The Corner Office: On the Record With: Paul Bogaards
Paul Bogaards is Executive Vice President, Executive Director of Publicity and Media Relations for the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, where he has worked since 1989. He directs the publicity efforts for all Knopf books and authors, participates in acquisitions decisions, rights sales, speech-writing for group Chairman Sonny Mehta and more. In January Bogaards posted a much-talked-about tumblr post entitled “Hierarchy of Book Publishing: The Top 100 (circa 2010).” He spoke with Book Business about the challenges and rewards of working in a changing industry.
What’s your take on the book publishing industry these days? An industry in turmoil? An industry rife with opportunity for growth? Somewhere in the middle?
● I’m bullish about our immediate prospects and optimistic about our long term future. But it’s not wise (or healthy) to do what I do, sit where I sit, and be a pessimist. It’s a great time to be an author. It’s a great time to be a reader. And it’s a great time to be a publisher.
Physical books are proving to be remarkably resilient. The ebook ecosystem has become more diverse across publishing, self-publishing and retail sectors. Independent booksellers are proving their mettle at driving customer engagement and becoming vibrant community hubs. Publishers are making necessary adaptations in the digital space and significant investments in tools and resources to gain reader insights, map performing media, measure reader engagement, aggregate audiences and listen to conversations as they animate around books and authors. There is more capturing of data and sharing of knowledge than ever before, and all of these enable us to market our authors with more precision.
Overall, our industry has become more dynamic, with a publisher focus on servicing authors in greater capacities.
You have been called one of the most powerful people in book publishing. What do you think it is about what you do and how you do it that makes people perceive you as being powerful?
● A great falsehood, this. If you spent any time working with me, you’d see me for what I am: the company water boy. Public relations professionals are all water boys (and girls).
The perception probably has something to do with my candor. I have always been candid with colleagues at Random House and in my external dealings with colleagues in the media. I don’t believe in telling people what they want to hear or speaking in code. Also, I have learned to say “no.” And media outlets are used to hearing “yes.” But as an advocate on behalf of the authors that we publish, saying “no” is sometimes essential. You have to know when to walk away.
Occasionally, you have to resort to a certain amount of tough love—with colleagues, with authors and with media. An editor wants more resources devoted to their title; an author wants to go on a bigger book tour; a media outlet wants an exclusive. Sometimes the requests are reasonable. Other times they are not. It is my job to respond accordingly, and always armed with data, logic and reason.
The craft of writing may be singular, but the process of publishing is collaborative. The power resides in the contributions of many, not one individual.
What’s your secret to getting the media to pay attention to your message?
● Credibility. Longevity (sigh). And always talking straight with the press.
I can’t underscore this point enough to colleagues just getting started in public relations. You establish credibility by becoming a resource. You become a resource by knowing everything about the specific book you are working on and the author you are promoting. As you manage up, you become a resource by knowing about your full list and publishing program; by knowing about your industry and the outlets that service it; by understanding the needs of bloggers, editors, producers and reporters; by always shooting straight with members of the press; by your ability to spot trends; and by making yourself available to reporters when they are on deadline, even if it’s a story that doesn’t involve you directly.
Always know the customer you’re pitching (because they’re going to judge your work). Message carefully on every title. Read for bylines. Pay attention to everything (and everyone) that connects to your author and their work. Have a publishing plan. I look at some industry work and it reminds me of a guy riding a bicycle all over Manhattan, slipping menus under apartment doors, hoping someone will place an order. It doesn’t work like that. Campaigns stick and drive results only if you target appropriate outlets and audiences. And in this day and age, where we have access to all kinds of salient data points, there really is no excuse for a misfire.
Answer the phone. Be responsive to email. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so (then find out the answer). Lastly, buy all your colleagues in the media a bottle of booze during the holidays, even if it’s against company policy.
How would you describe your work style?
● Casual and profane. Also, highly motivated (I’ve been described as both a tyrant and a cheerleader).
Publishing houses don’t tend to brand themselves, and yet if any house has a brand and is known for a certain type of book, it’s Knopf. Can you describe the Knopf brand as you see it?
● We publish Authors. We invest in careers. Our editors curate an exceptional list of books; we design and manufacture those books to exacting standards in all formats; and we focus our efforts on publishing every book well.
Can you describe how the publicity department functions within the Knopf group? Are you involved with books from the point of acquisitions? Do you have input into design? Sales decisions?
● We plan and execute publicity campaigns for our books and authors. We work cross platform—every touch-point with a reader is a potential point of engagement for our team. We have a framework that we apply to every title, and we start with this question: What is the audience we are trying to reach for said book and author? We then follow with this question: How are we going to access that audience? We work with media, booksellers, librarians, reading groups, social networks, online communities—anywhere and everywhere an author can engage. We have strong publicity teams in place within our publishing group—anchored by seasoned industry veterans (Nicholas Latimer, Alison Rich, Russell Perreault)—and our approach to campaign work is creative, disciplined and pragmatic.
As far as acquisitions, I am involved in all the major ones. About design, I have no clue (I’m still wearing shoes from the ’70s). Sales decisions are arrived at by publishers working in tandem with our highly engaged and energetic colleagues in sales.
How do the changes being wrought by new technology affect how you do your job and how you guide your department?
● It’s new technology in relation to established industries and technologies.
Basically, we’ve lost the ability to broadcast. There are now few high performing media assets, so we need to engage on multiple fronts—print, broadcast, online, social, search, communities, mobile, etc.—in carefully mapped fashion. What will break, and when? What will the build-out look like? How will the conversation animate?
In the old days a few key hits—a morning show appearance, a prominent review in a leading newspaper, a radio interview—could drive your book on the bestseller list and keep it there for more than a week. Those legacy outlets drove results because their audiences were significant, and viewer/reader/listener engagement was high. These days, however, legacy media audiences continue to erode, and consumers are not as deeply engaged with media content overall. Attention spans are fleeting. So, publishers need to drive awareness on more fronts to reach the same number of potential readers for a book. Of course, what every publisher hopes for is virality—an asset or newsbreak that catches fire.
The beauty, of course, is that we’ve gained the ability to narrowcast. It is now possible to tap audiences with an unprecedented degree of specificity. We have all kinds of tools available to help us map audiences. The key is using technology to your advantage. You need to know where the readers are, understand how they are engaging with content, and determine how to prompt the sale.
When you teach classes on publicity, what do you tell future publicists are some of the most important skills they need?
● You need to read with comprehension and know how write well (still). You need to distill essential information about your books (outgoing process) and digest media and data (incoming process). You need to be personable (for relationship building). You need to have a strong network of contacts.
I always ask people who are interviewing with me if they’ve ever worked in sales. It’s the second question I ask. The first is “What are you reading now?” You’d be surprised how many people say Tolstoy. F***ing Tolstoy! Anyhow, almost everyone says “no” in response to the question about sales. Then I ask them how they would feel about working in sales. Almost all of them grimace. So I categorically reject most candidates after the third question because, in my view, you need to have the tenacity of a commission sales rep to perform this job well. You need to be unrelenting in both your advocacy and outreach on behalf of authors. If your friends don’t say to you once a week, “Can you just stop talking about books for a minute?” you are not doing your job well.
You need to chase leads. You need to cope well with rejection. You need to be highly functional and irrationally happy. You need to be connected to the world and engaged. You have to listen to conversations that spring up around your books (and sometimes step in and change them).
What are some qualities writers need to be successful promoting their books?
● Fabulous hair and comfortable shoes.
Writers need to understand the value of promotion: why it matters. Writers need to be engaged with every audience they come into contact with—publishers, sales reps, booksellers, librarians, media, social hubs—because every audience represents an opportunity. And proper engagement begins with enthusiasm for their work. That may sound obvious, but I’ve been around a surprising number of authors who are kind of “meh” about their work (or if not their work, the process of selling it). Listen: If you’re not excited about your book, why should the reader be? Writers need to send the appropriate message. Shamelessness, adaptability and an awareness of the marketplace all help.
But mostly, it’s hair and shoes.
Any favorite books you’ve worked on?
● I have a long list of books and campaigns that I’m very proud to have worked on. A very long list. I will name just a few (in no particular order):
•Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”
•Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”
•Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”
•Dr. Andrew Weil’s “Spontaneous Healing”
•Katharine Hepburn’s “Me”
•Katharine Graham’s “Personal History”
•Bill Clinton’s “My Life”
•Stieg Larsson’s trilogy
•E L James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy
•Robert Caro’s books on LBJ
Anything exciting coming up you’d like to tell us about?
● “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis is a remarkable debut coming in January. It’s a searing portrait of an unforgettable family—really a ferocious vision of humanity—set against the backdrop of the Great Migration.
Are you working on editing or writing anything yourself right now?
● I have an idea for a play about a public relations executive who gets caught up in a client scandal. I hope to put pen to paper over the holidays.
So, about that tumblr post… Can you tell us what inspired it? How did you mean it to be received? Any regrets?
● Demons inspired that post.
People who work in book publishing suffer from a cumulative anxiety that is utterly out of proportion to the industry in which they work. Yes, there has been tremendous upheaval in our industry (mostly as a result of developing technology) but there has also been tremendous continuity: authors are still writing books; publishers are still publishing books; retailers are still selling books; and readers are still reading books. And yet, not a week goes by where I don’t hear someone groan about something being the final nail in our coffin.
That post, indeed much of my presence on social media, is a response to the anxiety people in our industry are feeling about the future. I was basically poking fun at the notion that we are all going the way of the parasaurolophus, and what better way to do that than with a list suggesting that the most powerful people in our industry are authors who have slipped through the clutches of traditional publishers. Also, that our fortunes are largely determined by outsiders. By people in the media. And by retailers.
Of course, if I were to re-publish that list tomorrow, we all know who would be number one: E L James. And what is significant about E L James is that she chose not to self publish. Instead, she chose to publish with Vintage because we approached her with a fully realized plan and vision for her work, one that we were able to execute in seamless fashion. And we all know the end result: Her books have enjoyed enormous success. I suppose one could surmise that we are not, in fact, going the way of the parasaurolophus after all. BB