The Bad PR Hangover (and How to Avoid It)

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?


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 the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the 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.


  1. says

    This is valuable advice, Sharon, common sense and down-to-earth. And, it touches on a mindset that is endemic among writers inexperienced with their rights and privileges as a client. Many writers are not business people and are insecure about contractual matters. Your guidelines are a good primer. Beyond that, if uncertain how to negotiate the agreement, the author would be wise to ask a business-savvy friend (from any business, not just the publishing business) to sit in or at least look over the agreement. It is not a time for blind trust in an unknown PR candidate.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..The Clever Turn of Phrase

  2. says

    What an informative article! As a soon to be published author, I fall into the clueless category when it comes to PR. One particular line, sign and shut up, jumped out at me. So much advice that authors receive tells us to do exactly that and to have few to no expectations. While that advice is realistic, it doesn’t address the fact that authors do actually have rights. Thank you for shedding light on what we can and should expect. In this economy, no one can afford to have an experience like the ones you described.

  3. says

    Sharon, this is timely for me, thank you. A question: I have heard many authors say that hiring a publicist for a first novel doesn’t really bear fruit that justifies the expense. What is your experience in this regard?

    • says

      Kathryn – that’s an important question. I think the key is whether you are assessing results on a dollar-for-dollar basis, or not. On a dollar basis, it’s unlikely for most authors that the investment will be recouped for a first novel. But you need to tell people about your book in order for it to sell at all. Without taking the proper steps, you risk having the book slip through the cracks altogether. Yes, it’s a gamble, but the downside is not very attractive. On the upside, exposure tends to open all sorts of doors and opportunities beyond mere sales. And the PR you generate the first time around becomes part of your overall press platform. This feeds momentum for future books and increases your value to publishers. Many an author have gotten better advances the second time around thanks to media exposure. It’s one big snowball….
      Sharon Bially´s last blog post ..Why Your Publicist Should Think Like a Novelist

  4. says

    Thanks for the valuable advice. I would only add that even if the publicist is able to get positive press for your book, it likely will not translate into increased sales. I used my media expertise to get lots of free media for my book, and it didn’t generate any additional sales, but as Bob Mayer has said many times on his blog, for first-time authors, it’s not about sales, but discoverability, and free publicity helps. Thanks again.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Scene and Sequel: The Yin and Yang of Fiction

  5. says

    Right on with this post, Sharon. This is such a nebulous area that authors, particularly first-time ones, should tread with caution, and pay close attention to the excellent laundry list your provided. Many public relations practitioners–not all, but many–are mired in 20th century strategies. The communication area has vastly changed, even in the last decade. Sending out hundreds of news releases and scheduling a couple of bookstore signings aren’t effective unless accompanied by specific AND measurable follow-up. Thanks for the info. Thanks for this valuable perspective.

  6. says

    I’m nowhere near getting published, much less ready for PR, but I’m starting to look at what’s out there. A couple of years ago, at a writers’ conference, I checked out some of the PR tables. I talked to them, and gathered their info. I figured it’s never too early to look.

    “Yes, we’ll do a great job of promoting your book!”

    I checked out their Facebook pages. None of them had been updated in over a month. Same situation on Twitter. The books they were promoting were given only one mention.

    Big red flag! They were very nice, but not doing their job.

    • says

      VP – definitely red flags when there’s not much mention of the books being promoted. That said, I might cut them some slack about the Facebook and Twitter pages. In my own case, for example, client work always takes precedent to updating my own social media sites and often I simply don’t have time. And even when they are up to date (like they have been lately), I feel like there’s always something missing. When they aren’t, though, I do keep a running list of clips I’ve gotten for clients.
      Sharon Bially´s last blog post ..Why Your Publicist Should Think Like a Novelist

  7. Denise Willson says

    This went right to my printer, Sharon. Great advice worth keeping.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  8. says

    I’m not to a PR stage, but I can tell this is valuable advice. In fact, I feel like this could be applied to any stage of the writing/publishing process that involves working with others, from editors to agents and beyond. Anyone you’re paying should be willing to communicate and be transparent about the process. An unwillingness to do so sets up warning flags, and you’re so right that we need to get over that “I don’t want to be a nuisance” feeling and assert ourselves when it’s important. Great post!
    Annie Neugebauer´s last blog post ..My Writer Unboxed Debut

  9. says

    I work in higher education PR. I imagine that there may be some specific wrinkles to book publicity, but based on my experience this is spot-on advice. I’d also add that the list of media outlets should include blogs and not just traditional media.

    Bad PR people don’t want to give out their media list because they’re afraid that you’ll take your list and blast out news releases to the list yourself. Which is all they really do. Which is, of course, quite ineffective since anyone can build a media list.

    Good PR people help you understand that it’s not about the list — it’s about the relationships, credibility, continual research, pitch crafting and results tracking that is more likely to deliver positive results and save you–the author–time.
    WHM´s last blog post ..Words beget words; ideas feed on ideas

    • says

      WHM – thanks for this. All spot on. And yes, media lists should by all means include new media outlets like blogs and online news sites. Nowadays you can’t have one without the other!

      Your comment that it’s really all about “relationships, credibility, continual research, pitch crafting and results tracking” also rings true loud and clear. My own take on this is that the most important thing is the story — that is, the specific messaging used to describe a book (or whatever else you happen to be publicizing.) There’s a little more about that in this blog post I wrote…

      and more coming soon…
      Sharon Bially´s last blog post ..Why Your Publicist Should Think Like a Novelist

      • says

        Yes, excellent point — and one of the best ways to see if a publicist is actually interested in you and gets you is what kind of story they can tell about you and your book and how that story will shade differently depending on the media outlet being pitched. They should be able to demonstrate the ability to shape the story to you rather than slotting you and your work into an ineffective pitch formula that they have developed.
        WHM´s last blog post ..Anthologizing: The Apex Book of World SF 2

  10. says

    Thanks for the practical, empowering perspective. I think so often we writers just feel lucky about each step we get to take on this path, and we worry that speaking up/out will be interpreted as ungratefulness, so we keep quiet instead. Your advice on how to ask questions and establish expectations in a professional manner is really valuable.
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..Los últimos (the last of the Spain sketches)

  11. says

    Kirstan – exactly. I do think that somehow there’s a fear of “rocking the boat” — as if we writers feel that our success is so incredibly fragile that asking for anything whatsoever once a foot is in the door could potentially make it crumble. What’s most important, though, is knowing what to ask, and how.
    Sharon Bially´s last blog post ..Why Your Publicist Should Think Like a Novelist

  12. says

    This post is so timely for me, and I just bookmarked it. The part about being afraid to be a nuisance really hit home for me. I recently sent my editor an email that began with “I don’t want to bug you, but…” and he shot an email right back assuring me that I was never bugging him and that he wanted to hear from me whenever I had a question. He may regret telling me that. ;)
    Kristi Helvig´s last blog post ..The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

  13. says

    Excellent, practical, sound advice!

    The bit about the list of outlets contacted being “proprietary” would send me over the edge. Was that actually in the contract?If so, it’s yet another sad reminder to read the stuff one signs.

    I think checking references before making any big hire is worth the time and minor hassle.
    Mari Passananti´s last blog post ..In Which the Grape Attempts to Teach Me to Drive

  14. says

    A significant side to the writing/publishing business to be wary of – writing really is the main joy of the thing. Everything else is tricky! Makes me appreciate writing, purely in and of itself, that much more. And glad that there are blogs like these to inform those of us who are otherwise ignorant about what to expect to find out there when the time comes to move forward and try and get our work read. Thanks for sharing this insight. :)