Kelly Hughes on Books and Publicity

As a would-be author, I like to fantasize that if I write it, they will read–they being millions, if not hundreds, of readers. I don’t want to be famous; I just want to be read. But in the publishing world, many people work behind the scenes to produce and draw attention to a book. I have had the privilege of corresponding with one of those booklovers in the shadows. Kelly Hughes is president of DeChant-Hughes & Assoc, Inc, a Chicago-based public relations agency specializing in national media coverage for books on religious thought, spirituality, family life issues, personal growth, social and cultural issues and pop culture. Here are a few questions about her work and her love of books.

How does the publicity process work? Do you bid for services with a publisher? Are fees relative to sales?

Kelly Hughes (KH): Generally, a publisher contacts me months before pub date to tell me about the book and check my interest in submitting a proposal. The proposal outlines my recommendations for the publicity campaign, along with fees and an estimate of expenses. Fees are not relative to sales, although a publisher’s expectation of how well a book will do may influence their decision on whether to retain outside PR help.

How many books do you read in a week or month? Is it all for business purposes or are you able to get in some leisure reading?

KH: It’s difficult to quantify because I have to read so many books for work. I do manage to find time for personal reading, too. I am reading three books this week, two for work, and one for me: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

I see that your firm marketed Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. Was it anticipated to be a long-term bestseller before its release?

KH: Mitch always believed in the book and its potential to change lives.

His commitment was very deep, very personal. He was tireless in his efforts and his cooperation with the publicity process. Tuesdays with Morrie is a classic “word-of-mouth” book — it got great media coverage, but when people bought it and read it, it affected them deeply, and they would talk about it, recommend it, and buy it for others as gifts. It was remarkable to see the enthusiastic support for that book from the readers.

How do you define a successful campaign? Is it totally subjective to perceived sales? Are there certain specifics, like a mention or review by select publications, which add up to success despite sale numbers?

KH: A successful campaign secures coverage in the media that reaches the potential audience for the book, and spurs the kind of word-of-mouth that can be so important to a book’s success. Publicity is just one factor, however. Several other factors affect sales, such as distribution, availability, cover, other marketing efforts, competition and price, among others. There are some books that get excellent media coverage and still don’t sell. Some books would have been better as magazine articles — people will spend the time to read a long article about it, but that’s all they feel they need to know, and they’re not willing to shell out $25 for the book.

Do you care about ranking?

KH: Yes, but I take it with a grain of salt. I don’t obsessively check it. I understand how unpredictable the ranking is – a sudden bump may reflect the sale of just one copy. It’s all relative to how the other millions of books are doing. It is fun to see the ranking jump after an interview; it’s nice to be able to trace it do some specific media coverage.

What made you a book lover in your youth?

KH: My parents were both avid readers. Our house was filled with books, newspapers and magazines. When I was a kid, Chicago was a four-newspaper town, and we had at least two and sometimes all four everyday. My parents encouraged our love of reading. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve books. We had big volumes of Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm fairy tales I remember spend hours reading. The first “grown-up books” I received as gifts one Christmas were a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and World’s Most Amazing Baseball Stories (I was a big Chicago White Sox fan at the time). We made frequent trips to the library, and, we were allowed to order several books from each issue of Scholastic Book Club News. I remember clearly how much I looked forward to that newsletter, and the books that followed.

Do you have a favorite book or series or author?

KH: This is a hard one! I don’t think I can narrow it down, so I’ll just name some authors I love. I know I’m going to look at this later and think, “I can’t believe I forgot so-and-so, my favorite author of all time!”

I read a lot of fiction, and Muriel Spark, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, John McGahern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Richard Russo are tops on my list. Last year at the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing I was introduced to the work of Tim Gautreaux; he quickly became a favorite. One of the novels I will actually take the time to re-read is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I am endlessly amused by Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster series and re-read the stories often.

I also enjoy nonfiction, history and biography. Some of my favorites in nonfiction are Thomas Lynch, the poet and essayist; Paul Theroux’s travel writing, especially The Happy Isles of Oceania and Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I enjoy reading spiritual memoir, which is something of a “busman’s holiday” for me, such as Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris. The most charming, witty, engaging memoirs I have ever read, period, are two by the actor Alec Guinness — both are part spiritual memoir and part life-in-the-theater memoir: Blessings in Disguise and My Name Escapes Me.

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