When Minette Walters’ first book in 10 years - The Last Hours - was acquired by Allen & Unwin UK in April, the comms team had just over six months until publication. For a name this big, that would have been challenge enough, but there was an added twist: a change in direction for the author, who had moved from psychological thrillers to historical fiction.
The team - publicity director Kirsty Doole and marketing director Jamie Forrest - saw the change as an opportunity to re-engage Walters’ fans and widen the net to readers of historical fiction. They did so through strong trade messaging, before branching out to the press, and then running both out-of-home and digital creative campaigns.
The team knew the best spokespeople for Walters’ new direction would be booksellers and influencers with the time and platform to communicate directly with readers. In April they launched the hashtag #minetteisback to spread news of her return, which was supported with a large proof mailing, trade advertising and a NetGalley email. Walters, hard at work on her follow-up, rarely left her Dorset home, but A&U had her discuss the book at the Faber sales conference on one of her London trips, on which she also recorded a video for the Australian sales team.
Doole says: “Minette writes page-turners. This is historical fiction, but it has the same suspense as her crime novels. As she herself says, there has been no bigger killer than the Black Death. It is a different direction, but we wanted to reassure fans that what they love about Minette’s books is still there.”
The team used press to spread this message early on, placing a comeback feature in the Guardian in May.
They then shifted their focus from trade to consumer, highlight the content and beauty of the book itself. They had to anticipate and prevent feelings of alienation in Walters fans who didn’t understand her move to historical fiction, and also from historical fiction fans who didn’t know of her, or wouldn’t want to read anything by a crime author. “When we began to develop the creative,” says Forrest, “we tested a darker, more crime-thriller ad, and straight away it became apparent that we didn’t want to go that route.” Working with digital agency MoonAge, the team created two campaigns for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: one aimed at Walters’ crime fans, prioritising her reputation; and another that emphasised the book’s content to historical readers.
As publication approached, the team honed in on a relatively traditional group of readers, investing in a widespread out-of-home campaign and scheduling Walters’ comeback event at the Cheltenham Festival. Press also took a traditional angle, with reviews and interviews on “Front Row”, in the Sunday Times, BBC History, Women & Home, the Mail on Sunday, You, the Daily Express and Good Housekeeping. Doole also focused on local press, which reported on the Walters angle and the subject matter: the Black Death’s arrival in England, at Weymouth, was the author’s inspiration.
The team also took a page out of Ken Follett’s recent campaign, partnering with The Pigeonhole for an exclusive digital book club, where 500 fans could read The Last Hours early alongside Walters, who answered readers’ comments. In addition to super-fan loyalty, this garnered early reviews on Amazon and strong word of mouth.
So what’s next? Forrest says: “Since the next book is coming soon, one of the next jobs is to building her brand in this new space.” If the initial buzz is anything to go by, they’re off to a flying start.