— About Michelle Blankenship —
Since 1997, Michelle Blankenship has advocated tirelessly for books to the media. Her in-house career spanned 16 years, working at John Wiley & Sons, Picador USA, Harcourt Trade Publishers, and Bloomsbury specializing in literary fiction, poetry, and a variety of non-fiction topics (current events, international affairs, politics, history, science, medical, art, fashion, memoir, etc.).
Her former in-house authors include Günter Grass, Jesmyn Ward, Wisława Szymborska, Umberto Eco, Kaye Gibbons, Roger Angell, Charles Simic, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rory Stewart, and several others.
During her time as an in-house publicist, she served as Director of Publicity for Harcourt and as an Associate Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury. In April of 2013, she went freelance and in that capacity she has worked with an impressive roster of authors, including Jesmyn Ward, Rebecca Walker, Eimear McBride, Barney Frank, Martha S. Jones, James Forman, Jr., and Mitchell S. Jackson. Born and raised in Ohio, Michelle lives in New York City.
Q&A with Michelle Blankenship
Q: How did you get into publishing?
A: I had originally dreamed of being an English professor, but after spending two years in grad school, I realized it wouldn’t be what I had envisioned. As I was going through the want ads of The New York Times (yes, there was a time when we looked for jobs in the actual newspaper!), I saw a header for “Publishing” and that’s when the proverbial light bulb went on in my head and I focused all of my energy on getting my foot in the door. The job listings that excited me most were the ones for publicity – I just knew it would be a perfect career for me where I could interact with the media as an advocate for books, which were and still are a saving grace in my life.
Q: Publicity is always rated as one of the most stressful jobs. What is it you like about doing book publicity?
A: It really is a stressful job! But it is also so rewarding when your efforts pay off. What’s stressful is that publicity is the end of the line in the life of a book. Everything has been moving towards the day when the book will be out in the world and it’s the publicist’s job to try and get the media to pay attention. With tens of thousands of books being published every year, it is no small task to try to set the books apart from all the others. What I like about it is that I have a chance to work with some incredible books and try my best to get my media contacts to just pick them up and give them a chance. It doesn’t mean I can force them to review the book or interview the author, but knowing I might make a difference in the life of a book means a lot to me.
Q: Does every author need to hire an outside/freelance publicist?
A: I wouldn’t say that every author needs to hire an outside publicist, but I do think that there is great value in bulking up your publicity team. The in-house publicist at your publishing company more often than not is going to be excellent and a true professional. Even so, many in-house book publicists these days are carrying a tremendous work load. If an author can afford to bring in a freelancer to help supplement the incredible efforts by the in-house team, it can only help increase the book’s chances of getting coverage.
Q: Will hiring an outside/freelance publicist create animosity and cause my publisher to do less for my book?
A: Absolutely not! People do not go into publishing to get rich. It’s not a lucrative career track, as most publishing professionals will openly admit. The professionals at your publishing house are there because they love books and they genuinely want to see the books do well. Just because an author brings in an outside publicist, that in no way affects how much effort the in-house team puts into your book. How do I know? I worked in-house for 16 years. I have the highest esteem for my fellow colleagues in publishing, especially the publicists.
Q: How long have you been working in publishing?
A: My first job in publishing began in 1997 at John Wiley & Sons. I’ve worked in publishing ever since for a total of 16 years in-house and now two years as a freelance book publicist.
Q: Which publishing house did you enjoy working for the most?
A: That’s a hard question! While I have loved the lists at all of the houses I’ve worked for, I have to admit that Harcourt Trade Publishers will always hold a special place in my heart. I will never be able to recreate the work environment I had at Harcourt.
Q: Aside from the many great books you’ve worked on as a publicist the past 18 years, what books have had the greatest impact on you as a reader?
A: Another hard question! I’ll just list them without boring you with explanations (and this is by no means a complete list)!
The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
Nancy Drew mysteries 1-54 by Carolyn Keene
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Happiness Is a Warm Puppy by Charles M. Schulz
Uncle Wiggily’s Adventures by Howard R. Garis
Dracula by Bram Stoker
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Cambio de armas by Luisa Valenzuela
La ciudad y los perros by Mario Vargas Llosa
Sepharad by Antonio Muñoz Molina
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Ulysses by James Joyce
The End of the Road by John Barth
Don’t get me started on poets! And of course I’ve read so much unforgettable non-fiction.
Q: When should an author bring on an outside/freelance publicist?
A: The sooner the better! If every author would hire their outside publicist 10-12 months before a book goes on sale that would be great as far as I’m concerned. From my perspective, the minimum should be two months before pub but of course it’s not ideal to wait until so close to the publication date.
Q: If I hire a publicist will I definitely get media coverage for my book?
A: I would be a fool to say that every book can definitely get media coverage. I have been doing this far too long to be so cavalier. There is always a chance that your book will get no coverage from the media, not even from the trades (i.e. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Booklist, etc.). The only thing I can guarantee is that I am the kind of publicist who will do everything I possibly can to rattle the cages.