What your publisher wishes you knew

What your publisher wishes you knew

By Laura Portwood-Stacer and Maria Whelan

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Laura Portwood-Stacer is the author of The Book Proposal Book—an honest and empathetic guide to crafting a compelling scholarly book proposal—and an experienced developmental editor. She’s also the founder of Manuscript Works, which offers courses, workshops, and lectures to guides academic authors through the publishing process and is part of the amazing cohort of coaches who collaborate with Princeton University Press on our Supporting Diverse Voices Book Proposal Grants. For her Manuscript Works newsletter, Portwood-Stacer recently spoke with PUP’s Assistant Promotions Director Maria Whelan about the ins and outs of book promotion and how authors can best collaborate with their publishers on marketing and publicity. We’re republishing their edited and condensed conversation in full, with permission. 

LPS: First of all, please tell us about yourself and what you do.

MW: I’m the Assistant Promotions Director at Princeton University Press. My specialty is publicity, but at PUP we call it promotions because we work closely with marketing. I have worked in book publishing and in publicity for my entire career, which is about ten years. Prior to coming to Princeton University Press in 2019, I worked at an imprint of Simon and Schuster, at a small independent press called Other Press, and at an imprint within Penguin Random House.

LPS: Could you explain what publicity means in the realm of book publishing and how it’s distinct from marketing?

MW: Marketing involves spending dollars or other resources (like time and labor) to make people aware of a book. Advertising in a scholarly journal, posting about our books on the press’s social media account, or bringing copies of a book to a disciplinary conference would be examples of marketing.

Publicity is a bit less direct. Our job in publicity is to make the book available to reviewers who might publish a review or interviewers who might want to talk to our author. We might pitch an excerpt of the book to a publication, hoping they’ll want to reprint it. It’s not paid exposure—we just offer up what we have and the outlet decides whether they want to pursue it.

At Princeton University Press, publicity and marketing work closely together. So if we get a great organic media hit for the book (i.e., publicity), we’ll make sure the marketing team knows about it so they can promote the hit directly as well. As the publicist, I’ll craft language for the social media team to share on all our social platforms.

LPS: So if I understand correctly, you as the publicist can’t guarantee exposure for the books, but you’re doing your best to get relevant people interested.

MW: A big part of my work is coming up with the best pitches and news hooks that are going to get people the most interested in an author and their work. But absolutely, for somebody who loves control, my job can be really challenging sometimes because I do give it my all but I might not actually be able to secure anything in terms of coverage. That’s again where marketing and publicity work hand in hand—if we aren’t getting that kind of coverage that we’re hoping for, we might decide to buy advertisements in outlets that we think would be really applicable, or we can do some more promotion, even on our own website, to boost the book.

LPS: Thank you, I think that’s really helpful for authors to know. Have you encountered any other misperceptions among authors about how publicity works that you wish you could clarify?

MW: I think the biggest thing I want authors to know is that the press’s publicist is your collaborator. We want what’s best for the book as much as you do. You don’t have to fight hard to get us excited about your book, because we already are enthusiastic. We may be working on a lot of other titles at the same time, but we are trying our best to make something happen for your book.

It’s also important for authors to align expectations in terms of likely readership for the book and the publicity outlets we will be pursuing most aggressively. If the audience for your book is quite scholarly, if you have written a fantastic monograph that is going to appeal to a few key academic disciplines, that’s extremely exciting, and something that we cannot wait to publish. But you may not get coverage in the New York Times Book Review or an interview on the Today Show. However, we will try to get you in every journal that will apply to your discipline and hopefully on a more targeted podcast for an in-depth interview that will connect with your scholarly audience.

Sure, an NPR interview is phenomenal to get, but those are really competitive and we will be working hard to find the audience for your book in other places and make sure that they’re able to buy copies of it. We may still try for outlets like NPR, so I’m not saying authors should “stay in their lane,” and not want that kind of exposure. But we just want author expectations to be realistic.

It’s so nice when an author is enthusiastic and is able to provide us with a lot of ideas about where their audience might come from. That means zeroing in on what the audiences look like and which outlets are the best, most specific fit for speaking to those audiences. Those outlets might not be the biggest names that everyone is aware of already.

LPS: Do you have other advice on how authors should approach collaborating with their presses on marketing, publicity, and promotion?

MW: Yes. It’s important for authors to understand that prior to my meeting with them I will have already started looking at their book during our launch discussions at the press. At PUP we launch twice a year, while at other presses it might happen three times a year. We do these big launch conferences where our acquiring editors get together with the sales and marketing teams to tell us about the books that are coming out in about a year’s time. We’ll discuss the book’s projected publication date as well as the author’s profile. We all get very excited. We talk about key points or pitching ideas that we might have.

Something else we’re doing at this time, about nine to ten months at least before publication, is looking at the author’s marketing questionnaire that they’ve submitted to the press. This questionnaire allows an author to tell us places where we might want to advertise the book or try to get reviews. It also gives the author an opportunity to share thoughts about cover design and other aspects of the book that will be important for marketing.

Authors are often the ones who know their audience and the relevant outlets best, so we count on them to let us know where we are likely to have the best luck getting reviews and so on. It is our job to find those people and we have a database full of outlets, because a lot of my time is actually spent researching the best outlets and contacts for specific books. That can mean reading articles about the book’s topic, looking at similar titles and the coverage they got, or using social media to find writers who are interested in books with similar topics. I also meet with editors to tell them about our catalog and pitch our books for reviews. But we also want to see what the author is thinking so that we can collaborate in the best ways. Authors can help alert us to grassroots opportunities to get the book in readers’ hands, such as museums or regional bookstores that they happen to know about.

[NB from LPS: If you’ve worked through Chapter 4 of The Book Proposal Book, you’ve already come up with a lot of great information about your audience that can be recycled into your author marketing questionnaire when your press asks you to complete it!]

Another thing I would say, and this is something I bring up in a lot of my author calls when I introduce myself to authors, is that your author questionnaire doesn’t have to be final when you submit it to the press. If you read an article and think, “oh my goodness, this writer should get a copy of my book,” or, “this publication’s readers would definitely be interested in what I have to say in my book,” you can let us know that at any point.

Those kind of tips and ideas are really helpful to us. We might have seen the article as well and already be on top of it, but sometimes not. Oftentimes, again, you’re the one that’s paying attention to the world in which your book lives a little bit more than we are, because we just have so many books that we’re working on.

So to bring it back to my earlier point, we are your collaborator. If you come in with enthusiasm and a willingness to work with us it helps everyone stay excited. You don’t have to sell yourself to us or be defensive because you assume we don’t care enough about your book.

LPS: I wonder if you can respond to a complaint that I’ve heard repeatedly from authors, which is that they fill out their author questionnaire but then feel like their press doesn’t do anything with it. It may be that authors are not aware of everything that is going on behind the scenes in sales and promotion, so I wonder if you can speak to that a little bit.

MW: Here’s what I will say. Many different people are looking at your questionnaire, and many people are doing things in the background. You might have direct interaction with people in marketing and publicity, or you might not. There are others who use the questionnaire as well that you may never meet, for instance the sales reps who try to get your book placed in book stores and libraries. If you don’t see your book in a particular store, that doesn’t mean we didn’t try to get it there. There might be someone who is deciding which conferences to take your book to and you might never talk to that person directly.

It’s also ok to remind us of things from your questionnaire throughout the process. If there’s a particular outlet you’re very enthusiastic about, it’s ok to follow up and trade ideas with us about how we can get exposure for your book there. You can say, “I just want to check in on this and see how it’s going.” That’s absolutely fine. If there’s a conference coming up that you think it’s important to take your book to and you’re not sure whether we’ve planned for that or not, you can give your editor or contact person a little reminder.

LPS: If you could offer authors one tip to make their book promotion efforts more successful, what would it be?

MW: I think it’s a few things. I think it’s first really diving in to think about who you want to read this book. And yes, most authors are going to say, “I want everyone to read this,” but truly deep dive and think about your most realistic expectations for who is most likely to buy this book.

At the same time, think about your dream hopes for publicity. Yes, you want to have realistic expectations but it’s also good to let us know if you are dreaming of getting interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. We may not be able to make that happen but it lets us know to be thinking about similar experiences we might be able to connect you with. We might be able to find the perfect podcast or help you pitch an essay to your dream publication.

And again, my biggest tip is to know that you’re a part of the team. There’s an editor. There’s a publicist. There’s marketers in the background. We really want to involve you. We want you to be a part of the process, but also trust the other players on the team that they are doing their jobs. Checking in is fine. Absolutely. Please do, please say, “This is something I really care about and I just want to make sure it’s getting done. How can I help?”

The last thing I’ll say is that if you don’t have your own ideas for publicity or if there’s anything about the process that makes you nervous, ask for help. That’s what I’m here for. I can help you come up with essay ideas or do practice interviews with you. You can also let me know if you have questions or don’t understand anything I’ve told you about the process. When I mention providing galleys to reviewers, and you’ve never heard of a galley before, please speak up. We sometimes don’t know what authors don’t know and we’re happy to explain the process.

[NB: a galley is an electronic or paper copy of the book that is assembled before the proofs are finalized. Presses will often give them to potential reviewers well before the publication date in hopes that they will want to cover the book around the time of its release.]

It might be that not all presses or publicists can offer the same level of support with promotion, but you won’t know unless you ask. We all want to win together, and we want to do that the best way we know how.

I hope you found this Q&A with an in-house book publicist helpful! Please feel free to forward it to a friend or colleague if you know someone who is about to wade into this process.