What Does A Publishing PR Do?
Publishing PRs can be a bit of a punchline; there are plenty of jokes about posh girls called Daisy or Emma looking to fill the time between finishing school and marriage to a trustafarian, but in reality a good PR is worth her weight in diamonds (they’re usually women, although I know a few male literary PRs). I’ve had a great many, ranging from Liz Hurley’s sister (funny and charming) to one whose sole activity seemed to be asking me ‘Did you get the flowers?’. Then there was one so pro-active and insightful that she made the others look like mere time-servers. I still miss her.
A good PR will find new outlets to promote your book, because your novel won’t sell itself. In these days when writers can’t simply sit back behind their work, it often needs relevance or a backstory to catch the attention of the public. Actually, this has long been the case. Agatha Christie was not a conventional beauty, but she still had plenty of pretty photographs of herself taken (don’t forget she achieved success at 30). If you’re youngish and presentable, the sad truth is that you’re looked upon more kindly.
Topical books and authors sell well, but usually have a short shelf life. Certain kinds of writing – fantasy and SF, for example – can be hard to promote because they seemingly have no direct relevance to normal life as it is lived by the reader. This is why books like ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ spin-offs make it to the top of the charts – readers think they know a lot about who wrote (or rather, didn’t write) them.
People always want to know a little about the writer, and a good PR will capitalise on that. Of course, readers often only know what publishers want them to know. Everyone knows that JK Rowling was a single mum on benefits because the PRs have told the press this over and over. E L James sold over 70 million copies of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy, but what do you know about her? Very little indeed, because the books were largely the confection of a very smart publishing mind and have kept her in the background. She looks like a nice person, but I find myself asking how much she is controlled by her empire’s overlords. That’s also the PR’s job.
A good friend of mine, Gordon Arnell, was the chief publicist for the James Bond franchise. He told me, ‘when publicity gets as big as this, it’s not about publicising anymore, it’s about containing the publicity.’ This isn’t a problem I’ll ever have to worry about, but you take his point; when the people badly want to know, they’ll start making up their own stories.
Like dogs and their owners, some authors look like their writing; Will Self had the cadaverous aspect of a junkie. Jake Arnott has always had something of the gangster about his appearance (although in fact he’s a sweetheart). Sophie Hannah has the warm mumsiness of a woman who’s now writing the Agatha Christie reboots. I was once doing a gig in a library in Hammersmith when two old ladies looked at my author photograph (I was going through a punky phase). One said to the other; ‘Well, he doesn’t look like my idea of an author,’ and they walked out.
The publicist’s job is to find your strengths and match them to the audience. You give them your reviewers’ connection-list, they add their own, then mail out the book in hope. I’m a lousy networker, so my list is non-existent. A good author knows how to glad-hand everyone (Peter James is a superb networker).
Do you get a party for your launch? Not very often, not unless you pay for it, although lovely Transworld have frequently thrown me parties. I once threw a party for a book where even the publisher didn’t show up. Do you get a book tour? I have friends who do (Joanne Harris seems to tour constantly, making me very jealous), but I’ve not been on a book tour since ‘Spanky’, and that was because I was travelling with the cover model. The PR has to fight the budget, which these days is lower than ever.
Can a good PR stunt make a book? I’d have to say probably not; readers aren’t daft. They’ll sense when they’re being sold a stunt. But good PR can get the books to the right people, and that’s what you want most of all.