Publicist Interview: Julie Schoerke of JKSCommunications

Founder and Principal of JKSCommunications, Julie Schoerke promotes publishers, authors and books from across the country. She started the company in 2001 as a general public relations company.

Schoerke has built the literary publicity company by being sensitive to the divergent needs of the publishers, the authors, the agents and the media.

She works tirelessly to be sure that every member of the team has what is needed to make a book launch and publicity campaign sparkle and sizzle. She considers it a fluid process and is always on the lookout for the latest marketing opportunities in this fast-paced, dynamic communications world we live in today. Many of the clients Schoerke works with have sought out her work on the recommendation of agents, in-house publicists, and other authors. Most clients come through word of mouth.

Virtual Book Tours, Book and Media Tours (traveling with the author), book trailers and cultivation of independent booksellers for award nominations for books are a few ways that Schoerke promotes her clients.

Books/Authors in the past year that JKSCommunications has promoted:

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press)
Mermaids in the Basement by Michael Lee West (HarperCollins)
Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore (Crown Publishing)
The Blue Cotton Gown: A Medical Memoir by Patricia Harman (Beacon Press)
One Fell Swoop by Virginia Boyd (Thomas Nelson)
The Golden Rules for Managers by Frank McNair (Sourcebooks)
Charles Ghigna “Father Goose”

Before specializing in the book industry, Schoerke worked in the public relations for 20 years.

What first inspired you to enter the field of publicity?

I started out in politics and not-for-profit management years ago, became a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, and then found that I needed to go back into the work force.

I started my own PR business helping all kinds of companies, organizations, and celebrities. But as my business grew, I got the opportunity to become a little more selective in the clients I worked with.

I found that I loved the intelligence, sense of humor, and integrity of authors and people who worked in the book industry. Authors became my “rock stars,” and the real rock stars that I worked with flat out weren’t as interesting to be around as the writers.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I don’t have a book in me to write, so this was a dream come to true, to find a way to use my skills in publicity to help readers learn about terrific books and authors.

Could you tell us about JSK Communications?

JKSCommunications is a full-service literary publicity and promotion company that has launched books in most genres.

Working with authors is such a personal thing. Authors have a huge stake in their books doing well, and the ones who hire us are driven to push the sales of their books.

As a result, messing up isn’t an option. I’ve never missed a deadline for a client, I try to be as available as possible for authors, especially ones who are being published for the first time and are worried about the business.

I encourage my clients to talk to me when they’re worried or trying to think through issues rather than calling their agents or editors on a whim. Agents and editors want to work with authors, but their job doesn’t include daily contact by any stretch!

Even in the down-economy, JKSCommunications has been able to grow! I have an amazing young woman who was a journalist and reporter that has come on board, Marissa DeCuir. She can get terrific television and radio interviews for clients and she is as picky about deadlines and details as I am! It took me seven years to find the right person to help me expand the company, and now I feel so lucky she is helping promote the great books we represent! We also have partnerships with web designers and book trailer producers.

What appeals to you about working with authors specifically?

Authors are thoughtful people–both in intelligence and in their demeanor, I’ve found. Authors want people to read their work above and beyond all else. That’s what motivates them.

I end up working with about 1/3 – 1/2 of the authors who contact me. I have to really love their book and connect with them personally or I can’t be enthusiastic in promoting their work.

Every day is an adventure, is fun, sometimes extremely challenging. There is nothing more rewarding than helping engage an audience for an author who has toiled for years to get published, who has put her or his whole heart and soul into it.

I’ve heard that there are authors who aren’t interested in helping other authors–but I’ve never personally worked with one. Authors and book people by nature seem to be very generous in every sense of the word.

Could you highlight a couple of the children’s/YA authors and titles that you’ve worked with?

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press) launched at the end of 2008 and is a book I’m extremely proud to be associated with.

Helen is talented, bright, and has an intellectual curiosity that has made it possible for her to write critically-acclaimed YA novels that are also widely popular.

This book in particular was great to work on with Helen because it’s the story of an African-American cowboy–a story never told in children’s literature before as far as we’ve been able to discover.

The publisher and the publishing team were really behind this book and let us try some innovative and creative publicity things that brought a whole new audience to Helen’s work.

Helen worked tirelessly on this project. There were many nights when we were emailing each other at 11 p.m. to get ready for the next day’s onslaught of new publicity tactics.

I’m currently working with Charles Ghigna, Father Goose, on a new project that will encompass his entire body of work over the past several decades. He is the most published children’s poet alive today and is only behind Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein in published poetry for kids in the United States.

His poetry book for YA/middle school boys, Score!: 50 Poems to Motivate and Inspire (Abrams), is just his most recent of scores of books that have sold in the millions and been published by all of the major publishing houses.

Could you give us a case study to illustrate your approach? What were the unique challenges, opportunities, how did you respond to them, and what were your results?

Helen Hemphill

Front Street/Boyds Mills Press did an amazing job of providing all of the advance reader copies (ARCs) we requested–and we requested a lot! But we knew if the book got in the hands of the right people, the buzz would take off.

Helen and I went to the Southern Independent Booksellers Association, SIBA Conference in Mobile, Alabama; just as the book was launching. Every day we carried a stack of ARCs with us and talked to booksellers. We met with the actual foot soldiers who sell the books to bookstores through the distribution company, and we spent time with them.

Even today I’ve had two bookstores–four months after the book debuted–contacting me to set up book signings with Helen. She’s been so sought after that it’s been difficult to schedule all the book signings she’s been invited to do.

We made sure we touched teachers, librarians, and booksellers at least three times through email, postcard mailings, or other avenues before they got a book.

Helen’s books have always sold very well to librarians and teachers, educators. But we wanted to branch out to the retail market. It worked!

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones was chosen as an Indie Next Pick in December, 2008. For a book to be chosen as an Indie Next Pick, it must have been nominated as the best book in that genre by numerous independent bookstores. The bookstore owners and managers take it upon themselves to contact IndieBound–the organization of all independent bookstores across the country–and go to the effort to nominate the book.

It was gratifying to get feedback that the book had been nominated by bookstores in every corner of the United States–Northwest, South, Midwest, even from the East Coast.

Helen “went” on a virtual book tour for about two weeks–“visiting” literary blogs through interviews and contests for her book. The on-line reviewers are delightful and make my job so much fun.

We also came up with two book trailers that are posted on YouTube and have received nearly 1,400 hits between them:

We wanted to do a book talk similar to those funny e-trade commercials with the baby. We dressed a cute little eight-month old boy up as a cowboy. But he kept crawling up to the camera and grabbing it, so we tied a bandanna around my dog, put some peanut butter in her mouth, and she did the book talk:

Helen is a magician on a Mac and she created this book trailer in a matter of hours. We got lots of positive feedback from librarians and others on this:

Helen is a highly sought after speaker at educational conferences, and she sometimes criss-crosses the country three times in a week to make presentations. The woman has as much energy as her teenage fans! And she continues to write while promoting–she has two new amazing books she’s working on right now!

[Read a Cynsations interview with Helen.]

In what other ways has your work connected with the youth literature market?

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore (Crown Publishing) was released as adult fiction/southern literature.

We targeted women in our messaging for the launch. Moms talked about how much they loved that book, and their daughters started grabbing the copies from their moms’ bookshelves. Pretty soon there was buzz in teen magazines and blogs for teens. The book was picked up as a summer reading project by schools whose librarians loved the book when they read it for their personal enjoyment.

Susan’s in-house publicist is just great to work with, loves the book, and has helped our team come up with ways to increase young readership also.

This was Susan’s first novel, and she worked endlessly on promoting. We did it through a strategic partnership with Dairy Queen and an exhaustive 30+ city book and media tour (that Susan chose to finance herself, using part of her advance).

The book is in its fourth hard-cover printing and will be coming out this summer in soft cover. And, yes, Susan will be hitting even more cities this summer to promote it.

I travel with her, and my other female authors as often as possible for a couple of reasons. I, as the publicist, can say things about the book (how great it is!) that the author can’t (or shouldn’t) say, and sometimes there are media opportunities that I can grab at the last minute, those that fall in our laps that authors on their own can’t do for various reasons.

Cottonwood Spring by Gary Slaughter (Fletcher House) is launching in March. It’s the fourth book in a series of historical fiction about life on the home front in Michigan during World War II.

Although written for adults, Gary’s style is accessible to all ages. After concentrating on targeting teachers and librarians, we’ve just learned that school districts in Michigan have decided to include it in curriculum.

Gary was a very successful businessman before becoming an author. He knew he needed to build his fan base through a grass-roots effort and started five years ago capturing the email of every single fan who wrote, every reader who came to his book talks throughout Tennessee and Michigan, and others until he had a database of more than 1,000 followers. These people have become quite loyal and buy each book in the series as they are published.

Now that the series is complete, we will probably negotiate with a large publishing house to consolidate the series into a shorter version with a goal of national exposure. The series has proven to be highly successful in targeted geographic regions, which is a key for authors in securing bigger publishing deals as they grow.

If you can prove that you are a commercial success in one area of the country, publishers will extrapolate that your book will have wide appeal in other parts of the United States.

Why should a published author consider working with a publicist?

I think the real validation for me came when an inside-publicist sent a published author to me and told her to hire me. The book industry is going through a tough time. Even before the blip in the fourth quarter of 2008, publishers were cutting back their marketing budgets.

Here’s a secret that makes most writers’ skin crawl: generally a publisher only needs one out of every nine or ten books to be successful in order for the publisher to make money. It’s gambling with the highest stakes for the authors. The publishers throw the book out with two weeks allotted for the inside publicist to concentrate on it–they see which books get natural buzz and then they support those books.

Publishers want to see that an author is committed to the success of the book. If an author is willing to make appearances, set up their own website, blog, create book trailers, reach out to their spheres of influence (such as the medical memoir written by a midwife–the midwife hired me, and we reach out to the thousands of midwives and women who have delivered babies through midwives to get buzz going about The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife’s Memoir (Beacon)), then the publisher knows it has a partner in the business.

Some authors are too shy or for some other reason won’t do these things. Their books don’t generally do so well.

Authors at first are nervous that the publisher or in-house publicist will have their feelings hurt if they hire an outside publicist–quite the contrary!

Many in-house publicists have at least 50 titles a year to launch. They are overworked, young, and doing the best they can with limited resources. To have someone come along and help out with the “heavy lifting” by thinking outside the box to create strategic partnerships, getting in contact personally with the local media during the book tour, and having strong personal ties with bookstore owners across the country is a plus.

Hey, if the book sells well, everybody wins and that’s what publishing is about–making money. I know that sounds crass, but publishing is a business.

What nobody tells you (several of my clients have asked me to write a book about this, but I think it would be a bit boring and self-serving!) is that the advance money you get, after working so hard to create this wonderful book, also needs to be stretched and partly spent on marketing and publicity. If you don’t want to be a one-book-wonder, you have to prove that your first book can sell through and you deserve a shot at having your second book published.

Another thing nobody tells you, the best promotional campaigns start at least three months before the launch (that’s when reviewers see it and many books are nominated for literary awards). So you want your publisher to provide plenty of advance reader copies (ARCs) three months in advance, and you want to have a professional publicist with an action plan so that both of you can hit the ground running.

I have a client who is an author of business books. He hired me nearly a year in advance of his next book to position him by getting him guest author columns in business and management publications and getting him on editorial boards of trade organizations and publications so that he’ll have a bigger fan base when his book is available.

What should an author consider in choosing a publicist? What are the questions to ask? How else can the author make the best possible choice?

My clients generally come to me through word of mouth. Ask your successful author friends who they use and what their experience has been. Check with your agent and see if he or she has a suggestion. Do a web search using key words for what you want in a publicist or in a publicity campaign, and see what comes up. If there is a book that is similar to yours and has done well, research why it has done well and set out to have the same kind of campaign. Go to conferences and lectures when publicists are speaking, and see if what they say resonates with you and makes sense. If so, check them out, and then call them up to talk.

If they’re a good publicist, they won’t agree to work with you until they’ve gotten a copy of your book (or manuscript) for review. Make sure that the chemistry is good. Like all other kinds of work, you want to be sure the person you’ll be in contact with a lot is somebody that you feel comfortable with and like.

What advice do you have for writers trying to handle their own publicity/media relations?

There are so many things you can do! Understand that in today’s economic atmosphere, publishing companies aren’t sending authors on limousine and caviar book tours any more. That advance you got is for you to use in part to market and promote your own book.

Easy, painless ways to promote:

• Ask your local bookstore (preferably an independent store – they tend to hand-sell books they like) to have a “launch party” for you where you read from your book and answer questions.

• Invite all your friends, colleagues, and neighbors to come help you celebrate the launch of your book at the reading. Send postcards, email–mail invitations if you like. If your book has a hook, use it! Susan Gregg Gilmore and I have eaten our weight in Dilly Bars from Dairy Queen in the past year promoting her book! Serve food that goes with your book.

• Be sure to let the local media know ahead of time that you’re doing this.

• Have somebody take photos that night and send them to the newspaper if nobody from the paper shows up. Put them on your blog and/or website. Yes, you do need a website to promote no matter what!

• Find out what local literary festivals are within driving range and apply to them (if you have a book trailer, email that to the head of the festival as an entertaining way to introduce yourself and your book).

• Whenever you travel anywhere, check out the bookstores before you go, call and let them know you’ll be in the area and would love to stop by and sign copies of your book while you’re there–that ensures better placement of your book in the store and that the bookstores will order your books.

• If you belong to Jacketflap, Facebook, LinkedIn, or another social networking site, be sure to promote the launch of your book there and give updates periodically.

• Know that the day after your book comes out it is “old” news to reviewers. Reviewers want to get an advance copy before it’s available in stores.

• Be nice, be friendly, have patience, do all you can to make it easy, fun, and pleasant for booksellers you meet to sell your book! Booksellers who hand-sell your book (tell customers how much they like the book and you) are your best friends!

Are you interested in speaking to writer groups?

Absolutely! I love to talk to writer groups. I find that writers often get inspired realizing that there is a whole, fun, exciting phase beyond the day they see their book in print for the first time. Ron Hogan, who is one of the geniuses behind Media Bistro: GalleyCat, and I will be doing some presentations together later this year.

How can people get in touch with you?

I can be reached at or by calling 615.476.1367.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

A warning: Understand completely the difference between being published by a small independent or major publishing house and a self-publishing or vanity press and what some of the challenges with self-publishing are.

I’m always saddened when people come to me after they’ve self-published, not realizing how that will affect their ability to get their books in bookstores and how it will affect their ability to promote their books.

The lines are blurring, but there are advantages by holding out, doing the editing an agent tells you to do and getting published by a publisher that offers you a contract that pays you. You don’t pay the publisher.

If you’re reading this blog, this means you’re already a fan of Cynthia’s. But, know that she is the gold standard of what a person in the business of books should be. She’s generous in helping others, she works endlessly, and is beloved by her fans of all ages because of her generous spirit. So, if you get published, pay attention to what Cynthia does to mentor others, and give writers behind you the same kind of hand to climb up the ladder too.

Thank you so much, Cynthia for giving me this opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned with all of your fans! It has been a real honor!

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