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Interview with Andy Ross,
Literary Agent

link to interview

Photo by MK Brown

Photo by MK Brown

Today we are speaking with independent book publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek. Mary has worked in publishing for many years as a staff person with various literary presses as well as the University of Michigan Press, Literary Ventures Fund. As an independent publicist her clients range from large trade publishing houses to smaller discerning literary and art book publishers and with authors whose work spans a similar spectrum.

Andy Ross: Mary, every author I speak with complains about how little their publisher did to promote their book. This is true of authors whose books were positioned deep in the midlist as well as those with lead titles and high six figure advances. Is this fair? After a publisher has gone to all the trouble and expense of publishing a book, why are they just letting them hang?

Mary Bisbee-Beek: This is an interesting and perplexing question, Andy. I believe that this is a case-by-case scenario…. some larger publishers really do seem to take a back seat approach to marketing and publicity or they spend their marketing budget on advance reading copies and a few well placed advertisements. But by and large I believe that most publishers do feel that they are doing the best that they can. One of the conundrums of publicity is that one can always do more and it takes more work up front, or before a book is actually published -- but it can’t stop on the pub date nor even six weeks after the pub date. It is a unique book that will carry on it’s own momentum. It requires diligence, nudging, and the perfect storm of activity both from the author and the publicist.

Andy: You are an independent book publicist. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do and the types of books you work with?

Mary: I prefer working on literary fiction, creative non-fiction, and cerebral yet readable non-fiction books. I also enjoy working on poetry books. I prefer coming into a book in the planning stage, so if there is a staff publicist working on the book, it’s a good idea to enter the conversation at the same time as this person so that we can figure out who is doing what and where in the country if it is being divided. There might be less for me to do in the early stages if there is a staff publicist but if I am part of the conversation from the start I can start with more creative avenues and pitches for readings and for adding to the overall structure. Once the book is published and the author is actively doing readings and events I become more active and more hands on as this is generally the time that the staff publicist needs to move on to other books in the list or to a new list, depending on the time of year but I can help to keep the conversation alive on the book beyond the six or eight week mark.

It’s not wise for an author to hire a free-lance publicist after publication as you always feel like you are playing catch-up and I don’t feel it’s as productive.

Andy: How does an author know whether she needs her own book publicist or whether she should just rely on the publisher? When should she start thinking about hiring one?

Mary: Once the book is in the design phase or out of copy editing an author should have a frank discussion with their publisher to determine what the publisher is asking of the author. Perhaps this has already occurred and the publisher has been clear on what they can and cannot do – if a publisher says we can publish your book but we can’t market it or we only do limited marketing then the author should start shopping for a publicist right away.

Andy: And what do you do that a publishers publicity department won't do?

Mary: It depends what the publisher does or doesn’t do, of course but I am able to start with sending out advance reading copies to the industry media, the selected trade media, bloggers, helping the author to set up a Facebook page and to get started on Twitter and to consult on the layout and content of a webpage. I will set up events if that’s what makes sense. I do all of the media follow-up and I will shout out the book to booksellers when I can and if it’s appropriate.

I also have a unique qualification to sell foreign rights, I work with sub-agents all over the world and attend both the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs when it makes sense, or when I have a number of books to present to editors and agents around the world…and I can work with either the publisher if they wish or with the author if they have retained rights, which is unlikely but I have also worked in this capacity with literary agents from time to time.

Andy: What's your idea of a good client? When you are working with an author, what do they have to do to make your plan work?

A good client is one that respects the work that you do, the schedules and deadlines, who has a positive outlook and who wants a collaborative relationship.

Andy: Describe a typical marketing plan that you would devise for a client.

Mary: Oddly, this is a tough question, Andy. There is hardly ever a typical scenario and it would depend on first book or third book, fiction or non-fiction.  I would encourage anyone who is shopping for a publicist in the areas that I am best equipped to work talk to me about what might be typical for their book; their timeline; their budget; and whether or not they have the time to travel a bit to spread the word on their book.

But for ease and considering typical, we can consider the following thumbnail sketch of an m marketing plan.  After reading the book I would devise a list of most appropriate reviewers; if there were an advertising budget where to suggest a paid ad or two…. I am mostly not in favor of paid ads but there are a few venues that sometimes make good sense. I would add special market possibilities, depending on what hooks the book’s story line presents; and then I would come up with a geographically savvy and budget conscious approach for the author to travel a bit if he/she were interested in that. After mailing the advance readers I would do timely follow-up and start to work on a one-to-one basis with media and bloggers for author interviews. As we got closer to pub date I would start outreach to radio producers and television if it made sense. I would be reaching out to libraries around the country for ALL COMMUNITY READING programs and I also work closely with a number of book clubs around the country for readings and potential author participation if the club is reading the book. Depending on the time of year and again on the author’s travel budget there are Book Festivals that can be approached for reading and panel inclusion participation so this can also be added to the list of possibilities.

Andy: How hard is it getting media attention these days?

Mary: It depends, if we adhere to the schedules that reviewers and feature writers need to review a book then we have a fair chance of receiving attention. There are more books for a reviewer to consider, for fewer pages of review space – so a publicist has to be savvy about the rules and deadlines.

Self-published books are still difficult; and e-books are also difficult it helps if one is publishing an e-book that they might also consider a print-on-demand paperback edition, as well.

And if an author were publishing an e-book they still have to adhere to the same deadlines for reviewers, as a traditional book model would have.

Andy: What is the most effective media for book promotion?

Mary: I think that radio is still the most effective, there is magic in the words, “I heard about it on NPR.” And certain blogs carry enormous weight but I am also smitten with book review pages in major metropolitan newspapers; and glossy magazines, of course. And I’m very partial to PENNIE’S PICKS, Pennie Clark Ianniciello is the book buyer for Costco and she shouts out an interesting title every month or so, that sticker on a book carries a lot of weight, as does Oprah’s Book Club…. I think everyone is happy that’s back.

Andy: What about Internet marketing? Do you do that as well? Describe it for us.

Mary: I work with a number of bloggers who have solid sites that are exclusively shouting out books and they are powerful, so yes I work in that realm. But this is not an either or situation, you need the full power of traditional and newer media in all forms to create a strong platform for your book.

Andy: And here are the $64,000 question. How much can an author expect to pay for your services? Can you give us a ballpark estimate and tell us what it buys?

Mary: I try to work with an author or publisher’s budget and I believe I charge fairly for my services. Generally I ask for a six-month minimum agreement and my fees range from $1,000 to $1500 per month depending on how full-scale a program is needed or wanted. This is a personal discussion with each client, of course. This buys an active place on the desk, in all or as many pertinent media conversations as I have in a day, week, month and as many of situations as described above, from making lists, sending books, follow-up, to setting up events, conferencing on websites, etc.

Andy: Tell us about your most successful project. Tell us about your most fulfilling project.

Mary: I’ve had many successful projects, perhaps one that stands out was a wonderful novel called A CENTURY OF NOVEMBER by WD Wetherell that the University of Michigan Press published. We had scores of good reviews; the author participated in some very thoughtful events; movie rights were sold (and the movie should actually be out in two or so years); and foreign rights continue to be sold, I understand.

It’s easy to look to the past but when a new project crosses my desk I always hope that this will be the new most fulfilling, surprising, and extraordinary project that I’ve ever worked on. To that end, I would encourage your readers to be on the look out for BURIED IN THE SKY by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan; THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS by Pam Durban , and THE ANGELS’ SHARE by Rayme Waters – all three have me working overtime on a regular basis and with great pleasure.

Thanks for talking with me Andy!

Andy Ross opened his literary agency in January, 2008. Prior to that, he was the owner of the legendary Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California for thirty years. The agency represents books in a  wide range of subjects. For more information about Andy and the agency and to see the authors and books he represents, visit the Andy Ross Agency Website.