marisa, and Elyse all said that there is a fine balance between book sales, author happiness, store happiness, event quality and media coverage. All stated that it’s not always the 500-person event that touches an author. Elyse said it best: they are looking to create moments. Sometimes, great events are with 20 people who love the author. Obviously, a 20-person event is a disappointment, but it can also be a really meaningful event that will have a sell-through of signed books that lasts months beyond the event. But secretly we all want to have the “knock your socks off, hundreds of people attending” events.

The last thing I took away from this was to follow-up after events. I’m usually so happy that the event is behind me that I never remember to send an email about the event. All the panelists agreed that this was what they craved: a simple email that states how many people attended, number of books sold, and Elyse suggested writing up a “moment” from the event that was particularly moving. Also, they all said if we had a photo or two to send along, that would be great as well.

So, while I wait to hear about the many author requests I’ve made for the fall, so for I’ve only gotten one confirmed (which I’m thrilled about) I will be patient and follow up in three weeks and I’ll remember not to take it personally when an author can’t make it, this time. And honestly, I’d much rather be hosting events than planning them because that seems far harder and you don’t get the joy of the event, instead their work doesn’t stop until the author is home from the tour.

2 thoughts on “What I Learned from Publicists

  1. Heather Lyon

    After years and years of filling out The Grids, and never receiving any response at all, I have given up. I realize that we are not in a major market (Chico, CA), but it’s terribly frustrating to have not been awarded a single author visit, and not even been given the courtesy of a response. Though we asked, we got no feedback or intstructions on how to improve our appeals. Year after year, we were told, just keep turning in your grids, and something will happen. I guess I’m slow, but I finally figured out were were wasting A LOT of time. Now we work our local connections and then if it turns out that we or a friend of the store knows an author, we have the author ask their publicist to put us on the list. Do I sound a little resentful? Maybe more than a little.

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