Getting into bookshops is only the start of the selling process – the books need publicity to help shift them out of the bookshops and into readers’ hands. So is publicity just about free posters and parties?
To find out more about the publicity side of children’s book publishing, I talked to Justin Somper, Publicity Director at Random House Children’s Books.
Is it party, party, party in publicity?
The first thing I needed to establish with Justin was whether publishers’ publicity work is as dilettante as it sounds to the outside world. ‘No, there’s much more to publicity than organising launch parties. There’s a huge amount of unseen work,’ Justin explains, ‘like initiating and developing relationships with the media and planning for events which build the profile of authors and artists. Such events are far more likely to be conferences for teachers and/or librarians than extravagant launch parties.’
How do you get into publicity?
Like many others, Justin fell into publishing publicity and found that it suited him – but it wasn’t an easy entrance. It was two years after graduating, with law articles fixed as an alternative career, when he finally got offered the job of publicity and promotions assistant at Penguin Children’s Books. That was in June 1992, and Justin gradually gained promotion, to Assistant Promotions Manager, then Publicity Manager, until he was headhunted in October 1996 to build a new publicity department at Random House Children’s Books, initially as Manager. ‘Now that I’m in the position of hiring, the candidates I would favour are those who have a genuine interest in publicity and marketing (and do not have a hidden agenda of becoming an editor), are good with people, have strong copywriting skills and aren’t going to be embarrassed about hustling journalists for coverage.’
What’s the difference between publicity and promotions?
Publicity, promotions, marketing – do they all mean the same thing, or are there differences? Justin agrees there can be confusion about this, and says it really varies from company to company. ‘In the places I’ve worked, the Marketing Director has had overall responsibility for publicity and promotions. The perception tends to be that publicity is free, while you pay for promotions. In terms of key tasks, as a publicist you are mainly concerned with media contact, events organisation, and things like awards. The promotion team are responsible for such things as advertising, producing point-of-sale units (the cardboard that goes into bookshops), catalogues and order forms. As a publicist, you tend to have to be nice to everyone you deal with – after all, you are often courting free coverage.’
Are there any stories that Justin is proud of making happen? ‘When we planned the publication of the new edition of John Farman’s Very Bloody History of Britain we prepared two covers, one with John Major and one with Tony Blair. We got the story into the Bookseller magazine, and then it was picked up for a big feature in the Guardian. That kind of piece can really influence a reader in a way that a paid-for advertisement rarely can.’
What does a Publicity Director actually do?
Justin says his main role is: ‘To maximise exposure for our authors and titles,’ and follows that up by saying that his work can broadly be split into three main areas. ‘The first is dealing with the media, which might mean taking the initiative and pursuing a journalist or TV producer to review a book or interview an author. Alternatively, a journalist might call me, because they might be interested in a specific title or author, or looking to me to suggest something appropriate.
‘The second main area I’m involved in is the variety of events our authors and artists participate in. This starts with recommending which events might be worth doing, and soon involves me in the minutiae of making travel and dining arrangements, discussing what the session will consist of and what equipment will be required, who will be selling the books – and a hundred other similar questions!
‘But I also have an administrative and strategic role – particularly in terms of planning the overall campaigns for the list and for specific titles, and budgeting of course. We have fortnightly publishing meetings and I give my editorial, marketing and sales colleagues a realistic view of what coverage we might expect for proposed titles.’ l asked Justin who his main points of contact are in his day-to-day job, and the list is long: ‘Authors, illustrators, agents, teachers, librarians, children, booksellers, all sections of the media and of course the marketing, sales and editorial staff in the company – I’m in touch with them all, all the time.’
Do publicity people like authors?
I wondered if Justin likes the authors and illustrators that he deals with. ‘With one or two exceptions,’ he says guardedly, ‘I greatly enjoy working with the authors and illustrators that I publicise. I do think it has to be a partnership, and I regard it as a meeting of professionals who are each bringing something to the table. They bring their creation – the book – and I bring my understanding of the network through which we will build awareness of the book. Sometimes, you really hit it off and become good friends.’
Is there a typical day?
Justin laughed at the idea that he might know from day to day what he would be doing. Although I have certain objectives I want to meet in any day or week, I’m always at the mercy of the phone, and sometimes have to completely re-arrange my day or an author’s day to fit in something good that has come along, for example if a national newspaper wants to interview an author that day. At least three times each week I see one of my regular media contacts, and I’m in touch with my main contacts on an almost daily basis. I meet new authors and agents with their editors, and we plan how we are going to build their profile. I find out what themes magazines might be covering and suggest authors or books that might fit in. This afternoon I’m accompanying a journalist to interview John Burningham, and I’m currently planning for various literary festivals. Almost everyone who phones you wants things done “yesterday” – you have to judge what is really urgent and important.’
When does publicity start on a book?
Justin explains that he likes to be in right at the beginning of a project, even if it’s years before the book will be published. ‘I like to get to know new authors as soon as they are signed up, but generally speaking, publicity activity starts in earnest six to eight months before publication – that way you don’t miss any chances for coverage in magazines that work a long way ahead, or in getting authors slots at important conferences or literary festivals. I need to show the author I’m doing everything to load the dice in their favour, whilst not actually being able to guarantee anything.’
What do people need from publicists?
I asked Justin what makes a good publicity person. ‘If I was a press person I think the key thing I would want would be relevant information that had been shaped to suit my particular needs, delivered efficiently. It’s matchmaking – the right book to the right media. Live and Kicking on BBC1, for instance, is only interested in popular paperback books that will be readily available to their young viewers.’
‘If I was an author, I would probably want my publicist to be someone who communicated honestly and consistently with me, getting me the coverage, and making the most of every opportunity. I would expect also to be properly briefed before events, and not get any nasty surprises. For our authors, I will always favour events attended by teachers and librarians, as they are the key audience for building the kind of literary authors and artists that we publish.’
Are author visits to schools useful?
Justin didn’t hesitate when he answered this question: ‘Absolutely! Big name career authors and illustrators have built their reputations by going into schools and libraries, attending conferences, and meeting both the children and the professionals. It’s the sensible way to build a sustainable audience, but it does take time. But the key to the success of an author visit is the preparation and follow up work. Of course it must also be remembered that not all authors are naturals at “performing” in public, and it shouldn’t be expected that they can all entertain in person as well as they can write or illustrate. But it certainly helps profile and sales if they can.’
How do you decide how time and money will be spent?
Justin explains that there are some key projects each year which have to work – and work big – to ensure the profitability of the list, and everyone prioritises working on these projects. Marc Brown’s Arthur earlier in the year, Redwall’s tenth anniversary, The Dahl Treasury, and Shirley Hughes’s first new Alfie book for eleven years, plus her 70th birthday – all have needed very different things to happen to them, but all have been talked up in the right quarters for several months to get everything in place at the right time. ‘That isn’t to say that we only work on our star authors – we need to put time into building the stars of the future,’ Justin says.
What are the best bits of the job?
Finally, I asked if there are some aspects of the job which are particularly enjoyable? ‘I get a great buzz out of a whole range of things,’ says Justin, ‘but getting TV coverage is tremendously exciting because you know you are going to get an audience of millions for your book or author. For a publicist, that’s really satisfying.’
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now
works as a children’s book consultant.
Publishing Profiles No. 6 – will go behind the scenes in the Rights Department.