Ana McLaughlin has worked in Publicity at Random House, Kyle Books and Michael O’Mara Books and is now working in arts and books PR at Sarah Harrison PR (@Anabooks / @SarahHarrisonPR / www.sarahharrisonpr.com )
I gave this piece a deliberately controversial title, and one I think many in the industry will disagree with. (Let’s talk about it – after all, publicists love to talk!) Book PRs get a fairly terrible press – ironically. Roger Lewis’s Anthony Burgess talks about ‘those flotillas of 24-year-old publicity handmaidens who laugh at your jokes but whom you’ll never in a million years get to fuck because they have fiancés in marine reinsurance or coffee futures in the City who all look like Jeremy Northam’. (Drat, I must have been so busy honing my showcard-making skills that I managed to miss the wealthy spouse queue…) It’s a line that beautifully conveys the fallacious ideas about publicists still cherished by certain sections of the industry and the wider world: that we are all young, female, a bit posh, slightly dim and more ornament than use.
What Publicity contribute to a book’s publication is sometimes hard to quantify. Although it’s now possible to watch a title rocket up the online bestseller list in the hour after an author’s television appearance, it’s impossible for every bookseller to enquire whether it was that article or level of social media buzz that finally drove that customer, that day, to pick up that book and part with their hard-earned cash for it. However, even a cursory glance at any media outlet – from commentators on Newsnight to articles about dating disasters in women’s magazines – reveals just how hard, and how endlessly inventively, book PRs are working to bring their offerings to readers’ attention.
Despite smaller budgets (and, let’s not forget, wage packets) than mainstream PR, literary publicists manage to dominate an ever-evolving media landscape. Oh, is there a hot new place to chat as of this morning? Be it Fumblr, Spinterest or Chunter*, we know about it, and we’re there, making sure books are part of the conversation. If it ever was, it’s no longer enough to lunch the few remaining literary editors. Today’s publicist is talking to features, news, comment, business, lifestyle and education editors as well as the arts pages, to news agencies and regional press, to producers across broadcast media and events organisers, to whoever’s making noise anywhere online and to specialist publications from Your Cat to Vintage Tractor Magazine. What is often not obvious is that for every piece of coverage secured, a publicist has typically pitched for at least a few dozen others that haven’t taken the bait. Like swans, there’s an awful lot of unseen activity happening beneath the serene surface (and though gentle arm-twisting may be required, the rumours about arm-breaking are similarly unfounded).
A good publicist reads the book from cover to cover, sniffing out feature angles, anniversaries that might provide a press hook and locations that might provide regional coverage. They’ll tease out personal stories from the author to feed into the campaign – something that requires tact as well as a sharp eye – and exploiting every avenue, partnership possibility and contact. Beyond simply suggesting treatments, we write articles and posts, compose quizzes and abridge extracts. It does mean that an experienced publicist will be a mine of information on esoteric subjects and related media – mine include the Treaty of Versailles, James Bond, gluten intolerance and children’s character Mr Benn – and an asset to your pub quiz team. (Also, we like pubs.) Writing snappy pitches and headlines tailored to every outlet, offering contacts something exclusive that will pique the interest of their unique audience and juggling the campaign when everyone wants to run the shiny new story first are all part of the process.
In the course of fifteen years working in Publicity, I have dragooned my long-suffering colleagues into dressing up (as everything from corpses to campaigners for ‘ginger rights’), marshalled a few hundred over-excited schoolchildren queueing to meet John Barrowman, carried a box of slowly defrosting grouse carcasses to Crewe for a Telegraph feature on game cookery, hidden meerkat toys around Dulwich, minded an author’s baby in This Morning’s Green Room, read out my teenage diary to a packed pub, appeared on national radio discussing book clubs with insomniac callers at 2am and spent a few happy hours colouring in. For Publicity, the book is only the jumping off point for all the ways in which we can bring it to the attention of those who will love it, and that’s why I believe it’s the department with the most scope and requirement for creativity.
For anyone looking for a career that’s always surprising, in which you’ll hit the ground running and never slow down, I can’t recommend the Publicity department highly enough. And for everyone else in the industry, please be patient when we’re pumping you for information, pressing a proof into your paws or demanding that you don a Regency bonnet to pose for our latest madcap social media campaign. We’re just addicted to making a lot of noise about the things that brought us all into this quirky, vibrant little world – books and reading – and we’re competing with too much other noise out there to lower our voices.
*You heard it here first. I’m especially looking forward to Chunter.
Publicists! Tell us the oddest things you’ve done in the course of your duties on Twitter: #AsaPR.