By Chris Artis
A book publicist is only as good as his or her Rolodex. That was one of the first things I learned nearly two decades ago, when I was an assistant in a two-person publicity department in a small New York publishing house. My boss’s Rolodex was large and overstuffed with the business cards of editors, reporters, and producers, all of whom he’d developed professional relationships with during the course of his career. It sat next to his phone on an otherwise pristine — and yes, computerless! — desk. His Rolodex was a totem to what he’d achieved, as well as an essential tool that he relied on to do business.
Likewise, a publishing house’s publicity department is only as good as its List, that is, its shared media list. Like a massive Rolodex, the List includes contacts crucial to a book publicist on a daily basis — book editors at daily newspapers, guest bookers at the network morning shows, dozens of NPR producers. But it also has more esoteric contacts — a pets reporter in Dayton, Ohio, or a cooking segment producer at a local TV show in Portland, Maine. While you may only call on these people once a year, or even once a career, they number in the tens of thousands and deleting them is not an option.
Organizing such a large volume of data is a huge challenge and until recently, most methods were charmingly analog. When I started out, we kept the List typewritten on many pages of paper, formatted so they could be copied on sheets of labels for review copy mailings. When a contact changed, I’d break out the White Out and type the correction. Later we crawled into the digital age and input our List into a primitive DOS database kept on the single company-shared computer. The many keystrokes it took to call up one record begged the question: was the typewritten List actually a better system?
In the early 90s I got a new boss who knew about a program, Publicity Assistant, written specifically to organize the media lists of book publishing publicity departments. The program’s developer, Peter Grand, showed us how Publicity Assistant could slice and dice the List. With just a few commands we could call up contacts by category, geographic region, media type, and combinations thereof. No more sorting through reams of paper or photocopying labels. No more White Out and retyping. It was a revelation.
All of these years later, Publicity Assistant — considerably updated from early iterations — continues to be used by many publishers. Others use database programs such as Filemaker, or have custom-made systems designed by the in-house IT department. I polled publicists, hoping to establish a consensus on a favorite, but I found that feelings remain decidedly mixed.
Tanya Farrell, Associate Publisher and VP of Publicity at Picador, told me “Peter Grand is a computer genius” but also added that sometimes “his vision of what we need differs somewhat from our actual needs.” Another publicist told me she preferred Simon and Schuster’s proprietary Publicity Module program over the “clunky” Publicity Assistant. Still, another publicist who has used both Random House’s in-house Publicity Workbench and Filemaker in past jobs is now using Publicity Assistant and likes it.
However, particularly among independent PR professionals, I found a growing enthusiasm for online products, such as those offered by Cision. Best known for its popular Bacon’s media lists, the company now has Cisionpoint, a subscription web based program that not only acts as the data source, but organizes that information in the customizable and user-friendly way and eliminates the need for a separate database program. The users I spoke with predict that this integrated system is the wave of the future.
While there’s no consensus on databases, everyone agrees that technology has made information retrieval a snap. Still, the publicists I speak with have never felt more disconnected from journalism. Publicity departments, once a beehive of phone chatter, now are mostly quiet, save for the sounds of publicists pecking away, composing emails at the request of overworked journalists who don’t have time to talk. A columnist for a major daily newspaper recently asked me during an email exchange if I was a man or woman. I’d worked with this person for years but it was only then that I realized we’d never once spoken. Chances for lunches, drinks, coffee — any face-to-face meeting — are increasingly rare. That’s a shame because those are the opportunities to make a connection, to get the business card and to build the Rolodex. They can’t be bought from a company selling media lists or sorted in a computer.
I still have the Rolodex I ordered on my first day of work so many years ago and carried with me from job to job. It’s overstuffed and still on my desk, but now it’s more of a relic. I pull out several cards and see that some people have moved companies several times and while some I’ve lost track of altogether. Many cards don’t even have an email address. I’m not worried about the outdated information, though. If I need it I probably have the updated info in Outlook. Or I can check Cision. Or maybe I’ll just Google it.
Chris Artis has worked in publicity departments at several publishers including Random House, John Wiley & Sons and Avon Books. He is currently working freelance.
CONTACT: Chris Artis