How have you found the transition from student to working arts professional?
Before enrolling in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing program in my mid-40s, I had a career that involved writing, research, publicity, event organizing, and video production.I wrote editorials at Chicago’s WLS-TV, then plunged into the public relations industry, working my way up to a Vice President at J. Walter Thompson, which at the time, was the world’s largest advertising/public relations agency.In the early '80s, I opened up my own agency on Michigan Avenue. Most of the work at both JWT and Sheryl Johnston Communications involved generating publicity to build audience for national television programs and our sponsor clients. We publicized made-for-TV movies, awards shows, music or variety specials, children’s entertainment, and wildlife documentaries. It was exciting work, and I was so lucky to travel all over the country (including visiting the White House twice!), and to write about and arrange media for some of the most fascinating performers, celebrities, producers, and wildlife cinematographers of that time.
But before that, like most other young people starting out, I worked countless minimum-wage gigs and positions with the word “assistant” in their titles. Every single job I’ve had in my life – whether menial or professional – taught me something valuable.
What I learned as a student at Columbia—about how to read like a writer and what makes a good story—led to my present occupation as an independent literary publicist and event producer. After earning my Fiction Writing degree, I freelanced, but it took me two years to find steady work. Finally, I realized that I could make a contribution by combining my past professional expertise with my present passion for literature. My goal was to get authors and literary events the attention they deserved.
My first author publicity projects came from Columbia College, and those went pretty well. Then from 1998–2010, I was fortunate to help Fiction Writing Chair Randall Albers organize and publicize the annual Story Week Festival of Writers, one of the most innovative and beloved literary events in the Midwest. This involved writing grants, booking and working with authors, publishing experts, performers, and scholars and creating a weeklong series of events that is free and open to the public. Held on campus, and at some of the city’s finest venues, including the Chicago Public Library, Metro, Martyrs’, and others, Story Week attracts between 3,000–6,000 people per year. Story Week has been an exciting chapter in my professional life, but now I look forward to devoting my efforts to publicizing writers and other artists.
What is a publicist, anyway?
A publicist’s job is to discover the best story or news angle for a project, then persuade reporters to write or talk about it. We study and monitor the media: who writes about what, what kinds of stories are on what types of programs, and why. We constantly read and write: press releases, pitch letters, promotional copy, and even scripts sometimes. Then we follow up relentlessly, until the media says "yes," "no," or ignores us completely. Our latest challenge is to keep up with all of the online media.
The skills of publicists are not that different from those of writers. In addition to reading work by other authors, a writer has to research, observe, imagine, and discover the voice and characters that will create a story compelling enough to attract readers. Publicists and writers must constantly think about their audience. A publicist’s work is frequently solitary, and like writers, we spend hours thinking and banging away at our computers.
What is an event producer?
An event producer frequently finds the venue; helps conceptualize an event, and organizes its presenters, production staff, and caterers. We develop a “running order” of what happens when, so that the event appears seamless. Our goal is to create a thoughtfully presented event that is interesting enough to attract an audience.
What should authors know about the publicity process?
Timing is everything. The publicity process should begin far ahead of your book’s publication. To be considered for early reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, advance reading copies (ARCs) must be sent 2½ to 3 months ahead of your release date. Monthly magazines may have even longer lead times, and newspaper and radio book reviewers also appreciate early copies. Become actively involved in the marketing campaign.
Request a media list of where your publisher will send your book for review, then you and your publicist can add to that list. Independent publicists coordinate efforts with publishers, and publishers send us books for our pitches. Think about every place you’ve lived, worked, gone to school, or have connections. Your publicist can develop local angles and feature stories from this information. I worked with one Y/A author who designed her own marketing plan and gave it to her publisher. She actively researched and communicated with book bloggers and kept her website up to the minute with news.
Her novel was a big success. Extend the life of your book by setting up events for as many months as possible. Be creative. Readings can take place anywhere, not just bookstores (which usually ask if you can attract 15 people.) There are so many great reading series in bars, galleries, or coffeehouses. One author gave a book party in the parking lot of an Italian Beef joint that was part of his story. He sold a ton of books. Another author, who'd written a baseball novel, threw a tailgate party at Tucson’s spring training and read at a museum baseball exhibit and in cigar stores. The possibilities are endless. Team up with fellow authors, musicians, and friends to create entertaining events that will sell books and provide new publicity opportunities. Good luck!
Written in Summer 2010.
Sheryl Johnston is a former Artistic Director and publicist of the Story Week Festival of Writers, and was involved with the festival for 13 years. Johnston earned her BA in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago, and her work has appeared in Emergence, Hair Trigger, Bandit-Lit.com, Footlights Magazine, and others. Before attending Columbia, Johnston was an editorial writer at WLS-TV, a vice president of public relations at J. Walter Thompson, and president of her own communications agency. She has served as a judge for the WBEZ-FM Stories on Stage contest, as an editor for Hair Trigger and Bandit-Lit.com, and as a panelist for the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference. She is currently an independent publicist for authors throughout the country, and consults for clients involved with education, the arts, and entertainment.