How to Interview a Book Publicist Before You Sign an Agreement

by | Oct 4, 2018

By Joan Stewart

You don’t need a book publicist if you’re ready to learn the tricks on how to promote your book, and you’ll work tirelessly to promote it.

The truth is, most authors won’t.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford one, a competent publicist can jump-start your publicity campaign because she has contacts you don’t have. She knows how to reach them, pitch them and follow up.

Expect to spend from $1,000 to several thousand dollars per month, depending on the publicist’s experience and size of the project.

Don’t hire a publicist based on only one referral from a fellow author. Interview at least three candidates. Why? Because how they charge for their services, how they work with you and their fees vary from publicist to publicist. Comparing three or four will give you a good idea of which one is best for you.

Please, don’t interview publicists for the sole purpose of “picking their brains” so you can get lots of free advice on how to manage your own publicity campaign, compile their ideas, then turn around and do it yourself. Savvy publicists might talk in general terms about your potential to get publicity. But the smart ones won’t offer creative ideas about your project – and you shouldn’t expect them to – until you sign on the dotted line.

Besides, great ideas are nothing more than great ideas. The execution is much more difficult. Presenting an idea to the media requires skill, experience and tenacity. The best publicists have all three.

Don’t bother asking if a publicist would be willing to work for you “for a share of the book sales.” Even a publicist with half a brain would never agree to that.

Where to Start

Don’t conduct an interview by email. You want to hear their voices and pick up on the little nuances that aren’t apparent in email. Do they prattle on or get to the point quickly? Do they sound professional? They must because they probably will be speaking with journalists.

Come to each telephone, in-person or Skype interview with a list of questions. The smaller the project, the fewer the questions. Don’t ask all of these if, for example, you’re hiring someone to write a press release and pitch a half dozen media outlets. Depending on the type and size of the project, pick and choose from these.

Background and Experience

What kind of experience do you have working with authors in my genre? (If they haven’t promoted books in your genre, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but a publicist who has scores extra points.)

What kinds of contacts do you have in the type of media where I need coverage? (Do they know reporters? Editors? Reviewers? Freelancers? Broadcasters? Talk show hosts? Don’t expect names and contact information, however. Publicists guard their contacts. And they should because they don’t want to take the chance that you’ll pester them.)

What’s the worst mistake you ever made on a client project? What did you learn from it?

How important is online media to my publicity campaign and what kind of experience do you have with it?

Do you also do media coaching if I’m uncomfortable interviewing with reporters? If not, can you recommend a good coach?

Does the coaching include recording the interview, then playing it back and critiquing me?

Do you subscribe to a media leads service like Profnet or HARO? Will you pass queries along to me or answer them yourself?

How much social media outreach do you do with your contacts? How active are you on your own profiles?

Do you use social media to establish relationships with people who you want to later pitch? If so, how?

Who is my key contact? (Ask this if you’re interviewing someone from a PR agency. You want to know if they’ll hand you off to a junior associate.)

What happens if I’m unhappy with the job they are doing for me? Can I ask for someone new to be assigned to my project?

Written and Electronic Documents

Will I have the chance to review and approve all documents before you send them to the media? (The answer should be yes with the exception of email pitches.)

How long will I typically have to review a document?

Do you keep a media log that notes the progress and status of each media outlet we are targeting?

In what format do you keep it and how often will you share it with me?

Will you read my book? (Some will. Some won’t. If they don’t read it, this isn’t a deal-breaker.)

Communication

How do you prefer to communicate with me: phone, email or text?

How often will you update me on your progress?

Can I contact you after hours or on weekends or holidays if it’s an emergency? If so, how?

Will you give me your home phone number and cellphone number? (The answer should be an enthusiastic yes.)

Do you have a policy on how quickly you respond to media inquiries? (The best publicists leave instructions for the media on their voicemail messages, explaining how they can be reached quickly.)

If you have a disagreement with a client over an approach, a strategy or a story idea, how do you resolve it?

Priorities and the Scope of Work

Based on what I told you about my publicity goals and my budget, what projects do you think should be included in the scope of work? (Media kit, press releases, pitching, media coaching, etc.)

What do you think are the most important strategies of an effective publicity campaign? (Beware of the publicist who puts a major emphasis on “press releases.” These are not strategies. They are tools. They are important, but not nearly as important as a campaign targeted to the media that your audience consumes. Award extra points to the publicist who says “helping the media do their jobs while trying to achieve your publicity goals.”)

What do you think about the importance of articles and other content I create for my target market?

Do you help with content creation? (Most don’t and that’s fine.)

What’s your philosophy on press releases?

What’s your philosophy on social media? Would you make recommendations on how I can improve?

Would you be willing to explain what publicity tasks I should do without stepping on your toes? (This is important, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Your publicist should concentrate on top- and mid-tier media, leaving you to pursue local media.)

What do you think of online media kits? (Beware of the publicist who says they aren’t important and that you don’t need one.)

Do you have experience creating online media kits?

To keep costs down, can you start with media kit materials I already have produced, such as my professional profile and a fact sheet about my business?

May I see the best three pieces of work that show your creativity?

If I get TV or radio interviews, will you accompany me to the interview? (Most will not which is OK. But know that going in.)

What will you do while I am at the interview? (Give points to the publicist who listens to your radio or live TV interview and gives feedback afterward. Or to the one who will be working the phones, trying to get you more interviews nearby on that same day, or keeping in touch with media contacts. Remove points from the one who wants to wait in the lobby and read a magazine while you’re talking to the reporter at the newspaper office.)

If I get a speaking engagement, would you be willing to come and hear me, then critique me? (The answer probably will be no. Award extra points for a yes.)

Can our work together include you training me on what you are doing, so that when our project is complete and I know what I’m doing, I can manage my own publicity campaign? (This will boost the fee but it would be well worth it.)

What types of clients are not necessarily a good fit for you?

What do you think about the possibility of working on this project? (Listen for enthusiastic comments about your topic, book or area of expertise. Or does the publicist sound like she’s just trying to hustle another job?)

Do you have any reservations about working on this project? (Some publicist will not agree to work with author clients whose book covers are less than professional. See my article 9 Ways a Crappy Book Cover Can Sabotage a Marketing Campaign.)

What do you expect from me while I am working with you?

Measures of Success

How will we know whether this publicity campaign is successful? (The client, as well as the publicist, must agree on these important points beforehand. Make sure they are listed in the contract.)

Aside from a certain number of articles or TV or radio appearances, what else can we include in the measures of success? (In other words, what has to occur as a RESULT of the publicity in order for it to be successful? More website traffic? More book sales? Requests for speaking engagements? You’re walking a fine line here. Publicity does not always lead to book sales. Yet publicists shouldn’t guarantee any publicity in a specific media outlet either.)

What recourse do I have if the measures of success are not met?

If we’re at the end of the project and the measures of success have not been met, would you be willing to work with me at no additional charge until the measures of success are met? (If so, be sure it is stated in the contract.)

What can you guarantee me? (The publicist can guarantee that the strategies they will use are the best. Pay-per-placement agencies will guarantee you that you don’t pay unless you get publicity. Beyond that, beware of any other guarantees, particularly promises that you will be covered by a certain media outlet, or that your product or book will get massive exposure.)

What Happens Next

You can add other questions to the list, of course. But asking the ones I’ve suggested will help you choose the candidate who is best for you.

Be sure to give the publicist time to ask you lots of questions, too, and to make a formal presentation. In fact, review the list of questions above and be ready to answer them if the publicist throws them back at you.

A smart publicist should ask, “Who, other than you, will be responsible for deciding which publicist to hire?”

If your boss, spouse or coauthor must make the final decision based on your recommendation, be honest and say so. The candidate might want to talk to them before spending time writing a proposal.

Why? To make sure that the goals that the boss, spouse or coauthor is dreaming about are your goals. And to give the publicist a chance to impress the person who holds the ultimate power to hire them. Besides, you shouldn’t be responsible for selling the publicist to anyone else like your boss. That’s the publicist’s job. So put your ego aside and give the candidate a chance.

If you lie and say the final decision is up to you, you’ll look foolish later if your boss, spouse or coauthor vetoes your decision.

Some publicists will not write a proposal unless they know that they are your top choice and that you can afford their services. Otherwise, they become “proposal factories,” churning out proposals that have taken hours to prepare, only to have someone who requested one disappear from site, with not even a call to say “no thanks.”

This has happened to me several times and it’s infuriating. So if you’re tempted to say, “Just send me a proposal,” expect some questions from the publicist like “How many other candidates are you considering?” and “Do you agree that, so far, I’m the best candidate for the job?”

As a consultant, one question I ask when someone requests a proposal and has informally agreed to work with me, is: “Is there anything right now that prohibits you from making a final decision about working with me? In other words, is the timing good to proceed?” Too many times, after submitting a proposal, I’ve heard: “We’ve decided to hold off on the project” or “The time just isn’t right.”

The Most Important Factor

During the interview, pay attention to how you feel about the candidate. If something bothers you, but you aren’t sure what, it might be a sign that their personality or chemistry doesn’t mesh well with yours. You can’t always ask “chemistry” questions. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut.

Publicists, what other questions do you wish authors would ask you?

Authors, what questions do you wish you had asked publicists whose work didn’t result in the kind of publicity you had hoped for?
 
Photo: BigStockPhoto

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