I recently saw an author congratulate himself on his “nonpromoted” #1 Amazon bestselling book. He said there was no marketing, no advertising, and no PR. This seems to me like a Clinton-era “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is” moment.

I can nearly guarantee that no book reaches #1 without some kind of promotional activity. If the definition of nonpromoted includes the author getting all of his or her family and friends to buy a book en masse, then, sure, that book hasn’t benefited from any PR. Most book publicists employ logic-based tactics like that as part of publicity campaigns. These may be activities authors don’t pay for, but that doesn’t mean they’re not coordinated book promotion. “Free” efforts take place as part of every campaign, and any good literary PR team should guide authors toward reasonable unpaid practices to promote their books, as well as paid services experts can provide.

Optimizing a book on the Amazon platform (selecting proper keywords, making sure the listing looks industry standard) is marketing activity in itself. Amazon provides some free support in this regard when a book launches, so if authors are working with Amazon, they’ve automatically done some amount of PR. Again, this might not be something an author necessarily outright pays for, but it’s still a promotional effort.

So why get myself into a tizzy over some author claiming that his book is magical and that he’s grateful for his miracle moment? Because this sets a dangerous precedent for hard-working authors who need PR guidance. There are millions of books published each year, and most do not get much media attention without publicity and marketing efforts. These campaigns range in scale and goals and can be accomplished independently by the authors, by publishers, or by private PR professionals. But the important piece to note is that hard work goes into getting books on the reading public’s radar.

It may additionally be observed that sometimes the best PR plan in the world won’t get a book to budge on the charts. Book publicity is not necessarily measured in sales results; sometimes it is more about a long-tail marketing effort.

I worry that a story like this might convince authors with wonderful chances of legitimate media exposure—given the right effort—to risk a dangerous media silence on their books’ birthdays. Many first-time authors do not understand the crucial timelines associated with planning book launches, and they may not be able to wait until after pub day to begin work on the publicity and marketing for their titles.

Bestsellers don’t typically happen overnight to authors who don’t lift a finger, and presenting any book to have done so discredits the hardworking team that actually positioned the book that way. That “team” may be only the author himself, but even a self-implemented PR strategy is something to be celebrated. It’s true that time is money—and an author’s time spent in promotional activity is very valuable, even if it didn’t come with an outside price tag.

Authors who come to the publishing table with knowledge in advance of how marketing works have an advantage. Perhaps our smug #1 truly felt he hadn’t done any PR because he’s so high on the learning curve. The PR playing field isn’t level for authors—anyone presenting as if everything is a breeze may indeed feel that way, but the writer with less marketing savvy will not have that same ease in promoting his or her book and will need to take the time to self-educate or to pay for those services.

Allowing the writing to speak for itself is a noble aspiration but an ill-advised business strategy. Working out a plan for releasing a new book that respects the author’s time and financial means is an important part of the publishing process that needs to be done in advance.

Let’s leave off the myth making before more authors end up with too little attention, too late. If authors reach that coveted #1 spot, kudos to them—but they should be honest about how they got there.

Sara Wigal is the senior manager of JKS Communications, a literary publicity firm.

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