Louisa Symington worked for Penguin Books for 16 years as a Publicist, working with authors such as Alec Guinness, Paul Theroux, John Mortimer and Pat Barker. She now co-runs Books at the Barn, a series of Author Talks in Hampshire, UK. Recent speakers include Frank Gardner, Lucy Worsley, Terry Waite and Clare Balding.
Louisa has a fantastic ability to deliver engaging reader events and make authors come alive, which drives publicity and sales for both authors and publishers.
Thank you so much for joining us Louisa! Please can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Thank you for having me! I run an Author Talks programme from a barn in Hampshire called Books at the Barn. Previous to that I worked at Penguin Books for sixteen years as a Publicist and before that I worked at Virago Press, the feminist publishing house, for three years. My role at both of those publishing houses was as a Publicist and for those who don’t know, publicity and PR are essentially the promotion that you don’t pay for, i.e. getting authors on radio, in newspapers and speaking at events. It was a really lovely job, (the envy of all my friends!) as I got to meet some really interesting people including ex-politicians, actors, wine writers and many more.
At Penguin, I worked on a website for Reading Groups. We were the first publisher to do that and we sponsored a prize with Orange Communications for the best Reading Group in the country. The prize was a weekend at Edinburgh Book Festival for the Reading Group. A prison reading group won it one year. Going to the Festival was obviously problematic for them, so author Nick Hornby went down to talk to them instead, which they absolutely loved.
What else did you love when you were working in publishing?
I really enjoyed the contact with the authors. When you’re travelling all over the country with them to various book events and Literary Festivals, you get a lot of time with them on your own one to one, which was incredibly enlightening and interesting. It’s amazing what you can talk about on a ten o’clock train coming back from Hull on a Thursday evening!
What made you want to set up Books at the Barn?
My friend and now colleague Sarah O’Rorke had already set up Art at the Barn where she organised art sales from a barn in Hampshire. She suggested we do something similar with books. Having been a Publicist, I had lots of author contacts who were lovely and supported me in the venture. So we started off in 2012 reaching out to Penguin authors initially and then branched out from there.
How has Books at the Barn changed since 2012?
A lot has changed and we had to go online just as everybody else did during lockdown. Previously the format had been that people arrive, they have a glass of wine, then my colleague Sarah or I interview them. This is a format that we’ve honed over the years because I find you get more out of authors when you ask them questions than if they give a talk.
People really liked the social aspect of our events, but obviously during Covid that couldn’t happen so we went online. This did mean that we got access to people that we never normally have access to, for instance Michael Palin. I remember emailing him via his website, thinking I’ll never hear from him again. I was watching a film with my children that night and I couldn’t believe it when an email came back saying Michael will do an interview for you! He was grounded just like everyone else and of course he was the most charming interviewee, that was a real highlight.
Another highlight and someone we got access to because we were online was Stella Rimington, the ex-Head of MI5 and first female Director. She was fantastic to speak to and I don’t think she would have travelled to Hampshire so being online enabled us to speak to her.
Have you changed back to in-person events and what are you enjoying from that?
We have and our audience really like the social aspect of our events. Originally we set it up as a place where Book Clubs could meet but that’s changed. We find non-fiction works better than fiction, as we find that people don’t come to hear a novelist unless they have read the book, whereas they might come and hear about a non-fiction subject because it is something they might be interested in and can get something out of without having read the book.
Michael Palin and Stella Rimington have been mentioned as two highlights, which other interviews have stood out for you?
I think possibly the most challenging one but also the one that I enjoyed the most was Frank Gardner, The BBC security correspondent. Frank was shot in Saudi Arabia in 2001 and is in a wheelchair. The day we were interviewing him was the World Cup Quarter finals and England were playing Costa Rica. We had a few sheepish wives ringing up to say their husband wasn’t going to come, and we had a huge waiting list which was very frustrating! Then Frank’s publicist rang up an hour before the event and said he would like to watch the match because he was going to Costa Rica in two days time. We thought how on earth are we going to get Frank in his wheelchair on a farmyard in the middle of Hampshire into a disabled access building to watch the match! Luckily, a lovely woman, Peridot, who owns the barn, said Frank could watch it in the calving shed (!) which fortunately had no resident calves and had been turned into a B&B. So Frank was able to watch the match, and then did the most fantastic interview. He was very open about being shot, and the life changes this had meant. Being a journalist, he was aware of people wanting to know this, and was a very generous and interesting interviewee.
What do you think makes a good author interview, and how do you make the authors feel comfortable but also open up about topics such as that?
I think honesty - when the authors really open up and give you something that they haven’t put in their books or they haven’t spoken about publicly before. That’s ultimately why the audience are there. They may be a fan of their books but they also want the story behind the books. When we first started, we got somebody else to do the interviewing because we chickened out of it but then we thought actually we could do this! I wanted to ask the softer questions which make someone open up such as ‘what books are on your bedside table?’ and ‘did you have an inspiring teacher at school?’.
People are curious about other people’s lives and habits. When I interviewed Emily Maitlis during lockdown for Book Aid International, the most feedback we got was about the books she was reading during lockdown, it wasn’t about her interview with Bill Clinton or the Dalai Lama. It was about what she read and the audience loved the fact that she read such a wide range of books from romantic novels such as Marian Keyes to Camus! I like being able to ask the soft questions such as how they wake up every morning and sit down and write, and not be distracted by the washing up. The backstory I suppose to their writing, that’s what I find makes a good interview, and that’s what most audiences really want to know. .
You have amazing testimonials on your website. Why do you think authors love coming to you and do you think they get something from Books at the Barn that they don’t perhaps get at a book festival or through a journalist interview?
I think that if they live in London they are slightly intrigued that they are going to be interviewed in a barn! We also have a high rate of book sales. If you go to a book festival, you might get 500 people listening to you but you won’t sell many books because a lot of the people are there for the whole week. We have a very high conversion rate (around 45-50%) so publicists and authors like that.
We also look after our authors very well. We offer them a picnic supper on the train going back to London and funnily enough that’s usually what our authors really notice and appreciate. Frank Gardner wrote about that - not the huge audience but the smoked salmon sandwiches we gave him! It’s the little things that count. I remember when we interviewed Lady Carnarvon, who owns Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, she said when deciding on which publisher to publish her book, she went with the publisher who bought her a bunch of flowers. So I suppose we are slightly quirky and because I have been in the trade, we do know what we’re doing when it comes to authors and author care.
How do you tend to reach out to your authors?
We mostly go through their agent or through their publishers. Sometimes we go directly through an author’s website if they have a very active website, it depends.
How do you promote the events?
We have a website so people can find out about events on there and we also send emails out to our mailing list. We can tell very quickly if it’s going to be a popular event or not. When we put on Fi Glover and Jane Garvey who run the Fortunately podcast, my phone went red hot immediately with people buying tickets so you know very quickly if it’s going to be a popular one.
Which sort of authors are usually the most popular - is it genre dependent or celebrity dependent for example?
I would love to say it is genre-dependent but it isn’t sadly. People tend to go with what they know and I am afraid that if the author is very well-known then you will always get more attendees. We try every year to do a local author event and an event with somebody not so well known because we want to support novelists and particularly local authors as its so hard to get published these days.
Can the audience ask questions at the end?
We do 15 minutes of Q&A at the end and it’s quite funny how those questions go. We had Charles Spencer talking about Killers of the King, a book about Charles I. He said “this is a book about regicide - there will be no questions. I will talk for 59 minutes because there will be no questions.’. He was absolutely spot on!
People can also be shy and that’s why I like being the interviewer. For instance, when we had Douglas Hurd, Home Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government, he said to us beforehand that the two things people want to know about him are: what it was like working for Margaret Thatcher and what did he think of his Spitting Image puppet! The audience were too embarrassed to ask these questions so I was able to ask, knowing they would want to know this!
How different do you find your relationship with the authors now compared to when you worked with them in publishing?
I really enjoy doing the interviews now and the authors are usually really happy because I ask soft questions and they don’t have to heavily prepare. How does it compare to publishing? I quite like being in control and deciding who we get to interview. We can go off-piste if we want to and running our own show is quite fun!
Have you got any exciting events on the horizon? Who are you interviewing next?
Coming up, we have Kate Muir talking about her new book, Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) on October 6th. We also have Gill Hornby who has written a novel about Godmersham Park, where Jane Austen lived so I am very excited about those two. We also have Robert Hardman talking about the biography of the Queen which was a fantastic book, so lots to look forward to.
Is there anyone that you are desperate to interview?
I would absolutely love to interview Chimamanda Nogizi Adichie as I’m a huge fan of hers but she lives in America so that might be tricky, maybe over Zoom!
Do you have any plans to change the structure of Books at the Barn at all?
I would love to do more funny events like Fi Glover and Jane Garvey but it is quite difficult to find very funny authors! I would like to focus more on fiction and encourage mass Book Club reading where everyone reads the book beforehand and then we hear from the author.
Finally, I’d love to ask you what you ask your authors! What do you like reading yourself? And what do you have by your bedside table?
I would say that Americanah by Chimamanda Nogizi Adichie is one of my favourite books. It’s a love story about a young, Nigerian couple and the woman goes to study in America. It’s a fantastic love story but it has a message and is also very funny so ticks a lot of boxes for me. I think Adichie is a fantastic writer and is especially good at dialogue and the most intimate aspects of one’s life. There is the most incredible chapter on the main character getting her hair braided and so many people I have chatted to about the book have agreed that it’s a stand-out chapter. That is a big all time favourite.
Do you have any best summer reads for our listeners today?
I would first recommend American Dirt which quite a few of you might have read already but I think it’s the definition of a good summer read. My whole family read it, passed it around the pool on holiday and all really enjoyed it. It is about a Mexican mother and her 12-year-old boy who are at a family party where this is a horrific event meaning they have to get out of Mexico incredibly quickly. It’s a thriller about how she escapes across Mexico into America and it’s incredibly gripping. I’m not usually a thriller reader but I absolutely loved it and it does make you think: what if that was me?
An older recommendation is Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor which is about Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine on a ship going over to America. A murder has taken place and the book is about the back story of the passengers in the quest to find the perpetrator. The book works for me because you learn about a historical event through fiction - the perfect way to learn.