On Public Relations

Aug 19

Nothing Is Selling (a post for Laura Zigman)


PAUL: Nothing is selling.
DOUG: I know.
I mean it. Nothing.
I hear you.
Even the brand names. Flat.
Dead. (PAUSE) You ever seen a summer like this?
Have you looked at the Bookscan numbers?
I have. Depressing.
Depressing? Are you kidding me? They make me want to jump out the fucking window.
I know.
The number one fiction book in the country sold thirteen thousand copies last week.
I’m aware.
Thirteen K.
The nonfiction list is just as bad.
I didn’t look.
Nineteen K.
Wow. I had no idea it was that soft.
Been that way for weeks. (PAUSE) This is not a sustainable model.
DOUG: Fuck.
PAUL: Don’t even think about the implications of who is on the fucking list.
Grumpy Cat.
PAUL: Where are they?
DOUG: Who?
Our readers.
I don’t know.
(PAUL GESTURES WITH HIS HAND TOWARDS BAR PATRONS). They’re all staring at their fucking cellphones.
Posting crap.
Vlogging. What the fuck is that? And when did that become a thing?
John Green. Big spread in the New Yorker about his social footprint.
Right. (PAUSE) At least his books are selling.
Selling? His books are holding up the entire fucking market.
Along with Veronica Roth.
Right. Both of them.
Very good for our respective bottom lines.
Not much else, though. Seems like I haven’t seen a new author on the hardcover fiction list in like a decade.
Been over a year for sure.
We can’t break ‘em out, we’re all doomed.
PAUL: Editors are worried.
DOUG: I know.
The stories are not good.
I’m sure there are others.
Business is bad, in come the consultants.
And out go the editors.
Not just the editors, dude. They’ve got personnel looking at head counts in all the corporate silos. I’ll bet our respective HR reps have identified a long list of potential “separees.”
The only people who are safe are the teams running the social networks.
Linked In.
You Tube.
Our collective future, right there. Some Silicon Valley venture cap guy actually said that in the Wall Street Journal last week. “For the next five to ten years, all business will turn on social.”
Remind me not to invest in his companies.
Yes. Well. If it all worked the way they say it does, we’d be selling a lot more books. I was having an argument with the mad Brazilian about this last week.
The prophet himself! What does he say?
He says earned media is dead.
The guy who was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal?
Yes. And he’s totally fucking serious. “All anyone needs,” he says, “Is a portal, a platform, and a keyboard.”
Well, he does have a big platform.
And he uses it well. But my view is that it’s still not enough. It’s one piece of a complicated puzzle.
And right now none of the pieces fit.
DOUG: How long do you make we have?
PAUL: Hard to say. We land a big book, publish it well, turn the business around, we’re good for another few years.
Used to be you could make a comfortable living – not a killing, mind you – but a comfortable living in this business without having to worry about the specter of unemployment.
Not anymore.
We need hits.
Yes we do. This has always been a hit driven business. Never more so than now. No hits, we all go packing.
DOUG: Midlist is soft.
PAUL: Midlist? There is no fucking midlist. Books that used to sell in the twenties and teens sell now sell in the hundreds.
The thing I can’t figure out is if it’s an aberration or long-term correction.
And if a correction, why?
The why would be good to know. I mean, is it really all this? (GESTURES TOWARDS PATRONS AT BAR) Or something else? Are the narratives more compelling in other mediums?
You mean like reality television?
I was thinking more along the lines of series television. Mad Men. House of Cards. Game of Thrones.
Right, right. Makes sense. I’d add Million Dollar Listing Miami to that list.
What is that?
Bravo. A show about realtors. Everyone watches it.
Never heard of it.
It’s a show about three realtors. Chad, Chris, and Sam. They compete for high-end listings in Miami. (PAUL GIVES DOUG A CURIOUS LOOK) It’s actually a good show. You would love Chris. He’s adorable.
What is that?
Chris is adorable.
He is.
You’ve been working in book publishing too long.
Fuck you.
Seriously. Give me your fucking phone. (DOUG HANDS PAUL HIS PHONE. PAUL STARTS SWIPING THE FACE) Is that a gay app?
It’s a news app, you fucking moron. (DOUG GRABS PHONE BACK)
Open it.
Oh my fucking god.
I can’t believe it.
She died.
“Icon of Silver Screen Dead at Eighty-Nine.”
Wow. I can’t believe it.
I thought she was eighty-nine twenty years ago. (BOTH MEN LAUGH)
Can you imagine if social was a thing when we published her books?
Seriously. The fucking stories.
Talk about viral.
Remember when she threw me out of the limo on I-95?
I remember.
Wanted me to peel an apple for her.
Who makes that ask?
And when I refused she tells the driver to pull over. Says to me, “Out of the car.” I’m like, “Are you kidding?”
She wasn’t kidding.
No she wasn’t. Dumped me on the highway 20 minutes from DC. Twitter moment: “Stranded on I-95 after being booted from limo by star client. SOMEONE SEND HELP.”
Only a demented fucking diva boots her publicist out of the car on I-95.
Boots me out, makes me find my way from the Interstate to the Four Seasons, and then screams at me for not being at the hotel when she arrives. Complains that her room hasn’t been turned down or finger swept.
Who does that?
Right? (PAUSE) Then there’s the EW episode.
That was crazy.
She stole a whole fucking rack of Armani.
What was the name of that poor fucking stylist?
I can’t remember.
He’s was crying, right?
Crying? He was hysterical. The whole thing was a fucking opera. “Load this stuff in the trunk,” she says to me. I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
“Am I not being clear?” she says. “Put the fucking clothes in the trunk.”
“They’re not our clothes, Betty.” The stylist, of course, is standing right next to me, his mouth agape, pulling on my shirtsleeve.
“She’s kidding, right. Tell me she’s kidding,” he says. Meanwhile Betty is barking, “Listen you little shitbag, you want to keep your job? Then load the clothes in the fucking car.”
You Tube moment: “Bacall Goes Ballistic on EW Stylist.”
That’s when he starts to cry, “Is she talking to me? Oh my god oh my god oh my god. What do we do? This can’t be happening. Someone tell me this isn’t happening.” I tell him to calm down. I tell everyone to calm down. I say to everyone on the set, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” That’s when Betty saunters over, pulls me aside, and says, “You’ve got fuck all, kid. Load the trunk. Tell the driver to take me home. And then go ask light-in-the-loafers over there out on a date. He’s just your type.”
Jee-zus. The balls on that broad.
She knew she would get away with it. Mostly because everyone was terrified of her. Including me.
No one called her on it.
She just took the shit.
She did. (PAUSE) I still can’t believe it. She wound up stuffing all the clothes in the trunk herself. It was like a scene out of Married to the Mob.
Instagram moment: “Betty loading up on Armani swag. Police en route.” Nothing in her obit about that.
Of course not.
Fucking journalists.
They deify these people.
They don’t know.
Actually they do know. That’s what pisses me off. They’re all complicit in the game. Especially those cocksuckers at the Times.
Betty in the Times.”
Who gives a shit about Betty in the Times?
Was she ever nice?
She was nice when she walked out on the set for an interview. Other than that, no.
You know what they should put on her tombstone?
Actress. Icon. Monster.
Did her books sell?
First one, yes. The rest, no.
How’s your fall looking?
Good. Yours?
Are we optimistic?
Fuck no.
All this Amazon shit still going down.
You know how they should settle this thing? Set up a cage fight between Grandinetti and Pietsch. Stage it at the New Yorker Festival. Have all the proceeds go the Authors Guild.
I would pay good money to see that.
What a fucking mess. All of it.
I know.
How did this happen?
Why did this happen?
Where will it end?
I don’t know.
Me either.
We are standing at the abyss of modernity.
People don’t know who the fuck they are anymore.
Or what they’re doing.
Or where they’re going.
They have to go online to figure it out.
Facebook (BOTH SIGH)
You know what the problem is?
Most of what they’re reading is shit. The gestation period for writing is no longer weeks and days. It’s hours and minutes. No one thinks anymore. They simply emote. Online. In real time.
And wait for the world to respond.
A good book takes time.
It does.
To write.
And to publish.
Too many readers are caught up in this online bullshit.
They’ll tire of it.
You think?
Yes. And when they do, we’ll be there.
With the horses.
And hopefully a job.
Amen, brother.


Aug 14

Paulo Coelho, on writing

"What inspires me to write is people. I spend two years meeting people, walking, wandering. And the second part, I have only one tip: Sit down and write. People want to be writers without writing. Don’t care what people think. Or criticism. Or the fact that you’ll be published or not. Just sit down and write. And then you’re going to discover a whole universe inside yourself. You have to write because this is your dream. So write and the rest will come." — Paulo Coelho

May 03

Talent is Like a Container

“Talent is like a container. You can work as hard as you want, but the size will never change. It’ll only hold so much water and no more.”

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Apr 29

The Art of Artifice

“Fiction is, above all others, the art of artifice: it demands the conjuring, from mere marks on paper, of entire felt worlds, of things and of people, of their spoken exchanges and interior emotions and thoughts. Ideally, it is, paradoxically, the deployment of artifice in the service of truth, aiming to reveal as accurately as possible the profound and complex experience of being human and alive on this planet.” — Claire Messud, in her introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Atonement.

Mar 18

A priest has written to Knopf objecting to the jacket art on J.D. McClatchy’s Plundered Hearts.

The priest writes: “I just took a look at the upcoming JD McClatchy book. I know the cover is based on an artist’s photographic work.

Still, there’s the guy in the top middle on his back, legs open, with an erection. Is this really sensible? I don’t think even the TV premium stations such as HBO and their more explicit depictions of naked people go that far. Lars van Trier’s newest movie has, I understand, Shia LaBouef with a hard on….and it is exceptional enough to be mentioned in the press.

Is Knopf really that interested in testing/stretching social norms with a book cover for poetry?

I’m baffled.”

I suppose if Where’s Waldo is a thing, this can be too.


A priest has written to Knopf objecting to the jacket art on J.D. McClatchy’s Plundered Hearts.

The priest writes: “I just took a look at the upcoming JD McClatchy book. I know the cover is based on an artist’s photographic work.

Still, there’s the guy in the top middle on his back, legs open, with an erection. Is this really sensible? I don’t think even the TV premium stations such as HBO and their more explicit depictions of naked people go that far. Lars van Trier’s newest movie has, I understand, Shia LaBouef with a hard on….and it is exceptional enough to be mentioned in the press.

Is Knopf really that interested in testing/stretching social norms with a book cover for poetry?

I’m baffled.”

I suppose if Where’s Waldo is a thing, this can be too.



Mar 15

Weekend Activities You May Want to Consider That Do Not Require Bandwidth, Connectivity, or a Mobile

Anyway, those are some options to consider. Whatever you decide, please be careful and considerate. And put away your mobile. IT’S THE WEEKEND.

Jan 31


Things publishers say on bound galleys, advance reading copies, and TI sheets, all sourced from actual copies. Parentheticals added.

Things publishers should say on galleys and advance reading copies:

Dec 12

Robin Desser, last night, on being awarded the Maxwell E. Perkins prize by the Center for Fiction (abridged comments):

“So you don’t exactly have rules or a guidebook when you set out to become a fiction editor. You learn by just doing it. You start at the bottom and you teach yourself by reading, reading—reading the dead and the living. You read the dazzlingly good and the really stinkingly, hilariously bad stuff, and the stuff in between.  You make decisions about acquisitions and you comment on books by your authors and they correct you and help you—and they send back something that completely surprises and delights you and blows the hat right off your head.

You succeed and you fail in having books sell or not, win prizes or not, and you wonder what success & failure actually mean, including because the ultimate fate of the long, long-term readership of a work of fiction gets decided after you’re….dead.

Meanwhile, while you are alive, and if you are lucky enough to still have a job in book publishing, you also learn by observing the work of people whose work you admire.  And by this I mean not just the private, and hopefully invisible, work editors do with writers.

But you learn I think by observing what happens when all sorts of colleagues & competitors, all of whom soon enough become your friends, follow their passions.  When they take risks & stick their necks out for something they love. When they are loyal to authors and put them first. When they talk and write and schmooze for and sometimes seem to even sing about the books they are working on with such brilliance and charm and insight that it makes your own ears feel hot.  When they help with books published by somebody else. When they express their character and who they are through books.

So many of you, authors, editors & publishers, agents, and colleagues in this room have taught me so much about these things; and I am grateful to you…

I am so happy that my father is here tonight. Dad. You are the most insatiably curious person I know. You read everything and that has always inspired me.  You were the first feminist I knew; you let your wife take flight, and you encouraged both your daughters to do that, too. And you also taught us how to throw a perfect football spiral.

Dad, I wish Mom could be here tonight. We both know how strong she is. My mother is the fiercest and best role model I’ve ever had. It was her idea I enter this profession in the first place, this crazy profession that every year sings its imminent doom and every year goes on and on anyway.

I bounced around after college doing this and that. Publishing had never occurred to me; where I came from, it seemed to me that books were just sort of “there.” But maybe the DNA was lurking too—Dad was a teacher, Mom a librarian. One night, my mother gave me a piece of paper she’d torn out of Library Journal. “Listen, Robbie,” she said, “all you ever do is read. Why don’t you stop complaining and answer this ad?” 

I wasn’t always great at listening to my mom in those years, but thankfully that time I did, and I met Victoria Skurnick, who gave me my first publishing job, at St. Martin’s Press..

But it was my parents who were the first to show me that it was perfectly normal to be inside reading all the time, even when it was sunny out; that to lock myself in the bathroom to cry my eyes out over the ending of a novel was not insane but perfectly reasonable and even laudable; and that to argue over and to think long hours about people who didn’t exist in the real world—who were only a piece of someone’s imagination, who were entirely made up—that you could make a living doing this.

Maybe our love of fiction is a kind of collective madness, an insane cult.

I love walking around the tall Random House building and overhearing the conversations of people who are pretty much talking only about some book that they love or are even obsessed with. More often than not, it’s a work of fiction.  

What is it with us people who want to read novels all the time? Don’t all your friends ask you, when you go on vacation—if you have to read so much at work, why do you say, when you’re going on holiday, all I want to do is read?

Well I hope to be a card-carrying member of this insane cult, this madhouse, until they tell me I can’t do it any more. 

And I am reasonably sure all of you here feel the same way too.

Thank you very much.” 

Nov 19



KARP: What about Mattingly? Something along the lines of a history of hitting. Or maybe a how-to guide to hitting?


KARP: Why not?              

JETER: Doesn’t feel right.

KARP: Too close to home?

JETER: Yankee thing.

KARP: Right, right. I see that.


KARP: What about Lee?

JETER: Cliff?

KARP: Yes.

JETER: Still doesn’t feel right.


JETER: Baseball thing.

KARP: Baseball?


KARP: How do you mean?

JETER: Too obvious.

KARP: Obvious?


KARP: In what sense?

JETER: For the list I’m trying to build here.


KARP: Do I need to remind you that the first book we have under contract is “Derek Jeter’s Guide to Baseball.”

JETER: I know.

KARP: And?

JETER: I’m thinking it’s a mistake.

KARP: A mistake?

JETER: But I’m willing honor that commitment because I don’t want to disappoint the kids.

KARP: Well that’s a relief.


JETER: Did you hear about that book by Hallberg?

KARP: Hallberg?


KARP: Garth Risk Hallberg?


KARP: I was in that auction, Derek.

JETER: Well. See. Right there. That’s disappointing.

KARP: Disappointing in what sense?

JETER: You didn’t come to me.

KARP: Come to you?


KARP: Why would I come to you?



KARP: Yes.

JETER: The ambition of the book is what I’m talking about. That’s what people see in me. That’s what my list needs to be.

KARP: It’s a 900 page novel for chrissake.

JETER: I read it.

KARP: You read it?

JETER: Lamb sent me the manuscript on the QT. He knows how much I loved Harbach’s novel.


KARP (MOSTLY TO HIMSELF): I can’t believe we’re having this fucking conversation.

JETER: ’77 was a special year for me, Jon. I was 3. My mother took me into the city for the first time that summer and I remember the grit and the smell and the life of it. People came here to escape their circumstances, not to make a killing. It was before New York became a bright shining Bloombergian object. Hallberg captures that vitality better than any other novelist in memory.

KARP: I read the proposal, Derek.

JETER: And then there’s the symmetry of it all. Do you know how good we were in ’77? Guidry. Hunter. Munson. Dent. Rivers. Piniella. Chambliss. The World Series in six against the Dodgers.

KARP: We never had a conversation about fiction, Derek. We talked about sports books, lifestyle books, business books.

JETER: Jon. (PAUSE) I say this with a great deal of respect. (PAUSE) But that is a failure of your imagination. (PAUSE) Baseball is about narrative. Baseball is about story. And novels are what I want to publish. Forget the lifestyle and business crap. That’s for Workman and Portfolio. I want to produce a list that rivals Knopf and FSG.


JETER (LOOKING AROUND): Nice office, Jon.


JETER: Here’s another one.

KARP: Another what?

JETER: Writer I’d like to publish.

KARP: Susan has a two-book contract with me.

JETER: I had dinner with her agent last night.

KARP: Pine?


KARP: How do you know Richard?

JETER: We do colonic cleanses with Dr. Weil every year.

KARP: Fan-fucking-tastic.

JETER: No need for that tone, Jon.

KARP: I’m not sure this is going to fly with Carolyn.

JETER: I’ll handle Carolyn.

KARP: And how do you aim to do that?

JETER: We’re going to discuss it tomorrow evening.

KARP: I don’t think so, Derek. (PAUSE. KARP SMILES) She’s attending the National Book Awards.

JETER: I know. I’m her date.


Oct 27

Tonight. Shaken, not stirred.

Tonight. Shaken, not stirred.