Making and Learning From My Mistakes with PR

PhotobucketOne of the most complicated discussions I have with authors – including myself – is about whether or not to hire an outside PR firm.

The reason it’s confusing is because nothing is guaranteed with PR. You’re buying effort and contacts.

It’s not like advertising where you buy an ad, it shows up. PR is a gamble. No publicist worth her salt will guarantee you placement. She can’t.  A publicist’s job is to craft a pitch and get it to the right media outlets. But close the deal? That’s just not in her hands. The New York Times doesn’t listen to her when it comes to what to review.  O Magazine will read the publicist’s pitch but she’s not invited to the editorial meeting to help them decide what books they are going to feature.

But knowing all that isn’t enough. I know it and yet it never seems to sink in.

And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I think it’s because novelists are creative, imaginative people. Whisper glossy magazines to us and we can picture them. Mention an appearance on a TV morning show and we can’t stop visualizing sitting there and being interviewed. All the way down to the new Manolas you’re wearing.

In order to be an author we have to be optimists. How else could we spend a year, two or more of our time writing a book? Believing that we have a story worthy of telling? That people will want to read?

So presented with the potential of a PR campaign that will catapult our book onto the bestseller lists, it’s in our nature to start to drool and believe it’s all possible. Even probable. After all didn’t the book sell?

I’m not against hiring a PR firm. Quite the opposite. I think it’s a great idea. But you have to do it with your eyes open. You have to be a realist about it. And you need to make sure you have insurance.


The biggest mistake I ever made when it came to publicity was spending more on PR than I spent on ads. Basically not having insurance. Why? Because the PR effort failed utterly and completely. The book got rave trade reviews but the publicist just couldn’t drum up more than a bunch of blog mentions, and by the time I realized how little she’d gotten I had spent all my money and couldn’t shore up her efforts with any ads.

What happened? The book bombed.

Now if I am hiring a publicist I will only spend as much on her as I am spending on ads.  That way if the PR effort doesn’t work, at least I’ll have the ads.  No they may not sound as sexy, but they are guaranteed. If I buy three days of ads in The New York Times it doesn’t matter if I’m a woman who writes suspense – the ads will show up. The Times won’t diss the insertion order like they might ignore the publicist’s pitch.

The book still might fail, but not because I didn’t do all the right things for it.


The second biggest mistake I made was hiring a PR firm without doing the right homework. I got recommendations from an author I respected and read. Then listened to her publicist tell me about all the wonderful, marvelous press she’d done for her clients. I could see proof of it on her walls and website.

But I didn’t ask to talk to authors like me. Who didn’t have news angles to their books. Who weren’t already celebs.

What a publicist can do for a New York Times bestseller or an author whose wife is a movie star is not at all relevant when it comes to what she can do for me.

Now what I do is ask a publicist to tell me about the books she was hired to work on that she failed to get press for. I want to hear what didn’t work.

First, I only want someone who is that honest. And second, I want to know the worst that can happen, not the best.

I can imagine the best.


Neither PR or ads can sell books. Both do one thing and one thing only – generate awareness of a book. Readers are smart enough to know they don’t have to buy a book without taking it for a test drive. They can go to a bookstore or go online and read an excerpt and the flap copy, and then decide if they want to take the book home or not.   A book sells or doesn’t based on that experience.  Not on the mention in Elle or the ad on Perez Hilton.

Even the best book in the world won’t sell if the reader never hears about it. PR and ads are how you get readers to hear about a book.   I wish it were easier.  I wish it were cheaper.  I wish I wrote books that had magic wings and just took off by themselves. But that’s not reality. We write fiction, we don’t live it.

In the end, I think that’s the biggest lesson I have learned.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Chris Devers


About M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is the international and NYT's bestselling author of several novels and two non-fiction books on marketing. In 2005 she founded the first marketing company for authors, AuthorBuzz, and is the co-founder of BookTrib and Peroozal. She's a founding member of ITW.


  1. says

    Hee, “Manolas.” Because writers are too poor to buy the real deal (Manolos). ;P

    Great post, great advice. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Some mistakes you have to learn for yourself, but some advice would be stupid not to take.

  2. Sabrina says

    Good information – I’m a former Publicist and in-house book publicist as well and I wish so often that authors would approach PR with the business sense you speak about above.

    My #1 nugget of advice for writers – pay a flat retainer fee. Don’t pay someone by the hour. Don’t let then charge you for x amount of time writing press releases or x amount of time pitching.

    As someone who had authors on retainer vs. pay her hour work, it was always the books and authors who were real “clients” who got all my extra time because I wasn’t focused on tracking how to bill them, but instead on getting results.

    Also, PR is a WHOLE lot more than just media and press for a release. You want someone who is pitching YOU and your work all the time from all sorts of angles. They should also be getting you public appearances, book signings, speaking engagements etc. Really use them for all the things they should be doing for you.

    As you can see I could go on forever, but I’ll stop there. Thanks for sharing your insight with others!

  3. says

    “In order to be an author we have to be optimists. How else could we spend a year, two or more of our time writing a book? Believing that we have a story worthy of telling? That people will want to read?”

    Congratulations. You’d won a cookie.

    I had been wondering about PR, so I’m putting this in my weekly round-up.

  4. says

    Thought provoking. I’m not familiar with all of the tools of a publicist, but I imagine it would help an author sell books if the the PR firm was discriminating in their selection of clients. I doubt they are.

    The conversation at O magazine: “Here’s a pitch from ‘Loose Lola.” Next.”

    Does this happen?

  5. says

    “Now what I do is ask a publicist to tell me about the books she was hired to work on that she failed to get press for. I want to hear what didn’t work.

    First, I only want someone who is that honest. And second, I want to know the worst that can happen, not the best.”

    Yes. Absolutely. It’s informed consent, isn’t it? What specific value one person is likely to get versus the inherent costs.

  6. says

    Great post, MJ, and important to remember that seasoned authors have to watch for this as closely as debutantes. No publicity is a sure thing, no matter what anyone says, including your publisher.

  7. says

    I love this!

    Also, when it comes to researching publicists, be aware of a few different payment models. As Sabrina noted, you can pay per hour or by flat fee, but there’s also the “pay for performance” model that so many find attractive. As a (former) “classic” publicist, I don’t like the pay-for-performance pricing — you can end up paying WAY more than you should — or would if you used the flat fee approach with a good, experienced book publicist.

    Because most authors can’t afford to pay a good publicist $3,000-5,000 a month, I teach them how to do it themselves. Some of my students use what they learn to make amazing things happen, while others use it as background for the hiring process. They discover what they can do themselves, and what they’d be better off outsourcing — and what they can expect from that publicist. They come through the education process with more realistic expectations of what an author or a publicist can actually accomplish. And that’s one of the keys to this anyway — we have to be realistic about what anyone can achieve.

    Great post, M.J. Thanks for sharing!

  8. says

    Lawd, I’ve never used a publicist or bought ads – I wouldn’t know where to start; I wouldn’t know where to end the author I am and begin the marketing person I ain’t. Somewhere in between those two must be a solution for me, and those like me.

    Thought-provoking post . . .

  9. says

    There’s another part of the equation: what percentage of authors can realistically consider hiring a PR firm or buying ads? Statistics vary, but if we remove bestsellers from the mix, most fiction (except by established authors) doesn’t sell many copies. My guess is that the prospective sales of fiction from small press authors and many mid-list authors will never be high enough to pay for ads and PR.


  10. says

    Thanks for the great advice. I have a lot of respect for PR professionals, but as a former newspaper reporter, I know that space is at a premium and there are always too many PR professional beating on the door to get press. As a writer, my advice (and this is for self-pubbed authors) is to spend your precious resources on book cover art and professional book editing services. There is also a lot that traditional as well as self-pubbed authors can do with social media to create a buzz for their book. Thanks again for the sage advice.

  11. M.J. Rose says

    Fyi- Actually ads aren’t anywhere bear the cost of a PR effort.expensive – at we have plans that start at $1000.

  12. says

    > Neither PR or ads can sell books. Both do one thing and one thing only – generate awareness of a book.

    So, so true. And the effectiveness of both weapons is proportionate to the book’s perceived usefulness to the consumer.

    In other words, if you need to lose weight or save for retirement, awareness of books on dieting or investment advice might cause you to buy. History (non-fiction)…mmm, you might buy if the subject interests you.

    Fiction–? Double mmm. If you’re already a fan, great–a new title to enjoy. If you’re a hard-core genre junkie–yeah, maybe give it a try.

    If it’s an author you’ve never heard of and a type of novel you don’t normally go for…well, guess what? All the PR and ads in the world are not going to sell you that book. You don’t, frankly, need it.

    Which tells me this: the surest way to sell fiction is to grow a fan base, which happens over a number of titles and years. PR and ads can support a fan base but they don’t create it.

    Only one thing does that: the fiction itself. M.J., the only thing I’d add to your expert counsel is this: don’t put the marketing cart before the creative horse. Great fiction first. It starts with that.

    Later, down the line, where M.J. has arrived, okay. Spend. And of course remember M.J.’s lesson: even expensive authors services can bomb if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    Thanks, M.J. So good to get real world advice from a pro.

  13. M.J. Rose says

    Donald while I agree that the fiction itself matters more than anything I could bring dozens of debut authors here to argue that pr and / or ads totally helped! Awareness of a fiction title will absolutely get people to read the flap copy or read an excerpt online or in a store. No one can buy a book they never heard of – efforts to make them aware do just that. The book sells itself on its quality but authors can’t sit around and wait for people to discover them.

    • says

      No argument, M.J. Gotta get consumers to look in the first place.

      Of course then, as you say: “The book sells itself on its quality.”

      Cart/horse…horse/cart–? Tell you what, let’s agree to agree and get fiction writers to do it all: write brilliantly and market with smarts.


      [BTW, haven’t seen you in ages. Can’t wait for THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES!]

  14. says

    Thanks for the wisdom acquired the hard way. Given how successful The Book of Lost Fragrances already is in the world of online blogs, you clearly have figured out what’s the best approach. I’ll take your advice to heart. Congratulations on your latest. It will definitely reel in anyone who gets to the “reading the dustcover stage.”

  15. says

    Thanks, MJ!

    Way back in 2000 when I started this novel career, generating awareness meant going on a book tour. I’ve logged thousands and thousands of miles in air and on land; speaking at libraries, book clubs, women’s groups, etc…

    Now it’s an entirely different marketing world. It’s “Platform, platform, platform,” and “You’ve got to establish an on-line presence” I’m hearing.

    Now I feel like I need a publicist primarily to re-set my thinking on what to focus on!

    I appreciate your insight, your wisdom! Best on your upcoming book.

  16. says

    Very concise and very revealing. As an author, every time I have a book coming out, I struggle with the “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” question regarding hiring a publicist. In the end, I don’t because it always end up looking too expensive for what they “might” get me in return.

    I too wish there were easier ways to figure all this out; writers are assuming additional burdens when it comes to marketing and PR for their books, and the choices – and potential pitfalls – can be very tough to navigate.

  17. says

    Great post! Just one thing – you have to be creative and VERY optimistic in order to be a good publicist. At least i’ve found it helps. We want it to work too!