A big part of the book trade is marketing: publishers need to let people know about the books they really like. And, of course, a growing part of marketing is now online – especially via Twitter, Facebook, Instragam and the rest. We talk to Digital Marketing Executive at Penguin Random House, Indira Birnie, about the challenges and opportunities of working in this growing field.
How did you get to where you are today – did you study marketing or get into publishing via a different route?
I studied digital media at university; it involved doing things like graphic design, photography, filmmaking, sound design and the like, so I suppose my educational background is a little unconventional for the job I currently do.
The thing that helped me most when I finished university and had to, y’know, actually get a real job, was the fact that I’d worked part-time at Waterstones for six years. I started when I was 16 and worked weekends and holidays until I started my first publishing job. Turns out I actually knew a lot about books and the industry because that knowledge somehow just seeps into your brain when you’re a bookseller and it helped immensely during interviews.
Tell us what a Digital Marketing Executive does and what a typical day involves?
To try and put it simply, I work in a central department which supports all our publishing divisions; my specialism is social media so I work mainly with marketing and publicity teams across the company, helping them with social media tools, training and best practice.
I’m sort of like a consultant – marketers or publicists can come to me with questions on any aspect of social media; it could be anything from a small technical problem that I can help solve quickly, to brainstorming on social media strategy and best practice around the launch of a new author or brand. Other than that, I also manage our relationships with contacts at social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, from a central point of view. It’s a varied role that keeps me on my toes!
At what point in the book publishing process do you come in – is it just at the end or do you get input from the beginning?
It depends really. I can help with any stage of the publishing process so it depends which point I’m brought in at. I do everything from reading proposals and giving my feedback to editors – particularly in terms of digital marketing around publication – to advising on best practice for social media campaigns, whether it’s around publication or later down the line, to helping marketers or publicists measure how successful a social media campaign has been once it has ended.
What do you most love about your job?
I’m fascinated by social media and how it’s affecting people’s lives these days, so it’s great to have a job which allows me to be so involved in it. It’s also really interesting to work with the social media companies themselves: to hear their own opportunities and challenges and figure out ways we can collaborate.
One of the other advantages of working at Penguin Random House is that we publish such a wide variety of books, and we’re a company filled with a talented bunch of people. We publish in pretty much every genre and since I work in this central part of the company, I get to be involved in a lot of different projects and live vicariously through our marketers and publicists.
What’s the most frustrating part of your job / the publishing industry?
Prior to my current job, I used to work in publicity in another part of Random House (before we became Penguin Random House), which involved working on publicity campaigns for literary fiction and non-fiction. I wouldn’t call it frustrating, but I do sometimes miss being involved so closely with the publishing process and that direct relationship with authors. There’s plenty in my current role that makes up for it though, so it’s not all that bad!
In terms of the wider industry, there’s a constant stream of articles about diversity in publishing, but it’s true – we do need more diversity in all parts of publishing, from the people who work behind the scenes to the authors we acquire and publish. The Diversity in Publishing report published by AsianMedia.org last year found that ‘while 28.8% of the working population of London are Black or Minority Ethnic, only 7.7% of those working in publishing are from a non-white background.’
Plenty of others have put it better than me though, so if you want to read more on this I recommend Cathy Rentzenbrink’s piece in The Bookseller. This part really stayed with me:
“Some time ago I was listening to two men discussing literature on Radio 4. They agreed with each other that all the stories have been told, again and again … Really? I thought. How culturally privileged must you have to be to think that all the stories have been told? … When voices of authority claim all the stories have been told, those with untold stories might question their value.”
Is it exciting doing a job that essentially didn’t exist 10 years ago? Do you feel like a trailblazer?
Hah! I’m not sure I see myself as a trailblazer, but I do think my job and the department I work in is an exciting place to be. Social media is such a fast-moving area, but that’s one of the things I like most about it – every day brings new developments, challenges and opportunities.
What do you think the future holds for social media and publishing?
Ofcom’s Communications Market report, published in 2015, showed that two thirds of people in the UK now own a smartphone and we’re using them to spend two hours online every day – twice as long as on laptops and PCs. Although the biggest disruptor for the publishing industry in recent years has been the rise of ebooks and ereaders, there seems to be a decline in usage of dedicated devices such as e-readers and a definite shift towards increased smartphone ownership and usage. People are consuming a huge proportion of their media, whether that’s books, televisions shows or web browsing, on their mobile devices and I think this is the next big challenge the industry is facing. I certainly don’t have the answer but social media is just one of the ways we can be present on people’s mobile devices, speaking directly to readers and trying to connect them with the books and authors they love.
What would you say to someone who wants to get into publishing?
I’m afraid my advice isn’t new or exciting, but I would say: get involved. Do lots of work experience, join organisations like the Society of Young Publishers, and go to publishing events to meet new people. It’s a very social industry, so getting to know people in publishing also means you might be the first to hear of any opportunities that come up.
Other than that, consider roles across all areas of publishing – in my department alone there are people working on audiobooks, digital publishing, website and app development, digital marketing, live events and consumer insight. The point is, there’s lots more going on than just editorial, publicity and marketing, so look into areas you might not already be aware of.