Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shameless self-promotion

On not being famous

My editor-in-chief pointed out the other day that I am not a famous person. Naturally, this took me by surprise, since I have followed my career with rapt attention and had not realized that others were not doing the same. I'm sure you can understand.

Having recovered from the initial shock of this discovery, I wondered why my editor had made this obvious—in retrospect—observation. In response, he reminded me that his main occupation was professorial, not editorial. Although he headed up a university press, it was not a gigantic publishing firm with crack teams of publicists and salespeople. (Rather, they have catalogs and websites.) He suggested that sales of my novel would get a significant boost if only he could run some cover quotes from more famous authors—where “more famous” means “famous at all.”

The solution, of course, was simple. I just needed to get in touch with all of the famous authors I know and ask them to please send me enthusiastic encomia to emblazon on my book cover. You know the type of thing: “An excellent book!” “Laugh out loud funny!” “Exceptional descriptive writing!” “Brilliantly orchestrated, hilariously funny!” “As good an ending as ever written!” “One of the best books I’ve ever read!”

Yeah. That kind of stuff.

One teensy, tiny problem, though.

All the successful authors I know are involved in math or computers. Not in fiction. (At least, not intentional fiction.) Rats. This means I have to go trolling for endorsements from people I don't know. I have to sidle up to famous and semi-famous people and make a nuisance of myself. The task is an unpleasant one. However, I may be good at it.

The unsuspecting Jonathan Franzen came to Northern California on tour. He made a stop at the Mondavi Center at the University of California at Davis. I got myself a ticket and made plans to get up to the home of the University Farm for Franzen's talk. He won the National Book Prize for The Corrections and reaped a huge publicity windfall from his public spat with Oprah (followed by a highly publicized kiss-and-make-up event on her show). The man is either a promotional genius or incredibly lucky. Either suits me just fine.

I got to UC Davis early (not much traffic in Davisville on Saturday nights) and wandered about the Mondavi Center for a while. A few years ago I was there on the invitation of a nephew who scored a pair of tickets for an appearance by Stephen Hawking. It was a different crowd for Franzen's talk (less of a comic-con vibe and more of a white-wine-and-cheese ambience).

Franzen read his talk—somewhat to my surprise—but there's no rule that says a good writer must also be a good public speaker. He was starting to hit his stride when he interrupted his talk to fish a pen out of his briefcase and scribble a couple of corrections on his typescript. In fact, the talk was punctuated with such interruptions. At one point, he shook his head and confided to the audience that he had written “actually” three times in rapid succession and at least one of them had to go. He was also in fear of encountering a fourth, actually.

Whether intentional or not, Franzen was giving a good illustration of a writer's travails, fussing over text and vocabulary. The talk was, overall, a well-received success, with enthusiastic applause, after which Franzen took a seat on stage with a UC Davis faculty member who fed him some Internet-delivered questions for a Q&A session. In addition, a live microphone was set up in an aisle in the orchestra section of the hall. When Franzen suggested it was time to go to a live question, heads swiveled to discover that no one was at the mike. I popped up out of my seat and strolled over:
Thank you for being here, Jonathan. I'd like to ask you about the importunities visited on successful authors. You must have lots of people making demands for chunks of your time to provide pre-publication quotes for book covers. How do you decide whether an author's unpublished manuscript is worthy of the stress of your regard?
Franzen laughed and said, “That's an original question. That's why I love university audiences. The questions are so clever.”

Then he rashly answered my question: “I don't know if I should really say this, but I actually look at just about everything that gets sent to me. If the first page contains no clichés, I'll read the second page. If there are no more than one or two clichés on subsequent pages, and I find it interesting, I'll keep on reading.”

I was still standing at the mike while Franzen wrapped up his answer, so I leaned back toward it and said, “Thank you, Jonathan. I'll be in touch!”

That got a good laugh from the audience. Afterward, I got in line so he could sign my copy of The Corrections.

Just to be clear, Franzen has promised me absolutely nothing and committed himself to nothing. When he gets the packet of sample pages from my manuscript, he might riffle through it, yawn, and toss it aside. On the other hand, he might like it. And then say so. I live in hope.

P.S.: The “pretend” quotes above are actually1 genuine. They were actually2 sent to me by people who actually3 read the manuscript. When these folks get famous, I'm all set!

27 comments:

drmathochist said...

Three 'actually's, no verb.

Zeno said...

Corrected it before you told me, drmathochist, so now these comments are inscrutable.

drmathochist said...

Don't worry; I'll still be able to scrut them.

Curmudgeon said...

Well, maybe celeb endorsements work for the Oprah crowd. But gotta tell ya, when I look at cover and ad blurbs and the only ones come from other authors [not book reviewers], I consider it a caution, not a recommendation. If the book has good reviews in places I've learned to respect when they review new books, that's entirely different. But only other authors touting one of their own? No.

spurge said...

Is it bad that I have no idea who Jonathan Franzen is?

Zeno said...

While I see your point, Curmudgeon, I have difficulty seeing myself as "one of their own." I'm a math teacher rather than a professional writer. (Dilettante alert!) Fortunately, in addition to trying to get quotes from famous writers, we have in hand some pre-pub reviews. (That's where the "brilliantly orchestrated" quote came from, and we'll be putting a chunk of that review on the back cover.) The "exceptional descriptive writing" remark came from the former book-review editor at a good-sized newspaper, so I think that'll fly, too.

Zeno said...

Bad for Franzen, maybe, but not for you, spurge.

But I think that both of you can survive without your possession of this knowledge. (Besides, now you kind of do know.)

spurge said...

Thanks for giving me some piece of mind ;)

I look forward to reading your book.

I don't think my decision to red it will be swayed by jacket blurbs.

spurge said...

Thanks for giving me some piece of mind ;)

I am looking forward to reading your book.

Ray said...

Ah, Zeno... if only you had sent copies to us, your adoring - dare I go so far as to say sycophantic - online audience, just think of the number (and quality!) of quotes you would have at your disposal.

The mere fact that none of us is well-known, and that subsequent sales would not include us might, I suppose be a reason not to do so. Instead, we have to wait, wait, wait...

Kathie said...

Curmudgeon, in the world of Azorean-American publishing, "celebrity" is relative. A book-cover blurb from a prominent scholar/author in our insular (LOL!) little world really IS meaningful. Our books don't get reviewed much by mainstream reviewers, alas. So if Zee can snag a "name" like Franzen, more power to him! My only concern will be if he can't get anyone more prominent than myself to write his blurb (LOL!).

Zeno said...

Good point, Ray. My adoring audience ("adoring"?) could have ginned up all kinds of ecstatic comments. But some of them would just be goofing with me...

Kathie said...

This past weekend I met Zeno's Publisher at a conference in New England. ZP was among the scheduled speakers, so I had a friend point out him to me beforehand, then sashayed up and introduced myself by announcing that he and I had a mutual friend -- and when he found out it was Zeno, it was as though Groucho's duck came down with the $50 in his bill!!! ZP made glowing comments about Zee's writing talent, conveyed his excitement re the quality of story-telling in LMM, etc., etc. Folks, ZP paid our host some really GLOWING compliments, but I don't want to repeat them all here, lest Zee's head be turned excessively ;-)

ZP spent a goodly part of his presentation on books recently/soon-to-be published by his publishing house -- and briefly mentioned both Zeno and LMM during his talk (he LOVES that title, BTW, and it got chuckles from the conferencistas as well) -- which I suspect ZP ad-libbed in honor of his/my conversation earlier that afternoon. Even more importantly, ZP divulged that he'd already received a few inquiries as to when LMM would be published -- stating that it was evidence that LMM is already generating "buzz"! (Are these all your friends/family, Zeno?). He praised Zee's writing talent to the assemblage during this comment, as well.

Can the "New York Times" bestseller list be far away?

Karen said...

Just get the damn book published, and we, your loyal followers, will blow Amazon away with our reviews!

Kathie said...

Karen, Zeno's Publisher announced at the conference that LMM is to be published in Summer 2012.

Kathie said...

P.S. Karen, if we all purchase Zeno's novel the same week, it'll give him a "bump" in his sales ratings. I've read that supporters of certain right-wingers who shall remain nameless allegedly do this to put their idols on best-seller lists, so why couldn't WE do it in the name of actual literature, eh?

Karen said...

Good idea, Kathie!

The Ridger, FCD said...

That's what happened with Machine of Death - it actually reached number one and pushed Glenn Beck's new book off its pedestal!

Kathie said...

Oh poor Glenn, I bet that brought tears to his eyes.

Curmudgeon said...

Ah, Karen.... promising a rave review loaded with suitable blurb pickin's before you've read it?

Interesting approach.

Karen said...

Curmudgeon, you can always find SOMETHING positive to say. Besides, how could anyone who writes as well as Zeno does produce anything OTHER than a good book???

Kathie said...

Besides, we already know that Zeno is one heckuva storyteller!

Curmudgeon said...

Karen:

" You can always find SOMETHING positive to say."

Yes, you can. Which is one of the reasons I don't put a lot of confidence in blurbs touting books that don't come from real book reviews.

"Besides, how could anyone who writes as well as Zeno does produce anything OTHER than a good book???"

Oh, it happens, it happens. John Updike was a fair country writer... then he wrote "The Centaur." Stanley Kubrick was a fair country film maker. Then he did "Eyes Wide Shut."

That Z can write well in short essay format is plainly evident from his blog, which I read regularly. That he therefor cannot possibly stumble when he attempts book length fiction is not at all evident. All I'm suggesting is a little cautious optimism until the book comes out, and people have a chance to read it -- until Z has in fact done what you are so certain he will do.

Enthusiasm and admiration can sometimes get in the way of sober judgment. Best to await the outcome before drawing conclusions, that's all. Just sayin'....

drmathochist said...

Curmudgeon, I must admit I have never heard a use of "country" anything like yours, and its meaning is not altogether clear.

Zeno said...

Just a guess: I think Curmudgeon is using "country" in the same sense as in "country doctor" -- which is to say, a rural physician who is perfectly okay at what he does, but lacks urban sophistication or highly-trained specialization.

It was very polite of Curmudgeon not to skewer Kubrick for "Barry Lyndon."

Kathie said...

Sneak peek: Curmudgeon, you'll be relieved to learn that Zeno has cast his novel in the "short essay format" you esteem.

Curmudgeon said...

Dr. Math:

It's not that rare a phrase, I think. Certainly not original with me. Maybe it's regional. Here's link to the first page of a Google search on the phrase, with examples of its use in published sources. It means, I think, "pretty good" or "not bad" writer [doctor, ballplayer, actor, whatever].

http://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS436US436&gcx=w&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=%22fair+country+writer%22