Last week, Linda Formichelli, author and freelance writer, posted a harrowing story about her experience of hiring a firm to handle the marketing of her most recent book.* She’s taken some heat in some quarters, but I applaud her for being brave enough to tell her story publicly so that the rest of us can learn from it. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it. It’s instructive, and it’s important.

If there’s one thing that writers seem to universally hate, it’s marketing.

Plenty of us (yes, I’ve done this, too) will go to all the trouble of writing and publishing a book—then fail to actually ask anyone to buy it. Authors with the budgets to do so can be mightily tempted to simply hire out the whole process to a marketing/PR firm and let them deal with logistics, the research, and that whole pesky “Please buy my book” thing. This can be a great idea … or it can be disastrous.

Hire help … cautiously

Now, I’m a big believer in hiring professionals to do what you can’t or don’t want to do yourself, but unfortunately, we can’t afford to simply outsource and be done. More and more, it’s imperative that self-publishing authors know how to assess the quality of what we’re getting, whether from an editor, a designer, a formatter, or a marketer.

Outsourcing means acquiring a few extra skills—not necessarily the ability to actually design a professional cover, for example, but at least the ability to tell good design from bad and to research what kind of covers are selling well in your genre. Similarly, it means being able to assess the quality of a marketing plan—not just checking the references and reputation of the marketing firm (which, of course, you should), but actually understanding what they’re doing, and where they plan to place your book, and what you’ll need to do to make it all work.

(In response to Linda’s article, Sandra Beckwith at Build Book Buzz has written an excellent post on questions to ask yourself before hiring a marketer. Much of it applies to services across the board, not just just to marketing firms.)

Get ready to pull your weight

Because you will have to do something. Interviews, guest posts, speaking engagements, AMAs (“Ask Me Anythings”), webinars, book signings … There is an almost unlimited list of ways that an author can engage with their audience. It’s in your interest to be aware of your options and understand the platforms you’ll be represented on.

Even the best marketers (maybe especially the best ones) won’t let you just get back to writing your next book while they do all the work. A good marketing team may be able to do the heavy lifting of contacting the media and placing ads, but somewhere along the way, you will have to show up, ready to engage with your audience and alert to everything that is being done in your name.

You’ll note that Linda was, in fact, engaged in “managing the Facebook group, writing guest posts [she] landed, reaching out to [her] own contacts, and building a website. [She] had also made plans to contact every website, author, and business [she] mentioned in How to Do It All.”  I’m not trying to imply that she wasn’t willing to do her part; just to point out that any author, traditionally or self-published, famous or not, is going to have to be in the PR trenches at some point.

What we can learn from this debacle

Well, a lot of things. But this is what stands out to me:

  1. Don’t just hire experience; hire the right experience. Don’t hire an editor who specializes in memoir to edit your thriller. Don’t hire a sci fi cover designer for your paleo cookbook. Don’t hire a PR firm that isn’t familiar with your market … you get the picture.
  2. Be assertive. Like Linda, I’m very non-confrontational, so I get how hard this can be. But train yourself to ask questions, call out bad behavior, and be pushy when necessary.
  3. Trust your gut. It can be tricky sometimes distinguishing between nervous excitement and the instinct to flee a bad situation. But we owe it to ourselves to learn how to hear the warning bells when they go off.

What are your takeaways from this story?

* Disclosure: Linda contacted me several months ago about proofreading this book. It was right around the time that I was going to Europe, and I had to turn the job down. Also, a couple of years ago, I did some copyediting for Linda’s business partner, Diana. So although I have no direct interest in this book, I can’t help feeling a little bit connected to it.