'Tis the season to spin: How PR is bringing early festive cheer for Zoella and Sony

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

A literary juggernaut has been born into an over-ventilated echo chamber. Praise be! The publishing industry has been saved and Penguin Random House will be making hay for years to come. Or at least that’s what the headlines would have us thinking…

Girl Online by Zoella – aka Zoe Sugg

The advance sales party have been mobilised for the festive season. Shibboleths of spin and brands everywhere are desperately vying for media attention in the hopes of making a few sales in the run up to Christmas. Yes, it’s been a good week for PR folk on both sides of the Atlantic, with two particular outfits deserving a special mention.

The first of the voices to successfully rise above the parapet has been that of Zoella, a 24-year-old beauty and fashion vlogger from Wiltshire who has had considerable YouTube success. Whatever her literary prowess Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House, knew he was on to a good thing when his 13-year-old goddaughter provided the YouTube starlet with her endorsement.

Zoella’s debut book sales have been rather good. So far, she has managed to flog 78,109 copies of her title, Girl Online. Great. But what outstrips her success by far is that of her spin doctors, who have left me feeling dizzy.

Whilst the initial sales number is an admirable figure, headlines declaring that Zoella is “outstripping J.K. Rowling” and “the fastest-selling debut novelist since records began” are nothing short of spin genius. With that, and managing to get her a slot on Band Aid 30 (along with her boyfriend and her little brother), the PR pixies are pulling enough strings to spin miles of yarn from Zoella’s cute factor.

To be clear, the records for Nielsen BookScan are not even a decade old – even Zoella has been around longer than them. These sales need to be seen for what they probably are, the apex of Zoella’s fame. She has spent a long time building up a dedicated following, and has already generated a huge amount of it organically, through sheer graft and determination. If we look at the figures, though, 78,109 sales equates to 1.30 per cent of her followers having bought a copy – a rather sure-fire figure in the scheme of things.

To equate this with J.K. Rowling’s success is a bit of a joke, to put it mildly.

Rowling’s story is one with which we are all familiar – the behemoth of a series of novels that began on the back of a serviette in an Edinburgh cafe. Her book had to be good if it were to get anywhere, because she came from nowhere. In the case of Zoella, it doesn’t matter what the book’s merits are, because the swell of her fanbase guarantees a certain number of sales.

It is highly unlikely that she will go on to produce a series of books with the same clout and cultural resonance as Rowling, or that she will be around for Band Aid 40 – but her PRs have done a brilliant job in letting us believe that she can, at least for a moment.

It seems that perhaps the publishing industry, suffering from the same ailments as its musical cousin, is trying the same treatment. In May this year, Nadia Khomami wrote an interesting exposé on Radio 1’s selection process in the Guardian entitled Battle of the Brands.

The article showed how – far from the John Peel days of scouting for unknown talent – the BBC has moved towards greater security, considering only bands that already have a mature and fully established following, and only once they’ve heard the pitch from the pluggers and industry execs.

Over the other side of the pond, PR folk have managed to pull an impressive coup for Sony, with headlines announcing that the company was hacked by North Korea resulting in the leaking of several films, all of which have been namechecked in the resulting coverage.

The furore is in response to one particular film depicting the assassination of Kim Jong Un, whose release was postponed from October to December, in an attempt to garner the film a few extra viewers in the form of students returning home for the holidays. Needless to say, the hype and purported FBI investigation will have tickled the curiosity of the crowd in the run up to the Christmas Day release.

I wonder what other early presents the PR pixies will be bringing us this Yuletide…

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

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