The Things We Do to Promote the Books We Write
Summer Brennan on Publicity, Social Media, and Marlon James, Chef
Becoming a professional author can require writers to do strange and unnatural things. These acts against nature can include, but are not limited to: stepping away from the computer screen, leaving the house, and donning garments other than pajamas. Just when we’re feeling most comfortable in our private fug of creativity and creation that has led to the imminent existence of a book by us, the doors of our caffeine-fueled bower are thrown open and the world sweeps in, horns blazing, opportunities whizzing by and out of sight like swallows. I am speaking of course of the book publicity tour.
It’s gauche to complain about these things. Or rather, to admit that they are inherently distressing. Jennifer Lawrence may be permitted to whine that she’s starving and desperate to ditch her heels on the red carpet, but not so the touring author who has locked herself in a bookstore bathroom from nerves. We are to set our terror and fatigue aside and do our best impression of a dazzling and accomplished human being, and to do this in ever increasingly innovative ways. It sometimes seems as if it is no longer enough to simply write a novel; one must be novel as well.
Which is more or less how I ended up at the as-yet-unopened restaurant Winsome in Bushwick a few weeks ago while the great Marlon James, a truly exceptional author and the winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, cooked dinner for me and a handful of other people in a specially designed apron. It was part of Riverhead’s new Riverhead Table project.
It’s a cool idea: a book comes out, and then the author plans a relevant meal to cook that goes with it, aided by Riverhead staff, and everyone is in adorable matching aprons. A photographer stands by, taking pictures.
The content these events produce is genuinely interesting. Readers can go on the publisher’s blog and see fun photos of the author in action, and even crib some recipes to try at home. The food Mr. James cooked was delicious, so I highly recommend that you do exactly that. Everyone was very nice, and I had a good time.
I am very much on board with pairing food with books. Who doesn’t hanker for a madeleine when picking up Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past? Or fantasize about home-baked bread and butter when the hobbits reach Tom Bombadill’s house and enjoy Goldberry’s cooking in The Fellowship of the Ring? Is it possible to read Moby-Dick on a damp evening and not desire clam chowder? Can you read A Moveable Feast and not crave oysters and white wine?
I also get the random things one must do to promote a book in tangential ways. I, for one, appeared on a style blog and made 19 little watercolor paintings of the gear I used most while conducting my research. I was asked to contribute an essay for a popular music blog about the music I listened to while writing. My first book had almost nothing to do with either style or music, but it doesn’t matter. Branding is supposed to be pervasive and expressible across all aspects of life. If I’d had the ability to stage a rap battle representing the central political conflict of my book, I would have done so.
(And actually, while not technically a rap battle, I did send a copy of my book to my favorite Bay Area folk band, The Manna Tease, hoping that they might be inspired to write a ballad. They were, and they did. If you’ve read the book, it’s pretty brilliant.)
Other than locking myself in bookstore bathrooms from nerves, my book tour included visiting a few cities, reading aloud in front of people, talking to journalists, and appearing on the radio. It was all wonderful/awful. It was the best/most terrifying thing I have ever done.
Some of what we do to promote our books are things we would do normally—painting, writing about music, engaging in rap battles, cooking dinner for our publisher and some only-slightly-awkward journalists—but now, because we are on tour, we are called upon to perform.
Being an author is a strangely private and yet performative vocation. It can be embarrassing to encounter people who have privately consumed what we have privately created. And yet, we must. Because books must be sold. People are distracted, and as pushers of books we must find ways to pry our fingers into the cracks in common indifference and wedge them open. Art of all kinds has grown increasingly performative, because everyday life has, too. And when nearly everything feels like a performance, it can be easy to embrace cynicism, as if all of our life experiences are now just fodder; a “before”; the behind-the-scenes staging for some publicly consumable social media “after” that is never felt, only presented.
But I think such unilateral cynicism is wrong. Haven’t we always edited our experiences for public consumption? What is so different about a poem written after spending a day walking through fields, versus posting a carefully edited photo or eloquent tweet? The awkwardness of creation is ideally burned off, and what we serve to those around us is the thing on a plate; the beautiful morsel. I’m not saying a poem isn’t worth more. It is. But it is a difference of degrees, not of kind. All is curation.
There is an undeniable poetry to social media, despite its insatiable maw. Why not fill it with good meals, and good books? The shareable content must come from somewhere. Books may be plated differently these days, with new garnishes, but hey. Whatever works to get readers to the table.