Thursday, May 28, 2009

The art of publicity

I was unable to post yesterday, since for most of the day our Internet was down - thankfully today it is up and running again and faster than ever before. It has been slow for a while, so I can only surmise that the problem has now been fixed. Let's hope that it lasts.

Yesterday morning (before it all went down), while browsing the net as one does, I came across the last in a series of six articles in the Canadian National Post by Mark Medley on the subject of book publicists, and what it is that they actually do. Very interesting it is too.

Medley interviews Canadian film maker Guy Maddin, and Evan Munday, the publicist for Coach House Books, who recently published Maddin's book, My Winnipeg, a companion to his 2007 film of the same name. The interview took place some six weeks before launch, in early March 2009.

The meeting at which several other people are present, discusses the various opportunities that Munday has lined up. The author needless to say, has to be willing to participate in these, as otherwise the book is doomed to failure. Despite this fact, if the book does flop, then as Munday points out, it is inevitably the publicist who gets the blame, rather than the author who failed to put his (or her) heart and soul into promoting their work. In this case Maddin is only too willing to participate, as he realises that the sooner he finishes promoting his work, the sooner he can go on vacation, a luxury for many self published authors that I know.

The publicists job is in essence, the very opposite of what the editor does, since the editors role is to remain invisible. For the publicist, the more visibility the better (it has been estimated that the average person needs to see an advertisement seven times before he or she remembers it and takes action). The publicists role is to connect with the all those who may be interested in the book that they are trying to promote - other writers, broadcasters, bloggers, critics, reviewers and yes, the readers. It is the authors job to sell the book, but the publicists job to make people aware of it. That is the crucial difference.

The first question to ask (and this should of course be done before the book is even acquired for publication) is ‘Who is going to like it?", only then can you start to target your publicity machine accordingly. A lot of authors believe that the readers will always find the right book for them somehow, but it doesn't quite work like this, as book stores (and remember something like 90 percent of books are still bought through this medium), will only stock books that have already had some kind of publicity, as otherwise there is no market for them to begin with, and they will just sit on the shelves gathering dust, not making money for either the author or the bookseller.
Sadly in an era of dwindling books coverage, with literary editors being made redundant in several British national newspapers, it is more difficult than ever before to get this kind of coverage. It is therefore vital that the publicist networks among those in the publishing business in order to gather contacts and keep up to date with who is doing what and who is interested in what. To this end, Munday claims to attend around three events a week. He is wise enough to know that if he makes the effort to support other people's events, they will also support his. This principal also applies to blogging; if you post comments on another blog site, or mention it on yours, they are more likely to link back to you.

While newspapers are still the major source of publicity for most books (unfortunately closed to the majority of self publishers), there are other means, such as specialist magazines (generally more open to small presses and self publishers), the aforementioned blog sites, and the Internet in general. More and more small presses and self publishers are choosing to harness these arenas in order to level the playing field, but there is still some way to go. It depends as always on the books genre and the market that it is aimed at - some books are not suitable for the national dailies as they do not have a broad enough appeal. The best method of all is and always has been, word of mouth. This is perhaps where the Internet really comes into its own, through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It is though quality that counts. All the publicity in the world will not help you shift books, if it is not good quality and well aimed publicity.

The self publisher of course has to do all their own publicity. I didn't do an awful lot to publicise the first edition of my book, beyond my own immediate area, but after the second edition came out, I became pretty adept at writing press releases pretty quickly. Being an amateur journalist as editor of the village newsletter helped, since I already had contacts with the local press which secured plenty of coverage, but the biggest problem I found with my own work was that because it crosses so many boundaries and so many different genres, most people did not know what to do with it or where it fitted in. Once again, this is where the Internet has really come into its own.

Features on several high profile websites, most notable Grumpy Old Bookman (unfortunately now defunct), but also on social networking sites, plus some fantastic reviews from specialist magazines (I was lucky in that my partner who is a website designer did the website for one of these) in which one of them compared my work to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, persuaded almost one third of Waterstones and several library authorities throughout the country to order copies, and then I was off and running.

Unfortunately dwindling finances forced me to return to work shortly after things began to take off, which brought them to an abrupt halt, but the groundwork had been done, since once I was in the those book shops, the sales began to come in, slowly but surely. Eighteen months on, the book is still stocked in around 70 Waterstones (and a handful of independents), and continues to sell in slow but steady numbers. I no longer actively promote it, but of course if an opportunity does come along, then I use it to my best advantage. Because of the time constraints of at the moment having two jobs, one of which is at the weekends when most publicity events take place, the opportunities of late have been pretty thin on the ground.

It is though all a learning curve, that has taught me a lot about myself and given me great insights into human nature that may be very useful if I ever do get round to writing that second book!

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