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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Letterman or Leno?

Book publicity 101

A somewhat bizarre Comment piece in the Bainbridge Islander that I took to be an April Fool-type test by the editor to see who's paying attention. But first the article's headline:

Letterman, Leno; which would your choose?

I don't know what Lynne Truss would make of that semi-colon but even my 14-year-old daughter looked askance at the "your" (corrected in the online edition, I'm glad to see).

Credibility sagging before delivering even its first sentence, the article poses an "ethical dilemma":

I've spent a good many years in the business of book publicity and have juggled just such options. Here's a brief primer on how it usually works.

Even before final proofs are ready, the publisher's publicity department has talked up that season's books with the chat show researchers and noted any interest . The order in which these top shows are approached is a mark of the publicist's skill, tact and influence.

When I let it be known that I was bringing over Woodward and Bernstein for the launch of Secker & Warbug's UK edition of All the President's Men, I was inundated with offers and invitations and had to decide the precise sequence of coverage, not just between TV chat shows but radio and press interviews. A highly sensitive pecking order exists between the various media and publishers ride roughshod over it at their peril.

Perhaps a better example is the order of interviews I set up for Erica Jong's Fear of Flying:

  • Sunday before publication: Observer Colour Supplement
  • Publication Day
    • BBC TV (Michael Parkinson)
    • BBC Radio 4 "Start the Week'
    • Radio London
    • BBC World Service
    • Guardian woman's page
    • And so forth - each interview in order of usefulness and so as not to scoop a more important programme or publication.
Three days before she arrived, Erica let me know that she'd met Edna O'Brien at some States-side function who had invited her for a cosy literary lioness power-chat on the Russell Harty Show, a direct rival of Parkinson much as I imagine Leno and Letterman often need to spar over choice guests.

This was a disaster: not only had I corresponded over the weeks with Erica to make absolutely sure she knew and approved of my plans, but the timing of the O'Brien interview cut into plans I had made with other, admittedly less important media, but people with whom I nevertheless worked on a regular basis as part of my duties to publicise Secker's full range of titles.

No one book is worth breaking ones word over and earning distrust and lost credibility for the rest of the titles (and, indeed, anyone else's you might one day be hoping to plug via the people you rat on).

The Parkinson people had had early copies of the Jong, in time for Parkie himself to read and decide on passages and discussion points, not to mention the choreographing of other guests etc.

I went up to see my boss, explained what appeared to have happened and warned him I was budging not one inch from my original, painstakingly organized campaign.

To return to this Islander piece, it's all very well to talk of a book "getting movie adaptation offers, write-ups in newspapers, the whole shebang" and then in the next paragraph blithely trot out, "One day Jay Leno's people call." As I say, this is a field I worked in for almost 20 years, on both sides of the Atlantic: it simply does not happen that way.

Returning to the Jong dilemma, I called up my contacts on both shows, explained what seemed to be happening and where I stood on the whole mess. If Edna wanted to talk to Erica (and the Harty production team were hazier than I was over what was going on!), she could do so *after* I had delivered my author to Parkinson as agreed - a fact perfectly well known to the Harty crowd. Obviously, Edna O'Brien was not someone to thwart and I very much wanted her on my side for future suitable occasions. We had not met but her own book publicist gave me a contact as well as tips on how to handle the fiery Celt. I called her, explained who I was and my dilemma and asked her to, please, let me know of any way whatsoever that we might salvage the situation and keep the TV interview.

Edna didn't seem overly concerned about it being the *Harty* show so much as just being on TV and getting exposure for herself and her *own* forthcoming book.

My compromise was this: I already had Erica booked to appear on Granada TV as part of the Manchester leg of her nationwide tour, so I called up the producer and offered Edna as well and asked what chance there was of trimming other guests' spots to give my ladies maximum chat time. She wasn't wild about it but the chance of having two such names on the show won the day. It also meant that Edna could fit in some regional advance press and radio for when her own book came out, leaving her free to spend the crucial week of publication in London where the real action and launch parties take place.

This is a bit off the Letterman/Leno track but it does show what goes on behind the scenes and how the business actually operates.

To complete the Parkie/Harty saga, I kept my full publicity schedule; strengthened my relationship with Parkinson's producer (who admitted that in my place she would have been sorely tempted to go for the double-act and ditch the BBC); established the ground rules with the Harty people; and added Edna O'Brien to my list of pals and contacts.

In fact, the ladies got better coverage by Russell Harty than had been originally planned.

No sooner had the Granada TV people agreed to the double interview than a few days later I had Russell Harty on the phone. You can imagine how my heart sank.

"Chris - it's Russell. Hey, you're taking Edna and Erica up to Manchester ... "

"Yes, as part of the deal to make up for calling off the tête-à-tête on *your* show, if you remember."

"But Chris, that's where I'm from - Manchester. I was with Granada before landing my present gig. How about this? I travel up with them and we fix a chat interview."

"Well, it's awful tight, Russ - I think they can only spare 10 or 15 minutes after the commercial break."

"No, I'm talking about a completely *separate* one-off 45-minute discussion of both books, me moderating and Edna and Erica doing their thing."

"Russ, that would be amazing. Erica's not getting 45 minutes with *anyone*."

"Well, let's do it, then! It should be hilarious - and *also* I get to go home and see my mum."

And that - give or take different operating styles and idiosyncrasies, whims and tastes of the producers and chat show hosts themselves - is how books and authors get plugged in the media.

It's laughable to talk of a major chat show 'phoning out of the blue. Purely in the interests of organization and sanity, any efficient production team would not only have heard about it via the book trade press but received catalogs, press releases, exploratory and/or pleading phone calls weeks if not *months* in advance.

"Respond either way and hope Dave calls?" This is cloud cuckoo land. If a book is enjoying widespread and favorable write-ups, it's pretty obvious that publication day has come and gone. Well before then, review copies will have gone out to the literary editors who in turn will have placed the book with the appropriate reviewer in time for the book to be read, assessed and the write-up itself delivered in timely fashion to appear on or around day of publication.

Cut-throat programs such as Leno or Letterman's simply do not doze around until the story's old hat. The research and production teams are in stiff competition to keep better informed, better connected and several jumps ahead of each other. If a rival gets a hot property, the bosses want to know why.

When I brought over two of the Uruguayan survivors from the Andes crash, I had been in negotiation with every major TV and radio station in the country, every national newspaper and important publication and every major bookshop that could offer me the window displays to do justice to the sensational story.

  • Starting from eight weeks before Nando and Roberto arrived, my phone was ringing non-stop with editors and researchers calling me up and telling me straight that their bosses had told them to "sign up the 'cannibals' or else."
  • My own boss was contacted over my head on the Old Boy Network to make a deal.
  • Piers Read, the author, was taking calls at home from people anxious to know or influence my plans.
  • Movie rights had been peddled before the manuscript even went to the printers and the moment I knew they'd been sold (or "movie adaptation offers", as the Comment piece has it), I was on the phone making damn'd sure that the Lenos and Letterman's in *my* life knew exactly what was going for the book and had time to get their act together.

    "Hope Dave calls without prodding?" I tell you, if either Letterman or Leno's team was found to have needed 'prodding' to be aware of a suitable interviewee, there'd very swiftly be prodding of another kind - out the door and off the payroll.

    "Do you say 'no' and call the Letterman folks telling them you turned down Leno to be on Dave's show?" Words fail me. Where does this come from? It *is* the editor, trying to trick us with mumbo-jumbo to see if we're still awake. First, it's highly unlikely that an unknown is going to get through to anyon with any say in the matter. These are busy programs, vigorously courted by the professionals me as well as every nutter on the block, among whom would definitely be anyone coming up with the rubbish under discussion.

  • Equally unrealistic and ill-informed is the idea of saying "Yes to Leno, but then call Dave to see if he wants to put you on his show first. If you do, do you tell Leno you're calling Dave?" It's hard to know where to begin. For a start, it would be a singularly incompetent switchboard operator or assistant who allowed such a fatuous question to get through to the top. Far more likely that it would be fielded by some efficient assistant skilled at spotting time-wasters. If the fact that the book had already been widely covered didn't make it a dead story, the caller would be encouraged to send a copy along for consideration and someone would get back to them.

    My guess is that the sheer incompetence of leaving it so late, not to mention the nerve of trying to 'negotiate' in this way, would be given very short shrift. Personally, I would also make sure I had the name of the publisher and as soon as the caller was off the phone, I'd call up the PR department and ask them

    • What the *hell* they thought they were doing letting idiot authors think they could make direct contact.
    • Why the heck hadn't they been in touch earlier with copies of the book and full details of its success.

    Having made such a pig's breakfast of how book publicity works, the article somewhat puzzlingly goes on to ask, "Are there honorable ways to defend all four options. Would any of the options be considered unethical?"

    I would have thoughts that ethics and honor were the last of the piece's problems

  • Comments:

    I'm the author. Your comments are excellent. In fact, I'll admit I have your blog bookmarked and I am a regular reader. Your blog has become (within the past couple weeks, anyway) one of my favorites. I'm one of your biggest fans, but not in a "Misery" kind of way.

    I do want to point out that my column in this case is not necessarily expected to be a realistic scenario. I have no firsthand knowledge, as you obviously do, of how things work when it comes to book publicity. I'm assuming that most readers don't either. I really didn't think it mattered. I wanted to use two readily identifiable personalities to ask a question about how much information the reader would be willing to withhold, or whether the reader would be willing to play one person to get the preferred opportunity.

    That someone in the industry would miss that point is understandable. When filmmakers create journalism movies that include completely unrealistic scenarios, it's hard for me to focus on anything else.

    If everyone else reading the column doesn't get the question I was trying to pose, then I would just have to concede that I didn't do a good job asking it. That may be the case. I'll take responsibility for that.

    As for the headline, I'll deflect accountability. I usually don't write those and that was true in this case.
    Very good reply. I was conceding to Julie Leung just this afternoon that the piece had nothing to do with book PR and everything to do with the moral dilemma posed and the courage and farsightedness with which to face it. I am a grouch and nasty piece of work and will bite the dust ere long if I don't watch my spoilsport ways.

    For what it's worth from me, I found your "Point/Counterpoint CAO" piece first-rate and had I not dragged my heels planned to post something to that effect. Alas, the Leno/Letterman piece arrived, allowing me to take the more childish route. CH
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