Inside Story: Claire McKinney on ‘Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m honored to be cyber chatting with publicist extraordinaire Claire McKinney.

Claire is the author of the recently released insider guide, Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?: A Guide for Creating Your Own Campaigns (Plum Bay Publishing, LLC). A twenty-year veteran of public relations, she is the CEO of Claire McKinneyPR, LLC—a full-service public relations firm that creates and implements individualized campaigns for clients. Claire has appeared on Today and CSPAN as an expert in publishing, and travels regularly to speak to authors and audiences about PR and social media marketing. Her roster of clients has included Della Reese, Madeleine Albright, James Patterson, Walter Mosley, Robert Dallek, Rick Moody, George Pelecanos, Kristin Gore, Quick and Dirty Tips, Hafetz and Associates, and Written Word Media.

Claire McKinney

Praise for Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?:

“Every book author can profit from the details in DO YOU KNOW WHAT A BOOK PUBLICIST DOES?—whether it is your first book or your 50th book. I highly recommend it.”—Author W. Terry Whalin (Amazon review)

“Love this sound advice from Claire McKinney, a literary publicist, with years—books, books, and books—of experience. Great, doable, cost-effective, step by step strategies. If your goal is to promote your published work, this book is for you.”—G. Smith (Amazon review)

From the publisher:

Are you an author? Is your book about to be published? Are you wondering how to promote your book?

Over the years, Claire McKinney has found that the lack of information on how book promotion works has left most authors in the dark, without a clear idea of how they can contribute to their own campaigns. In her book, she opens a window into the world of media relations and publicity so that authors will learn:

How to promote your book to the media

How to create your own media contact list

How to write press materials and how to use them

How to create a timeline and plan a campaign on your own

How to pitch, who to pitch to, and when

How to talk to your publisher about publicity


Now, Claire shares her insider perspective with us …

John Valeri: What was the impetus for authoring Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does? – and how did you find the process of writing your own book to compare to writing about other people’s books?

Claire McKinney: Over the years that I have been working with publishers and authors, I’ve found many of the same questions and concerns continue to surface.  I have also seen how unmet expectations damage relationships between authors and publicists.  Since I had no idea of what this job was before I started doing it, I decided that there was an information gap that could be filled with an explanation of how things work from the publicist’s perspective.  I also wanted to try to get some of the unanswered questions out of the way so our working relationships can start with an awareness of what is going to happen and how we can help each other—author and publicist—to make a book’s publication a success.

Not that this is a new idea, but writing your own book is a huge challenge.  It’s a bit like being on a trapeze without a net versus writing about someone else’s work where there is another person to affirm what you are saying is true.  Also, from a mechanical stance, condensing a book down to a couple of pages and a pitch is a whole heck of a lot different than filling pages with useful, not extraneous, information.

JV: How might reading this book empower its audience to embrace their potential in terms of contributing to publicity campaigns – and what aspects will appeal to both traditionally and self-published authors?

CM: The editorial process is very give and take between author and editor, but when the publicist takes control we are asking authors to stop taking care of and nurturing their work.  That’s a difficult transition and it isn’t necessary because we need the authors to be a part of their campaigns.  We need to know what authors think about their themes, target markets, messaging, how they want to be presented, who they know who might be helpful, etc.   The book presents a lot of examples like these, where authors can get involved in the process.

The big difference with a traditional publisher is that there is a tendency to sit back and wait for the in-house publicist to start the wheels of the campaign.  Yes, this is absolutely what should and most often will happen, but now authors will have a better sense of how to get information out of the marketing and publicity departments without having to wait for an invitation.  When I was working for publishers we tried to touch base with authors about six months ahead of publication and with some an entire year in advance if it was a big campaign, but sometimes the author needs to take the first step.

JV: You use case studies throughout the book. In what ways do these enhance your message? Also, can you share one quick recollection about a campaign that you found to be particularly innovative and/or impactful?

CM: When I read prescriptive non-fiction looking for answers about how to do something it can be very dry to just get a blow-by-blow account of the how to’s and why’s.  I’ve found for myself and others that knowing that things have worked for actual people and scenarios has much more impact.  It’s also like drawing a picture to explain something, which can work better for some readers.

One campaign that I didn’t mention was a book that was generated by a popular podcast called Grammar Girl.  The publisher I worked for decided to do a grammar book with her and we had to figure out how to access the audience’s enthusiasm and buying power without blatantly selling to them through her podcast.  She had a strong following on social media so we asked her Facebook fans if they would like her to visit their towns and we set up a two week tour based on the responses.  The book hit the New York Times extended list for “how-to” which is a tough nut to crack.

JV: As a twenty-plus-year veteran of the publishing industry, what do you view as having been the greatest changes in terms of book promotion throughout time? Conversely, what are the strategies that tend to be evergreen?

CM: Many people say the big difference between now and then is that there is less media.  I always beg to differ on that point because the internet is a huge bastion of opportunities.  What they really mean is that there isn’t as big a list of “book media” to go after as there used to be, especially for mid-list and debut titles.  If you are working with a big name, many of the old methods will work because the big shows and papers will want to be in on the action when the book releases.  Everyone else has to pound the pavement.

To think that there is no media and deciding that it’s not worth touring authors or keeping a full staff of publicists in house is a mistake, because true success in campaigns comes through innovation and experience.  You need the experience to know what won’t work as much as what will, so you waste less time and hone in on the best way to get the author’s voice heard.

What hasn’t changed is the need for relationships and even more important an understanding of what journalists, bloggers, producers, and hosts are interested in covering.  Because everyone seems to move around a lot these days and the person who covered sports yesterday may be covering gardening today, publicists have to stay as educated as they possibly can about where they can pitch successfully.

JV: We are living in a world gone virtual. How can this both help and hinder publicity efforts – and what have you found to be the key(s) to balancing old school and new?

CM: One of the problems with the virtual world and book promotion is that the lines between publicity and marketing have blurred.  I’ve read articles on the subject from various PR news sources.  I saw the handwriting on the wall about this over ten years ago when I was told not to seek out certain outlets because they were in marketing’s purview, and vice versa.   What you have in publishing houses is a disconnect and confusion about who is doing what, and as a result some things don’t get done.

For me defining what publicity and PR truly are has made it easier, and it’s left advertising, short copy, design, and promotional items with marketing.  Everything else that involves communicating with people to get my client represented in such a way so that his message impacts the largest group, is mine.

JV: Finally, for those interested in a career in book publicity: What words of advice would you like to share?

CM: If you want to publicize books you need to consider that a book is not just a product, but an idea or several ideas, and that there is a person behind it.   In truth, you are promoting ideas and people in order to sell books.  The plus side is that there is a lot to work with if you dig into the possibilities, the down side is that it’s not as easy as it looks.


With thanks to Claire McKinney for her generosity of time and thought and to Larissa Ackerman of Claire McKinneyPR, LLC for being our intrepid and enthusiastic liaison.

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