By Rita Dragonette
One of the most prevalent aspirations of public relations professionals is to—someday—write a novel. It makes sense: we have a facility with language, know its power, love words, and may even have started out as English majors with publishing dreams in our pockets. Though a really solid, beautifully written story is the bedrock entry point for publication of any novel, the list of requirements for success weighs heavily on the side of the writer with marketing expertise. So if you’ve been intimidated to date to take the plunge, go ahead, you have more of a head start than you think. Here are some insights to help you on your way.
1. Your Marketing Expertise Is Your Ace in the Hole
Publishing is like any other business under fire from rapidly changing technology and how people use their time, even for recreational reading, but perhaps even more so. The number of publishing houses have been significantly reduced, the number of readers of literary “content” shrinking. Unless you’re John Grisham, most publishers will have off-loaded the burden of marketing onto the author long ago. At the same time, with an enormous amount of online advice to aspiring writers available at the touch of a keystroke and the advent of self- and hybrid-publishing that makes opportunities open to nearly everyone with a story, the competition for the fewer slots on a publisher’s list going to fewer readers is beyond fierce.
As such, the ability to position and market your novel has become nearly as important as the quality of your book. Before they open your submission, prospective agents and publishers will immediately check your social media profile and assess your marketing skills with as much scrutiny as your manuscript. It can make the difference for consideration of a debut author, or even tilt the balance for a book that on its own might only marginally pass muster. Your marketing expertise is a HUGE leg up.
Add to this the fact that most writers hate marketing. They are pushed into it reluctantly, don’t do the preparation, and will never be as good at it as you. From the get-go you’ll be able to articulate your target audiences (potential readers); competition (comparator titles); messaging (log lines and hooks); differentiators (what’s different about your mother/daughter, war, thriller, crime, novel than all the ones before); and write a pitch letter (query), etc. The ability to short-circuit conversations and streamline a lot of the training and cajoling publishers need to do with most writers will make this part of the process much easier. As my publisher said to me, “You have your s*** together; you get it.”
Value your experience and show them what you can do, even if to date you’ve only done it for clients. You know what a killer web site looks like, how to build a network of followers, how to write a great bio and press kit. While Illusion becomes reality for your literary writing, build your profile with the super skills of a PR professional and it will help you break through.
2. It Takes a Consultant to Know When You Need a Consultant
I talk to writers—new and experienced—all the time about getting professional help before they send out their manuscripts. Most prefer not to.
As PR professionals, you use your expertise to help clients every day. You’d never assume the product designers or sales force would think they could just “learn” or do the marketing by themselves, would you? An expert hires an expert. It’s the same with fiction. Even if you have complete confidence in your writing skills with four manuscripts in your drawer, a novel is a different animal. Do what your clients do—get help from experts who can help you take your story from good to great.
Help is easy to find but not necessarily curated. Skip the online how-to books and courses and go to the source. Many successful novelists are now paying their bills by hanging out their shingles as developmental editors—helping to turn good manuscripts into those that will sing—and sell. Time and money spent on ensuring your baby is the best it can be from the get-go is incredibly worth it. You know that many writers won’t invest in this step; they assume it’s the job of their eventual publisher. That’s no way to get in the door. You know better. Seek out
expert advice, apply it.
3. Build and Tend Your Network
Again, you get this. Networks work the same, or better, in the literary world as the business world. In addition, the writing community is very familial, and people are anxious to help. Affiliate yourself with a community—an academic or reputable independent program. Use that as your base to make contacts and plug into the writers’ community in your area to share your work while honing your skills. Then, participate: attend writer events, go to conferences, buy the books of writers you meet, make friends with local bookstore owners, support other writers on social media. Be the biggest fan you can be. Build equity and goodwill. As one best-selling writer told me, “Go to everything.”
4. The “Professionalism” of the Publishing Industry Is Different
It doesn’t operate the same as businesses you may have experienced or represented.
Publishing is a combination of art and business. Certainly, decisions are made on sales potential, and you know that game, but also on the ability for an editor or publisher to fall in love with a book and champion it above all reason. On different days, different objectives will prevail.
Communications are typically spotty, promises to “nurture” a relationship with a writer largely aspirational vs. actual, and deadlines can be kamikaze. It’s important to plan ahead but without specifics. Your time is totally subject to the publishing process and how it may change. The fact that you’ve told the publisher you will be in Hong Kong for three weeks six months from now will become irrelevant if you need to turn a first-pages proof around in 48-hours or lose your printing slot. The author brings up the rear. Think of it as crisis communications. Plan ahead for everything you can…particularly if you are still working… but be prepared for anything.
5. Understanding the Client/Publisher Relationship
This will be one of the toughest hurdles. You’ll assume this will be a client relationship, with an element of customer service. Not so. You’ll assume you’re the “talent,” with an element of respect and support. Not so much. You are “fuel” for the list—the pipeline. Once chosen, if you’re lucky enough to be with a publisher dedicated to turning your book into a best seller, you’ll go through what any writer does—severe judgment about your precious words, your “darlings.” Here, the tougher skin you’ve developed in the PR world will be useful but not impenetrable. Input will be gentler but still cut to the core. Like reporting to the head of a news bureau, if you want to publish here, you comply. You’ll get that. But you may struggle with the specifics of the input—they can tell you what isn’t working but not how to fix it. You’ll want to brainstorm for direction. It will rarely be specific.
At the same time, you may alternatively be barraged with requests for immediate turnarounds or ignored until the next burst of demands. If you have an agent (your client rep), you will go through the whole experience twice, first with them, then with the publisher. You have experience with this. Consider them tough clients but with nurturing demeanor. And, as with clients, you need to defer and be cooperative or get a reputation for being difficult: unless you’re Stephen King, you won’t get the attention you’d hoped for.
At the bottom line, a great deal is asked of an author (including virtually all the marketing, unless you’re a “name”), much more than a client. Make no assumptions.
6. Hiring and Working with Your Own Publicist
This will be one of the hardest parts. You know the power of PR, and you’ve put too much into your book not to promote it effectively. You also know you can’t represent yourself. You’ll need to hire a PR or literary publicity firm for a program that will begin 4-6 months before your publication date. Your publisher and developmental editor, as well as other writers in your network, can help you identify agencies or individuals, and you’ll need to interview them as a potential client has interviewed you or your firm.
Be prepared for this process to challenge your point of view on the client/agency relationship. For example, often you will talk strategy and author positioning. They may agree but will be offering from a template focused on the book. Most writers don’t have much money, and therefore the literary publicity industry has developed a turnkey model for a six-month program to support the launch of a new book. It’s a bit like back in the PR olden days: for $5,000 you get this; for $10,000 you get that, top being around $15,000. Be aware that the proposal you’re given to secure the business will probably be the same as your action plan. Go through it carefully to agree on expectations. You may never meet your team live; communication will be primarily via email.
You’ll itch to comment, brainstorm, get involved in ideas, strategize to reach media: share all the ideas you’ve been thinking about since you began to write your book. They will listen but will go back to the template. Some specialize in different genres; others are generalists but often with more experience in one type of fiction or another. Make sure you get a firm with a strong commitment to social media (this is often jobbed out). Be prepared that your contact will be the equivalent of an Account Executive. You will develop content; they will place it. Beyond a press kit, they will write very little, if anything. You will get a tremendous amount of template information on how to do things (i.e., radio interviews, tips for book events). They will provide a great deal of “research,” including many links on a subject, but not always an actual recommendation (for example, for awards submissions). Their language is slightly different. You say “media tour”; they say “book tour.” Be prepared that they may be intimidated and/or annoyed that you are in PR and know more than they do.
Remember, as a PR professional, the expectations—your own, your colleague’s, those of the people who have known you—will be that you’ll appear to the world as a writer through a great marketing campaign. You will. For at least half the skills you need for success as a novelist, you’re starting at the top. Take the plunge.
Rita Dragonette is a former public relations executive turned author. Her debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, is a woman’s story of Vietnam which was published today by She Writes Press, and it already is a finalist in two 2018 American Fiction Awards by American Book Fest, plus it received an honorable mention in the Hollywood Book Festival. Rita currently is working on two other novels and a memoir in essays, all of which are based on her interest in the impact of war on and through women, as well as on her transformative generation. She also regularly hosts literary salons to introduce new works to avid readers.