I went to a meeting at Penguin earlier this week to discuss ‘publicity opportunities’ for my forthcoming book. Chance would be a fine thing, I thought. It’s essentially a guide to what’s in the new national curriculum, how it’s likely to be taught at primary schools and what parents can do at home to supplement it. Surely, not a single radio or television producer will be interested in that?
No, no, no, said the crack publicity team at Penguin. You’re quite wrong. This book’s going to get a ton of media attention. There are two reasons for this, apparently. First, the book is called What Every Parent Needs to Know and no one considering whether to cover it in their programme is going to bother opening the book or finding out what’s inside. They won’t even read the dust jacket. The mere fact that it’s got something to do with parenting — it really doesn’t matter what — will be enough for them to pick up the phone to the Penguin publicity department.
When I was told this, I immediately had a panic attack. What will I say when Holly Willoughby turns to me on ITV’s This Morning and asks me what age parents should start potty-training their children? Or how many hours of television a day is bad for them? Or whether it’s ever acceptable to smack them? Before I’ve had a chance to collect my thoughts, Katie Hopkins, who’ll be next to me on the sofa, will jump in with some inflammatory remark and I won’t even be a bit player in the ensuing Twitter storm. It’ll be caught-in-the-headlights time with me feeling like a complete fraud.
But it turns out I needn’t worry, which brings me to the second reason the book is going to get shedloads of publicity — my co-author Miranda Thomas. I’ve known Miranda since we were undergraduates together at Oxford and she’s everything I’m not. Where I’m frivolous and shallow, she’s serious-minded and clever. I pursued a career in the media while she became a physics teacher, and whereas I’ve spent the past five years upsetting almost everybody in the educational establishment, she’s quietly been getting on with chairing the governing body of her local primary. I think she even votes Labour.
‘I wouldn’t worry too much about having to juggle media appearances yourself, Toby,’ said Penguin’s publicist-in-chief. ‘I know how busy you are. I’m sure there’s quite a lot of stuff that Miranda can do on her own.’
She said this as tactfully as she could, but it was as if she’d leaned across the table, prodded me in the chest and repeated the words ‘on her own’ to make sure I understood. In other words, you’re not the big draw here, you vainglorious nincompoop. Miranda is. She’s the person we’ll be dangling in front of Woman’s Hour. Of course no breakfast television producer is going to want to stick your ugly mug in front of their viewers. But the fragrant and lovely Miranda is a different proposition.
Eventually, the penny dropped. There I was, making various self-deprecating noises about how no one will want to interview little old me, when I realised they didn’t mean me at all. The reason the book’s going to get lots of coverage is because people will be interested in Miranda. By the end of the meeting I was half-expecting them to ask me if I’d mind removing my name from the book altogether.
This is one of the perennial hazards of sharing credit with another writer. My father co-authored several socio-logy books with a colleague of his called Peter Willmott, including Family and Kinship in East London, which has become something of a classic. The fact that he usually received more attention than Peter was a source of tension between them, but he did his best to mitigate it, insisting on joint media appearances, putting Peter’s name before his on the dust jacket, and so on.
I was conscious of this risk, but when thinking about how to manage it I’d always cast myself as my father and Miranda as Peter Willmott. Now, I realise, it’s going to be the other way round. When What Every Parent Needs to Know becomes a huge publishing franchise, with spin-off books about everything from healthy after-school snacks to teenage sex, I will gradually fade into the background until I’m reduced to a mention in the Acknowledgments. I will, in effect, become a ghostwriter.
Ah well. At least with Miranda as the front person it might sell a few copies.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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