Wednesday, 11 August 2010

An Interview from The Other Side of a Book: Publicist Nicky Potter

Today's interview is a little different. It isn't an interview with an author. It is an interview with a person who deals with the Other Side of a book: the publicist. (Okay there could be many sides, but this is the one I'm exploring). 

I've been in contact with Nicky a lot through the publisher Frances Lincoln. Like all publicists, Nicky is lovely to deal with, always helps out with my requests and, from what I can see (and what you'll read in a moment) works extremely hard on her projects. Her passion for books is evident in both her work place and her home (I feel sorry for her ceiling). 

Could you tell us a little bit about your journey in publishing that has led to you being a publicist? The journey started such a long time ago (1978), when getting a good university degree meant you were almost certainly guaranteed to get a job you liked without  having to do weeks of unpaid work experience.  I fancied myself as a theatre critic or editor, probably because I had a wild time living with Drama students.  One of my friends worked at the bookshop at Samuel French Theatre Publishers during the holidays so she recommended me when they needed more staff and I started there almost as soon as I had graduated.  I’d been told that working on the shop floor was just a short step from becoming an editorial assistant but I soon discovered that the other booksellers had been waiting to take that same step for over a year. 

I was having too much fun in London to worry or to plan a career when a letter arrived inviting me for an interview at Methuen.  During my last year at Exeter University I’d wandered into the Great Hall to find a careers event in full swing with graduates generously giving their time to talk about the jobs they were doing. It was a bit like speed dating (or how I imagine it to be) and after a few quick chats I struck lucky.  An editor with the legal arm of Associated Book Publishers told me that if I was in London she would arrange for me to have a day with the editors at Methuen.  I seized the moment and gratefully told her it was definitely worth a special trip. A few weeks later I enjoyed a day at Methuen and my details were put on file.   

I didn’t get the first job I interviewed for, as an editor for the Women’s Studies list,  because they thought I wasn’t serious enough but I was recommended for a job to help launch the paperback list. No one took publicity seriously then and I was told that the job would be a stepping stone into the editorial department but I would have to move out of London to Andover. I didn’t want to move but I was prepared to in order to get a job that I thought would help me become an editor. 

Has being a publicist always been your goal, or did it just happen? I had no idea what a publicist was and neither did the team that employed me!  So I bought a Radio Times, looked up the names of producers and phoned them to talk about authors I was working with.   Within one month of starting the job I turned the board room at the London Headquarters into an exotic bar to launch a cocktail book and set off on a tour of the UK with Barbara Woodhouse challenging television journalists to bring their dogs to her for training. She said that she could show bad owners how to train their pets within 10 minutes.  Fortunately, dogs loved Barbara and we got masses of air time.  I thanked the contacts I made and kept in touch with them with new ideas and interview suggestions. Nowadays it is a rare thing if you can speak to someone.  You usually get a voice message and emails don’t have to be answered. There are more publicists to make the calls, too.

When I first started working 
all the nationals papers were still based in or around Fleet Street which gave me a good excuse to work in the London office as often as I could.  I’d always loved reading so it seemed extraordinary to me that I could be be paid to take out a Literary Editor for a very expensive lunch to  talk about  books and then make recommendations.  It’s also absurd that I wasn’t given a budget. I traveled with my job, often driving for hours and then having to set up heavy stands at book fairs for the Children’s List,  but at least I wasn’t stuck in an office.  After a couple of years I was also given the Drama list to promote which meant I had a regular supply of  free theatre tickets. Bliss!  I knew that I spent more time with authors and artists than junior editors and so I gave up thinking about attempting to move over to the editorial team and kept happily doing publicity with Methuen until I had my first daughter in 1984.  Since then I’ve worked as a freelance and have been fortunate to work with my main client - Frances Lincoln  - since 1989, helping to promote and develop their children’s list. 

I know you're working on several projects at the moment, please could you tell us a little bit about these? Do you volunteer for projects/respond to adverts or do you get asked to participate in them? Most of my work has come through personal recommendation but I’ve been at it long enough so I wouldn’t be much good if I didn’t get work this way!  Often, for financial reasons, I’ve been tempted to take on jobs that I don’t believe in but on the whole I’ve resisted.  I won’t take on a book until I have read it or know the author’s work well. Sometimes I phone journalist friends to see what they think about a job and if they are negative I work out how to pay for a new boiler/service the car/pay university expenses for my daughters in different ways. My main clients are good to me and I do my best to make sure that there won’t be a conflict of interest when I take on a new job. 

One of the most exciting and inspirational jobs I’ve had was doing the PR for the Children’s Laureate. I loved working with Jacqueline Wilson (the first Laureate I worked with) but most of my contact with her was through the wonderful Naomi Cooper.  Michael Rosen did not have some one to help him so for two years I worked closely with him on press and PR.  (Nikki Marsh and Sasha Hoare  at Booktrust were responsible for events, funding and all other Laureate matters). Michael is truly inspiring and enormously energetic. He is passionate about promoting a love of reading, is clear about what he thinks and brilliant at delivering his ideas or arguing a point. Hard news journalists expected to be able to make contact with him at any time of day or night so it became increasingly difficult to do the job part time.  I enjoyed working on the hand over to the current Children’s Laureate, Anthony Browne, and with a mixture of sadness and relief handed the job of PR for the Children’s Laureate over to Booktrust.  A year on I am as busy as ever and still enjoying the work I do.  

At the moment  I am working on the following projects:

  • The Children’s Book Show Tour 2010 – see
  • The SLA School Librarian of the Year Award – see
  • Terry Deary’s PUT OUT THE LIGHT – published on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Autumn 1940 Blitz (9th September: A&C Black)
  • Seven Stories, The Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle - summer events  - see
  • The Old Possum Children’s Poetry Competition – see

And I work with Frances Lincoln (and some of the lists they distribute – Alanna, Allen & Unwin, Campfire Graphic Novels, O’Brien Press and Tara) Jane Nisssen (classics) and Barrington Stoke.

I’d like to recommend three novels (some already recommended on Nayu’s Reading Corner... Or about to be!) that I am working on at the moment:

  • Almost True  - the brilliant sequel to When I Was Joe (by Keren David, published by Frances Lincoln in September)
  • Pink -  by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin, August.  A&U are so good at what they call YA fiction)
  • Dancing in the Dark – by Peter Prendergast - a funny and poignant story about living with a ghost and the pain of letting go  (O’Brien, September) 

        And alert you to some fantastic teen fiction from Frances Lincoln in Spring 2011.

        As for voluntary work – I do what I can.  I sat on an Arts Council Committee to promote Cultural Diversity, I ‘donate’ additional time to promote the 
        Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award (the award was founded in memory of Frances Lincoln to encourage and promote diversity in children’s fiction),  I am part of the Poetry Summit  (spreading the word that poetry matters), I promote the Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture ( and from October I have volunteered to to work on a wonderful initiative run by Brent Libraries – Learn English with Your Baby. 

What is the best part about being a publicist? 
I really love being a freelance publicist because I can spend time focusing on the job of getting good books noticed and read without having to go to too many meetings in an office!    I   enjoy working with small independent companies who believe in nurturing their authors and artists even if it means having to work more creatively on smaller budgets.  

 The children’s book world is a very friendly place to work and it’s great to be able to recommend books to people you think will like them and to arrange interviews and events for authors.  I get a real buzz when I read a good review or when an event has gone well and people are queuing up afterwards to meet the author.  I get very disappointed when a book doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

I love the variety of my work. August is quieter than usual so I opened my diary to see what happened this week, last month. It was a slightly busier week  than usual (although I didn’t spend my usual day at Frances Lincoln) but it illustrates the range of work that gets me up in the morning and keeps me ticking...

  • Monday – Meeting with Fun Kids Radio to present books and interview ideas
  • Tuesday – Meeting with Terry Deary to talk about his Autumn tour for PUT OUT THE LIGHT
  • Wednesday – Day trip to Liverpool for Book Factor celebrations with Alan Gibbons. The kind of event that I really love but need plenty of tissues for! Over 500 children in Liverpool had entered a book blurb competition (run by Alt Valley Learning, Booktrust and Barrington Stoke). Alan Gibbons turned the winning book blurb into a book – The Dying Photo (published by Barrington Stoke) and there was a second competition to design the jacket.     We celebrated publication day with a prize giving ceremony for the children and their very proud parents.  Many of the children who took part in the competition hadn’t enjoyed reading until they took part in the competition and met Alan. Some were from schools with a high percentage of free meals. Liverpool’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Hazel Williams, was very generous with her time. She was warm and friendly to all the children, especially some children from a special school.   Alan gave an inspirational speech to the children rather than at them.  (I traveled with Nikki Marsh from Booktrust and a good chance to catch up with news)
  • Thursday – Day trip to  Newcastle for the private view of Nuffin Like a Puffin Exhibition at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books. It’s a fabulous exhibition and the retro tea was great fun.  I traveled with Nicolette Jones, the very knowledgeable children’s books editor of the Sunday Times, and we had a bit of time to chat whilst working.  Access to the internet is so easy these days but we both moaned about the tyranny of emails – there is no escaping!
  • Friday – spent the day sending out photos and news stories from the two previous days and trying to catch up with work – which spilled over to the weekend.

Is there anything that has surprised you about the publishing industry
So many things surprise me.   It’s hard to keep up with how quickly technology has changed. When I first started work I had an old fashioned type writer.  Now I hardly ever print out any letters.  I shouldn’t find the digital revolution so surprising, but I do.  I’ve only recently started to work on teen fiction so I am busy discovering blogs and virtual friends.  It’s fun but it is whole new world!

Related to the publishing industry - It surprises and baffles me that libraries and school libraries are being closed.  Alan Gibbons has been campaigning tirelessly on behalf of libraries  – sign up and join him on the Campaign for the Book face book page.

Have you ever thought about writing a novel yourself? Is this something you might consider in the future? I used to write poetry, but not for publication.  I haven’t had time to think about writing a novel and I don’t think I would be good enough. Also, I am too busy reading other people’s and I can’t see that changing. However, the publicist in me can’t resist the temptation to mention an opportunity for writers who do want to be published - the 
Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award. The prize is £1500 plus the option for Janetta Otter Barry at Frances Lincoln to publish the work. See for details and for entry forms for the 2011 Award (closing date 25th February 2011) email

With books being such a large part of your life, do you have a sizeable personal library in your home? Does your family share your passion for books? Yes there are books everywhere.  My elder daughter is a primary school teacher and she reads stories to her reception class all the time so I still have the excuse to buy picture books, especially if I can get them signed. For years I was in a Book Group which I loved because it introduced me to books and genres that I wouldn’t have read.  There were six of us in the group and we took it in turns to select a book which, providing the others hadn’t already read, we then read and discussed. Every seventh book was a classic. Earlier this year the ceiling collapsed in my sitting room so I had to have a huge clean out of books. I cleared out some – giving them to charity shops – but most of them I vacuumed and put back! It was a long process.  My partner doesn’t think he likes reading much which gives me a challenge – I am always on the look out for books that he might enjoy.

Aside from reading, is there anything else you have a strong passion for?
(Cooking/gardening/chocolate/video gaming etc)
I love going to the theatre, cinema and art exhibitions.  I am a member of the Tate and get private view plus one which means I put the date in my diary and invite a friend rather missing an exhibition because I think I am too busy. I enjoy swimming (there is a good pool within walking distance) and I try to swim three times a week. I also enjoy long walks – both my sisters live in the country and I love to walk and talk to them.  My parents are in their eighties and until recently used to lead 11 mile walks which I joined them for.  I ought to be fit and slim. But I am not. I blame this on the man in my life who is Italian and passionate about food. I leave the cooking to him and end up doing too much eating.  He loves cooking for family and friends.  Friends and family are really important to me and I would love to spend more time traveling with them.  My youngest daughter has just graduated and got herself a job, probably not a career, so I hope to be able to go back to India next year now that I don’t have to help her so much.   Most of all I love being with my two daughters doing not very much (and definitely not shopping) – when they aren’t too busy to be with me.

I'd like to thank Nicky for sharing her life from the Other Side. I'm going to see how many other people from the Other Side I can interview over the forthcoming months. 

(Note: Yes, Almost True by Keren David  will be reviewed over the next month. I've read it once already, and love it!) 


Lauren said...

Such an interesting interview, so big thanks to you both. As I already have Almost True and Pink in my reading pile, I'll have to check out Dancing In The Dark too. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

Rose Works Jewelry said...

Great interview - that was really informative!