Inside Publishing: The Book Publicist

Michael Bourne
From the March/April 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

A little more than a decade ago, when e-books first blinked onto the scene, it became fashionable to ask whether writers still needed publishing houses. After all, if anyone could publish a book by posting a digital copy online, why should authors share their earnings with a publisher whose only role seemed to be lending credibility to the project? Since then there have been some notable self-publishing success stories, but many writers have learned the hard way that it can be hard to sell a book if nobody has heard of it.

Clockwise from upper left: Andy Dodds of Grand Central Publishing, Josefine Kals of Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books, Michael Goldsmith of Doubleday, and Megan Fishmann of Catapult, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press. (Credit: Dodds: Daniel Mattingly; Kals: Michael Lionstar; Goldsmith: Hannah Engler; Fishmann: Lena Moses-Schmitt)

This is where book publicists come in. 

At any major publishing house, editors acquire and edit books, and sales reps work with bookstores to sell them, while publicists are responsible for arranging book tours and persuading media gatekeepers to feature the author—crucial elements in the success of any book that few authors can replicate on their own.

But if the internet hasn’t yet eliminated the need for publishing houses, or the publicists who work for them, it has radically changed how they publicize books. Forty or fifty years ago, if you were a writer who wanted to reach readers, all you really needed to do was write a great book. Once your book had been acquired, publicists quietly reached out to the editors of the book sections that then filled most big-city newspapers, along with a few prestigious magazines and radio programs. Critics at those outlets wrote reviews, and if the reviews were positive, readers went out and bought the book. 

Today that cozy media ecosystem has gone the way of Rolodexes and rotary telephones, replaced by a highly atomized digital landscape in which critical appraisals matter less than they once did and publicists must come up with creative ways to leverage an author’s personal profile to publicize their books.

“Think about how movie celebrities are all on Instagram and they’re expected to share a portion of their lives with their fans. That wasn’t the case before. Celebrities were just these big mysteries,” says Josefine Kals, director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books. “It’s a similar thing with authors. You’re not just selling the book anymore. You’re selling the author, too.”

Book publicists still spend a great deal of time cultivating relationships with critics and editors at publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker, where even today a rave review can propel a book onto the best-seller list. But as the number of these so-called legacy publications shrinks, the space they devote to books, and particularly to book criticism, is shrinking even faster, upending the traditional model of review-driven publicity.

“The idea of consumer as critic is hugely popular, as you can see through Amazon ratings and reviews, so I don’t know that people read [professional] reviews and trust reviews in the way that they did maybe fifteen years ago,” says Andy Dodds, associate director of publicity at Grand Central Publishing.

This forces book publicists to find other ways to get the word out about their authors’ books, most of which require some direct involvement by the authors themselves. This can take many forms, ranging from embarking on an extended book tour to sitting for interviews and, increasingly, to writing original essays related to the themes or content of the book, which publicists can then try to place.

“I always have a conversation with my authors about: What was the genesis of this book? What are your personal ties to this project? What are your thoughts on writing original content that either dovetails nicely into the book or—and this is more appealing to the media—ties in in some way to whatever cultural moment we’re in right now?” Dodds says.

Obviously all of this creates more work for the writer, who has just filled an entire book with words and now must write even more of them to draw attention to the book. But, publicists are quick to say, this doesn’t mean authors are doing all the work.

“I think there’s a misconception that because there’s less review coverage, there’s less for the publicist to do,” Dodds says. “The thing that people don’t understand about publicity, especially in publishing, is that even to get an editor at a particular outlet interested in running an original piece by someone, there is a lot of that goes into that conversation; there’s a lot of pitching; there’s a lot of dialogue; there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it.”

In truth much of what book publicists do is invisible to the authors they serve. In one way or another publicists are involved with a book throughout its lifetime at a publishing house, often starting with acquisition. Many editors ask publicists to read manuscripts they’re considering for publication, in part simply to get a second (or third or fourth) opinion and in part to gauge how the publicist might go about attracting interest in the book.

“A lot of the editors here know I have a passion for literary fiction, particularly debuts, so oftentimes I’ll get an e-mail with a manuscript that one of my editorial friends has on submission and they’ll ask me to give it a read and say whether I agree that this has a lot of potential,” says Kals. “Then, if they’re moving to bid on it, they’ll often ask me to come up with a proposed PR plan to help us land the deal.”

These early reads can have an outsize impact on a book’s fate. If an editor loves a novel but finds little enthusiasm for it in-house, she may decide to publish it anyway, as long as she has the support of the publisher, but it might not get the attention it needs from the publicity and marketing staff, who are juggling campaigns for many books at the same time. If, on the other hand, the publicist and the rest of the publishing team are as excited about the book as the editor is, that enthusiasm may well translate into a more creative and diligent push for the book as it approaches publication.

“In-house enthusiasm is a huge component to making a book work externally,” says Michael Goldsmith, associate director of publicity at Doubleday. “Savvy editors and publishers know how to get a publishing team excited and interested in investing more of their personal resources behind the projects they feel passionate about.”

The formal work of publicists on behalf of a book can begin as much as a year before publication, when they team up with marketing associates to devise a plan for launching the book, including potential sites for a book tour and lists of media outlets to approach for reviews and other kinds of articles. About nine months before publication, they present these plans to the company’s sales reps, who are tasked with pitching the books to the online and physical bookstores they cover.

These meetings give the sales force an opportunity to hear how the house will be positioning its titles for the upcoming seasons, but they also give publicists a chance to hear back from the sales reps about interest for an author in a particular store or region. This information can be especially useful as publicists begin plotting out an author’s book tour.

A successful book tour serves two broad purposes. First, it puts an author in bookstores with potential readers who can be persuaded, through an engaging reading or onstage interview, to buy a signed copy of the book. A well-orchestrated tour also gives local media—alternative weeklies, local radio stations, podcasters, and so on—an excuse to feature an author who will soon be appearing in their area. (While most authors schedule at least a few live events around their publication date, publishers only arrange multi-city tours when they think it will pay off in terms of added sales and publicity.)

In planning a tour, publicists factor in where their authors are from, where they’ve had successful appearances in the past, and where their target readership is most likely to live, along with any elements of the book that might have special relevance to a particular city or region. So a novelist writing about South Florida might pay a visit to a bookstore in Miami, while the author of an insider’s account of the art world might schedule a reading in Lower Manhattan.

But if publicists hear through their sales reps that a bookstore is especially interested in having an author come, they may add an extra stop on the tour, says Goldsmith. “If we receive a request from the events team at the Harvard Book Store or Politics and Prose telling us there is a community of booksellers and buyers in their store who have fallen in love with this debut novel, there may not be a consumer market yet for that author in Boston or D.C., but we trust that they have the marketing mechanism in place to promote an event successfully and turn it into a win for an author,” he says.

Five or six months before publication, just as book tours are starting to take shape, the first advance reader’s copies, or ARCs, arrive, and publicists begin pitching the book and its author to newspaper and magazine editors, TV and radio producers, and other media gatekeepers.

Here the job of a publicist has changed remarkably little from the print era. Armed with prepublication blurbs and, hopefully, positive reviews from hugely influential trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, publicists draft a pitch letter and begin tapping their connections in newsrooms and broadcast offices. Their success depends on the quality of the book they’re pitching, along with the buzz it has received in the trade press and elsewhere, but it also depends on their relationships with the people they’re pitching to, who often have to make assignment decisions based on little more than a few lines of promotional copy and a publicist’s word that a book is worth the ink or airtime.

“A big part of my job is cultivating real relationships and friendships with people in the media,” says Megan Fishmann, associate publisher and senior director of publicity at Catapult, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years now, so I don’t want to just throw all the books at them and say, ‘You pick.’ You want to help them with their job because they’re inundated with so many books. You need to figure out what their tastes are so you’re not wasting their time and so you can say, ‘I really, really love this book; trust me on it,’ and because they know you they’ll take a look at it.”

Positive coverage in mainstream legacy media—a glowing review in the New York Times, an appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air or on a morning TV show—remains the most dependable way to move the needle on a book’s sales, publicists say, but as books coverage in traditional venues dwindles, the web has opened up a slew of new outlets for publicizing books.

Many of these are simply the digital homes of legacy publications, many of which have slashed literary coverage in their print issues but expanded the numbers of interviews and reading lists they publish online. Others are digital-native blogs and podcasts devoted to books, which are always hungry for content. 

But publicists are also growing adept at tapping into other outlets that don’t necessarily specialize in books but are looking for intelligent voices to chime in on subjects they do cover. So one of the modern publicist’s core tasks, says Kals, the Knopf publicist, has become teasing out themes and subjects that a writer can write knowledgeably about and that will draw the interest of a specialized publication. “The author may not have thought that aspects of the book could appeal to people who just became parents, but there’s that one scene that’s so powerful about becoming a new parent, so maybe the author has an interesting piece they can write for the New York Times parenting website,” says Kals.

“It’s a lot of work,” she concedes, “but the more the author is willing to participate and to collaborate, oftentimes the more successful the publishing experience is.” 


Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine