Years I have worked in publishing – in fact, my whole career. I have worked in every capacity you can think of in the field and I wear that as a badge of pride because it is fully clear to me that in order to ever become an Editorial Director and run a successful house or imprint, as I did with Lumen Editions (an imprint I founded to publish works in translation as well as the work of new, up and coming authors – first time authors), you truly need to know every aspect of publishing from stuffing jiffy bags to hardcore line-editing to street-pounding publicity. It’s a tough road to hoe, but the rewards can be great.
Lumen was, I was told, a “risky venture”. I was also told that it would never work. That our books (which I published in matte-laminate softcover with a notch-binding with photo images by Ralph Gibson) would never be reviewed because, “Only hardcover books are taken seriously.” This, of course, was, as I had always known, not the case.
I can tell you with absolute honesty that every single Lumen Editions book received a review in the New York Times. Sometimes a full-page, sometimes a half, sometimes a smaller space, but regardless, not once did we miss. We never published e-books then, but e-books were not an option in publishing at that time, not in the popular community, and we would not have benefited in any way. In fact, e-book sales would have hurt our print book sales.
Of course, many factors played into Lumen’s success. The fact that I published only books that I firmly believed in – books that I (some would say) naively believed made a difference. This was the very thing that made all the difference. Believe in a thing and you can push for it. You can never guarantee a “good” review: the reviewer either likes the book or does not. This much is subjective and recall, with any book, you are competing with quite literally thousands of other books, likewise clambering for attention.
Trust me on this. I spent many visits to the New York Times Book Review and can tell you that there are books in piles on the floor, against the walls, and a room that was just chock full of books that seemed in no particular order. No doubt, many pink-lip-glossed publicists with neatly-knotted Hermes scarves came and went with boilerplate, template, and press releases. No doubt, they had felt, and technically were right, that they had done their job. They sent the book with a release. Maybe followed up with a phone call. Amen. But for the most part, it was the book and a release and that’s it.
The simple fact is, it takes more than a pretty press release and a form letter to get a book review, unless you happen to have a big name author. It takes a great deal of effort and a nonstop push to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. It takes time, effort, and yes, money, and more, endless patience and author-handholding. I am friend, editor, psychiatrist, you name it – as publicist and editor, the relationship you have with your author(s) morphs constantly and is one of constant-handholding (and I am not exception to this rule a an author myself: I too need to be coddled. I too suffer from “Authoritis”. Hi, my name is Sadi, and I am an author.
The book review process is a tough one. It’s akin to an exhausting game of tennis in which you are constantly volleying back and forth with a seasoned editor and diving for just the right shot, the right hook. In short, in tennis terms, you want to “smash” that ball over the net so it hits and it cannot be volleyed back. You want to win. You want your ball to hit, your book, where others simply bounce off the grace or turf, etc.
It’s all timing and yes, grace – something that is vastly underrated in this business. Too many want to go in like a bulldog, but grace… grace carries more weight. How you handle yourself as a publicist is equally important to how you handle yourself as an editor. I once heard that publicity and public relations were like “sales” – I believe the words that the person used were “just a sad step above” as if publicity were somehow dirty and undignified. I was insulted because that’s the last thing I am. It made me think.
Is publicity really undignified? I have thought about this for many years and have come down on both sides. As with any field or profession, it depends on the publicist. There are publicists who are going to give you the slippery sales pitch that is slick and shiny on the surface, a sort of lacquered pitch, and then there are publicists who actually studied hard, read the book, and perhaps studied something like philosophy as well as journalism and elevate publicity to what can truly be an art: the art/science of publicity, much like the art/science of editing or true writing.
The art of spin takes timing, skill, grace, diplomacy, and more. It requires that you be likable and wow, ethical. This is key. You need to be ethical because in this business, it is your name and your word that count for everything. If you endorse a book, that is your name on the line. Endorse a bad book, then the next time you approach “x” magazine, they will not take you seriously.
A good publicist will consider and know that they themselves are the brand. Further, they will know that brand integrity is everything. If I put my seal of approval on a book, it doesn’t mean that everyone will like it, but it does carry some weight because the books I have endorsed so far have all been good books (and that’s not just my subjective opinion; good reviews have backed this up). Each book has been different – sometimes vastly different – but the aim was always to publish good books.
I’ve had the joy of publishing first fiction, of publishing Beat poetry, of publishing the last work by Marguerite Duras (“Ecrire”), of publishing travel writing that was well off the beaten path, of publishing cult classic writers, of publishing experimental Oulipo writings with books like the book “S” and so forth. The books I published have truly been across the board.
The fine silver thread between all of these books, what they had in common, was that I firmly and ardently even, believed in every single one of them. I still do. I still recommend those books and even re-read them from time to time. I have trusted my instinct and I have asked other people to trust my instinct. They either will or they will not, but so far, I have every reason to say, “Please do”. I’ve had authors who want to write their own letter to the editor and it’s thrown a wrench into the works. As an author, I understand the desire to want to promote your own book and I’m all for it – but to a point. Let me do my job, and you do your job. You write: I pitch. The author’s input is invaluable, but the author is too close to his or her own work to know how to pitch it to different editors.
My pitch may not be what the author would say, but my pitch may well be what the editor or reviewer needs to hear to “get” the book and that’s key. You can wax on and on about what a terrific book you have, but there are many terrific books and yes, like it or not, even in your genre. Here’s the news: the book does not “transcend the genre” to use a worn-out phrase. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but as Jason Epstein astutely pointed out, “Books today have the shelf-life of yogurt.” He is right. Try getting a review. Even harder.
A colleague asked me about simultaneously publishing an e-book version that coincides with a print book edition of a book. “No,” I told her. “Why?” This is a good question, but I can tell you in traditional book publishing, that for all of the new-found electronic publishing and e-books that are coming out from places like Harper and etc. (which is heart-warming), there is still a prejudice against e-books. An e-book, like a Web article, is not taken as seriously – at least not in the current publishing climate.
My own literary agent, who knows my work and that is well-known on the Internet, has told me that this particular writing “doesn’t count” when it comes to presenting my work to a publisher (that said, one wonders if this theory has been tested). I’m told that publishers today simply do not take electronic publishing seriously. Never mind that my writings are widely known or published on the best sites around or that I’m known as a Bob Dylan critic or Lewis Carroll critic with major breakthroughs and so forth – I am told unequivocally this doesn’t matter.
It does matter to a lot of people, just not the same people. I get hired to write precisely because of that very writing that “doesn’t count”. I have worked on some of the biggest sites around, review music and write a popular music column and so forth but again – like e-books, it doesn’t count. Therefore, e-books don’t count.
It’s an easy equation. Electronic publishing is not now, and perhaps never will be, taken as seriously as print book publishing because of the obstacles involved in publishing print books – but more importantly, the money that the publishers puts behind the book. Money talks.
Release a p-book and an e-book at the same time and you’re sending the wrong message. You may be broadening your market for people who prefer to read e-books, but in terms of reviews, you’re dealing in a whole different market. Yes, e-books may be news and they may be the new curiosity to traditional publishers, but e-books are never going to replace print books. Never.
Make any argument you want and I can tell you right now, it’s not going to happen. When was the last time you saw an electronic book – and I mean a book that was FIRST published electronically – reviewed in the Sunday New York Times book review? If you’ve seen it – and again, I mean the e-book version, then let me know and I stand corrected. Maybe the tide will turn, but I’m not even sure I want it to. Call me a luddite, but I still like p-books. I like the feeling of a book in my hands. I also am a big e-book fan and read e-books and have a palm device and carry books around with me this way, but do I want a “library” in my house of e-books? Sure, intact on several palm devices, but visit my house and it’s truly like walking into the New York Public Library. There are books everywhere, wall-to-wall. They sustain: they hold up the walls.
Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s website is: http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com/