There’s More to Publicity than Free Books

Chloe Bollentin has a passion for proofreading, but she put down the red pen and picked up a few lessons about book publicity during her summer internship in the Press marketing department. In the final post in our summer intern series, Bollentin shares what she learned.

The summer I worked at my mom’s one-person publishing company, I spent hours at a time editing. From tweaking the grammar in the annual report to proofing a cookbook manuscript, I loved every minute of it. That experience and my passion for proofreading led me to apply for an internship with Penn Press. I was surprised when I was offered the opportunity to work in the Press marketing department. But I decided to take a step out of my comfort zone and accept.

Publicity was never a field I’d considered, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d always imagined that if I were going to work in publishing, I’d want to be an editor, working closely with the manuscript and ultimately feeling a sense of pride and responsibility for the final product, the same kind of pride I’d felt when the cookbook I’d spent so many hours editing hit the shelves. Could I really get the same sense of satisfaction from working in a field where the books are, for the most part, already in their final stages of production by the time they reached my desk?

At first I wasn’t so sure. One of the first things I learned during my internship was that the Press Publicity Manager, Saunders Robinson, is personally responsible for soliciting publicity and reviews for every book the Press publishes. At first, this arrangement didn’t seem to leave much room for serious involvement with the books. At the beginning of the summer I worked on a series of clerical tasks, such as assigning each forthcoming book to a list of review outlets in our database. I knew that it was important to carefully decide where we would send the precious free copies we give away to possible reviewers. But since the Press asks the authors to give us a list of publications where they think their book could be reviewed, much of the time I felt as though the interesting workthe work that involves really knowing the book–had already been done. My main job, it seemed, was data entry. Was this all there was to publicity–making lists of where to send free books?

As it turned out, tasks like this only scratched the surface of the publicity world. Soon I learned that the Penn Press publicist does work closely with books. Sometimes she picks out books that she thinks could be popular, even if they aren’t expected to be, and makes a project out of soliciting reviews for them. From how she spoke about the satisfaction she gets from making an underdog book a publicity success, I recognized that this was similar to the kind of satisfaction I’d gotten from editing a manuscript. I started to wonder if maybe editing and publicity were, in some ways, just different means to a similar end. Maybe publicity was something I could enjoy.

As the weeks went by, my tasks got more interesting, and my positive feelings towards publicity grew. I started to learn that to publicize a book well, you need to know the book well, even if you can’t sit down and read every word. In fact, publicizing a book requires knowing it in a certain way, the kind of knowledge you can’t get just from editing the manuscript. It’s not enough to know what the book is about; you have to know who would want to read it. The audience for a book on the history of stewardesses is vastly different from the audience for a book on the history of the Pennsylvania railroad. Publicity, I discovered, isn’t just about reaching as many people as possible; it’s about reaching the right people. Before this summer, I might have thought that the best possible place to have a book reviewed–any book–would be the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books. But since working at Penn Press, I’ve learned that publicizing a book, especially the highly specialized books the Press publishes, takes more creativity than that. Rather than targeting only the most popular publications–where the chances of having a review published are slim to none anyway–I’m better off spending time researching what niche TV and radio programs might be interested in, for example, a medieval Arab cookbook. A review on one of those shows might not reach as many people as a review in the New York Times, but the people who hear it are more likely to buy the book. And when they do, I know I’ll feel as satisfied as if I’d edited the manuscript myself.

Working as Penn Press’s publicity intern has given me the opportunity to appreciate a different aspect of publishing, one whose effects you see only after the book has hit the shelves: namely, who takes it off the shelves and why. Sometimes I still miss those long hours hunched over a stack of papers with a red pen in hand, and who knows, maybe editing is still where I’ll end up. But now every time I pick up my favorite magazine and read a review of a book that sounds perfect for me, I’ll understand the effort that went into bringing that book to my attention.

Chloe Bollentin begins her sophomore year at Smith College this fall.