Monday 4 May 2009

'Being published'

Seven years after I first became interested in Eglantyne Jebb, my biography of the founder of the international development agency Save the Children, and author of what has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history - was published last month. It’s a gem of a story, ‘The Woman Who Saved the Children’ was not fond of children herself, ‘the little wretches’ she once called them, and raced through a dramatic life of illicit romances, private spiritualism and public arrest before an early death. I managed to finish the draft in time for Save the Children’s 90th anniversary year, and hoped it would be an obvious best-seller.

Finishing a book seems to be a series of false dawns though, and writing the words ‘…and she died’ is of course just the start of it. Andrew, my agent, had secured my publisher, Oneworld Publications, after I had won the Daily Mail Biographers Club prize at end 2007, when I was half-way through writing. Now there was the editorial process, time spent sorting out index and bibliography, getting permissions for pictures and the excitement as a draft cover design came in.

Then I met the publicist. Oneworld is an independent publisher based in Oxford. I had heard stories of people being driven around in limos at this point in the process but was not surprised that Oneworld had a more modest budget – no limos, no party, lots of enthusiasm, a good press release and some great contacts, but not a whole lot of time… which was my excuse for getting as involved as possible.

I exchanged emails with a couple of independent publicists, who would I am sure do a brilliant job if you have the required budget to hand. In the end I went down a couple of different routes… Save the Children lent their PR support, sharing their media contacts with Oneworld, inviting celeb supporters to provide cover quotes, and asking me to be guest-blogger on their website. The Biographers Club were brilliant; making me the ‘featured author’ on their site and using their contacts to help get me a launch. Two of their three prize judges also came up trumps, inviting me to give talks and filing book reviews. And through them I also met Richard Foreman who describes himself as a ‘freelance consultant and publicist’ and is someone who knows a lot of other people… As well as organising regular drinks to get writers, reviewers and booksellers together in a basement bar in London’s Leadenhall Market, he sets up talks at bookshops, libraries and events around the country, and took me on a book-signing tour of London Waterstones and Blackwells the week before publication, handing out jaffa cakes and penguin biscuits with impunity wherever we went. (For elsewhere he got me to sign a good 200 bookplates and gave me warm contacts to mail them to at shops around the country.)

The rest of my publicity came from talking and writing to everyone I know, including some friends in PR who kindly took me under their wing resulting in a nice radio interview and a few more talks, as well as to any vaguely relevant publication and any literary festival at all – of which there are many. Collective results are good. Reviews have been published in the Daily Mail and Sunday Times as well as in publications from WI Life to Best of British magazine. Building on every angle in Eglantyne’s life I have also written articles myself for journals including Save the Children’s supporter magazine, the newsletters of The British Thyroid Foundation, Lady Margaret Hall Alumni News, and The Church Times. I also milked my own story, securing talks and press coverage where I grew up, went to college, and live now. So far I have around 30 talks from the Edinburgh Lit Fest to Ealing Library, and from my old school (don’t knock it, they ordered 100 copies) to a Royal reception for Save the Children. There were plenty of rejections too of course – although offering to speak with friends/others published in a similar area has also helped – I am doing a number of ‘Women in History’ talks, and also sharing platforms with Mark Bostridge and Alexander Masters at different events. Online I have my own website (courtesy of my brother-in-law) and Wikipedia page, as well as mentions on the site of every society I am a member of and every venue where I have spoken. I have even set up an Eglantyne Jebb Facebook fan group. However my favourite piece of publicity was being interviewed by Jenni Murray on Women’s Hour last week, courtesy mainly simply of Eglantyne having such a great story.

Is it working? Sales are good so far, and my Amazon ranking peaks with every big bit of PR – a sort of irregular pulse that tells me the book is still alive and kicking long after my subject breathed her last.

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