Sunday, January 11, 2009

Publicist Interview: Jennifer Taber of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

One of the many incredibly wonderful things about working with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (besides having found the perfect editor) was discovering that I also got to work with a Real Live Publicist--Jennnifer Taber! And, lo and behold, she was the perfect publicist! A marketing and promotional dream come true; smart, savvy, unbelievably nice (not to mention adorable!) and a publicity goddess.

In keeping with her goddess-ness, Jenn has agreed to answer a few questions for our SVP readers. Read on, violets, and find some answers to your questions as well as solid strategies for publicity and marketing success. . .

1. At what point in the acquisition/editing process does the publisher's marketing plan begin to come together. What general factors determine this

We try to start crunching ideas and formulating long term plans right after learning about the new season's titles from our editorial team, or even right after acquisition. In November, we're in solid preparations for our Spring 2009 books, and starting to think critically about plans for our Fall 2009 books. These plans are honed as the book moves into it's final stages, and we like to have a firm plan in place well before release date.

Some important factors are:
-The author's availability and track record: Are they willing to do school or store events, run a blog, attend conferences, etc.? What kind of attention have previous books received?
-Is there an obvious publicity angle that could help the book?: A connection to a community, a holiday, an historic event, or a public figure that can utilized?
-Is this kind of title that would benefit from marketing material?: A bookmark, a poster, a reader's guide, etc...

2. What are some of the biggest marketing mistakes you've seen authors make?

I think it's very important that authors have a realistic expectation for what can be done for and with their books. Authors can do themselves a great service by educating themselves about the current state of publishing and by communicating with their publicist about plans and goals. It is always smart for an author to be willing to do some work themselves: working personal connections, suggesting outlets that are a good fit for your title, letting your publisher know about any travel you have planned so we can build off of that with events, keeping a book-focused blog, etc. Remember that a publicist at any given time is balancing the needs of many titles, but your book is your pet project. You can bring an enthusiasm and energy to the promotion that no one else can.

3. What are the three most things for an author to focus on promotion-wise?

(I'll repeat myself a lot here, but):

(a) Communicate with your publicist: Make sure he or she knows exactly how much effort you are willing to put into the promotion. Share contacts that might be of use. Ask questions if there's something you don't understand. Communicate your expectations to your publicist so that you can both be on the same page. Be your own biggest advocate: Again, your book is more important to you than to anyone else, so be invested in its success. Ask your publicist if it's okay to set-up your own events, talk to your local schools about visits, or tack on an event to some personal travel. If you have the interest and time, start a website or a blog! It's a great, creative way to get your name and your book out there. Your publicist will have lots of good ideas to help you.

(b) Know your audience: if you are writing a YA novel, it might make sense to create a Facebook or MySpace page. For younger books, this probably won't be as helpful. If you get fan mail, try to reply, especially to elementary and middle-school students - it means a lot to them!

(c) Inform yourself: Pay attention to emerging trends in the marketplace. Read the trade publications for ideas and articles about what's working and what's not.

4. How big a plus is the ability to speak well in public? Are there authors who have successful careers who never master this skill?

An author who is also a dynamic public speaker is always a win-win. That skill can lead to opportunities to do school events (which often pay the author's travel expenses as well as an honorarium), conferences (which offer great networking opportunities), and of course, successful store events.

There are a lot of authors who never get comfortable with public speaking, and that's okay too. It's important for each author to figure out where there strength lies and to use that. If you hate being the center of attention and can't bear the thought of store events or school assemblies, focus your efforts on developing a great website where you can interact with fans and where your voice can come through without such a literal spotlight. Maybe you and your publicist will decide to put a lot of effort into radio interviews, blogging, etc. The ability to speak well in public and engage a crowd is not a necessary skill, but an asset. I do think it's a skill that can be developed over time, and if you feel in any way motivated to work on it, you should. Some publishing houses will offer an author media training, if the book has the potential to garner major media attention, and TV interviews and big speaking opportunities are likely.

5. What promotional or marketing activities would authors be surprised to learn don't have as much impact on the book buying public as they might

Touring! Not only are many houses cutting down on author touring due to their extremely high cost, but we're finding that it's just not as effective as it used to be. It is increasingly hard to gather a good crowd for a book event in any given town because there are so many entertainment options for the public today. A lot of publishers are taking advantage of some great technological advances to replace the effects of touring. We can create highly stylized podcasts that we can post on iTunes that feature an author reading from their book or discussing their work, so that a big fan anywhere in the country can have that author experience. There are video blogs, ichats, and author websites which all grant the public access to an author. Houses will always tour their celebrity and best-selling authors, because they can command a crowd, but I think it's becoming a more and more antiquated practice for your average, mid-list author.

Touring is not the glamorous experience that many authors think it is, either. It's a very draining, very tightly-scheduled, very tough endeavor, and no matter how much planning goes into each event, there is always the possibility that the crowds won't come.


Jenn, thank you so much for answering our questions! There is a ton of helpful info in there, and quite a bit of it comforting to introverts!


Anonymous said...

What a helpful interview -- and good suggestions on what can replace a face-to-face author tour. So many possibilities are open to us now!
Cheers, ALEXIS

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Robin and Mary. Very informative and motivating.

Anonymous said...

What a terrific interview. I've got it bookmarked for future reference.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Thanks! Another good post! :-)

Wild About Words said...

Great interview. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this fantastic interview. Perfect questions and informative answers. I've added a link to my blog for my 1/12 blog post.

tanita✿davis said...

Thank you for this. Had a brunch with many classmates, all with their great ideas about how I should be promoting myself and promoting my next book, and everyone thinks a world book tour is such a good idea -- and now I feel happier because I can say my "No, I'll do something else" with authority!

Tan said...

Thank you for all the great advice. I've only had one book that was promoted in a big way, and the tour was everything Jennifer said -- mainly, exhausting! It's hard for an introvert to do several presentations a day and then not go back to her own house afterwards. I thought some of the best and most fun promotional venues were radio shows, and now there are many on-line interview sites as well.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Awesome. Just popped in through Jill Corcoran's blog. Looks like it's time for me to wade through your archives.

Elise Murphy said...

Fantastic information! Thanks so much for sharing this with your readers!

Deb Baker said...

You reinforced some of my own ideas and experiences with touring. Great post and ideas to ponder.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned keeping up with trade journals. Which journals?

Kate Barsotti said...

Thanks, this was very helpful.

As an "apprentice" writer, I've had some time to think about publicity, but I also work in Public Affairs at the Kansas City Public Library, which has given me an insider's view of the challenges in author promotion.

We put a great deal of effort into marketing our speakers, who are often authors. It's not easy to drum up an audience and media placement, although we have an excellent track record for both. It's a lot of work.

Here's what authors can do to assist in creating more buzz:

- Many authors do not have good photos of themselves. If you are fortunate enough to be published, please have a high-res photo, a current bio, and a good book summary.

- Please respond promptly to questions. A few authors come across as scattered or disorganized, and it hampers anyone who is trying to promote you.

- Don't read from your book. Adult audiences get angry: they can read for themselves. Two of our best presenters were Christopher Rice and Kate DiCamillo. Both had great beginning speeches and then engaged with the audience in Q&A.

- Keep your personal rants away from your professional presentations. I've heard authors spout off at writers' conferences. Even if I agreed with their views, I left disappointed and felt cheated. Everybody has opinions. I need your expertise.

Candace Ryan said...

Thanks for the insightful interview. It's good to hear an honest take on book tours.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

Thanks for this. I run a marketing blog for authors and will link top this post tomorrow! :)

Carol said...

I really appreciated this interview as I have just self-published a book I wrote and illustrated. Now wearing the sales hat, I find the traveling draining. I am doing a lot of the things that Jenn talks about and I think I need some patience along with the enthusiasm.
Love the blog. Thanks.

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