Q + A
Q + A With Helena Brantley
My mother, Annie, a secretary, was my first editor. In the early 1980s, it was her red pencils that improved many a thank-you note I wrote, and rewrote, and sometimes rewrote again, almost always on a yellow legal pad, until she deemed my words ready to print.
I am a nonfiction book publicist. My specialty is working with publishers and authors to promote books by subject-matter experts and scholars. I do this across print, broadcast, online and social outlets.
I have a special fondness for working with authors of those rare memoirs that leave me wanting to move differently in the world in some way.
Publishers and authors can run into trouble with coverage when there isn’t enough time to seek editorial consideration in important trade publications, including Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. These can still be lifeline publications. Most of the top independent booksellers also require three to four months’ lead time to book an event, so time is still a critical component in setting up a book properly.
I am stickler about having authors complete my Author Questionnaire. When authors rush through this process, it’s usually a sign they don’t understand that book publicity and marketing is a collaborative process.
As with all creative endeavors, though, a book can have the perfect set-up and still not sell when it’s launched into the marketplace.
There is a lot of chatter these days about changes in publishing. What issues does this raise for you?
There is always chatter about change. The more recent changes in publishing reflect what is happening in virtually all industries: an increasing reliance on technology. But the fundamentals of book publicity have not changed. I remain bullish on reading and on technology.
Another truth is that large segments of readers of color and from varied socioeconomic backgrounds are hungry for stories that reflect the unique intricacies and nuances of their lives. Within traditional publishing this hunger goes largely unfilled, so I see a huge opportunity for publishers willing to take new risks in trying to serve these readers.
And while I’m on the subject, if I could wave a magic wand, the world of producers and editors could also use a shot of inclusion, especially among those who edit and assign book reviews.
A lot and not enough. This for me is a daily challenge, exacerbated by the fact that I don’t enjoy reading online because I don’t retain the information as well as when I read hard copy. I often subscribe to both the print version and the online versions of outlets I read.
On most days, I read The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle and PW Daily. Then, if time allows, an article or two from one of the 10,000 magazines I subscribe to. Just kidding. But I do subscribe to a lot of magazines, among them: The Week, Time, The Weekly Standard, Harper’s, Essence, O: The Oprah Magazine, Ad Week and Broadcast & Cable. I listen to National Public Radio, and a fair number of podcasts (right now I am giving thanks for “#StillProcessing” and “On Being with Krista Tippett“). I also DVR a bunch of shows like “60 Minutes,” “Farheed Zakaria” and “The Daily Show” to watch when I can.
That we’re all cocktail-drinking extroverts. That we make magic. That we alone make best-sellers. That the best among us are chummy with media.
Here is my truth: I am an introvert who likes a good cocktail now and then. I can’t do very much for a book that is poorly written, does not deliver on its promise, or has little to say. I’m proud of the string of books I’ve worked on that are both national and New York Times best-sellers. You might be surprised at the role of packaging, production and distribution in that game. I try to be responsive, succinct and courteous with media but a good journalist or producer worth their salt is loyal to the story first and foremost.
No, I don’t think all. But if done well I do think a book trailer can be an effective tool to help me as a publicist convey what a book is. I’m talking with a few local and national videographers now about how I can work with them to create trailers.
In 2015, I was honored to serve as the publicist for the inaugural “Bay Area Book Festival.” In its second year (2016), I managed all Festival promotion and its Twitter feed.
Another one is “UnCharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.” This two-day Berkeleyside.com production is a bit like “Aspen Ideas,” or at least that’s how I imagine that event would be from studying their online presence. I served as the publicist and managed the Twitter feed for Uncharted in 2015 and 2016. Tremendous fun both years.
No. I didn’t grow up in publishing and I was not an English major. My degree is in communications journalism with a minor in political science. I began my career working under giants in business, consumer and healthcare brands at public relations and marketing/advertising agencies in New York City and Washington, D.C. I was recruited to work in publishing.
Yes, I’ve worked on several books that were national best-sellers, including Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor, The Left Hand of God, by Rabbi Michael Lerner and six New York Times best-sellers.
That time I was managing publicity for the re-issue of Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter by Sidney Poitier. The book had first been published years before, and a special edition was published when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club. Working on the special edition was a surprise and delight for all involved.
I had occasion to call “Mr. P” on the phone. Those seven minutes are worth their weight in gold in my personal “memories and moments” bank. I was so excited, I called my parents to tell them who I had just spoken to, which led them to talk about how much they both loved Sidney Poitier and how his life was a testament to grace and courage.
In 1996, at a Religion News Writers Association meeting in Washington, D.C,. I met Stephen Prothero, then-chair of the Boston University religion department. I doubt I had even seen a galley copy of his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t. He had one request for me: to be on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Why not ‘Oprah’?” I remember thinking through my smile. The next year, shortly after his book was published, I escorted Stephen to “The Daily Show,” and recall even now the joy of watching Professor Prothero shake hands with Mr. Stewart in the green room. I also booked him on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which for me was the bigger deal.
My first boss, John F. Henderson, was an executive vice president at Rubenstein Associates, Inc. Every Friday afternoon, John would reach into his pocket and hand me $2.50. Then, I would ride the elevator down to the ground floor of 1345 Sixth Avenue to buy the newly printed issue of Business Week, and bring it to him to read. He sat in his window office and read the thing cover to cover. Most Fridays, he would draft a short pitch that I would type, study, print and bring to the mailroom that same day.
John’s clients were all in the business sector, but he also read the national dailies, and a bunch of trades. He modeled for me that the truly best publicists read, read and read; they listen and watch, too, but mostly, they read.
RIP John F. Henderson and thank you for so very much.