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Opinion: Why PR Firms Should Embrace Self-publishing

Opinion: Why PR Firms Should Embrace Self-publishing

Publicity shot of Phillippa Rees

Proudly self-published – the South African born author Philippa Rees

South African author Philippa Rees explains why she feels her faith in a professional PR firm was misplaced – and why such organisations cannot succeed unless they recognise and embrace the special nature of self-publishing.

Many indie publishers faced with the daunting prospect of marketing wonder whether, having mastered the publication process, this might be the one aspect better done by others. Everything else, however steep a learning curve, is under their control. Publicity pre-supposes knowledge of the market, the genre, contacts in the relevant publications, and authors suppose that if they bit the bullet and found the money required, the publicist could cut through as a hot knife cuts butter.

That was the expression used by one, when considering my book (but unable to take it on). She felt its readers would be easily defined, easily found, too scattered to be found through social media, but likely to identify themselves through reviews in both the specialist and general press. Making it known was all that had to happen.

My Marketing Challenge

I knew I had written a seemingly impossible book. (A book about Everything? What? In poetry?) It fitted no existent genre (poetic science?) and was limited by no category: Science, but actually consciousness, revealed in Philosophy/ History/ Painting/Music- all illustrative.

It was never going to fly off shelves. Itwas almost impossible to describe without making it sound lunatic. Yet its notable endorsers, and the responses of readers led me to believe that it did have merit, but that it needed to be browsed in bookshops: no ‘elevator pitch’ would cut it. So against the grain of most indies (and all advice) I planned on bookshops foremost, although I made cheaper ebooks available.

My Marketing Plan

Cover of Involution by Phillippa Rees

The handsome cover

To that end, after the editing and designing I printed 100 advance copies to give away to seek endorsements from well regarded authorities (Laszlo, Andrew Harvey and others). This took a year but resulted in embarrassingly fulsome quotes on the final (reprinted) book. I blew the pension on an excellent short-run printer, and produced both a handsome print edition and a well-designed ebook, since its poetic linage, linked end-notes and bibliography needed a specialist. Initial signs were good: an editor of the Watkins Magazine was so impressed he persuaded a distributor to break their rules and take on a stock. Three London bookshops ordered copies without suspicions.

So given that achievement why did I feel the need for a publicity company?

At a low point of exhaustion, and with only a toe in the social networks, I was persuaded by an ex-HarperCollins Editor (who loved it but understood why no publisher would regard it as commercial unless it grew legs) that a well-known company would help get those critical reviews. She suggested one she knew personally, reputedly the best (and most expensive).

Bookshops demand publicity before risking orders. That was one area a professional publicist, believing in the book, should achieve. They could persuade the ladies to lunch and make its provenance interesting. One of the company’s consultants seemed genuinely enthusiastic, and in terms of her own educational background likely to be able to argue its case. I did not minimise the difficulties of describing the book, or indeed the author.

The Publicist's Challenges

The book is a one-off, and cannot be evaluated, statistically or prognostically, against any other. Half poetry, half scientific footnotes, it would not find reviewers equally familiar with both. The science journalists would not read poetry, and vice versa. Few scientists would consider science serious, (which it is- a new evolution), when it came dressed poetically…

The other seeming downside was its author, moi: unprepossessing, unknown in either scientific or spiritual circles, far from photogenic, and not a recognised poet either…BUT therein lies the real story.

The publicist was categorical, any word of ‘self-published’ would be the kiss of death.

Where the Publicist Went Wrong

In that unmoveable decision lay the eradication of using anything that might have excited attention: journalists run with things that are different.

They always say for non-fiction the story is the author’s life and experience. Mine has been very colourful, half Boer-half British, raised in apartheid South Africa, related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, felled on a road to Damascus by an unsought experience – all had fed into the language of the book, a maverick writing about historical mavericks, with everything always better than something. Jack-of-all-trades, but thereby lacking seeming gravitas.

So the publicist weighted the press release with a couple of academic pebbles from university days that made me sound just like everyone else, only rather less so!

It was everything I wasn’t that created the book: not academic, not affiliated to any spiritual school, institution or scientific discipline. Only someone without credentials could have risked what Laszlo called ‘brave’ (and he is exceeding brave himself). Blinded by the pretence of inflated academic credentials the real book disappears from view. Instead of ‘erudite’ ‘prescient’ would have been apt, for a work originating 45 years ago, and sustained until the world caught up.

What the Publicist Achieved

She launched a two month ‘campaign’ at the end of which, to her shame, nothing had been achieved. She offered to extend for a further month and asked me to rewrite the press release. By then it was August, when not a media fly buzzes.

So a three-month campaign, and over 50 books sent out, achieved not one review in any publication. Three interviews scheduled? No show. A ten minute interview with The Bookseller (‘don’t mention self published’) asked about epic poetry, not the book, and a local paper ran an article on my skill as a self builder with demolition and reclamation being the common thread that ties the book and my house together. That I would have got unaided.

That must have been galling. What has happened since?

A few good things: three rather stunning reviews and two long articles both commissioned by specialist magazines, another due in Midwest Review in June, three hour long interviews on line ( by New Consciousness sites who approached me), Joel Friedlander’s award for the cover, and nominated runner-up Book of the Year (2013) and best of all, vastly varied but nothing but 5* reviews on Amazon. Recently three organisations have asked for talks. Those do suggest that there was a conspicuous failure of nerve. For an indie book to nearly make the Scientific and Medical Network’s ‘Book of the Year’ does beg the question. How was this ever presented to the media if not one review was achieved?

My Key Message

What this story illustrates is the gulf that remains. The traditional media are geared to the short life of the book launch, and the publicists still cater to that.

Most indie authors are in it for the long haul, some building readership for a career, or others (like me) committed to a ‘Book that Wrote the Life’, that demanded to be written, for reasons not immediately transparent.

These issues are irreconcilable, and remain unbridged. ‘Campaigns’ are not the answer for books that break new ground. This cautionary tale will, hopefully, save others from a category error.

The True Indie Success Story

The media will publicise the indie who makes it in numbers sold. That’s too easy. The world of indie authors is about passion, individuality and a thousand reflections that find their way onto pages. The traditional market does not begin to value these more interesting reasons for shaping literature. Until the media are indie blind, the potential market is untested.

The publicist did not tell the real story for fear of being allied to that dubious thing— the self-published author. Caution undermined conviction. I think she was sincere in believing she had the book’s interest at heart, but a lack of chutzpah was really the source of failure: an opportunity missed.

She was employed to persuade. Yet one cannot persuade anyone of anything with one hand tied behind the back; it always feels shifty.

Twitter bird outlineOur suggested tweet to share this post on Twitter: “Why book publicists need to embrace #selfpublishing by @PhilippaRees1 for @IndieAuthorALLi: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-PR-firms/”


Author: Philippa Rees

Philippa grew up in South Africa, with an almost unique experience of that divided country. Her family bridged both the Boer-British divide and the Black-White one. Her blog Careless Talk has recently recaptured her pre-Mandela childhood experiences, all of which ultimately shaped the book; "Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God". "A Shadow in Yucatan", a poetic story set in sixties America, was recently reissued soon. Print copies of both books can be directly ordered from Philippa at [email protected] as well as through Amazon and all ebook retailers.


This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. Ashen. Funnily enough I was asked to do a review this very day! I am considering whether to agree on a very cerebral work that would take a dedicated and analytical reader, and I feel pretty exhausted!

  2. I don’t doubt that a persuasive publicist ( one that utterly believes in the worth of the book- but that is a thorny issue because how can a publicist believe equally in each book offered?) will have links to publicity ( and the seeming detachment) to achieve what is more difficult ab initio for the author.

    Which was why I emphasized the more interesting aspects of the Life behind the book…all of which I felt were sidelined for fear or eliciting the one question ( who is your publisher?) . In fact talks and interviews have always created great interest from everybody, and those were what I believed would be fostered…and weren’t.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Though we each have to make our own way along the publishing path, reading of the experiences of others is very valuable.

    Success with your book–it sounds as if you are on your way.

  4. I agree absolutely, Pete. There’s no way of knowing whether your huge investment will in the end pay off. Trusting in the hype of PR is a huge gamble and you may never live to reap whatever rewards are promised. A little PR, such as putting out a professionally produced and wisely targeted press release is probably sensible, but you as author still have a hell of a lot to do.

  5. I am interested to learn how AD’s experiment works out.

    Personally, I find it hard to see how the cost of PR can be effective against the anticipated gains. If your objective is wider exposure, more recognition, building a broader platform for successive works, then perhaps an expense of thousands is worthwhile for the long term.

    But even if a PR firm is “successful” in generating sales of a single work, it’d have to be a home run to break even. I hope I’m not being unnecessarily pessimistic about it.

    Someone somewhere asked about book PR firms that work on percentage of sales. That gave me a chuckle!

  6. This is all potent stuff for me at the moment. Having this year launched The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction with the intention of discovering pearls that would otherwise be spurned by the lazy and undiscerning, I am at the moment dazzled by the quality of the material I’ve managed to catch in the net. I’ve had historical fiction, poetic fiction, semi-autobiographical fiction and fictional biographies of celebrities from long ago. These are books I would never otherwise have considered worthy of consideration. How wrong I would have been!

    On the question of PR and its limitations in providing authors (surely all indies) with the leg-up they need to become visible above the parapet, I have to concur with Philippa that the PR boom is over. I have spent literally thousands (£££s not $$$s) in this area, which has gained me very little additional publicity and next to no sales. Others may have had a different experience – if you believe the PR hype it’s certainly so, but who does (it’s Vanity’s cousin). This chastening experience is the reason why I chucked my so-called commercial publisher (commercial for them!) and set up my own imprint. It’ll take a few years, but in the end, even if you don’t make a pot full of gold, you have your own integrity and if you fail you’ve at least not been duped and you’ve made an honest attempt in a worthwhile cause.

    So thanks Philippa for coming out and sharing your experience with PR. In a time when sales are the focus of most s-p blogs (I’ve nothing against this of course – could do with a slice of the market myself) it’s a refreshing change to read about a maverick writer who bucks the system, and believes not in the golden dollar but the golden reader.

  7. Philippa

    You are absolutely right that the publicist needs to have bought into self-publishing in order to promote a self-published book.

    We have almost reached a point of equality as far as the media are concerned. Just a couple of years ago I was getting a huge amount of resistance to any book that was self-published – and I spent a lot of time arguing with journalists about the reasons for self-publishing. Now, aside from a few very literary publications and some high-end magazines it rarely matters – as long as the books are produced well, edited well, have great covers etc.

    Most independent publicists learned their trade by working with traditional publishers – and I did as well. And it is genuinely difficult for someone who cut their teeth with a well-known publisher and (rightly) always looked down on the exploitative old world of vanity publishing to make the leap into working directly with self-published authors. This is a new world altogether and if you don’t truly believe in it you cannot represent those who do.

    By the way, I wholeheartedly disagree with anyone who says traditional publicity doesn’t sell books. it isn’t all that you need, but it does work. I see it every day.

  8. Shannon I also thought that the pre-release period was set in stone, and consisted of a close and co-ordinated programme of essential steps.

    I certainly missed almost all of them, for want of knowing what they were. The Midwest Review undoubtedly prefers books at or before launch time but I think there is some leeway depending on the type of book it is.

  9. Thanks AD for offering another view. I must emphasize that my experience was not necessarily indicative for all others. My book was really an extreme case, and because It had a serious ( and innovative) conceptual idea it was probable that my lack of academic credentials was what swung the PR company to try and obscure me as much as possible (rather than it ONLY being the self-published issue).

    Yet I think the central issue was that in tandem with the stigma of self published. No really original new way of writing something is going to have a valid prognosis, but only self published authors will be risking that kind of chancy innovation. That is why I thought the post worth writing.

  10. Hi Phillipa,

    What a timely post.

    When I started self-publishing, most of the advice I read around hiring a publicist said not to do so. Most self-published authors (some of whom had been trad published as well) felt that it was not a cost-effective exercise. A few authors have reported moderate success.

    I decided to try and hire a publicist this year. I felt that my third novel might be the earliest I could attempt a traditional PR campaign for, although I was tempted to wait until next year, when the fourth novel will be out.

    For me, this was to be a “try and see” exercise, while doing my utmost to make it work. Knowing this would be at the least a four figure endeavour, I saved up the money and decided to stick to a budget. If the campaign worked in achieving greater visibility for myself and my books, and ideally visibility would translate into some reviews, sales, and new readers, then so be it. If it didn’t, I could tick that box and take away as much as I could in terms of learning experience. The firm I went with in the end was Booked PR. They had the professional experience I was after, had a great website which showcased their work, and had genuine testimonials that were relatively recent and could be followed up. They had a very good social media presence as well. They were also the only one willing to work with self-published authors and who had already done so. They were also willing to adjust their services to what the author could afford.

    Booked PR and I went into my current campaign with open eyes. I knew that this campaign could not guarantee reviews, interviews, and increased visibility. But I knew they would do their utmost to promote me.

    I must add in addition to this, I continue to engage with writers and readers through my social media platforms, which I believe still give me the greatest visibility.

  11. Thanks for the important and cautionary reflections. They apply to any published author, self published or gate-keeper published. I wonder how many authors waste money on the bandwagon of so-called PR expertise that only creates a momentary breeze, hardly lifting a dry leave, let alone a significant work, like yours.

    Philippa, you know I love ‘Involution.’ It’s a treasure beyond price.
    Your language is beautifully succinct, a rare skill, why not engage in doing reviews of books you love – for a while? And then obviously mention you’re a writer yourself.

    I know, it’s time consuming, some breed of writers don’t choose to write, they must write.

  12. I’m surprised that Midwest Review will still review your book. As you mentioned, traditional media is geared to the launch. I thought I’d missed the boat on a lot of this by not pre-release promoting my book which came out in February, but maybe I’m still okay. Thank you for sharing your story.

  13. Thanks for your comment Clare. It is available as an ebook on all platforms, and in fact because the poetic narrative is augmented by scientific end-notes the hyperlinks between the relevant numbers takes the reader to the exact end-note for the line of poetry just read. In the case of this book the ebook has some distinct advantages (apart from price!) Every reader reads it differently as the Amazon reviews makes clear.

    I am trying to decide whether to attempt to make the poetic narrative into an audio book for which I would need a good editor ( and the money to pay for it) I think this would make it more accessible to many more people but I think I would have to read it!

  14. Thanks Laurence. I have embraced social media and found many good friends. You are right about traditional media too if limited to print reviews, but radio interviews do help, and the moment I talk about ‘The Life that Wrote the Book’ it becomes three dimensional and copies disappear from tables.

    That was what I hoped PR would help achieve!

  15. One of the best hints here, for me as another Indie author who’s been told the line on ‘we don’t review self published’ was the message that reviews in the usual papers aren’t a great way to sell books. Let’s hope all the immense effort social networking takes pays off – in getting a real effective use for the tweeting and facebooking and general on-line chit-chat we have to spend time on!

    I’m wondering if Phillippa’s book would work as an e-book – or would it not translate because of its unique qualities? (I’ve not read the book, only the blog posts). Would there be an e-pubic out there for it? Could it become a touch ‘cult’ that way?

  16. It’s time to move beyond prejudicial classifications.

    Zoe Winters is a romance writer and blogger. She said, “The average reader doesn’t care how a book gets to market. If the book is good, it doesn’t matter if your Chihuahua published it.”

    Author and blogger S.G. Royle wrote, “People don’t buy books from publishers. They buy them from authors.”

    Edward Uhlan founded Exposition Press—an early and important pay-to-publish company—in 1936. He said, “Most people can’t tell the difference between a vanity book and a trade book anyway. A book is a book.”

    In press releases I simply state that the book is published by Silver Sands Books. I see no need to indicate that my wife and I own the company.

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