In an era when cutbacks have driven publishers to shrink already small publicity and marketing teams, a handful of literary agencies have hired full-time staffers to work on what was traditionally publisher-only domain.
What's striking about the agencies that are hiring in-house publicists is that many are small, boutique firms. Joe Regal's Regal Literary has five full-time agents and last year hired Michael Strong to oversee small-budget Internet campaigns. Strong, a career-changer with experience in academia—he most recently worked at Sotheby's where, among other things, he oversaw the launch of the now defunct eBay-like mysothebys.com—approached Regal aspiring to become an agent. Regal agreed to hire Strong with an eye for what he could bring in the way of marketing savvy. Strong, who has a handful of clients, works with all of the agency's authors—he estimates he handles about 20 books every year (which is how many titles a publicist at a major house might handle in a month)—and is currently coordinating a push for Audrey Niffenegger, whose Her Fearful Symmetry drops in late September from Scribner.
Regal, for his part, sees Strong as someone who can develop the kind of inexpensive viral campaigns that publishers might not have the time—or staff—to create. The blogger outreach for Her Fearful Symmetry, for example, is targeted specifically at those who favorably reviewed Niffenegger's first book, the runaway bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife. Strong located those bloggers and mailed them details about a contest where the top prize is a Chicago dinner with the author. (Select bloggers, who can have a pdf of the first chapter e-mailed to them, can also win an autographed hardback edition of the book.) Book clubs are also being targeted by the agency; like the blogger outreach, the top prize in this contest is a visit with Niffenegger.
Although Regal acknowledges that the “cost effectiveness of someone being on staff and doing PR and marketing is hard to quantify,” he thinks the move makes it “less likely a book fails.”
Editor-turned-agent Rob Weisbach, who launched Rob Weisbach Creative Management this year, has a similar situation with Erin Cox, one of four full-time employees (including himself); her background is primarily in publicity. Weisbach said Cox will, like Strong, be working as both agent and publicist. He elaborated on what he dubbed a “multidiscipline approach” to repping clients, saying it stems from “a belief that authors and their publishers will all benefit from an all-hands-on deck approach.”
Regal, who said it's essential that the agency doesn't interfere with anything the publisher is already doing marketing and PR-wise, sees Strong's background as a value-add even in the acquisition process. “We're starting to look at every proposal and think, 'What is our marketing pitch,' ” he said, adding that agents have even begun including blurbs with some manuscripts. In this way, Regal sees in-house marketing savvy as something that helps the publisher sell books to consumers and the agent sell books to publishers.