It may be a surprise to dyed-in-the-wool book publicists, but increasingly in recent years, many of their free-wheeling, generalist peers have been staking out a specific patch of industry turf. Driven by big publishers’ dwindling budgets for outside PR muscle, more and more publicity shops are honing their skills in certain areas—everything from cookbooks to the arts to African American interests, interviews with about a dozen independent book publicists suggest. And such strategies are paying off twofold: publishers have more incentive to spend their limited resources on outside experts, while many authors are beating a path to PR firms that have clout in their category.
Some in the field, however, are reluctant to call themselves niche players. “Most publicists like to be generalists,” states Lynn Goldberg, founder and CEO of Goldberg McDuffie Communications. “We’re dilettantes. We like to concentrate intensely on one thing for six to eight months and then move on to something new.” Such was the sentiment echoed by many—some of whom agreed to be interviewed only if we guaranteed that they would not be pigeonholed in a way that would dissuade potential clients. Goldberg McDuffie started a business-focused imprint three years ago, after noticing “that publishers were coming to us increasingly with these things called ‘business books,’ ” she jokes, having since become viewed as one of the leading PR firms for Fortune 500 leaders-cum-authors. Now 25 to 30 percent of the company’s clients are business-related.
Lissa Warren, author of the recently published The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity and Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press, said that specializing might be the only way for freelance publicists “to woo money away from the bigger publishing houses,” who have cut spending on outside PR in recent years. As for business directly from authors, Warren said the writers are more likely to find a publicist if she has established a reputation as being the go-to person in a certain category. “If you’re freelance, you might get more clients if you specialize. You really want the authors to seek you out.”
Like Goldberg McDuffie, most firms’ specialties have grown organically and are more a result of burgeoning Rolodexes than of a conscious effort to narrow their focus. Sandi Mendelson, President and COO of Hilsinger-Mendelson, sees specializing as a natural path for many PR professionals. “What happens when you’ve been in the business over the years is, if you’ve been successful in your campaigns, people whose goals are the same come to you. You’ll have more and more campaigns in that area, as you have successes in that area.” Though the firm represents the broad spectrum of fiction and nonfiction, it has gained a reputation for building celebrities and brand names. Partially responsible (talent must count for something) for the successes of British domestic goddess Nigella Lawson and photographer Anne Geddes, Mendelson views the book as a “platform to build the brand.”
Carol Fass of Carol Fass Publicity and Public Relations is still amazed that she has become viewed as the person to go to with Jewish interest books and authors. It was only last June that she launched the Fass Speakers Bureau, a new division of her company that sponsors talks and events at mainly Jewish venues. Now, despite being adamant about “maintaining a heterogeneous list” that includes everything from general fiction to history and politics to art, she is concerned about being classified. “I have a very general approach. There are basic things you do to create a PR campaign. The position and angles and timing and follow-ups—all these things are important. The way you understand the book and understand the author are very important,” she explains.
Simone Cooper started her own firm in 1990 and soon became viewed as an expert in African American interests, which now comprises about 25 percent of her business. “People knew me in the industry, and they knew I was black,” she explains. “It wasn’t that I decided to be a specialist, but I did have a good sense of the audience and the black media. I have had publishers ask me to read an African American manuscript—especially if they feel like they’re missing something about how viable a book is.” Though specializing was a “really organic” process for her, she originally immersed herself in the category by attending such events as the Harlem Book Fair and black writers conferences.
CONQUERING A CATEGORY
There are, however, publicists who left general-marketing positions at publishing houses—which seems to be the backstory of most independent book publicists—with the intention to conquer a certain segment of the market and strategically built the appropriate armamentarium to do so.
Trained in general adult book promotion at large houses, Susan Salzman Raab of Raab Associates left in 1986 to start “the only agency specializing exclusively in children’s book and parenting books.” She admits that it took a while to establish her business, because in the ’80s, publishing houses did not devote large budgets to children’s literature. “All of a sudden, there’s intrigue in the juvenile or young adult market.” She attributes much of this to Harry Potter, but not all. “People were baffled by the idea of putting a children’s book author on tour. But [that] idea is a regular part of the industry now,” she enthuses.
Raab says PR specialists must become so immersed in the given topic that they can spot trends before others. If done properly, before too long, word of mouth will trigger more word of mouth—and eventually, the media seeks out the publicist (now seen as “the expert”)—not the other way around. For example, Raab, the Marketing Adviser to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, is called upon to lecture and write on the nuances of her chosen field—whether about how a children’s book gains “classic status” and how “12-year-olds are now reading what used to be aimed at 14-year-olds.”
Lisa Ekus has a similar story. In 1983, she started Lisa Ekus Public Relations with the intent to do general book publicity. But, within two years, she realized her true calling. “I loved the cookbooks I was promoting, and at that time, nobody was paying very much attention to cookbooks. Now, publishing is struggling, but cookbooks are holding their own.” One sign of the times, she notes, is in her early years, all of her work came from publishers, but now about 40 percent of her work is for the authors directly. Having established a reputation for launching the careers of celebrity chefs, like Emeril Lagasse, as well as promoting famous restaurants and food companies, she now does more and more consulting, such as jacket-blurb suggestions for publishers and lining up keynote speakers at culinary events. How does she keep on the cutting-edge of food? Ekus notes that she gathers more useful information for her business by going to the big food and gourmet trade shows than to book expos.
THE RED ENVELOPE, PLEASE
One thing remains true across all lines of PR work: A successful publicist must be able to brand him/herself. Most of the publicists we spoke with revealed some signature that set them apart from others, either in the media’s quickly glancing eyes or those of potential clients. Shannon Wilkinson’s Cultural Communications promotes art, fashion, and photography books. She emphasizes the importance that her press releases reflect the high-end art books she’s publicizing. This means hiring designers to construct visually stunning, four-color, illustrated press kits that arrive in a red envelope. “I’ve been dealing with all these journalists for years and I really haven’t varied, so when they see the red envelope, they know it’s from me,” she says. Having an arts background also helps. “I have an understanding of the artistic process. So, I not only get it, but I understand how to translate [the artist’s] vision into words,” she says.
Nancy Berland, President of Nancy Berland Public Relations, also knows her business from the inside out. Having started as a romance novelist, she decided in 1995 to leave the solitary life of a writer and began promoting the Romance Writers of America’s annual conference, and followed with romance and mystery writers. Because of the loyal following these genres elicit, her work is more one-on-one with the reader and depends less on the media, Berland says. Websites such as Romantic Times (www.romantictimes.com) and NewandUsedBooks.com are ways to instantly reach the target audiences of most of her 20 current clients, she says. But, when she does approach the mainstream media, Berland knows “an author has to have a nonfiction hook. She has to be interesting in herself and then, it’s like, by the way, she also publishes these books.”
Heidi Krupp, founder of Krupp Kommunications, can boast partial responsibility for The South Beach Diet’s near year on The New York Time’s best-seller list. Krupp sets her company apart with the very definition of its specialty. “We don’t specialize in diet and fitness books, but we do specialize in ‘changing your life’ books.” How does maintain her status as an expert? She reads every imaginable magazine and has staff members probe the Web and chatrooms to keep their pulse on the hottest in pop culture. Ultimately, though, she knows her limitations. “You can’t be an expert in everything,” Krupp says, adding cheerfully, “But, if you’re a publicist and you have great instinct, then you can promote anything.”