Confessions of a Book Publicist
1 Feb 2010
Najma Finlay, Publicity Director of Icon Books describes the publicity campaign behind Darren Moore’s The Soldier.
Book publicity is primarily about preparation – it’s not an exact science and you don’t have to be a genius to do it well. The skills of a valuable publicist are defined by preparation, doggedness and sometimes, sheer bloody-mindedness - and (although I might be doing myself out of a job here) just a little bit of luck shining at just the right time.
It might be too much of a metaphorical stretch to say that publicists are the Cassandras of the industry – predicting the truth (how excellent their book is) but never to be believed (of course you would say that, you’re the publicist) but every publicist has the memory of working on an excellent book which sinks without a trace (just as a terrible book can bizarrely become bestseller).
We like to think that quality shines through but, in an industry where publishers are expected to cover rising promotional charges to give their titles in-store prominence, where major book retailers are less inclined to stock unproven authors in any quantity, where growing discounts, celebrity memoirs and media frenzy over books bought for a high advance rule the world, it’s getting harder and harder to get the industry to recognise quality without hitting them hard over the head with it (which they don’t as a rule like). In terms of getting a book recognised in the media, except for the few authors who are willing to do something outrageous for the sake of publicity which then leads to intense scrutiny over anything they have ever said or written (remember Julie Myerson?), the quality and worthiness of the book sometimes feels as though it actually holds your campaign back.
It’s time to out myself: I am the Publicity Director of a small independent non-fiction publishing house where the frustrations of an increasingly competitive industry, a growing glut of newer bigger books (usually concentrated in October and November), decreasing newspaper space and media budgets, and fewer quality journalists as more and more are made redundant is taking its toll. But it’s not all doom and gloom and every so often, the efforts put into a campaign can be worth it, eventually.
I had one such campaign last year for a book called The Soldier: A History of Courage, Sacrifice and Brotherhood by Australian ex-Army major, Darren Moore. The campaign was neither flawless nor flawed, but it does exemplify the trials and tribulations of a PR campaign.
We realised early in the campaign that The Soldier had the potential to be something rather special. It became apparent how important and timely the book actually was – and how, although it was categorised as military history, it could not be defined solely as such. It was a thoroughly researched history of conflict in its broadest sense and a document that, put in the right hands, could potentially affect change in military policy. We began by sending it to several well-known individuals to see if they would endorse it. Amongst the responses was the ex-BBC journalist and famous independent parliamentarian, Martin Bell OBE, who applied to it a phrase with which he refers to himself: it was, he said, ‘pro-soldier but anti-war’ and thoroughly recommended it with this endorsement, “It is a timely and unvarnished reminder of the reality of warfare which should be read by anyone who seeks to understand the burden of war.”. We also sent it to Andrew Roberts, a well-known military historian. Interestingly he also thought it was an exceptional book and although he felt the overall argument was too anti-war for him to endorse, he was keen to suggest he review it.
As well as a history of war, The Soldier also emerged as a biography of the servicemen and women who give up their lives to fight for their country, a homage to their sacrifice from the Napoleonic Wars through to the present day. But it was very different from what was currently on the market: it didn’t describe gung-ho heroics, rehash battle-tactics using dazzling new insights or make a liberal plea against war in the first place. What was so special about this book was that it attempted to get inside the soldier’s mind, to open up the experience so we could empathise with their psychological, emotional and physical journeys. The book lays bare how an ordinary person, like us, transforms himself into someone ready to sacrifice his life for his country – no questions asked – from when he or she enlists right through to eventual discharge or death. It’s about war and politics, society, conflict, fear, courage, and humanity. It takes oral history from the world’s past and present conflicts and builds them into a narrative, which is dispassionate and yet, surprisingly moving. As we read it, we saw it was more than a military history, and that indirectly it addressed the future, as well as recording the past.
One of the pre-requisites for a good publicity campaign is the author’s availability, flexibility and promotability and fortunately, the author had agreed to come to the UK for a month-long publicity trip to promote the book. 2009 was a major second world war anniversary year – September being the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II and November being the 91st anniversary for end of World War I. Partly due to schedule restrictions and author availability, The Soldier was published on 11 November for the obvious Remembrance Day connection - although I think it was here that we hit our first stumbling block.
As we grew closer to publication date, it became more apparent that Remembrance Day was, quite rightly, connected solely to honouring soldiers, dead and alive, throughout the ages. It is a day of tribute to them and to their families and although what was at the heart of Remembrance Day was also at the heart of The Soldier, it became apparent that having pegged it to this very special day, we were unable to promote it without seeming to take the limelight away from the soldiers themselves. It sounds obvious in hindsight but it wasn’t at the time.
The first thing a publicist does is to prepare two specific lists: one of general media contacts and the other of specialist media contacts. There was a surfeit of hooks for The Soldier: history, military & defence, psychology, news comment on current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and current military policy, the Chilcott Enquiry (which is still ongoing), an increasing number of British military deaths in international conflicts, the parades at Wootton Bassett, to name a few. An effective angle is to make the connection between a book and topical issue – for example, by offering up the book author as an expert or a talking head for interviews on radio and television, or suggesting they write an opinion piece or a news-piece in a daily newspaper or online paper, by locating an extract from the book which can be pegged to coordinate with a timely event (Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph News Reviews are excellent opportunities for this) and by essentially getting to the heart of the timeliness of the book in question by making the links and parallels to current events as easy as possible for a journalist to see.
One of the wonderful things about The Soldier was that the book had such range that it was difficult to pinpoint one aspect solely. Although it was a history, it was also a commentary on the way politics and the media affect the military. We tried very hard to make this work in articles and interviews, but when it came down to it, an unknown Australian author of an unknown book was passed over for more experienced military and defence pundits.
The second list of specialist media contained both history and military history magazines (BBC History Magazine, History Today, The Soldier Magazine, Legion Magazine, Civvy Street Magazine, War Books Review), military & defence academic journals (Media, War and Conflict Jnl, RUSI Jnl, World Intelligence Review), and political magazines (Politics Today Magazine, Public Service Magazine, Diplomat Magazine). Collating this list is about researching publications, websites, blogs and pundits thoroughly and then contacting each place methodically to talk about the forthcoming book to suggest an eventual review or article. One of the good things about a specialist audience is that you know from the start that they should be interested in your book – if you have tied up the book correctly with the right publication or organisation. Sometimes it means extracting the section of the book which is relevant, so for example, I highlighted the military history aspects of the book to BBC History Magazine, and the commentary on current conflicts to the political magazines. There is an excellent section in The Soldier on the intertwining relationship between military and the media which I offered to media news agencies (Press Association, Reuters) and publications (Media Week, Media Guardian) to whom I pitched a story just on the author’s research for that specific chapter. There was another outstanding and unique chapter in the book which examined the new role of women in the military and what they experience which I used as a hook to interest The Lady Magazine (which, although it didn’t result in a story on that chapter, did produce an excellent review by Max Arthur).
I encountered difficulties trying to arrange events for the author. The challenge was that he had (at that time) no profile in the UK and many of the military and historical organisations had already finalised their events schedule a year or so before and generally had secured high profile individuals to speak. But part of the challenge of a debut author is that because they have no public profile to speak of, everything that you do achieve does that little bit to build everyone’s confidence and raise their reputation. (It’s important to stay positive, as it’s very difficult to be determined publicist when you’re feeling despondent!)The author gave an excellent talk at the Beyond Words festival to sixth form students, teachers and parents (http://2009.beyondwords.org.uk/) and gave an illuminating lunchtime lecture at the National Army Museum.
The most difficult challenge of the whole campaign was trying to bring the author and the book to the attention of the national media in a year where the largest number of books were published (Bookseller, 26 Jan 2010, UK publishes more books than ever in 2009), and following a month in which three times as many books were published as in other months (Guardian, 25 September 2009 Book retailers brace themselves for Super Thursday).
The golden prize of publicity is a national review and the literary editors, who are gateways to commissioning reviews are inundated from September to November with newly published, serious best-selling books. The widest remit is to ensure that all literary editors know the book you are promoting, know what it is about, when it is published and why it is special but the specific remit is to get that review from them. Half of this checklist is redundant if the literary editor does not know you – and it’s all about building on your previous successes and your relationship to highlight that this is a special book. But truth be told, publicists are never going to win here - literary editors are very careful not to be pressured into reviewing a book that they do not plan to review. The only thing you can do is catch them before they have made that decision by flagging it up for their attention and hoping that it strikes a chord.
The Soldier suffered in a busy and competitive month and once Remembrance Day had passed, a few literary editors decided it was now too late to cover war book. I had my knuckles rapped for suggesting Andrew Roberts was a willing reviewer (it was made very clear that it was the job of the literary editor to choose who would review and not mine). It is a valid point and should serve to reassure us all that, by-and-large, 90% of literary reviews are commissioned entirely without bias, connections or conspiracy.
Sometimes we just have to accept that a book has not achieved its potential through no-one’s fault or lack of effort. In hindsight there was possibly a flaw in launching a new author in one of the busiest months in the publishing calendar, but it could equally be read that publishing in that month just before Christmas illustrated our belief in the author’s talent and the book itself. But during a period when I myself was working late into the evenings and at weekends, I had to accept that many of my contacts – new and old - were also stretched to their capacity and that those individuals receiving information about The Soldier may not have had the time, or inclination, to pick up a debut military history of over 500 pages long, when a simpler story or a more recognisable name was more readily available.
But the positive side to this story is that sometimes there is a happy ending, or in this case hopefully, a happy beginning. The Soldier has just received a glowing, almost full-page, review in the Daily Mail, where the reviewer called it ‘thoughtful study of the impact of fighting on the individual soldier.’ (You can read the full review here http://www.hmforces.co.uk/news/articles/1964-bombs-bayonets-and-brothels-the-battles-of-virgin-soldiers )
So it just proves that it is not always enough to publish quality books and expect that alone to bring it to prominence. A good publicist has to be dogged and determined but it’s heartening to remember that good things do happen to those who wait (and have just a little bit of luck!)