Ask Alex: The Life of a Publicist
This month's question came to me via email from Lizbeth. As always, I'm happy to take questions here in the comments, but you're more than welcome to email me if you'd like to ask privately. I'll always double-check to make sure it's okay to post the question here.
Hi Alex! First of all thanks so much for taking questions like this. I hope you don't mind me adding one more to your pile... I know you work in marketing, and you've talked about being an Editorial Assistant, but I'm wondering if you could give us an idea of what a publicist in the industry does? I'm getting my degree in communications and I'm thinking it might be a good fit... Thanks!
I sat down to answer this question this weekend only to realize that instead of typing out a long list of observations, I could do you one better! Today I'm calling on my friend and publicist extraordinaire, Lauren Donovan, to give you the deets on just what goes into being a book publicist. I've known Lauren for almost three years now, and I've been totally floored by how much she's able to juggle on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. She actually works around the clock—in fact, she apologized profusely for sending this to me late last night because she'd spent most of the evening sorting out something for an author!
At Random House Children's Books, Lauren has worked on campaigns for R.J. Palacio, David Levithan, Newbery Medalist Clare Vanderpool, Lurlene McDaniel and many, many, many more! You might know her better as the voice of the RHCB Twitter handle, which she's helped grow to to nearly 40,000 followers.
The glamorous side of publicity! Lauren (far left) accompanied pop-up book designer David A. Carter to The Martha Stewart Show last year.
Hi Lauren, welcome! First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I'm going to start with a few obvious ones: Can you tell us a little bit about your educational/internship background and how you got your first job? Did you know you wanted to work in publicity, or were you originally interested in a different area of the industry?
I was an English/French double major with a focus in creative writing (poetry). I planned to go into publishing, but for me, that was synonymous with working in editorial. I think a lot of students assume that, because editorial is just a more well-known option. (Maybe it’s a pop culture thing? Every bookish leading lady is an editor. I’m dying for a rom com where the protagonist is a subsidiary rights associate looking for love in all the wrong places.)
In college, I wrote for the newspaper and worked as an editor in the writing center. I also worked for the calling program at our school’s Annual Fund, soliciting donations from alumni. (Nothing gives you a thick skin like that gig! I will never be afraid of phone pitching as long as I live.) Ultimately, though, it was a summer job hostessing at a restaurant that tipped the scale. I loved the fast pace, the interaction with people, the juggling (figuratively—although I can balance an armful of plates with the best of ‘em). It sounds cheesy, but it’s so important to know yourself and what your strengths are. I thrive in a hectic atmosphere where I’m doing six things at once, a definite asset in PR, and learning that about myself was more valuable than any of the relevant coursework or internships I completed.
How I got my first job: polite persistence? I met a Random House HR rep at a career fair in January of my senior year, and a sixth month email correspondence ensued. ‘Correspondence’ sounds better than ‘I emailed her about job postings at least every two weeks and she explained that I could not be considered until I was closer to graduating.’ And then one day I was! Whenever I see this sainted woman in our cafeteria, I still feel grateful for that patience.
Polite persistence! I love that--and I can see how you'd also take that same approach when it comes to following up to get media hits for your books. Speaking of that particular task, a lot of people don’t know this (I’d guess!), but there are multiple steps to becoming a publicist in the same way you advance through different job levels before becoming an editor. What sort of training/responsibilities distinguish a publicity assistant from an associate publicist from a publicist?
First of all, publicity assistants run the show. They are superheroes who pack boxes, sort fan mail, plan blog tours, keep media summaries, book travel, submit books for awards, and send mass quantities of galleys out into the world. Our job is very egalitarian in that most publicists continue to do this work even after being promoted. (You’ll see our director working the signing line at an author event, asking fans to spell out their names so she can write them a post-it. Everyone pitches in!) The biggest difference is that as a publicist works on bigger campaigns, she is responsible for fewer department responsibilities, like mass mailings and press clippings.
So aside from starting every morning with a big cup of tea, would you say there’s a “typical” routine or day for a publicist? Can you give a general sense of what a publicist does both on a daily basis and more long-term?
I do love my tea!
I WISH there were a typical day for a publicist. The hallmark of this job is that you have to be ready to roll with any issue or new development that comes up at a moment’s notice. Generally, I go to 1-2 meetings a day, email with authors, write pitches and press releases, and monitor our social media channels (more on that below). There’s also the constant inbox maintenance; I try to keep it to 100-150 emails, with a lot of color coding and folder sorting.
We stuff gift bags. We dress up in character costumes. Once, we spent half an hour at an Irish pub convincing them to let us borrow a flag for an author event. In publicity, the atypical is typical.
The Irish flag story is such a classic! Which now brings us to a little story time: What do you consider your best accomplishment/most memorable moment? Any horror/embarrassing stories you want to pull out of the closet?
I’m so proud of so many books, but the campaign for Wonder by R.J. Palacio definitely stands out. That book has set up camp on the New York Times bestseller list! I also met Judy Blume for the first time recently, at a film screening we had for Tiger Eyes. Fangirl moment! She is delightful.
As for horror stories, I’m pulling a Lucille Bluth. “I do not understand the question and I will not respond to it.” Our job is to make sure everything runs smoothly, and if it doesn’t, we make it appear to run smoothly. Pay no attention to the publicist behind the curtain!
Spoken like a true publicist! Okay, so, aside from planning author tours and pitching media and all of the hundreds of mailings, you have another special responsibility as voice of RHCB's Twitter feed. Can you talk a little bit about social media’s importance in the publicity realm and its importance?
I love Twitter! In general, I’m a big advocate for social media to be an integral part of the overall publicity outreach. I think it’s so important for social media messaging to be aligned with the pitching strategy for a particular book or author, especially since the social realm is where you get most of the fan interaction. It should be as easy and as clear as possible for someone to join in a digital conversation about what they’re reading, be that on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, or Pinterest. (Do we think Vine is over? Poor Vine.) If an author is comfortable on a social media platform, I think it’s one of the easiest ways to reach readers directly and to generate chatter about a book. One of the industry buzzwords of late is “discoverability”—how are people finding out about new books, especially with fewer brick-and-mortar stores?—and social media plays a huge role in that.
Totally agree with you! And I think the new generation of 20-somethings entering the work force have an immediate leg up when it comes to social media since they're coming in with the familiarity and experience of having used it all themselves. What advice would you share with someone who falls into that category and is interested in working in book publicity?
Pay attention to where books are covered, whether it’s in print, tv, radio, or online. Half the battle is knowing who and where to pitch! I think it’s also important to realize that though it can have its fab moments (see: hanging with Judy Blume), it’s not always a glamorous job (see: galley mailing). And be flexible! We are all such type-A people, but I like to say, if your desk is too clean, you’re not working hard enough. A great publicist is hyper-organized, but can roll with it when all that careful organization falls by the wayside in a moment of crisis or creativity.
And, obviously, you must be a reader. We’re all in it for the books!
Thanks so much, Lauren! If you have any questions about publicity, or would like to leave a question for me to cover below, sound off in the comments!