For Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy, Canongate’s Jenny Fry, Anna Frame and Vicki Watson worked closely to deliver a nuanced message to a huge audience. Miriam Robinson spoke to Fry about the campaign’s finer points.
Miriam Robinson What was your objective for this campaign?
Jenny Fry [pictured left] From acquisition, we knew we were publishing a brilliantly observed, timely analysis of masculinity and gender politics, wrapped up in a beautifully crafted memoir. The decision to lead with the book’s commentary on gender determined its design, cover copy, campaign tone, messaging and publication date - we didn’t want it getting swept up in the autumn celebrity memoir mix. This enabled us to make the book a central part of a national conversation around gender. The strategy worked: How Not To Be a Boy débuted at number one in the Sunday Times bestseller lists.
MR What were the central pillars of the strategy?
JF The focus on gender issues. Staying true to Robert’s voice and the concerns he explores was vital. We used adapted versions of the same copy in every element of the campaign, from London Underground ads to proof covers and digital assets. We prioritised media outlets that chimed with the book’s key message: even before the book took off, we had secured Observer Magazine serial, a Sunday Times Magazine interview, “Channel 4 News” (an interview that spawned viral videos), “BBC Breakfast”, “Lorraine”, BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week” and “Woman’s Hour”, and lots of reviews in print.
Marketing focused on reaching Robert’s existing audience for pre-orders. We focused on his social channels and the Mitchell & Webb/“Peep Show” demographic, predominantly men under 35. From publication we broadened our target to include women’s lifestyle, but it was still men who engaged most with the ads, particularly on Facebook (67%). We created timely, engaging video content with Robert, supported by noisy Tube ads and social-media advertising, and targeted readers of celebrity-authored serious non-fiction, adding Reddit and YouTube advertising. We then moved to messaging about the number-one bestseller that everyone was talking about.
The events tour in the autumn was also key. Events are time-consuming to organise and hard work for the author, but having strong partners in Foyles, Waterstones and the indie bookshops made all the difference.
MR What were your challenges, and how did you overcome them?
JF Robert is a fantastic writer, but we knew it can be viewed with cynicism when a celebrity turns author, so we printed 800 proofs and spent months getting these into the hands of booksellers, the media, influencers, and any passionate supporters we could find. This was important because we had set out to launch Robert’s writing career: he’s currently at work on his first novel.
We were careful not to imply that he was an expert on masculinity; his approach was personal, and his experience writing comedy made for a hugely entertaining read, while speaking to wider social challenges. The book walks that line with great finesse - it was vital to echo this.
MR What lessons will you take forward into future campaigns?
JF That a genuinely engaged, passionate and hard-working author, combined with a clear vision from a team working together, can really deliver. On a practical note, Canongate uses Slack across its Edinburgh and London offices, and a “Webb channel” enabled us to keep discussing each element of the campaign.
MR What’s next?
JF Another push for Christmas, including digital advertising, Graham Norton’s BBC Radio 2 show, an event and media in Robert’s home county of Lincolnshire, Stylist Live, and more.