12/17/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Should Authors Spend Money on Publicity and Marketing?

Should I hire a publicist?

An author's marketing service? A blog tour?

Will my publisher/editor/agent get mad?

Should I ask permission?

If I hire someone, will the publisher do less?

New and experienced authors ask each other these questions often, consulting each other as though somewhere, someone has the answer, but no one has the answer for anyone but themselves. Before you accuse me of being all sorts of psycho-Freudian (the answer lies in you, Grasshopper) answer this: What do you want from a publicist? Or a marketing person?

In my first conversation with the woman who became my outside publicist at Goldberg McDuffie, I was asked this: "What do you want from us?" Both at the moment and in retrospect, it was a brilliant question because: a) it made me truly consider what my expectations were, and b) let my potential publicist know whether or not my goals were realistic. (If appearing on Jon Stewart and Today, and becoming an Oprah Pick was the only way I'd be satisfied, that was her warning signal to let me know upfront that having a successful partnership with them looked doubtful at best.)

My answer to her question was: My goal is to get my book in front of as many readers' eyes in as many ways as possible. It seemed simplistic when I said it, but really -- other than that which exists to serve ones ego, what else is there for a writer?

Perhaps it wasn't a lofty goal, but one my publicist was confident she could work towards and, hopefully accomplish. Whether or not readers where interested in reading the book after seeing reviews, articles, television, and hearing me on the radio -- that was on me, not her.

In-house versus outside? Is there a problem?

Can your in-house publicist from your publisher do this as well as a private publicist? Simplistic as it sounds, that depends on the two of them. Many in-house publicists are wonderful; some outside publicists are awful and a waste of money. I was lucky for my first and second book. I had a great publicist from St. Martin's, and the woman I am now working at with at Atria Books for my soon-to-launch book is beyond fantastic. But, I hired my outside publicist again, because in my experience having two publicists means having a team -- not, as some think, two people dueling over a writer's affections. They know just how to divide up the work and you're doubling your chances of getting attention for your book. Nor is there reason to fear repercussions for hiring a publicist. You are doing a favor for your publisher, by possibly increasing their profits using your dime.

In-house publicists are often over-worked, so though they may perform miracles, they have a higher writer-to-publicist ratio than most outside publicists, and may only be able to devote themselves to your book for a short period. You want to give yourself any leg-up you can. There couldn't guarantee miracles, or even mild excitement, but I knew that by not using them, there was no hope for whatever help they could bring. I wanted the team effort that having an outside and in house publicist would bring.

Beware the Love Theory
And if, perchance, they get upset at your hiring an outside person, ask for an explanation. Is it because they're promising you star treatment? (Many literary stars have outside publicists who work hand-in-hand with the house.) Is it a territorial question? Work towards clarity on this, because in the end they have many books, but you only have one at the moment: yours. I'd rather have an honest idea of what is being done -- whether it's a mega-campaign, or a modest effort -- and thus know where I have to fill in. Show your editor and others at your publisher that you are an adult who can work with the truth and work in concert with them.

And then there's the 'love' theory. Many authors decide against hiring a publicist because they're certain "they adore me at XYZ Pub House," only to be devastated when they see what they thought was love ended up as a one-night-stand. Publicists at most publishing houses are stretched to the limit. The in-house publicist for my first book did a great job, but having an outside publicist from Goldberg McDuffie allowed for more in-depth work from both publicists (and they worked together so well that they shared a panel with me at Grub Street's Muse & The Marketplace 2011)

Decide early whether or not to hire a publicist during your book launch process. High-powered ones will want to work with you many (five or six) months before your book comes out. There are different levels of publicists: those who will oversee an entire campaign in concert with your in-house publicist, and those who concentrate on specialized areas, such as radio, social media, or blog tours.

And then there's marketing.

Budgetary constraints are usually one's main concern, but while weighing decisions around publicity, also consider the importance of including marketing costs in your decision. Publicity won't work alone. You have one book getting published and one chance to see it fly (perhaps two if it's coming out first in hardcover, and then in paperback). After getting that great publicity, you'll need to use marketing to synergize on the reviews you've received or to get the word out if there weren't many reviews.

Just as you can (and sometimes must) pay for an outside publicist, you can (and sometimes must) pay for outside marketing. For most authors, the publisher's marketing budget is limited, so it is important to find out what they are and aren't doing. Then you can decide how to allocate your money -- you might consider anything from hiring marketing professionals to online book tours (Bubble Cow has a good listing of these sites). You might prepare marketing materials ranging from bookmarks to postcards. Go to online printing sites and you can get lost in the choices. Make sure to prepare at least one good handout and always carry some with you.

You'll want to spread the news of your reviews, awards, and good news to make sure people know your book exists. While many writers use the words publicity and marketing interchangeably, they're not the same thing and this confusion often causes people to make marketing mistakes. Marketing is something you pay for. Publicity is something you hope for. They both work to promote a book. People need to hear about a book many times and in several ways before they really notice it.

Marketing is the concrete process of spreading the word about your book by spending money. As with publicity, you will work with a marketing expert at your publishing house. Again, my experience at Atria has been excellent, beyond excellent -- and they are honest about what they can and can't do. This enables me to supplement their work from an intelligent position. I urge you to work towards a relationship with your publishers marketing expert that allows open communication. No whining from you. No subterfuge from them. That's how you can have a team.

You can hire a web designer, buy advertising space, and hire marketing professionals. These are all tasks with a specific, measurable outcome. Good marketing, both from your publisher, via your own efforts, and from outside companies will distribute information about books and authors via the web to readers, book club members, librarians and booksellers.

Much of the information above comes from What to Do Before Your Book Launch, a book I co-authored with M.J. Rose, an author whose previous career was in advertising. Using that experience, she launched Author Buzz, a marketing company for authors. M.J. taught me much when I worked with her during the launch of my first novel -- much of which I'm now putting into great use as I prepare to launch my second novel, The Comfort of Lies, none of which marked me as much as these simple sentences:

1) Nobody can buy a book they've never heard about: this is the reason for publicity and marketing.

2) Good publicity and marketing helps readers learn about your book, but only the author can provide the magic that makes them take that book home: this one's on us.