[Note: read posts by WU contributor Susan Schwartzman HERE.]

These days, it’s not enough to have written a compelling work of fiction to keep sales climbing and the contracts coming.  Writers have to be media-savvy, often a challenge when most writers would rather be at the keyboard working on their next project than devoting time to self-promotion.   Writers are turning to professional public relation firms to bridge the gap and get their work in front of as many consumers as possible.  Like any professional relationship, a good publicist can make your career; a bad one can break it.

Susan Schwartzman, CEO of Susan Schwartzman Public Relations, lifts the veil into the arcane world of book publicity.  Schwartzman represents some of the hottest names in genre fiction, and her clients have been booked on a diverse range of media opportunities from CNN, Oprah and NPR, to major print publications like NYT and USA Today.  Schwartzman believes that it’s essential for authors to take advantage of every shred of media available to them if they wish to grow their sales.  In today’s entertainment-saturated marketplace, we agree.  Writers need every advantage they can get.

We are pleased to present our interview with Susan Schwartzman.

Q: For those writers who have never contemplated getting their own publicist, explain what a professional publicist can do to help grow their careers.

SS:  With so many books being published every month, publishers simply don’t have the man-power to give the focused attention that it requires to get all of their books adequate media coverage. Unless you are a bestselling author, and even if you are a bestselling author, you simply cannot rely on your in-house publicist to maximize your media coverage.

If you are a bestselling author, a professional publicist can complement what your in-house publicist is doing. For example, if your in-house publicist is setting up author signings in various cities, an outside publicist can book media that your in-house publicist doesn’t have the time to do. Many in-house publicists handle national media on a regular basis but may not have strong contacts with local media, which is important as well.

If you’re a debut novelist or a mid-list author, it’s essential to hire an outside publicist.

It’s all about exposure. Publicity is crucial to getting an author on the media’s radar. Unless you have someone aggressively promoting your book to the media, you won’t see your name in print, on the radio, or on television. Your book will most likely fall dead off the presses, as the Scottish writer David Hume said. It’s sad to say that, but it’s true.

I have gotten tremendous media coverage for authors who would otherwise have gone unnoticed by the media had they relied on their publisher. For several debut novelists, I was able to book dozens of  radio and TV interviews and place a significant amount of reviews and feature stories that resulted in their books getting a second print run. This would not have happened if they had relied solely on their publisher’s efforts.

Q: At what point should an author think about engaging a publicist? 

SS: Ideally, at least six months before the publication date. The goal is to coordinate your publicity efforts with your book’s pub date and that takes considerable advance planning. Magazines, for instance, often close their issues three, sometime four, months in advance of their publication date. Every magazine has different lead times, and an experienced publicist knows what those lead times are. As an author, you have to promote your book months in advance to get into those magazines in time for the publication of your book. It’s not much different for national TV and radio such as NPR.  It’s never too early to start planning your publicity campaign.

Some authors have hired me a year before their book comes out. This is advantageous for both the author and the publicist as it guarantees a spot on the publicist’s calendar. The publicist can begin to work on your book well in advance. Many authors hire a publicist a week before their book comes out, which means that the publicist has to rush to write press materials and get the books out. Often, it is too late to get national exposure and the publicist is limited in the type of media coverage she can get.

Q:  What can an author expect from a publicity campaign?  How do you assess what media placements are right for a particular author?

SS: A good publicist will strategize a campaign based on an individual title. Each campaign is different, depending upon an author’s budget and the type of book.

An experienced publicist should be able to tell an author what he or she can reasonably expect from a campaign, although there are never any guarantees. I am always reluctant to raise an author’s expectations, but I’ve been fortunate in getting many of my authors more publicity than they ever thought possible.  

Some books are media-driven by their subject matter and lend themselves to national TV, radio campaigns, and print media. Literary books, for example, are more review-driven. Media tours are a great way to get exposure for novelists as well as nonfiction authors. There are “book friendly” cities such as Seattle and Denver that have TV programs that welcome author interviews. One local show on a top program in that market can have a huge impact on sales. I’ve seen debut authors increase their visibility and their booksales by doing a five-city tour. 

Authors often ask me how many bookings would be considered a good campaign. If I book an author on Oprah and no other show, you’ve hit the jackpot. But again, each and every TV or radio interview or book review reaches different readers at different times, so a good campaign should encompass TV and radio interviews and review coverage on the Internet as well as in magazines and newspapers. 

An author should expect a publicist who aggressively goes to bat for his or her book. Authors should have a clear understanding of the parameters of their campaign: Who is the publicist handling the campaign? What are his or her credentials? What kind of media will the publicist will be seeking? (Radio? TV? Print? Internet? Book-signings?) Authors should also expect a publicist to keep them up-to-date on the status of their campaign.

Before signing up with a publicist, an author should have a clear idea of what the publicist intends to do and how she plans to go about it. That, as well as the terms of payment, should be clearly spelled out in a contract.

Q: How did you get started in this field and what keeps you in it?   

SS:  I love books, and it is my love of books that launched my career and keeps me in it. I began my career working in various areas of book publishing. I’ve held sales and marketing positions for some of the top houses. I handled foreign rights for Henry Holt and attended the Frankfort Book Fair, which was very exciting. But nothing can compare to the thrill of getting a rave review or booking a terrific TV or radio show for an author. 

When I was in between jobs, a colleague recommended me for a free-lance publicist’s position to fill in for an in-house publicist who was going on maternity leave. When I expressed reservations about my lack of experience, my colleague replied that  I would be “a natural” at publicity. The first publisher who interviewed me for a freelance position hired me on the spot. And my colleague was right. I was a natural. I was booking authors on more national TV than the in-house publicists. I thought it was beginner’s luck. But I’ve had a successful track record ever since. 

After several years of freelancing in-house for almost every big publisher in New York, a bestselling author requested that his publisher hire me for his 20-city tour. The publisher did not have a desk for me, so they asked me to work at home and buy a fax machine. That was before e-mail was widely available. I handled my first 20-city tour from my home office more than 15 years ago, and I’ve been working for myself ever since.

Q: What questions should an author ask when seeking to engage a publicist?  What’s the rule of thumb for fees?

SS: Authors should always ask a publicist for references. I am always surprised when authors tell me they hired me because I was the only firm who provided references. And you want those references to be from other authors.

Authors should also ask how many books a publicist handles at one given time. Campaigns vary in their scope, so if a publicist is handling five campaigns, and three are smaller campaigns, that is quite different from one publicist handling five or seven comprehensive six-month campaigns.  

Authors should inquire about the size of the firm. Large publicity firms may not always be able to give authors, especially first-time or relatively new authors, the attention they deserve because they have so many clients already.

By contrast, boutique publicity firms such as mine handle only a handful of clients at a time so we can concentrate our time and energies to making sure we get the word out about the author’s book. I pitch media contacts as long as it takes to get a review or a booking.  Even if I get a pass, I want to make sure my e-mails are getting read, so I call and e-mail until I get a response from my contact. Not everyone does this, and not everyone has the time to do it. But I find that my persistence gets results for my clients. 

In addition, my clients are not just another name on a file folder. We stay in continual touch with them and address their concerns so they know how their publicity campaign is progressing. And once you are my client, you can be assured that if a national show calls me requesting an author on a certain subject matter, I will get in touch with a former client, no matter how much time has elapsed since their campaign. This summer Montel called me about a former author while both of us were on vacation. I was able to track her down during my vacation to make sure she got on the show. And this was three years after her campaign.

It’s hard to say anything concrete about fees. Obviously, larger firms tend to cost more, often significantly more. Smaller firms often are less expensive and you may get more personalized attention. Regardless, an author should know exactly what he or she is paying for and how the payment schedule is structured. When in doubt, consult your agent or someone in the know. Also, shop around. Find out what different publicists and publicity firms are charging and what they are offering for their fees. Again, ask for references so you can talk to other authors about their experiences with that firm.

Q: Some authors won’t be able to afford a professional publicist for a long time.  What can authors do to promote themselves until the day they can afford a professional?

SS: Authors shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they cannot afford a professional publicist. They don’t necessarily need a full-blown publicity campaign. Even a modest or partial publicity campaign can make a substantial difference in the success of an author’s book.

At the very least, however, an author should have a website. Again, it doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, some marketing research suggests that simpler is better when it come to website design. Further, put an opt-in mailing list on your website so your fans can know the latest news about you and your book. Creating a blog is another great way to get the word out about your book and keep your name in the mix. It’s inexpensive, effective and even fun.

Several of my authors have supplemented their campaigns by doing virtual tours. One such author networked with dozens of other authors and was featured on dozens of blogs when her book came out in exchange for blogging about those authors when their books were published. And it didn’t cost her a dime.

Q: You handle media relations for a number of bestselling authors and they rave about your tenacity and creativity.  What’s it like working with well-known writers and what drives you to seek opportunities for them?

SS: Working with bestselling authors such as Joseph Finder is exciting, challenging and rewarding. It’s always challenging finding new media opportunities for bestselling authors who often get review coverage in the national newspapers. I find it a particular challenge to look for new opportunities for authors outside of the box—looking for that print placement in a high-profile magazine that rarely features author interviews, or a booking on a national news show that rarely interviews novelists. For example, Joe Finder writes thrillers set in the workplace, so I pitched a profile story to The Economist and landed Joe a full-page profile story in that magazine. A placement like that is as exciting and rewarding for me as it is for the author.

Many bestselling authors such as Joe Finder are media savvy, and I learn from them as well. Great clients help with their publicity campaigns by sharing ideas and media contacts. After handling a campaign for Joe Finder or Tracy Quan (whose debut novel, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl is being adapted for an HBO series by Daren Starr), my data base included many new contacts. I often learn from bestselling authors and media savvy clients new ways of positioning authors that helps my next client.

I look at each new book as an adventure and, when top authors like Joe Finder or Tracy Quan are involved, it’s like the adventure of a lifetime. You never know what will happen from day to day.

Yet, regardless of whether it’s a bestselling or first-time author, I give that author my personal best. A well-known New York publicity director once called me the Navy SEAL of publicists because I refuse to quit for my clients, no matter who they are or what they’ve written. That’s my personal and professional commitment to them.

Q:  What attributes should a prospective client look for in a good publicist?

SS: What separates a good publicist from a mediocre one is persistence. A good publicist never gives up. She doesn’t drop the ball. She doesn’t quit after 40 rejections. Because one more e-mail or phone call may just yield that one great review, that one great booking. 

After e-mailing more than 40 reviewers on a bleak Friday afternoon in December, I received one reply. But that reply was from one of the top reviewers at one of the largest newspapers in the country requesting a finished copy of the debut novel I was promoting.

Persistence is the name of the game and is what differentiates the stars from the wannabes, success from failure. Once you’ve written your book, your job is not over. If you want readers to take notice and read your book, you have to put in the time and effort at promoting your book. But three months is a lot less time than the three years it may have taken you to write your book, and well worth it when you look at the big picture. 

When your  book gets outstanding media coverage, it will pave the way for your next book. A publisher is more likely to sign a contract for a second book if your first book received significant media coverage.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.