I've neglected the Weekly Weeder for some time but am thrilled to be posting a terrific interview this week with Lucinda Blumenfeld an agent in her own right, who also happens to be a dynamo outside publicist and marketing pro. I've worked with her on three campaigns thus far and have been really impressed. I thought talking to her about the real skinny on publicity would be helpful to readers.
EW: You define your company as a “hybrid:” you’re an agent, but you also handle marketing and publicity for authors you don’t represent. What is your background, objective, and why should someone work with you?
LB: As devoted as publishers are to the books they acquire, the industry, in the last few years, has seen fewer acquisitions of debuts and “mid-list” (not quite bestselling) titles. Publishers are still gambling on the rare blockbuster bestseller: which means the books with the most commercial, often those written by celebrities and not writers, are given the most investment in the ramp up to publication day. This means debuts and mid-list titles naturally fall to the wayside, and this can be hard to swallow; challenging, even, for those authors paid a substantial advance and naturally expecting that “the love would be there” come launch time. I’ve worked with in-house teams very dedicated to their books, and with in-house publicists particularly good in approaching radio and television connections for appropriately “big” (i.e. controversial, political or celebrity) books. These publicists turn to proprietary media lists, which they figure, if these outlets worked for one book, they should theoretically work for the next book in a similar category. But this is a paint-by-numbers approach. There’s rarely time – I can vouch for this, having lived it within the Publicity Department at HarperCollins – to craft any kind of promotional strategy, and certainly nothing too creative, social, or multi-media, when finished books have just hit your desk. There’s negligible bandwidth to listen to an author’s specific ideas, to manage those expectations, or even to leverage an author’s particular connections, possibly the best resource authors have to promote themselves.
What’s missing here? Well, the valuable resource of time, but also, education early on. Here are some of the questions authors are prone to ask, and typical publisher responses they hear.
“Does publicity translate to sales?” Not always.
“Am I going to get the Today Show, the New York Times, and NPR?” Unlikely.
“Then, what is feasible?” Well, it’s sort of wait-and-see.
“How do I increase visibility?” Start a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. Here’s a template to guide you through it.
“Do pre-orders help? Special sales?” Sure.
“How are you handling these?” We’re not. You are.
My role in the process of a book’s publication was designed to answer these questions for authors, as well as do the legwork obtaining media and publicity exposure. As someone with a variety of publishing experience – I worked at HarperCollins in Publicity, then Scholastic in Online Marketing Partnerships, and later became an agent with a boutique firm, which is why my company is truly a hybrid – I saw that publishing was changing fast, and that my diverse experience might actually help to navigate authors (and editors, and agents) across the digital divide from traditional publishing into new media.
It’s just a reality in today’s publishing world that authors are going to bear a whole lot of the load in promoting their own books. And that means getting educated, and getting real: if you’re a debut novelist, chances are NPR and “Good Morning America” are not happening for you; but People and USA Today could. If someone’s tenaciously devoted to making your goals happen.
The period between the first pitch meeting for a given book and the moment it lands on your in-house publicist’s desk as a galley is a long one, and in that time, publicists are slammed with other campaigns. The unfortunate result is that your book is mailed to a template list of often unreasonable or incongruous prospects. Really, the education, the strategy, and the marketing outreach has to happen far earlier: I recommend to authors 6-8 months in advance of publication. Having discussed both the challenges and advantages of the book from a media standpoint, we collaboratively devise the strategy. I’m tough and candid with authors, as I would be as an agent: here’s what’s realistically obtainable for you and here’s what’s ideal. I’ll pursue both. Here’s why your book is relevant and current, and here are the audiences it’s speaking to: mass, niche, domestically, globally, hardcover readers, e-book readers. It’s creativity more than anything that authors need right now. I’ll ask you, and then we’ll answer together: how does your spiritual/inspirational book translate to a business audience? How does your YA “cross over” to an adult reader Even for historical or literary fiction, we’re going to come up with a message or a story we’re getting out there, both online and offline. My approach is not singularly social media: it’s really a custom marketing campaign.
But a word on social media: while hesitant at first, the authors I’ve worked with who are naturally industrious, fierce and curious, have found a second calling in it. Connecting on social platforms is just another opportunity for fan engagement. Who doesn’t want to meet their fans, and hear from readers valuable feedback? You'll not only develop meaningful “virtual” relationships, which sell your books. You’ll also be far more informed in writing your next book, being knowledgeable about what themes in your writing have most resonated. Once authors get the knack for using social media, or crafting opinion pieces they’d never imagined they could write, and often for online sites they never thought could be as important attention-wise as they actually turn out to be, authors see immediate gratification. Rather than waiting interminably on a chance TV spot, my authors feel more gratified in seeing a Google Alert pop up for them every day, or a splurge of talk on Twitter around one of their recent posts, and perhaps there’s even a new and active follower on their blog who’s rallying friends to post and read – a fangelist as I call it. My authors feel visible, and that the book they spent two years writing – well someone on Goodreads, and another on Amazon, and several more on Huffington Post, and now the LA Times is calling you for an interview… All these people think it matters. And my authors and I can watch the momentum in real-time.
The most popular books appear to depend primarily on “WOM,” or word-of-mouth: how to capture it remains elusive to most working in the industry. (I’ll talk about some of my theories on WOM on my forthcoming blog at www.lucindaliterary.com.) WOM is the oldest tradition in an even older tradition: readers still talk about books. With online, we’re only talking about them more loudly, and to a far larger universe than our mothers and close friends.
I don’t call the WOM phenomenon publicity: I call it straight up marketing.
EW: Does this mean publicity in today’s marketplace is irrelevant?
LB: I’d offend a lot of friends and people I admire if I said that, Elisabeth. I don’t think I’d be in business, at least in this evolving stage of publishing, if I didn’t offer traditional publicity services and contacts. But I try to work in a more “all hands on deck” way. Once the preliminary education, strategy, and social grounding are there (for blogs, this is most often quantified as traffic growth), I’m positioned to compliment the efforts of in-house publicist, editor, agent. I know how tough it really is within the walls of corporate publishing, so I’m genuinely looking to align interests and create group energy. The more minds, the more faith in the project, the better. We can divvy up the work in a time-efficient way: the in-house publicist utilizing their strong relationships with television and radio producers, while I pursue online magazines, popular sites, and influential blogs. It’s as important these days to develop relationships in print as it is with editorial managers of online content. If you’re unable to get the cover review in The Times Book Review, you can find exposure through an op-ed or trend piece, primarily for nonfiction, in which an author can either write the essay or be sourced as an expert within the body of the article. (And bonus: you can always claim that nice “has written for the New York Times” mention as part of your permanent portfolio.)
This may sound ironic, but I try to move the author’s focus away from the book’s publication, the notion that your book’s release is the most important, life-defining moment of your career. Do you just want to write books or do you want to have influence and engage a much wider conversation that could outlive your book and yet always anchors back to it? I work with a majority of women’s interest writers, so I’m not asking authors to role play at politician, scientist or a hard news pundit, but do be brave enough to inspire controversy. A provocative opinion on a well-exposed site has the power to inform modern culture, thought, and maybe even language. A small, but not insignificant example: during our marketing campaign for the book Formerly Hot, which unexpectedly hit the extended bestseller’s list, The Times called “formerly hot” one of its trending terms for the year of 2010.
EW: You worked on the marketing/PR team for Gretchen Rubin of the massively popular book, The Happiness Project. Can you satisfy all of agent curiosity and give us the ingredients for the secret sauce to bestsellerdom? And what can authors learn and emulate from her example?
LB: Gretchen is a wunderkind, and though she invested heavily and early in the promotion of her book, Gretchen’s success was largely due to her own investment: the time she took, daily, to connect with fans at the grassroots level. “Grassroots” is a word I use a lot in my business—it demonstrates that organic buzz which inspires WOM – encompassing both the potential of engaging fans online as well as offline. Gretchen created “super fans,” those fangelist readers of her blog who, so excited about the book’s release, would physically activate her message in their own local communities. Whether you have a minimal or exponential blog readership, an author needs to know their blog readers, and everything about them that they’re willing to comfortably give away (hey, Facebook does it and no one’s complaining!) If readers feel they belong to a greater message that self-empowers them, a “movement” even, you’re engaging what I think of as cause marketing. I try to keep cause marketing at the heart of all relevant book campaigns.
Another note on fan engagement: as you blog, keep your readers foremost in mind. It’s fairly transparent if you have a blog what your audience is looking for, or most interested in: just take the time to look. If you dispel theories into the blogosphere that are based on personal whims and fancies, you risk alienating important relationships. “Come down from the ivory tower,” I tell my authors affectionately.
In summary, what you can do as an author: 1) grow your “subscriber” list. 2) Know your audience. And if they’re predominantly bloggers, please take a moment to read their blogs or books, too? 3) Write for readers, not your mother. I think most agents agree this applies for books, too.
In summary, what you can do as an author: 1) grow your “subscriber” list. 2) Know your audience. And if they’re predominantly bloggers, please take a moment to read their blogs or books, too? 3) Write for readers, not yourself or your mother. I think most agents agree this applies for books, too.
EW: Can you tell us some of your proudest moments or greatest successes since the launch of your company?
LB: Excellent, I can finally talk about my authors!
I was tremendously happy when I recently saw a three ideal women’s media outlets – Huffington Post, The Frisky, and People Magazine – coincide at the very moment of publication for a women’s fiction novel I worked on. I credit the author here, too, because she already had the following, and paid attention to her audience, per Gretchen’s model. Surprisingly, of those three outlets, the least known of the three brought the author the most eyeballs and conversation. This was her post on “The Frisky,” a pop culture oriented, young women’s relationship/love site that happens to get a lot of traffic and engagement online. The particular advantage of this placement was that it reached a demo of women who were not the author’s primary readership, thereby expanding audience and potentially breeding new fans and readers.
Another rewarding moment was launching, alongside a terrifically industrious and passionate middle-grade/YA author, an interactive site: one so sophisticated in groundwork and concept that my former company had taken about 7 years to pull the same thing off! (I’m not positing that the site was on equal technical par, but we were able – with three pairs of eyes: an author, a marketer, and a web developer – to emulate all the interactive, data capture, and entertainment/game elements required, all branded around the book without off-putting its audience with too much push-to-buy. It’s a site I’ll always take pride in seeing as it lives on, and with hope, it will be the foothold as the author expands her recognition in the continuation of her series.
Here’s a last unconventional example. Special sales, when they work, can be either complimentary or crucial to a book’s success. Without a publisher’s vested effort or creativity in pitching these outlets, I’ve incorporated special sales possibilities into my book campaigns. Just as I want authors and publishers to think beyond book reviews, I want us all to think beyond readings. Most publishers will tell you a reading at B&N just ain’t happening. So where can authors sell and read from their books, or at least, toast to the celebratory moment of publication? I’ve booked events that you’d never think had anything to do with publishing, and in some instances, no apparent connection to the book at all. This is really more training in partnerships than in publishing. If there's no author precedent for events, which there often isn’t, I still press on for the open door, asking and listening to recent branding initiatives they're proud of, asking about their revenue model, their audience, even their partners. There's usually a way to submit an author into the running. I’ve booked 5 authors for events in the past year where they’ve sold their books, and not a single event has disappointed, (compared to all those ill-attended readings I remember cheerleading dismayed authors through back in corporate publishing!) The best of scenarios I've found, was an event sponsor which not only bought 200 pre-orders of my author's book, but chipped in 10% of sales for the evening to a charity of her choice. I remember she was most excited that they comp-ed her the dress.
Whether you can engage an outside company partner in your book’s campaign or not, I encourage authors to learn how to promote without too much self-promoting – because there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked when you think about it! – and to ask yourself when it comes time to promote, who are your target audiences large and small, and how can you attract them through your writing or blogging. For all of us in publishing, let’s see the value in partnerships.
Lucinda has worked as a literary agent, an online marketing associate at Scholastic, and began her publishing career in “boot camp” within the Publicity department at HarperCollins. Recent projects include nonfiction bestseller The Happiness Project, women’s nonfiction title My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young, leadership debut Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, and novel The One That I Want. Lucinda Blumenfeld can be reached for more information at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @lucindaliterary. Her website, www.lucindaliterary.com launches this month.