“Caution” Should be the Mantra for Authors Seeking Publicists, One BIO Member Learned the Hard Way

By Betsy Connor Bowen

You’ve written a book, it’s getting published. You’re fired up. Everything’s coming up roses. You’ve earned your chops.

Not so fast. It’s a new world for book publishing, and it’s often the writer who hires the publicist, not the publisher. Whereas over time a publisher would build up a storehouse of knowledge about the professionalism and integrity of various publicists, face it: you know nothing. Watch out. Shop around. It takes time to check references and you’d rather be polishing your manuscript, but do it. And see if the publicist has had success marketing to the audience for your book.

I wish I had.

Publicists protect themselves with a disclaimer that they don’t guarantee results. The agent and the publicist for my book, a WWII memoir, were business partners in a publishing and promotion startup with a list heavy (I later learned) in books in other subjects. The publicity plan for the book was to reach the military history market, but when it didn’t, I suspected why, but at that point I had no recourse.

A friend hired a publicist recommended by his agent without disclosing he had a business relationship with him. Had my friend known at the time they were in business together he would not have hired the publicist.

Reputable agents make money from the sale of your book, not from having you hire a publicist (or an editor, for that matter). Hiring a publicist, on the other hand, is trickier. You pay a publicist to carry out a publicity plan aimed at the book’s audience. That’s the way it should be, but in the real world, sometimes is not.

As BIO members, we have a unique opportunity to protect each other. I heartily support “Boswell’s List,” newly added to the BIO website,  a guide to researchers, publicists, editors, indexers and others who can assist you in your work,” where each person listed has been recommended by a BIO member.

Sadly, right now Boswell’s List is under-populated. Let’s be diligent about recommending publicists whose professionalism and integrity we respect. It is difficult to navigate these waters alone, but at least we can help each other.

Betsy Connor Bowen’s latest book, Newspaperman, is a biography of her father, Croswell Bowen. It will be available in spring 2014 from the University of Nebraska Press. Bowen previously edited her father’s war memoir, Back from Tobruk. You can visit her website here.

While nothing can guarantee the ethics of an individual agent or publicist, here are some professional associations BIO members might want to consult when looking for someone in those fields:

Association of Authors’ Representatives
AAR’s Canon of Ethics states: “The members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. are committed to the highest standard of conduct in the performance of their professional activities…. [M]embers pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service.”

Public Relations Society of America
PRSA’s Code of Ethics includes this: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public…. We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.”

Association of Authors’ Agents
The Code of Practice of this UK organization says, among other things: “All members shall at all times act honestly, and in such a manner that neither clients nor third parties are misled… All members shall promote and protect their clients’ best interests and maintain regular contact to keep them informed as to work undertaken on their behalf.”

Finally, BIO member Andrew Lownie, owner of a UK-based literary agency, offers this perspective on his recent experience with publicists: “Some of it is luck and not all comes down to experience because it was the younger publicists who had less experience who delivered because they were imaginative.”

For authors in the UK, Lownie recommends three publicists:
Emma Donnan
Tabitha Pelly
Nicky Stonehill  ‎

And you can reach Andrew’s website here.