In her series of columns Lizzie Damilola Blackburn, debut author of Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? (Viking), reveals all about the reality behind the dream of being published.
Have you ever wondered how books gain traction? How they magically land in the hands of many eager readers? Enter the marketing and publicity teams. Although they work hand in hand, there is a distinct difference. Marketing is often paid for (think digital advertising, ads at the start of podcasts etc), whereas publicity is pitched for by the author’s publicist. While there may be a fee for writing a feature or appearing at a ticketed event, many interviews are agreed so that the book is promoted in exchange for access to the author, with no money changing hands.
Aside from having one of the coolest job titles in the world, publicists help authors promote themselves and their book. They secure press coverage by persuading representatives of media outlets such as magazines, blogs, TV, radio (to name a few) to feature the author and/or their book in some shape or form. So, if you’ve ever seen a magazine article written by an author or seen an online publication reviewing their book, most likely it was the publicist who bagged them the opportunity. They’re pretty amazing at what they do.
I started to work more closely with my UK and US publicists back in August. At the time, I vaguely understood their role. I knew that they would be sourcing media opportunities on my behalf, but I thought my involvement would only be required once my book was published. I was also under the impression that such opportunities would be focused solely on the book. Hah! How wrong was I?
In order for books to sell, people need to hear about them – ideally, months before – because, in reality, books cannot sell themselves. Authors are integral to the promotion process because no one knows their story better than them. Readers are also a curious bunch – they want to know about the human behind the words. What are they like? What inspires them? What parts of the book are based on their personal experience? Therefore, unless you’re already a household name with a massive following and a loyal fanbase, gaining publicity for your book also requires a degree of putting yourself out there.
In my last column, I mentioned that I’m naturally introverted and how I’d prefer to be the runner with the walkie-talkie behind the curtain, as opposed to being the show-stopping star on stage. And so, just before I started working with my UK publicist, I laid all my cards on the table – something I encourage all authors to do.
“I sometimes find it hard to articulate my thoughts,” I told my publicist, Jane, over lunch one afternoon. “And I get brain fog. And I get self-conscious when I speak. And I’m a bit worried about people knowing my business.”
Yeah, let’s just say it was a long list. Jane was brilliant. She immediately reassured me that (1) I wasn’t the first author to be a bit tentative about doing media, and (2) I absolutely do not need to share any details about myself that I’m not comfortable with. This point is really crucial because there may be times when a journalist will ask you a question which touches on your personal life, and as an author it’s important to set boundaries beforehand and stick to them. She also reminded me that I will be supported, not just by her but also by her brilliant colleagues, Olivia and Rosie. She emphasised the value of practising and preparing and how it can go a long way in making one feel comfortable.
To help boost my confidence, I was provided with some media training which ended up being less daunting than I’d thought. With the help of the team, we brainstormed potential questions I could get asked, right from the standard, “Tell me what inspired you to write Yinka?” to the more thought-provoking, “Why did you choose to explore faith and colourism?” They provided me with top tips such as “Try not to speak too quickly when nervous,” and “Breathe; take your time to answer,” but ultimately, they encouraged me to be myself.
It is this last piece of advice that I constantly have to remind myself of whenever I’m presented with a media opportunity. Recently I was asked to write a memoir-style article on a topic we had pitched for Elle magazine’s March 2022 edition. Honestly, when I started writing the piece, it felt as though I was trying to drive a car with the handbrake still on. My words were stiff, then ostentatious, as I tried to mimic the styles of previous authors who had contributed to Elle’s memoir section with their beautifully crafted prose. For those of you who have read my other columns or Yinka, you’ll know that my writing is light, (hopefully) funny in places, sarky and taut. Nevertheless, I questioned my capability as a writer – how good am I, really?
You’re struggling because you’re not being true to yourself, I heard a gentle voice say after I’d given up writing for the umpteenth time, head slumped back against the bedrest, brain pounding from creative exhaustion.
The words hit home; I felt a pang in my chest. I picked up a nearby copy of Yinka and flicked through the pages. I wrote this being true to myself, I thought. And look at where it got me.
Letting go of the fear, the self-judgement, the feeling of not being good enough, I wrote from my gut, letting my heart, rather than my head, guide my fingers along the keys, until I found that sweet spot that writers call ‘flow’. When I emailed my article to my editor and my publicist the following day, I was really touched by their feedback. They said my piece was beautiful and that they were incredibly moved.
I’m using this experience as a good reminder that I can’t go wrong if I stay true to myself, and I believe that’s why I enjoyed my most recent media gigs – being interviewed for Grazia’s “Life Advice” Podcast and taking part in a relationship panel discussion for Penguin Random House’s Winter Book & Author Festival.
So, my advice to any writers who are anxious about doing media: don’t be. Just be yourself.