Helena Brantley is a book publicist who founded Red Pencil Publicity + Marketing in Oakland. Helena left the PR agency, marketing and advertising world and tripped into book publicity, first working as a publicity director for HarperCollins and Nolo Press before hanging out her own shingle. She has had the opportunity to work with world-renowned spiritual leaders like Deepak Chopra, as well as academics like Bart Ehrman and Stephen Prothero.
Helena finds special joy in promoting the compelling stories of memoirists. She has pitched guests who have appeared on Fresh Air, The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Sunday Morning, and the Daily Show. She has also managed the book campaigns for a string of New York Times best sellers.
It seems like everyone is writing a book these days, so I sat down with Helena to talk about what that means as a book publicist in the ever changing world of public relations.
What gets you up in the morning?
I don’t sleep well so usually it’s a mix of things I worry about related to being a wife, parent, daughter, sister and running a business. More enjoyably, I often awake to pithy one-liners, ideas for an email subject line, a pitch, or most recently, I awake to Twitter and Instagram post ideas! I love what I do, and I’m excited to get up in the morning on most days. I help people who have spent years researching and crafting something important to say. I take seriously the responsibility of helping to carry out their work into the world and trying to engage people—media and readers directly. Even if I won the lottery I’d still promote books and book festivals.
How do you select projects?
I have to in some way be interested in the promise of a book. Even if I don’t agree with the premise or thesis, it still has to resonate. Otherwise I could work in-house somewhere. I can do it. I have done it. But I find it very hard to get excited about something that doesn’t interest me. I also only work on nonfiction titles and most enjoy working with academics who write accessibly.
What does a successful publicity project look like?
It starts with a written plan: book publicity is to me like running a campaign with a beginning, middle, and end. Without a plan the people perish; book publicists too! Success to me is when even if the campaign didn’t sell the number of books desired, or result in all of the desired media coverage, the publisher and author feels like their time and money was used well. Like many publicists across industry, I acknowledge that it’s harder to secure national print, which is in my opinion what drives all else. What is also true is that there are a lot of new tools and tactics to apply the fundamentals of publicity. That’s exciting. It also takes time to learn these new tools.
I’m working on a campaign for BIPOLAR FAITH by Dr. Monica A Coleman, publishing in July. I’m setting up a 5-7 city book tour, promoting the tour in each regional market where we’ll contact local media and schedule readings at book venues and churches. I’m also pitching national media across mediums and helping to secure the endorsements. And we’re working on social media: I will tweet excerpts from the book, and engage with the author and others relevant to this topic. The author is also live blogging using Periscope, a Twitter app.
What are your views on self-publishing? What advice do you have for lesser known authors looking for a book publicist?
There are a lot of people who see value in self-publishing a book, and it’s great for people who find readers for their books. In my experience it is very hard to get a book deal with publishers.
In my experience, people who self-publish their books with very few exceptions need marketers, not book publicists. Unless you’re someone who is well known and has a platform, the majority of news outlets are less likely to run stories. I also think self-publishers see more value creating well-produced events and working with relevant associations and organizations on speaking engagements. If you don’t have a plan on paper for how you will market and promote the book, the project probably won’t succeed in the ways desired.
What’s your perspective on social media?
It’s a kiss and a curse. The challenge for me is understanding what is worth the investment of time and what is not. For me, Twitter is. Facebook ads are worth it – I also selectively promote my projects on my Facebook page. My personal feeling is that with few exceptions it is a waste of time and money for an author to pay someone to manage their social media presence. I think it’s a missed opportunity to learn how to stumble and fail at first, as we all do in learning social media.
If only to learn that it doesn’t work, it’s worth the pain of learning something new and especially if you are someone trying to engage people in new thoughts and ideas. In my experience the principles of publicity haven’t change: we just have more tools and tactics.
Helena is the publicist for the Bay Area Book Festival, June 4-5 in downtown Berkeley. If you’re a reader, this is a personal invitation from Helena to attend the festival featuring nearly 300 authors from around the region and the world. Details at baybookfest.org or follow #baybookfest.