Environmental Vandalism and Spent Bullets: The Pitfalls of Book Publicity
By Sam Cooney
The publishing industry is a tough arena, and never more so than now. Sam Cooney looks at the weird, annoying and sometimes puzzling things publishers (and writers) do to promote their books - from packaging them in mountains of styrofoam as if precious flowers, to shooting themselves for the press coverage.
A few weeks ago, one of Australia’s leading newspaper literary editors posted the below entry on his Facebook page:
This photograph and semi-tongue-in-cheek remark had me instantly thinking about the sometimes silliness of publishers and the doltish nature of book hustling in general. After a few seconds thought I posted a wisecrack comment on the Facebook post, ‘Feature idea: review the behaviour of publishers in regards to press releases, PR hustling, and book delivery methods’, and in the manner of most online activity, I moved on. Then someone mentioned to me that maybe the joke article pitch could actually be interesting, and so I decided to write a small piece that in some vague way discussed the concept, and here we are.
Somewhere buried in all those styrofoam nuggets in that image above is a single new release book, one the publisher deems so precious that it needs to be protected as though it’s an ancient artefact. This literary editor (we’ll give him the initials S.R., predominantly because they are his real initials) was pointing out a practice that seems to be too common amongst Australian publishers; arguably if it even occurs once a year then it’s too common. S.R. identifies such over-packaging of books as just about his number one bugbear:
When I receive a box filled with those styrofoam pellets containing ONE BOOK – and this happens at least once a week – I feel like sending that book straight to the reject pile (I don’t, however, because that would be unfair to the author). Ditto when I receive a box of books ‘protected’ by those segmented plastic pillows, AKA turtle chokers. It makes me mad. And then you have the books in those specialised sealed cardboard envelopes that you need a chainsaw to open. FOR GOD’S SAKE IT’S JUST A BOOK! Please just put it in an ordinary envelope and post it to me.
A local novelist who has worked across the publishing, bookselling and reviewing industries has less problem with over-packaging, instead finding more fault with the conventionality and unimaginativeness of publishers. She says that:
It’s possible to invest in more creative, less blatant ways of promotion. Book trailers for example are something interesting, and a creative, beautiful thing in their own right (i.e. Electric Literature’s single sentence animation) rather than some standard fare. Promotion doesn’t have to so predictable and obvious and churned out.
It would seem obvious that the less innovative promotional efforts slide by without much of a blip on the radar; endeavour by publishers, especially that which seeks to match the creativeness of authors, is much less likely to go unrewarded.
Our mate S.R., the one with a severe distaste for styrofoam, mentioned that he is sent about different 200 books every week from publishers, week in, week out. He has space to review, in one shape of another, no more than 20 of these titles. The rest go ignored, probably unread. This is the harsh reality of the reviewing industry, which mirrors the publishing industry as a whole: lots of exertion across a great range of titles, with only the occasional success. Still, copies of reviewed and unreviewed books sent in to publications are usually given away, either to op shops or secondhand bookstores. The fate isn’t so blessed for unwanted copies that take up warehouse space. As a friend of mine who has worked in different publishing houses says:
Gratuitous packaging and paper wastage is certainly common, especially in large publishing houses, but it’s peanuts compared to other industries, literally a blip, and probably not as wasteful as all the books that get pulped – one of the worst things about modern publishing.
Even now, having worked for a while in the industry, she is still wowed by the pulping of books. Below is a photograph she quickly snapped a couple years ago of the once-a-year pulping that occurred at the large publisher she worked for. Box after box after box of books, pallet after pallet, all to be turned into literary purée.
Book publishers aren’t the only ones to flub up promotional opportunities. Writers can do a damn good job of doing it just themselves. Take Ray Dolin. In June of this year American would-be author Dolin reported to authorities that a stranger with a rifle shot him in the arm for no apparent reason, whilst he was out researching his memoir-in-progress, titled The Kindness of America. The memoir was to consist mostly of photographs, seeking to document the kindness of Americans as he travels from state to state. The irony of the incident didn’t escape the many news outlets that reported it, and a man was soon arrested and charged. However it didn’t take long for investigators to realise that Dolin had in fact shot himself in the arm as an act of self-promotion. He was ridiculed, but interest in the book skyrocketed, although a direct sales relation hasn’t yet been witnessed, as Dolin is taking his time publishing the book. Maybe he shot himself in his camera-clicking/word-writing arm.
Dolin’s effort — and if nothing else, shooting oneself to publicise an as-yet-unfinished book is an admirable effort, in its own way — is only one instance in a long history of misguided attempts at promotion. In 440BC, Herodotus, on a book tour that he paid for out of his own pocket, took to the rostrum during the Olympic Games at the temple of Zeus and staged a reading of his book Histories. Imagine an author doing such a thing now (I can actually imagine many of today’s [mostly old and male] authors trying to do this, because egos will always be egos, though their chances of success would be minimal).
French food writer Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere, who wanted to give some readers a truly memorable experience while promoting his book, Reflections on Pleasure, invited them to dinner, locked them in a hall, and insulted them personally for hours on end while black-robed waiters placed plates of food on top of a catafalque-turned-table. His book enjoyed multiple printings. Guy de Maupassant had the text of Le Horla written on the outside of a hot-air balloon and sent it flying over the Seine. Le Horla is about a man going mad, and shortly after its publication Maupassant himself was confined to an insane asylum. Even Walt Whitman was a notorious self-promoter; in fact, he wrote many of his own reviews under different names (does this mean Amazon isn’t 100% to blame for this practice? Surely it still is). Book promotion has been ugly in parts for a very long time.
Publishing is largely a commercial industry and as such it features some unlovely moments and elements. Boxes of styrofoam nuggets and pallets of books on death row and packs of publicists and authors willing to debase themselves for the sake of sales and recognition: it’s the reality. Still, we can think of these kinds of dodgy practices and low behaviour as the ‘Kardashian level’: if nothing else, they exist solely so we can have a laugh, and a bit of a cry too.