“You’ve got to be in it to win it.”
“Thought you knew everyone at the BBC.”
“Why not try Saga or The Oldie?”
A small sample of advice nuggets, usually unsolicited, from well-meaning friends who loyally believed that my book “Plenty Mango – postcards from the Caribbean” merited a place alongside observational greats such as the late Peter Mayle and his “A Year in Provence” or Chris Stewart’s series “Driving Over Lemons.”
“Just get out there and promote the hell out of it.” This from a former advertising creative, who obviously still believed that the noun ‘budget’ was obsolete.
“God, I’ve tried,” I wailed. “I even wrote to Lionel Barber, Editor of the FT, who I once put through the media training mangle.”
“He remembered the training, but made no comment about the book.”
“Send him another copy. Shock and awe and all that.”
It’s all right for him. All those expense account Lobster Thermidor lunches. And I bet he’s never had to slog down to the Post Office and get stuck behind a customer with a pile of parcels, each of which needs a customs declaration label.
But, of course, they were all right. No point pushing your way through writer’s block, sitting at your lap top when you’d rather be knocking back a couple of Martinis at The Groucho, or diligently writing up your journal, if you’re going to let the finished product languish in the i-Cloud.
My reticence to climb onto the promotional band wagon had been marginally tempered by the unexpected success of Plenty Mango on Montserrat. Book signings, readings, radio interviews and even praise from a former government Minister. But, as anyone who has visited the island or who has read my book knows, this is not an infinite market.
So, a publicity campaign it was. I was reminded of that early 18th century proverb ‘first catch your hare.’ Was there anyone out there who would believe, 2nd proverb, a 21st century one this time, that Plenty Mango had ‘legs’?
Turned out there was. She took a while to find, but Debbie Elliott, who runs her own PR agency, was the right match for me. She was enthusiastic, very well connected and, most important of all, assiduous. I sent her the book and the reviews, together with a slightly over scented biography and air brushed photo, from which she drew up a dizzying list of profile- raising opportunities. But, I should have taken note of the late 19th Century French poet and novelist, Anatole France who said, “It is well for the heart to be naïve and the mind not to be.” In my mind, I had handed over my baby to a wet nurse, leaving me unencumbered to get on with “Plenty More Mango.”
Surely, I would only be needed for a few discreet lunches with features editors and maybe a couple of radio interviews? That may have been the case a few years ago but, in these parlous times, I should have realised that there’s no such thing as a free ‘plug’. You have to work for it.
Firstly, Debbie wanted more background to ‘the car crash’, the incident where my husband John saved my life and which led to our eventual discovery of Montserrat, the building of dream homes and the subsequent upheavals of the island’s volcano erupting after 400 years. Mentally re-living and describing that traumatic experience was tough.
Her first result came a few days after posting an agreed press release.
“There’s a popular website Female First,” she wrote. “All they want is a 500 word piece,’10 Reasons why You’ll Fall in Love With Montserrat.’”
“And I’ve managed to get you on the ’20 Questions’ slot on The Wireless, It’s a radio station for Age Concern. Very high profile guests. You get to choose five pieces of music.”
How many times have you played that game of ‘Desert Island Discs?’ In my case, never, so although good fun, it took time not only choosing the music, but explaining why.
And, as for the questions. How would you answer ‘what is your most treasured possession?’ or ‘what’s been the happiest day of your life?’, or ‘If you met 18 year old you, what would you think?’
Having spent most of my journalistic career behind a microphone, it was a novel experience being the other side answering rather than asking questions. I was surprised at how much easier I found it. Interviewing is a specialist skill. You need an insatiable curiosity and an addiction for news. You must research your subject and try and anticipate how he or she might react to a particular line of questioning. You have to listen intently and be prepared to jettison that line if something more interesting comes up. And, most importantly, you must never forget that the interview is about them, not about you. No wonder I found being interviewed so easy.
But then came the actual broadcast to which I reluctantly knew I should listen.
Not only did I sound like a cross between Claire Rayner and Joanna Lumley and that I kept saying ‘anyway, the most shocking revelation was my laugh which, how shall I put this, isn’t exactly lady like?
But I survived and went on to give several more interviews. I learnt that ‘I’ve just skimmed through your book’ or ‘your book has just arrived’, probably meant that my interviewer had only had time to read the introduction and look at John’s illustrations. Everyone wanted to know what it’s like living close to an active volcano and what happened when I asked Mick Jagger to dance. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
There is a promised double page feature in Woman and Home in the summer which, given that I think I went a little ‘off piste’ with the writer, should be interesting.
Of course, those well-meaning friends are already asking whether it was worth all the expense and effort. What they really want to know is how many more copies have I sold?
I have a secret password that allows me to see my personal Amazon sales data, which I’ve trained myself not to look up every day. But, at last peek, I see the bar chart is slowing climbing. And, even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have missed this experience, whatever the cost or effort.
SARAH DICKINSON APRIL 2018
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