Opinion: Authors: bite the bullet and sell

Tim Relf
Opinion - Publishing 15 Jun 2009

Writing a book? You'd better be a good publicist as well, says Tim Relf The call never did come from Hay after my first novel came out. Ditto Mark Lawson, Melvyn Bragg or Mariella Frostrup (the last one I was particularly disappointed about). I wouldn €™t say I waited by the phone €“ but I expected at least a few publicity-related calls. Instead, my mum rang to say she enjoyed it (other than the smutty bits) and my next-door neighbour asked me whether her signed copy would be worth more if I got hit by a bus. I soon realized one thing. That, lovely people though they were, my publishers simply didn €™t have the time or money to give my book the publicity I thought it deserved. It €™s the same across all industries in these recessionary times. Companies everywhere are cutting back, and publicity and marketing departments are among the first under the scalpel. It €™s always been hard €“ unless your surname €™s Brown or Rowling €“ getting a share of the time and creative energy of PRs. It €™s even tougher now. There are fewer of them and they have less cash to spend. Authors nowadays need to get used to doing this publicity work themselves. Bottom line is, we need to be good at more than just writing if we €™re going to be successful. Like it or not, that €™s part of the job description. We have to learn to be confident approaching €“ and dealing with €“ the unpredictable and sometimes fierce world of the media.


The experts tell me that it €™s word-of-mouth recommendations that shift books, and to get that you €™ve got to get yourself out there. Ask yourself: how can the internet work for me? Writers nowadays, for example, are even making videos to promote their own work. We €™ve got to be different. We €™ve got to invest some of the same creative energy into this as we did in our books.
It €™s going to be a slog and you €™ve got to think laterally. Reviews aren €™t the holy grail. Yes, good ones provide nice dust jacket quotes and are flattering €“ but bugger vanity. It €™s sales we €™re all after.
All this, incidentally, is probably bad news for bookshops. Booksellers can expect more scruffy people traipsing in declaring: €œCan I have a moment please, I €™m a local author? € (I found them a mixed bunch: a couple were fantastic, but the staff in others looked like I €™d walked dog mess onto the carpet.)
I ended up going into every bookshop in a 25-mile radius and asking if they'd like to stock my book. I swallowed my sense of self-consciousness and called the local papers (they turned out to be very interested and helpful). I got myself on the local radio. I went to every signing, festival, fair and literary jamboree I could swing an invite to or gatecrash. I even got my publishers to send a copy of my book to other authors who I thought might like it. A lot of this was speculative, a lot was ultimately wasted effort, but some of it paid off. And you never know where efforts like that will lead. You simply never know.
A lot of authors still refuse to accept that PR is part of their role, but if you €™ve managed to complete a 100,000-word book and get it published, a few days spent trying to generate some publicity is the least of your worries.
Despite the temptation not to be - be nice to the people in your publisher €™s publicity department, as well. You never know: they might just bag you that slot at Hay, after all.
Tim Relf is the author of Stag and Home (Piatkus).

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