Author and Penguin Press publicist Pen Vogler advises on how to get the best from your publicist
For the last 18 years I have been a publicist at Penguin Press, working with some of the best non-fiction writers in the world. When I started writing about food history myself, I found myself working with publicists who had quite different areas of expertise from me – and I learnt a lot from them.
Here is advice about promoting your book that I’ve picked up along the way – written to you, authors, as if I was your publicist.
So, what do you do, exactly?
The best start for our relationship is for us to meet and you can ask me! As your publicist, I will arrange media coverage for your book, including reviews, column mentions, broadcast and press interviews, written pieces and author events (with bookshops or literary festivals). My colleagues in marketing think about how to reach readers directly, working with booksellers and online retailers and through advertising or online promotion. Every marketing and publicity team I know seems to approach social media in different ways – so it’s worth asking how your team will do this. If you are working with a freelancer, you might want to ask how you, your freelancer and the publicity team in-house will triangulate.
What is my book about?
When I meet authors for the first time, often their book is swirling around in their minds, and it takes a bit of work to figure out how to talk about it. Who is the book for? What is it about? Is there new research? Or something innovative about your structure, characters or language? After our meeting, I will then craft a pitch – or a number of pitches. I might flag up the writing to literary editors, tell producers about your ideas, or enthuse about the visual possibilities to the editor of a colour supplement. The more ammo you can give me at the beginning, the stronger and more targeted the pitches will be.
What is a hook?
When we talk (seemingly obsessively) about ‘hooks’ we simply mean what is happening out there in the world that we can ‘hook’ our books onto. The pandemic gave opportunities to books that might otherwise have fought for media oxygen: on statistics, the food supply, bunkers. The brilliant Shakespearean Emma Smith wrote about the plague; the philosopher John Gray wrote about what cats can teach us about coping with lockdown.
Is there something else that is in your life that you could write about or do an interview on? One of our favourite slots in Penguin Press publicity was the Financial Times ‘Out of Office’ slot – designed to ‘probe the private passions of public figures’ – as it helped readers develop an interest in the author themselves.
One of my gifted colleagues helped establish a science writer partly by finding new backdrops for successive interviews: ‘this is the first one in his lab / his home / his country of origin / his university…’ Whatever inspired you to write your book will probably be inspiring to other people; sometimes it’s just a question of winkling it out. Was it a work of art, a holiday, a place? (Look at all the evocative pieces the novelist Victoria Hislop has written on Greece.) Personal experiences and crises often move and inspire readers – and commissioning editors. Or does your novel build upon your expertise? Dick Francis’ publicist told me once that, as it was very hard to get literary editors to review thrillers, she persuaded him to write about the Grand National for one of the Sunday papers.
Reviewers and influencers
With your editor and me, make a list of your ideal reviewers and influencers and decide who is going to send the book to them and when. We will rely on you for contacts, such as bloggers or commentators, who specialise in your subject. There is no science to this, but the more your book needs people to read it and fall in love with it – for its literary style or its emotional punch – the earlier your publisher should be sending it out.
Everybody works differently. Some publicists make detailed plans and work down the list of people to pitch to. I confess that I cut corners and do a broad-brush plan and keep the detail in my head. If you would feel more comfortable with a plan that you, your editor (and your agent) and I have all agreed to, then ask for it. Some of my colleagues ask their authors to fill in standard – or bespoke – author questionnaires. If you aren’t sure what kind of answers to give, ask for a model Q&A as a guide.
Don’t be afraid to ask about the process. Timescales vary wildly in publishing; my colleagues in fiction might start to lay plans a year in advance; in non-fiction we occasionally buy and publish a book within a couple of months. In Penguin Press, we bought Jordan Peterson’s first book in November 2017 and published it in January 2018; but I think the publicity was still OK!
Of my authors who have told me Twitter isn’t for them, a few have gamely given it a go anyway. I’ve just had a look at two such Twitter accounts now: Judith Herrin has gained over 2,000 followers in six months tweeting about Byzantine studies; Andrew Roberts tweets amusingly about history, culture and politics to his 15,000 followers. The earlier you start tweeting (or Instagramming or Tik-Tokking) and building up a following, the better. The week before you publish a book is not the best time to start – though that is often when people do, and better late than never.
Know your media
I sometimes find that authors are desperate to go on a programme or have their book covered in a particular paper because they (or their family) like it. I will try everything on your behalf but it might, in all honesty, be a waste of time wanting to go on Woman’s Hour if you’ve written a military history; be Book of the Week with a volume of verses and anecdotes; or be reviewed in the Guardian if you’ve written a book on ancient warfare (all thinly disguised examples). Authors who know the media landscape are more likely to get coverage.
If you haven’t done much – or any – media before, we could do some media training together. I can give you some practice in answering questions (what is your book about?), how to make sure you get in the vital details, and what to do if interviewers start with some wildly left-field questions (probably because they haven’t read it). We can also practice how to smoothly avoid answering questions (about personal matters or political beliefs that are nothing to do with your book). I once accompanied a historian to Open Book (BBC Radio 4) when Mariella Frostrup asked her about her pregnancies! She replied with a textbook ABC (Acknowledge, Bridge, Content) response, by saying anything she had been through (the acknowledgement) made her sympathise even more with the subjects of her book (the bridge) – and then gave a relevant anecdote from the book (the content). A wise media trainer we use at Penguin describes it as putting all your best stuff in the shop window, rather than letting an interviewer come in and rummage around inside.
It’s going wrong… what shall I do?
The most common problem is that you aren’t getting enough – or the right – coverage and you don’t know whether I am going to the right places – or actually doing anything at all. My colleagues and I (usually!) support our books with passion and dedication and you will probably never know how much we pitch them. But I might have three other books on the same pub date, and so a polite, supportive intervention from you could be welcome – so long as you make it clear that it isn’t personal. Asking for ‘news’ isn’t terribly helpful. Instead, you could ask for advice from me and/or your editor. Or ask me to get some feedback from editors or producers who have turned down a pitch, which might inspire a re-think. Or you could suggest a new hook, such as a new film or drama, or an anniversary coming up that you could write about.
Very occasionally, though, you and I might just not be the right fit. An editorial colleague of mine was once astonished to receive an unexpected letter from an author, detailing a series of minor, though bitter, complaints (mostly about me). If you don’t think you and your publicist are working well together, either you or your agent should start by talking to your editor. Don’t leave it too late and let it ruin the experience of publishing your book, which, though it can be nerve-wracking, should also be joyous.
The publication of your book is a huge moment for you, but you might well be full of apprehension and anxiety. You will want to find out what is happening from me and ask me to do things for you; that’s what I’m there for. But don’t forget I have a life beyond your book too. One author sent me some pictures of flowers in her garden when she learnt my father had died. And occasionally authors give small gifts to say thank you – I’ve never known them not to be hugely appreciated.
I’m often asked whether it was strange to pivot from publicist to author, which is a question I usually squirm out of. I’ve discovered that, for me, it is easier to be an author than a publicist. As an author, you can focus on the thing in which you are the world’s leading expert – your book – and let somebody else worry about pitching, media, schedules, admin, events, logistics and all the paraphernalia around a publicity campaign or an author tour. I’m sure I’m not the only publicist who feels these tasks, whilst not unrewarding, are mostly a price we pay to get the gold – the inspiration, fulfilment and enjoyment from working with brilliant books and writers.
Illustration © Mary Long
Pen Vogler is Deputy Publicity Director of Penguin Press and a food historian. Her latest book is Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain. Twitter: @PenVogler.