How I Prepare For The First Meeting With My Publicity/Marketing Team
How I Book
By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is part of a series called “How I Book,” a collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, and Dan Blank, the founder of WeGrowMedia. The aim is to provide honest, practical advice to writers negotiating the murky waters of publication, especially around their roles in publicity and marketing, where so much is expected and so little guidance is often offered.
Dan asks: So many authors hold off on taking any actions with marketing plans or audience development until after their first marketing meeting with their publisher. The potential problem is that valuable time can be lost waiting, with the author sitting on the sidelines. How can an author best prepare for the first marketing meeting they have with their publisher?
Miranda answers: Let’s start with what this publicity and marketing meeting is. About five or six months your book’s publication date, the publicist and/or marketing person assigned to your book will want to meet with you to discuss your publisher’s promotional plans for the months leading up to publication. This meeting can look like a phone call (likely to be the case if you don’t live in New York, or aren’t able to travel to wherever your publisher is), or it can be an in-person meeting at the publishing house.
What Won’t They Tell Me?
I want to address this question right off the bat. This meeting is the true kickoff of a new relationship in your life, in which you’ll officially be partnered with a team from your publisher. You’re all working together on behalf of your book. But even though your interests are aligned, they are different. This is likely the only book you’re currently focused on publishing, and your publisher is publishing many at the same time as yours (which means your team is very busy with many other books, all in various stages of production). As the author, you have invested hours into your book, while your publisher has invested both money and editorial hours, and a promise to spend publicity/marketing hours. Your hopes for your book may include: that it makes money, that a lot of people read it, that it effects change, that it gets reviewed, that it brings you renown. Your publisher’s hopes for the book likely include: recouping the advance it paid you, selling as many copies of the book as it can (and, to that end, getting as much media coverage for it as they think they can), and, maybe, making a long term investment in your career.
It’s important to remember that with these natural differences between you, there will also exist a divide between what they know and what they tell you. The truth is that publishers set up a scrim of privacy between their inner workings and an author. Why? Well, they spend different amounts of money on different books, but they don’t want anyone to feel they aren’t fully invested in it, since every book is a bit of a gamble for them. For example, they have no way of knowing whether a book they’ve considered to be “minor” might actually gain a lot of traction, and they want to reserve the right to change strategies.
So even at this phase, when transparency seems to be the name of the game, you’re not going to get a whole lot of concrete answers, or at least not the kind of concrete answers you’re probably looking for. No one will tell you how many ARCs they are printing. They won’t say how much their marketing budget is for your book, or whether it’s a lead title for their list, or if they’re hoping to send you to BEA (Book Expo America) in May. In fact, in many cases, it’s actually considered impertinent to ask these questions, and might turn someone on your team off, which is not what you want.
Instead, you have to look for clues. So start with the meeting itself. Who is attending? How many people will be there? Keep in mind that there’s no such thing here as a bad sign; the fact that you are having a publicity/marketing meeting means that your publisher is invested in your book! But it’s also wise to be realistic about what you’ll discover in this meeting, and a brief phone call with a single publicist might mean they aren’t putting as much into your book as if you’ve attended a meeting in a board room with a dozen people.
The content of what they present in this meeting is important too. Will they be paying for advertising? Do they plan to reach out to book clubs? Will they pay for your travel to help promote the book? Again, in and of themselves none of these — or any of the dozens of other possibilities — are “good” or “bad” signs, but if you can get a cumulative read on your publisher’s overall vision for the book, you’ll be able to get a sense of how hard they will be pushing your book, and that, in turn, means that five or six whole months before publication, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the volume of promotional work (or what I like to call “hustling”) that you may want to do on behalf of your own book.
Who Will Be There?
This first big meeting for your book can include just your publicist, marketing person and you, or, if your book is a “major” book for the publisher’s list, may include representatives from editorial, subrights, foreign rights, sales, and the publisher at large.
Who Should You Bring?
I highly recommend bringing your agent along. In my experience, these meetings move fast and furiously, and a lot of lingo is thrown around, from acronyms about library conferences to mentions of publications I’ve never heard of. You should definitely ask questions about anything you don’t understand, but your agent’s knowledge will take you one step deeper than a brief explanation during the meeting might.
There’s a good chance that at the top of the meeting, you’ll be handed an agenda put together by someone in-house, on which you can take notes (and if they don’t hand you one, you should definitely ask if someone could email it to you after the fact), but you’ll also want to be paying attention to everyone as they speak, making eye contact and not scribbling notes the whole time. Your agent is your secret weapon because she speaks their language, and is a second set of ears. She knows which cues indicate the kind of money the publisher is planning to spend on the book’s campaign, so her gut read on this meeting will be immensely helpful as you move forward to craft your own personal marketing campaign. Is she impressed? Does she feel they could be doing more? Are there specific openings she sees in their marketing strategy that might offer options for your book if you push back a little down the line?
Because of her position as your agent, she can also ask tougher questions than you can — it’s always nice to have someone else be your “bad guy.” Don’t get me wrong; the tones of these meetings, in my experience, are very celebratory, so she won’t want to be anything but positive. But she may be able to ask certain questions during the meeting that will require the in-house team to clarify their strategy a bit, and, down the line, she can certainly use the information she gathers here to clarify, on your behalf, why a specific gameplan laid out during this meeting was abandoned, or for you to bounce your concerns off of when you thought the plan was to do X and it now the message from the publisher seems it is to do Y.
How Should You Prepare?
By the time you walk into that room, your team has a pretty clear sense about its strategy. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t prep too, and be ready to knock your team’s socks off by showing it how ready you are to do your job as a strong advocate for the project you’ve already worked so hard on.
Soon after you signed your contract, your “team” sent you their standard Author Questionnaire. I’ve heard a lot of writers complain about this document and the arduous task of completing it, but it’s a vital arrow in your quiver, the chance to show them how well-connected and invested in the process you are. At base, it’s a place to download every single bit of relevant information that might have an impact on how your publisher sees you and your book. Do you have any contacts in the press? How would you describe your book? Do you have any unusual biographical facts? What organizations might be interested in your book? Are you planning on redesigning your website, or having more of a presence on social media than you currently do? Filling this questionnaire out thoughtfully and completely a few months back was your first step in preparing for this meeting.
Remember that Who Do You Know post I wrote a few weeks back? Well, this meeting is the time to crack that list out. Not only will this list provide your team with a roadmap of your contacts, but simply having it in hand will show that you’re an asset to this book, that you understand what promotion requires — helping spread the word about your book — and that you aren’t squeamish about participating in this transaction. Be sure to bring enough copies for everyone at the meeting, and offer to follow up with an emailed version. Down the line, you can ask your publicist/marketing person if they’d like you to start reaching out to the folks on your list to gather addresses, and they’ll direct you toward what they need. I find that sending out a quick email to folks on this list that says something like “ARC’s for my book are dropping soon; I’d love to send you a copy if you’re interested. What’s the best address?” really fits the bill.
Finally, remember my What Can You Write post? Well, this is the meeting to bring that list too. Bring enough copies of possible essay topics for everyone, send a follow-up email with the list included as an attachment, and be sure to emphasize to everyone there that you’re absolutely open to their ideas as well, and to their revisions of your ideas. As long as you remain flexible to your publisher’s hopes and visions, and acknowledge that they are the ones at the helm of this part of the process, they will be thrilled to have your input and ideas, and impressed to see you taking the reins.
What Can You Expect?
In my experience, these meetings are about an hour long. Off the bat, you’ll meet any team members you haven’t, and each will briefly explain their role at the publisher. Your publicist and marketing representative will likely then lead the attendees through a document that bullet-points the publisher’s publicity and marketing plans, from if — and where — they plan to advertise the book, to any special promotions they might be running. You might hear about their outreach to libraries, the press they want to target, any press they’ve already reached out to, which blogs they plan to reach out to, etc. This gameplan will likely divide the publication into two phases: Pre-Heat (the months leading up to publication) and Launch (the weeks right around publication), so you’ll get a chance to see how they’re thinking about this book in terms of the long haul, and then right around your pub date. If more than your publicist and marketing person are attending the meeting, these various folks will pipe up with their own contributions, describing their hopes and responsibilities (placing first serial excerpt of your book in a magazine, for example, or selling your book abroad, if the publisher has retained world rights).
Sometimes they’ll ask you if there are specific things you can be doing too, based on some of the materials you’ve brought in, or your Author Questionnaire (eg. “Can you reach out to your alumni magazine yourself?” or “How strong is your connection to the person at X Organization?”). You can make yourself a list of these assignments to refer back to after the fact.
Scribble brief notes. Ask questions if there are any unclear terms. Look people in the eye and smile, and thank them. If you don’t know what something means, ask them to explain it to you. Keep in mind that this is just the beginning of the conversation, the metaphorical smashing of the champagne upon the bow of the ship, and that means you can absolutely ask follow-up questions and ask your team to reiterate anything you didn’t understand down the line, as long as your questions are professional and respectful.
What Should You Do Afterwards?
As I said above, I always try to ensure my agent can be at this first meeting, not just because I think it shows to the publisher that I’m taking our work together quite seriously, but because she provides an extra set of eyes and ears. Chances are when you walk out of the room, your head will be swimming. That’s where your agent comes in! We usually go get a drink together afterwards, and talk through the meeting and our impressions of it. I almost always end up asking her to define a few terms, and during the meeting itself she’s usually asked an apt question that gets to the heart of something I never would have considered asking about.
In your debrief with your agent, you should indicate that you want her to be honest with you, and not protect your feelings if she sees your publisher’s efforts at being less than what she thought they’d be. Finding out that your publisher isn’t planning to put as much as you’d hoped into your book can be disappointing, a blow to the ego, etc. But the good news is you’re still five to six months away from publication, which is a good amount of time to get your ducks in a row and decide to do everything you can on behalf of your book. Now is the time to be practical.
That’s right, five or six months out, there’s still time for you to make wise decisions about supporting the book you have written, even if you get the sense that your book is not your publisher’s biggest priority. (Believe me, I know that this discovery can be humbling, disappointing, even devastating. But I contend that you’ve come this far by doing a tremendous amount of work — by writing a whole book! — and now is the time to fight for that project, especially if your publisher is not going to do as much of that as you’d hoped).
Possibilities for your increased participation include hiring a personal publicist or online marketing person (ahem, may I recommend Dan Blank), although you’ll want to be wise about this, with a clear understanding of exactly what this person should be doing on your book’s behalf, and work with your publisher to make sure they are on board with this added member to the team.
But your proactivity doesn’t have to be that drastic, or expensive. Now is the time to call in favors and rely on the organic connections you’ve hopefully been building while working on your book. It’s time to consider every option, from organizing a blog tour, to asking your “street team” — a group of steadfast supporters — to help you get the word out. There’s plenty written about these, and other, strategies elsewhere, and since I’m not an expert, I’m not going to pretend that I am. But I do want to offer hope and remind you that none of us know exactly what sells a book, as much as we’d all like to believe we do (that’s right, even your in-house publicist and marketing person don’t have concrete answers to these questions). So there is no such thing as lost hope, especially not when you have plenty of time ahead of you. You’re already determined; you’ve written a book. Now it’s time to use that determination to help your publisher get the word out.
How Do You Follow Up?
As I said above, this is just the beginning of a relationship with your publisher that will extend beyond the next six months. Best not to go home from the meeting and shoot off an email asap with a volley of questions. I usually send an email the next day to the parties who attended, with a quick thank you for everyone’s hard work and the attachments of my “Who I Know” list and my “What I Can Write” list. Then I take a few days away from the whole thing. The following week, I start to gather up any questions I have based on the meeting, along with the list of what I remember them asking me to do, just to confirm I heard things correctly. Sending such an email a week or two after the fact will show them that you’re invested and ready to help.
It’s important to remember that your book is not the only one your team is working on, especially so far from publication day. They are juggling dozens of balls at any one time, so it may take a while to hear back from them. I usually let a week pass before sending a nudgey “hey did you get my email” email, unless it’s an absolutely pressing issue, in which case, I pick up the phone.
The goal here is to convey your proactiveness without seeming desperate. In that, yes, this whole process is a bit like dating. You want your publisher to consider you to be an asset to your book and to their team, and unfortunately, interpreting any silence from it as a personal affront, and acting out accordingly, will only serve to have your team distance you from the process as much as they can. Your agent, or a group with other writers who have been through the process before, can be great resources for your anxiety — they can answer questions about the pace of the process that your publicist and marketing person shouldn’t necessarily have to. That said, it’s always okay to calmly remind your team if this is your first time through the process that you aren’t quite sure what happens next. Chances are, they’ll be happy to talk you through it.
And always, always, always, every chance you get, say thank you.