Author Yona McDonough on How to Be Your Own Publicist

By Yona Zeldis McDonough

I am the author of four novels (a fifth, Two of a Kind, is due out in September from New America Library) and twenty-two books for children. I am also the editor of two essay collections. I’ve worked with in-house publicists, hired outside publicists and jumped into the fray by acting as my own publicist too.  Here are some of my experiences and advice; I hope they will help you think outside the conventional PR box and get your book the attention it deserves.

Hiring an outside publicist is a very expensive proposition, so I am not going to focus on that option here. But it is important to know how to work with the in-house publicist and get the most from that relationship as you can.  Approach the publicist as a friend, a comrade-in-arms and an equal.  Don’t assume the diva role, expecting and demanding things.  Ask what the publisher is planning to do for the book and then ask how you can be of help. This is a good way to start and will build a solid foundation for in-house support of your book.

Keep in mind that except for the very biggest books, pr budgets are shrinking and that even with
your offer to help and your goodwill, the PR efforts offered by your publisher may seem very paltry.  That’s where you can step in.  For my last novel, A Wedding in Great Neck, I really tried to work the regional angle as hard as I could to take advantage of the location mentioned in the title.  I approached libraries, community centers and book clubs on Long Island and I was able to set up several events at different venues.  Sometimes the audiences were small, but even so, they led to other, and in some cases, better offers with bigger audiences. I spoke to a book club where there were about twenty members; because it went well, I was approached by a local Hadassah group and will be speaking to a larger group of about sixty.  So don’t turn down small venues because they can lead to bigger ones.  Altogether I have done or will be doing a total of twelve events on Long Island—not a bad result for a local pr staff of one!

Make sure you visit all the local bookstores in your area, both chains and independents.  Bring a copy of your book; ask if they have a local authors section where it can be featured.  Even if you can’t get a reading, you want prominent placement in the store. I also like to have bookmarks and even the occasional poster printed; these things can be done cheaply and are very effective (I use a company in Florida called Image which I like a lot but there are many others too).  Ask if the bookstore will place some bookmarks near the register—free advertising for you!  Bring bookmarks to any readings/signings or other events that you do.  And ask the local the bookstore if they will agree to place your poster in the window of the store for a brief time; this is a great way to get local exposure.

I also try to look for sales opportunities that are not in conventional bookstores. When I saw that the Museum of Natural History was mounting a show about Nelson Mandela and planning some events around that show, I contacted the publicist at the house that had published my children’s bio of the great leader. Because the book was not the current list, the publicist was reluctant to do anything at all to help. But did that stop me? No!  I found out the name of the buyer for the gift shop at the museum, and wrote him a nice note, which I hand delivered with a copy of the book.  He ended up ordering thirty copies, placed them on a very prominent table in the store—and sold every single one.  Score! Another time, I approached the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of NYC about my two chapter books, The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll Shop because both take place in the tenements of New York.  The gift shop ordered copies of the books and took the bookmarks too.  So broadening your outlook to extend beyond the bookstore is a good way to target a new audience.

You can’t take no for an answer, either.  When my essay collection, The Barbie Chronicles came out, the in-house publicist told me I would not be able to arrange any bookstore readings because, “essay collections don’t draw crowds.”  But essays about Barbie might be different, especially if I pitched the event in a more fun, crowd-pleasing way. Since the book’s publication was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll’s introduction to the toy market, I planned a 40th b-day bash for the petite, plastic plaything. I asked several of the essayists in the collection (a few were big names, like Erica Jong) to participate. I ordered a b-day cake that spelled out Happy 40th Barbie! in pink frosting, and bought balloons, Barbie themed napkins, paper plates etc.   The event was a huge success—standing room only—and I sold lots of books.  So much for essays not drawing a crowd.

These are just a few of the ways I have been able to act as my own publicist to draw attention to my books.  And if I can do it, so can you.  Here’s to increased visibility and sales—good luck!

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of many books for children and adults. You can find her at