Leena Normington talks to Claire Coughlan about authenticity, activism and the accessibility of social media
Creating engaging content is all in a day's work for Leena Normington, Vintage's social media producer. Alongside her busy day job, Normington works early mornings and weekends on her own YouTube channel, JustKissMyFrog, which boasts 55,000 subscribers, and she is a presenter on the popular podcast Banging Book Club, which covers topics relating to sex and gender. She also writes poetry on Instagram.
In 2017, Normington was appointed as a YouTube Ambassador, a "Creator for Change Fellow", in an initiative that supports creators who are tackling social issues and promoting awareness, tolerance and empathy. Normington's thought-provoking video essay, "Go Back to Where You Came From", advocates for the British Empire and its effects to be included on the educational curriculum, in response to anti-immigration feeling and the rise of the far right. The video has been viewed over 78,000 times so far. Alongside all this, she also has a series on her channel about how to get into publishing.
"I consider that a bit of activism," she explains. "For me, growing up in Coventry, I didn't know anyone in publishing, or that it was possible."
Normington credits the channel, which she started in the first year of an English degree at Aberystwyth University, as helping her make contacts and figure out how to break into the book industry. "It was only through the internet that I could have accessed that. You know, nobody was going to Coventry and saying, "Would you like to work in publishing"? There's no outreach there, so part of that is making publishing as accessible as possible and breaking down some of the mystery around it."
Normington's first book industry job was as a bookseller at the Coventry Waterstones. An internship at Icon Books eventually turned into a publicity manager role at the indie, where she worked on books including Harry's Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith. Jobs at Pan Macmillan and Telegraph Books followed, and she joined the Vintage brand team a year ago. Her current role at Vintage involves creating content for the Vintage community, which has an online audience of over 600,000 across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, newsletter, website and the regular Vintage podcast.
If there's one component to creating engaging content, what is it? "I don't know if authenticity is an overused word at this point, but it's knowing why you're telling someone about books and not just having to put a sales slant on it and tweet it out like it's an advert, because people are very sensitive to that now," she says. "We do run ads and do traditional advertising as well, but people follow our channels for the more organic content, and less of the ads. It's really knowing why you're talking to somebody, and talking to the audience and not just shouting at them. That even comes down to the way I might phrase a sentence, or the kind of link I use, or the kind of image I pick for our channels, versus what might be on a billboard, or might be used in Facebook ads."
The job requires that she be "very versatile and elastic", Normington says. "A lot of it involves the kind of deep focus editing that's required to make a podcast, but then a lot of scheduling and organisation. On a normal day, I'll be in meetings, liaising with publicists and marketers - sometimes editors - about the projects that are coming up, and working out how I can help them and what would fit the Vintage channels. Some of it is chatting to authors - in the last few weeks I've done a lot of interviews. Sitting down for one or two hours with an author and really hashing out what their book's about and recording them for a long time, and then getting a 20-minute episode out of that."
Is social media presence vital for anyone in the trade? "I think it's vital for publishers to have a presence, and for people in publishing," Normington replies. "Authors, I'm on the fence about, because I think if it's a place that they feel comfortable and fluent in, and they get it and speak the language and enjoy it, and as long as it doesn't distract them from writing, then it's a great place to be, to connect them to readers. But for people who aren't comfortable with it, they'll stick out like a sore thumb. We don't expect authors to be social media experts to be good authors.
"So, I think yes, but it's on a case-by-case basis. At the end of day, it's our job to market their books and find an audience for them." She cites Margaret Atwood as an author who "has it down to a tee. She really gets Twitter."
Normington says that social media has made publishers and readers more accessible to each other. "Before social media, it was much more of a guessing game, but now we can do a poll on Twitter and ask them what they'd like to see, or chat to some of our dedicated viewers about what they think of it and what could be better."
Vintage from time to time runs a "Vintage Recommends" hashtag (#VintageRecommends) on Twitter, where reading recommendations are offered to individual readers who ask for them, drawing on Vintage's broad backlist, including its red spines, which are reissues of classics.
"I don't really see what could have replaced that in the past; there isn't really an equivalent for that, for publishers at least," Normington explains. "So that's an amazing thing that's happened. It's a bit different from a newspaper review - I'm not saying that newspaper reviews are good or bad, they have a huge effect for us, but it's a different kind of recommendation."