Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Promoting Books in an “Added Value” World

A conversation about book publicity.
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Over a 48-hour period, artist and writer Evan Munday, who is a publicist for Coach House Books, and writer Julie Wilson, who works in publicity and marketing at House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books, interviewed each other about the art of publicity, community building, bizarre book launches and their personal artistic endeavors. The interview was conducted via e-mail.

/magazine/spring_2008/articles/48_hour/julie_skim.jpg' alt='Julie Wilson - Skim' />

EM:

So, Julie.

As much as book publicity is an essential part of the book publishing industry, it also seems like a part that few people really want to do. Young publishing students are always interested in editing and design and sometimes sales, but publicity is like the last kid picked for dodgeball. And admittedly, there are aspects of being a publicist that are not fun. Which part of your publicity duties do you find most loathsome?

JW:

If you'd asked me a year ago, I would have handily responded that I loathe having to contact anyone about anything, be it the media or the book buyer. But I soon realized that it's not a nuisance to exchange and create content. We all rely on one another to keep the machine greased. That said, my initial performance anxiety lead to a blissful encounter with that newfangled Interweb, and the opportunity to use the online world as a friendly mediator between Us and Them. I can do the direct pitch, but it's a particular thrill when you realize that people are taking your message and spreading it throughout various online communities. Internal publicity, and the ability to tell your co-workers, "Look, someone wrote a great review!" when you didn't actively seek it out, is, I feel, as much a part of my job.

Years ago, I worked at Indigo for about a month. I was often "encouraged" to sell more rewards cards. I argued that I was, just not directly. I did the peripheral sell, announcing, "And because you used your Reward Card, you saved X dollars today!" Then I'd wait to see if the people at the registers on either side of me twigged. For me, it's never been about tying the sell directly back to me. I just want people talking. (But, in my spare time, I flush small mice to relieve the pressure.)

I’ll flip it around and ask, which part of your publicity duties do you jump out of bed for?

/magazine/spring_2008/articles/48_hour/evan_lemonade.jpg' alt='Evan Munday - Evan Lemonade' />

EM:

Hey, I worked at Indigo, too! Which one were you at? They're really keen on those i-rewards cards.

There are a few jobs I really like doing in publicity at Coach House. I really like making things. So any creative aspect of the job and I'm like a pig in muck – making advertisements, press releases, invitations. We do a monthly email update and that can be very fun. It's tedious, as there's so much HTML, but I also get to include secret hyperlinks to Phil Collins music videos and Kool & the Gang's website. If people catch onto it, great. If not, it's still very informative. And usually our internet sales spike after the update. We also make promotional ephemera for the books at Coach House, and that can be really fun – I've had promotional lollipops made for Jordan Scott's Blert, drew book plates for the characters in Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, constructed lemonade packets for Andrew Wedderburn's The Milk Chicken Bomb.

Also, as much as I dread author events and book launches (especially the first half-hour or hour when NOBODY has shown up, where is everybody?), I do like the very social aspect of the job, just talking to other readers and media folks and publishing people about books. To that end, what's your opinion of book launches and public author events?

JW:

I was at Winners, B.C.

If you've ever written a poem in grade six about Peter Pan flying out the pages of your book published in your local newspaper, promptly clipped it and had it laminated against a nice sheet of red cardboard where it sits on your fridge 20 years later, you know that the book launch is for the author. It’s the one time an author gets to say, "Me good with words!" in full view of a lot of the people who put a lot of time and effort into believing in those words, and ultimately wish, as the author does, that book buyers will feel the same. And it's kind of like bringing someone home for the holidays because the author has friends and family in attendance. We become the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend for a night. We only say nice things about you, talk up your best characteristics, laugh at all your jokes. You need a drink? Someone to run interference with your great aunt? We're there. And it's not often that an author gets to parade their wares to such fanfare. (And should you have too many drinks, we can get you out of bad situation by telling everyone you didn’t know you were allergic to shellfish.)

That said, I'm a big fan of launches, such as TINARS [This Is Not A Reading Series], that understand that in an "added value" world people get a kick out of seeing another side of an author. Sean Dixon playing the banjo stands out for me as a truly great night. That actually informed my decision to buy his book. Coming up in March, we'll launch Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It’s a graphic novel full of teenage angst, set in the 90s. It sells itself. But to get them up on the stage talking about the process of making a graphic novel, being cousins, how the project developed out of an already successful comic, that’s the difference between hearing good things about a book and thinking you might pick it up one day, and a book that you actually covet because it comes with extra goodness. We're in an age where authors are being asked to perform off the page. A launch is the perfect place to gain traction.

You know, something that you and I have in common is side projects. We're both creating works of our own, doing our thang in multiple places. Have you had any challenges adjusting to life "on the inside?" Does it impact the moves you make towards the book you're working on?

EM:

I was at Festival Hall, Toronto.

I agree with what you said about launches, though for Coach House, we also find it's a good "hook" for media and often leads to good sales. Halifax may not really care about a Vancouver-based poet of ours, but if he/she has a Halifax launch, it may lead to an interview and review or two (let's hope).

Working on side projects while working on publishing is a double-edged sword. (I just really wanted to say that, to be honest. I'm not sure if it fits here.) It's certainly a challenge finding time to work on side projects, with few employees at Coach House, lots of work and an obsessive personality. But it has helped quite a bit, too. I illustrated an ECW book last year, and – as much as I'd like to say my talent stands on its own – I know I would have never had that opportunity if I didn't know people at ECW Press, and they hadn't seen my work in other venues (also made possible by knowing publishing industry movers and shakers). And likewise, I'm working on a YA book that a publisher is interested in. And I seriously doubt I would have had a face-to-face meeting with an editor if I didn't know employees at that publisher. (Or, at the very least, it would have taken a much longer time.)

It also inspires me, working in publishing. I really want to do a graphic novel, because publishers are snapping them up like crazy, and about half of what is being picked up is god-awful. Skim is fantastic. I loved the first issue and about peed my pants when I saw it in the Beguiling this weekend. But there's a lot of bad comics out there being published by big-name book companies. And I think, "I could probably make something that bad. Maybe even slightly better."

You? What challenges are there in keeping up with your own writing and with Seen Reading, given your Anansi responsibilities?

JW:

I’m interested to know about the side lives of people in publishing because our industry seems to attract people who like to know a little bit about everything. Certainly, we're called upon to know a little bit about everything. Having the ability to speak to authors in their own voice is a huge asset. Not to mention, empathy for their process. I've been quite lucky in that Seen Reading has created a persona for me that centres around readership and fandom. I don't think I immediately realized that the longer Seen Reading went on, the more I’d be presenting myself as a consistent creator, someone who shows up when it counts, something that factors into a publisher’s decision in a two book deal world. When I started at Anansi, I was also given the reins to their online community building. Having already played in that environment for many years, I felt well-prepared to speak in my own voice knowing that it would also appeal to the people on the other end of their computers. The crossover between my personal projects and my professional endeavours is quite fluid, in that sense.

Hey, here's an obvious question. How did you start in publishing? And how long have you been at Coach House?

EM:

/magazine/spring_2008/articles/48_hour/evan_bookplates.jpg' alt='Evan Munday Bookplates' />

After university, I took the book and magazine publishing program at Centennial College. I interned at This Magazine while I was still in school, and interned at Cormorant Books shortly thereafter.

Then I was hired at the Literary Press Group, where I worked for a little over a year. I've been with Coach House for almost two years now. They started me out a couple days a week and slowly but surely sucked me in with their charm and kindness and good literature. Was Anansi your first publishing job?

And, referring to an earlier topic – with online community building, how do you strike a balance between being informative and friendly and hounding your friends and fans? I live in constant fear of crossing that line into restraining order territory and I'm sure I've crossed it more than a few times.

JW:

I came out of film school but couldn't get away from the printed page. As I became more serious about my personal writing projects, it was pointed out that knowing a thing or two about the industry might be helpful. I took Humber's Creative Book Publishing Program and was agog at how well I fit into this misfit world of ideas and discussion. It may sound dramatic, but I really felt like I'd come home. Anansi was my first gig. It was the stuff of dreams. I really wanted to be here, and was a fan of Groundwood's publishing program, as well. My role grew organically over the first year, allowing me to learn the ropes but offer something a bit new. My personality was a good fit, too. The personal politics of Anansi are in line with my own. When you feel at ease to be yourself, it showcases your natural strengths. Even though I haven't been at Anansi that long, I feel as if the path to publicity and marketing was a natural progression.

As for the online world, the beauty of subscription is that you're not reaching out to people who didn't make the initial contact. They identified themselves as fans. So, I feel pretty comfortable with sending newsletters or blasts when there's information that is of use or value to someone, hopefully more than a few someones. Readership is a cult, but it's a group of one. I try to put myself in a place where I assume that that one person wouldn't necessarily come to this information on his/her own. To that end, I'd hope that with a few winkies thrown in, the people we're building community with are cool with our approach. For instance, I like getting Couch House blasts because your voice is recognizable. It's like getting a free bit of content. Ultimately, brand recognition isn't easy in publishing. If you have thousands of people willing to align themselves with you, it can’t hurt to stay in touch. Showing up on your porch with a pile of press clippings? Maybe not.

What's your craziest idea for a book event which never saw the light of day?

EM:

I've been trying really hard to work some sort of TTC-related event for Maggie Helwig's novel, Girls Fall Down. The book is set in Toronto and a lot of it takes place in subway stations or in streetcars. There were ideas of doing something in Lower Bay Station or the Kendall Entrance to Spadina Station, but it looks like that may be impossible. It would have been an excellent event, though, and I'm still giving it the ol' college try. I am trying to be optimistic that it will happen.

My favourite bizarre launch that *did* see the light of day was Lisa Roberston reading her essay "The Value Village Lyric" at an actual Value Village. The one at Bloor and Lansdowne. There was a seating area set aside in front of the jewelry counter, and Lisa Robertson got on the PA system, said, "Attention Value Village shoppers" and proceeded to read a ten-page essay over the speaker system. It was sublimely fitting to the book. And the manager of the Value Village loved it. He still drops by our booth at every Word On The Street and reminisces.

So, working in publicity, you see a lot of authors out of their element, in unusual circumstances. What is the strangest experience you've had with an author, working events, organizing parties? (We should probably keep this PG-13.)

JW:

My favourite moment in all of publishing was seeing our publisher Lynn Henry deliver her speech at Gil Adamson's launch for The Outlander atop a toadstool in the kids reading area of Type. I can't (couldn't?) say that I've personally been witness to any great acts of debauchery or malfunction among our authors. But Sarah Mac tells a great story from when Jim Harrison was in town last year to promote Returning to Earth. He allegedly emerged from his room the next morning critiquing the porn: "Apparently, no one in Los Angeles has ever read any poetry!" You really have to hear her tell it. I'm still pretty new here. I really haven’t had much chance to be stranded at an airport, playing Nines with a Massey lecturer. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

EM:

I enjoyed seeing Michael Ondaatje get down to Salt 'n' Pepa's "Shoop" at his Divisidero launch last year.

Okay, lightning round: all-time favourite book:

a.) Intellectual answer
b.) Actual answer

JW:

a.) Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
b.) The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend

All-time favourite book cover:
a.) One with bucks to back it
b.) A cover that's made on a shoestring

EM:

a.) The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
b.) The Rent Collector by B. Glen Rotchin

What you'd be doing for a living if you weren't doing book publicity:

JW:

A voice on the radio. You?

EM:

EM: I'm something of a failed illustrator, so I would probably be doing some job that failed illustrators do. Like drawing monsters for Dungeons & Dragons game manuals.

I guess it's for the best that we're using our charisma (+5) in the wonderful world of book publicity.

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Evan Munday is the publicist for Coach House Books. He is also a sometime artist who has done illustrations for the book What's Wrong with University (ECW Press) and various magazines. He is responsible the obscure comic book, The Amazing Challengers of Unknown Mystery, and is semi-hard at work on a YA novel.

/magazine/spring_2008/articles/48_hour/author_wilson.jpg" alt='Julie Wilson' />
Julie Wilson is the creator and author of Seen Reading, an ongoing exercise in literary voyeurism. Entries recently appeared as part of CBC's "Canada Reads." Julie's fiction has appeared in Taddle Creek and Maisonneuve. Julie lives in Toronto where she is working on a novel.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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