Two Hats at Once: A Book Publicist Turns Writer (and Stays a Publicist Too).
By Caitlin Hamilton Summie
Sometimes an author is her own best publicist — and sometimes an author-publicist can show her friends and readers a thing or two. At Broad Street, we were all ears when first-time author and long-time publicist Caitlin Hamilton Summie was willing to share her experience. She says she “thought it would be hard to market my own book, that it would be awkward to help develop a marketing plan discussing myself” — but it turned out to be one of the most joyful jobs she’d ever taken on.
In August this year, my first book was published, a collection of short stories called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts.
The publisher, Fomite, is small but mighty. The press has more than one hundred books in print as I write this essay, and their titles have been begun to win some awards. Like many small presses, they produce books in a model called print on demand (POD), so marketing is especially important — to help create the demand.
Also like other small presses, Fomite doesn’t have the staff to do a lot of marketing for its titles, so the authors must do the bulk of marketing and publicity themselves. This was fine with me because I have been a book publicist for more than twenty years, and I own a book marketing firm with my husband, Rick. I understand how to bring a book out.
The fun part began immediately. Within a matter of weeks, we had cover art and a book title. (This is not how it works generally. Cover development can take some time, but in my case, Fomite found the perfect image right away). It was great fun to announce that I had a book forthcoming on social media. Then later I posted the final cover. Choosing the cover was a collaboration among the publisher, me, and even my family, who wanted to weigh in. I was blessed that Fomite welcomed input. Many times, writers are not given a say.
Sharing my book cover online was among the first outreaches I made, and it was celebratory. But it was also still marketing — it gave people the image that became my visual brand. Also, it allowed for feedback. If everyone had disliked it, I would have told Fomite (luckily, that wasn’t the case).
After that, Rick and I needed to consider our marketing plan. The marketing plan outlines all the efforts to be made on behalf of a book. I wondered if this part would be different because the book was mine; I thought it would be hard to market my own book, that it would be awkward to help develop a marketing plan discussing…myself.
As a first step toward such a plan, all publishers ask writers to complete an author questionnaire. The questionnaire is intended to provide background information about a writer — her contacts, writing resume, and work history, for instance — and this information helps to shape the marketing. Does the author have a huge platform? Does the author live in the forest off a dirt road and have trouble making it to any events? Publishers have their own styles for marketing plans, but each is intended to clarify the specific efforts being made to reach a title’s readers.
In the end, I wrote my own marketing plan because I love the puzzle that is marketing, putting all the pieces together. Certainly there were odd moments, such as writing my bio in third person, but otherwise it was … fine. Really. For book publicists who have always taken on books we love and reacted to campaigns personally, it wasn’t a leap to develop a strategy for myself — and to care and to worry. I’d been caring and worrying over people’s books for years. In fact, in a company in which personal marketing is the defining feature, it made sense that I was writing my own marketing plan. Who would care more than I did?
What I had expected to be a problem was not at all. It was a joy.
I love the puzzle that is marketing, putting all the pieces together.
I did encounter one problem that I had not anticipated. The problem wasn’t writing my marketing plan or in defining my goals. The problem was making time for my book instead of pushing it aside for client titles. Although I had carved out time for my own marketing, I still created an author website at the last moment. I did the same with my Goodreads author account, blurb outreach, and an email announcement. The problem was convincing myself that my book mattered as much as other people’s did during busy days when the emails roared in. I had to sit myself down, in a way, and tell myself, “This hour is yours. You budgeted the time. It’s your turn. It’s okay.”
The book world is an equal-opportunity dream-slayer. Well, maybe not quite, because the publishing world is harder on small presses. But I never considered going anywhere other than a small press with my book, and to this one in particular. That choice became part of my marketing: that singular eye. I knew what I wanted to achieve as a writer, and I knew with whom, and I knew what the chances were for commercial success, having worked for twenty-plus years in the small press market, which I have mostly thought of as comparable to trench warfare. (It’s even trench warfare when we take on big-house titles not blessed with big or any budgets.) My goal was to generate enough sales to justify promotional expenses and to aim for credibility and reviews, to build my reputation as an author, not simply a publicist.
I have always believed in marketing a book for its full life, not for a season or a set time period. The one thing I have learned about marketing is that it can be endless.
A key part of writing any marketing plan for book promotion is to be clear about your goals even as you position yourself for the success in your dreams. This is true for every title. Even though I am a publicist, I knew I’d have to fight hard for my book. Fortunately, I had a great partner in Rick.
Rick and I came up with a tag line we used at launch time, one that spoke to readers in both publicity and marketing. It took me twenty-five years to write these stories. There were many gaps in between writing and publishing. I work and have kids, after all. From beginning to end, the book took me twenty-five years. We put the statistics up front. Our tag line became “10 stories, 1 book, 25 years in the making.”
What really made it harder was being with a small press. The Big 5 publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette) still hold great sway.
As much as possible, I tried to keep my nose out of some aspects of the process and to let Rick handle it. In part, because of existing relationships, it was best for me to step aside, but I did weigh in with ideas, and on the rare occasion, I reached out to a couple of contacts myself.
What makes a realistic plan for a small press print-on-demand title and short stories in particular? One has to recognize that short stories are not big sellers. Generally speaking, most publishers tend to shy away from them. Also, being print-on-demand meant most stores would make the book available for special order but not stock and hand-sell it. We wouldn’t be capturing the browsers who felt inspired by my cover to pick up the book and give it a chance.
I should add here that I am all for POD. I think it is a viable and realistic distribution method for small presses who can’t survive doing print runs and then getting hit with heavy returns. I wish the larger industry were more accepting of POD. POD isn’t a reflection of an editor’s doubts about a book’s potential. It is a printing and distribution method that makes economic sense.
I tried to explain this reality to the excited friends and family glad to finally see me get my shot. My young daughter, for instance, continued to ask if I would have a real book, in real bookstores. I tried to explain POD. She frowned. Then I realized that if one bookstore carried my book, anywhere, and she could see it and pull it off a shelf, she would be satisfied. I knew that this goal was within reach (insert smiley face emoticon). We placed some copies on consignment with independent booksellers I know and admire.
POD isn’t a reflection of an editor’s doubts about a book’s potential. It is a printing and distribution method that makes economic sense.
So what specific choices did we make? What avenues did we pursue? We felt the book deserved good reviews, and reviews became our primary focus. Specifically, we wanted reviews from at least one trade magazine and one large consumer publication or newspaper.
Easy, you think? It isn’t, not even for a publicist with roots in the industry. In part it isn’t easy because of the number of books being published. But what really makes it harder is being with a small press. The Big 5 publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette) still hold great sway. The smaller presses are sometimes, I believe, hard for book editors to know, partly because of their sheer number. It can be a challenge for any small press to build relationships and reputations.
But reviews are critical for any book, especially a short story collection, to succeed in finding its readers. Reviews lay the groundwork for library support, for instance; without reviews from the trade publications, it is difficult to get libraries to purchase. My review campaign includes sending copies to blogs and papers, such as St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chapter16 (a review that ran also in The Knoxville News Sentinel), The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Foreword Reviews, Read Her Like An Open Book, and Kirkus, among others. (Read some of Caitlin’s reviews at the end of the essay.)
Social media is not my favorite thing, so we relied on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook — the three areas in social with which I am comfortable. I handled it myself because I believe at its best, social media is about community, and I wanted to expand my own. Also, I believe social media is about transparency, and I felt only I could do my book promotion there.
At its best, social media is about community, and I wanted to expand my own.
In addition, we considered “smart marketing”: ads in publications or places that supported the book, smart use of content, and selected events. We made certain that libraries in communities where I had roots knew about my reviews. We arranged for a giveaway on Goodreads, where potential readers could enter a lottery for a free copy of the book.
As with any campaign, we stayed alert to possibility: for instance, on Goodreads, several reviewers mentioned that they didn’t generally read or enjoy short stories, but that they had enjoyed mine. Immediately, we did another giveaway and promoted the giveaway with ads. Our final ad copy headline was “Think You Don’t Like Short Stories?” and then we shared quotes from publications and/or blurbers. The ad also linked to my Goodreads reviews.
But I should pause here and add something else: we also began marketing early — with my trying to place stories in journals, both print and online, that had not yet been accepted for publication. Of the ten stories in my collection, just three had been published when my book was accepted, so I had seven to try to place. I pursued this aggressively.
With one published online last January, “Geographies of the Heart,” I shared the link on social media after the story had been published and was available to be read. And something magical happened: there was an incredible response.
Given that my book was already slated for publication, given that people knew it was coming, this story became one of my best marketing tools. People really liked the piece, including people in my circle who I didn’t think liked short stories. That story, and then blurbs, and then the tag line, rallied people and gave my book momentum as it hit publication date and the marketplace. Then the reviews and our other marketing kicked in to keep the interest and energy high.
I got some really wonderful reviews and blurbs. Steve Yarbrough wrote an endorsement for the cover. Forewords gave the book a star (meaning it’s especially noteworthy) and wrote, “her stories reach into the hidden places of the heart and break them open to healing light, offering a touch of grace and hope of reconciliation.” (See more praise for Caitlin’s book at the end of the essay.)
Six weeks out, I am not sure where we stand saleswise, but it is clear the reviews have been good and have announced to the publishing and consumer worlds that, yes, I am also a writer. At this point, we plan to continue our marketing at least through June 2018, almost a year past publication. My last scheduled event is in Sacramento in June. Between now and next June, we have other events scheduled, and we plan a continued push to book groups and on Goodreads and Amazon. At the moment, we are working on promotions, ads, and events media.
Like any marketing team, we will nominate the book for some awards, many of which announce deadlines in the spring. Awards are a wonderful marketing tool, even if a writer only gets shortlisted, so we will try. Why not?
It’s possible we will market past next June. I have always believed in marketing a book for its full life, not for a season or a set time period, so we will keep at it in this office as long as interest in the book remains and sales are ticking along. The one thing I have learned about marketing is that it can be endless, which is why it is so important to define one’s expectations — and budget — at the outset.
At some point, it is time to write or to finish the next book, to say, “Enough.” But to say “enough,” you have to know if you have met your goals within the reality of the marketplace. For us, we’ll take a look in June to see where we stand and whether any more promotion is justified.
At some point, it is time to write or to finish the next book, to say, “Enough.” But to say “enough,” you have to know if you have met your goals within the reality of the marketplace.
I am sure we have blinders on in this office, that there is likely something we’ve missed or not seen as we plunged into marketing a title with our last name on the spine. But the marketing has been fun, not awkward. It has been affirming. We have headed up over the edge now and are still running into No Man’s Land, in the midst of a publishing revolution that has seen the rise of POD, hybrid publishing, and most significantly, self-publishing. We have seen booksellers become publishers, and publishers become booksellers, and agents turn into editors. We are undaunted now as we become a publicity firm of authors.
The other side is still vastly larger and still has much, much bigger guns. And we couldn’t be prouder or more confident in the face of it all that, small though it is, our flag will stand.
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If you like Caitlin’s take on the book biz, be sure to read her Truth Teller Spotlight — where she ponders the nature of truth and the process of producing those 10 stories, that 1 book, in 25 years.
Before the book, Caitlin’s work appeared in journals across the country, including Puerto del Sol, Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Mud Season Review, Hypertext Magazine, South85 Journal, and Long Story, Short.
As she worked her way through “ten stories, one book, and twenty-five years,” she got advice from her colleagues in the MFA program at Colorado State University and even (at the very beginning) from Paula Danziger, the ideal mentor for a budding eleven-year-old writer.
Praise for Caitlin Hamilton Summie
“What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again . . . all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment. . . . intense and finely crafted . . . . her stories reach into the hidden places of the heart and break them open to healing light, offering a touch of grace and hope of reconciliation.” — Foreword Reviews, starred review
“The stories center on the complexity of family relationships with such empathy and humanity that novelist Steve Yarbrough called the book “nothing short of magnificent.”… Summie grounds readers in reality just as they become lost in her beautiful prose…. To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts does not shy from life’s hardest moments, but its sorrow is not gratuitous. Summie is a writer who approaches life as a whole, both good and bad, rooted in history and place, and her elegant prose shines in this collection.” — Chapter16.org (also appeared in The Knoxville News-Sentinel)
“Her compelling writing reminds us of the power of a well-delivered narrative….Summie’s stories emphasize [our] shared humanity, and there is something accessible, recognizable and timely for everyone.” — The Vail Daily
“The universal issues and dilemmas at the heart of Summie’s stories and her focus on families give To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts wide appeal. You’ll want to talk about these characters as if you knew them, and you’ll want to revisit these stories more than once.” — BethFish Reads
“…eloquent, grace-filled stories that offers readers a mirror into their own souls. If you enjoy the spare, affecting writing of Kent Haruf, read this. Buy two copies, one for yourself and one to give someone you love.” — Hungry for Good Books
“Each story is enthralling in its own way, and it’s a challenge to put the book down.…a beautifully crafted work of art…” — Centered on Books
If you like Caitlin’s take on the book biz, be sure to read her Truth Teller Spotlight — where she ponders the nature of truth and the process of producing those 10 stories, that 1 book, in the 25 years.