In the summer of 2019, I was gearing up for my book launch the following January. After years of trying to get my memoir, When Force Meets Fate, published by a big publisher, I decided to take a hybrid approach and publish the book through Inkshares, an indie publisher.
After selling more than 750 pre-orders, Inkshares agreed to publish the book just like a big publisher (editing, cover design, typesetting, etc.), albeit with a much smaller print run.
Once Inkshares and I finished the editing and book design, we began talking about a marketing campaign for the book. At one time, Inkshares had an in-house marketing team. But with the pandemic and economic-downturn, they had downsized, offering almost no marketing besides some advanced reader copies.
Realizing this, I decided that I needed to hire a publicist. My memoir was far too important to me to let it languish in publishing obscurity.
Searching For A Publicist
I contacted dozens, and I mean DOZENS (maybe even a hundred) publicists, asking if they would be interested in representing my memoir. To my surprise, most of them either didn’t reply or felt they couldn’t properly represent the book to the media.
Eventually, I did get a few publicists who were interested in representing my book, but I was stunned by how much they charged.
The first was a fairly well-known publicist, who expressed genuine interest in my book. The story really resonated with him. I had a good feeling about this publicist. He had promoted New York Times bestsellers, and his Twitter feed was full of tweets by editors at major publishing houses, praising his clients and his good taste in books. He also had an assistant who worked closely with his clients.
I was ready to sign up. Then he sent me his quote. His services would cost me more than $30,000. It was an insane amount of money (at least to me). I wasn’t sure how much I could afford for sure, but I knew it wasn’t $30,000.
I got two more quotes. One was from a publicist who had represented a book written by someone who had been on the same Netflix show as me (if you know, you know). I thought that was a good sign, until the publicist told me that she couldn’t remember her clients’ names. And then she emailed me a quote intended for someone else.
She wasn’t the best, it seemed, but she was the most affordable, quoting me a price of a few thousand dollars (more if she got my book national media attention).
The third publicist had been featured on The Moth (or one of those popular podcasts), and he had gotten his clients featured in major publications, like The New York Times. But he charged more than $10,000, which I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford either.
So there I was, stuck picking between a subpar publicist and good ones that I couldn’t afford. I didn’t like my options, so I tried one more idea.
Picking The Wrong Publicist
A few years earlier, I had read an article about Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, a book that Genova had self-published and enlisted the help of a family-owned book publicity company called Kelley and Hall.
The main publicist at Kelley and Hall (let’s call her Ashlyn), had supposedly helped Lisa Genova get a traditional book deal, a spot on the New York Times best seller’s list, and eventually a film adaptation of her book.
I wanted all of those things for my book, so I contacted Ashlyn at Kelley and Hall Book Publicity. She didn’t reply. I went back to considering my other options. Then, a week later, I decided to reach out to Kelley and Hall one more time, a choice I would come to regret.
Ashlyn returned my second email, saying that my first had ended up in her spam folder. After a few more emails back and forth, Kelley and Hall agreed to promote my book for two months with an option to extend the contract, if things went well.
Things didn’t go well.
For starters, I didn’t have the money to pay Kelley and Hall. I had to borrow it. Someone literally had to write Kelley and Hall a check for me. It wasn’t something I was proud of, but I wanted to give my book the best chance at succeeding in a competitive, crowded book market. And borrowing money was the only way I could do that.
Losing Borrowed Money
Once Kelley and Hall had the money, I emailed Ashlyn a signed contract, which explained that someone from the company (Ashlyn) would provide me with weekly progress updates during my book’s marketing campaign. It also said that, while there was no guarantee that my book would get any media coverage, Kelley and Hall would do their best to get it coverage.
After I signed up, Ashlyn was semi-attentive but often dismissive of my concerns about her timeline.
“In answer to your question about timeframe, we typically recommend starting at least 4 months before publication date,” she wrote in an email.
The problem was I had only signed up for two months, which meant Kelley and Hall would begin and finish promoting my book before its release date, leaving me without a publicist on the actual day the book was published.
Ashlyn assured me that everything would work out. But as the book’s release date got closer, something was off.
Ashlyn wasn’t returning my emails as quickly, or sometimes at all. When she did email me, it was often replying to a message from Inkshares. She had requested that Inkshares send several dozen advanced reader copies of the book to Kelley and Hall’s shipping department.
I assumed that meant she was working out of a large office building, but when I looked up the address of Kelley and Hall on Google, it showed a mansion with two Mercedes’ in the driveway, on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
When the advanced reader copies of the book arrived at the Kelley and Hall mansion, Ashlyn said that some of the pages in the books were blank. Inkshares offered to send her more copies, but she then retracted her statement, suggesting that only a couple copies had blank pages, and she would send out the good copies to media outlets. (We never found out what happened to those advanced reader copies.)
I began to really get concerned during the week before my book’s publication date because Ashlyn hadn’t gotten it any media attention, not even a brief mention on a blog. And even worse, she wasn’t responding to my emails. I didn’t have the time or energy to voice my dissatisfaction with Kelley and Hall, I had a book to promote.
Promoting The Book
I started by contacting every media outlet I could — every bookseller and librarian, every bookstagramer. And I actually did quite well considering I had zero PR experience.
I was able to get my book a full page feature in The Press Democrat, a Bay Area newspaper with a circulation of tens of thousands of readers. I also got the book mentioned in another newspaper in Rhode Island.
The best part was dozens of bookstagram accounts were posting reviews with creative photos featuring the book. It was wonderful to see how readers were responding to the book after I had put so much effort into it.
Once the early reviews were in, it was time for the actual release of the book. Hundreds of print copies and ebooks were being read by people around the world. I also released an audiobook, which was read by Chris McLinden, who had been in shows such as Boardwalk Empire.
The audiobook was costly (more borrowed money), but it was worth it. The audiobook allowed readers with illnesses and disabilities to listen to the book instead of struggling to read it conventionally.
What Did Kelley and Hall Do?
Kelley and Hall’s services were not as worthwhile as the audiobook. Not even close. The only coverage that Kelley and Hall got my book was on an obscure radio show for long-haul truckers, the relevance of which I’m still trying to figure out.
But it wasn’t even the lack of media coverage that I was upset about. It was the lack of communication. Ashlyn hadn’t bothered to acknowledge that my book had been published. She didn’t even send me a congratulatory email or a post on the Kelley and Hall social media accounts. Instead, she was posting about Oprah’s next book club pick.
Kelley and Hall didn’t provide weekly reports, as our contract stated they would. Kelley and Hall didn’t even put out a press release for my book. And worst of all, Ashlyn basically vanished.
Asking for a Refund
Once the dust settled following my book’s release, I sent Ashlyn several emails, asking for the money back. I explained that I was on a fixed disability income, and I had to borrow the money to pay her (money that I still haven’t paid back).
When she didn’t return my emails, my mom called Ashlyn several times without an answer or a returned phone call. I even reached out to Ashlyn’s sister and brother, who were both listed as employees on the Kelley and Hall website. They didn’t respond either. But my message must have gotten through to Ashlyn, because she finally returned my emails.
She said that I would not be getting a refund because she had checked with the owner of Kelley and Hall (I thought she was the owner), and the owner said that I would not be getting a refund. She reiterated that Kelley and Hall didn’t guarantee media coverage for their clients. It was as if Ashlyn believed that she and Kelley and Hall had done their jobs, even though they had done almost nothing.
“The news has been dominated by both politics and COVID,” Ashlyn wrote in an email. ”Jamison’s campaign ran from October 5, 2020 to December 5, 2020. Because this time period was during the apex of the election as well as Covid outbreaks reaching record proportions, the space for book coverage seemed to shrink even further. Yet throughout all of these extenuating circumstances, we were still able to garner reviews and interviews for Jamison.”
But that wasn’t true. Kelley and Hall hadn’t gotten reviews for my book. I had gotten reviews for my book. While Ashlyn wasn’t returning my calls and emails, I was contacting dozens, if not hundreds, of book bloggers and bookstagram accounts, as well as members of the chronic illness and disability communities to get reviews for my book.
Ashlyn was taking credit for all of my hard work, and I wasn’t happy about it.
As a consolation, she offered to give me an extra month of book promotion for free. But I could see through her offering. A free month of book promotion by Kelley and Hall would be fruitless — a worthless waste of time.
My Problem With Kelley and Hall
I’m not stupid. I knew a lack of media coverage was a possibility when I signed up with Kelley and Hall. My problem was that Ashlyn had disappeared in the middle of my book’s marketing campaign and publication, leaving me to promote it on my own.
It also seemed that Ashlyn hadn’t actually tried to promote the book, or at least that she hadn’t tried very hard. I had gotten my book media coverage without any PR experience. A seasoned PR professional like her should have been able to do much more than that.
But again, for me, the issue wasn’t so much the lack of media coverage, it was Ashlyn’s lack of respect and communication, and not fulfilling our contractual agreement.
I asked her for an accounting of the outreach that she had done for my book. She sent me a generic list of media outlets that she supposedly contacted, but the list included many off-topic publications like Dwell Magazine. (I wondered how she pitched a book about chronic illness and disability to an architecture and interior design magazine.)
The one email that I saw from Ashlyn’s outreach was actually sent by her brother. It had a very clunky, grammatically incorrect subject line with a misspelled word.
Piecing Everything Together
My guess is Ashlyn saw that I was not a high-profile author and my story was about a former bodybuilder, so she handed the outreach off to her brother, who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. But even if he did, the lack of communication and “weekly reports” was a breach of contract.
At this point, some time in early 2021, I asked my editor at Inkshares to get involved. She sent Ashlyn several strongly worded emails supporting me and asking for my money back. (Inkshares also took a hit on the advance copies that Ashlyn said had blank pages).
Ashlyn replied to my editor, giving her the same runaround about how media coverage isn’t guaranteed. My editor sent another email saying that it was the poor communication and lack of effort that was the issue, adding that Ashlyn was doing harm to her’s and Kelley and Hall’s reputation by treating us so poorly.
Looking for a Lawyer
Things settled down for a while after that. I knew it was very unlikely that I would get the money back. Some people told me to hire a lawyer, but I couldn’t afford that. For a long time, I tried to find one who would work pro bono. But each lawyer I talked to either told me that I didn’t have a case against Kelley and Hall or that they would have to charge me, which would likely only put me further in debt. One lawyer offered to send a letter for free to Kelley and Hall threatening litigation, but he never got around to it.
For the rest of 2021, I tried to put it out of my head. And had there not been money involved, I might have actually forgotten about it. I didn’t just incur the opportunity cost of not having a publicist to promote my book, I lost borrowed money. That may not have been a lot of money to someone with an oceanside mansion in Massachusetts, but to a disabled person living on a thousand-dollar monthly disability income, it was a lot of money — more than six months of my disability checks.
I decide that, at the very least, I was going to leave an honest review on Kelley & Hall’s Facebook page. But at some point they stopped showing reviews. Then, one day as I was scrolling through Twitter, I tapped on the Kelley & Hall account and found that it had been suspended. It didn’t say why, but something was definitely amiss.
So I contacted Victoria Strauss, who runs a publishing watchdog called Writer Beware. She said that she had gotten several other complaints about Kelley and Hall, one going back more than a decade. There had been a recent complaint as well.
She put me in touch with another author who had been through almost the exact same sequence of events after hiring Kelley & Hall. The author had suffered through similar issues, receiving little or no communication and media coverage. Luckily for that author, there was a banking mix-up and Ashlyn didn’t cash the check.
Trying to Move On
In the months since my bad experience with Ashlyn and Kelley and Hall, I’ve watched her collaborate with Oprah’s Book Club, Read With Jenna, and even speak with Amor Towles on The Today Show.
It was clear that she had moved on. But it’s easy to move on when you haven’t lost anything.
In general, publicists are in a position of power with a unique opportunity to do their job with little or no benefit and still get paid. In what other business does that exist? If you walk into a sandwich shop and the cashier hands you an empty bag, you are going to get a refund (and probably a free sandwich). A publicist doesn’t work like that. And while there are publicists with integrity, who clearly work hard for their money and get results, there are also publicists who use their unique position to their advantage, gaming the system and their clients.
I’ve obviously done a lot of thinking about this. I’ve tried not to beat myself up about losing more money than I make in six months. After all, I did my due diligence before signing up with Kelley & Hall. I scoured the internet for bad reviews. I looked up books the company had promoted in the past, and everything looked great. I had no reason to think Ashlyn was going to take my money and ghost me.
My theory is that Kelley and Hall does actually get its clients media coverage but only its big clients, best sellers — the Lisa Genovas of the publishing world. For the rest of us? The little fish? Kelley and Hall lures us in with the hope that we’ll be treated like the big fish, becoming best sellers in the process. But in reality, we never stood a chance. We never even got our foot in the door because Kelley and Hall was merely pretending to promote our books.
Is This The Status Quo?
Since Kelley and Hall wronged me, I’ve sometimes wondered if maybe it isn’t as bad as it seems. Maybe this happens to lots of people, and it’s just sort of the status quo in the publishing industry, especially for indie authors. And maybe there’s some truth to that, but that doesn’t make it right.
As I was writing this post, I did a Google search of Kelley and Hall, taking a deeper dive than the search I had done before I signed up with the company. Somewhere near the bottom of the search results, I found a post on a writing forum that proved, once again, that I was not alone.
In the end, I realize that things could have been worse. Far worse things have happened to me, and far worse things will happen to me in the future. All I lost was time, and energy, and a significant amount of money.
But it’s still hard to get past those losses. It’s hard to cope with the fact that there are people in the world like Ashlyn and entities like Kelley & Hall, who will accept money from a struggling, disabled author and do little or no work and have no qualms about it.
The biggest problem I have is that this kind of behavior is contagious. It makes people think that it’s okay to take money from people without giving them what they paid for. Perhaps that’s why people who have been wronged tend to pass it on, doing wrong onto others.
Finding the Good
It’s hard to find the good in a world full of Ashlyns and Kelley and Halls. But I guess that’s just what we have to do. We have to find good when faced with bad.
There will always be bad people, and they will always do bad things, but we can’t let them get us down. Dealing with them is just a cost of living a meaningful life, where good things exist just the same.
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