Interview by Lara Lillibridge
This month, interviews editor Lara Lillibridge at down with Andrea Thatcher, a publicity manager at Philadelphia-based Smith Publicity. Read on to learn more about what goes into publicizing a book, including the difference between marketing and publicity.
LL: How did you wind up in the publicity field?
Andrea Thatcher: Well, I was an underemployed journalist, and I got a job at a bookstore. I was an English major in college, and I’ve always loved books, I’ve always wanted to work with books and publishing, but I didn’t really have a good sense of all the jobs that were out there. I also didn’t realize that you could do this outside of New York City. So through working at the bookstore I came to know some of the sales people that came in, and one of them was from a local publisher, a small publisher of nonfiction books, and they were looking for somebody in marketing.
I was already doing some marketing for the store, and I was encouraged to apply. I ended up doing in-house marketing at a small nonfiction publisher in Pennsylvania called Schiffer Publishing—they do accept unagented queries, some of your authors might be interested—and so I was in the marketing department there. I was also covering publicity—marketing and publicity were sort of a joint effort there. I was there for about three years, I think, maybe four, and that led me to the opportunity with Smith Publicity.
What I really enjoy about working at a publicity agency like Smith is that at a publishing house, it’s not uncommon to have 70 titles a year, and so you can have a lot of creative ideas about how to promote a book, but you’re not always going to have the time because you’re managing so many titles per season. Whereas at Smith, I am working with only a few titles at a time. I feel I have more bandwidth to implement the creative ideas that I might have, and I can really think about each book more specifically, just dig in more get to know the author better. And so that’s why I’ve stayed at Smith for as long as I have and what I really enjoy about the agency model versus in-house publicity.
LL: And authors can just come to you on their own, right?
AK: Yes, I mean, we sometimes are connected through their publisher—sometimes the publisher looks at the author’s goals and knows the support we have for publicity may refer people to us. But I think we get a lot of cold leads. We have relationships with some hybrid and self-publishing companies. And I mean, unofficially, probably with traditional publishing houses as well, where you know, you’re we think this book would be a good fit, we send someone there, they someone on their side needs publicity, they send them to us. So we have a nice net of contacts in that way.
LL: Can you explain the difference between publicity and marketing? Because I think that is one thing that people—well, at least I—did not understand.
AT: I think you’re absolutely right that the difference between publicity and marketing something that people often don’t understand. The simplest way to explain it is that marketing is something you pay for—you pay for advertising, you pay for sponsored posts on social media, Facebook ads—that’s marketing, whereas publicity is earned editorial coverage.
“The simplest way to explain it is that marketing is something you pay for—you pay for advertising, you pay for sponsored posts on social media, Facebook ads—that’s marketing, whereas publicity is earned editorial coverage.” — Andrea Thatcher
I’m not going to say that there’s never a time where we’re paying to be part of a blog tour or something like that. And we will certainly bring some advertising opportunities to a client if we know they have the budget for it. But by and large, our focus is on book reviews, editorial coverage, interviews, podcasts, television and radio broadcasts. We’re looking for people who are interested in covering the book as content for their magazine, website, television show.
LL: When I worked with you, you got me a radio spot, a PBS television interview and several byline pieces in major publications. That was very cool. I mean, you never really know what translates to sales but it certainly made me feel good.
AT: It’s very difficult to directly correlate publicity efforts to sales with marketing efforts. Now, more than ever, you can say, I see 300 people clicked from this ad to the Amazon page, and I sold 100 books that day. So you can kind of make that correlation, but we’re seeing a little bit less of that. Whereas with publicity and major media, I think we’re seeing a shift from people used to think, oh, an article in The New York Times, an NPR interview, those are the things that I’m going to see a direct correlation—that interview aired, I’m going to see 100 books sell that day. I think we’re seeing more of a shift to this isn’t always the case.
I think we’re seeing more of a shift to seeing that correlation from micro-influencers and bloggers and Instagramers—people that it doesn’t lead you the same cachet to say, ‘Oh, I was on so and so’s blog’ as it does, ‘I was interviewed on NPR,’ but you may see more book sales from the micro influencer or the influencer. Because, you know, their content is sort of driven by what they can sell for people. A lot of times, especially if you’re paying for advertising, you may see a more direct correlation.
I think there’s a little bit of a shift from major traditional media to online influencers in terms of what’s affecting sales most, though I think we did recently just have a case where we saw the opposite—somebody was on morning TV and sold a bunch of books. And we were all excited because we don’t see that as often as we used to. And so a lot of time it is coaching authors that absolutely we can go after the Today Show, we can go after the New York Times, but those aren’t always going to be the opportunities that leads to the most book sales.
LL: Don’t they say that someone needs to see your book seven times?
AT: I think someone recently told me they heard it was more than that, maybe the common wisdom has changed, but seven times is what I always said. In the bookstore we were told that someone has to see the book cover seven times to make a purchase. That can be seeing it on the shelf at a store, but I think Instagram helps get those views up so that by the time the book comes out, or by the time someone is ready to make a purchase decision, that book is already in their mind, even if they don’t remember it, they’re going to be more drawn to it in the store.
LL: What’s a typical day like for you?
AT: One of the things I like is about my job is that there’s not a ‘typical’ day. I like that I’m always working on different projects and digging into different topic areas. There’s a lot of client calls, we do consults and traditional publicity. Sometimes I’m coaching an author on what they can do to help increase the profile of their brand or their book. Sometimes I’m actually doing that legwork for them—pitching media. I also manage a team of publicists, so I’m helping them with any client issues they’re having, putting out fires, so to speak. And, you know, just talking with our business development team about how we can go after the type of authors we want to be working with, improving the Smith brand and visibility. So I’d say it’s probably a mixture of all those things, but I almost always am going to be working with clients’ books, and talking to them and pitching media.
LL: So what makes an ideal client, or an ‘easy to get along with’ client?
AT: I think the most successful partnerships are when we trust each other to know what we know, when I trust that a client knows their topic area, that they can come to an interview prepared, and be ready to speak on their topic. There’s some prep involved in getting authors comfortable promoting themselves. So I need to know that you’re going to be able to sort of sell yourself a little bit. And then I think they need to trust that I know publicity, and I’m going to be able to direct them to the outlets and media that’s going to give their book the best coverage and the best visibility.
I don’t think a partnership is ever going to work if I’m telling them how to write their book, or they’re telling me how to promote it—we need to trust each person’s expertise. I would never tell someone how to write creative nonfiction, and so it’s also essential to the partnership for them to trust that I know how to promote the book.
I don’t think a partnership is ever going to work if I’m telling them how to write their book, or they’re telling me how to promote it—we need to trust each person’s expertise.
LL: One thing that surprised me was when I with my first book was how important the four to six months before your book comes out really is. And I think a lot of people have this idea that when their book launch is beginning of it. In my mind, it’s sort of the end of it in a way.
AT: It really is. That’s absolutely one of the things that I think surprises authors the most with a traditional publisher—especially when the book comes out, it has maybe three more months that they will be supporting it with marketing and advertising unless when it’s NY Times bestseller or some something prompts further attention. But yeah, I think for most publishers, launch day is like the finish line. We do support authors—especially nonfiction authors—a lot longer posts pub, because a lot of times it’s about their expertise.
Perhaps the person is a therapist, and so while pre-publication efforts are focused on attention for the book, post pub, we can still be getting them opportunities to write articles for Psychology Today or be interviewed on the topic area that they work in the most. If there’s anything happening in the news media, we can pitch them as expert commentary. For example if they worked a lot with ADHD and something’s in the news about ADHD, we can pitch them as an expert talking about that topic. So there is more support and I think productivity post-pub for nonfiction titles.
But the reason we need to start so early is because honestly, it’s mostly because of what you’re up against with the big five. You know, this doesn’t happen for the entire list, but for the top 5% of their list for the season, they’re working nine months in advance. In like, October top tier outlets sometimes say, ‘I already have 100 arcs for 2022.’ And so what you’re up against is that person already has five books slated for April, if your book comes out in April, and you’re pitching them in January, you’re against all those books they already have. And you know, publishers are rolling out plans if it’s a big name, maybe nine months ahead of time, they’ve sent out 1,000 copies to bookstores all over the country. They’re hosting lunch, not post-COVID, but they’re hosting lunches and author events in five of the major markets they’ve identified for this book.
And this is all happening so far in advance, because then there’s longer lead times with print publications. So New York Times, Publishers Weekly, they all need the book three to four months in advance. That’s really the deadline—you can’t send Publishers Weekly a book a month before it comes out and expect a review. So there’s the deadlines with the trade publications.
Really, the further in advance you can get an ARC the better. And I think people need to be thinking about publicity and marketing up to two years in advance. I mean, that sounds crazy, but you want to have a plan. Like if your book comes out in 2023, you want to know when to start publicity. So if the book comes out in 2023, I walk back six months to start publicity. Well, what do I need to start that publicity? Is my publisher providing advance review copies? Do I need to do something to get those provided? Or if I’m self-publishing, how am I going to do that? Or am I just going to do digital advance review copies? That’s possible these days, but still not the preference. And so that production process can take three months. And so then you’re a year out, so the further ahead you can be thinking the better. And we’re always willing to have a conversation with someone far ahead of time to let them know the timeline and what to expect without actually starting the campaign.
LL: Oh, that’s great. I’m a mentor for AWP and I work with emerging writers. And one thing that I tell them is, when they have an essay that doesn’t fit their collection, I say, well save that, because you’re going to need to publish things around when your book comes out. It’s helpful to have some things in your pocket that are ready to go, so you’re not spending a month in a flurry of writing all of these pieces.
AT: Exactly. Yeah, that’s really useful advice. For a nonfiction author we’re almost always going to ask for article writing. Sometimes it can be stuff reused from your blog if you keep a blog, or the same type of content. We recommend that maybe if you normally update your blog twice a month, leading up to publication update it once a month and send us the other article to place somewhere else. We really focus a lot on release day, and pre-release, we are trying to have as many hits in the media as possible. Our goal is that when someone Google’s your name, they’re going to see a nice list of content that shows them more of your voice and more about why they should buy this book. And, again, having people see the book seven times to make that purchase decision. It helps the Google algorithm every time your book is linked to lists—both the Google algorithm and the Amazon algorithm. So there’s a lot of SEO benefits to publishing in advance of your release day, but close to your release day. So absolutely that’s great advice. We want articles and essays as much as possible.
LL: And my last question for you. How has the pandemic changed the whole marketplace from your end of things? I mean, that’s obviously a huge question, I’m sorry.
AT: I still have my bookseller hat on sometimes, and think of the bookseller side of things, but for publicity, I think one of the biggest things I’ve seen, I think we have seen more of a shift to digital review copies. Some people still want the physical review copy—first of all, for some influencers and media, they want to be able to photograph the book, so they do still need a physical copy. Publishers Weekly is back to asking for physical copies. But during the pandemic, especially in the beginning, when we didn’t really understand if COVID could be spread by touch, people stopped accepting physical copies. And so the gears were sort of turned where now they had to come up with systems for accepting digital copies. And so those systems are at least still there, even if they prefer a physical copy.
I think the industry is much more nimble to work with digital review copies, which I think is a benefit to self-published and small publisher authors who may not have 100 arcs printed. And I think we’re seeing a little bit of an increase of people—legitimate, top tier media, people—using services like NetGalley. whereas I feel perhaps, New York Times reviewers, or someone in the top tier sort of sneered at NetGalley at a certain point in time, and it was primarily used by bloggers and Goodreads reviewers, who are also valuable but just a different segment. Now we’re seeing traditional media outlet reviewers and journalists saying, please auto approve me on NetGalley, so that I can get your books more easily. So we’re definitely seeing more people using services like that.
Obviously, book events have been a real challenge. There’s an advantage in moving more to Zoom events. Obviously, you’re not limited to your geographic area, you don’t have to travel to a book event. But that hasn’t changed the fact that someone in LA still isn’t going to be interested in you unless there’s a tie to LA. So just because now you could do a book event in LA doesn’t mean that LA bookstores are going to be interested. So it’s a little bit easier in that you don’t have to travel to a city. But it doesn’t make it easier to get that city interested, they would already have wanted to have you I think.
And it’s a little bit harder to sell books. Well, for the bookstore, it’s a little bit harder to make sure people are buying books with the organization you’re hosting the event with. So if you’re having an online event with an independent bookstore, people are far more likely to just buy the book on Amazon because they’re not staring a bookseller in the face and having social pressure to buy the book, or they’re more likely to not buy the book at all, and just attend the event.
There’s a bigger attendance in online events, but there’s probably less sales unless you’re a real big name author with a pre-order campaign. So I think book sales with events are a little bit harder, even though it’s a little bit easier to host events yourself on Facebook Live, Instagram Live, TikTok. There’s lots of ways to create content on your own, and I think that’s an advantage. There’s just been a real influx of the legitimization of broadcasting your own events. I think that’s been very positive, but it’s still hard to make sales off of that.
LL: Well, I know that for myself, one reason I liked book events was getting a book signed. And I have been surprised by the number of people that do an online event, and they don’t offer a way to order a signed book or at least a signed bookplate.
AT: We always suggest that they do that. Yeah, it’s true that an online book event is just not the same. I like that I can now attend conferences I wouldn’t normally have been able to attend. I love getting to see more author talks. Whereas maybe I wouldn’t have had time to go for an hour long thing I have to drive to. Now I can watch more in-depth book content. I think if you’re doing a virtual event you need to offer signed bookplates, and you need to really hit hard on your book selling partner, please buy books from this bookstore, they will send you a signed copy. A lot of times, that’s how it works.
You know, if they order from a specific store, I always recommend having a relationship with a local bookstore where you can go in and sign copies, and people can order online and get that signed copy. And then you can let them know that that’s an exclusive to that bookstore. So yeah, I think we’re missing a little bit of I think you’re all missing in-person events. We’re all missing getting to meet the authors and say how much we enjoy their book, you don’t get a chance to get as much in a chat. And, you know, seeing them sign your book for you is always a special experience.
LL: Well, hopefully, we’re on the cusp of getting back there.
AT: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how much book tours and in person events change. We were already seeing a lot less support for tours—fewer publishers were sending their authors on tour for in-person events, or it was at the cost of the author, the publisher wasn’t going to pay for it. So those types of events were already a little bit in decline, so I’m worried that this is just going to exacerbate that. But maybe people just want to have book events again, and there’ll be a resurgence. So we’ll just be positive and hope for that.
LL: Absolutely. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you think writers need to know about publicity or working with a publicist? Any final advice for people?
AT: I think it’s important to get comfortable promoting yourself. Even just practicing how you would pitch your book to someone can be helpful. I think it’s useful to read the types of outlets that you want to cover your book—if you to be in The Atlantic, but you’ve never read The Atlantic, you don’t know that you’re a good fit. So it’s always helpful to do your research.
I think finding your comp titles is something that authors are a little undereducated on. You need to find the titles that have the same audience as yours.
LL: Do you want comps to be published in the last couple years?
AT: So we can’t be saying I’m like so-and-so who was published 10 years ago. That’s not helpful, because 10 years ago was a completely different publishing atmosphere. So we want a comp author who’s been published in the last couple years, someone with a publisher about the same size as yours. Certainly, you can have some books on your comp title list that are from the big five, but if you’re not a big five author, then you don’t want them all to be because it’s hard to replicate the success of a big five title with a small publisher or independently publishing.
I feel like there was another criteria I had for comp titles…recent, in your genre, talking about your topic. I think that can be such a useful exercise, because almost any question you have: what media outlets should I be approaching? What kind of articles should I write? What should my website look like? What social media networks should I be on? Those types of questions, you can look to your comp title list, and if they’re all on Twitter, then that’s where you need to be because that’s where your audience is. If you see they all do Facebook ads, but nobody does TikTok, you can assume Facebook ads must be more effective than TikTok. So I think having that title list can help you answer a lot of questions and be more prepared for what works for your type of book.
LL: Well, that never occurred to me to use them as a model for publicity and marketing.
AT: It’s one of the ways I find media outlets. Obviously we have our in-house lists that we go to for a genre. But again, having more time to work in depth with a particular author, I look for similar books and who’s covering those books.
LL: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today.