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“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from Gee Henry. Gee Henry is the pen name of a Manhattan writer/blogger. In his day job, he’s a book publicist at Harper Perennial. He blogs about his outfits (and his feelings) at www.geehenry.com.
Got in a little bit late, never a good idea on a Monday. Over the weekend, I watch in horror on my Blackberry as my inbox at work fills up with Google alerts, movie invitations from friends, actual work, and entreaties from Nigeria. I usually try to get in a little early to deal with the weekend crush, but it wasn’t to be this week. Oh, well. When I get in a little late, it can take me till the end of the day (sometimes longer) to plow through the email. That’s okay.
Today, there’s a bit of a little mystery to deal with. One of our authors was supposed to be reviewed over the weekend in one of the fine papers we regularly send books to. It didn’t happen, so I set out to find out why. One of the most charming things about newspapers is that their staff are loath to tell me whether or not they are going to review a book, which can be understandably frustrating at times to the higher-ups at my job. As a publicist, I am supposed to have great buddy-buddy relationships with the media, and I’m supposed to be able to get “yes” or “no” answers out of them when needed. But I try to limit my interaction with the media, actually … my logic is that if editors and reporters don’t hear from me that often, they are happier to hear from me when they do. I don’t know if that strategy works, but everything usually works out. Usually. After a somewhat lengthy email exchange with an editor at the paper, I was only able to discern that the review had not in fact run (which I knew) and that it might run in the future.
Around lunchtime I got a call from super-cute Zack over at the bookstore BookCourt in Brooklyn about setting up an event with one of our authors. As it happens, this was not possible (the author is already doing an event at a competing bookstore), but I kept him on the phone as long as I could, flirting with him without it actually sounding like flirting (which is my strategy for flirtation in general, not just with straight bookstore event coordinators). I told him a favorite story of mine, from my repertoire. Once, my friend L. H. was going up in an elevator in the World Trade Center with Beverly Johnson, the supermodel. It’s a pretty funny story, actually. He wanted to speak to her, but he didn’t know what to say. So he said, “It’s really beautiful out.” She turned to him, acknowledged him (barely), and replied, “Thank you.” Zach laughed and laughed, and then he had to go. I think sometimes he realizes I am getting more from these phone calls than what is intended.
At some point, I went into my tote bag and removed crumpled clippings from papers that I read over the weekend, while walking on the treadmill at the gym. Each clipping was written by a journalist I want to pitch one of our books to, or is about a concept that I think I can link one of our authors to for an interview. Then I find contact information for the journalists from the clippings and send them a friendly, heartfelt email about a book or an author. Then I sat back and wait for the kind, positive replies from the journalists, filled with compliments on my fluid prose and promises of coverage.
I’m still waiting. :(
You know how people say, “Well, I’ve prayed with the Dalai Lama, so I can die now,” or, “I just got back from visiting my great-grandmother’s grave in Panama, so I can die now”? Well, today I started sending out galleys for the upcoming novel from one of my all-time literary heroes, whom I’ll refer to as “DC.” So I can die now!
Galleys, of course, are the advance copies of a book that our salespeople use to get orders from bookstores, editors use to solicit blurbs from famous writers, and publicists use to get reviews from long-lead magazines. They are expensive to produce, and we only print a limited quantity, so they are like gold. I’d much rather send out a finished copy, which we have a much larger number of to work with. When I send out galleys, hopefully I’m only sending them to people/places that actually might do something with the book, and need a lot of time to make it happen.
DC is one of those writers whose work is controversial and polarizing, but acclaimed by publications and writers who “get” that his true topic isn’t really teen hustlers or chickenhawk kidnappers, but a kind of existential dilemma that can best be understood through the plights of the young or the damned. Well, at least, that’s how I see it. This one is about a really good-looking cannibal. And it’s the first of his books to take place in suddenly-hot France. Sort of like “Confessions of a Flesh Eater” meets “Amelie.”
Since many of the television shows we watch and publications we read are surprisingly “family-oriented,” it’s sometimes hard to get media attention for challenging work on challenging topics. And it’s daunting when the author you’re working with has been so acclaimed in the past. In my galley mailing today, I’m sending to some highbrow literary publications and sites, some book review editors in major metropolitan cities (hee hee – that’s my niche!), some of the gays (DC is big with the gays), and also some NPR shows. I’m also sort of hoping that around the time the book is published, the day after Halloween, there will be a real-life cannibal on the loose in France, and that DC, who lives in France, will survive long enough to write an op-ed about it for the Huffington Post. In the publicity business, I have learned, one must keep all of one’s options open.
I like it when a day has an over-arching narrative to it. Some huge project to work on or some new book that’s just come in. But most days are like this one.
I sent some cover images to assorted media people who requested them. I continued to work on setting up a tour for one of our August titles, a collection of essays about music, literature and New Orleans. I corrected some copy for an ad we’re doing for that book, too. (The ad rep seemed not to “get” the book. Harrumph). I helped a September author fine-tune an op-ed he sent us … and then I took a deep breath, because the op-ed is about 9/11, and I bet that every author in the world (and their grandma) has recently written an op-ed about 9/11, what with the 10-year anniversary coming up. I will beat you to publication with my author’s op-ed, other authors! Still, when that same author told us that he listened to a lot of Sigur Ros while writing his book (a memoir about covering Haiti and Mexico for NPR) I quickly suggested that he check out the music site Largehearted Boy, in the hopes that he’ll want to write something for them about Sigur Ros. (I have a feeling fewer authors are writing about Sigur Ros than about 9/11). I sent a few tentative emails to some parent-y media contacts, suggesting that if they were planning on doing a back-to-school round up of books, but for parents, they might consider looking at three campus-based novels we’ve just put out. I am not sure this pitch was fully thought out, and indeed I have not had any responses yet, but every day I hone that pitch a bit more, and I keep trying. Soon, probably, that pitch will be honed to the sharpness of a blade, and it will literally cut the eyes of the reporters I send it to. Around midday, I sent out a company-wide email suggesting that if my fellow employees lacked something to do on Thursday, they perhaps might consider attending a reading by one of our most acclaimed authors, Lionel Shriver. I had my colleague Peter do a little research on l’internet and compile a list of contacts at universities along the stops of DC’s upcoming tour. I’ll reach out to them and ask if they might consider having DC come in and chat with the students. (He won’t kidnap any of them, like his characters do, I swear). I asked Peter to do the internet research because I’m 38 (74 in gay years), and looking at a screen too long might give me a seizure. He’s a young person; he can assume the risks inherent in the online milieu. Another author sent in a review of his book he’d recently found online. He sent it to me and cc:ed his agent and his editor. I know it’s crazy of me, but I hate when authors send in their own reviews! It’s like saying, “I have this magical book, and it’s out there magically in the marketplace, and now a review has come in, like magic! I don’t even need a book publicist! Reviews happen on their own, and let me show you this new one I have found!” I may be old, but I do have Google alerts, you know. I already saw the review, and in fact, I’m probably the reason the review was there. :P
But I’m not bitter!
Sometimes when I tell people that I work in publishing, they ask me if I go to fabulous parties and author readings and such, like people in the publishing industry did in the 1940s. Not really, I reply. But today was the rare exception.
I spent much of the day trying to set up a fabulous author reading. A particular author will be in NYC on a range of dates, but he doesn’t really know anyone in town. A regular bookstore signing is one option, but the possibility of one of my cherished authors reading to, like, three people in a roomful of folding chairs fills me with horror. So today I contacted non-traditional venues like the Council on Foreign Relations and such. I think sometimes these non-traditional venues are used to dealing with book publicists who are repping people like the Clintons or Idi Amin, so with a first-time author like mine, who might be incredibly well-known soon (but only if non-traditional venues and print and radio media take a leap of faith with me and actually book him) it’s a harder sell.
I then spent a little time trying to convince two of my flakier friends, William and Alyse, to attend a fabulous party for the new issue of The Fader. One of the editors of The Fader recently sent me an invitation to the party, perhaps mistaking me for a man in his twenties who is good at parties. I’m not, but I still like to be invited, and sometimes I’ll even go, just because no one has parties anymore. People had parties in the 1940s, and then writers like Ernest Hemingway came and drank all the booze. Surprisingly, both of my flakey friends said yes to this party, and my invite was only for me “plus one” as the kids say – so I began to get the panicky feeling familiar to any book publicist who is hedging his bets and pitching two outlets simultaneously. I figured it would all work out in the end.
I grabbed my tote and took the train down to a fabulous author reading at the KGB Bar! Lionel Shriver, who is one of our more acclaimed and topical authors (her book We Need to Talk About Kevin is about to be a major motion picture starring Tilda f-ing Swinton), was reading at a fundraiser for Behind the Book, a literacy organization here in Manhattan. She was brilliant at the reading, and I brought her a gift of a tote bag (just like the ones they used to give out in the 1940s) and a recent book of ours that I’m working on publicity for. I was sort of absent-mindedly cruising one of the other authors reading with Lionel, one Stefan Merrill Block, because I thought he talked a little bit like me, like a catty little brat, minus the crippling self-consciousness. (A quick Google search the next day for “Stefan Merrill Block gay?” dashed my hopes immediately. Thanks, Internet! In the old days, this could have begun a long interlude of unrequited love correspondence between me and a gamine young author. Cough, cough, Scott Heim.)
I dashed to the fabulous Fader party. One of my flakey friends flaked out, but my other flakey friend, my cousin Alyse, made it. Simultaneous pitching wins again! We entered the party, which had a velvet rope outside, was in a strip club, and had very loud music playing. I looked on Google Images to see if I could find out what my editor friend looked like, but he didn’t appear to actually be there. Alyse found a record on the floor, which she put in her purse. She and I had a club soda and then went home. Even after I got home, I still felt fabulous. So I took two Trazadone and then I felt better.
Looking back at my week, I see that, really, this probably wasn’t the best week to blog about. I wasn’t super-stressed-out at work; no one complained about my personality; I didn’t meet with anyone from the media; and I didn’t book anything major. I got a promotion this week, to SENIOR publicity manager. Again, probably based on my previous record, not anything happening right now. Or maybe I got the promotion because everyone thinks I’m a senior citizen? Who knows.
Today, I emailed the books editor at Newsday about an author who grew up in Newsday’s coverage area (Long Island), with street names and everything, and he said he’d take a look at his book. I began what soon became an avalanche of correspondence with an author whose book is coming out in paperback in, like, three months. (It’s too soon for an avalanche, author.) I helped a touring author whose flight the next day had been cancelled (i.e., I connected him with our travel department). Having discovered a secret stash of galleys for a highly literary September title, I asked my colleague to send out a second galley mailing, to secondary contacts. (A few days later, that highly literary title was taken from me, and reassigned to our department’s newest, incoming member. A few days after that, I discovered that I wasn’t even going to be in the same department as the incoming person anymore. Things move quickly sometimes in the world of publishing.) I pitched one of our authors for writing a fun list of “spooky books” around the time of Halloween, hoping that the places I was pitching, both family-friendly, didn’t do too much poking about on the internet and discover that the author is known for writing about dismemberment and sado-masochism. Both of which are very spooky.
Having worked myself into a little bit of a frenzy for the first few hours of the day, I then went home, because it was a half-day summer Friday. That’s one of the few perks of working with books – summer Fridays. (That, and free books). Sometimes I feel like my job is a little … ephemeral … what with the prophesies of doom that began around the time e-books were invented … what with the shrinking book review sections across the country … what with the rise of celebrity-driven media, which leaves less time for literary authors like the ones I rep … but then I remind myself that I’ve never loved a job before, but I love this one. To my compatriots in the publishing industry – stay strong. The ship may indeed sink one day, but rest assured, we will all go down reading a good book.