Abbie Headon is Commissioning Editor at Prelude Books, and also writes and edits books as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She is a 2018 Bookseller Rising Star and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board.
A couple of months ago we gathered at The Driver in London to hear a panel of experts debate one of the thorniest questions in publishing: ‘Are authors, reviewers and publicists wasting their time on book coverage?’
If you’ve worked in the industry for any length of time, you’ll know just how much work is involved in getting coverage for books, whether in the form of reviews, features or interviews, in the press, on radio and TV, on podcasts and on blogs – and you’ll almost certainly have stories to tell about books that had amazing coverage and disappointing sales, or vice versa. In short, if we knew what worked, we’d be doing it, and we’d never waste our publicity budgets on campaigns that flop ever again. So it was with eager ears we gathered to hear an expert BookMachine TLS panel on this very subject last Wednesday. Chair Michael Caines of the TLS introduced Sarah Braybrooke, MD of independent publisher Scribe, Nicholas Clee, Joint Editor of BookBrunch, and Marion Rankine, freelance writer and bookseller and author of Brolliology, to shed some light on the mysterious world of book publicity.
Learning from experience
Sarah Braybrooke started the evening’s presentations by outlining several examples from her own experience at Scribe. As she explained, it’s very hard to reach any concrete conclusions about what works and what doesn’t, but for books that are successful it’s possible to trace what it was that made them successful.
Sometimes the magic lies in presenting a topic that’s important, even if it’s not obviously going to be popular. The 2016 novel You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life, by Andrew Hankinson, retells the story of murderer Raoul Moat, using his own words, and paints an intense picture of a violent breakdown from the inside. It received good coverage, because journalists could understand what the author was trying to achieve, and they responded well even if they found the book problematic. Sales weren’t overwhelming but they were satisfactory: the book found its audience, which is the goal.
Sometimes a book can have everything going for it but fail to achieve its full potential. The history title 1947: When Now Begins, by Elisabeth Åsbrink, was published in 2017, in the sixtieth anniversary of a year that changed the world, but despite an author tour and a publicity campaign, it didn’t manage to grab the public’s attention. It’s hard to know what hindered its success: perhaps the publication month or the subject category it was put in to.
Finally, sometimes a book can take you by surprise with unexpected viral success. Gut, by Giulia Enders, had been acquired from a young German writer, before the publisher had read any of it in English, and the subtitle of ‘the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ’ might not seem like a crowd-pleaser, so it didn’t seem destined for success. However, Sarah was able to set up an interview with Annalisa Barbieri in The Guardian that found the perfect angle on the subject: why we’re pooing wrong. The headline went viral and the book took off, becoming a Waterstones bestseller. It’s a great example of the alchemy that can happen when publicity meets opportunity combined with a dash of good luck.
The importance of prizes
Since joining The Bookseller in 1984, Nicholas Clee has seen book coverage remain strong but he’s observed that book prizes are increasingly dominating the available airtime. This has created a climate where publishers feel under pressure to produce exceptionally strong publicity campaigns for lead titles in order to be sure of claiming their share of the limelight. As a result, it’s not only between rival publishing houses that publicity battles are fought: even within a publisher’s own list there are winners and losers, with the winners taking the lion’s share of the promotional budget.
Nicholas explained that among a plethora of prizes, the Booker still dominates, and if you publish literary fiction but fail to be recognised on the lists of any of the major prizes, it can be hard to get any press attention, because coverage is so focused on prizes now.
There are limitations to prize entry, of course, both in terms of entry fees and restrictions on how many titles each imprint can submit, but on top of these there are more intangible factors that can weaken a book’s chances of succeeding in the prize arena. Changing fashions in the literary world are reflected in panels’ decisions: genres such as quiet domestic fiction and social satire, and books written in regional and working-class voices, are sometimes regarded as not expansive, daring ambitious or enough to merit the recognition of prizes. As a result, if you’re not publishing what’s deemed to be important by prize panels, you’ll face a tougher challenge getting coverage for your titles.
What we can learn from booksellers
When Marion Rankine started working in bookselling, there was a lot of discussion about the impact of ebooks on the print book market. Many people feared that with their low prices and instant accessibility, ebooks might lead to the demise of print books, but publishers really stepped up their game in response to this prospect and invested in making books into beautiful objects, as a glance around any bookshop will instantly reveal.
The information source many of us rely on to guide our publishing decisions is Nielsen BookScan, which provides up-to-date sales data on titles sold through bookshops. Before this was available, publishers would tend to invest in an author for life, with only limited information on the success of each title, but Nielsen data provided direct from booksellers empowered publishers to make decisions based on real numbers. This gave them the ability to distinguish between titles that succeeded in the press and titles that sold enough copies to achieve financial success.
In her work as a bookseller, Marion has felt the tug of competing motivations: on the one hand, there are the books that interest her, while on the other, there are the undeniable commercial successes. As well as guiding publishers by providing the data that helps them make good decisions in future, booksellers can also make a real impact in the here and now. Because they read widely and want the books they love to succeed, bookselling staff can ‘stage an intervention’ when a book isn’t getting the attention they think it deserves, for example with a Staff Pick or a table display. And although steps like these may seem small, they can end up having a ripple effect and impacting the whole country.
If you think this event sounds interesting (of course you do!), you can find out about upcoming BookMachine Unplugged events here.