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Telling stories, selling books: what happens when marketing and publicity collide?

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

Wednesday 28 November saw the last of this year’s BookMachine Unplugged events, with a lively panel discussion on ‘Talking Marcomms: What happens when marketing and publicity collide?’

Organised by BookMachine Editorial Board members Julia Garvey (marketing) and Claire Maxwell (publicity), the event was hosted by BookMachine’s Suzanne Kavanagh, who introduced three experts in their fields: Sam Missingham (Founder, Lounge Books and Lounge Marketing); Veronique Norton (Publicity Director, Hodder & Stoughton); and Claire Morrison (Deputy Marketing Director, DK).

Fragmentation… or democratisation?

After Suzanne set the scene by explaining how marketing and publicity are defined, and how the boundary between these two fields has become blurred in recent years, Sam took us time-travelling to the Pre-Internet Age (which some of us remember well, though plenty of last night’s attendees were younger than the internet itself…).

Back in those analogue days, book publicity was dominated by a small number of print-based journalists who between them had a huge influence. Publicists relied on their relationships with these journalists to get coverage for their titles. With the rise of the internet, print media has declined significantly, and nowadays, achieving press coverage is only a primary aim for certain key titles. Sam explained that, as a result, it’s up to authors to support the marketing efforts for their books if they want to be successful.

Although it can seem daunting reaching your own audiences, the huge advantage of the online world is that it is packed with niche communities. Instead of trying to reach ‘all book lovers’, you can use the internet to find people who care passionately about the same stuff as you, and then talk directly to them. For example, one of Sam’s clients has a book called The Sewing Machine, and she’s going to approach not just book bloggers, but also crafting communities and craft retailers. As Sam pointed out, authors can bring a level of focus to book promotion that most publishers can’t, and the internet offers opportunities for authors to speak directly to specific niche audiences in a very powerful way.

Two households, both alike in dignity…

Veronique and Claire provided insights into the arguments for and against merging publicity and marketing into blended ‘Campaign Manager’-type roles, an increasingly common trend in our industry.

Having worked in publicity for over eleven years, Vero has seen many changes, but she still holds out for the value of separated publicity and marketing teams. For example, publicists can develop strong relationships with journalists, without being distracted by marketing-related tasks; having distinct teams enables people to play to their strengths. And although print media is a less important part of the mix than it once was, the huge growth of other platforms such as podcasts has given publicists great opportunities in terms of other ways to reach audiences – so there’s still plenty to keep them busy.

Claire agreed that in general it’s helpful to keep publicity and marketing teams separate, but there are cases where blurring the boundaries can be useful. At DK, one Campaign Manager covers the marketing and publicity roles for all travel guides: because this is such a clearly defined field, it makes sense for one person to handle all the contacts and promotion of the list. A general quirk of the DK list is that many of their books don’t have named authors, and it’s easier to combine the marketing and publicity roles for these books when author care isn’t part of the mix.

Massaging egos vs. measuring income

In the Q&As at the end of the session, the discussion kept circling back to the ultimate question: does any of this stuff actually sell books – and how can we measure this?

All the panellists agreed that posters on the London Underground (or on the side of a bus, as preferred by one successful author) are not an effective way to sell books. However, they are signals of prestige, and as such, they play a key role in author care and retention. With the possibility of having your prize author poached by a rival house, it makes sense to put in some effort to pampering their ego, even if you know that your online advertising campaign or brand partnership is going to be far more effective in terms of getting actual sales. Managing author expectations is vital, to ensure each author understands what you’re doing to promote their book, and why it’s going to be effective.

The eternal question of how much impact publicity campaigns actually have is becoming easier to answer thanks to online data. Vero gave an example of a book serialisation that The Sunday Times shared on its social platforms: users were drawn in by the promise of the serial and paid to subscribe to the ST expressly to read it. Claire highlighted the role of DK’s Data and Insights Team, who provide real-time analytics on how campaigns are working, so they can be tested and tweaked in order to get the best bang for DK’s buck.

Final takeaways: if you remember just one thing…

After naming the most useful social platforms for authors – Twitter, Instagram and Popjam (for children’s books) – our three panellists closed the evening by giving us one key skill that you need to thrive in the world of Marcomms.

Claire: Communication. You need to be able to communicate well with your colleagues, and not only over email. A quick chat in person can get everything done more quickly, and you can only collaborate and succeed if you can communicate.

Vero: Tenacity and diplomacy. You need to be focused on what you want in order to make your campaign a success, but at the same time you have to do this without driving people up the wall.

Sam: Hustle. “You don’t get if you don’t ask.” Remember that your boss does not always know better, and if you’re going to ask for something, go into the conversation assuming the other person is ready to say yes. Have ideas and make those ideas happen!

There’s not much I can add to these pithy words of advice except to say that you are warmly invited to the 2019 BookMachine Unplugged series – more news of this will be landing in the New Year! Till then, keep on hustling and have a wonderful Christmas.

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