Thursday, November 18, 2010

Something Book Publicists Love to Hear: "Pretend I'm a Producer--Pitch Me My Book"

[From The Huffington Post]

This has happened to me more than once:

A publisher invites an author in for a let's-get-acquainted meeting to have an initial discussion about marketing and publicity. At a minimum, the editor, the publicist, and the marketing director are there, but the publicist's boss might be there too, and the agent, and some other people from marketing, or the art director, maybe the sales director, and someone to take notes -- in fact, this meeting could be so densely populated that people are spilling out the conference room door and tumbling into the hall.

And when the topic comes around to publicity, in front of all those people, the author turns to the publicist and says: "Pretend I'm a producer -- pitch me my book."

The author doesn't consciously mean to disrespect the publicist -- he or she is understandably curious about how the book will be presented to the media -- but even a moment's reflection will reveal what an appalling breach of etiquette this is.

What possible justification could there be for singling out the publicist in that situation? Unless the author plans to go around the table: Sales director, pretend I'm the buyer at B&N -- sell me my book. Editor, please edit this sample manuscript page for me. Publisher, please... do whatever it is you do.

Of course no one would do that. When an author enters a relationship with a publisher, it's with the understanding that everyone there is a professional and knows their job. That good faith should extend to the publicist as much as anyone else. Presumably the publicist didn't walk in off the street and attach themselves to the book -- they were assigned to it because they've established a track record of successfully publicizing books. They'd have to possess a level of skill and experience sufficient to earn the confidence of their colleagues, and therefore a place at the table (unless, as I say, it's really crowded -- then they might be squatting on the radiator or stretched out on the floor by the mini fridge).

In many instances, publicists will specifically ask to work on a particular book because they're pumped about the author or the subject. Putting them on the spot publicly is like throwing a bucket of water on a witch -- you can practically hear the hiss as their enthusiasm melts and dissolves into nothing.

"Pitch me my book" is essentially asking the publicist to audition. But publicists aren't performers, and despite the caricature of the loud, brash PR person, publicists can be reticent, even shy. Think about it -- they choose to spend their time drawing attention to other people, not themselves. Asking them to perform for the group is embarrassing and demeaning. And given the circumstances, even a veteran publicist's off-the-cuff pitch is likely to be underwhelming.

So what's a publicist to do when an author says "pitch me my book?" Some possible responses are:
  • "No."
  • "No way."
  • "I'd prefer not to" (the Bartleby, the Scrivener strategy).
Another option is to turn the question back on the author. "What sort of producer are you?" the publicist might ask. "Are you with Good Morning America or RuPaul's Drag Race? Do you produce 60 Minutes or Dance Your Ass Off? Are you booking for Fresh Air or Mancow or Lewis and Floorwax or maybe Livestock News?..." The point here is that no single approach is going to be right for every producer or media outlet. The publicist will have variations on the pitch, or several different pitches, depending upon the outlet they're going after.

Perhaps the publicist's best recourse is to say: "I didn't come prepared to do that today and I don't want to waste everybody's time. You and I should talk separately and work together to develop some effective pitch angles." And then follow through on that.

Obviously not all publicists are created equal, and not all publicist-author matchups work out. If you're an author and have specific cause for alarm or you're just getting a bad vibe from your assigned publicist, take it up with your editor. Otherwise, give your publicist the benefit of the doubt. And please don't ask them to audition--they already got the part.

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