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Publishing Note: Publicity – Earned and Otherwise


On the train ride into work one time, my seatmate struck up a conversation with me. When she heard I was a book publisher, casting about for common ground, she asked, “Have you heard about the new book by…?” “Yes,” I nodded, “who hasn’t?” And off we went on a most pleasant chat about that book and its author, the kinds of books she likes, the kinds of books I publish, the collective sadness surrounding a local independent bookstore closing, the joy of being able to carry an entire library on an iPad when traveling, and so on.

This conversation and others like it beg the simple question, how do we find out about upcoming or recently published books? Only a handful of people actually know the author personally. Word of mouth can catch fire and spread rapidly and widely, but it has to start somewhere. Who informs people about a book and how? And what’s the key to making the leap from being informed to buying?

It comes down to publicity, a term both self-evident and curiously cloaked in meaning. English borrowed from French publicité, which derives from Latin publicus, “of the people; of the state; done for the state,” also “common, general, of or belonging to the people at large; ordinary, vulgar.” Publicity, public, populace, people, are all related terms, and relevant to modern efforts to let as many people as possible know about a book being published. One tack is to go after earned publicity, another is to own the media, and another is to pay for publicity. At Radius Book Group, we debate the merits of these paths.

Earned Publicity

Also known as earned media, earned publicity is media attention generated without paying directly for it. When a famous person publishes a book, members of the media trip over themselves trying to get the author on their media channel—television show, radio show, podcast, blog, magazine or newspaper interview, etc. The author doesn’t have to pay because the media willingly cover the book, hoping the appearance of the famous person will increase viewership, readership, likes, or whatever basis drives company revenue. Both author and media company benefit without a direct quid pro quo.

Sometimes an indirect payment or owing a favor is involved, which may fall in the gray area on the fringes of publicity. For instance, a book publisher’s marketing department commits to spend a certain amount of its budget on ads in that media channel in the next six months. In exchange, without a formal contract, the media channel extends an invitation to the author for a segment on the topic of the book. When a single media conglomerate owns both the book publisher and the media channel, the corporation can make this happen almost seamlessly.

Trade reviews also fall under earned publicity. These reviews are supposed to be professional, fair, objective, and as unbiased as possible, though all reviews in some ways are predicated on bias (i.e., I like this and don’t like that). A media channel, such as a magazine or newspaper, or some other recognized organization, such as the American Library Association, may choose to publish an independent review of a book. Reviews in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, the L.A. Times, Publishers Weekly, and others, only happen if a publicist proactively promotes the book. They know who to contact at each media channel, they are aware of deadlines and schedules, they understand which channels and editors deal with which topics or types of books.

In the social media realm, earned publicity comes in the form of unsolicited reader reviews, posts, shares, likes, and clicks. Publicity can build on momentum generated organically online. Readers view this as authentic.

Publicists are only as good as their list of contacts. It is very much a matter of relationships. So when a book receives earned media attention, the public presumes that attention is merited. The goodwill and enthusiasm can propel a book from unknown to bestseller.

Owned Media

Owned media doesn’t mean the author or publisher owns a media company through which they publicize a book. Rather, it means they create and own the content and where and how the public or target audience encounters that content.

An author’s website is one such venue for disseminating owned media. Similarly, the author controls her or his presence and messaging on various social media platforms. What the author says on these platforms is owned media. A blog post or podcast created, distributed, and boosted by the author are examples of owned media. This type of publicity can lead to earned media because it draws attention to the author, their brand, and their message. If the producer of a TV show likes what the author says or, based on a podcast, thinks the author would spark interest on their show, then owned media could lead to earned media opportunities.

Paid Publicity

Finally, publishers and authors have the option of paying for publicity they may not otherwise bank on receiving. The introduction of payment for attention leads some to categorize this as marketing. No doubt, marketing is an important component of promoting a book and its author. One could make a case that paid publicity and marketing overlap and are practically the same thing. The counter argument would be the distinction between the avenues used to do each. Paid publicity leans heavily on generating reviews, for instance. Book marketing involves an array of marketing tools, venues, and metrics for measuring success. Marketing may drive consumers to post reviews, but the end result marketing wants is sales of the book. Whether the two overlap or are distinct, they share the same goal of drawing attention to the book and the same entry point of paying to get that attention.

Not All Publicity Is the Same

The takeaway is simple: Publicity is crucial to the success of a book. When you develop the publicity campaign for your book, beware that not all publicity is the same. Publicity firms are not all equipped to make your book a bestseller and the different types of publicity—earned, owned, and paid—are not all the same. Knowing your book, your market, and your target readers should help you decide which combination of publicity you pull together to promote your book. Then, of course, there’s the budget. But, that can wait for a later post.