An Interview with Megan Posco of Posco Publicity
In which we discuss pandemic pitching, publicity green flags, Jennifer Garner's social media, + a "spin cycle" exercise, and a prompt from poet, Caylin Capra-Thomas.
Photo credit: Cara Totman Photography
New week, new prompt: The Life Not Lived
Iguana Iguana explores the many versions of the self and even imagines alternate realities for them. Who else could you have been? What events occurred to create your present reality? What events did not occur? Who would you be if you had stayed-- in that place, with that person, at the party, at that restaurant twenty minutes longer? Or if you had gone? Home early, or with the one that got away? If you had cut off all your hair that summer, like you wanted to? If you had been born a week later, or earlier? If your third grade teacher had decided to become a dentist instead? Imagine your possible selves. Write something for one of them-- or all of them!-- an ode, an elegy, a letter. Then, if you feel like it, write to the self you are now.
For this week’s newsletter, I chatted with (the force that is!) Megan Posco of Posco Publicity, who works on serious nonfiction.
CMM: Megan, it’s so lovely to chat with you right when you’ve started your own business, tell me: how did you get your start in publicity?
MP: My first publicity job was at Storey Publishing (now an imprint of Workman at HBG) in North Adams, MA. I had a couple internships in editorial departments and wasn't taken by it, but still wanted to work in publishing. There happened to be an associate publicist job open at Storey at the same time my then-boyfriend/now-husband decided on UMass Amherst for graduate school, so it was serendipity. I was very out of my element, not just as a new publicist but totally unfamiliar with the topics that Storey publishes. So, I learned about backyard chicken keeping, gardening, knitting, and fermenting food while learning how to publicize books. It was so fun! My biggest triumph was landing How to Speak Chicken in People mag (!).
CMM: Okay, DYING to know more about How to Speak Chicken, and a little bit about how you pitched it for the People Mag audience? (give us your secrets, Megan!). Were we in the backyard chicken boom at the time? I type this as our dog stares out the window at our neighbor's chickens in the street—I probably need this book!
MP: Easy: I started my pitch by linking to a celeb's recent Instagram posts about her chickens. I THINK it was Jennifer Garner. I thought it was a longshot, but sometimes longshots work!!
CMM: This is the dream world I want to live in—Jennifer Garner’s baking Tiktok + her chicken posts. Here comes the bumper sticker where I say, “See! This is why you hire a publicist!”
I want to hear about another long shot in your career (give us hope, right?!) & maybe a book that seemed (at first) easy to publicize but was stickier? I always think I know a few of my angles at the start of working on a book, but I’m constantly surprised (and love that about our work!)—you could definitely put my pitches through the wash cycle several times! 🧼
MP: It's actually easier to think of cases where I had initially written the book off as unlikely to get mainstream coverage that then ended up with a lot of publicity. (I'm not sure I go into any campaign thinking it will be easy... ha!)
One that comes immediately to mind is Healthy Buildings, an academic trade title I was assigned to work on in October 2019, when I was at Harvard University Press. It was a $35 hardcover and I think they had planned a first print run of 2,000 copies... WELL, it turns out that part of what makes a building healthy is indoor air quality to limit the spread of disease. Do you see where this is going?
I didn't! In January 2020, one of the coauthors, Joe Allen, sent me his first op-ed draft about the "novel coronavirus" and how buildings can help to slow the spread of disease. I was like, "...sorry, whaaaat...?" (This ran in the Financial Times on February 9, 2020.) By mid-March, I was working almost exclusively with Joe, who's a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, to raise awareness about wearing masks, opening windows, and other aspects of disease transmission, especially indoors. The book was published in mid-April and sold out of its first print run before the on sale date. By the time I left the Press a couple months later, I believe it had sold nearly 10,000 copies.
I was pitching up a STORM. There were so many journalists looking for expert sources in the earliest days of the pandemic, and Joe had expertise in a field much more niche than epidemiology or virology, for example. He was quoted in WIRED, National Geographic, HuffPost, Martha Stewart Living, AARP, MEL Magazine, Fortune, The Atlantic, Eater, Fast Company, New York Magazine, Vox, etc., etc. He was taking interviews with MSNBC and CNN from his car while his kids did remote schooling. It was nuts. But it felt productive when nothing else really did and it kept me busy.
CMM: Book timing is wild. It takes two years at most presses to get a book out the door and really we have no idea what world we’ll be in on release day when a book is sold. It takes a lot of faith. Also, THANK YOU, JOE for writing & helping & understanding a situation so many of us were not prepared to handle, but somehow are still handling while grieving and living and schooling and working.
The part about being in the car on a phone call with CNN feels very pandemic-life to me. It reminds me of what I thought were darling interruptions by children and pets in journalist’s homes during the nightly news when some folks were remote working. As someone still working from their converted clothes closet, those interruptions made me feel warmer about how I was being asked to be vulnerable with other people in ways I had not been before—through the zoom screen straight into our homes. (My closet opens to our literal bedroom so it’s a dream/nightmare scenario in many ways). I wish we gave each other more of a break (even now) about our communication expectations.
Since you were working in publicity pre-pandemic (I was not), what do you think has changed about book publicity now that we live in a more remote and digital climate (and perhaps a more isolated one too?)
MP: Publicity has changed so much. Before addressing how the job has changed, I think it's important to mention that, relative to other "knowledge workers'' (very distinct from frontline workers, who have been disproportionately exposed to death and disease over the course of the pandemic), book publicists (especially those working on nonfiction) don't have the benefit of creating space from the news. I remember several suggestions in Spring 2020 to stop doom scrolling, turn off CNN, and keep the news, which was miserable, at an arm's length.
When I was publicizing Dr. Allen's book, I had to keep tabs on pandemic news every single day (including my old friend, CNN’s running count of Covid-19 deaths). I also received emails from authors, understandably upset that their ill-timed books were getting no attention, with ideas to somehow connect their completely irrelevant books (i.e., on traumatic brain injuries, on classical architecture, etc.) to the pandemic. And it fell on me to hear their anger over the pandemic ruining their launches and tell them that, no, I wouldn't be pitching this. This is a degree of emotional labor that I hadn’t yet experienced and it continues to this day. More recently, I received an email from an author back in March that expressed fear that the war in Ukraine would "overshadow the book." Yes, it will! And it should!
Though it would be a wonderful superpower, publicists cannot control the news cycle and though we try our damndest to work with it, I do believe I have a responsibility to be honest to my authors when they're stretching an argument beyond logic or their area(s) of expertise. It's something I've consistently struggled with over the last two years.
As for the job, it just takes longer to get a journalist's attention, no matter how relevant the pitch is to their beat and the news (which it should always be!). I do think it's a good thing there were no "desk side" meetings with the media in New York City for two years... which heavily privileges publicists based in NYC and those with the resources to travel. So, I think that's been democratizing. Rather than taking people out to lunch, I've made great connections with journalists simply by writing clear, timely pitches. (And sincerely thanking them for their work!)
CMM: I had a lot of these same feelings personally and professionally last week with the devastation and horror of Uvalde. My instinct was to “escape” the news and further isolate myself into family and food, and absolutely pause pitching. (Of course, a privilege of who I am and where/how I work). All of the writers I’m working with understood that completely, and that is in part due to communication and transparency up front like you said, but also holding empathy for each other.
My first mentor in publishing told me we aren’t heart surgeons and there’s nothing in our work that can’t wait 24 hours (I say this as an inbox zero person) but writers are often giving up so much control in the years-long process of publishing books that to see expectations change again and again has to be exhausting and fear-inducing. I wish the relationship between the art of writing and the business of writing felt less disconnected, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Publicists do work on multiple projects simultaneously and have to balance priorities, timing, news, scrolling (which is, in fact, important to the job!), and more–and I wonder what advice you might give to writers who are working with a freelance publicist (perhaps what they can’t see behind the scenes?)
MP: First and foremost, the best publicity coverage is, at least in my experience, always the result of a close partnership between an author and their publicist. The majority of books I work on are written by experts in the field, which means they are naturally at the heart of conversations happening about their topic(s). I do my best to monitor news related to my books — both manually and automatically with tools like Google Alerts — but I'll never have the same access to conversations happening "on the ground." So, I would urge writers, especially authors of serious nonfiction related to issues in the news, to make monitoring relevant news and sharing it with their publicist a regular exercise.
What do I mean by this? I ask my authors to try thinking like a publicist and consider these questions:
Can your book tie in to events in the news? (i.e., Davos, fashion week, COP26, etc.)
How does your book connect to larger trends? (i.e., the latest quarterly jobs report or earnings report, new research from the IPCC, economic trends like inflation, the midterm elections, etc.)
Could it interest policymakers? Why?
I would also highly recommend to any author who wants major mainstream media coverage (i.e., CNN, NPR, etc.) that they watch and listen to the shows they want to appear on. Which guests effectively conveyed their points? Did the host mention that the guest has a new book? If so, would you be inclined to buy the book after watching the interview? Why or why not?
Finally, after a major breaking news event, resist the urge to ask your publicist to pitch cable news shows and NPR unless you are a well-known expert on a topic directly related to the breaking news.
CMM: I’ve also been thinking about all of the news as I stew on how publicists, for me, are community builders. Our job is partly to bridge relationships–to see, curate, or cause connections between ideas, and be aware of a larger landscape of subjects and themes and genres and ways of seeing the world. We are by no means experts on the subject matter like the author, but we need to have our tentacles out about those subjects—and we need to want to discover. I especially love the aspect of the job (as someone who frequently maps my ideas) that revels in digging up links, discovering new angles, or picking at messaging, but it also feels like there is always more we could be doing. (Laundry!)
It gives me a little more hope in terms of everything you’ve said to think of the job that way—that my first goal is reach—which I think of as a physical action (reach out, reach for, reach further). I’ve lost and gained a lot of community during the pandemic, or the appearance of what I believe community to be (even if it sometimes seems artificial like social media) and publicity has helped me with that redefining of what communal life can be.
How do you (personally) define your role as a publicist, particularly since you’ve just started your own business?
MP: I see my primary role as an advocate of my authors' work. The organizing principle of — and motivation for starting — Posco Publicity is that I only take on projects that I genuinely care about. This allows me to pitch the books with honest and unabashed enthusiasm. The books I'm currently working on explore criminal justice reform and humane incarceration, how to reimagine local democracy through the arts, and practical solutions for overcoming bureaucracy in nonprofits and government agencies to make change happen. I care about all of these things!
Over the course of my career, I've been assigned to work on countless books that I was ambivalent about or, worse, that I vehemently disagreed with. It's part of the job, and every publicist I know does their best by the books they work on despite personal opinions. It's a privilege to be able to make this decision at all, but now that I've got total control over what I work on — and what I do not — I'm not interested in working on any book that undermines my values. The good news is that everyone who works with me can be confident that I want their book to succeed because I think that would be a good thing for the world.
CMM: (Obviously) after hearing what you’re topically working on, I must know the books we should be buying from that list, and also, perhaps a book you didn’t work on, but that you think had a great publicity campaign?
MP: I'm a huge fan of Columbia Global Reports, a nonprofit publisher affiliated with the journalism school. They publish 6 paperbacks each year that are works of longform journalism on important issues. The book of theirs that I'm currently working (out in October) is What's Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times and the founding editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. I also want to give a special shout out to Katie Worth's Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America, which I publicized last Fall. You can see some of the media attention it got and how I built the campaign strategy on the case study page of my website.
One book that got quite a bit of attention — including several thoughtful interviews I listened to — was Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press.
CMM: I ordered Worth’s book when you mentioned it to me before, very excited to dive in.
Also, YES, case study!
With these in mind, what is one book you wish you got to publicize, and why?
MP: Hm, great question. I'd publicize anything by Patricia Lockwood in a heartbeat, despite absolutely no experience working on fiction. (Patricia, if you're reading this, what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm, promise.) She's one of the few authors who has made me laugh out loud and Priestdaddy and No One Is Talking About This are both on my list of all-time favorite reads.
CMM: I am also obsessed with both of those books and feel like “obsessed” is just the right word to use when it comes to Patricia Lockwood.
Thank you for always being so smart and so detailed about your work, it’s inspiring. I can’t wait to see the books you take on at Posco Publicity and hope all your authors are on my news channels in the future, and in my ears during daily NPR.
And lastly, what do you want anyone reading this Substack to know about Posco Publicity?
MP: I don't bite! Continuing to build community is important to me, and I am always happy to hear from authors and other publicists.
Authors should know that I do not operate Posco Publicity like a car dealership...! There is absolutely no pressure if you'd like to have a conversation about freelance publicity and how it works. If we don't end up working together, that's cool! In general, I think there's a misconception that quality publicity costs the equivalent of a mortgage down payment, which discourages some authors from even inquiring about it. Don't be discouraged. Let's talk!
Publicists, you can email me for literally any reason (i.e., gossip, weird questions, etc.). You're all the best, and some days this job is hard. A little solidarity can go a long way.
CMM: You heard it right here, folks! Get in touch so we can gossip. :) All jokes aside, Megan and I are in a Slack channel for publicists, if you are working in publishing publicity, feel free to reach out and we can add you in for all the water cooler conversation (what should we call this now that some of us aren’t in an office anymore?)
We talked a lot about timeliness and the timing of things in this interview. So, your exercise is to sit down and map your thinking:
What’s happening in the world that influenced your book, or that in some serendipitous way (for good or bad) coincides, collides, or correlates with your work—it can be consciously or subconsciously or totally out of the blue. What came out in the wash? I immediately think of the intro to David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers with the man who says his ideas come from “the washing machine in [my] brain, set on spin.”
An example from the books I’m working on is Amy Fusselman’s The Mean$. It’s her novel debut after publishing four books of incredible literary memoir (Idiophone! Pharmacist’s Mate! Savage Park!) and The Means could be described as this tragicomic (truly laugh-out-loud) exploration of capitalism and yearning wrapped up in a beach read package.
Is it a beach read? Yes. Is it also a witty interrogation of motherhood, ambition, luxury, and belonging? Yes.
The way it stands out in TWENTYTWENTYTWO is that it’s a Zillow x Next Door novel. (I’m trying to do the cool South x Southwest thing, is it working?)
You know all those videos you watch on TikTok of the weirdest Zillow find of the day—Amy’s book feeds that audience. You know that guy who posts in your Nextdoor feed complaining about something silly and the thread that ensues against him (that keeps you scrolling during every break in your day)? Those neighbors feature in Amy’s novel. Our current real estate crisis? Those conversations have been through the washing machine in Amy’s brain and have arrived folded, at your convenience, in The Mean$. Our HGTV obsession (admit it!) with interesting architectural design or build-it-ourselves? Yep, Amy’s got you covered.
Except, it’s not serious nonfiction, it’s a kind of Maria Semple or David Sedaris—ahem AMY FUSSELMAN—taking you on a journey through these *like so totally 2022* ideas in fiction. Dare I say, Amy has made real estate…funny?
This is all to say, think about the times we live (our trends, forecasts, crises, news, popular culture)—what’s in your spin cycle?