How Not To Be: Publicity

I’ve been a high school teacher and a tour guide for drunken out-of-towners; I’ve provided customer service to angry, entitled museum members. I’ve dealt with some tough customers, in other words. Yet I’m continually surprised at some of the rude and ungenerous replies that scholars and authors return to my department’s marketing efforts. The worst offenders are usually first-time authors, roughly my age, and I often joke that since we all grew up with the smash success of Harry Potter we think book marketing is all midnight book parties and advance publicity. For a small press whose books enjoy a small and specialized (but enthusiastic!) audience, there isn’t much to gain from marketing until the book is on sale, and once it’s available, we must deploy our limited resources carefully and purposefully.

The slow pace and small scale–compared to Harry Potter, at least–can be understandably frustrating for authors who have spent years working on their books and now, at last, have time to sit back and enjoy the splash it makes. “I am prepared to market my book aggressively,” one author wrote to me, “although I’m not sure what that means.” She could be speaking on behalf of many with that sentiment.

I am not about to write a book marketing how-to, since the resources and best practices will vary by press and genre. What I do want to present is some press relationship DOs and DON’Ts for new authors that should apply generally. All of the DON’Ts are drawn from actual author behavior.

Do respect the efforts of the people who read, review, and sometimes provide quotable praise for your manuscript. Not all readers are kind, or constructive, or timely–I can relate, I’ve had bad reviewers too.  A reviewer may well read your manuscript badly or with an inexcusable bias. (Ask me about this sometime.) But unless they give you good cause to mistrust their advice, accept that it was meant in good faith. In other words, if you learn the identity of your anonymous reviewers–perhaps because they generously unveiled themselves to provide a positive blurb for your book jacket–don’t contact them to nitpick about how deeply they misunderstood your work.
If we solicit blurbs for your book or adapt them from your readers’ reports, don’t rewrite them unless they are factually incorrect–and even then, ask your marketing contact. Don’t say something nasty like “this blurb is no good;” a scholar of some eminence in your field has said something positive and encouraging about your book, and the appropriate response is “thank you.” If you wished for more blurbs of a more effervescent quality from different reviewers, don’t solicit additional blurbs for your book without conferring with your marketing contact or editor. We usually have reasons for our choices; we’ll listen to yours, too, but honestly, sometimes it does more harm than good to fill up a book jacket with advance praise from your friends and mentors.

Do respect your publisher’s resources. Don’t ask whether or not we want your book to sell–obviously we do, so you can safely assume that we are doing what we can to make that happen. However, “what we can” may be constrained by funds, staffpower, legal issues, or any number of problems that you can’t anticipate–and why should you? You’re an expert in your field, not ours. Don’t ask for an advertisement in the New York Times, for example, when we’ve made it clear that we don’t advertise there.
Don’t leap to the conclusion that your publisher is somehow shorting you or cheating you of marketing opportunities; you’ll just feel silly when you learn that they’ve already pursued that venue, or have your book lined up for the next issue.
Don’t accuse your marketers misunderstanding or misrepresenting your work. Assume that they are intelligent people; understand that it is likely that many of them have attained high levels of education, not unlike yours. To accuse publishers of misunderstanding you is more or less to accuse yourself of being unclear.

If a so-called aggressive marketing campaign is important to you, do bring that up in your early talks with the acquisitions editor; he or she might paint a rosy and accommodating picture of what the press can do for you, but they should also be invested in giving you realistic expectations. If you are shopping a book around, then, you might get a better sense of what kind of reach a publisher has and whether publishers across the board have the means to, say, underwrite their authors’ book tours (answer: none that I know of).

Do ask if there is anything you can do to supplement your publisher’s marketing strategies. Authors have the potential to be their own best advocates!

In short: do be nice and feel free to ask questions in good faith. Don’t treat the marketing department as though they made your cappuccino with too much or not enough foam. Really, you should not treat baristas badly either, because of basic decency. But even if you do feel entitled to be rude to service people if they disappoint your (spoken or unspoken) expectations, do not make the same mistake with your publisher’s marketing department. I have often been willing to go the extra mile for an author who shows him or herself willing to collaborate on marketing efforts; I don’t get paid overtime, but I will stay late to help a kind author with a special event or even just to speak on the phone and talk everything through. But if an author approaches me like an angry customer? I do the least helpful thing possible: I let them have their own way.
(Within the budget, that is.)

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