This article first appeared in The Bookseller.
As an industry, we all know the power of the anniversary when it comes to publishing brands and book prizes: the perfect opportunity to do a retrospective with well-known names for existing fans, whilst also engaging new audiences using fresh new voices and content. However, it was our most recent anniversary campaign that highlighted to us the role publishing could play outside of the world of books, helping non-publishing brands (museums, galleries and cultural institutions) to celebrate their milestone birthdays.
Last summer, Riot was hired by the National Railway Museum (part of the Science Museum Group) to deliver a communications campaign for the centenary of one of its star objects, Flying Scotsman. The centenary programme offered an embarrassment of riches – heritage railway tours across the UK and exhibitions at the National Railway Museum – but it was our view that nothing could convey the pure thrill of riding the celebrity engine to the masses as compellingly as two new publications. The first was Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday, a new children’s book written and illustrated by national treasures and train enthusiasts Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman. The result of a licensing deal between the Science Museum Group and Thames & Hudson, this was the first time the Group had co-published a children’s book. The second was a new poem commissioned by the National Railway Museum to mark the anniversary itself on 24th February 2023.
For the centenary programme launch at London King’s Cross in October, we built up the publication of the children’s book, creating a media moment that paired Michael Morpurgo with the National Railway Museum’s Dr Sophie Vohra, a rail anniversary expert, and Grand Central Trainee Train Driver Stacey Fox, who operates out of King’s Cross Station. In an industry where female representation is limited, the combination of female representatives from the rail industry and Morpurgo’s inspiring story of Iris – a little girl who dreams of being a train driver – was fantastic. Ensuing coverage included a BBC One – Breakfast broadcast package filmed live from Platform 8, next to Scotsman, and a photocall for international picture desks featuring Morpurgo giving a special reading to six-year-old pupils from a local Camden primary school, which lead to a spot in the Guardian’s ‘Best photographs of the day’.
For the anniversary itself in February 2023, the release of UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage’s new poem – The Making of Flying Scotsman – gave us the news hook and spokesperson we needed to land national coverage. In a broadcast exclusive for BBC Radio 4 – Today, Armitage shared that his intention was to celebrate the ‘analogue world’ and a time in history when people had ‘an actual relationship with physical objects’, praising Scotsman as ‘an emblem of when we could have pride about the railways’. A counter to much of the negative news coverage about rail, Armitage’s poem celebrated the sweat, dirt and engine power that went into the locomotive’s construction in a way that made it feel vital and accessible.
This campaign made us question why we hadn’t seen more collaborations like this elsewhere. There was no doubt that it was the endorsement and commentary from some of the UK’s most trusted storytellers that made the media elements of this campaign the success story they were. Not only was the hardback edition of Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday an instant hit, selling out of its first print run within two months, with reprint due this month, but it also created a reliable hook last autumn when many other elements – such as potential delays to the engine’s overhaul, train strikes and possibility of the Queen’s death – were uncertain. The same applied to the release of Simon Armitage’s poem on the centenary itself.
At a time when many museums and cultural institutions struggle to balance their past with the need to remain culturally relevant, collaborations with publishers, writers and illustrators offer an opportunity to revitalise their brand narrative and to win new fans. The pressure to find new revenue streams is more urgent that ever: a recent report from The Arts Newspaper shows that museums and galleries are struggling to regain pre-Covid visitor figures, particularly in London. Museum partnerships are bread and butter for the likes of Thames & Hudson (V&A, British Museum) and Welbeck (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew), but the opportunity is surely there for any enterprising publisher who can spot an opportunity to align their author or illustrator with the right brand. Who wouldn’t want to put their talent in front of new, often highly engaged audiences whilst at the same time tapping into partners’ commercial spaces and networks. It’s the perfect exchange of gifts. After all, you don’t only celebrate your own birthday.
Picture: Author Michael Morpurgo and visiting schoolchildren from Argyle Primary School in Camden cover their ears as Flying Scotsman’s whistle blows © Jody Kingzett / Science Museum Group