Creative Consultant and Podcast Host Miriam Robinson on marketing myths, publicity trends and directing The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

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Miriam Robinson is a freelance creative consultant, podcast host and the Programme Director for The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference. She recently launched the third season of her podcast My Unlived Life, offering authors an opportunity to return to a crossroads moment in their lives and write the story of what might have happened had they gone in a different direction. In 2013 she won the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize, which celebrates exceptional women in publishing, after rising from bookseller to Head of Marketing at Foyles in less than four years.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what your role as Programme Director involves?

I have one of those freelance jobs (and job titles) that doesn’t immediately make sense, which used to really bother me—having a straightforward way of describing our work feels so fundamental to our identities—but I’ve recently decided to embrace it, because it works for me and my life. So I’m a freelance creative consultant, which means that I do all manner of jobs, mostly in publishing, for anyone who needs help with anything from brand consultancy to marketing, project management to events to copywriting and proofreading. Some of my most interesting contracts have come from someone who wasn’t quite sure what they were looking for, to whom a mutual connection has said, ‘I bet Miriam could do that!’—and we figured it out together. I’m also a fledgling podcast host and long-suffering writer.

I’ve been freelancing for The Bookseller Magazine for years, again doing everything from being part of the incredible team who produces The British Book Awards to writing columns to marketing their conferences, but my longest running gig with them is as director for their Marketing & Publicity Conference. This essentially involves taking the pulse of what comms teams across the industry are concerned about, what they want to learn and who they want to hear from, and programming a day of talks, panels and workshops which meet those needs. It’s very much about introducing delegates to new skills or helping them brush up on old ones, but—and this feels crucial when there’s so much burnout around—I also really try, alongside the endlessly creative team at The Bookseller, to put together a day that energizes marketers and publicists to go back into their jobs with fresh, creative thinking, alongside a sense of their own boundaries and potential.

What is a common myth or misconception about marketing and publicity that you wish more authors knew before publishing?

I can’t even imagine how infuriating, heartbreaking and nerve-wracking it must be as an author to pour every piece of you into a book, only to see it struggle to get to readers. I do, however, get very frustrated when I hear anyone disparaging the work that marketing and publicity teams do, suggesting that they’re not working hard enough, or creatively enough. These are some of the hardest-working people in the industry, often holding not only the myriad day-to-day practicalities of their job (and usually someone else’s job) but a significant creative burden and an unquantifiable amount of emotional labor, which doesn’t necessarily get clocked in performance reviews. I promise, they are doing everything (and more) that they can.

How do you think marketing and publicity have changed in the publishing industry over the past few years?

How hasn’t it changed? This might sound obvious but one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my career, dating back to the rise of Amazon around 2011, is around routes to readers. Before then, bookshops were the primary sales channel for books and booksellers were the main salespeople, which made the funnel if not guaranteed then at least a bit more straightforward. Since then, I think one way to put it might be that marketers’ routes to readers have proliferated in a way which makes prioritizing time and budget a huge challenge, whereas publicists’ traditional routes to readers have diminished with the erosion of review space and attrition of local presses. With the exception of the pandemic, the old routes for marketers—out-of-home advertising, trade marketing, radio, etc.—have stayed intact, while social media has then added an entirely new set of skills to the job description, from content creation to savvy digital advertising to social listening to increasingly affordable TV advertising. Conversely, publicists continue to fight for the top spaces in traditional media, but with the top spots increasingly difficult to get, they’ve sometimes had to make one or two pieces of hero content work incredibly hard, using one piece to land another, negotiating new content deals with outlets who now run one story across multiple platforms, and so on. 

The rise of publishers as individual brands has also had a massive impact, and whether it’s via their own channels, big-name influencers or grass roots fans, all sides have had to learn to speak to and harness communities in ways that are authentic, consistent and drive sales. Alongside all of this, most teams have done a huge amount of internal work to assess their values, looking hard at where their campaigns and teams hold bias, and working to be more inclusive, respectful and conscious across everything they do. This increased awareness has also meant a move towards campaigns with a social justice element, tapping into a wider sense that it’s not just up to the authors to change hearts and minds.

Finally, I think the way teams work with bookshops has been extraordinary to see, really diversifying their approach in order both to support the shops and the incredible work they do, and to connect with their customers. Because despite all of these many routes to readers, bookshops still really are the best way to introduce titles to readers within local communities, and long may they prosper. 

So, nothing much then.

What advice would you give to authors looking to promote their book pre- and post-publication with a limited budget?

Two things: prioritize and learn. 

The first is probably obvious, but even with a budget of a squillion pounds, you need to be making choices based on your audience and on your own USP—where are your readers, and how can what you’re saying resonate with them? What I mean by this is don’t make decisions based on trends or the latest platform just because it feels like you should—if your audience isn’t on TikTok, for example, you shouldn’t be there just because you think everyone else is. And unless you have a ton of time, I’d also argue against creating countless bits of content that might never go anywhere. Think about content you can repackage for multiple spaces—as a brilliant colleague of mine once said, learn to ‘sweat your assets’ (we also decided this should be the name of our new lifestyle brand—watch this space for the t-shirts).

Learning is also crucial. Often people get disheartened because a campaign doesn’t work or a book doesn’t immediately sell. But the amazing (if not slightly exhausting) thing about the current media landscape is that we always have another chance. Take a look at what you’ve done—who was your copy speaking to, did your graphics do what they needed, is your audience on the platform you’re using (see above)—and try and try again. I rarely abandon something after one try—if you think something didn’t work, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Look at what can be learned, tweaked, adjusted, and try again. Any effort can teach you something and investing time in testing and learning will always bear fruit in the end.

What marketing and publicity trends do you predict we’ll see in the near future and what impact do you think they will have on the industry?

The world is changing so much at the moment I’m not sure I could predict much that won’t be obsolete in five minutes! I think I can say what my hope is, which is that in the face of a pretty bleak (understatement of the century) cultural and political landscape, marketing and publicity will continue to be forces for good. I don’t think this is an empty hope—we’ve already seen ways in which, during the pandemic, campaigns have brought people together around the books they’re promoting, and teams have dug deep to understand what’s important both to them internally and to readers. There’s a tendency to see things like market research and consumer insight as insidious things—for good reason, given the privacy infringements of years past—but my hope is that, no matter what the budget or the size of the team, we use this increased desire and ability to understand our readers as a way to better understand humanity in general, and to find some common ground with people we don’t necessarily understand. If this desire to understand and therefore connect authentically comes through in your comms—whether you’re promoting your book on your own or with a team of ten behind you, whether you’re plastering billboards across the country or just trying to have a sane chat on Twitter—then I think that’s a future we can look forward to. 

And also, obviously, TikTok.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.