So how does this publicity thing work then?

Yesterday, the world woke up to the fact that J K Rowling has published a crime novel under an assumed name. Hailed as 'critically acclaimed' (despite getting only a handful of reviews, and only a couple of them print ones), and a 'bestseller' (again, in spite of selling between 400 and 1500 books in three months, depending on whose figures you believe), Rowling's effort as Robert Galbraith shows what happens when you don't have a massive ad campaign behind you, and you can't get out and flog books as yourself, it's tough to get noticed (hey, it's tough to get taken on at all, given the number of times she was turned down by editors as Galbraith:

Rowling has described the experience of writing as an unknown as 'liberating' - it's presumably not quite as financially desperate as the first time she wrote as an unknown, and I'm sure she enjoyed the lighter pressure of not having an audience waiting agog for the next Potter novel, or the first 'adult fiction' venture. But given that she couldn't reveal her identity, her publishers were put on the back foot, publicity-wise (there's an interesting account of how it was exposed here: Rowling-as-Galbraith had to turn down any publicity opportunities that would have exposed 'his' real identity, as Val McDermid reveals in the above article from the Independent. A massive ad campaign behind an assumed name would immediately invite requests for author pictures, interviews and so on, that would be impossible.

And so, her publishers, Rowling herself and the rest of us have all found out (if we didn't know before) - without publicity, it's hard to have a hit. Not impossible, as many who started out self-publishing e-books like James Oswald have proved. But very, very hard. And that difficulty affects those signed with both big publishers and small publishers alike (the Bookseller ran what I presume was an interesting article recently - about successful ad campaigns run on a shoe string budget - accessible here for those with subscriptions: I'd have loved to have known what their secrets were, as I recently spoke with the publicist of a very large London publishing house, at a social occasion. I'd been trying to place a review of one of his authors, without success. It had had virtually no publicity at all, but as the publicist sorrowfully told me, he had too many big-name authors to see to first. There just 'wasn't the time', he said, to give to the lesser-known ones on his list.

Most writers know this happens, but it's still quite shocking to hear it. Publicists are hugely necessary to writers - they're underpaid and often overworked and rarely as appreciated as they should be, because really, very often, the fate of a book can rest in their hands alone. With my first book, The Picnic, I was assigned an intern with whom I've gone on to be good friends, as she's progressed through the world of PR. She was keen and worked hard, but as an intern had no contacts set up with newspapers and magazines - so much of the time, editors rely on trusted and familiar publicists.

With my second book, Between the Sheets, I had the most amazing New York publicist, Vida, who terrified me with her plans for my book  - I would be flown over to NYC to promote it via radio talk shows, university lecture halls, face-to-face debates, and so on. It wasn't to be - she left the company just before my book came out and the plans came to nought. But she was a force to be reckoned with and got me into the New York Times, the New Republic, Bust magazine, the Miami Herald, the Austin Chronicle, all sorts of places. In the UK, Suzannah got me spot on the Today show - it wasn't her fault I was scheduled on the same day as the Bloody Sunday inquiry and got bumped at the last minute. But she got me into the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, among many, many others, and her subsequent replacement, Jamie-Lee, still fields emails from me about publicising opportunities.

In neither case was I with a massive publisher, so being pushed to the back of a very long list wouldn't have happened. But I know that smaller publishers have more of a struggle to get noticed, which is why I'm very happy that my latest publisher is part of the Faber Factory collection of publishers who do have a representative going round bookshops, pushing the books, making a personal connection. With the media contacts I have, I can hopefully manage to attract some print review attention, but I'm aware that it will be hard work all the way. When The Picnic came out it was only a few months after my Dad died and I struggled with the two public appearances I had, never mind a launch (I couldn't face it). With Between the Sheets I was still learning that signing and readings make a difference, although I managed a great launch this time. Hopefully with Unfashioned Creatures though, I'll be able to combine all that experience with the contacts I've amassed, and I'll be ready to do the necessary leg-work, if I get the opportunity. It's the part of the job that Robert Galbraith-J K Rowling missed out on, and it shows.  



  1. The phenomenon is puzzling. We can look back to Stephen King's Bachman Books, but he maintained that secret for at least four years, and the market was different even if he may have had similar motivations to Rowling, who only managed a couple of months.

    At some point along the line, this well-intentioned ruse became a scam. Rowling has used the same editor, agent and publisher. According to the Me And My Big Mouth blog, the book has sold around 450 copies, with 250 going to Goldsboro books, who specialised in signed first editions. That's around 200 sales, (respectable enough for an unknown book in a few months I guess, especially unusually - for debut crime fiction - in hardback). The crop of glowing reviews are interesting but suspiciously so... debut books without publicity will be bought and reviewed by relatives, friends and peers of the author in the first instance. So I wonder what's gone on behind the scenes in terms of passing around review copies and who was in the loop, whether in on the secret or otherwise.

    Elsewhere on Twitter, it's reported that Waterstones had no copies at all. The big beneficiary (other than Little Brown) will be Amazon although they have a waiting period. In the meantime, people can buy the paperback version of The Casual Vacancy. I know that's not how it *is*, but it's how it *looks*, and we're all cynics nowadays!

    I read the first pages on Amazon (after the news broke) and thought it a strange book for a crime novel. It seems somewhat passive and over-written, which is what I associate with Rowling's style, perhaps more of a literary effort than genre fiction. I'm sure it'll sell extraordinarily well and will please fans and others, but readers really shouldn't be taken for mugs, expected to react in Pavlovian style when the secret is revealed. Maybe next time she should publish electronically and anonymously.

  2. Yes, I must say I largely agree with you about a lot of that - the account of how the Sunday Times got tipped off sounds suspiciously like a publisher deliberately leaking information because if this had gone on too long and the sales hadn't improved, it would have been a huge embarrassment - she's been found out 'just in time'.


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