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.

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.

Homework

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.

Reality

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 best selling 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.