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TYOH Q&A: Jenna Illies

ECW publicist Jenna Illies talks about why having a social media presence is important, how she lost faith in an author after a Twitter "freak-out", and why she likes social media contests that require creativity.

Tell us about yourself. 
I’ve been a publicist at ECW Press for two years, and I’m also currently doing some pro bono publicity for Bare It For Books, a calendar featuring nearly naked Canadian authors that is being sold to raise money and awareness for PEN Canada. I’ve been working on the publicity side of the publishing industry for the past 5 years. I live in Toronto, about a 2-minute walk from Type Books’ Queen West location.
How important is it that an author has a presence on social media?
I think it’s important in several ways. An author’s social media presence is something that editorial departments research when they consider signing up a book. It can be an effective way to gauge the potential audience for the book, and it can be indicative of an author’s willingness to engage with his or her readers. 

In terms of promotion, having even a small social media presence can certainly be an asset for an author. Even if you don’t have 50 000 Twitter followers, it can still be helpful to spread news about your book to people like your extended family members, or old friends that keep tabs on you via Facebook. They might be thrilled to learn about your new book, buy three copies of it, and then tell all of their Facebook friends to check it out. The number one way that people learn about books is through word of mouth, and social media is an excellent way to reach people. 

How much work do you expect an author to do to promote him or herself?
When it comes to social media, it really depends on the author, and what they feel comfortable with. At ECW we have our authors fill out a questionnaire when their book gets signed up, to provide us with lots of different kinds of information about them, including their experience and comfort level with social media. We also provide authors with a package full of tips on how to effectively promote their book via social media, and how to raise their personal profile online. 

Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of authors who love the promotional aspects of publishing a book, as well as some who much prefer to leave it to the sales and marketing department. Sometimes it makes sense for an author to do some of the promotional outreach for his or her book on their own, especially if they are really well connected in a specific field of expertise, because they know the best doors to knock on. I really love working with authors who are enthusiastic about the publicity process, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to collaborate with a lot of great people on really fun and successful publicity campaigns.

Don’t most writers tend to be introverts? And doesn’t this make it difficult for them to market themselves?
I actually think that’s a big misconception. I know many writers who are extremely extroverted. I also believe that extroverts can be equally as uncomfortable as introverts when it comes to self promotion. At any rate, I think at some point authors who are wary of marketing themselves find they have to accept that if you’re going to publish a book, and you want it to be successful, you’re going to have to wander outside of your comfort zone in the way of making promotional efforts.

What do you do when you have a writer who has no presence on social media or the web?
If an author is not willing to learn how to participate in social media, we can still post reviews and interviews and such from our ECW Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as on our website. We do that for all of our authors, anyway. Also, even our most social media-savvy authors still do more traditional offline stuff to promote their books. Book publicity is not completely internet-based. 

What is your favourite social media tool for promotion and why?
I like Twitter and Facebook contests that require some creativity and effort on the part of the participant. Not like “RT to win a copy of X book,” but rather like “Post a photo of your cat reading an ECW book to win a copy of X book!” We do fun contests very often at ECW. Sometimes they are planned around special occasions, like Valentine’s Day, and other times they are spontaneous, and based on something funny that someone in the office happened to say. It’s a nice way to engage our readers, and they also get a little glimpse of how much fun it is to work here. 

How important is it for an author to do a book tour these days? 
It depends. Sometimes it’s a great idea to tour, like when authors have lots of personal and professional contacts in several cities, for example. If a Toronto-based, Winnipeg-raised author still has friends and family there, and the good folks at McNally Robinson are interested in hosting an event for the book, it makes sense to send them there, and to line up some media interviews for them to do while they’re in town. 

I think it probably goes without saying that bestselling authors with a very high profile can most likely carry an event in any city, regardless of whether or not they have connections there. However, less established authors might be dismayed to find themselves far away from home, reading to two people in a bookstore. It’s important for authors and publishers to be realistic about the costs and benefits of touring. 

Is there any such thing as too much publicity or bad publicity for a writer? (Think the Lindsay Lohan of the literary world…)
Social media is not for everyone. I was a huge Alice Hoffman fan as a teenager, and I was totally appalled at her Twitter freak-out over a bad review a few years back. I sincerely doubt that her publicist considered that episode to be good publicity. I haven’t bought an Alice Hoffman book since then, so she lost at least one reader as a result of that controversy! 

What do you like best about being a publicist? 
I always marvel at how I had no idea that my job was a job when I was a kid. If I went back in time and told my 16 year-old self that I would some day make a living talking about books, writing press releases, working with authors and the media, reading books long before they are published, and planning and attending parties, I would blow young Jenna’s mind. Of course, my job is way less glamorous than it sounds… most of the time. 

You can follow Jenna at @jennaillies and @ecwpress. Her colleague Sarah Dunn is a reader for our upcoming Twitter challenge. 

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