Thursday 24 September 2009


To encourage you to focus on your goal of publication [you were wavering, I know you were], I thought we'd have a little look at that thorny issue: controlling journalists. Or at least from the very one-sided POV which is the one I am choosing to take today.

Journalists are lovely, of course, or, even if they're not, they're only doing a job. And that, dear readers, is the crux: they are doing a job, and their task is NOT "How will I publicise this gullible author's book?" Their task is: "How will I get my story? Specifically, how will I get the author to provide one sentence to support the story I need and have already written in my head?"

This task is simple for the journalist, for two reasons:
  1. The author is so hopelessly delighted to be interviewed that he/she will eventually say anything
  2. The journalist will talk to the author for an hour or more, during which time the author will probably have spoken 8,000 words, of which the journalist only needs 20.
I was reminded of this today when a newly-published novelist and reader of this blog  -  hooray!  -  emailed me and said she'd been asked for an interview by a Sunday paper which wanted to photograph her at home, with family members if possible; and that she knew that some of the topics behind the book could touch tricky ground, because of connections with mental health issues; but that the reporter seemed genuinely kind. What advice did I have? Should she do it?

This was what I said, plus a bit more:

  1. Do it  -  almost never say no to an interview unless you're so successful you don't care
  2. Be aware that the reporter, however kind she seems and is, knows the story she wants to write and she will go all out to get you to say the thing that supports her story.
  3. Ask her to tell you in advance what line she's interested in and what areas she wants to cover
  4. If there are things you don't want her to ask about, SAY so very very clearly, or say it's "off the record"  -  point out that printing such a thing would cause distress to family members, particularly younger ones. I have always refused to talk about my kids other than to state their age and gender.
  5. She will leave out 98% of what you say and just include the 2% she wants. Therefore, simply do not say anything you don't want said.
  6. If you accidentally say something you wish you hadn't, explain that it would be misleading and untrue to record your erroneous comment. "Off the record" ought to be honoured and nearly always is.
  7. Do not fill a silence  -  that's for her to do. Less is less and less is best. Say too much and it will be paraphrased, often weirdly.
  8. If your family don't want to be in the pics or talked about, make that clear
  9. Talk about your book a lot, much more than the background stuff that she wants
  10. Talk about your book again
  11. Prepare in advance a very succinct and memorable way of answering these two heart-sinking questions a) so, what's it about then, this book? b) why did you write it? [When I say memorable, I mean memorable in a printable way ...]
  12. Smile and be friendly; offer cake; be human and lovely. She'll still shaft** you if she wants to but she'll feel worse about it. But don't gush and flutter  -  be professional. Appear to have done this loads of times before. 
  13. Think about how you dress  -  you can dress any way you want, but think about it. How do you want the journo to remember you? The fab shoes? The clean open-necked shirt? The greasy hair and non-designer stubble? Soup on cleavage?
  14. Realise that however you are quoted in the article, you will probably cringe when you read it afterwards anyway
  15. And remember that even if you end up being uncomfortable about how the article comes out, no one else will remember the negative bits  -  they'll just remember you and your book
Because remember: you just got free publicity for the book you are so proud of. Hooray for lovely journalists!

**Edited to add a PS re "shafted"  -  quite right Flixton Mum, that was a cruel word for me to use! But I only said "if she wants to", and of course there are hardly any journalists who would twist your words maliciously, unless you had behaved very unpleasantly in the interview ...

And that pretty much sums up dealing with newspaper interviews. Are you ready for the Bloggoffee Day tomorrow? Get baking.


Flixton Mum said...

Now, now, now Ms a one time journalist myself I think you are being a little harsh on journalists. We do not look to shaft anyone...I myself am (and always was nice).

Very good points you make. I always like cake and a brew (even now). But when you talk to a journalist it is a battle of words. Authors like words and use them to illustrate, journalists are economical with them and use them to fit the story and the allotted space. Space in newspapers costs money, a lot of money, so if you are getting editorial coverage it is a big thing.

Being prepared is a big thing. Journalists don't have a lot of time, they might only have bylines on one or two stories a week, but that doesn't mean they're not contributing to thousands of other things in the paper. If you're a ditherer and come over a bit flappy then it does stick.

But remember also that when a journalist gets back to the office, no matter how nice you were during the interview they still have to face a niggly (sub/news)editor on deadline day. I'm not saying it's right, it's just a fact and journalists are human and do have feelings too. The nicer and more prepared you were for the interview though, the better memory journalists have when they look back through their shorthand and we all know if we enjoy our writing we write better. No?

I don't know if this is helpful, or if I am rambling, but I LOVE Delia Smith. I've even met the woman, but I also remember this article and it has soured her canary pudding for me ever since.

Nicola Morgan said...

I've done journalism too, fear not but yes, the word "shaft" was a little harsh and I've added a note about that! I've had some rather bad experiences (or specifically, my daughter did, on an occasion when I really was shafted) but also some good experiences. What i do find, because because I'm over sensitive and self-critical, is that I am always always always uncomfortable afterwards, and I felt that the unwary author should be prepared and forewarned, so as to deliver an interview that actually suits the journalist AND the author.

Ebony McKenna. said...

As a former journo I feel the need to add something here.

An author is looking for free publicity.

There is an assumed 'quid pro quo' here of back scratching. The author will make it worth the journo's time and give good quote, and if they're lucky, and they hold their book while the photo is being taken (sometimes up at face height, you never know how the photo will be cropped) they may just get that free publicity.

The journo is taking time out of their busy day to do this story when they could just as easily head down to the police and get heaps of stories to fill pages eight through 12. Dear God, I was busier than a one legged man in an arse kicking contest when I was a journo a few years back, I can only imagine how frantic it is these days).

Um. . .
I really got my hackles up Nicola. Off the record is where you give a journo background information and they go off and use that info to nail a local scumbag. If you invite a journo into your house and blabber on, then decide 'oh I shouldn't have said that' then it's too bad!

Yes, you read that right.
Too bloody bad. There is no 'off the record' once the interview starts. If there's something you really don't want to talk about, then keep your mouth shut.

rant over.

Gwen said...

Thank you for this post Nicola. Although I am a long way from this stage myself I found it very useful, in addition to Flixton Mum's comments.

Anonymous said...

i became a better journalist only when i started pre-writing stories in my head. it all rings true, and the shafting part is a matter of perception. we don't set out to shaft anyone.

but we do.

and that's why i have shifted to fiction.

Nicola Morgan said...

Ah, some tetchiness going on here, despite the fact that I've been very clear that journalists are doing their job and have a particular task to do. The author's aim is to get free publicity; the journalist's aim is to get a story, fulfil a brief and meet a deadline. I simply want authors to understand that so that they go into it fully prepared and understanding what the journalist's job is. "Off the record", in my experience, is an important thing and can be used within an interview to provide the journalist with background which cannot be quoted. Perfectly fair on both sides as long as you're clear. Of course the phrase is also used for the reason that ebony suggests. It is also perfectly easy to say something you didn't mean or express it wrongly - how would it not be acceptable to explain that? If it isn't what you meant or is misleading, it would be wrong of the journalist to use it, if what the journalist wants is a true picture. I often don't explain what I mean the first time I say it and would want to rephrase.

As Flixton Mum says, it can be a battle of words - and we both need weapons of defence if nto attack. It's a game and both sides need to know the rules - usually it's the journalist who knows the rules and the author who has to learn them sometimes the hard way.

I stand by my advice.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, Nicola, with some clear advice.

I have been used by journalists in the past, and I am extremely wary of them now. I realise that they have a perspective too ('if you didn't want to put your head over the parapet, why did you write that book in the first place?' etc) and that some of them are even nice people, but publicity through the press always comes at a price. This would be fine if only that price could be agreed and guaranteed in advance. But it can't. Say yes to an interview, and you are signing a blank cheque, because if your name can be used to further a newspaper's agenda rather that discuss your book it will be.

I'm sorry to post this anonymously. I am scared, as we should all be, of journalists. They are the opinion shapers -- we are only the subject.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - absolutely no problem being anonymous for that reason. I only have a problem when people use the word to hide behind being offensive or abnoxious. And you weren't, at all!

And everyone, to be clear (though I think I have been very clear) - this post was not about having a go at journalists. It was simply about opening the eyes of inexperienced authors to how to handle themselves during an interview. I have no problem at all with the journalistic urge to get a specific story, and entirely recognise what the author can get out of it; however, it's not always as it should be. What happened to my daughter when I naively allowed a journalist to persuade her to be part of the story was very difficult and she still shudders when I mention it. And I don't even think the journalist ever meant to hurt or the result of her story. It would never happen now but only because I have learnt to follow my own advice.

Be aware and be professional. That applies to author and journalist, but my concern is authors.

Anonymous said...

i think it's great advice, nicola. i have many regrets from my days as a journalist when i had assumed my subjects knew what being interviewed was all about only to be horrified by the result.

most people don't realise what they are getting into.

Catherine Hughes said...

I've done occasional journalism work, but also was shafted - yes, I mean it - by a couple of journalists wishing to report on the story of my middle daughter's horrific birth.

Experiences I wish never, ever to repeat.

When I write a piece for a news website, I always run my final copy by the person I interviewed. Only once has one of them requested changes and in that event we agreed on a compromise. I'm only at the lowest of the lowest journalistic levels, but - for me - it's just too wrong to latch on to something said in the heat of the moment and insist on using it. Everyone makes mistakes and I would hate to be forced to publicly account for mine.

And they are legion!

I think that there are manipulative journalists out there who lack conscience and Nicola is correct in warning us of that possibility. I think it's also true to say that most journalists are good people (I happen to believe it was pushy editors who screwed me over) who won't and don't do such things, ever!

There is always a danger in these discussions of taking things too personally. Ultimately, Nicola is offering advice and we can either take it or leave it as our personal experience and temperament dictate.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Apologies to all readers for ranting. 'Off the record' can be abused too easily. In the spirit of Nicola's advice, she meant it as a way of saying 'hang on, that's wrong, I'll correct that etc' rather than as an overused get out of jail free card.

When I was a journo I deflated every time someone said 'that's off the record' during an interview, because it felt like I'd just wasted the last five/ten minutes and wondered if I would get anything usable from the subject. I got into the habit of saying 'that's a really good quote, can I use it?' to give the subject an idea of what might appear in the story.

And then there are the sub editors. Oh dear. I think I've just picked open a nasty emotional scab . . .

Kate said...

Hi I just wanted to say thanks for posting. I really enjoyed reading and it was great to get an insight into how the process works. It's also interesting to read all the comments from other journos etc so thanks!

Kate x

Anonymous said...

I just want to mention that 'soup on cleavage.' is even worse if you're male.


Anonymous said...

ebony, glad you mentioned subeditors.

one could craft a piece as carefully as one could and then release it to the sub's desk to find the very words you carefully edited out in the headline!

i was once a sub too and there's a lot of power in the role!

DOT said...

Having been on both sides of the table, all you say is so true.

I, of course, was exceptionally kind as the interviewer and always searched for the kindest interpretation of the interviewee's admission that s/he had a drink/drug/sex problem.

Keren David said...

Another journalist here..There's a big difference between a general feature about you and your book, which should be a reflection of who you are and what the book's about; and an interview which is part of a wider news story. In the latter case the journalist will be looking for people to argue one side or the other of a debate (for example, are children's books too violent etc) and certain papers are more prone than others to distort copy after it has been filed by the reporter.
Watch out for that cup of tea! I always use it to dictate the length of an interview - no one's ever going to throw me out if I still have tea in my's an unwritten rule of British hospitality.

Nicola Morgan said...

Ebony - don't apologise! It's very annoying when one's profession seems to be being attacked. Honestly, it's not (as I can see you understand). Good point about sub-editors too. I have also had crucial bits cut out of articles I've written, which have sometimes subtly distorted my intention. This is really really only about being forewarned. Thanks for giving the other side, too.

Proe - soup anywhere, really

DOT - naturally...

Keren - I was only talking about the author interview, as in around publication of book or somesuch event. Clearly the other sort of interview is different (and on the one hand more fraught because sides will be delineated, but on the other hand simpler because the key for the author then is simply to say one short thing very clearly and lots of times, and not to waffle on).

Thomas Taylor said...

Some great advice in this post.

My own experience with the press has been mostly frustrating. When a journalist can't even get the name of my book right, what does that say about the rest of their article?

Anonymous said...

What a marvelous post. This is an issue no one really talks about, and authors really need to be prepared for an interview because they can be disastrous or marvelous.

Morgan, you may go award yourself with some chocolate. The beagle is making up a batch of margaritas in your honor by wearing some dreadfully high heals and barking with an English accent.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nicola. And yes, because I'm crap at knowing what journalists and the rest of the world will do with my words, I'm being anonymous too.

When I first started doing them, I found being interviewed extremely disconcerting, even though I've never had someone put the boot in in any serious way, nor often have an obvious agenda. But I wasn't used to giving my words/life up to someone else to handle. TBH, I was as worried about what my agent and publisher would think of it, as anyone else.

It did help that I was given an incredibly useful piece of advice early on, which is to beware of the moment after you think the interview is finished. Journos know that that's when you relax, and say the thing you've been concentrating on not saying for the last hour.

I have used "off the record" for background which I don't want quoted: between us the journo and I have always come up with a form of words, for example, which gives the rough idea of the size of an advance, if it's relevant, without the specifics.

I have found it helps to regard the interview as a joint effort to come up with a good piece, rather than a fight: if she can tell me what kind of thing she wants, I'll try to come up with it. Though I'm still terrible at the 'What's the book about?' question, I'm much better than I was at giving neat answers to the other usual questions. It's harder (though mor interesting) when they've actually read the book, and come up with questions I don't have neat answers to.

But I have come to the conclusion that any piece over 50 words will have one out-and-out error, and one thing which you did, sort of say, but which seems to have taken on a really, really annoying shape. These days, when I meet them, I just say, 'Right, there it is'. Which saves a lot of angst.

Daniel Blythe said...

I've never really been shafted by a journo, but I have winced at the way one or two of them have rephrased things - inadvertently making me seem stupid, naive or annoying in the way it reads!

Oh, and there was the GOD-AWFUL photo the Sheffield Telegraph used, which makes me look fat and about 10 years older. Given the way these things work, it'll still be on file, ready to be dug up when they next need to do a piece on me!

Flixton Mum said...

Just to clarify this off the record business and not wanting to worry anyone or put anyone off journalists because we are nice people really.

Legally, if you want to say something off the record you should state 'off the record' BEFORE you say what it is you are saying off the record. Otherwise it's just down to the individual journalist's good nature.

Of course it's the journalist who knows the rules because by getting free editorial in their paper, you have to play by their game. And when it comes to the final edit, it doesn't matter how great or not things sound to the author, what matters is space in the paper and if someone gets shot two hours before the paper goes out, nice little author story gets bumped/cut beyond recognition. That's life.

Anonymous said...

Well, soup on the cleavage when you're female does not necessarily make you begin a three week juice fast.

Rebecca Knight said...

This discussion is fascinating! I'd never given thought to this before, so on behalf of newbie writers everywhere, thank you everyone for chiming in and being honest and open :).

We'll all probably go forth and give better interviews if we're prepared and ready to work with the journalist instead of fearing them.

Christine Coleman said...

Hi Nicola
I love the serendipity of browsing for blogs - I've just landed on yours (via Notes from the Slush Pile) and have spent a happy half hour browsing your website and blog.
As for Journalists, I agree with what you say - I'm lucky enough to have had a novel published four years ago, and I was delighted with any publicity I could get.
The organisation which gave me the most and best publicity that I was made aware of, was Bookcrossing - a fantastic world-wide community of book lovers (I've written about them in a recent blog of 16th Sept)
I'll try to drop in to your Bloggoffee morning before I go to work, and will post the relevant link for anyone who isn't already familiar with Bookcrossers

Sally Zigmond said...

I once interviewed a Well Known Author. I'd done my homework, knew all her novels and had even read her latest. The interview was cordial and friendly--if a bit formal but I got some nice quotes. However, I wasn't sure I liked her very much.

When I put away my notebook she relaxed and eventually we were chatting away and she came out with a delightful (not in any way disparaging) story about another Very Very Revered Female author.

Now I could have used that story which showed both writers in a good (but very personal light) but I didn't. (She didn't ask me not to use it but I felt she trusted me.) I suppose if I'd been a 'proper' journalist I might have used it anyway, but I couldn't.

Oh but it was a tough one!

Keren David said...

Sally - I think once you've put the notebook away that signifies 'end of interview'. If you want to use comments made after that you have to ask if she is prepared to repeat it on the record. That's 'proper journalism' to me. Of course I am probably hopelessly old-fashioned about these things.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sally - I think you're right that some journalists might have used it (and the author probably should have checked that you weren't going to) but I think Keren's right too, that putting the notebook away should signify the end of "on the record".

Christine, Rebecca, Lynn and others - many thanks for contributions.

Anon (15:39) - some vg points. Love the idea of assuming that there'll be one cringe-making thing in a short article and just saying "there it is" - makes it like a game then!