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Being Published Part 5: Publicity

This is the fifth in a series of posts which I'm planning in the run-up to next February, when This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin will be published. In each I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that this stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here.

Before we start, let's get something sorted out. Marketing and publicity are often talked about as the same thing, and they do have the same goal: to find potential readers and persuade them to buy your book. As I put it in This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: 

Your publisher needs to sell your book to more people than your family and friends, so you and the publicity department have to catch those more-people’s attention – in marketing-speak, to "disrupt" what they were doing and thinking – and hook them in, first to notice your book, and then to buy it. The big hook is what the book’s about, but these days there are too many hooks, too many books, too many non-book disruptors and disruptions, and too many other ways that those more-people might spend their leisure time and leisure money. So publishers reckon that [even] with fiction you need a second, "non-fiction", hook, as my American editor calls it: something which makes you and your book more intriguing than the next ordinary, unknown person who’s written a novel that Waterstones and Tesco might choose to have taking up expensive real estate on the front table or the back shelves … or might not.

Marketing is the part of the business that your publisher pays for directly: discounting and special offers, your book being part of BOGOF deals (any of which may affect your royalty), giveaways, book trailers, entering the big book prizes, advertising online or in print, or even - for a few - as posters on the Tube. 

Publicity, on the other hand, is about all the visibility and persuasiveness that you can't buy, but only lure others into helping you towards: reviews, editorial coverage, events, radio and tv interviews, social media buzz, prizes again, and so on. So how do publishers set about making that happen? And what does it feel like to be publicised?

BEING PUBLICISED, GETTING PUBLICITY

If you, like most writers, are essentially an introvert, then the prospect of walking out on stage as yourself, unmasked, may fill you with horror. Then there's the fear of your book being out there to be reviewed, judged and perhaps found wanting - and with no comeback allowed.

And yet most writers are miserable or furious when their book slips out into the world, no one even notices, and certainly doesn't buy it and read it: no one was listening, and you'll never be heard. So, at the very least, it's worth understanding how it all works, and the likely consequences of your informed decision about what you will and won't do.

It can start before you even have a contract. A publisher will certainly look at the social media presence of someone they want to sign - or to offer another contract to - but if they want the book your absence there won't stop them. Publishers do expect - and put in the contract - that you will do your bit with any interviews and publicity they arrange.

It won't help their faith in your book's chances and your commitment to selling it if you won't do anything, but exactly what you do docan be negotiated: they'll be positively keen for you to play to your strengths and to avoid the things that you really hate and do truly badly. You also have the right to look at what doing something will cost you in time, money or ethical compromise, and decline to do it.

One thing that you'll hear on all sides is how authors have to do much more themselves these days, and that's certainly true. It's always been difficult for small publishers, without a dedicated publicity department, to generate much noise about a book, and even big publishers' budgets of time and money for publicity are squeezed ever more fiercely. What's more, the book trade is much more polarised now: time and money must be poured mainly into the few, huge sellers who pay the bulk of the rent, and publicists can only spare a little for the more modest sellers, who would need almost as much work to make a modest difference.

But for what it's worth, in my experience "publishers don't do any publicity" is a canard along the lines of "publishers don't edit"; of course we would love them to do more, and maybe there was a golden age that has gone... but editors still edit the likes of you and me, and publicists do still publicise. What's more, there's a lot more that writers can do themselves, not just with blogs, websites and social media, but in pitching themselves to local festivals, bookshops, news websites and so on. 

Asking your publisher "What can I do?" is a good idea - partly so you don't double-up, but also because industry people sometimes need reminding just how little many writers already know about this side of things. The Society of Authors, (which you will of course join the minute you're offered a contract) runs workshops for members on many aspects of being an author, and there are some good blogs as well, though as ever, read sceptically, and check which side of the Atlantic the writer is on: culturally and practically the best way to go about is different.

But when you're looking at what other authors do, don't forget that the Facebook Effect applies: we're awfully inclined to conflate what lots of people do into an overall picture, and feel we ought to do all of it - and it would be positively unprofessional to moan there about a publisher's failings, so you only see the good things.

So, no, you really don't have to kill yourself, even if (apparently) others do. Don't forget that the novelist who produces a constant stream of journalism or appears on dozens of platforms may be procrastinating; the writer on social media day and night may be addicted to the cheap fat-and-sugar hit of Likes and RTs; the event-junkie may be dodging the tougher, healthier food of real creative work and fulfilment at the coal-face of her own laptop. A famous agent was horrified when she finally joined Twitter, to see that all her authors, who she'd naively thought were sunk deep in the books she was hoping to sell, were actually out there, pouring out a stream of political outrage and comic cat gifs.

If the thought of any of it fills you with horror, does it help to think of seeing visibility and publicity as ways to get your book heard? That in pitching pieces to magazines and yourself to festivals, you're not showing off, but doing it on behalf of your book? Even life-long hiders of their own light under bushels brace themselves to beard the Head Teacher on behalf of a child's hopes of being in the school play or the swimming team. The thing is, publicity isn't the job - writing is the job, just as loving and nurturing children is the job of a parent - but it is a part of the job.

I've blogged about the networking side of publicity, so I won't repeat all that here, and for a good beginner's guide to social media try Anita Chapman's guest post. I jumped this post on how to cope with events and exposure off a friend's cri de coeurand, as Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt discussed, you're allowed to set boundaries about what you will and won't talk about; it's worth thinking about that before you're sitting with a journalist with her phone on Record.

You're also allowed to protect your writing time and energy by not accepting gigs that take a days' travelling and a ton of preparation, for very little return in booksales or even visibility - or even by not accepting gigs at all for a bit, if you have a book deadline to meet.

There's no denying that a ratio of effort to effect exists - but also that it's almost impossible to predict. All publicists have their stories of a publicity campaign that was like beating their head against a brick wall: they just couldn't get anyone interested. And all authors have their stories about events where no one came or even were cancelled; articles that no one noticed; tweets that sank without a trace of a Retweet or even a Like.

One of my stories is the book-signing which neither I nor the bookshop had realised was on the afternoon of a European Cup quarter-final; another was a workshop cancelled for no bookings, when in fact the organisation concerned had failed to put a "buy" button on the page for my workshop at all. It is depressing, and sometimes enraging, and it may change what you will and won't do in future. But if you start taking such disasters as a judgement on you and your writing in general, that way madness lies - or at least huge trouble with your confidence in Book Two.

One of the wisest thing anyone said to me, when The Mathematics of Love was being published, was that you need two heads as an author: a writing head, and a business head. And if the most important job of the business head is not to spend the tax money, the next is to protect the writing head - which will including saying No, and putting down boundaries of time and topic. Doing so isn't lazy or cowardly, it's a necessary, protective professionalism.

And this is where the fact that no one, actually, knows how publicity translates into book sales pays off. If it's part of your job to try to get your book heard, then when you've decided what you will do, and done it, the job is finished and you can go back to the writing and the rest of real life. After that book-signing, I realised that my job as an author is to turn up, on time, dressed, sober, with a smile and a pen. My job as an interviewee is to do the same, with some additional mental armour. What happens - or doesn't happen - after the shop door opens or the magazine is published, is in the lap of the gods, and if nothing happens, it is not your fault - nor, indeed, your publicist's.

One more thought: even though you find the thought of all this horribly daunting, don't underestimate how wonderful it is when events and media coverage can put you in direct touch with your readers. Hearing what your book meant to someone is one of the great pleasures of having a book out there: I still remember the infantryman, in Christchurch New Zealand, who talked to me about his soldiering and my Stephen Fairhurst's...  That's when you know that all that writing, and all this weird other stuff that seems to have to happen alongside it, was worth it.

PRACTICALITIES

A book being published will have someone in charge of publicising it: in a big corporate publisher that will be a publicist, working under the guidance of the publicity director; in a small publisher it may well be your editor; for a self-publisher, it's you. Alison Baverstock's classic Marketing Your Book: an Author's Guide, now in a new edition and despite the title, has a great deal of excellent advice about publicity.

Every single book will have an Advance Information Sheet sheet made for it: one single side carries all the information that the book industry - from the rest of the publishers staff to wholesalers and bookshops - needs to know. Buying decisions will be based on the AI sheet, but it also must hold all the bibliographic data and information without which a book doesn't really exist in the system.

Similar, but with a different focus, will be the Press Release. This is the information which goes to anyone who might give your book some exposure, and so it works harder to evoke the allure and fascination of the book, and also places it in the market: what kind of reader will like this? As well as the book, it may suggest possible angles to both newspaper editors and festival artistic directors: not only the book, but the non-fiction things the book draws on, and other non-fiction topics about the writer themself and how the book came to be written. 

A press release isn't only for them, though. If you're heading for a local radio studio's daytime magazine programme, when you come in the presenter may well be half-way through reading the press release. They'll greet you, check you're OK, explain what will happen, and then finish reading it in the commercial break before your segment... That is reason number ten for working out a sexy-sounding, two-sentence-max answer to the question, "What's your book about?" because I can almost guarantee they'll start with that. (It's also worth boiling down two or three anecdotes about the writing of it, which you can produce as needed.) 

Virtually all publishers will also send out Advance Reading Copies, aka "ARCs", "galleys", "uncorrected proofs", "bound proofs" or just "proofs", something like six months ahead of publication, so that reviewers can be found, festival programmes can be planned, and so on. In the old days they were literally the pages produced by the printer, shoved into a binder. These days they will be physically like a book, with cheaper paper but still expensive to print, or a pdf, which is much less so. If possible it will have the same cover as the real thing and your publisher may also make electronic proofs available on NetGalley where reviewers can download copies. 

So, what is a publicist - which may mean you - trying to make happen, with all this trouble and expense? Different books will be aimed at different things, but most likely some or all of:

  • Reviews in print newspapers and magazines, and their websites: either standalone, or in round-ups of say historical fiction, or debuts. Book pages have shrunk drastically, and by the time they've reviewed the big books by big names they "have" to review, there is very little space for the rest of us.
  • Reviews on the main book blogs for your genre and part of the market: important, but there are many more than there were, so careful targeting is wise.
  • Blog tours - where you arrange to write blog posts for a series of the booky blogs around publication. The jury's out on how many books this sells, but it's certainly good for:
  • Social-media buzz - you hope that people who've read proofs, and/or booked you for events or writing gigs, will be chattering about it - and all over again when real readers get their hands on the book. Follow the "influencers" - bloggers, literary journos - and make sure you retweet and respond with cheery pleasure and brisk hopes that they enjoy it. (Crawling gratitude is not a good look on an author, but neither is a lofty assumption that they're lucky to have you.) Social media is the prime place to find book groups and other lovely, committed and intelligent readers, too.
  • Endorsements - "puffs" (=AmEng "blurbs") - by well-known writers to go on the actual book's cover. These have become increasingly important, but no one actually knows how much difference they make. Hopefully there will be quotes from reviews to go on the paperback.
  • Events at book festivals, arts venues, bookshops and libraries
  • Events in non-book places appropriate to your book - museum? historic building? town-centre? 
  • Standalone book-signings in bookshops. Most writers and bookshops agree that these are hard to make work, except in conjunction with an event or launch in the bookshop, or for big names, or local authors with lots of friends
  • Book-group guesting - they will have read your book and are usually extremely hospitable
  • Interviews and editorial coverage of you-and-your-book in the magazines and newspapers appropriate to your readership. This is likely to focus as much on you as on the book, because human-to-human connection is what they're after. Sorry. 
  • Articles you might write about book-based topics or others on which you can write with some knowledge, charm or authority. This is where those writers who are or have been journalists are streets ahead of the rest of us, in spotting and going for those opportunities.
  • TV and radio coverage of your book, including serialisations and extracts, arts-and-books programme coverage, and/or programmes about other topics which you can speak on with some charm and knowledge. 

While national media and the South Bank are out of the reach of most of us, don't forget that smaller publications and websites are greedy for things to print, and smaller arts festivals and venues love the tag "local author", as do bookshops. Your local paper and websites, your old school and university alumni magazines, your company newspaper, the websites of any professional bodies and hobby associations you belong to... all of these want copy, all of these want a reason for their readers to connect with the subject of that copy, and you can supply both.

Having said that, they will all want stuff for free, and it's not a given that you must give it to them. I suggest you make your own rules, or even an algorithm of:

  • how realistic it is that this kind of organisation has a budget for fees
  • how big the benefit is for you and the book, in the light of fee or no fee
  • how easy, difficult, pleasurable or time-consuming the work is
  • your ethical position about whether working for free elbows out those who can't afford to

Every book should get the basics of a press-releases and proofs sent out to appropriate media and reader-reviewers, but the brute reality is that how much TLC a book gets after that - personal pitching for festivals, TV and radio, chasing up vague promises, networking and pushing - will depend enormously on how busy the publicist is overall, and where your book is in the publisher's pecking order.

At the very least, your publicist should be supportive of your efforts to get your book attention - although do keep them posted before you set about such things, just in case it muddles their plans. But although big publishers have more clout, they also have big authors; assuming you're not (yet) one of those, it's one of the times when being with a small publisher with a canny and hard-working publicity person can really pay off. 

And, finally, it's not unknown for a debut author who's determined to establish themselves to spend the whole of a modest advance on hiring an independent publicist to supplement their own and their publisher's efforts - and an ambitious self-publisher who, further down the line, wants to break out of a small, established readership might well do the same.

Independent book publicists are usually ex-staff members; publishers bring them in again when the workload gets too outrageous or someone's off sick; to concentrate on a big book or rescue one which is sinking without trace; or sometimes when a biggish author has wrangled a contract clause stipulating one. But there's nothing to stop you hiring one yourself - and ideally doing it well before the book is published: many of the places they target have very long lead-times, and if you miss this year's boat, by next year your book will no longer be "new".

Individuals are cheaper and can be found on Reedsy, companies are more expensive, but either will work for a "project fee", so you know what you're spending and what they will do for that. You may well be able to fine-tune what you're paying for - for example some writers loathe social media and will pay to have someone do it for them, others are perfectly happy to do it themselves - and they will give you lists of what they plan to do, and report back regularly on what they've done. But I would say, definitely don't hire a publicist who doesn't have extensive experience of the book industry: as all Itch-readers know, our world is a very peculiar parallel universe, which in dozens of ways doesn't work as the rest of the world does.

Of course, there can be no guarantee that you'll get the coverage you'll dream of - that simply isn't in even a good publicist's gift - and in terms of straight profit-and-loss, I can't honestly say that you're likely to make the money back and then more on that first book. But assuming you don't need the advance to put bread on the table, you might well consider it a sensible investment in developing your presence and profile as an author, ready for the next book, and the one after. Because, as ever, publicity is about you, as well as about the book. Sorry.

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