The Book Publicity Blog

News, Tips, Trends and Miscellany for Book Publicists

Advertising vs. publicity

Yesterday I received a message from someone who sells advertising for a website.  It seems she was peeved because I had arranged an author interview with her website, yet she was unable to get a return phone call from our advertising / promotions department.  (It didn’t help matters when she spotted an ad for the book in question on a competitor’s website.)  Generally speaking, I realize a lack of a response can be frustrating — although I must say I’ve encountered a handful of people who have never responded to a single phone call / email in my 10 years  as a book publicist — but in this particular case, it seemed to me there was a hint of quid pro quo.  I responded, explaining that since publicity and ad / promo work independently of each other, I had no influence over the decisions of that department.

It’s like church and state.

The main difference between public relations / publicity and advertising is that — while we’re both promoting a product — in PR, we don’t pay to play.   No money changes hands and as a result, we’re never guaranteed coverage.  Journalists make their own decisions about what to cover based on what’s newsworthy and / or what would be of interest to their audience.  As publicists, our job is to inform — and to persuade as best we can — but we never “buy” coverage.  Likewise, we may advertise a book in a newspaper, but the paper is under no obligation to run a review (or run a positive review) of said book.

Journalists, for their part, are siloed from their advertising departments.  Because their coverage should always be neutral to all parties — and because it should always appear to be neutral — their work must be conducted independently from that of their revenue-generating colleagues.  Church and state.

Yesterday’s article in The New York Times, Magazines Blur Line Between Ad and Article, discussed the boundaries between edit and advertising.  Specifically, reporter Stephanie Clifford talked about how some publications — attempting to stave off the dire financial straits that have stricken so many peers — go to extremes to sell advertising, including placing ads on covers.  ASME, the American Society of Magazine Editors, prohibits cover ads for ethical reasons, and magazines that run such ads are ineligible for the National Magazine Awards.  (It might be argued, though, that the prestige of a National Magazine Award is small consolation for bankruptcy.)  More debate this morning: Variety reports that today’s Los Angeles Times features a fake A1 news story as part of an ad campaign for the new cop show Southland.

The implication for us as authors, book publicists and others interested in books and publishing?  There should never be an expectation that an advertisement will pave the way for coverage (or vice versa — that coverage will lead to an ad).  That would be unethical.


April 9, 2009 - Posted by | Advertising, Miscellaneous |


  1. When I was in the music industry doing PR in the early 90’s, there was a plethora of indie rap mags. These mags had to navigate these waters carefully. Everyone wanted an ad from my label as it was a big endorsement of being a player in the game. I had no problems pitching my “good” artists to the editors of these mags. The label prez rarely had to flex her muscle and demand quid pro quo. But when I had to pitch one of our “lesser known” artists and got resistance, I never thought it was fair for me to throw the ad card in their face. And they were scared that I would. I read their mags and knew what they were trying to achieve editorially. I respected that. Indie publishing was tough even in the 90’s when money was flowing. I always thought it was my job to debate the merits of each individual artist and how it relates to the editorial direction of the publication. I didn’t strong-arm. I was young and there was a purity of church and state that I really felt was important to the reader/audience of each media outlet.
    Maybe that’s why I didn’t last as long as I wanted in the music industry.

    (BTW, good job being quoted in NY Times last week).

    Comment by Bryan R. Adams | April 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Even in advertising, a bad review can bring you a positive
    outlook. When “The Deer Park” by Norman Mailer was published, the
    book was not doing so well as his previous works, so he had a plan.
    While working with the Village Voice as an editor, he plugged his own
    book, giving it horrible reviews. Readers in turn wondered, it can’t be all
    that bad of a read, therefore pushed many readers, including myself,
    to go buy the book. It won a Pulitzer that year.

    Comment by Jerode King | April 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. I think the sad reality is that the line between editorial and “advertorial” is becoming blurrier than ever, but it has always existed. Years ago the editor of a well known industry trade publication described them as “the most unbiased coverage money can buy”. I was basically told that if my clients advertised, there was a greater degree of certain that their books would be reviewed. Now, I want to be clear, they were not (and did not) selling positive reviews in return for ad revenue. Your book still got priased or panned based on the merit of the content, but it did imply that “greasy wheels” (publishers who advertised) were potentially getting more editorial consideration than publishers who didn’t.

    The real issue I have with the concept of ad vs. edit is that it puts pbublcists in a position of having to “justify” their roles and — for those of us who are outside publishing houses — our fees to authors. Why should they hire a publicists if they can just buy exposure? It’s tough to make some authors understand that advertising is like a snapshot in the minds of consumers/readers. Here today and often gone in the blink of any eye. Nor does advertorial look to build upon itself startegically the way p.r. does.

    My fear is that the incidence of as you put it “pay for play” will continue to increase as traditional media sources decrease, and that as more of us turn to the net as our primary source of p.r. exposure, websites will begin to expect the one in return for the other.

    Comment by Meg McAllister | April 9, 2009 | Reply

  4. I’m glad to understand the difference between advertising and Publicity. As a Vice president of Dimension-f a Non-profit organization, I understand that If the organization was controlling was what being said and where they wanted it placed that is advertising. If the advertising is being done by a non profit organization to raise awareness about a specific issue that is a public service announcement and is often provided free of charge.

    Comment by Richard Bumba | December 10, 2009 | Reply

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