A Literary Editor's View of Publicity and Review Copies

James Munson, literary editor of Contemporary Review and author of a forthcoming social history of nineteenth century European travel, rates publicity departments and their sending out of review copies.

As someone who is a literary editor as well as a writer, I have an unusual perspective on book publicity. First, some details. The journal for whose book reviews I am responsible, Contemporary Review, is venerable, having been established in 1866. It is a learned, but not academic journal devoted to international affairs, politics, the environment and current literary issues. It has 136 pages per issue and is published four times a year. Its circulation, which numbers in the low thousands is mainly in universities, here and overseas, and in embassies, consulates and various institutes. Most people, I suspect, now read the magazine via subscription agencies on the Internet.

Of the 136 pages, thirty-six pages are mine to fill with a variety of reviews. Half are devoted to long reviews by commissioned experts and half, to shorter reviews which are also commissioned. At the end of the long reviews is a regular column, ‘The World of Paperbacks,’ which is about 3,000 words long and which I compile. This is designed for our undergraduate readers. In each issue, therefore, we review, or at least note publication, of about 120 titles. My remit is to review books that investigate current affairs (social, political, religious and foreign relations) and books that present new angles on historic events that still resonate today, e.g. a new study of the Reformation, a new history of the 1926 General Strike or a new biography of Churchill.

I mention all this because the nature of the publication defines the work of a literary editor: my work will not be the same as that of a reviews editor of an academic quarterly devoted to, say, mediaeval history or Victorian literature (whose remits would be narrower), let alone that of the reviews editor on a daily broadsheet. I usually have to ask for review copies whereas a review editor at, say, The Sunday Telegraph would receive those books as a matter of course. In effect this must mean that editors of the leading broadsheets have virtually all books published sent to them. It is interesting to note here that a friend, who was for years reviews editor of The Economist, with a circulation far greater that ours, faced exactly the same problems I face at Contemporary Review.

The one exception to the above would be academic titles as publishers of these would usually not expect non-specialist journals to carry reviews. Richard Mullen, the editor of Contemporary Review and expert on Thackeray, once asked the editor of The Daily Telegraph if he could review a volume of Thackeray’s letters . The editor agreed but simply could not get Palgrave to send a review copy. Richard Mullen was finally told simply to buy the volume and charge the paper. Happily things have improved considerably at Palgrave since then.

Because I need to request titles, I send ‘shopping lists’ emailed twice a year. This probably means that I may well have a better understanding of how publicity departments work, at least as regards sending out review copies, than editors who work for bigger publications. If I were asked to summarise how things work I would say that no summary is possible: publicity departments vary so enormously. In addition, departments do go up and down as regards efficiency. If forced into a corner I would make the following generalisations.

The larger the publishing house the greater the risk of difficulties. HarperCollins and Penguin have always been difficult, in part because Penguin no longer issue printed catalogues (only e-catalogues) but mainly because the shopping list is usually ignored and its various titles not passed round to relevant publicists. This means that at the end of each month I have to send a reminder email asking for the releases for that month. The difficulty here, and this is one that is universal among the big publishing empires, is discovering who is responsible for which title. There may be only one publicity department but five or eight imprints and a total output of, say, some 100 titles every six months: there is usually no way of knowing who is responsible. There are exceptions. Among the big players I would highly rate Little Brown, Pan-Macmillan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Oxford University Press and Yale because they process my ‘shopping lists’ and hardly any requested titles are not sent.

As regards catalogues on the Internet. It may be possible to request titles ‘on line’ but I have not been able to do so. In any case, one would still need the name of the publicist in order to send the email to the right person. The only other alternative would be to send an email simply to ‘publicity@willie-whitelaw.co.uk’ and hope for the best and the best here wouldn’t be very good. General requests like this are hardly ever productive. Where Internet catalogues, contained in the company’s website, are extremely helpful is in tracing titles that have slipped: this saves me time and also saves me from annoying publicity departments.

The only way round this is to compile a list of people who have proved helpful in the past: email them and hope they will pass on the message to the right person. One soon learns who is helpful and who is not and makes notations besides their names. There are, I assure you, many a slip twixt cup and lip. The one exception to this problem is O.U.P. In their general trade catalogue (as opposed to their academic or ‘humanities and social sciences’ catalogue) the responsible person’s name is given. Over the years I have got to know several of these people and we have conducted very pleasant email correspondences.

A second, and fairly obviously corollary, is that the smaller departments are the more efficient: departments that spring to mind are those at Granta, Fourth Estate, John Murray (even after it ceased being an independent publisher), Duckworth, and Thames & Hudson. Of course one can have a fairly small department in a big operation: Cambridge University Press, in the person of Lorena Verdes, is marvellous at sending out titles. (Lorena also gives me some wonderful recipes for dishes from her native Spain.)

Some places have wisely divided review requests from publicity in general: with O.U.P. I now send all requests to one person and this works beautifully. Wonderful!

Two new trends are, at least from my point of view, nightmares. The first is producing only electronic catalogues: try making up lists of various imprints from the screen. The second is the absence of catalogues altogether.

To sum up: my experience has taught me that the department is as good as its degree of coordination and commitment and that, generally, the bigger the empire (with exceptions such as Cambridge) the harder the task of the review editor in search of titles. At the end of the day publicity departments need to ask themselves how important they consider reviews outside the leading broadsheets. If they consider them important they need to take journals with smaller circulations seriously. The best way to do this is, wherever possible, to give the name of the person responsible for each new title or to channel all requests for new titles through one person or department with its dedicated email address: O.U.P has shown that this works.

About article author

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James Munson

James Munson read Modern History at Oxford University between 1966 and 1969. In 1968 he won the Matthew Arnold Historical Essay Prize and, in the following year, began his doctorate in Victorian religious and political history. In 1974 he received his D. Phil. degree.For ten years he taught histo...More about James Munson