An established figure in fiction, Maggie O’Farrell’s surprise defection to non-fiction has proved a hit, topping the charts. But its success wasn’t without its challenges. Miriam Robinson talks to Headline's Georgina Moore about the campaign.
Miriam Robinson What were your objectives for this campaign?
Georgina Moore With Maggie’s fiction, we spend a good eight to nine months on the build-up to publication, sending out proofs, garnering influencer, blogger and bookseller support, getting early accolades from authors. We needed something different for her first foray into non-fiction. We didn’t have that time, and national newspaper extracts would need exclusivity. We wanted it to burst into the world with a media onslaught and for the word of mouth to build towards Christmas.
I approached the key media I wanted in advance of publication. We did not do proofs and I only sent review copies to confirmed interviewers, confirmed reviewers and event chairs. We knew that with a move to literary memoir every sale would be crucial, so I didn’t send it to other publishers or influencers. This was a hard habit to break but it was amazingly gratifying to see authors and influencers tweeting about their bought copies - those sales contributing to the book getting to number one.
Interviewers and event chairs were sworn to secrecy and I made people promise not to tweet if they got a rare early copy. I asked reviewers to stick to an embargo date. There was as a palpable sense of excitement when the first coverage started to appear, a sense of “What is this? I want it!”
MR What were the campaign’s main pillars?
GM The main sales-accelerating PR levers have been achieved, and there are more to come as we move towards Christmas. But the pillars, without a doubt, were the “Book of the Week” slot on BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian coverage, which Mary-Anne Harrington (Maggie’s editor) and I made the key targets. We knew Radio 4 producer Kirsteen Cameron was a fan, and she did all she could to get it through. We worked together to get the timing right for publication week. We also knew the Guardian Weekend spoke to Maggie’s heartland so we offered them the first extract and interview; it announced the book, which made a huge impact, and we ended up with a front cover story and an incredible interview by Decca Aitkenhead.
MR Did any other campaigns inspire this?
GM The campaigns for Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air inspired me.
MR What were your biggest challenges?
GM Maggie’s nervousness about the move to non-fiction. Two weeks before publication she was wondering if she could get out of the whole thing! Written as a private project for her daughter, Maggie didn’t want to publish the book... she only took a pound in payment for it, in case she wanted to pull out. The campaign and events had to be sensitively handled. At first Maggie didn’t want to do any events as she did not like the idea of answering questions about such personal things.
As the campaign came together and the response was overwhelmingly positive, things began to change. Maggie’s husband persuaded her that she should take the opportunity to talk about it. I worked closely with Mary-Anne to ensure interviews and extracts would speak for themselves, so that Maggie would not have to write extra pieces. In the end, she even agreed to a “BBC Breakfast” sofa chat!
MR Have you and your team learned anything unexpected?
GM That building up years of trust and friendship with an author and agent pays dividends when it comes to a change of direction - and that people in publishing do buy books if they want them enough!