More Than Just 'One Weird Trick' — Alex Mayor, Publicist
“When I raise the issue of marketing a book with a lot of authors, you sort of see the three lemons come up for them - “Why aren’t I doing that? Why didn’t I think of doing this?” - and for others they look moderately terrified!”
Traditional publishers have tried to embrace the new media tech menagerie plenty of times over the last decade, at least. And yet every effort has faded away with time, lost like tears in the rain. Whether it’s book trailers or staid, conservatively hashtagged tweets from a corporate account, it feels a little like watching a toddler trying to walk: graceless, but at least sort of fascinating to watch them fall down as they learn from their mistakes.
Or, if we can reach for another simile, traditional publishers trying to innovate are like 20th century passenger liners trying to slalom around icebergs - innovation requires a manoeuvrability that, in 99% of cases, is at odds with the size of the company trying to innovate.
This is, however, another coup for indie authors. As Ben Galley explained in his interview with us, indies aren’t shackled the way traditionally published authors are. The room for experimentation is there.
This is where people like Alex Mayor come in. Alex is the founder / inventor of Papercasting, a Hackney-based agency helping authors find interesting and unheard of ways to bring their books to an audience, whether that’s through audio, video, or even real-world theatrical productions. The best way to explain it is to let Alex himself talk you through it in our interview below, but you can listen to a Papercast for ‘London Bridge in America’ right here!
How long have you guys existed for? How did you get started? How many of you are there?
At the moment it’s me and two part-time creative guys that I work with. Because of the friends I have, I’ve ended up knowing quite a few authors. They would come to me saying “The book’s finally done, it’s coming out, but I’m not sure how it’s going to do. I know what the publisher is going to do: they’re going to spring for drinks for a launch party; they might put some promotional postcards together but they probably won’t; and then, after they’ve sent out the review copies, if nothing happens in that first month that’s kind of it.”
So what I’ve been doing so far is basically helping out friends. Now I’m trying to move beyond the friendship circles. The idea has been to find authors who are prepared to do something a bit more interesting in terms of how they promote themselves.
I’ve also had some support from the Arts Council, who were very interested in the idea. They see that creatives within what we might call ‘the literary world’ writ large suffer to a large degree from being not necessarily the most internet-savvy, the most marketing-savvy - writing by its nature is a solipsistic undertaking. Also, traditional publishing, assailed as it is by modernity, is spending less on promo simply because of the sheer number of places they’re trying to reach.
Last year we did a few examples of work. Now we’re trying to ramp it up, to find authors with some sort of social footprint, and create pieces of digital work that will help promote them. An author phoned me up last week: “I’ve suddenly thought this is perfect radio material. This story is quite Carver-esque, it would work really well. Can we make a ten-minute version of this as a radio play?” And I said “Of course we can, I can find the actors, we can do it all fairly cheaply,” and the author can then use that as a calling card to media organisations, put it online for streaming, and use it to build interest in the books.
I’m getting a lot of interest from a certain kind of author - authors who think “I’ve made something, and I want people to pay interest in it and engage with what I’m doing,” rather than just seeing it as “A book has been printed with my words in it, my work here is done.” When I raise the issue with a lot of authors, you sort of see the three lemons come up for them - “Why aren’t I doing that? Why didn’t I think of doing this?” - and for others they look moderately terrified!
My background is in media, in publishing; I’ve written music for television, I’ve produced records… I view everything as just ‘stuff.’ It’s stuff that has an audience, somehow, and I’m fairly open-minded about how you reach the audience. In book-publishing, traditionally you have the agent, the publisher who’s kept at one remove… everyone is in their own box. There isn’t a lot of moving around, and publishers don’t tend to want to upset that situation too much. But authors may well know their audience *better* than a big corporate publisher. It’s just a fact that if an author is good at writing books about Norwegian circus acts of the 18th century, it may be that they know the most important people who will help sell that book.
So what is paper casting? Is it a verb, a noun…?
It’s both! I wanted a word that would help authors understand the idea that they could be broadcasting. What is being on Twitter but a form of broadcasting? Making a radio play, putting a video together, they’re all kinds of broadcasting. I believe when you’ve got a book you’ve created something that can be expressed in a multitude of ways. You’ve already done the hard bit in finding a way to bring that idea off the page in a way that gets people excited. But because authors are traditionally left out of the equation by publishers, they haven’t been too entrepreneurial in that regard.
It’s a business and an experiment. I’m trying to find out if there are enough authors who want to do this. I think it’s going to be younger authors probably, or authors who are very good on social media, but within five to ten years there will be an entire generation of writers who have always had a Facebook account, who have always shared their top-of-the-mind thoughts on some network tool or another. This model is waiting to happen, even if it hasn’t yet happened.
I remember a few years ago this craze for book trailers…
Yes! And they were all awful! They were all mind-bogglingly bad. I’ve trawled through loads of these. I noticed that, once YouTube was a fairly embedded prospect in people’s minds, you’d hear people asking “Do we do video?” This idea that ‘doing some video’ would add value to something, that if you didn’t have an active YouTube account you weren’t really a player.
That thinking was evident in pretty much every book trailer I’ve ever seen, particularly ones paid for by publishing companies - where they’ve done a Ken Burns slow-pan over the front cover, they’ve brought a rent-a-quote up, there’s a piece of out-of-copyright classical music playing in the background, it’s two minutes long, and nobody will ever look at it. They’ve not been terribly interesting by and large. That, or - fair enough - a film of the author reading a bit of it, which is at least a step in the right direction.
I think it’s been something publishers did badly, and to some degree consider an experiment they don’t really want to repeat. The question is still outstanding because the way we consume literature is changing under our feet all the time. It’s not changing totally, and there’ll be an element of the market, like vinyl, that will always buy the physical book. But how we consume what we call books is changing all the time. Technology companies are the ones charging forward and providing those experiences, not publishers.
It feels like that even amongst the best of those efforts, there’s rarely much of a tie to the book being promoted. Even my favourite example of a book trailer, while a great little clip, doesn’t connect directly to the book in question.
I think when you mentioned that 2011/2012 moment, the concomitant line of thinking in marketing departments across the land was “Can we do something viral?” as if they’d discovered the idea of disease for the first time and were embracing it wholeheartedly. I think the danger of some of those things is that they can be cool, but you see so much cool stuff every day I think there’s a burnout you get to.
My feeling is there is, particularly in non-fiction publishing, an enormous number of perfectly good books where it will always be a tricky prospect for a publishing house to find a lot of marketing muscle and budget to push it. Unless your name is Malcolm Gladwell, how many of these are you going to shift? There are all these books that are perfectly interesting, but they’re not as immediate. They’re not things that it would be so easy to make a viral or funny trailer for, but they’ve got something in them that will make you stop in your tracks. And I think the process is find the core of the book - the elevator pitch, the one surprising thing that you’d hear from the author at a cocktail party and repeat to your friends.
Say you had an Oliver Sacks neuro-psychological ramble with interesting case-studies. OK, so you get two actors in, find some dialogue that’s interesting, maybe make a two minute radio play out of it, and at the end you’ve got your buy-link - you’ve tee’d up the experience of the book. Where those trailers went wrong is that there were a) uninteresting, and b) they weren’t thinking about the content of the book. They were thinking about the object: “Here is a book.” Well, yeah, we get it, here’s a book. There are lots of books. Why do we want to read it?
I’m still trying to find more authors who have a little bit more of a social footprint who are prepared to be more Gonzo with me. As a premise, I think it’s not expensive to make this kind of media - it’s just about having the willpower to do it.
It seems like what you’re doing requires more than just money thrown at it - it also needs creativity, an idea.
My ambition for 2015 is to find more of these authors and ramp it up to the point where what we have is a form of entertainment in its own right. If you could image a channel of this stuff, and you were flipping through it, these would be interesting ways of hearing about interesting new books. Maybe some people would listen to them and get whatever they get out of it, but there would be people who click through and buy the book. It’s a case of taking what’s already a very well considered piece of media, a book manuscript, and creating something slightly smaller in a different format out of the book for not a lot of money. It’s not difficult stuff to do. For me it’s about editorial and production, and finding that killer idea that’s at the heart of the thing. There will be something - you can’t write a book and have no point.
How do you produce one of these things? How does your agency work?
We have a little studio in Hackney - BBC quality microphones and all of that jazz. Mostly what will happen is I’ll sit down with the author and get them to pitch the book back to me. I’ll obviously go read the manuscript. I’ll come back with suggestions of ways we could bring it off the page. The author has to feel comfortable with what we’re envisioning. It may be that they’re going to be reading, or that they’re not going to be reading and someone else will be found… It’s very tailored to the person. At its core it’s about understanding the central strengths of the book.
People have been asking “Oh, so we’d be making a video?” I always say “We might be, but we might not be.” Video is hard to do without a degree of cost because to do justice to the written word in film is notoriously hard. It’s very hard to do without immediately becoming boring, in my opinion. I think audio is a better choice, by and large, because you can maintain the reader’s own interactivity - that way they’re assembling the words in their head and seeing whatever world you’re bringing them into.
In terms of capturing what it is that’s interesting you have to be media-neutral at the outset, and also be somewhat sensitive to the person’s own personality and what they’ll feel comfortable with, and also budget - radio’s the cheapest, video is hard to make…
How do you get the material in front of people?
At the moment I’m just using Soundcloud. It’s more about the social footprint of the author, their agent, and any publicity people they have on side. This is simultaneously the massive potential upside and the massive potential downside. Good use of social media is thin on the ground - most people struggle with it. Authors are either total oversharers, or haven’t done much of it before. The model definitely requires that you have a fairly active social media following. It all lives and dies at that point.
One author has just engaged me to do this for him. Initially I said “It will only work if you’re calm about it.” So I’ve been trying to build a voice for him on Twitter. I’ve set writing challenges like “How about sharing all the titles of things you’ve never written?” Trying to get the author to think of it as a writing challenge, not a self-promotion challenge.
There was a famous observation by Momus the electronic singer - “In the internet age everyone is famous for fifteen people.” I’ve always thought that hangs over lots of technology. You could potentially do billions of things and reach zillions of people, but the core of it is still the slogging, and it kind of always was. You’ve just got to keep beavering away at getting a footprint with people and building a personality with people.
Thanks for your time Alex.