#324 – Publicity for Indie Authors with Halima Khatun

In this episode, we spoke with Halima Khatun, PR consultant, former broadcast journalist, and author of the new non-fiction title Priceless Publicity, a book full of useful information for independent writers looking to improve their publicity and media coverage output!

In this episode, we spoke with Halima Khatun, PR consultant, former broadcast journalist, and author of the new non-fiction title Priceless Publicity, a book full of useful information for independent writers looking to improve their publicity and media coverage output! Halima is also the author of several highly praised rom-coms, including her award-winning debut novel, The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post, Metro, Business Advice and StartupNation, and we can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Halima shared some amazing advice regarding editing, book blurbs, writing (and lengthening) a series, writing a rom-com (and its sequels), and, of course, garnering publicity for your work! If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about publicity and PR for indie authors, this is the episode for you.

In this episode:

  • Halima tells us about her journey from journalism to PR to authorship, and talks about her love of writing and storytelling
  • She talks about how she wrote her first novel while balancing new motherhood and her PR consultancy work, and how that novel turned into a series
  • We asked her about her writing process, and how it changed throughout her life, and between her writing-focused jobs
  • We discuss blurbs, and how book blurbs can often be overlooked – Halima has some advice for writing book blurbs and press releases
  • She also offers some amazing editing advice, and how to be a little more ruthless with your writing
  • We hear about Halima’s own book series, which begins with The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage, and the inspiration behind the overarching story
  • Halima talks about why she went indie – from her initial misconceptions about going indie to successfully self-publishing and getting tons of media attention for her debut novel
  • We ask Halima why indie authors should pay attention to PR, and hear more about her non-fiction release, Priceless Publicity
  • Halima gives some amazing advice about pitching your story of yourself as an indie author to media outlets, and how to go about getting your work covered – remember to “start local and be concise”!
  • And much more!

Useful Links

Halima’s website

Halima on Facebook and Instagram

Priceless Publicity

The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage

Halima’s books on Kobo

Mentioned in this episode:

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

The Self-Publishing Formula

20 Books to 50k

H Khatun is a former broadcast journalist turned PR consultant and author. With over a decade of industry experience working for the biggest PR agency group in Europe and the UK’s leading corporates, she is well placed to teach all aspects of PR and storytelling. 

Khatun started creating PR courses to teach small businesses and start-ups to do their own PR on a budget. She has made it her mission to make PR accessible, not just the reserve of big brands with the big budgets. 

As a passionate DIY PR advocate, she has been featured in the Huffington PostMetroBusiness Advice and StartupNation, as well as the London media.

Khatun also writes women’s fiction. Her award-winning debut novel The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage has received widespread media coverage and was featured on the BBC, Good Housekeeping and more.

Episode Transcript

Transcription by www.speechpad.com

Rachel: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Tara: I’m Tara, director of Kobo Writing Life.

Rachel: On today’s episode, we spoke to Halima Khatun. Halima is a former broadcast journalist working for ITV and the BBC, and she now works as an author, PR consultant and blogger.

Tara: She talked to us about how she used her expertise in PR to really help her launch her book. As a lifelong writer, she used her PR stuff to, kind of, like, do the best launch ever and especially about how PR is all about storytelling and how that’s helped both her writing and her business.

Rachel: We absolutely loved talking to Halima, and we hope you enjoy the conversation.

Tara: Hello, we’re here today talking to Halima Khatun. Thanks so much, Halima, for joining us.

Halima: Thank you for having me.

Tara: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and about how you got into writing?

Halima: So, I’ve written forever it feels like. A funny, kind of, embarrassing story, I wrote a story when I was 12 years old, and it was a 60,000-word children’s book, and I was convinced I was going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and that’ll be it, and all the publishers are going to bite my arm off. I sent it to all the publishers, and they all politely declined because it probably wasn’t the sterling Harry Potter competitor I thought it was.

So, I, kind of, parked the book, and then I went into journalism. Well, I did English for my degree and then I went into journalism because I was of the view that, you know, writing novels isn’t a very viable career. So, I went down the journalism route. I did broadcast journalism, and I freelanced for TV and radio. So, in the UK, ITV and the BBC.

And the thing I found was that, though I enjoyed it, I think the reason I went into journalism was for the love of writing, but I wasn’t getting to do as much writing, which is ironic because it was radio and TV, so it was more about how you look and how you sound, getting the right cut, getting the lengthy press release cut down to three sentences, having to read bulletins every half an hour, so being very, sort of, ruthless with storytelling, which has helped me in other ways but it wasn’t, sort of, what I imagined.

And then the thing that really changed things for me was one of the stories. And I remember this vividly. It was a 14-year-old girl. She had been hit by a train, and our job was the next day to go in doorstep her family, friends, anybody who’d speak to us. And obviously, they were distressed and weren’t happy to but that’s the job. And for me, I thought I don’t think I can do this.
So, then I went into what was the next best thing, I guess. It’s public relations, PR. So, I worked in public relations, and I did healthcare PR first. And it was brilliant. It was writing press releases. It was writing case studies, interviewing people who’d had life-changing treatments, and they talked to me about how life was before the treatment and how life was afterwards, how it’s been impacted. And it was amazing, because I felt like I was really storytelling, and I was doing that and getting my clients in the Daily Mail in the UK. Well, Daily Mail’s global now I guess but getting them in lots of newspapers, magazines, blogs, that sort of thing.

And that’s where I built my career, so I did PR. I still do PR, and I did it for years. And it was around 2015. I went independent. I went freelance at a point, and then I started working a lot with startups and small businesses. And this is where it sort of comes full circle with my PR experience as an author as well because I was finding that startups and small business owners were struggling because they didn’t have the budget to do their own PR but they had amazing stories, and they felt that if they could learn how to do it, they would.

So, my career was, sort of…I was still doing the private consulting with clients, but it, kind of, segued towards training. I was doing training, and face-to-face, and online, and workshops, teaching people how to spot a story in their business, how to write a press release, those kind of things. And then I continued doing that.

And where I came to sit with you guys was around 2017, my life changed in a good way. I had my daughter, I became a mom. And my PR career, to be honest, I, sort of, worked a lot less. I had my own consultancy, so I was working about 10% of the time, and 90% I was looking after a baby. And I think a lot of the listeners who are authors who’ve been through this will know just everything changes, and I just found that I wasn’t able to do as much of the media relations work, so I, kind of, kept the clients that I loved, but I wasn’t doing it, you know, on a full-time basis. And I think everything happens for a reason, because it, kind of, paved my way to revisit being an author.

So, I wrote my first novel. While it sounds crazy, I remember, like, nursing my toddler at the time, she was around 1. I’d be holding her and I’d be writing these drafts on my iPhone notes. And it was about a British Bengali girl looking for a husband, and that whole, sort of, fun, slightly cringe, slightly awkward process that I think a lot of people hear of but don’t really know about. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to do, like, a brown Bridget Jones and really explore that story and her journey?”
And that was, kind of, the birth of “The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage,” and it started as one book. And I, kind of, thought it would only be one, and then it suddenly spawned a series, and I’m still working on it to this day alongside doing some nonfiction PR as well.

Rachel: So, we’re going to talk about your PR and about your novels, but I want to, kind of, stay on your writing process for a while. So, you sit down, and you write a 60,000-word book when you’re 12, and then you take a break from writing fiction. You move into journalism. You move into PR. I mean, aside from no longer being 12, but how did working in journalism and working in PR shift how you approach telling a story?

Halima: You take bits from everything, from every element of your experience. And the journalism side was snappy to the point, and that really helped with, like, pitching stories and ideas. And that also helped with strangely my blurbs, because your blurbs, you’re taking your 60,000, 80,000, 100,000-word manuscript, and, sort of, condensing it into 150 words. So, that really helped with being tight and concise.

I think being a 12-year-old, I’d like to think my writing has moved on a bit since then. But, you know, I had that writing book. I did have that writing book. So, I think they lend themselves in different ways, and even before journalism, it’s funny how things come full circle because my degree, my undergraduate, I did English and marketing, and then I did journalism with a post-graduate, sort of, master’s degree. And English was, kind of, novel writing because I remember it’s 12,000-word dissertations.
So, all of it, I think it, sort of… You pick and it complements your writing. But I do think, and I’m sure a lot of authors are the same, it’s an evolving process. So, you’re constantly learning. So, even from my first draft of Book 1 to Book 2 to Book 3 to now I’m on Book 4 of my fiction, I see a difference. And I think that’s the case with lots of writers because I do think it’s a lifelong craft. It’s a lifelong learning where you’re constantly evolving.

So, in terms of, sort of, my writing process, I do think, “Yeah, it evolves. It evolves,” but I had that to begin with. I was never sort of… I wasn’t the sportiest. I was never, sort of, excelling in anything else in particular, but writing was always, sort of, my bag. So, one way or another, I was always going to end up that way, and I’m just so grateful and thankful that it’s through self-publishing and actually people getting to read my stories.

Rachel: Now do you have any plans to revisit the book that you wrote when you were 12? Do you still have it stashed away somewhere?

Halima: Someone asked me that. I have it probably on a floppy disk somewhere. I’m showing my age. For comedy, I would love to probably dig out… I have, like, chapters of it somewhere in a loft upstairs, and I read back and I thought it was quite deep. It was like “Stand by Me” for girls, you know? Not that Stephen King has anything to worry about. Maybe. Maybe I will revisit it one day. I think my children need to grow up a little bit more. At the moment, even now it’s still finding the hours. My eldest is 5, my youngest is 2. So, yeah, we make it work. But, yeah, James Gunn, as it was called, maybe I will… I guess it’s middle grade, isn’t it? I might go into that. We’ll see.

Tara: You could get really meta and, like, have one of your characters be a child that’s writing a novel, and then you could have excerpts in there. So, that might be a good way to use it without actually having to edit it all that much.

Halima: Yes, I love that idea. Yes, I could use it. Yeah, I’m sure I would love to… I don’t know if I’ve got the original. I just have printouts of basically the first few chapters that I sent to publishers and sadly got declined, so, yeah, we’ll see. Who knows where it will end up?

Tara: Well, their loss. I’m glad that you mentioned that thing about blurbs there, because that jumped out at me when you were, sort of, saying about PR and writing press releases and stuff. And that’s really interesting because I think that sometimes, especially if you’re, kind of, new to the indie author business, the blurb can be a really last-minute thing. You’re like, “I’ve done my book. I’ve got my cover. I just want to get it up there.” So, I wonder if you have any advice in particular about condensing a story into an attractive blurb or anything that your journalism background has taught you as an indie.

Halima: Absolutely, and I think one of the key things is… So, we do this when we’re writing press releases, and it’s the advice I give to a lot of people when I’m training them. Have it all finished. The blurb should be absolutely the last thing. And I know that sounds obvious, but sometimes people might have it in their mind as they’re going along, especially people that are a bit more prolific perhaps and publishing quite regularly. So, it’s a quick, boom, get the book done, get the blurb, get the cover sorted.
But actually when you have it in a round, I think you see it more clearly. And it’s like when I do a press release, it’s like the headline, I will do last because often that’s what will be a…it’s a summary of your story. A blurb is much the same. So, it’s really getting to the conflict in a story. And I think I struggled with that with my first book, because if the main character gets to 35 and doesn’t get married, she’s not going to die. It’s not that kind of conflict. So, it’s finding what the conflict was within the story. And I think it’s being really tight and concise.

So, a blurb is very similar to a pitch and a press release for that matter, but it’s sort of cutting out the fat. So, you’d almost have a synopsis and go, “Okay, I don’t need that sentence. Do I really need to include this bit?” So, the example of my story is with the protagonist, she meets lots of different guys and had to cut away some of the sections because it doesn’t matter about all of the different guys that she meets. It’s kind of a summary. So, I’d say something like, “She meets a motley crew of men,” and it just tightens the whole thing.

So, yeah, it’s just about being really ruthless with words, really kind of getting the hook and being quite cynical. As a PR consultant and as I was when I was a journalist, you have to be cynical and ruthless, so you have to go, “But who cares? Is that of interest?” And it’s hard when it’s your book baby but also that really, really helps in saying, “Does that really need to be in there? What value does that add?” And that’s how you go from your 80,000 words to 150. It’s ruthless, but that’s the best way to do it.
Rachel: And kind of along the ruthless, cynical vibes, did you find that having to be very concise and bringing everything down in word count in journalism helps you with the editorial process and the “killing of your darlings” during editing your books, your fiction?

Halima: It’s hard, isn’t it? Because you have a line and you think, “Oh, I love…” You get attached to lines and say, “Oh, that was a killer quote, and that’s such a good line.” But, yeah, it does really help. And it’s an ongoing process and you do learn that.
I think the thing to remember is the reader doesn’t know what you’ve cut out, and that’s quite a big thing because I used to always think, “Oh, but that’s so good and it’s going to be missing from there.” They don’t see all the bits that end up on the cutting room floor so to speak, and it’s kind of remembering that.

And even as a journalist, when I was training in journalism school, and I was doing work experience at the BBC, I used to say, “Oh, but I should include this bit,” and they’ll say, “They don’t know that you’ve not included it.” And you’ve got to think, if they didn’t know and they saw it with fresh eyes, would they be like, “Oh, that bit is missing”? They actually wouldn’t know. And I think it’s about that. And I think journalism has definitely helped me because you do. You have to go back to your manuscript and think, you know, that sentence, that word, if it doesn’t warrant being there, don’t use it.

And a big thing is…and I was certainly doing this in the early days, and I think people do this naturally. It’s the overly descriptive. And that is hard to cut out. And ProWritingAid really helps. You know, editing software helps. And you don’t have to say, you know, I said this very strongly. Strongly is enough. You know, you don’t have to say very or little. And that was actually a learning for me, because even though I didn’t use that in journalism, because you’re very factual, in the early days of drafting, I thought, “But you have to explain. You have to add the emotion,” but you can add it in other ways. And sometimes being tighter is impactful. And often what you don’t hear in the story and what isn’t said is more powerful than what’s on the page. And it’s the implication, and it’s kind of keeping it sparse, but it is a learning curve. It definitely is.

Rachel: So, on the flip side of that, with your experience very much being concise and cutting things down, your book, “The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage,” you described sort of has morphed into this series. So, how has that been? You’ve actually had to lengthen this and sort of keep telling that story. So, was that a challenge?

Halima: I absolutely loved it, and it became really natural for me. So, I didn’t go set out thinking… I know that in self-publishing, the sort of golden rule is have a series and have a three book, five book, the more books, the better because marketing wise and business wise, you have more to sell and people will go on. But it was very natural. It wasn’t even the case.

So, I really genuinely did think it’s going to be one book. And I remember when I was drafting the first book, it came to a natural conclusion. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it came to a natural conclusion but you didn’t get the happily ever after per se. It was more about what the character had discovered about herself as opposed to finding it in a man, finding it in a partner.

So, then it sort of was like, “Well, actually let’s do all the fun of being a bridezilla and getting married.” And it’s kind of like the second book “The Secret Diary of a Bengali Bridezilla” is kind of like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but for Bengalis. But it’s for everybody. It’s a great story. And that was something that was actually quite natural. It came out, and that didn’t feel like I was stretching it. In fact, I struggled because it was over 100,000 words, which for sort of rom-com chick lit was a little bit. So, I had to get it down to like 94,000.

And then afterwards, after that story, it felt like… And, again, you don’t get this. You get the happily ever after, and they go off into the sunset, but that’s not really where the story ends, because then you’ve got the, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to live with this guy now. I’ve got to figure out how we’re going to share toothpaste and all those other things.” And also there’s a running joke in the story because they kind of don’t… It’s called a secret diary for a reason, so not everybody knows how they met. And some people do and some people don’t. And then when they cross friendship groups and mix friends, it’s like, “Oh, God, who knows what?” and all those funny things.

And also with the cultural aspect of the story, it’s kind of like how she marries her modern life and living in Central London, living her best life with her husband, kind of, like traditional expectations from in-laws. And there were so many things to unpick, and that’s why Book 4 feels natural because of course in my culture and probably in every culture in civilization, once you’re married, everyone says not to the man, to the woman, “So, when are you going to have kids?” So, there’s such a natural evolution.

And a friend did joke to me and say, “What are you going to do? Is she going to be, sort of, a grandma and you’re still going to be writing stories?” But I think it’s more if the audience still want to read the stories, give them the stories they want to read. I think once it feels like, you’re flogging a dead horse or it’s kind of like the audience isn’t there, that’s when you kind of know it’s a natural end.

But I do feel that, as long as there’s an appetite for the story, as long as… For me, my fiction kind of explores race identity with a lot of humor. And as long as I can still keep delivering on those without it feeling like it’s regurgitating the same story, then I think it can run a run until it feels like a natural conclusion. But I do think that there is so much there to tell in a story, that, no, it didn’t feel like a struggle. It didn’t feel like I was stretching it out because I’m already thinking ahead to Book 5 and 6 and then we’ll see. But, yeah, that’s what I’m thinking of at the moment.

Rachel: I just want to take it back a second because you said you started writing this book while you were a new mom essentially. Was this an idea that you had been ruminating on for a while? How did this initial spark kind of come about?

Halima: Yeah, of course. So, what happened was I remember very clearly. So, I was working on my own consultancy, freelancing, and a book had come out called “Queenie,” and it was about… I don’t know if you guys have heard it. It’s Candice Carty-Williams, and it did really, really well. And it was basically the Black Bridget Jones it was billed as. And it was about a girl living and dating, living in South London. And I sat with my husband. I saw the article in the London “Evening Standard” newspaper, and I said, “Why isn’t there a story about the brown Bridget Jones, the girl dating but also with a twist?”

Because one thing that’s interesting in modern literature, when you even have the word arranged marriage and in the media for that matter, there’s other connotations. And often the character is either Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane,” and she’s either a submissive, doesn’t have a say in the matter, it’s something she had to do, and she’s kind of gone along with it, not really knowing what was going on, or the other side of it is there’s other stories where the protagonist is really sassy, streetwise, smart, modern girl living in London, it often is, but it’s kind of she’s rallying against the idea and it’s like, “Oh, God, not an arranged marriage. It’d be awful.”

And I thought, what about a story…? Because the way my husband and I met, we were introduced and we did all these different processes and then we met through friends. And actually we went through the whole gambit. And actually it was very interesting to say, “What about the girl who’s saying I don’t mind being introduced as a backup option or as an option alongside me dating, going to events, going online.” There wasn’t that story because there seemed to be this kind of inbuilt narrative where it’s just seen as something you don’t want to do or a last resort that you desperately want to avoid. And I thought, “Why don’t we turn it on its head and talk about the real story?” because lots of friends I know and people in my circle, they were quite happy to be introduced.

And there’s a quote I mentioned in the book, in Book 1, and it’s kind of like, if you’re, sort of, in the Western world, if you will, or in the non-British Bengali Muslim world, if you’re single and looking, it’s nobody’s business but your own or nobody’s problem but your own. Whereas, in that Bengali culture, it’s everybody’s business and mission to find you a match, which it’s not always a good thing. And in the story, I must mention it’s not sort of PR-ing arranged marriage. It’s quite new, and it shows the awkward times. It shows the negative side. It shows the positive side, and it just kind of shows a more nuanced way of how the process is.
So, yeah, that’s how the story came about. That was in, I would say… When did “Queenie” come out? I’d say about 2018. I had my baby. Life was very full and busy, and it got in the way. Life got in the way. And then life suddenly kind of gave that opening because I thought, “Why don’t I revisit it?” And I’m trying to remember the exact reason why but I just thought, yeah, I should revisit it. And I then sort of go, “Oh, my God, have I still got it? You know, is it on my emails?” And I dug back my emails and then luckily I found it. And I was about five chapters, and it was probably terrible. I should probably put it up on some fanfiction just for laughs but I thought it was great. Then I got it freshly edited, etc., etc., and now it’s this work of art that it is. But, yeah, the process was a conversation and then it turned into a book. And now it’s turned into a series.

Tara: And did you always know that you were going to go indie with this or how was that process? Could you talk to us a little bit about maybe the challenging parts of being indie and the most rewarding?

Halima: I knew nothing of the self-publishing world. I knew nothing about being an indie author, and I had a terrible snobbish misconception that that’s what you do if people don’t want your book. And I think a lot of people have that when you don’t know. And I had a friend who did a non-fiction book, and she said, “Halima, look at self-publishing.” At this point, I hadn’t even thought about agents or publishers or anything. It was just a draft. And she said, “Look at self-publishing because actually it can be quite lucrative. It’s not negative like you think, and actually it’s changed. It’s evolved.” And she said she had a friend who’d had a traditional deal, and she ended up earning more than him. She ended up doing better than him with her one book. And I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

I still had a bit of a bee in my bonnet because I just didn’t know about it. And it’s only when I explored… Sorry, that’s a very English phrase. It’s only when I explored going to groups, talking to people, and I came across things like the self-publishing formula like SPF Community, and I think after I stumbled across 20Booksto50k, but that’s when I learned, “Oh, you can make this a business.” And in fact, that’s when I learned that more often people do make it a business when they go indie than when they traditionally publish because often people, apart from maybe the top 1% that become full-time authors, most people do it alongside other things.

So, it was definitely not my first thought. When I went down that route, I was very keen that I am on a pile with traditionally published books, which is what a lot of the indie authors teach you. So, I made sure it was professionally edited. I made sure I got a cover designer. I made sure that crucially, for me, I made sure I got a lot of publicity, and that’s when my PR experience married with my author experience because I wanted to make damn sure that I could be up there with the trad authors, so I reached out to the BBC. I got on A BBC show, BBC Radio, talking about the concept of arranged marriages and debunking myths and people’s experience of the pros and cons. I got into lots of local media.

And a real sort of “pinch me” moment, which I kind of thought would be elusive to us indies was when I had a full page spread in “Good Housekeeping” magazine, including…and this is quite a nice mom moment because I don’t get them often, but hair and makeup came round. And I was like, “Oh, am I famous?” And we went to a café but it was amazing because I did think that some published publication, so I’m talking about the media now, would not be interested in indie authors and indie books. And these aren’t book reviews. These are stories about my story, and they loved the idea of how I kind of breastfed my daughter and wrote a book at the same time. It was relatable, and that was a really important thing for me. And I got sales off the back of it. I got sales off the back of that coverage, and it helped my author website because I could say “as featured in” and then a list of publications. And then it helped kind of…it opened a lot more doors, and it gives you that gravita and credibility.

So, I think there was lots of great things about it. I would say the challenges I think you asked about being an indie author is that I guess you have to do everything yourself. So, you’re your own accountant. You’re your own… Well, actually I have an accountant, but sometimes you’re your own accountant. You’re your own copywriter. You’re your own PR person. You’re your own advertising manager. You name it. You’re doing so much, and that can be quite hard. I think one of the tricky things initially, it’s quite hard about that. And I guess that’s the main thing, but for me, the benefits vastly outweigh the drawbacks. They really do because, once I immersed myself in the indie author publishing world and realized that… Even BookTok, I’ve gone viral a couple of times, and even they have a section where they love indie authors. I’m like, “Wow, actually, it’s quite a cool community to be part of.” It’s not what I thought. It’s not this thing that you do as a last resort. It’s actually a great move for me.

So, yeah, it worked really, really well.

Rachel: I’m delighted you made that decision.

Halima: I’m delighted to have joined you guys of course.

Rachel: Well, like you mentioned, indie authors have to do everything on their own, especially when they’re just starting out. So, when it comes to PR, you obviously had a head start because you have your PR firm and you’ve also written a book, “Priceless Publicity.” For indie authors who are just starting out, how would you define PR and why should indies make sure they’re giving it their time and attention?

Halima: So, public relations, the very sort of boring term is the art of influencing opinion of the public or your target audience. And it’s usually done via the media. Now that’s changed a lot because the media is evolving. So, it used to be the newspapers, magazines, but now it’s podcasts. It’s newspapers, magazines, online media, blogs, you name it.
And the idea is that… I guess the easiest way to define it is people often think of advertising as opposed to PR. So, advertising is, “I pay you £200 or $200,” and say, “Can I have a few lines about my book in the magazine with a picture?” And what will happen is, if you’ve read a newspaper or magazine, which I’m sure everybody has, you’ll often see it’s in a different color. It has maybe a box around it, and it says promotion. And it’s very obvious. So, your other promotion will be, “Sale 50% off these sofas,” and it’s a promotional piece, and any reader knows that you’ve paid to be in there.

PR isn’t like that. Public relations is you basically putting a story to the media. So, the story could be that you’ve won an award for your book. It could be that you’re celebrating an anniversary 10 years as an indie author. It could be that you’ve published a new book, and I think a lot of authors forget that your book is a new product. Just like a mobile phone comes out and gets media coverage. Your book is a new product and it’s worthy of media coverage and praise. So, you’re putting a story to them, and the difference is the story isn’t read as a cynical marketing ploy because it’s seen in the context of the magazine or newspaper or website that you’re featured in.

And it’s kind of arbitrary, but they say that PR is three times worth the cost of an advert of that size would be, and it is because the credibility it comes with. So, the “Good Housekeeping” feature, for example, it mentioned my book and my journey and why I wrote it, but it wasn’t sort of me going, “Buy my book.” It was much more natural. But then I noticed that people were buying it because in the reviews, they’d mentioned, “I saw this on ‘Good Housekeeping,’ and I impulse bought it.”
And you were asking about why authors need to be doing it. Well, quite simply, if you’re not doing it, your competitors are. If you’re not doing it, then traditionally published authors are getting what you deserve. And that was the reason I wrote “Priceless Publicity.” Actually, I should mention it. So, one thing is, as an indie author, you are a business owner, whether you like it or not. You’re running a business. You’re running your author business. So, as a business owner, you need to get your name out there, and people do that in various ways, don’t they? They do advertising, Facebook ads. They do BookBub. They do Amazon ads if they’re on Amazon. And PR goes within that. It’s not to replace that. It works in sync with your marketing campaign, and it just has so many benefits.

And the reason that traditional publishers can go out with a bang is because they kind of get everywhere. They infiltrate those traditional outlets. They infiltrate those magazines, podcasts. And the benefits are huge because one of the things that people often overlook is publicity can help with your SEO. So, if you’re featured on another company’s website, that helps, sort of, with your name checking. It helps Google recognize your name. It helps you come up the ranks. You can add that as social proof on your social media for bragging rights. You can add that on your website as “as featured in.” So, it doesn’t just end with you getting that coverage, it’s what you do with it afterwards.

And like I say, it gives you that… Because one of the things as traditional…as indie authors, sorry, we aspire to kind of be on a par with traditional authors. We try to get our books professionally edited. We get the best cover designer we could find. This is another way to be on a par with our traditional contemporaries, because the beauty of publicity is it’s free. The beauty of getting PR is you’re not paying for it. You don’t have to have the deep pockets that Penguin has or Simon & Schuster has. You can actually get in there on the strength of your story. And for me, that’s really, really democratic. And us indie authors, we have budgets. We have to be lean. And certainly in the early days, you make it work. So, the reason I wrote the book is it’s just costing you time to take the learnings alongside running your business. So, I would say that kind of simply, if you’re not doing it, other people are, and they’re getting the coverage that you deserve for your business.

Tara: I like that distinction between the advertising and PR. I had never thought about it that way before, and it was a good way of defining both of them I think. In the intro to your book, you mentioned that PR is like all about storytelling. So, could you expand on that a little bit for us?

Halima: So, journalists need stories. So, they love stories. So, whether the story is the human interest backstory of the author, whether it’s the story behind the story. So, for me, my weird writing process, I don’t have a seafront office. I still write to this day and dictate on my iPhone notes, my first rubbish draft that eventually gets polished up. The story could be an award win.
And it’s quite simply that the beauty is, as indie authors, we’re storytellers. But what you have to do is take the lens or take the pen and point it towards you and your business. And when I say that, I know a lot of authors who might say, “Oh, I write under a pen name. I don’t want to be exposed. I don’t want the publicity that way.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be you and your life story splashed out on the press. It could be a story about, like I say, an award you’ve won. It could be a story about… If you’ve got a nonfiction book, it could be a thought leadership article, sharing your expertise. If you’ve got fiction, which most authors have actually, there’s lots of different ways, because I got into Metro, which is a national UK online publication, and it was talking about, sort of, I guess the misconceptions I faced when I got married because people thought, “Oh, is it arranged and are you happy?” and that kind of thing. And I kind of debunked some of those stereotypes. So, it was kind of thought leadership in a way, because I was talking about an issue, a topic that’s in the consciousness but equally it’s also a human-interest story.

So, storytelling takes on lots of different ways and forms, but it starts with just… And this is what I expand on in the book, but the key things to ask yourself to find out if there’s a story, “So, what’s new?” So, the story could be you’ve got a new book out, that’s a story in itself. And, yeah, it starts with a good story. And I do bang on about storytelling because it’s really important. It’s a key thing in your arsenal to help you get publicity out there for yourself.

Rachel: Now if an author is starting on their PR journey, where should they start? Because I imagine it is quite daunting to pitch yourself. So, where’s a good place for authors to start?

Halima: It can be quite intimidating. Absolutely. I think the first thing is, before you even start approaching a journalist, I would say even knowing the key questions to ask yourself, which is similar to the five W’s, but it’s kind of what is new, what is different, have you got, I don’t know, a sweet clean take on Game of Thrones, for example, or what’s something that’s quite different. Are you booking a trend? And I mentioned everything else. Is there an award win? Is there something else you’ve done or have you got a great story? For example, are you teaching on writing crime fiction? So, first, find the story.

A great start, I always say, and I don’t mean just do this once and never look at this area again, but your local press are so receptive. Your local publication in your town or city is so receptive to stories because the thing is I know when you touch on the TV, you kind of think there’s a “bad news is good news” agenda. But actually journalists love to champion people from their area that have done good. And you being an indie author is you doing great. So, actually trying with your local press. And it could be as simple as getting in touch with them via the website.

It’s very easy, and it’s funny because us PRs, we prescribe…you know, we kind of subscribe to these very expensive directories. And in the book, I kind of say, “I’m going to tell you a secret, Google is your friend.” You don’t need to, sort of, shell out lots of money, the big bucks on these directories because actually it’s out there. Look at the publication you want to be in. Find their contact or section. They’ll often be on Twitter. They’ll certainly have a website.

And trying the local reporter, I would say, because the editor often has, sort of, an overview of all the stories, and they’re often too busy to then respond to press releases that come their way. Whereas the local reporter, they kind of have their ears on the ground. And it’s a great way to, kind of, get your feet in and get your feet wet and learn about how to, kind of, pitch a story to them, how to get over the nerves. And this is the thing, when I worked in healthcare PR, I’d find I’m speaking to consultants that have way more letters and qualifications after their name than I do. And I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to record you now because sometimes I’d have to do interviews with them and record them,” and they’d get all tongue tied. And it’s because there’s a certain intimidation around a microphone or news or speaking to a journalist.

And I tackle all of this in my book by talking in detail about what they’re like. And I mentioned the fact they are underpaid, overworked, always on a deadline. So, all of that means they might be quite short with you but just remembering that they are human like you and I and try not to be too intimidated. But I think also being tight and concise is super helpful, so having a quite tight pitch of a couple of sentences saying, “Hi, my story is X,” and it could be, “I’ve got this book, or I’m celebrating this anniversary as an author,” or, “I’m a children’s author. I’m going to local schools,” or whatever it is you are talking, whatever your story is, whatever your passion is, whatever you’re trying to bring to them.

And I think another key thing is just address them in the way in which you would want to be addressed. So, a couple of PR people in time have fallen foul because they’ve sent a email and cc’d a hundred people like, you know, the world and his wife into the story when actually if you get an email and it looks like it’s been sent to everybody and it’s not personalized, not addressed to you, you’ll probably go, “Right, delete.” So, why would they be any different?

So, a lot of it is sort of a “no nonsense common sense” approach, but it is just, I would say, start local. Be concise. Find their contact. And, yeah, just address them directly and just tell them to pitch in a short way. And I think that’s a really great start.

Tara: You’ve mentioned a couple times that you can use this sort of stuff on an author website that shows, “as seen on here” or “as featured there.” I know that when we’re researching authors or even trying to gather information for the podcast, it is super helpful when there is a media section on an author’s website but not a lot of indies do that. So, I was just wondering if you could tell us maybe about, from your perspective, what are the essential things that you would have on your author website that’s sort of media-related?

Halima: I think it’s as simple as that. It’s its own page, maybe saying “In the Press” which is what I call mine, and then you could have the title of your press coverage where you’ve been featured. And it’s really simple. Or you could even just list the publications. So, it’s really simple because it’s just about giving the busy podcaster or whoever’s looking there, a real good shot, a real good scan, and it really helps because I don’t know about you guys but certainly when I’m looking up something new, I do my homework. And if I see they’ve been featured somewhere for wherever it is, it gives it a lot more credibility and legitimacy.

So, I think it’s just about, yeah, you should have an “In the Press” page. You could have screenshots of the coverage. You could have just the title of the publication, which you can get off Google. You could have “as featured” and a little bit of information about it, or you could just keep it really simple and just list where you’ve been featured and what for.

And it’s as simple as that. I know a lot of authors may listen and think, “Oh, it’s another job.” It needn’t be an onerous task. It’s simply putting across the information as quickly as possible so that people know that you’re great, you know your stuff, and you mean business as an author.

Rachel: And, kind of, along those same lines when it comes to, I mean, us doing research for the podcast but also author websites, do you have any advice for authors writing their bio to make them as an author look appealing? Because like you said, PR is storytelling.

Halima: This is where the pitch comes in really well, and this is where my story… I feel like I’ve rinsed it for all it’s worth. You know, the whole 12-year-old author thinking she’d be the next J.K. Rowling, because of course it appears in my bio because sometimes adding that quirky element is nice, and it does make you stand out. So, if you’ve got an interesting backstory and interesting reason for writing, I think it really helps, and it makes it memorable for me when I read other author bios. So, I think a little humor doesn’t harm.

And I think, again, it’s what I mentioned about the pitching and the press releases. It’s the being tight and concise. So, it’s tricky because you’re summarizing your life’s work, aren’t you, in a paragraph, but it is just being ruthless and maybe your key achievements. So, I start with, you know, “Halima knew words would be her thing. She wrote this story, it’s politely declined.” And I like that. It’s my kind of humble brag of kind of, “I got close to Penguin.” I didn’t, but I like to think so. And then I end with, “As featured in…” and this is where actually it helps your author bio as well. So, I say I’ve been featured in X, Y, Z publications. And I actually did that before even I wrote “Priceless Publicity” because it’s not just for my PR chops. Again, it just shows, “Wow, they are serious business. They know their stuff,” because it just gives you that third-party endorsement that you wouldn’t get otherwise if you are just saying, “Aren’t I amazing?”

Rachel: I have to say as well to add your headshot. That’s super helpful for me when I’m looking for things, and I can download a high-res headshot that it just makes my life a lot easier.

Halima: Nice headshots help. I borrowed one from my “Good Housekeeping” shoot, my red dress headshot. They were very, very nice about it, and I thought, “You know what? It’s been pandemic. I’ve given birth.” My book, “The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage,” I published it when I was nine months pregnant. Who does that? But it made sense at the time, so I knew I’d get really, really busy once the baby’s born. So, I published it.

So, I was not photogenic to do my author bio, and I hadn’t been for a good while. So, yeah, when I did that photo shoot, I was like, “This is the most glamorous I’m probably going to be for the next 10 years. I should really do something and see if I can get those photos.” So, they were very gracious and very kind.

Rachel: Headshots also help, Tara and I out when we are meeting authors at conferences so we know who we’re looking for. I’ll also add that. But just along the lines of PR, you have such a wealth of experience, but was there anything that surprised you about doing PR for your own book?

Halima: Yes. It was interesting because, first, I was surprised at how receptive the media were, because the thing that’s really important is a good story is a good story, and you can be the best PR person in the world, but if you don’t have a good story, it doesn’t matter. And I use an example of this, and I talk about contacts in my book and how it actually doesn’t really… It’s not as important as traditional PR agencies would tell you when they’re selling you their expensive monthly retainers, because actually I studied with a guy who ended up on BBC, a health and science reporter, and I worked in healthcare PR, but my private healthcare stories didn’t make the cut because they were talking about, in the UK, like junior doctors striking and global pandemics. So, my private consultant didn’t quite match. So, I would say that actually. You have to think about the whole idea of where is your story fitting in. And I forgot the question. Sorry.

Rachel: What surprised you about doing PR for your own book?

Halima: I’m very awfully sorry. Yes, what surprised me was how receptive the media were, because I thought that being an indie author, they might have a little bit of a brick wall because I thought they’re going to ask me who have I been published with, where have I been published? And they didn’t. And that was a great thing because, for their view, a good story is a good story. And I think that’s really important to remember because I think us indies generally, I can’t speak for everyone, but we do suffer with imposter syndrome. And I think it’s because we don’t have that sort of thing where we’ve gone, “Oh, I’m validated because I was published by a traditional publisher.” Even if it was a small press, you feel like you’ve got that validation. But we are our own cheerleaders, and we give our own validation. So, sometimes it can be quite hard.

So, a big thing to takeaway is that actually the media do love to hear stories, and that didn’t really come up. And when it did come up in, for example, “Good Housekeeping,” they asked about self-publishing, I thought, “Right, they’re not going to want to publish the story now. That’s kind of killed it.” They didn’t, they were interested. They were interested. And I think that’s what surprised me because I wasn’t sure if the national would be receptive but they were.

I think the other things that were interesting was just kind of like how you work with the news agenda. So, I remember because my story was “The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage,” people thought it’s got to be your story. And I was kind of like, “It’s actually fiction. And if you’re a crime writer, do you have to be either an alcoholic cop or a murderer? I suspect you don’t.” But that is the landscape in which we work and operate, I guess. So, that was quite interesting. But generally, no, it’s been amazing and they’ve been very receptive.

Rachel: It sounds like a piece of advice that you would give is to just sort of go for it and not to be afraid. Is that what you would say to indies if you had to sort of give them one piece of advice?

Halima: Yes, don’t second guess yourself too much because analysis paralysis can be really crippling. And I think it’s almost like when you get your first book out or when you’re ready to get your Facebook out and you’re kind of like, “Oh, I’ll just check it one more time. Oh, I’ll do this.” Perfect doesn’t happen, and you can kind of trick yourself into a corner by second guessing yourself all the time. And I think you’ve got to remember, and I think a really important takeaway is the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad. I mean, what would be the worst-case scenario? They say no. It’s fine. What would happen is if you pitch to them with confidence and you kind of give a tight, concise pitch and offer them angles for the story, they might say, “It’s not for us, but how about this angle?” or they might say, “I’m not the right person to speak to. This is the other person,” or they might say, “We’re not going to use the story for now.” But you’ve made that dialogue, you’ve made that introduction. And I think that’s really, really important because it’s like being an indie author, starting is the hardest. And they always say, “You can’t edit a blank page. Start something.” And I would say the same with PR because you’ll never get that perfect pitch ready but actually by going out and speaking to the journalist or sending them an email, you’ve made a start.

And even in my career, like I say, I worked over a decade in the industry before I started doing my own PR because I was doing it for other clients all this time. And again, I wasn’t sure how receptive they’d be because you do have imposter syndrome and you do think, oh, they might not be interested, or they’re going to say it’s self-published. It’s not got the same merit. But that wasn’t the case, and I wouldn’t have known had I not tried. So definitely just get out there and give it a go.

Rachel: I think that is excellent advice. And before we let you go, what is next for you? What are you working on now?

Halima: Book 4 of The Secret series is in the works. So, my readers are often nudging me saying, “Can you get a book out? Can you get a book out?” because courtesy of my family setup of two small people running around, I don’t have all the hours, so I’m not as prolific as I’m sure some of your guests on here. So, yeah, Book 4 is in the works. I’m also looking at audio, and I have plans for more nonfiction but it’s in the pipeline that’s kind of maybe towards the end of the year. So, lots to get on with.

Rachel: Well, we won’t ask you for any spoilers on what’s coming, but where can our listeners find you online?

Halima: You can find me everywhere. So, my author website is halimakhatun.co.uk. My books are everywhere. I’m happily wide, so I’m on Kobo of course, and you can find me on all good ebook retailers. And I’m really passionate about this. You can get my book in libraries, both print and ebook because I know it’s a tough time for people right now. And actually I champion and I love local libraries because basically I grew up in them when I was younger. I’d spend all my time there because of course I ended up writing a book. Wasn’t it going to happen if I spent so much time in libraries? So, yeah, you can get my book everywhere. Books everywhere, I should say. I have a few now.

Rachel: Awesome. Thanks so much for chatting to us today. This has been so insightful.

Halima: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Tara: Thank you for listening to the Kobo Writing Life Podcast. If you’re interested in picking up Halima’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Rachel: This episode was hosted by Tara Cremin and Rachel Wharton with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and a huge thanks to Halima for being a guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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