Guide to Hiring Freelance Publicists
What to expect when you engage a freelance publicist.
Thank you for being patient as I recover from what I’m calling “The Ick of 2023.” I’m not quite 100% better, but I felt well enough to put this handy guide together!
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Hiring a freelance publicist can seem like a daunting, stressful task. Where should you start? How do you know what questions to ask? Is it affordable? What should your publicist-author relationship be like? I hope this roadmap helps you. Let’s get started.
How to find a freelance publicist:
Market Partners International publishes a comprehensive list of freelance book publicists every year. You can find the 2023 list here. As you’ll see, each firm put forth their respective specialties. My firm, KMSPR, is not listed because I didn’t know they still compiled this. I’ll add a bit about what I do at the end of the newsletter. For now, use the list to guide you.
When you see a firm that might be a match, visit their website and look at current and past clients, media placements, and services. Most PR firms never disclose their pricing online; if they do, proceed cautiously. It’s impossible to charge a flat fee for an author’s publicity campaign because none are alike. You can also ask peers for PR firm references since many of us rely on referrals.
It will take time to narrow your list, so begin your search at least 4-6 months before publication. If a firm’s specialties and client list don’t align with your book, keep looking until you find one that does.
Initial contact with a freelance publicist:
When you compose an email inquiring about a publicist’s services, be sure to include the following:
Title, description, and publication date of your book.
Publisher and if a publicity and marketing person is assigned to your book.
Your social media handles and website.
If applicable, list your previous books.
Explain what services you are looking for (based on their services).
Your goals as an author.
The more information you include, the better the publicist will assess if they are suitable for your needs. Most freelance publicists work alone, so give them 48 hours or more to respond. I can only speak for myself: Some days get crazy, and while I intend to respond quickly, it may not happen.
The publicist responds:
When a publicist responds, they ask additional questions, suggest a call, or pass on the project.
If they pass: There isn’t much you can do if a publicist decides to pass on the project. Don’t force them to take it on—no means no. Publicists turn down clients immediately for various reasons: the project isn’t right for them, or they don’t have the bandwidth are the most common ones.
If they suggest a call: I always ask authors if they prefer phone, Zoom, or another platform for an initial call. Do what feels most comfortable. Most of my potential client calls occur on Zoom.
If they ask additional questions: Answer them. They are trying to get the complete picture of your needs and what the project entails.
The initial call:
Initial calls with potential clients inform me whether or not our personalities make for a good working relationship. I think that is true for my peers, too. The ease of conversation sets the tone for future communication.
By this time, you’ve done your homework, researched the publicist, and have prepared a list of questions because you read this newsletter. Here’s what to ask:
How many clients do you take on at one time?
What is your communication style? Are you proactive? How often can I expect to hear from you?
Will you create your own pitch letter and press release for the book?
How soon can I see a proposal?
How often do you send status updates and in what format?
Can you tell me more about your experience with books like mine?
Asking a publicist about their fees:
You can ask a publicist about their fees on the initial call, but they may not rattle off a price. Again, I’m only speaking for myself: I prefer putting together a proposal with my fee included in it rather than tell an author a dollar amount on our first call. I can’t ever tell the scope of work a project will require until I write a proposal. Some publicists tell authors that their fee starts at a specific dollar amount, which usually means it will only increase from there. I prefer not to do that because I try to work around people’s budgets.
A good publicist will be truthful about what they think will work for you and your book:
I am upfront with potential clients about the challenges publicists face in getting books reviewed and the fluidity of the media landscape. When I speak with authors for the first time, I wouldn’t have read their new book yet, so I ask a lot of questions about it. I also ask what their experience has been like with their publisher, if they have an in-house publicist assigned, what marketing & publicity plans are in place, and how they connect with their readers.
Some publicists will give authors a sales pitch. That’s not my style, but I understand why people do it. Often, this means they hype up review coverage. I tend not to do that because review coverage is hard to achieve. Rather, I discuss podcasts, Substack, bylined pieces, radio, and how to reach an audience.
After the initial call:
Publicists will ask you to send them either the full manuscript or first 100 pages or so. It’s rare that I’ll agree to write a proposal for something I haven’t read. If that is the case, it is usually a high-profile author whose publicity campaign is straightforward.
My weakness is that I underestimate how long it’ll take me to read what authors send me. I’m getting out of that habit. I tend to say it’ll take me a week, but it really takes three weeks because I have current clients, an MBA program, and a 15yo daughter to drive around. Plus, my proposals aren’t cookie-cutter. I tailor them to each author.
A cookie-cutter proposal has all the bells and whistles: a full list of media to pitch for reviews and interviews, some websites, maybe Bookstagram influencers who’ll post a photo of the book with copy, and more. Strategy is usually missing (this is not a negative—it’s simply different from what I do).
Proposals are tricky. Publicists need to include details, but they must also balance them with some generalities in case authors use them to hire someone cheaper (don’t do this—it is not nice).
When you receive the proposal:
First, don’t get sticker shock. There is a lot of information online about how expensive freelance publicists can be. The truth is, many of us are affordable, but you have to do the legwork to find that out. Let me put it this way: If I were charging $30K for every campaign, I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter. Okay, maybe I still would, but you know what I mean. That is a lot of money!
The truth is, you can negotiate fees. I’m sure there are publicists whose prices are set, but for every one of them, there are those of us who charge less. It has nothing to do with the quality of work you’ll receive from us and everything to do with being more author-centered. It could also mean that we have steady work from some clients, which makes it easier to charge some authors less.
If you have questions about the proposal and fee, ask. This is your opportunity to seek information before you decide to hire someone or shop around a bit more. If you would like to add elements to the proposal, discuss it with the publicist and ask how it will affect the price.
Be honest about what you can afford. Hiring a publicist is a big investment. I know I wouldn’t be able to shell out thousands of dollars for a publicist right now, so I doubt most authors can, either.
Payment plans can be flexible if a publicist is willing to split their fee over a few months rather than asking authors for 1/2 the money upon signing an agreement and 1/2 after their publication date. I’m aware that publishers pay author advances in thirds or fourths, which makes affordability a priority for me.
The time span of the campaign will be included in the proposal, too.
After the proposal is mutually agreed upon, publicists will send a contract or agreement.
My agreements are simple. I explain what is covered under it, the penalties for not paying my fee on-time, and explain that I can guarantee my best effort but not results. I’ve written about this several times, and it bears repeating: No publicist can guarantee results. The only way to do so is by pay-to-play (paying for placement), and that is advertising,
If you have questions about the agreement, please ask the publicist to explain things in more detail. You shouldn’t sign something unless you are 100% comfortable.
Sometimes, the terms of an agreement will change in the midst of a campaign. In that case, I revise mine and send it to the author. It’s important to have everything in writing.
You’ve signed the agreement, now what?
Once you sign the agreement, payment will be due (the amount varies depending on the publicist’s fees and payment plan). After you pay, work commences.
This is when you should introduce your in-house team to whomever you hired. If you’ve read my previous posts about hiring a publicist, you know that you need to discuss bringing someone into the fold with your publishing team before you hire the publicist.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Make sure you can afford a publicist before you sign an agreement. Publicists rely on clients paying them to make a living. We have all been stiffed before, and it is unpleasant.
Obviously, there is more to cover on this topic, but I hope this is a good starting point for people.
Note about my services: I offer an a la carte menu of services for authors. It includes podcast “tours,” digital media, Substack 101 consultations, and more. I also offer my services for full publicity campaigns. My website will be up soon.
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What I’m watching: I just finished the Beckham docuseries. It was great! Fun fact: In the first episode, they show footage from The Spice Girl’s book-signing in NYC back in the 90s when I was their publicist. (Posh was very nice)
What I’m listening to: I just bought tickets to see Stevie Nicks in February, so I am deep into Fleetwood Mac at the moment.
What I’m reading: This is always a challenging question. I’m knee-deep in an MBA class, so I’ve been reading a lot about change management.
What I’m buying (you all seem to love product recs):
I am totally addicted to Peepers reading glasses. My red frames are Peepers, and I just received my order of black and tortoise frames. Check out the great, affordable selection from them here. Bonus: They are kind of indestructable.