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pub•lic•i•ty (1) : the quality or state of being exposed to the general view
Mega-post 1 of 2 on book publicity, indie publicists, book reviews, and author events.
This is the stuff I wanted to know a year before my book came out. If I could go back in a time machine and speak to 2021–22 Sarah, the version of me who was fretting about the discomfort of promoting The Skin and Its Girl, I would share some stats:
Eighty-two percent of readers in an informal 2017 survey said they buy books because they already know the author’s work.
A peer-reviewed 2019 study showed that in the first ten weeks after publication, the biggest factor in a literary novel’s sales, if it’s published at a big imprint, is the author’s previous sales.
In other words, the excitement of being a debut novelist or launching a debut novel (if you're the publisher) doesn’t rub off on most readers. “They don’t even know you,” I want to tell last-year me, “so they don’t even care if you’re fretting about introducing yourself. Stop being weird about it. There is too much work to do.”
Besides what I discuss below, other prepublication work includes bookstore outreach, library outreach, award submissions (more on that in a future post), and conference and festival pitches—all tasks handled by the publisher, not the author. But here are the ones where I had input between August 2022 and May 2023. I’ll talk about author events and interviews too, but separately, soon, because Substack didn't like how long this got when it was whole.
Should You Hire a Publicist?
Publicity is an enormous-octopus-sized task. Before I fully appreciated the size of this octopus, I fretted for months about hiring an independent publicist, afraid of signaling that I didn’t trust Ballantine’s team. Yet it wasn’t a matter of trust at all: the idea was just part of the no-regrets promise I’d made myself. If something goes wrong, I need to be able to say I did everything I could. So I made some inquiries and hired Kathy Daneman, as one should.
The biggest firms will create full PR campaigns that cost as much as a luxury SUV. Kathy’s approach is boutique and extremely responsive. She brainstormed essays with me, edited the drafts, tweaked the jacket copy and press materials, scheduled me for interviews across the country, kept track of essay submissions and events, and compiled all press clippings in an online portfolio. She handled all online, podcast & LGBTQ+ media efforts; in-house publicist Chelsea Woodward handled trade and local & national print media. About five months before the on-sale date, like magic, my book started appearing on most-anticipated lists online. (More on these in a minute.) Overall, she helped me do most of what book-publicity how-tos say you're supposed to do, and much better than I could have done on my own, with access I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And hopefully, the in-house team felt their jobs were made easier, too.
Working with an independent publicist is expensive, and if you are a debut author, the money you spend has a vanishingly small chance of ever returning to you, at least directly. But if your advance can absorb the cost, and you don’t have to put a child through college or pay for something equally expensive, you will only ever have one debut novel in your life. If you want to build other career-ish things on top of your first book, the extra media attention can help. I’m satisfied with my decision, but it was a very big one, and I will approach it no less deliberately the next time around.
Finally: hire someone good. A bargain doesn’t save money; it just sets it on fire.
Publishing Articles & Essays
The publisher wants to get your name, book title, and cover to start pinging on people’s radars months before your book’s on-sale date, and then, on that date, to appear everywhere at once. Besides the direct forms of publicity I’ll talk about below, ancillary publications get your name out there and let readers know you exist.
Nine months before your book launch, start noodling with ideas, aiming to have pitch-ready drafts three to five months later, to allow lots of extra time for revisions, slow replies, and multiple rounds of submissions. I pursued eight ideas, from which I wrote five complete essays and three pitches. Kathy handled all the submissions to editors—and absorbed the rejections. One of the full essays got accepted by Lit Hub in January for launch-week publication (“Feral, Beautiful and Free: Sarah Cypher on Turkish Cats”); and both of my book-rec pitches were accepted by Electric Literature in January, due in late March, and published on April 25 and May 28, respectively (on direct-address narration and Arab authors writing about storytellers). These latter two required the most work because I essentially wrote fifteen 300-word book reviews plus a 300-word introduction for each. Yet this writing mode felt familiar and enjoyable.
I’ll say—landing three out of eight isn’t bad, but writing for pithy, sexy publications requires a journalistic brevity I lack. I found it hard to frame ideas about Palestine, queerness, experimental storytelling, Arab American identity, and the history of soap in 1,200 words or fewer. But boy did I try! I worked with the same crazed optimism of an over-packer insisting that everything will fit in her carry-on. Zippers failed. Editors passed. Anyway, the material is still mine to revise, and I might try to knit a few pieces together into longer essays for submission elsewhere. Onward.
This is precisely what it sounds like: Your book gets mentioned by influencers, everyday readers on social media, or the plethora of most-anticipated lists that start appearing four or five months before your launch. Here are some examples:
Book Riot: “2023 LGBTQ Books to Add to Your TBR” (January 11, 2023)
Electric Literature: “The Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books of Spring 2023” (January 3, 2023)
Goodreads: “105 of the Buzziest Debut Novels of the New Year” (January 2, 2023)
Goodreads: “99 Upcoming Books the Goodreads Editors Can’t Wait to Read” (February 21, 2023)
Today.com: “38 new books we can't wait to read in 2023” (December 5, 2022)
These are five of about twenty that The Skin and Its Girl received. There are so many lists, even within the same publication.
I can’t responsibly offer advice on finding and pitching book influencers. The publishing team did this, and all I can say is that I found myself passively impressed by the strategy of pursuading readers who already have a massive number of followers (and genuine enthusiasm for their medium) to post about a book. These savvy readers made book promo reels and photos that were more beautiful, energetic, and sincere than any DIY efforts I might have attempted. I’m grateful to Ballantine for being so generous with review copies.
One other thing: You have to protect your mental health. Not all writers engage with social media posts about their books, even if they fully appreciate these readers’ attention and time. Internet mentions are like sugar pills dispensed at random, and random rewards definitely messed with B. F. Skinner’s pigeons. Around my on-sale date, I shared readers’ posts about The Skin and Its Girl liberally and often tagged my publisher, but this isn’t how it’s always going to be.
Your publicist wants to put your book in front of big audiences, so it is best to make sure galleys (advance reader’s copies, a.k.a. ARCs) are available to send to reviewers at newspapers and magazines four to six months before your official on-sale date. Contacting a reviewer or publication two weeks before launch day with your hair on fire will not usually get your book reviewed. That fireboat has sailed. However, smaller publications like literary magazines will sometimes be open to running a deeply considered (i.e., longer and less journalistic) review long after a pub date, so you might approach potential reviewers or magazines with that possibility. Audiences for those reviews are smaller, however. Plan ahead.
Trade reviews come out early, about two months before your on-sale date. These are Publishers Weekly, Booklist, BookPage, and Kirkus, whose audiences include publishing industry pros, librarians, literary scouts for foreign publishers, and other people in the trade. Because these reviews come out long before your book does, any positive quotes can still appear in its final press materials. You know the type:
“A marvel. … Two thumbs up.” —Trade reviewer with two thumbs
You’ll also start seeing reader reviews around this time. Your publisher might run Goodreads giveaways and/or share galleys (or digital ARCs) with social media influencers. Call it induced word-of-mouth advertising. Call it your publisher’s bellwether of reader sentiment. It is all these things, and strangers will talk about your book online. I appreciated knowing that many of these strangers liked my novel, but I asked my team not to share reviews’ content, good or bad. Google Chrome even has a plug-in that hides Goodreads ratings and reviews, Goodreads Review Shield for Authors.
Then, it’s pub month. If news outlets have assigned your book to a reviewer, you’ll now start seeing reviews in national media. Know that lots of good books don’t get reviewed at all. Big publishers can cast a wider, more thorough net, improving their titles’ odds of being selected for review, but if it doesn’t happen, your book is not dead. And even if you do get reviewed, you should understand that every review gets published into a deafening media whirlwind and might not get much attention—and of the people who not only see the link, but also click on it, and also read the content, only a few of them will purchase the book. I was happy to see many places review The Skin and Its Girl, taking it as evidence that my book was Really Happening. But my naïvety set me up for sore feelings later, precisely because “getting reviewed” doesn’t mean “getting a boatload of readers to buy your book.”
While we’re on sore feelings, I’ll fess up. I was really excited when one publication in particular assigned my book for review. It would be a career-maker, a validator, and the world’s biggest relief. I’d made it! Decades of uncertainty and rejection, begone! But here’s the reality: sometimes your book gets assigned to someone who is the opposite of your ideal reader, and somehow, a moment that is supposed to feel euphoric actually feels humiliating. But still: the media whirlwind whirls on. It’ll be someone else tomorrow. Decades of uncertainty and rejection have supplied us writers with resilience, and we move on too. (Ideally.)
In any case, a book moves out into the world, and like any baby creature in a new environment, it tries a lot of routes to find its way to the right readers. Sometimes reviewers are busy chasing other baby books. And sometimes, readers find yours and embrace it. This all can take a while. The first sales report for The Skin and Its Girl won’t be available until January 2024; eight months from now is a long time. I want to spend it writing the next thing, applying for exciting grants or gigs, doing book events, and teaching some online classes at The Loft.
A Parting Word on Self-Care
I had a great publishing experience. In a lot of ways, it’s been a dream come true. But I’d like to tell my earlier self that no writer perfectly understands everything on the first try. It will be hard to ask friends for the correct support when you don’t know what you’ll need, and for the same reason, it will be equally hard to take excellent care of yourself. Publicity, in part, doesn’t always feel good because its premise means you’re thinking of your book as a product and also trying to manufacture interest and popularity. These aren’t places a writer’s mind naturally wants to be. The public events, which I’ll talk about in Part 2, were cathartic and wonderful because they reestablished what’s human about this debuting experience: connecting with other people who love books and who believe that writing is soulful work.
If you’re publishing a book soon, whatever self-care has worked for you in the past, schedule it now. Whatever your pitfalls are when you’re stressed, build in some limiters and find a trusted friend to hold you accountable. Stay in therapy, if you’re already there. Don’t pressure yourself to write new pages; maybe use the time just to read. And remember that publishing a book is a good thing, and it’s fun, and when you’re on the other side of it, you will still need some time to get reoriented in your own life.
Right now, I am busy with editorial work, ignoring shoulds, riding my bike for long hours with my wife, wading into the next project, training for a marathon, and cleaning up my diet. And last week, I took myself on a date to the Smithsonian Zoo. It felt indulgent; it felt exactly right.