This is the last in my series of publishing interviews. I’ve discovered so many things about how this world works including answers from a publishing director, to an art director to a literary agent, and many roles in between. And of course there are a lot more people who help get a book written, published and on the shelves that I haven’t managed to talk to: booksellers, writing course teachers, sales reps, editorial assistants, and many more. But I need to take a break because I have lots of Swimming Lessons events coming up; if there are any roles in particular you would like me to interview, just drop me a line, or comment below, and I’ll store up the suggestions for later in the year.
So, here is my interview with Poppy North, Campaigns Manager at Penguin Random House. She is the person who has got so much fabulous coverage for Swimming Lessons, from an interview on Woman’s Hour to lots of great reviews, and although we email a few times a week I wanted to get more of an idea about what her job entails.
Claire: You’re a Campaigns Manager for Penguin and I know your job is incredibly busy and I imagine it’s about juggling lots of different things at the same time. Can you explain a bit more about the structure at Penguin, and the kind of things you do.
Poppy: I work in the merged Communications team in Penguin General, with a specific focus on publicity but work with the team on shaping the whole campaign for a book. We each work on around 3 – 4 titles a month, both hardbacks and paperbacks, and tend to work from around a year to nine months in advance on each title so are thinking about a lot of books at once! Our job is to get books in front of consumers, to get books noticed as much as possible, in as many places as possible.
The nature of our division means that these books are very varied – I work on everything from literary novels to serious non-fiction to sport to cookery – so I’m constantly kept on my toes!
Claire: What do you like best about your job? And what’s the worst / most frustrating thing?
Poppy: My favourite thing is the variety of books that I get to work on, and the people I get to meet. Sometimes I have to really pinch myself! And also the people I work with. Not to sound cheesy but everyone here really loves books and it’s amazing to come into work with people who have such passion. The most frustrating thing is not having enough hours in the day, especially on days filled with meetings…
Claire: How are you allocated the authors you work with, and how can they help with promoting a book?
Poppy: We try to ensure there’s balance across the team, so that comes into it, but more importantly, we tend to get allocated the books, and the authors, that we love.
You are a fantastic example of a helpful author Claire. For some authors, like you, having a presence online can be very valuable as a way to speak to readers. And getting to know other authors is really nice – it tends to be a very supportive community. I also think getting to know your local bookshops can be very valuable. High street bookshops are still vital, and showing them support is really important.
Claire: Can you lead us through the process of planning and executing a campaign for a particular title?
Poppy: This is hard because it’s different for every campaign and so broad in scope, with so much granular detail that I’ll think you’ll find my explanation terribly boring. No two books are the same. I think one of the most crucial things that is relevant for all books is identifying who the audience is and how you’re going to talk about it to them very early on in the process. The campaign will then develop from there in terms of where I want to get coverage, what platforms I want the book to be visible on etc. For some books it’s obvious but for others you have to work harder to find the correct audience and get the messaging right.
Claire: And what would you like authors to understand about your role or what you do that would make your life a little easier?
Poppy: To trust that we’re trying! Even if it goes silent for a little, it doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about the book – more often than not, we’re getting our head down and pitching as hard as we can.
Claire: There’s currently lots of talk about places that books can be reviewed and discussed decreasing. Do you find this to be the case, or do you see opportunities elsewhere?
Poppy: Slots in traditional places are certainly decreasing – book pages are becoming smaller, there’s no TV show focused on books. But there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere, and online is now incredibly important to every campaign we do. Possibilities there are huge, and often allow us to have a direct line to readers which is so valuable.
Claire: What campaigns have you worked on that you’ve particularly enjoyed, and why?
Poppy: So many, it’s hard to count – most recently, along with Swimming Lessons (which I’ve loved working on), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on Homegoing, a fantastic debut novel from 27 year old Yaa Gyasi. Breaking debut novels can be hard but this book has really connected with readers, which is fantastic to see.
Claire: How did you get into your current role, and do you have any advice for people interested in your kind of job?
Poppy: I got a work experience placement and basically didn’t leave until they gave me a job! To people interested in it I’d say that it’s actually very easy to make a good impression when doing work experience – be enthusiastic (even if the work seems boring, we know how tiresome mailings can be), and try and be as diligent as possible, and ask us about our jobs. We want you to learn whilst you’re here, and we’ll remember you if you’re good.
Claire: Do you still get a chance to read for pleasure, and what books have you read in 2016 that really stick in your mind?
Poppy: Yes, I still love reading and read as much as I can. Two books have really stuck in my mind recently – George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo which is unusual, surprising and utterly gripping. I think it’s going to win prizes. And I’ve just read, for the first time, Arundhati Roy’s A God of Small Things ahead of her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which we’re publishing in June. I knew A God of Small Things was good but I wasn’t prepared for how good it was. It blew me away. I can’t wait to read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Claire: Can you tell me anything about you or what you do that would surprise readers of this series?
Poppy: I know the full addresses of all the newspapers in London off by heart (what a loser).
Claire: Thanks so much, Poppy. Fascinating stuff.
Read my interview with a reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with a Translator
Read my interview with an Editor
Read my interview with a Copy-editor