‘What Do You Actually DO?’: The Lowdown on Book Publicists

Emily Laidlaw goes behind the scenes to find out what it’s like to be a book publicist: parties, press releases and looking after authors ‘without being a fussing pain in the arse’.

She picks the brains of Black Inc.’s Imogen Kandel and Bloomsbury Australia’s Brendan Fredericks.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of books released each year, how does any one title stand out? Consider the book you’ve got on the go right now. How did it squash its way into your carry bag or onto your ereader? Did a good friend press it into your hands with gushing praise? Or was its route a little less direct? Perhaps it first came to your attention after you read an author interview in the weekend papers. You might have clicked on a link bouncing around Twitter and watched an entertaining trailer for it. Maybe you glanced out the train window one day and absently took in a catchy billboard advertisement. Consciously or not, this book was sold to you on some level.

This is the realm of book publicists. While they are an integral part of a book’s promotional success (or failure), publicists are among the more overlooked figures of the book world, perhaps deliberately so. Like editors – the other ghostly cogs in the publishing process, weaving their handiwork without leaving a trace – publicists are the invisible strings holding the finished product up to the public.

Black Inc. senior publicist Imogen Kandel

Black Inc. senior publicist Imogen Kandel

Such anonymity means their role is not widely understood. Imogen Kandel, senior publicist at Black Inc. in Melbourne, laughs when asked how people respond to her job title. ‘Usually they say “Oh cool”. And then there’ll be a long pause and they’ll ask: “So what do you actually do?”’ she says. ‘People dig the concept, but they don’t know what it entails.’

Brendan Fredericks, publicity manager for Bloomsbury Australia in Sydney, receives similar odd stares about his job. ‘Some look at me funny’, he says, ‘like whatever image of a publicist they have in their head, is nowhere near what they [see].’

One explanation is that the publicity world has long been lampooned in popular culture, from the hilariously over-the-top comedy Absolutely Fabulous to the slick, more serious satire of Mad Men. Book publicity, however, is not all clinking champagne flutes and schmoozing with reporters. Fredericks summarises publicists’ daily challenges as: ‘pitching a book to a literary editor on the phone in an open-plan office; allocating proofs to the right media contacts at the right magazine; putting together a planned media campaign for a book months in advance; organising book tours, author talks, bookstore events; sending out media releases, review copies and, most importantly, keeping authors fed and watered – and looking after them without being a fussing pain in the arse!’

Likewise, Kandel says her biggest priority is juggling sensitive relationships between authors and the media, which she describes as a ‘spider web of responsibilities’. Publicists can be working on multiple titles per month, so there’s ‘a lot of reading’, she says, eyes widening. ‘My job also involves huge amounts of writing. Thousands of press releases are sent out each day, so it’s important to be producing exciting copy that grabs people’s attention.’

Away from their desks, publicists do get to kick up their heels, but it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds, Fredericks says. ‘Bloomsbury authors are pretty popular with festivals and get invited all the time. This means I have a pretty heavy touring schedule. Touring can be pretty demanding, and has its share of challenges: being away from home, late nights, long days, early starts, hotels, flights, post-event drinks, dinners, pre-dinner drinks, delayed flights, long waits, airport lounge drinks, crazy schedules where you need to be two places at once, or three, or more…’

Publicity, of course, is all about getting a message across and, unfortunately for publicists, writers – supposedly master communicators – don’t always make the best public speakers. ‘Authors are generally quiet people who’ve been alone for a really long time, writing a book. So it’s often really hard for them to talk about a book in front of an audience,’ explains Kandel. ‘Getting to know them and what their strengths are is important,” she says. “It’s important to sit down with them and have a conversation so you can gauge their performance style.’

As stressful as this all might sound, Fredericks relishes the fast-paced environment. ‘I hate to be bored, and there’s bugger-all chance of that happening in my role.’ A tireless work ethic seems to be the secret key to the job. ‘Having frantic energy levels, little need for sleep, being a little ADD, and a lot OCD, is the perfect blend for being a publicist,’ says Fredericks. ‘I love being on the road… just you and the authors, readers, journos. The challenge for me is going back to the office when the touring ends.’

While publicists don’t receive the same media attention as their authors, they’re still able to enjoy the reflected glow of the limelight. Kandel is particularly proud of her recent campaign for Chrissie Swan’s debut book, Is It Just Me? ‘It’s been a real joy,’ says Kandel. ‘Chrissie’s book has been getting a lot of good buzz and it’s very nice to feel such a positive response back at you.’