At the Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference Nikesh Shukla (author & editor of The Good Immigrant), Amy Winchester (publicist at Unbound) and myself (Nikesh’s literary agent) gave a presentation about the campaign for the book and what we thought other people could learn from it.
We gave an overview of the book and campaign, Nikesh spoke about why the book couldn’t afford to fail and then gave our key takeaways.
The campaign: a summary
Everything started with a tweet in September 2015 between Nikesh and Musa Okwonga (who was one of the book’s contributors), though Nikesh had already had an interesting conversation with Unbound about what they did. The original idea evolved quite fast and pretty soon Nikesh told me he wanted to do the book and the campaign started pretty immediately. Everything was still in preparation stage when the charity I used to run, World Book Night, released a list of exclusively white writers. Nikesh commented on twitter about this but I was also pretty unhappy – I’d worked hard each year I’d run it to make the list as representative as possible and I knew that that paucity of BAME writers published made it hard but not impossible. I asked Nikesh to write a piece for the Bookseller because I knew if we got this right it would kickstart an incredible campaign. He did and it did. The piece was followed up with a Guardian Review cover and on Front Row and we brought forward the crowdfunding launch. We reached a third of the target quite fast but then everything changed when a certain Joanna Rowling contributed, shooting us up to two-thirds funded and then went public about it. Whilst we ended up at 199% of our target with 1323 supporters she gave the book the sort of legitimacy that crowdfunded books had often lacked.
Publication was originally scheduled for May but the need for the book to be as good as possible pushed it back to September. This meant that the essays were by and large written pre-Brexit, that the book had been funded considerably before then, but it was published into a very different world.
This was the moment our PR campaign really kicked off. On 15th September, a week before publication, Riz Ahmed’s face (and his Guardian Long Read!) went viral on social media. At the same time, Nikesh and his Token jumper were beamed into millions of homes by BBC Breakfast.
Because we’re a crowdfunder, and because this was a campaigning book, we new there was already a community behind The Good Immigrant. We had a huge groundswell of support from the publishing industry – Sarah Perry, Jonathan Coe, Max Porter, Cathy Rentzenbrink and of course J.K Rowling all pledged for the book, and we saw glowing cover quotes from DJ Nihal, Sathnam Sanghera, Shazia Mirza, and more. The job of the PR effort, then, was to make a mainstream audience want to be part of that community too.
At Unbound we have no formal marketing budgets; at the time of publication I was a one-woman PR department. In order to make a splash, The Good Immigrant absolutely had to be my priority for most of 2016. And I was glad to do it – this was a project that lit a fire in house and made us all feel part of a cultural moment. I mentioned it to anyone and everyone I met with; I followed up every lead that came my way. In short, this campaign was about dedication and passion, chasing every single thing, and refusing to let up when we passed the publication mark.
We secured a holy trinity of PR slots early on: BBC Breakfast, Radio 4’s Book of the Week, and the Guardian Long Read. As publicists in the room will know, there’s nothing like a big piece of coverage elsewhere to make other media outlets sit up and take note! We saw a brilliant first week in sales and when R4 kicked into gear later in October we were rewarded with another big spike. The Good Immigrant was reviewed everywhere from the Observer to the Spectator, from Emerald Street to Gal-Dem. It was in the media on a weekly basis; the Guardian covered Nikesh and the book no less than ten times, and we were in every Book of the Year roundup.
Crucially, Nikesh and the contributors were incredibly committed to keeping the book’s profile high. With a core group of the authors in tow, we did a huge number of sellout events throughout the autumn. Manchester Literary Festival was a highlight, where Nikesh, Inua, Miss L and Himesh played to an audience of 200. The Good Immigrant features a cast of punchy, funny, bold, eloquent and hugely diverse writers, and they are undeniably our greatest asset. Seeing them in action on stage only helped the word of mouth to spread. As the prize nominations came pouring in – from the Liberty Human Rights Award to the Nibbies – we were overwhelmed with the public response, and winning the Books are My Bag Readers Choice Award just served to prove how vital this collection of essays really was.
On May 4th the paperback was published along with an audiobook featuring every single one of the writers reading their own essays and we’re still doing promotion and events and pushing the book at every opportunity we can.
Why this book was so important and why it couldn’t afford to fail
You only get one chance when you’re a BAME writer, ask any of them, they’ve all been told the same thing by publishers when they’re rejected: ‘we’ve already got an Asian writer on our list’ or ‘we’ve already got a black writer’, as if we’re all some sort of homogenous group of people, with similar backgrounds and experiences. So when The Good Immigrant was published, we weren’t going to throw away our shot.
It reminds me of a rejection I once got for a novel. I was told that people don’t really read or buy books by BAME writers, which is doubly insulting. My skin colour is not a marketing trend – and it’s also not an unlucrative marketing trend. Diversity is not ‘so hot right now’. It’s not on trend. If this current moment we are having of seeing unrepresented people getting published goes away next week, I’ll still be brown.
When you’re thinking about BAME writers or audiences treat us as you would yourself. Don’t dehumanise me or BAME readers.
Key takeaways from the campaign
Takeaway 1: Understanding & reaching our very multi-layered audience
- We knew the audience for this campaign was really complex and we planned how we were going to penetrate all parts of it including the establishment of publishing, the media & government; traditional white middle class book buyers and very varied BAME communities
- We did this by planning a strategy for each and playing to our strengths. Amy ran a very good PR campaign but didn’t try to replicate or interfere with what Nikesh and the authors could do with BAME media. I helped where I could add value including the initial launch strategy and seriously lobbying R4 for Book of the Week
Takeaway 2: The value of an author-centric campaign
- The quantity of authors was both a blessing and curse, it’s been hard work but galvanising them and working with them has been incredibly rewarding, most campaigns don’t have that, but sometimes you’re lucky to have an extended network of people to work with
- However, the incredibly energetic, engaged, powerful centre in Nikesh was really key. No one is like Nikesh BUT many of you have amazing authors who could be utilised better if you start with your author at the centre of the campaign, look at them as a real asset and part of the team, think about what they can do and build on top of that, rather than starting the other way round with what you can do and then bolt the author onto that
Takeaway 3: Building then galvanising a hyper-engaged community
- The Good Immigrant wouldn’t exist without the 1323 people who gave their money for an idea. When the book finally hit shops, it had an army of advocates who were thrilled to have been part of something, and that feeling is contagious. Unless you’re crowdfunding it’s hard to do this but there are still ways of building a community.
- You don’t have to wait to find fans when you publish, you can set about creating fans from the moment of acquisition or commissioning. All authors have communities (even if it just starts with their families) and you can galvanise them to build larger communities for you. Social media has a huge part to play here – twitter generated over half of all The Good Immigrant’s pledge revenue and we saw tremendous engagement with the hashtags #proudchildofanimmigrant and #thegoodimmigrant, before the book even came off the press.
Takeaway 4: Embracing every opportunity
- The Good Immigrant is a campaigning book and most books aren’t, so it was naturally simply more in sync with the news cycle than books usually are (and you should never try to take advantage of a news cycle that you aren’t integrally relevant to just to get coverage) but we still drove activity and the conversation constantly taking every opportunity we could to make noise around the books
- So when the broader agenda chimes with your book don’t be complacent, keep working, even long after publication. If you can still drive sales its still worth driving them.
Takeaway 5: Real team work
- We each did what we were good at in harmony and we trusted each other to each be doing what we could do. It may sound obvious but it often doesn’t work how it should. When we knew what we were all working towards and how we could contribute we were all able to deliver what we could.
- There is risk here and it did almost go wrong for us with the BBC but we averted disaster by being decent people and being on it and it all went to plan. Lots of opportunities are lost through micro-management or through bottlenecks, when teams work well together you can get way more done.
We were never and will never be shy about telling people to buy the book. I do not understand why people think this is a bad thing. If you’re publishing it (hell if you’ve written it) should should want to sing from the rooftops about how good it is and how everyone should buy and read it. You have to balance it, it can’t be your only message but if you’re proud of your book, if you think it does something important, never stop telling people to buy it.