Coronavirus Worklife: Midas PR’s Jason Bartholomew: After the ‘Blind Panic’

In News by Porter Anderson

‘Midas had to quickly pivot our business model,’ says Jason Bartholomew in London, ‘to think of a new type of proposals that fit a rapidly changing economic landscape.’

Jason Bartholomew. Image: Midas

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Wildly Uncertain Financial Landscape’
While our Coronavirus Worklife series so far has looked primarily at international publishers, literary agencies, and an audiobook subscription platform so far, today’s interview (June 9) takes us to the British capital for our first chance to hear from a particularly prominent marketing and public relations firm.

And we quickly learn that the publicity field took the hit right along with all others. “We lost about 10 percent of our client base in the first few weeks,” Jason Bartholomew tells us.

Midas Public Relations—created by co-founder and director Tony Mulliken and co-founding CEO Steven Williams—includes international book and publishing clients in its roster as well as players in the visual arts, festivals, awards programs, and entertainment. It was announced in February 2018 that Bartholomew would join the company in a joint CEO role, having directed rights at Hodder & Stoughton, Headline Publishing Group, John Murray Press, and Quercus Books, as well as working as publishing director with Quercus Books US.

The American-born Bartholomew was also in 2018 setting up an independent literary agency, BKS Agency, with colleagues Jessica Killingley and James Spackman. And what we’ve asked him to do with us is explore what the onslaught of the contagion and the disruption it has caused for his business and for that of so many clients can reveal about marketing itself—its intents and potentials.

The UK is a week away now from the planned June 15 date on which its bookstores are to begin reopening—with safety guidelines that include quarantining books handled by browsing consumers for 72 hours before those books can be placed back on shelves. And, to put some context on the discussion, today in the United Kingdom, the COVID-19 pandemic numbers are especially difficult because of an interesting conflict in calculations.

According to the 3:33 a.m. ET update (0733 GMT and 0833 BST in London) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the UK’s caseload is fourth in the world, at 288.834, with fatalities at 40,680.

But as Mick Krever and Zamira Rahim are reporting this morning from London for CNN International, the national statistics offices of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now report 50,413 deaths—almost 10,000 more than calculated in the Johns Hopkins tracking system. “The discrepancy between the two death tolls is caused by different counting methods,” write Krever and Rahim. “The DHSC,” the Department of Health and Social Care, “only records deaths in which the deceased were previously diagnosed with coronavirus, as opposed to the disease being detected post-mortem.”

“As the initial panic subsided, and a new work rhythm found a somewhat regular structure, we started having conversations with our clients along the lines of, ‘What’s the thing we can do right now to help you the most?'”Jason Bartholomew, Midas PR

All of which adds to a time of ongoing, maturing disruption and widening questions about just what the best marketing support is for publishing-related and other companies in such a daunting scenario.

Bartholomew starts by explaining that the quick loss of that roughly 10 percent of the client list in the onslaught of the outbreak “was a combination of summer festivals forced to cancel; publishers moving release dates from spring and summer books to the autumn; and some who simply wanted to cut their PR spend. And as the weeks went on, we noticed a stark decrease in our normal rate of winning new clients. It’s no secret that consumers and businesses are holding their purse strings tight.

“As a small company relying on active clients with short- to long-term contracts, we’re only as good as our current client roster,” Bartholomew says. “We don’t have the luxury of back-end royalty payments from books published 10 years ago.”

In response, then, Bartholomew says, “Midas had to quickly pivot our business model to think of a new type of proposals that fit a rapidly changing economic landscape.

“We needed to offer a range of more short-term and less expensive options, and in a wildly uncertain financial landscape.

“We put together a ‘COVID-19 Response PR Proposal,’ which we sent to all literary agents and publishers. And that has had the dual effect of offering something new to our clients—which is more affordable—but it does also have an underlying message about Midas within our industries.”

As in some of the best stories from the pandemic about companies and people rising to the challenge, what Midas’ team found they wanted to communicate, Bartholomew says, was empathy and support.

“Our message was,” he says, “that Midas truly wants to find affordable ways to support the creative industries which we love working alongside. We love the arts. We love books. Society needs these institutions to survive. I don’t want a world without an independent book shop. We’re passionate about wanting to support writers, painters, filmmakers, and creators of art in all its forms.

“Equally, if we can help save our businesses bottom line at the same time, then all the better.”

‘It Felt Like a Blind Panic’

A masked cyclist on Waterloo Bridge in London, March 27. Image – iStockphoto: Andrea Angelini

Of course, as soon as a team begins working with marketing clients on the obvious advantages of moving content and outreach into the digital space, the question crops right up as to whether there’s a genuinely bespoke way to do this—something really fit to purpose that can convey and support a firm or organization in what has suddenly become a world of webinars.

“Virtual events became a sudden necessity for those books whose release dates couldn’t be moved.”Jason Bartholomew, Midas PR

And Bartholomew concedes that in the opening weeks of the emergency that flight to Zoom (zoom to Zoom?) was driven by stark concerns, understandable and very real.

“The first weeks of COVID-19 felt like blind panic,” he says. “Would we all keep our jobs? Would anyone buy books? Would museums survive? How does the furlough scheme the UK government offers work? What happens to bookstores? What’s going to happen to our clients?

“But as the initial panic subsided, and a new work rhythm found a somewhat regular structure, we started having conversations with our clients along the lines of, ‘What’s the thing we can do right now to help you the most?’

“Virtual events became a sudden necessity for those books whose release dates couldn’t be moved. As everyone tried to work out where the mute button was on Zoom, we were also frantically trying to figure out how we could shout about our clients’ work in a new virtual-event world.”

Putting ‘Hamnet’ Over the Top

“It was both unlucky and lucky,” Bartholomew says, “to have one of the UK’s biggest books of 2020—Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Hachette/Headline/Tinder Press, March 31)—publishing right in the middle of the pandemic. We were gutted to watch 11 months of preparation vanish overnight, all the work between Headline, Maggie, and Midas to set up, schedule, and plan for dozens of book signings, local events, and author appearances across the UK.

“We had no choice but to throw our efforts into finding a solution. And at the exact time this was happening, the virtual-event platforms were blossoming by the hour.

“With Hamnet, specifically, in the space of days—we’d managed to rebook, plan, strategize, learn, and provide public relations within this rapidly changing world. We caught the initial wave of consumers seeking out these virtual events, and Hamnet has become one of the bestselling books of Maggie’s career in terms of year-to-date sales so far.”

Indeed on Amazon.co.uk, as this interview is published, O’Farrell’s Hamnet is ranking at No. 4 in Literary Theory and Movements and No. 6 in Biographical Fiction in hardcover. In its Kindle edition, the book is No. 1 in Literary Renaissance Criticism and No. 2 in both Literary Theory and Movements and in Biographical Literary Fiction.

And, as Publishing Perspectives readers will recall from our coverage, Hamnet is shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

If anything, the fact that Midas could generate the frisson it did for a title moving in the very brunt of the outbreak in the UK (the week that in the United States has been spotted by the NPD Group’s Kristen McLean as the toughest for publishing), you’d think that Midas had just the kind of touch its name implies.

But Bartholomew is sanguine about the trek through uncharted territory that he, the team, and their clients are making. He has something rather uplifting to say about it: “Humans and therefore businesses are hard-wired to evolve,” he says.

“Obviously, it will be years before we can look back and discuss the long-lasting changes this ‘recession,’ ‘depression,’ or ‘societal shift’ has caused. At this point in time, we can simultaneously predict that major airports and airline companies might go out of business, or alternatively we could all be free to fly to Greece in August, and this might all be in the past.”

Life in Webinar World

As given to evolution as we are, he says, the key to the struggle has to do with the fact that, “We’re currently in the eye of the storm, and within our humble industry, virtual events seem to have gone to the head of the class at the moment.”

“The virtual, digital, and new online offerings are an unmolded lump of clay now.  A lot of creative people are trying new ideas.”Jason Bartholomew, Midas PR

His perspective on this will remind our readers of the massive success that Penguin Random House Grupo editorial author Javier Castillo found when, in desperation, he and his publisher set up their first Instagram reading with the Spanish lockdown having closed bookstores just two days after  The Snow Girl‘s release. Castillo logged in at home in Madrid to find 60,000 readers waiting online for him.

But now, of course, so many online readings and seminars and webinars and conference calls later, “They now feel like white noise, all shouting for the consumers’ attention—the likes, the click-throughs, the engagement rates.”

Can these digital evocations of in real-life events continue to buoy the industry’s business?

“On the plus side,” Bartholomew says, “it seems that virtual events are here to stay. On the uncertain side, none of us yet know how we can shape, shift, devise, and make them an economically viable and consumer-friendly business model that finds its place as a new norm.

“There are a lot of huge benefits to the virtual event,” Bartholomew says. “It’s good for the environment—no traveling. It’s good for people with disabilities that prevent them from attending live events. It’s good to attract a more global audience rather than 12 locals in a small bookshop for an author reading. And it’s a very good way for authors to connect to wider audiences.

“Clearly, though, we are in the early parts of Stage One. As we all adapt to this type of new event, there will be creative and naturally new ways we figure out how to make the experience that much better. At Midas, we’re doing our best to support, develop, strategize, and work alongside these events to help them tick all these necessary boxes.”

Shedding the ‘PR’ From Midas’ Name

At Waterloo Station in Central London, a March 25 shot. Image – iStockphoto: Andrea Angelini

“Midas is more than a PR company,” Bartholomew says, looking at some of the insights coming out of this season of stress.

“The widespread approach across the multitude of platforms and varied ways of reaching consumers is so much bigger now than just getting a review in the newspaper with the highest circulation.”Jason Bartholomew, Midas PR

“We’re about to launch a new site after going through six months of an internal rebranding process. We’ll be dropping the ‘PR’ part of our name. Midas already does so much more than public relations, and we want to advertise our expertise and knowledge base to showcase ways we can work outside of traditional PR.

“We’re in this for long haul with the creative industries. Beyond shouting for clients’ art, books, or films—which remains vital to our business model, and more and more important—we also work as strategists, brand-builders, creative thought-leaders. Midas wants to work deeply alongside our creative industries to help maintain strong foundations for these vital industries.”

One area of research, he says, is in those digital events.

“If you have a very shy author who hates speaking in front of crowds, or an author who hates traveling, then you can now have scenarios in which that author can record a reading and a speech for his or her book. That recording could be shown to 500 attendees at a virtual event, and we could then upsell privately, several  one-to-one or five-to-one author breakout sessions,” something exclusive for “uber fans,” up-close-and-personal time with a favorite author to ask questions.

“The next question becomes, how do we ticket those events?” Bartholomew says. “Or how do we guarantee book sales in the one-to-one sessions?

“Authors are hungry to know how to work in this new environment. There isn’t, nor should there be, a one-size-fits-all model. Not everyone can be prolific at Twitter. Or if you hate social media, you can still try to do as many virtual events as possible from the comfort of your home to connect.

“The virtual, digital, and new online offerings are an unmolded lump of clay now.  A lot of creative people are trying new ideas. Some will fail, some will have mild success, but a few might end up becoming an economically viable and consumer-friendly option.

Navigating the ‘Attention Economy’

An April 4 shot on London’s Millennial Bridge, the Tate Modern in the background. Image – iStockphoto: Andrea Angelini

“There’s a ubiquitous conversation about how to capture people’s time and attention in an ever-changing and rapidly crowded entertainment space,” Bartholomew says.

“It’s all a form of creative entertaining distraction, and it asks for people’s time and money.”Jason Bartholomew, Midas PR

“Because truthfully, we work in entertainment. Books, movies, television, the arts. It’s all a form of creative entertaining distraction, and it asks for people’s time and money. As ever, how do these industries entice consumers away from either free content that’s whizzy and shiny, or apps, social media, etc.?

“Publishers,” he says, “are seeing themselves as content producers. So, whether they adapt slowly or rapidly, there’s no doubt that we’re seeing an ongoing metamorphosis of people who want to read, watch, and interact with content in so many varied ways.

“At Midas, from a straight PR perspective, we need to continually find new ways of shouting about our clients in a variety of consumer-led markets. Yes, that includes traditional print media, and television appearances on highly rated shows can still lead to book sales. But we also need to know and interact with the blogosphere, the social media influencers, the digital book clubs, and so forth.

“The widespread approach across the multitude of platforms and varied ways of reaching consumers is so much bigger now than just getting a review in the newspaper with the highest circulation.

“We’re working with virtual book clubs by well-known authors. We’re trying to find ways of driving consumers, and find new international consumers for these online author events. We’re finding ways to take more traditional organizations, like the Arts Society, to provide first-time digitally-led events for their members.

“And on the flip side, we’re working with organizations like the Booksellers Association to support bookstores. The independent bookshops remain incredibly vital to the publishing industry. Museums remain key gathering spaces for the arts.

“We need a world where both of these spheres coexist equally,” the digital and the physical, Jason Bartholomew says.

“As with ebook readers vs. hardcover readers vs paperback readers, the growing virtual and digital creative event spaces won’t supplant the live events but become another option for a different type of consumer.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on the UK market is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.