25th Trillium Award

Agent's Corner: The author and agent’s new best friend: the freelance publicist

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Literary Agent Samantha Haywood discusses the benefits of working with a freelance publicist. Writers, readers, Samantha would love to answer your questions. Please post them in the 'Post a comment' section at the bottom of the article.

By Samantha Haywood

Given we are now in the thick of the heady Fall publishing season, it seems a great time to address one of the most important skills in today’s book industry: publicizing you and your book(s). If you’ve ever doubted just how important Publicity and its younger sibling Marketing are, let me assure you through example that they are one of the most important assets in today’s writers' tool kits. Case in point: Ann Patchett once told me that she would sooner leave her publishing house if her publicist left, than her editor. This is not because editors are less important but rather that writers should end up spending more time with their publicists than anyone else at the publishing house, and the health and success of that relationship can be tantamount to the health and success of the book’s launch onto the market.

Of course, once a writer gets to Ann Patchett’s level of household name recognition the publishers spend a lot of money and work very hard to market and publicize his or her next books. But what about the average book campaign by a successful but not massively-bestselling author? What is the plan/industry standard here?

Speaking in generalities, I’ve noticed over the years that publishers put small, calculated amounts of money into a book’s budget to start the ball rolling publicity and advertising-wise, and after that it’s sink or swim. Should the book swim, the publishers will usually always put more money into the campaign. But should the book start to sink, the writer and agent better step in to act fast. That’s where hiring a great freelance publicist with knowledge of social media and online reading communities comes into play, not someone to aggressively market your book so much as someone who can help spread the word on your behalf, and, where appropriate, make introductions that could result in meaningful coverage.

I noted some time ago that some of the biggest literary agencies in the world were hiring in-house publicists, and I immediately realized just how important this can be for one’s clients. So meet Julie Wilson aka Book Madam (@BookMadam on Twitter). Julie and I started working together this summer. I hired her, on a retainer per month, to work extra publicity for my clients to ensure things don’t fall through the cracks and to be available to most of my clients for extra publicity work on a case-by-case basis.

Julie has worked at House of Anansi Press as their Online Content Manager and has built a faithful following for her literary voyeurism blog SeenReading.com, her past guesting duties for the CBC Book Club and the Book Madam Book Club.

As agencies start to function more like publishing houses, having the back-up of a publicity specialist makes a great deal of sense. I see the new social media structure as the agent and author in it together, working in conjunction with the efforts of the publishing house to promote their newest titles. The better the publicity and sales for an author’s book, the better the chances the author and I will have a positive experience selling their next book. As the agent, I’m still part of the publishing process after the book is published, my job doesn’t stop after the deal is negotiated and the contract signed.

Julie works with me on numerous social media initiatives, and we also have weekly Skype sessions, in which we brainstorm on behalf of my clients who are publishing new books that season or needing a new push with a paperback reprint. As far as I know, we are the first agent and publicist team in Canada, and I can assure you, I’m very pleased with the results.

Clearly I can’t afford to ever replace the publicist’s job at my author’s publishing houses. Nor do I want to do so! But I think it’s in everyone’s advantage (publisher, author and agent) if I spend some time, money and effort to help publicize my clients new books and growing literary platforms, and I need Julie’s expertise and know-how to help me do it. Perhaps the most invaluable service Julie is able to provide me and my authors is a genuine understanding of the limitations placed on in-house publicists charged with the task of promoting a wide variety of titles in such a small window of time in each season. Working together, we're creating opportunities for my authors that enhance the publisher's role, not usurp it.

There are other very talented freelance publicists in Canada, and I think it’s a great idea to know a few that you, the author, can hire when needed. Whether it’s rescuing a book from low-sales slumber, or helping to plan ahead for a book launch/publicity campaign with the publisher’s blessing. In the meantime, here are a few tips from Julie and me for keeping your platform current in today’s world of shrinking book pages and cheap book launch parties:

  • You don't have to be online all the time. In fact, it's better if you aren't. What is important is to be aware of the conversations that impact you and your book most directly and to follow and participate in those.
  • No one wants to be told how to do their job, but we can promise you, there's never been a publicist who wasn't grateful, if not relieved, to receive your 3000 word email filled with the names (and contacts) of relevant media and bloggers who might want to look at your book. If you have any sense that your book isn't your publicist's cup of tea, help 'em out. Get online and do some research. If you don't know where to start, find a comparable title, Google its coverage, find the reviews that were favourable, make sure the tone of your book is similar, not just the content, and gather their contact info to send to your publicist who should always make the first introduction.
  • Facebook. Do I have to? No, you really don't. But what you can do is create and maintain a fan page for yourself. Camilla Gibb is doing something like this for her latest novel, using the page like a mini-site. It makes great sense. In addition to her site, she's updating her presence in an existing and thriving community.
  • Twitter. Do I have to? Maybe a little, yes. If it's just not in your nature to chat with strangers, don't sweat it. But at least reserve the name and update events and media coverage. Give your fans (and publisher/agent/media) the opportunity to share what you've been up to. Guaranteed, the day you get your first reply from someone saying how much her book club loved your book, or an indie bookseller telling you that your book is their new staff pick, or, or, or, you'll begin to understand why social media is your friend. The biggest reason to be on Twitter? A whole ton of other people are on Twitter. And a whole ton of those people work in publishing. Twitter is a global conversation. You don't have to dance, but you should be at the party.

Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at www.tla1.com and @s_haywood on Twitter.

Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Transatlantic Literary Agency.

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