It takes something special to get Helena Brantley, founder of Red Pencil Publicity + Marketing, on a plane. “I hate to fly, and I will fly for PubWest,” she says in a recent Zoom interview. As with many other events in 2020 and so far in 2021, PubWest’s annual conference went online. PubWest is a trade organization representing the concerns of modern-day book publishers and publishing-related members from all over North America. Their conference is always a highlight for Helena and has been since she first attended 11 or so years ago.
“Everyone’s there to learn, to network and to have a good time,” she says. Helena describes the conference as having a collegial community feel, unlike any trade conference she’s attended before. “It is a well-produced event and there’s flexibility to the schedule. You can do things—explore, sit and have a chat with someone. There’s lots of encouragement for people to go out and eat together (pre-COVID of course). It’s very unusual, in my experience, to find that kind of a feel at a trade conference.”
One of her prime takeaways from this year’s event, which ran from February 2-4, was thanks to the panel, “Why Trade Reviews and Trade Publications Still Matter.” The panel featured Cevin Bryerman, Executive Vice President of Publishers Weekly, Meredith Schwartz, Editor-In-Chief of Library Journal and Victoria Sutherland, founder and publisher of Foreword Magazine. “It was nice to see the leaders of our industry talk in a communal way—to show they understand that we all need each other,” says Helena. “We’re all trying to figure it out together.”
Helena’s industry, made up of small and mid-sized publishers, authors, publicists, marketers, and third-party service providers, has a lot to figure out, partially due to COVID, but not entirely. “A lot of the problems and challenges we’re having as book publicists and marketers are not simply because of COVID,” says Helena. “In some cases, COVID is forcing us to deal with things we haven’t wanted to deal with.”
One of the challenges Helena mentions that has been aggravated by COVID and which most PR pros are very familiar with is getting attention. “How do you create buzz when everyone’s online and everyone’s promoting things?” she says. “It’s always been crowded; it’s always been a challenge to break through the noise, and now even more so.”
A personal project for her has been to learn the skills that will make her an “ambidextrous” publicist. “You always need to know how to pitch media, but how do you prove your relevance beyond that?” For Helena that means understanding the value of backend talk—marketing, keywords, and search engine optimization. As a result, she’s adapted her practices. “The timelines for my books and campaigns begin with wanting to talk with publishers about their backend plans and strategy. What is your keyword and your SEO plan? What is your advertising plan? It can’t be a thing where, as the publicist, I am expected to deliver a New York Times bestseller.”
Before starting Red Pencil (already 10 years old), Helena was a publicity director at HarperCollins. “Trying to generate media coverage the way we did 10 to 12 years ago is a recipe for insanity. How do we generate media coverage when everyone else is trying to get media coverage and the media are trying to stay on top of what’s happening with COVID?” In working on her own, she’s found that “media isn’t the only game in town.” While she’s not minimizing the importance of traditional media, she’s found that it’s becoming increasingly important to identify organizations and associations that are aligned with the ideas of the authors and in the books she promotes.
“One of the big changes in my own work is trying to find associations and organizations that are aligned with my clients and make a case for why engagement with my authors could be a win-win.” And it is a win-win: her clients benefit because they are put directly in front of the communities they’re trying to reach; and the communities benefit because they are introduced to people with ideas that are relevant and interesting to their members.
An example of this approach is Helena’s work for The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs, which focuses on the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Tubbs (whose husband was former Mayor of Stockton, California) is a scholar and advocate for social justice. Helena worked on an event with the Women’s Foundation of California on February 18 called “Black Women and Radical Acts of Mother” with Tubbs, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and Nourbese Flint, Policy Director and Program Manager for Black Women for Wellness. This was a “statewide publicly supported foundation dedicated to achieving racial, economic, and gender justice by centering the experience and expertise of communities most impacted by systemic justice.”
“We may get some media coverage for the event, which will be great, but we may not,” says Helena. “Already 400 people have registered for this event.”
Again, Helena’s not minimizing media coverage, but she says that book promotion has changed. For instance, the practice of sending hundreds of press releases in a mass distribution to journalists. “I’ve always had a hard time with press releases because it’s this idea of talking to everybody. Trim your list to 25 and be very clear on who you are trying to target and why,” Helena advises. The ability to tailor a message to the right media has been Helena’s go-to and phones were her secret weapon. Now of course, phones are a luxury—although she says there’s always an exception to the rule.
In addition to the loss of phone opportunities came the loss of in-person events. As a publicist who specializes in promoting subject matter experts who write non-fiction books, 2020 brought an abrupt halt to Helena’s plans, present and future. In February 2020, she was in the middle of planning the second half of a 15-event tour across four cities for the authors of the book, Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose. They’d made it halfway through the tour when Helena started hearing news of COVID and recommended to her authors that they cease all travel.
They may not have made it to their final two cities, but Helena took her authors on a different journey. She hired a specialist from New York to help her produce a four-part podcast: Slowing Down to Find Another Way. Each episode featured a different guest, including Parker Palmer and Bayo Akomolafe. “So that’s how we dealt with that,” she says.
Despite the crazy year and her busy schedule, Helena still finds time to read. Currently, she loves reading a few pages in bed every night of Bryan Washington’s Memorial. “I’m loving this book,” she says. “All I will tell you is it’s about two men, who love each other, and their love is complicated. There’s a beautiful poetry to it and there’s some deep things to think about—where we’re from, our parents, and how they help and harm us. I’m loving the story.”