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Intellectual Bullying or When Book Publicists Go Too Far

Is excessive promotion the new standard?

Editorial by Drew Nellins

Anytime a review copy of a book arrives in the mail, it’s fun. Some reviewers will complain about being overwhelmed by so many books. But I think it’s actually great when a new book arrives — it’s a free book. Sometimes a hardback at that. And if you’re a reviewer, you get it before anyone else. If you like it, you get to write something nice about it, and someone prints what you write, and that’s a pretty great thing too.

Usually an advance copy of a book comes with a sheet or two of promotional materials or a press release. These include a couple of blurbs and a letter from the publicist expressing their earnest belief in the book they’ve sent you, how much they love it and how they hope you will love it too. Reading those letters, you believe them and you want to feel about the book the way that they clearly do.

Occasionally the book will arrive with something extra — a phony doubloon along with a book about pirates or one of the author’s previous books. I’m onboard: it seems reasonable to try to do something a little different to help your book stand out from the others that pile up on a reviewers desk. If it can help make a worthy book a success, then count me in.

But there are times when publishers simple go overboard. Case in point: Shalom Auslander’s new book, Hope: A Tragedy.

I like Auslander. I read his first two books: the short story collection Beware of God and his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I’ve listened to him on This American Life. I interviewed him once a couple of years ago and left the conversation with a favorable impression of him. So when I heard about the forthcoming publication of his new book, I requested a copy from his publisher Riverhead, a division of Penguin. I’m also a fan of Riverhead, which consistently produces great books. Auslander and Riverhead seem like a great combination.

The new Auslander book arrived on my doorstep along with a few other titles from other publishers. I unpacked the other books and laid them on my desk, tucking the corresponding letters inside. Then I got to the Auslander book. It didn’t come with a page or two of information about the author or the book itself. No, it came with a folder overflowing with material, the contents of which I would like to share with you.

For starters, allow me to say that the folder itself is a very nice one, a full-color affair, slightly oversized at 9” x 12”. On it is printed an enlarged version of the book jacket itself, a photo of a deer against the green background of a grassy field. At top is a blurb from the starred Kirkus Review, which called the book as the “heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.”

“That’s nice,” I say to myself. “It’s a nice package. Good of Riverhead to splurge like this. They must really believe in the book.” I remembered seeing some book trailers for Hope: A Tragedy floating around the internet somewhere in the past few months. In the videos Auslander is phoning his semi-famous friends (culled, I think from the This American Life crew) and asking if he and his family can stay with them if another Holocaust occurs. I remember jokes about blow-up mattresses, closet space, and him asking, “Do you have wi-fi?” Riverhead must really be supporting his book, putting some money behind it and all that. Good for him! I want him to do well. I want the book to be good. His other two were, so the odds are in his favor, I’d say. And Kirkus thinks it’s the new Portnoy’s Complaint. So that must mean something, right?

Let’s see what’s inside.

The Folder of Acclaim

Now, imagine opening a folder, and the second you open it, pages spew out of it like fake snakes from a can of gag peanut brittle, because the folder is so overstuffed that no matter how great its quality (and its quality is pretty damn great) this volume of pages simply cannot be contained by this folder. Now dial that image back a few notches, and you’ve got a pretty close approximation of what we have here. A brief inventory included therein follows:

Pocket 1, left hand side:

  1. A Conversation with Shalom Auslander, author of HOPE: A TRAGEDY. This is a three page interview, two stapled pages, the first of which is printed front and back in which Auslander speaks with an unknown interviewer about himself, the book, and his influences.
  2. Praise for Shalom Auslander. This is five pages of blurbs for Auslander. Literally. Five pages of blurbs. Three pages stapled together, two of which are printed front and back, covering this new book, his memoir, and his book of short stories.
  3. Events for HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander. This is one page front and back, detailing the dates, times, and locations of ten literary events (presumably readings) at which an interested book reviewer could go celebrate the author in person.
  4. HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander. One page, front and back, which rehashes some blurbs, like this one from Entertainment Weekly: “Even at his most rebellious, Portnoy-era Roth couldn’t hold a candle to Auslander” — some very serious praise indeed. Then, a brief summary of the book, and an “About the Author” section.

It might be worth noting, before moving on, that there are blurbs printed on each pocket of the folder, one from Booklist and one from Publisher’s Weekly.

Anyway, onward!

Pocket 2, right hand side:

  1. First up, we’ve got two stapled pages, one of which is printed front and back, which comprise “A List of Rejected Titles,” in which the author basically riffs on nine titles he considered for the book, but which he or his editor rejected. I remember seeing this posted on The Paris Review Daily back in December. Cute.
  2. Next, a single sheet printed front and back with the early reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, all of which have already been quoted on the folder itself: the front and both pockets.
  3. A single-paged color copy from a Publisher’s Weekly Q&A with the author, dated November 14, 2011. In three questions and three answers Kafka, Job, Philip Roth, and Beckett are all evoked in impressively little space.
  4. This is a is a large color copy 11” x 17” (folded in half to fit into Pocket 2), taken from The Arts section of the New York Times from October of 2007, a feature about the author from the time of his memoir’s release.

Lest any opportunity be missed, the back of the folder has another summary of the book, a repeat of the tour cities and dates listed in Item 3 of Pocket 1, an author photo we first saw in the PW article in Item 3 of Pocket 2, and another brief bio of the author (in case the info from Pocket 1, Item 1; Pocket 1, Item 4; Pocket 2, Item 3, and Pocket 2, Item 4 were not sufficiently informative).  As always, if you need more information — you know, the author’s blood type or whatever — you can contact the publicist at the address listed on the back of the folder. It’s also listed on almost every page of material listed above.

As I said earlier, I’m a fan of this guy. I want him to do well. I figure if people like him do well, I’ll do well. I have nothing against him. I once gave a copy of his memoir as a gift to a friend. Ok? Are we clear that I’m on his side? Because, man, I finished going through that folder, and I found myself in the throes of a serious surge of hostility towards his new book. Not towards him, mind you. But towards his novel and the battering ram of publicity materials with which I had just come in contact.

One might argue that my hostility could be a symptom of professional jealousy. Maybe, but, honestly, I don’t think it is. I’m not in competition with Auslander, and I requested a copy of his book in hopes that I could give it a good review.

No, I think the reason the Folder of Acclaim bothered me so much is that, taken in total, it arguably leaves the realm of standard corporate supportiveness and enters the terrifying realm of intellectual bullying.

Love My Book, or Else

It isn’t subtly saying “Isn’t this book great? I love this book, and I want you to love it to.” No, instead it screams at you. It screams, “This book is awesome! Everyone says that this book is awesome! See? See what they all say? See how awesome everyone says it is? See how awesome the author is? Read his bio once or twice, read what he says when being interviewed by a couple of different people. Here’s some stuff just to make you laugh that’s not actually in the book. Check that out! That’s just awesome, isn’t it?! Well, ISN’T IT?”

Well, no, that isn’t awesome at all. I don’t want to have books marketed to me the way that Hot Wheels are marketed to eight-year-old boys. You don’t have to show me images of other kids crashing their cars and smashing them into one another.  Just give me the toy already, and if I have fun with it, then I have fun with it. Sheesh! It all just seems so… aggressive

What if the reviewer doesn’t like the book? Then, you know what? You’re an outsider, you’re wrong. Didn’t you see the names mentioned? Beckett! Kafka! He’s better than Roth. Roth doesn’t hold a candle to this guy.

It just seems like a lot of pressure. I was really looking forward to reading that book too. But I haven’t gotten around to it. I read a few of the other books though, with those nice notes from the publicists saying how much they loved their little book, and how they hoped I might love it too.

Drew Nellins’ work has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, Paste Magazine, the Rumpus and HTMLGIANT. He is is researching a book about Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park in September of 1981. If you have any information, recollections, or connection to the concert, please email him at centralparkconcert@gmail.com.

DISCUSS: Are You Influenced by Book Blurbs?

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25 Comments

  1. Niall
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Stuff like this is why I’ve never seen Avatar. Too many films these days have so much pre-release hype that by the time they actually hit the cinema I can no longer be bothered to go see them. I feel bullied into it. I feel very much that the film can’t possibly match the hype. I feel that the producers know they’re selling the public a sub-standard product and they want to make us think it’s fantastic.

    It seems a shame that publishers are turning to this over-hyped mechanism for pushing books. In your case I think I would tend to assume that an author you like has produced a not-so-good book and the publishers know it. Yes, they are trying to bully you into believing it’s as good as the other books are.

    I could be wrong, of course, but me… I wouldn’t be interested in finding out.

  2. Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    What does one send with a book about “nothing”?

    Ok, that’s what my publisher sent…

    Reviews? Only a few. Perhaps they didn’t send enough nothing.

    “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (John Hunt Books, iff-Books)

  3. Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    The copies of books I received had simple black and white, front and back printed sheets with an author photo, a handful of reviews, a blurb or two, and little else. Although some of the materials you mentioned sound like a good idea – a nice folder with a sheet or two, a list of author events, color printing on higher quality paper – I agree that this much paper being thrown at a reviewer sounds suspicious. Was there no one to check to see how much repetition occurred from piece to piece, or were they just hoping reviewers wouldn’t notice?

  4. Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I would think that publicity materials of that sort could actually hurt a book since the effect is to take away all sense of reader discovery. A big buildup often produces a hyper-critical attitude and leads to letdown.

  5. Erin Cox
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Oddly enough, I’ve sent out a number of folders akin to the one you’re talking about and never heard a peep from any of the critics (including pretty assaulting ones) about their bullying nature. I think most folks tend to take it in the nature in which it was intended–a publisher proud of its writer and all of his accomplishments and giving a critic the short-hand of those accolades so that he/she didn’t have to look them up in the various places in which they appeared should that factor into a review/story. If it felt assaulting, why didn’t you just throw it in the recycling bin?

  6. York
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Love is a strong word – unless money was tucked inside one of those notes.

  7. Posted January 19, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Ah this made me smile – I was waiting for you to finish with what a disappointment the book had been but I’m kind of glad you didn’t… What saddens me about this is that limited resources have been ploughed into supporting the author at the expense of new and less well know authors who could probably do with the boost. And It kind of steals the journey of discovery from you doesn’t it? I far prefer here’s the book, we love it and we hope you do to – presumption is the worst part of marketing ;o)

  8. Tony Allen
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    This is pretty crappy, to throw the publicist of this book under the bus like that. Who do you think goes to all the work to send you those free books you think anyone else in my department would either. You could’ve avoided that entirely by using an anonymous or pseudo-fictional name for the book in question.
    like? If someone did this to me, I’d never send them a book again, and I don’t

    “Intellectual bullying”? Because they sent you too much paper? Recycle…

  9. Vertigo
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    This type of packet was routinely sent 10-20 years ago for authors we’d schedule for our store. It was background for our staff as hosts and also shared with journalists *we’d* pitch. This is no longer the norm, but Riverhead cared enough to make an old school push. Sorry, but your reaction simply seems cranky and over the top to me.

    @Erin Cox–you packets were appreciated!

  10. Posted January 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    As my own publicist I would never send any reviewer that much material. I wouldn’t even send a press kit. I just send the book and a list of reviews, and a letter asking for the review. All anyone would want to know about my books and their inspiration is posted on my website, where they can read as much or as little as they want. It sounds like this kid was so afraid of rejection he went overboard. I let my books speak for themselves, and if the reviewer can’t find a nugget of gold amongst the prose it’s my problem.

  11. Posted January 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand how what Riverhead did could be construed as “bullying”. Going overboard, perhaps, but not bullying. Nevertheless, there’s a simple solution the next time this happens: Throw out (recycle) the packet! That way, you can’t be offended, overwhelmed or biased by the contents.

  12. Posted January 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    As a reviewer myself, I get press kits all the time. I like reading some of the interviews and such, though it’s not necessary I receive them. As others have said, recycle the papers. You can also re-use the folders. They come in handy.

  13. Come on, people
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why so many these comments climax with “Just recycle.” Did I miss a paragraph in which this guy writes, “The worst part is, I now have to carry these papers around with me until the end of time?” This press kit is probably already filling up a bin somewhere; does that mean the press kit is no longer eligible for discussion?

    Drew Nellins opened a banana, discovered that the banana was rotten, then told you, on BananaReport.com, “Hey, this banana’s rotten,” and you’re replying with, “Why are you telling me this? Just throw it away.” Well yes, what the fuck else is he going to do with a rotten banana. But is it so ridiculous if he comments on it first? Especially on a website devoted to bananas?

  14. Posted January 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Since I didn’t have the stamina to read this entire post, I’m thinking that was overkill. Why not just send links to the author’s website, which contains all of this information? If the reviewer is interested, they will look. Save trees and book reviewers’ patience levels. My understanding is that press kits are widely unused these days. We send the book, a copy of the press release containing links to the author’s blog or website, and a short note.

  15. Posted January 19, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    un
    be
    lie
    va
    ble

    (but I do believe)

  16. Posted January 19, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I always hate it when companies waste lots of time and money on things that don’t make sense. As a reviewer, you’re reviewing the book. Not writing the guy’s biography or documenting everyone else’s reviews. I’ve always stuck with the “nice little letters” or a short press kit with just the pertinent info. Half the time they’re just used as bookmarks anyway.

  17. Edward Nawotka
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    @ Dana Kaye, ditto on using the press releases as book marks! It’s a handy way of keeping the most pertinent information at hand without it getting recycled prematurely.

  18. Sherman
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you everyone. I think Drew was bullied a lot in school. Maybe not physically but intellectually. By paper sent via USPS. His coping strategy is the not reading of things.

  19. Sherman
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    Dude also hates publicists.. Look at this opener:

    http://www.bookslut.com/features/2007_05_011077.php

  20. Colleen Lindsay
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    There are a lot of problems facing the book industry. The lowly press kit is not one of them. Get a grip.

  21. Test
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    So you felt bullied and demoralized by a press kit? This is a book about the Holocaust; maybe dig through that big bad evil 9×12 folder and see if there’s something in there to teach reviewers like you a proper sense of historical perspective on what “bullying” means.

  22. Billy Flack
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    If you just compare things to the Holocaust when making value judgements, Drew Nellins, you’ll not be so critical. This is the important lesson I’ve taken from these comments. …oh- also, that recycling eliminates the need for discussion. …”Dear John” letter? In the recycler! …chlamydia test results? In the recycler!

  23. Alden K
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Nellins–gotta go with Bittner on this one. http://rabooksblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/pitches-and-noes/

  24. Beth Wareham
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    This man was too lazy to read the book, he reviewed the press kit. Hilarious.

  25. Steve Craddock
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    It’s always entertaining to witness folks who have completely lost their grip accuse others of losing theirs. C’mon folks. If you can’t have a sense of humor, at least have a sense of irony.

    The sense I get from the above comments is that publicists really really don’t like having their over-the-topness laid bare. Whereas readers, reviewers and authors applaud the naked truth that books are meant to be read, not marketed. Bet you market research folks really really really don’t like that little fact, do ya….

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