To PR or Not to PR?

I’ve been chatting to a number of author friends lately about the pros and cons of using a PR firm to help market their work. While the usual disclaimer applies to this column (i.e. nothing written here is intended as formal legal advice and folks who need help with particular issues should consult an agent or attorney), much of this isn’t so much about the law as about common sense and figuring out what works for you.

PR firms are those that offer marketing and publicity services for your writing. You pay them a fee, usually based on what specific services they agree to provide, and they, well, they provide those agreed services. Simple contract. Hence, the law isn’t usually a big deal here.

What is a big deal is understanding exactly what those PR services are, and what they aren’t. In particular, there are no magic bullets in marketing and publicity. PR firms can’t guarantee you results in terms of sales. They can only do what they promise to do in their contracts, which usually comprises reaching out to media outlets (usually including book bloggers) to see if those folks are interested in helping to promote your work. PR firms may also write press releases for you that they then send to those media outlets and blogs in the hopes of garnering interest in your work.

What your PR contract will typically say is how many outlets the firm will contact and how many times it will follow up with those outlets and blogs. They don’t—because they can’t—guarantee that any blog or other media outlet will be interested in your work.

Even if the PR campaign is effective and bloggers and others show interest in promoting your work, you will still likely have to provide copies of your books to them (which will cost you money, but may be worth it for the exposure).

You may well end up paying hundreds, or thousands, of dollars and getting little to no interest back from the media. That’s not unusual. Marketing and promotion is a tough game and—did I mention it already?—there are no magic bullets.

Bear in mind that a lot of what the PR firms do is stuff you could do yourself if you had the time and the inclination, and it wouldn’t cost you half as much as paying someone else to do it.

So when is it effective to hire a PR firm?

That’s always going to be a decision for the individual author, but there are some situations in which PR firms may be more likely to add value than others: for example, if you already have a known author brand (either because you’re known in another field—sports, cooking, reality TV maybe!) but have limited time to market your work, that may be a good situation to hire a PR firm. If you’re pretty much guaranteed to have media interest because of who you are, but you have limited time to contact a bunch of media outlets, a PR firm may be worth the investment.

Likewise, if you’re a known author with a large backlist, a PR firm can help market your existing books while you focus on writing your new books. Again, this is a situation where your name and reputation as a writer will likely garner media interest and that will make the PR firm’s job a lot easier.

Where hiring a PR firm or person is less likely to be fruitful is if you’re an unknown author and you only have one or two books to market. In this case, you’re competing with so many others for media and blogger attention that paying someone to contact the media for you may be tantamount to throwing money away. Of course, if you have a surefire hit on your hands and you just need to garner eyeballs, that may be the exception to the rule, but doesn’t everyone want to think they have a surefire hit on their hands? You just never know what’s going to appeal to the reading public!

I must emphasize that I’m not writing this column to bash PR firms or to discourage anyone from working with them, but I am cautioning authors to be realistic about what those firms can and can’t do, and to make informed decisions about where best to spend their marketing dollars.