Intellectual Bullying or When Book Publicists Go Too Far

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

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

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