Joe Pickering is a Publicity Director at Random House UK, in charge of the Jonathan Cape and Bodley Head imprints. With a mega Twitter following (@Joethepublicist) and an enviable list of esteemed writers under his wing, we pick Joe’s brains for industry know-how and find out about the road to publicity stardom…
1. You deal with amazing authors like Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe and Ian McEwan… did you always want to be in such a role? And how did you get there?
I didn’t always want to be doing what I’m doing, mainly because I didn’t know the role existed. I knew I wanted to work in books but didn’t have a clue how to go about it or what was out there. I think most people wondering about a career in publishing don’t know what roles there are beyond the author, editor and possibly agent.
After university I worked for around two years in a Waterstones and it was only because we did lots of events that I found out about what publicists did. The events organiser put me in touch with a couple, I called them, got a placement and, because I’m from central London and was living at home, was able to do it for a bit until a job came up. Work experience isn’t perfect but it can lead to a job. I was grateful for office experience, to be honest, and was geekily excited about sending out mail to people like JM Coetzee and Philip Roth.
2. What has been your favourite publicity campaign to work on and why?
Probably David Vann’s novel-in-stories Legend of a Suicide. It was early on in my time at Penguin. It was bought for little money and was a strange, difficult format. It was a debut from an unknown writer and it was short stories (kind of). Stories don’t sell and it had ‘suicide’ in the title. But the editor and I thought it was stone-cold masterpiece so I worked for around a year to get it the coverage I thought it deserved. Now David Vann is fairly established and I think a lot of it is to do with the work we did on Legend of a Suicide. I genuinely believe it will be recognised as one of the best books of the last decade so it’s great to have been involved in helping get it out there.
3. With so many publishing people active on social media, where do you think the line is drawn in terms of the publicity team’s responsibility and a more general collaborative effort to promote books?
I don’t think there is a line and I think everyone needs to see it as their job to promote books; publicity is changing and we need to work out new ways of doing our job, even if that means crossing over into areas that wouldn’t traditionally fall under our banner. The old spaces that books used to appear in – print and radio, mainly – have shrunk and shrunk to the point where it’s depressing. But I don’t believe the readers have disappeared. Drawing a line where we say ‘You do this and I do this: don’t cross the streams’ would be foolhardy and prevent creativity and ideas from happening.
4. Do publicity have a say in the acquisitions process? Are the authors willing to do lots of publicity the ones who are more likely to be selected?
Yes, we do. We read submissions and offer opinions, both on the strength of the book (first and foremost) and then on what we think the media opportunities are. We’d make a judgment on that before we dealt with the author in any way, especially for a debut. But we have a responsibility to think how much publicity we’d be able to get for a book, and what kind.
5. How do you deal with negative publicity?
It depends what it is. You can’t do much about a bad review and while the temptation is to email the paper or reviewer in capitals and expletives, it wouldn’t do us in publicity much good. Publishers generally seem to be getting a bad rep, especially the big ones. I think the changing face of things – digital, self-publishing, price – is making people question what these previously closed-off organisations do and offer. We have to continue to publish good books, do it well, and show that we give added value to what our authors produce.
6. Finally, can you tell us (honestly!) how much time you spend on Twitter each day?
Not that much! I think. It depends. Sometimes I get on a roll and will tweet a lot in one go. I check it a lot but sometimes can’t think of anything to say. And then I’ll see something interesting, like a nice bit of marketing or design and will put that up there. Or feel the need to say something about shoes. People have an idea that I’m on there 24/7 but I don’t think it’s the case. I don’t think it’s the case…