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What Does a Publicist Do?

Most publishing houses have a publicity department. It does not follow, however, that all authors and books get publicity organised on their behalf. The author who suggests angles that could be exploited, finds media vehicles to be pursued, and is cooperative in the process (without overdoing it and becoming a nuisance), is more likely to obtain the attention of the house publicist. Remember that in any single month it is likely that your publishing house will be promoting at least 30 titles. There is not enough time, energy or resources to go round.

Who does what – publicists and journalists

Publicists deal with journalists, and try to persuade them to cover the author/book they are promoting. They may be working for the house that is publishing the book, or as a hired hand – perhaps employed by a firm of publicity specialists or as a freelance. To get the most out of both publicists and journalists, it may help to know what kind of people you are dealing with. Characteristically (and this is a generalisation), publicists are:

  • Eternal optimists – they keep going when rejected
  • Good at juggling – they have to deal with lots of different ideas at different stages of development at the same time, and remember where each one is at
  • Perhaps less interested in your literary skills than in your ability to attract headlines. Bear in mind that by the time a publicist gets involved, the book has already been commissioned; their professionalism lies in making the media sit up and take notice, not in literary appreciation. So don’t be dispirited if they make little reference to your book’s merit and concentrate only on its news potential.

If the book is really strong in its own right (great read, won a significant literary prize, first novel that has huge potential) they may be able to generate coverage for your title on its own merits. Even then, the accompanying story will be relevant (think of Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy – both hailed as wonderful novelists, but their looks and personalities still used extensively in the publicity process).

Again, these are generalisations, but journalists are:

  • Cynical – they have seen it all before; it’s up to the publicist to tempt them with new ideas
  • Busy – and with their time at a premium, the more you can do for them, the better (from your point of view) the likely end results. Press releases written in a way that allows a specific journalist to incorporate them immediately will always do better than those made for blanket application
  • Distracted – they work in offices where most of us would find it very difficult to concentrate: phones ring, people talk loudly
  • Overwhelmed by other people’s information: a realisation of just how many press releases a journalist or literary editor gets each day can be very dispiriting
  • As Dotti Irving of Colman Getty PR, specialists in the book business, pointed out, they are more inclined to believe each other than the publicist, which is why a feature in a national newspaper can sometimes encourage other papers to pick it up
  • Increasingly well-known in their own right:

‘The relationship between interviewer and interviewee has changed over the same period [the last 45 years – since he began writing]. What used to be a rather bland and deferential conversation has become more probing and aggressive. Interviewers want blood – the blood of new and personal revelations – in exchange for the free publicity they offer their subjects. They want to assert their own personalities, and to demonstrate their own literary skills. They can become minor celebrities themselves in consequence. The interviewees, on the other hand, are apt to feel wounded and betrayed by such treatment.’
David Lodge, afterword to Home Truths, Penguin

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