The Book Publicity Landscape in 2023
The halfway point of 2023 has arrived. Let's have a chat about book publicity.
This week, Dan Sinykin wrote a terrific opinion piece in The New York Times about how Cormac McCarthy’s writing career wouldn’t happen in today’s book publishing landscape. You can read it here as a gift link. It got me thinking about an era of publishing that is long gone—when publishers nurtured authors and stuck with them because they believed in their writing. This was true of the industry when I first joined it in 1996. It was almost expected that a debut author’s book wouldn’t have robust sales, but the numbers would improve with subsequent titles. Similarly, it was accepted that publicity campaigns for newer authors would build momentum over time. There was no BookTok back then. There were no cell phones. There were more book review sections in newspapers (print!), ample local media outlets in book tour markets, and a lot fewer books published. I didn’t even have email at my first publishing job, so I had to call book review editors and fax press releases to them. The horror!
Fast forward to 2023. As I’ve written previously, books compete with other books and TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, streaming services, and numerous other apps. The news cycle is relentless because everyone needs information all the time. Book review sections are scarce, and print media is on life support. There are more books published than there are people who will read them. I am not writing this to depress you. I am writing this because if we don’t examine the problems in the industry, we won’t be able to improve anything.
I’m going to admit something, and I think many publicists probably feel the same way: I fell out of love with pitching media during the pandemic—maybe even before that. I’ve always enjoyed connecting with media, and I’ve made a lot of friends in that world. When you are working in-house, though, and have more books to pitch than you can handle, the process becomes a burden. Further, when you have to pitch books you dislike or can’t understand why they were acquired (as in, “Who is the audience for this book?”), it isn’t enjoyable. I used to joke that being a publicist meant leading a life full of rejection, but that is pretty true, and I think publicists deserve more credit for being resilient.
I’ve been watching the media landscape closely for quite some time. It is a far cry from what it was five years ago, and I think a refresher is needed for those who aren’t in the trenches. Here’s a snapshot of what you need to know:
E-commerce, SEO, and clicks are the name of the game: It’s no secret that advertising revenue is essential to media. That means media kits for potential advertisers highlight the audience size for a particular website, newsletter, etc. Which in turn means the content for a media outlet must attract readers. It also means that many articles you read that mention products include a hyperlink to said product—and that the media outlet will get a commission if you buy it. This creates a challenging environment for lifestyle books (cooking, self-help, beauty, etc.) because fewer people are likely to purchase them versus a great new dewy blush.
Pay-to-play is alive and well: I’d love to tell you that every product you see on the Today Show is there solely because of a great pitch. Alas, that is not so. Some products in segments are featured because the brand paid a lot of money for them to be there. When ad revenue slumps, pay-to-play is a revenue stream for some media. It is the worst-kept secret in PR. Many publicists (including myself) avoid pay-to-play, but many others embrace it. I predict that it will become more prevalent.
The minimum digital ad spends=expensive: I won’t name the media outlets, but I’d say the average entry price to a worthwhile digital ad campaign can cost $15K. That is just the starting point. Digital advertising revenue is hurting, so I doubt prices will decrease.
We are now entirely in an election cycle: I admit, I wasn’t prepared for the 2024 election cycle to start so soon, but it had to. The first GOP debate is in late August, so keep that in mind while pitching/acquiring nonfiction. Election cycles are great opportunities for topic-specific books (think: foreign affairs, climate change, and anything else that might come up in a debate). Once January 2024 is upon us, the election cycle media will ramp up. It is also worth mentioning that consumer spending can drop during elections because people become nervous about the outcome.
The fall season is always challenging: I’m sure you’ve noticed that many “big” books are published between September and December each year. I’ll tell you a secret: June is the midpoint of the fiscal year for most publishers. They know what their numbers look like and what they must do to improve them. Enter Q4. Q4 is the final quarter of the fiscal year, and for some publishers, a make-it-or-break-it period. I’ve never been a fan of packing in many big books during the fall because it is difficult to get all of them covered in the media. It doesn’t have to be this way! Better forecasting could help—which means closely watching trends, investing more in promoting backlist titles, and—hear me out—publishing fewer books.
There is no such thing as a slow time in publicity: I would like to dispel the myth that book publishing is empty during the summer. It is always busy. If fall is the biggest season for publishers, it means publicity departments are grinding during the summer. We are not lounging by a pool somewhere in the Hamptons. We are more likely to be found crying by a fountain in Central Park.
Strategic media placements are better than the status quo: I understand the cache a review in The New York Times et al. affords an author, but the question to ponder is: Does it sell books? As we all know, authors are only as good as their sales track. Connecting the dots between media placements and marketing to book sales is possible. The mindset that reviews are “it” for certain books is outdated.
Give publicists a chance to be creative: I appreciate sales teams and buyers at retailers. However, everyone must understand that the status quo no longer exists in publicity. How many books are accounts ordering when they find out a review is forthcoming in a major newspaper? I bet it is not a significant number. Instead of telling publicists what you need from them, which is primarily unattainable, allow publicists to tell you what will work for a book. Cookie-cutter campaigns don’t do much these days.
Authors must participate! I have been on the receiving end of many authors telling me who I should pitch and how. Yet, it is like pulling teeth when I suggest some things they should do to elevate their profile online. Publicity is not a one-way street! Publicists can do a lot, but we can’t do everything. We also can’t force an author to do something. Our suggestions are intentional. You cannot rely on a publicist to do everything for you. If you aren’t sure what you should be doing, ask us.
Sometimes we don’t know why a book isn’t selling: Publicists aren’t the people who acquire books (99% of the time). We promote books. We know which media people we can pitch to. We know marketing. However, we can only work with the book given to us. We cannot perform miracles; we don't believe that it is our fault when a book doesn’t sell. If we had a crystal ball to tell us which titles would become bestsellers, we’d be on vacation now. Be kind. We are doing our job.
I will keep writing about the book publicity landscape as we go along, so consider this part one. What I wrote here shouldn’t be interpreted as negative. Instead, please consider how hard a publicist’s job is and why. I’ve gotten back into the swing of pitching media because I am the one who decides what books I work on. I am privileged to do so, but I’ve also worked incredibly hard to get here. I’ve taken my punches and hope to improve things for other publicists.
As always, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or suggestions.
What I’m Watching: I just finished watching Shiny Happy People. It’s the docuseries on Hulu about the Duggar family. Man, that is some dark stuff.
I’ve also been watching The Idol on HBO. It is terrible. Somehow it gets worse every week, but I keep watching,
What I’m Listening to: The podcast series Scamanda. It’s about a young woman who has cancer—or does she? You’ll have to listen to find out. It’s fascinating.
What I’m Reading: I can’t tell you what it is, but I’ve been reading a memoir in manuscript form. The author hasn’t queried yet, and there isn’t a publisher attached to it, but damn, this person can write. If you know me, you know I don’t say that lightly.
Until next week…