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Penguin Publicist Holly Watson Talks Shop

Holly Watson is a Publicity Manager at Viking Penguin books and is based in Los Angeles, where she has been living since 2003. Since beginning her career in New York City as a Publicity Assistant in 1997, she has worked with a wide range of authors, including: T.C. Boyle, Stewart O’Nan, Terry McMillan, Garrison Keillor, Manning Marable, Jared Diamond, Michael Pollan, Linda Greenlaw, Douglas Brinkley, Michael Lewis, Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh and many others. She graduated from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara with a degree in literature in 1996.

MW: How many authors do you represent at any given time?

HW: That’s a complicated question. I would say the average number of new releases I work on each month is two, but could be one or could be three in a certain month. However, I’m always handling titles that came out a few months previous and books that will come in the next season. So if I think about the number of people I’m actively working with at any given time, I’d say about ten. That’s people I might be really involved with, spending a lot of time on each day.

MW: What authors have you worked with? Any we would know?

HW: P.C. Boyle is a novelist I’ve worked with for about ten years, Stewart O’Nan is another novelist I’ve worked with for a few years, and Rebecca Makkai is a new novelist. Elif Shafak is a Turkish author I’ve worked with, Manning Marable, who passed away recently, wrote a book called Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I’ve also worked with Garrison Keillor, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Lydia Davis on her translation of Madame Bovary. I’ll be working with William Kennedy in the fall. A long long time ago I worked with Irvine Welsh at Norton, and I worked with Senator Kennedy on his last book, a memoir. He’s probably the most famous person … and I worked with Elizabeth Gilbert on The Last American Man and the hardcover of Eat, Pray, Love. I also worked with Terry McMillan on her last book, Getting to Happy.

MW: How much correlation is there between the size of an author’s advance and the amount of attention that author’s book gets?

HW: I don’t have any information on their advances. It all depends on the size of the book tour. If someone’s going on a big book tour, there’s a lot more nitty gritty work to do (booking airline tickets, etc.) Sometimes really big name authors go on big tours and sometimes they don’t.

MW: What does a publicist do exactly?

HW: We start working on the book from the galley. We send it out to editors for review. That’s also when we set up the tour. Then we’re given the idea from the marketing department as to what the idea of the tour will be. It includes where the author is from, where the book is set, what the booksellers request. For this instance, this book I’m working on now—the author is from Chicago, but part of it is set in Vermont, so we’re having her do events in Chicago and the New England area. Say you had a nonfiction book set in a certain place, there will be more interest there. We always try to capitalize on local ties, whether it’s with the author or the book.

MW: How do you feel about authors hiring outside publicists?

HW: We never have a problem with that. Sometimes they’re especially helpful if it’s a niche market that we don’t have a special expertise in. Of course we research media outlets for every book, and we have a wide range of markets, but if it’s a political book and the publicist has special contacts in the political world … we’ve always been open to doing that. We just coordinate to make sure the efforts aren’t duplicated. Authors just need to be very specific in what they are requiring from a freelance publicist to get the most for their money—down to the number of interviews expected and what sort of media—newspapers, radio, etc.

MW: How has the advent of social media changed the author’s role in publicizing his book?

HW: We definitely have found it to be very useful, especially for authors who are newer, authors who are coming out with their first book. We pretty much now encourage all authors to have a presence on Facebook. In terms of Twitter and their own blogs, it’s a lot of work to keep up, and we only encourage it if they know what it entails. We always encourage the author to have a website to have a home for the book. Having something there is useful, even if they’re not posting on Twitter and Facebook. I think Facebook is important, too, and every author I know has a Facebook page. Even if an author isn’t spending a lot of time maintaining it, just having it is helpful.

MW: Does social media sell books?

HW: We have seen it be helpful in building successful book campaigns. A few months before Terry McMillan’s book came out, we encouraged her to start tweeting, and she got really into tweeting and it really helped spread the word about her events when she was on tour. Our Associate Director of Digital media has her own blog and knows a lot more about this stuff.

MW: How do you manage a writer’s expectations about how well their book is going to do?

HW: That is probably something their editor and agent do more. I mainly tell them what to expect on their book tour. I tell them what to expect at bookstore events. They can range from ten people to hundreds—there are all kinds of factors besides how well known they are—the weather, a baseball game happening at the same time. As a publicist, that’s one of my jobs besides dealing with the day-to-day of book tours.

MW: Are most authors still doing book tours?

HW: Tours aren’t always necessary. It just depends on the author, and I’ll be pitching media for the author even if they’re not going on a book tour. But as long as bookstores are around and thriving, book tours will be around. Part of what’s important about a book tour, especially for fiction authors, is meeting the booksellers and developing a relationship with them. Where books are hand sold by booksellers, that can be very important. I think more so even for fiction than nonfiction. The necessity to tour to do media, however, has decreased. You can do media from anywhere now. The main value of the book tour is the personal interaction between the author and the audience at the bookstore.

MW: Are blog tours gaining popularity?

HW: I have not arranged a blog-specific tour yet, but it may very well might become part of my job. I work on plenty of books where we’re setting up tours not with just blogs, but with radio stations, newspapers, and magazines.

MW: How can a writer get the most out of working with an in-house publicist?

HW: Just being proactive with their contacts and getting the word out there with everyone they know and not being shy about spreading the word about their book—especially if they’re going to do events—getting a big crowd there. Another author I knew came up with a really interesting idea. He traveled and did readings with a band, which really increased his author size. He also did a really cool book trailer. That can break you out of just the book audience into other sites that post videos. But if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to have a vision of how you’re going to do it. It can’t be just you talking about the book. I’ve seen a lot of boring book trailers.

MW: Do you recommend an author create her own press kit?

HW: As long as the author understands the basics of how things work and is working within the general structure. You wouldn’t want to have a press kit that is fifty pages long—and if you have a good reason for doing it, then it’s great. If I’m working with a science author, and I want to do a Q&A, I’d probably ask him to do the Q&A because I wouldn’t want to get the science wrong, and I’d work with him. We basically just try to all work on the same side.

MW: What makes a great press kit?

HW: Generally we stick to a standard format. That being said, there have certainly been times we’ve broken away from that. Today, there’s the printed press kit and the digital press kit. When I first started, we were trying to do catchier things with the print press kit, now we’re trying to be more creative with the digital press kit—a link to a trailer, a website, a YouTube video, an interview with an author, etc.

MW: When publicists get together, what horror stories do they tell each other?

HW: I think the worst thing is when someone is nagging you so much that you can’t get your job done. If someone is so neurotic that you have to reassure them every day that everything is okay, that’s an hour away from the time that I could be pitching the book. There’s got to be a certain amount of trust involved.

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What about you? Do you read The Book Publicity Blog? Have you learned any marketing tips or read about any publicity stunts that have been successful for authors? Miranda July’s ever-changing website and the The Story of Stuff book trailer come to mind.

13 comments to Penguin Publicist Holly Watson Talks Shop

  • Kristan

    Very interesting interview, thank you both!

    "Part of what’s important about a book tour, especially for fiction authors, is meeting the booksellers and developing a relationship with them."

    I never thought about that — about the BOOKSELLERS being just as important as the readers — but it makes total sense. Great insight!

  • Thanks for this interview, Meghan. It felt a little like time traveling back to the 1990s. I didn't know publishers still had publicists. We keep hearing that it's all up to the author. But I guess the stars still get the old fashioned posh treatment. I wonder how long that will be happening?

    I just saw a bin at the dollar store filled with copies of a hardcover book by an author I saw interviewed on Colbert just three months ago. All that lovely publicity ended up in the dollar store–and so soon. Did I buy the book for a dollar? No. It felt like taking advantage of another author's misfortune. Now I kind of wish I had, though. The Kindle version is still 12.99.

    Very interesting interview.

    • Anne – Yes, publicists are still alive and well!

      Today I bought the Kindle version of a book that was cheaper in the paperback version – just seems wrong that I'm paying more for the e-version. The hardcover was just 1.50 more, but I didn't want to pay shipping or to carry it around. Crazy, though, that that author's e-book is still selling for $12.99 when the hardcover is a dollar.

  • Interesting stuff. Thanks, Meghan. Now if I can just get myself to the point where I have a publisher…

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