An Interview with Louise Court
A book needs publicity, it needs an introduction to its readers and this is an art and craft in its own right beyond the skill of writing. That said, many writers have to plan and implement their own publicity or if they are lucky enough to have a publicist they have to tell the story of their book in a way that’s quite alien to the writing process. To a new writer like me, with no knowledge of publishing processes, the purpose and practice of publicity was an intimidating mystery. I was very fortunate to be guided through this process by Louise Court, my publicist. So I’ve asked her all of the questions I wish I’d had the courage to ask her during our first meeting to demystify what publicity really is and how it works. I hope this will help you be ready to work effectively with your publicist and / or be more confident and tooled-up to tell the story of your story.
This time last year it was still hard to believe my book was going to be real. I’d just drawn breath after submitting the final amendments and then suddenly I needed to start thinking about my book in a totally new way – as a product – I knew it was coming but I was still caught off guard. When do writers need to start thinking about publicity?
I see this a lot, and it’s not surprising – lots of writers are so absorbed by the process of getting their book shipshape and ready to print that they haven’t had time to get their head around what happens next… and it’s really important that they do. There was a report in 2014 that revealed that
the UK publishes more books per capita than any other country by a huge margin (20 new titles an hour!).
Just think about that. Out of all those many, many books and authors, what will it take to make sure that it’s your book that readers pick up next? In a nutshell, it’s my job and the job of my colleagues in sales and marketing to work closely with authors and come up with a strategy that will get your book into the hands of readers.
The earlier you start thinking about this process, the better.
As a debut author I knew nothing about how my book would meet the world. Can you explain your process when you first receive a book to promote?
This can begin as early as when a book comes in on submission. The manuscripts are circulated not just to editors, but to publicists, marketeers and salespeople, too. It’s so important to have feedback from every department right from the off, to make sure that whatever book we buy, we are all agreed that we know how to sell it to the book trade and to readers. Even at this very early stage we might start thinking of some very top line ideas – for example, I’d be looking to see if the narrative is strong enough for Radio 4 to consider it for a radio reading. If it’s a novel, is it based on personal experience? If so, is it unusual enough that we could pitch some first person written pieces? How would I pitch this book to the literary editor of the Sunday Times to make sure they considered it for a review – what are the different and interesting things about it that will make them sit up and take notice? Where is the author based, and are they an engaging/experienced public speaker? Would they be comfortable and eloquent if we put them on the BBC Breakfast sofa, would they get bums on seats at Edinburgh or Hay literary festivals? Would they be available and keen to do the grassroots stuff of visiting local bookshops and chatting to booksellers? Etcetera.
There are so many things for us to consider, and every author and book is different.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to book publicity, we need to make sure each campaign is tailored to suit the material and the author to a tee.
From then on we’re led by press deadlines. Trade press, radio readings and long lead magazines (glossy monthlies) tend to work furthest out, although in some cases we may have had material out in the world up to a year before publication date to try to whip up buzz. And it’s important to know that, although we plan meticulously, a campaign is a very fluid thing – we have to adapt all the time according to news cycles, to media response, to author availability.
During our first discussion we talked about finding angles within the story. What are you looking for when searching for angles to promote a book?
To be a good publicist, you need to think like a journalist. So what I’m looking for are the same things that journalists are looking for – something timely that speaks to the current news cycle or moves the conversation on (if the media has one obsession, it’s being first!); something that’s relevant to that publication’s specific audience (a Good Housekeeping reader is very different from a Wired reader); something unusual that will stand out; and finally, but very importantly, I’m looking for a good story.
The pitch needs to read like a mini-story – it needs to have a beginning, a middle, an end.
The good news is that, if you’re a writer, the chances are you already know what a good story is and how to write one. Congratulations! You just need to match the right story to the right journalist, and that’s where your publicist comes in.
As a newbie I was stunned by the amount of people who were working to make my book and introduce it to the world. I wanted to help you any way I could but didn’t know how. You guided me through that process so gently. What are your expectations of a writer you are working with, what can they do to help you?
Be as open and honest as possible. It’s so helpful to me to know from the outset what an author is willing to do, and what they’re not comfortable with.
Trust your publicist’s judgement. In a lot of cases, we have been working with certain journalists or outlets for years, and have a sixth sense about what they will and won’t go for.
And – importantly – whatever it is, will it actually sell the book, or is time better spent elsewhere?
I really value when authors are able to get ideas or pieces to me quickly – journalists are often on deadline, or a last-minute opportunity presents itself, and being able to get material to them speedily can make the different between securing a good piece of coverage and missing out.
It’s good to keep in mind that there are always a lot of things going on behind the scenes to help your book on its way that you might not ever see. From proofs being sent to print to coffees with journalists or literary festival organisers, there are a thousand little things happening all the time which contribute to a book’s success. Don’t assume that just because you haven’t heard from your publicist in a few days that they aren’t working on your book. It would be impossible (and very boring, most likely!) for us to keep you informed of everything that we’re doing all the time, especially as we don’t want to get your hopes up if it doesn’t work out.
And always remember, we are all working towards the same end – to get your book into as many hands as possible! It should always feel like a collaborative process. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s OK to ask your publicist why, and do honestly ask yourself if there is more you think you could do.
When I saw the distribution list for proof copies of HOW SAINTS DIE it was huge: national and local press, authors and reviewers. How do you decide who to send proof copies to? How do you package the work to increase the chances of it getting picked up?
We send copies far and wide to anyone we think may be likely to cover the book in some way. There are certain people we send everything to because their remit is so wide and they cover books constantly (people like Alison Finch at BBC Radio 4). Then we start thinking about more specialist press like gardening, history, sport, animals, etc. If an author lives in the UK then that gives us opportunity to target regional press depending on where they live, or where the book is set.
In terms of packaging, this really depends from book to book. Sometimes you’ll see really over-the-top proof packages, with special jiffy bags or knick-knacks that are relevant to the story to try to make sure that package stands out and to invite readers into that specific world. For example, I have been working on a book set in North Korea, so we sent a Korean snack that is mentioned in the book along with the proofs. Increasingly, sharing on social media is becoming really important, so sending an eye-catching package that makes people want to tweet it can help to create an early buzz around a book, but it’s not always the right strategy. Sometimes we like to let the book speak for itself.
As a debut author from the wild and windy North my literary contacts were quite limited and this inevitably meant I struggled. Contacts are important to get reviews and this is a big barrier for writers who are unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. For writers outside of the London networks, what can they do to build the contacts that might lead to reviews?
I know that publishing can seem like an exclusive club and quite a daunting thing to try to break into. Firstly, I would say it’s your publicist’s job to have good contacts. We speak to literary media every single day, and our job is to advocate on behalf of you and your book. Just because you live outside of London or don’t know anyone in the ‘Publishing Bubble’, it doesn’t mean that you book won’t get into the hands of the people that matter.
Saying that, there are a few things that I would advise first-time writers do, regardless of where they live, in order to feel more connected to the literary world:
· Join a local writer’s group – they can be a really valuable resource for you and via other people’s experiences you can get insight into the industry
· Joining the Society of Authors can also be a useful introduction to other writers and to how the industry works
· Get active online – start a Twitter profile, find agents, editors, publicists and marketeers and follow them. Then have a look at who they’re following, and start following those people too. Even if you’re not feeling comfortable putting yourself out there and talking to people, simply listening to those conversations will tell you a huge amount about the industry
· Sign up to receive daily newsletters from the key trade news sites like The Bookseller and BookBrunch
Consume as much media as you can get your hands on. Go to the websites of national papers and look at their Culture/Arts/Literary sections. Familiarise yourself with that they’re covering, who they’re interviewing.
Start listening to arts programmes on the radio, like Open Book, Front Row, Free Thinking. This will give you a really great window into the current state of the industry, and will also prepare you a bit for what to expect should your book get reviewed or an interview is confirmed.
· Attend local arts events if you can. The ones that receive funding often offer certain events for free (I believe the York Festival of Ideas programme is entirely free). This is a great way to find out what a book event actually is, and also meet people face to face.
What’s an endorsement? How important are they? How do writers go about getting them?
Endorsements are when other authors or well-known people in the public eye give a quote for your book. Think of them as mini, early reviews. Where possible, editors will try to secure these well in advance of publication so that, if an endorsement does come through, we have time to incorporate this into the jacket design when we go to print.
A good endorsement can be a really powerful way of getting a book noticed. If I am talking to a literary editor and trying to convince them to review a book, then being able to tell them that, say, JK Rowling or Ian Rankin or Toni Morrison is already a big fan is really persuasive, especially if it’s for a new name.
Getting books out there as early as possible helps, but there is no way to guarantee an endorsement. Bear in mind that authors like JK Rowling are sent hundreds of books by hopeful editors and agents and they can only read so many! Some well-known authors refuse to blurb for books at all.
There are so many respected book bloggers out there doing wonderful things to help books meet the right readers. What is the etiquette when approaching these reviewers to read your book?
Publicists love bloggers! In a world where books and arts coverage in the national press is being squeezed more than ever, bloggers have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for exposure to authors, and particularly for new writers. I would say do some research and follow a few bloggers (and vloggers, and Instagrammers). Get yourself acquainted with their style and the kind of books they enjoy. If you think yours might be their cup of tea, send them a short, polite message introducing yourself and explain why you’re getting in touch. Be mindful that these wonderful, passionate people do what they do for free, often putting in the hours around full-time jobs – they are not duty-bound to review your book, and some may be so busy that they don’t have time to reply to you (even though they’d like to). But if you’ve done your research and matched your book well to the blogger, then they are more likely to want to see a review copy.
Publicists have great connections with bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (sometimes called ‘online influencers’) and good publicists maintain and value these relationships in the same way that we would literary editors on national papers. It’s worth consulting with your publicist to check who they are reaching out to, just so you don’t double up.
I really enjoyed going to Ilkley and Durham Book Festival and meeting folk but I did have a minor panic about what I’d be expected to do. How important is face to face contact with your readers, is it essential to attend and / or organise events – schools, bookshops, libraries, festivals? What are writers expected to do when they get there?
If you are in a position to be able to, then I would always advise making as much face to face contact with readers as possible. If I were an author, I’d be so curious to find out what readers want and what they thought of my book! It can be a really rewarding and eye-opening part of the process for writers. After all, this is what it’s all been about, right?
There are lots of different forms this can take – from very informal bookshop visits, saying hello to booksellers and giving them a proof of your book, to talks in thousand-seater theatre venues. Events can involve an author simply giving a talk with or without slides, followed by a Q&A. Or they might prefer a chairperson to sit and ask them questions. Sometimes the event is themed, and will involve a panel of 3 or 4 authors. On the whole, events last one hour and are always followed by a book signing.
In terms of what to expect, I’d advise going into your local bookshop or library and asking whether they have any author events planned. If so, go along to a few and experience them for yourself. Literary festival are of course also great opportunities to see this done on a much larger scale.
If you don’t have access to local events, then you can sometimes find videos of live events online – I believe 5×15 and Intelligence Squared will always upload a video of their events.
We pitched a number of different articles that related to the core themes of HOW SAINTS DIE: mental illness, place, childhood and the writing craft. The Foyles article was very personal and revealed the childhood events that led to the book. I drafted many ideas from all different angles but struggled to anticipate what would appeal. For Writers, like me, without a journalistic background what do they need to know about pitching topic related articles?
I may have answered this in the question above on what I’m looking for in terms of angles. I’d only add that there are so many factors in play here, it can sometimes be hard to know what ideas will stick. Sometimes, really strong story ideas don’t work out for a variety of reasons – maybe that publication already has a piece on a similar topic already commissioned, or they covered it too recently. Maybe they like the idea but would prefer they get an in-house writer to do it instead (always galling…). Maybe the editor has decided to take the publication in a slightly different direction, and has decided that they won’t commission certain kinds of pieces anymore, even though they have done so many times in the past. It can be really frustrating for authors, and us publicists too, because more often than not you won’t get a clear answer on why something didn’t work out.
I think authors would be surprised to know how many emails journalists actually reply to – you can send 20 pitches and it’s not unusual to maybe get two responses back (and even then, those might be ‘thanks but no thanks’).
One of the most frustrating parts of my job is the fact that what you get out of a campaign is only reflective of, maybe, 20-30% of what you put in. To get one review, interview, feature or event confirmed means that there were countless others that didn’t work out. It’s the nature of the business as there is only so much space, but it can be disheartening at times. The only thing you can do is try, and listen to your publicist’s advice.
The Foyles article was deeply personal but I hesitated about talking too explicitly about my working-class background. Even though being a fisherman’s daughter is who I am and so intrinsic to the book there was shame in exposure. How do you counsel authors on what is important to tell about the story of the book and what to hold back? How important is it to tell the story of a book?
So important! There should be no shame in telling your story openly and honestly. In fact, I believe you should feel empowered by it – the most important stories to tell are the ones that aren’t told enough.
I truly believe that the tide is turning that that there is more interest than ever before in underrepresented stories, whether they are from working class, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ or disability backgrounds.
Although there is still a long way to go, there is a really serious push in publishing at the moment to commission books that give voice to minority groups. Authors must make sure that they are completely comfortable with what they are saying, but I would never counsel an author to hold anything back simply because what they have to say is something that hasn’t been heard much before. In fact, this is what will make your story stand out, and that is exactly what publicists are looking for! Your own, unique voice is what makes you and your story special, and we want to do everything we can to help it get heard by as many people as possible.
Since getting published I’ve tidied up my blog page, dedicated time to Twitter joining and building communities and worked hard to find ways to connect to people on social media. How strategic do writers need to be now about their own social media activity?
Social media can be a real life-line to authors who feel otherwise disconnected from the literary world. Twitter especially can be a really supportive environment for budding writers. I know authors who have formed real and lasting friendships over Twitter, who go there looking for advice, recommendations or maybe just a bit of a pep talk if they’re feeling a bit deflated.
As above, I’d join the platform if you’re not on there already, and just start following authors, agents, publishing people and key arts media.
A word of warning: please bear in mind that a social media account can be seen by anybody. Your Twitter account is your shop window. Of course, you should feel free to be yourself, but also be aware that you can’t control who is reading what you’re putting out there.
Also, remember that media can freely quote what is put in the public domain!
A huge thanks to Louise Court for taking the time to shed light on the fascinating process of publicity.
Louise Court is Acting Publicity Director at Vintage, where she has worked for five years, creating campaigns for authors including Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbo, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Toni Morrison and Judy Murray. In March 2018 she will start in a new role as Publicity Director at Sceptre. Louise started her publishing career as Publicity Assistant at Orion Books in 2010. Twitter @louisecc