In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, publicists and writers Carla Bruce-Eddings and Karen Gu, and novelist Tom Barbash talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how literary publicity works, and how books and authors get attention.
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Readings for the Episode:
Part I: Carla Bruce-Eddings on Twitter · Algonquin Books on Twitter · Karen Gu on Twitter · Graywolf Press on Twitter · Graywolf Press on Instagram · Oculus by Sally Wen Mao · Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi · “Gender, Transition, and Ogbanje,” by Akwaeke Emezi, for The Cut · Severance by Ling Ma · Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · “Amazing Grace,” by Carla Bruce-Eddings, in Well Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. Glory Edim · Carla Bruce-Eddings archive at New York Magazine · “Seven White Rabbit Candies is Equivalent to One Cup of Milk,” by Karen Gu
Part II: The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash · Lori & Julia’s Book Club Show on 107.1 in Minneapolis · “In ‘The Dakota Winters,’ Finding A New Story To Tell About John Lennon,” National Public Radio Weekend Edition with Scott Simon · The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon · “Oscar Villalon and Arthur Phillips on Getting That Big, Fat Writer’s Advance,” Fiction/Non/Fiction Episode 24, Season 1
Part I Carla Bruce-Eddings and Karen Gu
Whitney Terrell: Both of you mentioned researching reviewers. Now, I think that what this means – and you can tell me if I’m wrong—is that one of the most important jobs that a publicist can do is to match reviewers to books, or match an interviewer to an author, like, this interview is gonna be good with this author, or this reviewer I think will handle this material well. Isn’t that an important thing that you do?
Karen Gu: Oh, yeah.
WT: Could you talk about that a little bit?
KG: Yeah. I think it’s a good way to think of publicity as a kind of match-making. In one sense, you’re always gonna have the outlets that you wanna send every book, for example, to your big national legacy outlets, like The New York Times, New Yorker, what have you. You just want to make sure that you’re covering that area. But then, at the same time, for every book, you’re gonna have a slightly different list, because of the content of the book. One example I’ll note is—we have a book coming out called Oculus on January 15th, which is a poetry collection by Sally Wen Mao, and it’s all about spectacle, technology, selfhood, with a focus on women of color, and in particular, the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong.
So in that case there’s many different ways into the book, and for the campaign, what I tried to do is research a lot of film critics who have written on representation in film, who have written on, for example, Ghost in the Shell with Scarlet Johansson, or Aloha, with Emma Stone, or people who have written about Anna May Wong, and the history of her career. So, in that sense, not only going to the poetry critics that we work with often, and the literary critics, and all these big book editors, but then also reaching out to film critics, cultural critics, and people on the race and representation beat as well.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s such a great example. I’ve heard of that book because I was on Twitter and I’m fascinated by Anna May Wong because my friend Peter Ho Davies wrote about her in The Fortunes—
VVG: And I clicked on an Oculus link two days ago, and it was like—oh, my gosh, I can’t wait to get this book.
KG: That’s great to hear.
Carla Bruce-Eddings: I definitely agree with all of that. One thing that we definitely tell authors, particularly debut authors, is that while we send books to the big names, the things that we normally think of in terms of book coverage, there are so many different outlets now, and so many different podcasts, and blogs, and websites, and magazines that we can be pitching now, that it’s really imperative that we get to know not just what is the book about, but what are you trying to say with the book, and who are the people that you really want to appeal to, and who are some audiences that you want to make sure know about this book. Because there is just such a wide breadth of people that we can pitch now.
And one thing I can say, that can kind of be like a double-edged sword is when I’m doing this research and figuring out, okay, who’s written about this, who is interested in this topic, and this person that may have ties to a book, it’s important not to get too bogged down in—oh, this person wrote about this subject, so let me make sure to pitch them on something very similar, because nine times out of ten they’re not gonna wanna write about the same exact thing, particularly if they’ve already written about it in the past year or so. So it’s kind of important to keep in mind that you want to find someone who has broad interest in what the book is about, or who the author is, if that makes sense, because you don’t want to come to them and say: do you want to write about the same exact topic for this book that’s coming out in three months, ’cause you’ll either get an emphatic no, or more likely, just no response at all.
WT: I don’t want every book on tiddlywinks that you guys have just because I’m known to write about tiddlywinks.
VVG: I sometimes review books, and a thing that came to my attention a few years ago, that frankly I found quite irritating, was that I realized I had only ever been asked to review a book by a white American writer once, and every other review I had been asked to do was connected in some way to race, otherness, or foreignness. I have a pretty mainstream literary education, and, you know, who do we ask to review books, and what do we expect to be the breadth of people’s interests? I really appreciate that point. I don’t think people would necessarily expect me to be interested in Anna May Wong, and the reason that I am has to do with this personal connection, and to another book that I really loved.
People’s interests are sometimes not what we expect, and one of the ways that I find that out a lot of the time, I think, is social media, and following writers who Tweet not necessarily just about their books, but about other things they’re researching, or just are interested in, and so I’m curious about how the two of you think about a writer’s responsibility to do social media, because there’s this idea that it’s a big part of promoting books, and Carla, you talked about this a little bit, that it’s draining, and it also prevents people, maybe, from writing books. And that there’s this feeling that you have to do it, you’ve got to be on Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and Reddit, and Goodreads, and Amazon, and WhatsApp, and Yik Yak, and I’m slightly exaggerating here, obviously, but I feel like I can sometimes see writers starting Twitter accounts when their books are coming out, or maybe that four months before when you’ve been asked to start one if you didn’t have one—
VVG: Whitney! Whitney, did you—are you guilty of this? Because—
WT: I totally started my Twitter account after I had turned in The Good Lieutenant. That’s it, man. That’s all. I had a Facebook account that I’d had for awhile.
VVG: But I think the difference is—right—I mean it’s one thing if you start it, and it seems like you like it, but sometimes people start it and it feels inorganic, and rote, and I think I can tell when people aren’t having fun, and then, frankly, I don’t want to read their feeds, and I’m also not sure that I see causation between small social media followings and book sales, and I wonder what you guys think about that, and how you advise writers, especially reluctant writers, to handle social media.
CBE: This is tricky. I definitely, same as you, Sugi, I don’t think it’s helpful for someone who doesn’t want to be on social media to try to be on social media, ’cause it—yeah, it does come off as very inauthentic, and why am I reading your feed if you’ve clearly—if there are no tweets, or the tweets you are writing are just retweets of things that aren’t relevant to even the book. I do think that social media is helpful, particularly for writers who are starting out, for many of the same reasons it’s helpful to be a publicist on social media. You’re seeing what people are reading, what they’re interested in, what reviewers are wanting to cover, maybe reviewers who would want to cover your book.
But I do think that a good marketing and publicity team should be able to fill in those gaps if you’re not someone who’s naturally adept on social media, and if publishing a book does feel like a useful catalyst, and I say, by all means, get on social media, figure it out, and if you wanna be there, be there, but if you don’t want to, people have sold books before Twitter. It’s not impossible.
KG: I agree, Carla, with what you said there, and I especially want to emphasize that if you’re an emerging writer, if you’re working on your first book, even though it may be counter-productive, in terms of a time-wasting tool, I do think that you should join Twitter, just to get a lay of the land, in terms of the online literary community, because there’s a lot to be learned about the industry, about, following your favorite publishers, book critics, and writers, following LitHub, Electric Lit, The Millions. All those kinds of places are going to give you a good—just give you a good introduction to the world that you will be in when you do sell your book, and you’re publishing your book. I think that if it’s incredibly painful, I don’t think you have to say, “I’m gonna tweet three times a day for the four months before my book comes out,” but at least to have a sense of what’s going on there, and to be there so that if there is a writer or reviewer who’s tagging you, and in the link to your review you can build on that connection.
Part II Tom Barbash
Whitney Terrell: One of the things I love about the book is Anton’s awareness of what makes for good publicity, or good TV. But television’s a really different industry than books, and with the exception of posting on social media—here come my galleys, today’s my book’s birthday, all that stuff that we do, and I do—none of the other things that I ended up doing for my last book, which came out in 2016, seemed all that different than what I did in 2001 when I published my first one. We still send out blurb solicitations, we type up the list of media people and friends, which we were just talking about earlier. Who should get the galleys, we schedule our reading tour, and yet I wonder—does any of this really work?
Tom Barbash: Yeah, I mean, I think that in some way it has to look effortless, and yet I think the best thing that can happen is that people feel like the book’s everywhere, and so that actually takes both work, but it can’t look—it’s hard, I guess you don’t want—it seems unseemly, in some ways, to look like you’re publicizing constantly, but on the other hand, if you’re not getting the word out, no one else will, to a certain extent. You do have to get over—what I always tell people, psychologically, to my students, and friends that are doing it, is that you have to think of it like there’s two people. In your case, there’s the Whit who went away, there’s you, who wrote the book, and then there’s the person who’s publicizing the book, and if the person who’s publicizing this book doesn’t do his job, he’s undercutting the writer who worked so hard all those years.
So psychologically, you have to get over that. But, yeah, in terms of what you were saying about how it was years ago, there were many more daily newspapers that were writing reviews, there’s—way fewer outlets, but there’s a lot more outlets for things like interviews with writers, places like LitHub, places like The Rumpus, which are great venues—
WT: They sort of have taken over the role of the metropolitan daily, in terms of book review coverage, I feel like. LitHub, obviously, is our parent publication. The other thing that used to exist was, if you went for a reading—the reason you did a reading tour is you went into a town in order to read there, but also get on the radio—
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Yeah.
WT: —before your reading, and that doesn’t happen that much anymore, I don’t—at least not in the same way that it used to. I think. Is that your guys’ experience?
TB: Yeah, I just did a radio show in Minneapolis, but it wasn’t around a reading, and, yeah, the bookstore tours, I think, they’re cutting back a little bit on that, in general, but I still—I love it. I just went back east, and I was in New York, and I was in Boston, and because there’s a lead-up to it, and then, hopefully, you get a lot of people out, and then there’s a kind of excitement that follows afterwards, and it’s a good chance for writers to connect with readers in some kind of way, because you are alone all that—so I hope they don’t do away with that altogether—
WT: I don’t want them to. I love it, I love it, too. I think it still matters to go to a city, and people come out, and show up, and I think it can lead to reviews in the paper, in that city, but the coordination of your local NPR station doing an interview before the reading, and then the reading happens, that seems different, and not quite as solid a connection as it used to be.
VVG: Minneapolis must be really an outlier in this regard, because the Star Tribune here has a really strong books section. When I moved here, I hadn’t been reading the Star Tribune before, really, and was so pleasantly surprised and realized, I had grown up reading Washington Post Book World, and had just taken for granted strong local books coverage, and then by the time I moved here, my expectations had changed so much. I feel grateful for the Star Tribune book section all the time. They have a strong local community of reviewers, people from other places, a strong set of independent bookstores—I think it’s actually really unusual. I definitely have the strong impression that radio and reviews are two things that really sell books.
It seems to me like a huge part of having readings also is to create that community, because writing and reading are often such solitary acts, but also to create a moment at which, theoretically—you could purchase the book. It’s kind of like an art opening, where, you could—I mean, you can go to the museum all the time, but if there’s an opening—
VVG: Then there’s sort of this moment when—oh, have you considered purchasing? Have you considered purchasing the art? And that also seems like this important moment when you walk behind the desk of the bookstore, or wherever they have set up for you to sign books, and you say, I am, as gracefully as possible, selling my book. And I—Tom used the word unseemly before, and I think that is one of the delicate balances, right, the whole thing, that we’re interested in publicity, and yet also we’re these retiring types who would like to go into our rooms and invent people as well.
TB: One positive new thing in these events is the idea of being conversation with someone. I always find it much better because there’s something about being there by yourself and demanding all the attention on you, and it makes you self-conscious, and it just—there’s something that completely changes when you have another writer up there, and the two of you are more than that, you have some kind of a conversation going, and if you can make it a little bit of a get-together for people. I always try to say, when I’m coming in—I often provide beer and wine with the idea that people are going to linger, and hang out—
WT: I just had this picture of you descending from the airplane with this giant backpack of beer—
TB: It’s pretty much that. I—exactly, with my twelve-pack.
WT: I’m in town for my reading!
TB: But there’s something about it. It feels better to do it that way, and Sugi, I will say something about your community, too. I was just on a radio show, and I don’t know if you know the Laurie and Julia show. They have this book talk, and it’s in Minneapolis, and then I also got a review in the Minneapolis newspaper, so maybe it’s something that individual cities don’t have to follow the trends, and they can just say, you know, we’ll buck the trends, we’ll do a daily review, we’ll have you on the radio, we’ll create a vibrant community, and maybe those deserve to have the best reputations. We can build things back community by community.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Damian Johansson.