Bad PR HangoverOver the past few months I’ve spoken to two authors who’d signed with the same, well-reputed PR firm for a book launch campaign, paid a considerable amount of money and then…nothing. Barely a review or author interview to show for the firm’s initial promises and excitement.

(For the record, this was not one of the wonderful PR firms plugged into the Writer Unboxed community.)

Each of them told me – with quite a bit of emotion – about their disturbing experience: a positive, promising initial meeting followed by months of waiting for potential press coverage that never panned out, then finally, a barrage of lame excuses including, “It’s because of your book.”

One of these authors became my client, and before we started work I asked to see the list of media outlets said firm had contacted about his middle grade fantasy novel. To my surprise, the list contained no fewer than 4,000 entries, which is far too many and implies that proper targeting hadn’t been done. Case in point: the list included publications such as General Dentistry and American Cowboy.

The second author was unable to obtain a copy of her press list at all, having been told it was “proprietary.”

Needless to say, this makes my blood boil. It’s deeply unfair to the authors who placed their trust in this firm, it’s disrespectful of authors in general – taking advantage of their earnest hope and vulnerability – and it’s an insult to all the devoted, hard-working publicists out there who go above and beyond to generate results.

It also brings to light something that absolutely has to change: Many – possibly most? – authors simply have no idea what they should look for when hiring a PR firm. Nor do they know what’s “normal” or what they should expect from this relationship.

So here’s my laundry list of must-haves in determining whether the firm you hire to publicize your book is up to par, and in understanding whether it’s doing (or will do) what it should for you:

1. Set reasonable expectations up front

A good PR firm will not sell you promises, ensuring you that it can get you into Oprah orThe New York Times, for example. In fact, the publicist you work with should explain, up front, what you can potentially expect from your campaign – and what you cannot.

2. A detailed work plan

Going into a campaign, you know what you want: news and reviews! But how is your publicist going to accomplish this? He or she should be able to tell you, step by step, what the execution plan is. Personally, I like to include this in a work schedule so the timing of each step is clear.

3. Accessibility

Sure, publicists are busy. Isn’t everyone? But your publicist should be available to answer any questions and concerns you have within a reasonable timeframe. For me, this means about 24 hours, unless a heads-up about being unavailable for some period has been given.

4. Regular updates

You should expect regular updates from your publicist about the status of the work plan, and – once the pitching phase begins – what reactions he or she is getting from the media. Your publicist should be able to tell you who’s potentially interested in covering you, who’s not, and when possible, why.

5. Press clips

When a review of your book comes out, an interview of you airs or an article is published (all of which are called “press clips”), your publicist should send you the link or – if necessary — tell you how to order print reprints. He or she should also know at all times what clips you have coming down the pipeline.

6. Open communications

Nothing about your campaign is proprietary or secret, whether we’re talking about press lists or the reasons reporters might give for declining coverage. After all, it is your campaign. Your publicist should be willing to share lists of your press contacts, copies of any written materials used in your campaign, and anything else you ask for.

7. General guidance

Less obvious but just as important in my opinion, your publicist should willingly offer you advice about steps related to but not included in your campaign. For example: what do you do with all those press clips once you have them? (See my post on that here.) What should guest blog posts that you’re asked to write be about? Have you done a great job writing them, or could they use a few tweaks? What marketing initiatives that you can take on your own have you overlooked?

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By the time I spoke with the two authors mentioned above, they were utterly dismayed. One was reeling from a “bad PR hangover” and the other was downright disgusted. Still, because neither of them was entirely sure what to expect from a publicist relationship, both were a bit hesitant to protest. “Maybe that’s what a PR campaign is all about,” they thought. After all, this firm had been recommended by agents and editors (a whole other issue: yikes!).

An author friend of mine recently confessed that when she hired a PR firm, she was reluctant to ask up front what outcome she could potentially expect for fear of being a nuisance. (Something I hear a lot about relationships with publisher’s in-house publicists, too.) In other words, there’s some notion floating around that you should “sign on the dotted line and shut up.”

Perhaps that notion is driven partly by a fear or hearing exactly what realistic expectations look like. Given the level and the fragility of the hope invested, and that The Today Show probably won’t happen (sorry!), it’s understandable.

But whatever the reason, and lest there still be any lingering doubt: that’s all wrong. Remember my laundry list and above all remember: it’s your book.

About Sharon Bially

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is a professional publicist and founder of BookSavvy PR, a boutique firm devoted to bridging the gap between book promotion and sales. Author of the independent novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s an active member of Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s 2nd largest independent writing center, and writes for the Grub Street Daily.