Erin Kottke is a superstar publicist who has worked at several of the best indie presses. She started her career at Milkweed Editions, worked at Graywolf for ten years, and in 2016 joined Catapult as Director of Publicity. Kottke has also worked as a freelance publicist for a variety of projects. As part of Authors Guild’s Q&A series, we talked to Kottke about independent publishing, when it’s best to hire a freelance publicist, and what authors can do to help their publicists help their book.
1) Before becoming Director of Publicity at Catapult, you worked at Graywolf, another independent press. What appeals to you about working in the small press world?
I have such a soft spot in my heart for small presses! I got my start as an intern at Milkweed Editions before joining Graywolf, so it’s all I’ve ever known, really, in terms of my professional life. Small presses are where the most interesting, exciting work is happening—they’re willing to take a chance on a book that’s uncategorizable or “weird” or doesn’t seem to have an obvious fit in the marketplace. But there are readers out there for every book, and it’s important that a wide range of voices and viewpoints populate shelves. Indie booksellers across the country are particularly strong advocates of small and indie presses and often find little gems of books that might otherwise go unnoticed—they’re a vital part of the literary landscape.
2) What’s the number one thing that authors can do to help their book after publication?
Don’t be afraid to self-promote! Your publishing team has been working hard to get attention for you book. Tell your friends about the (hopefully) good things that are happening. Keep looking for opportunities to get your name out there through personal essays, opinion pieces, or writing reviews of other books. Engage with readers and booksellers online, through social media and Goodreads, and find opportunities to take part in conversations about books. Take part in bookstore readings or festivals, or serve as the conversation partner for another author with a new book. And don’t forget to express your gratitude to readers, booksellers, and everyone who made the book happen—people like to root for (and buy the books by) authentically kind, generous authors.
3) You have also worked as a freelance publicist. What types of books did you take on? How does freelance publicity differ, if at all, from working with a publicist through a press?
I mostly worked on literary fiction and nonfiction from small or indie presses. It was such a treat to get to work with other publishers, like the small but mighty Lookout Books, which published a gorgeous story collection called We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams—which remains one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past five years! One notable difference between having a freelance publicist vs. an in-house publicist comes down to list size. In theory, a freelancer is working on fewer titles, which should allow them to spend more time focused on your book. They might have the time to explore different routes and approaches to publicity that your in-house publicist may not be able to pursue due to his or her workload, and they can also continue working on a campaign past pub date to extend the life of the book. Don’t get me wrong: in-house publicists are superheroes and are expert multitaskers. Freelancers are just another way to bolster the support system around your book.
4) When should an author consider hiring an outside publicist?
If you feel like your expectations for your book don’t align with the publisher’s expectations, an outside publicist might be the way to go. For example, if your publisher isn’t planning on setting up any events for you but you think going on a 5-city tour would be beneficial for the book, a freelance publicist can help. In-house publicists have a lot of work on their plates; they care about your book and do as much as they can for it, but if you have a chat with them and feel like you’re not getting the kind of support or attention you’d like, consider an outside publicist to support their efforts and your goals.
5) What do authors misunderstand about publicity and marketing?
I think there are sometimes misconceptions about how many books will actually be sold, which is closely tied to marketing and publicity efforts. Very few books are bestsellers, and even fewer books are picked for Oprah’s Book Club or championed by Reese Witherspoon. There are books that I’ve loved on a very deep level that have fizzled on the sales front, and on the flip side, there are some that have sold quite well that weren’t really my cup of tea. Publishing isn’t an exact science and there isn’t a magic wand we can wave to make a book land, despite our best efforts.
6) Authors often are anxious about social media. What advice do you give authors about social media use?
Honestly, social media isn’t for everyone. It’s true that having a big presence on social media—I’m specifically thinking of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—can really help boost a book’s visibility and increase the buzz behind it, and it’s a huge help to the publisher. That said, there are some people to whom social media doesn’t come naturally and that’s okay. If it causes you extreme anxiety to the point of paralysis, or you’re only going to Tweet once a month, don’t do it. The key to successfully using social media is to remember to be yourself, i.e. an actual human who people want to engage with. There’s a graceful way to share good news without coming across as obnoxious or self-congratulatory—if you got a rave review in The New York Times or exciting events coming up, by all means shout about it! People have followed or friended you because they’re a friend or fan or your mom and they care about what you’re doing. You just have to remember to not only talk about yourself and your book or it’s going to become white noise and ineffective. Post about other things that interest you outside of the book world, help promote the work of other authors who are out there hustling just like you are, engage in conversations taking place about books, respond to readers who tell you that they read your book, etc. You don’t have to be online constantly to have an impact, but you do need to remember the cardinal rule that applies to pretty much every aspect of life: don’t be a jerk.