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Interview: Claire Howorth, Publicist

While crappy publicists get the attention (such as the poor soul who provided fodder for every book blogger by emailing folks about the greatness of Pamela Anderson’s new novel) and celebrity publicists get all the headlines (such as Lizzie Grubman’s automobile antics), the truth is that good publicists do a yeoman’s job in letting the public know about our favorite authors. A good publicist is indispensable for authors, publishers, and media folks and they excel at their job with style, dedication, and organization. One such professional is Claire Howorth at Grove/Atlantic.

Claire was kind enough to speak with us about how a publicist gets attention for books, what role publicity plays in acquiring new work, and should aspiring authors include that publicity/marketing garbage the how-to books always advise.

Slushpile: You were recently promoted to publicist at Grove/Atlantic, but what was your background before that? What was your educational background?

Howorth: I went to an excellent public high school in Mississippi (Oxford High School). I graduated from the University of Colorado (Boulder) with a degree in English and a focus on literature. The summer after I graduated, I did the Columbia Publishing Course, which used to be at Radcliffe. I had started college in journalism, thinking I might write, then switched to English, but I was fairly sure I wanted to go into publishing after college, so I took the publishing course. I went straight from there to Grove.

Slushpile: Your father, Richard Howorth, owns one of the most influential and important independent bookstores in the country. How does growing up in that family, and seeing how he runs his business, influence your career decisions today?

Howorth: First, thanks for the father flattery. To me, he’s just my dad who runs a good business doing what he loves. The question’s interesting, though, because I imagine my brother, sister and I would all have such incredibly different answers to that question, to how the store and our parents’ involvement with books and writers has influenced each of us. I literally grew up in the store—my mom was teaching, and I often went to work with my dad—so I was always surrounded by books, and I never thought it was supposed to be any other way. People who don’t read surprise me—it doesn’t seem natural. As far as the store’s influence on my career decisions, it simply fostered a fervent love of books, reading, and a literary culture. I can’t imagine not being involved in books or the printed word on a day-to-day basis. It was never a question of whether or not I would be involved, just a question of how to involve myself.

Slushpile: As a result of growing up in a bookstore, do you think you have some special skill or mindset that distinguishes you as a publicist? Do you think you learned anything that makes you better at your job than some other publicist?

Howorth: I don’t think the bookstore has given me a particular skill or mindset for publicity necessarily, though I knew a lot about the book industry before entering it professionally. I think my father’s and my Southern upbringings have a lot to do with our shared sense of hospitality, congeniality, with the idea of making others comfortable, and he runs his business with a certain kindness in mind. I try to do my job with that in mind as well, and I think enjoying interaction with people—be they authors, reviewers, or curious readers—is most of what I love about publicity. I don’t, however, think that that makes me better at my job than anyone else. Everyone has a different approach or attitude to his job, and no one way is better than the next.

Slushpile: How involved is the publicity department when a publisher is considering accepting a book for publication? Does publicity play any role in either accepting or denying a manuscript?

Howorth: I think this depends on the publisher and the publicist. I’m certain there are cases in which a publicist knows of a book that’s out for submission, and will lobby for that book if he or she especially likes it, but it’s usually ultimately an editorial decision. Then there are people whose jobs can transcend the department divisions, who have the power to acquire. My former boss, Judy Hottensen (who is now the Publisher of Miramax but was a VP and Director of Marketing & Publicity at Grove/Atlantic, and who remains my mentor), for instance, could acquire and did acquire books for Grove.

Slushpile: Many how-to books suggest that aspiring authors include a marketing or publicity section in their proposals when they submit a nonfiction project to a publisher. Personally, I always feel a little stupid doing this. What am I going to tell a professional publisher and publicity department that they don’t already know? In some cases, a person may have specific and useful information, but most of the time, including this type of information leads aspiring authors to say outlandish and ill-informed things like “the marketing plan includes getting my book selected by Oprah and then also going on The Today Show and The Tonight Show” and so forth. What is your suggestion for aspiring authors in this regard? Should they include a marketing section in a book proposal? If so, what should they put in it?

Howorth: I’d imagine that an author submitting a manuscript wouldn’t really need to submit publicity or marketing plans before his or her book is accepted, as publicity plans are made after a house has a better sense of the final product, and marketing plans are all about the budget, which is also determined later. After a book or project is accepted, though, it is certainly useful to have specific information from an author, such as personal contacts who might help push the book, or other topic-specific venues for publicity, like websites or blogs, especially ones that the publicity department might not be aware of. I’d say it’s generally not necessary to put these plans in a proposal, but then again, if your sister is a senior producer for Oprah, it might be good to know!

Slushpile: How are authors assigned to a particular publicist?

Howorth: It’s a combination of factors. Sometimes publicists pick what they’d like to work on from the list; sometimes they are assigned the titles. More than one publicist might work on a really big title. Some publicists focus more on fiction than nonfiction, and vice versa. I’m sure if an author came to a house and knew a publicist he or she wanted to work with, that could be worked out.

Slushpile: Is there some database or computer system that tracks everyone who is working on a particular book? If I call Grove/Atlantic and say “who is working on the new book by Jim Harrison?” can someone look at say, “well, Bob is his editor, and Claire is the publicist, and Betty is working on distribution, etc” or is it more informal than that?

Howorth: That’s pretty much the way it works for us. Any of the Grove/Atlantic publicists could field reasonable questions about any current title, but there would be a particular person assigned to it. As far as a database goes, we do have editorial information in a system, so I could look up any book and so who the editor is/was. For publicity, we don’t have a permanent log, but we do break down the list person by person, and Grove/Atlantic employees have a copy of this list so we all know who’s working on what. Yes, if you called, you’d be directed to a specific person in charge of Jim Harrison.

Slushpile: Similarly, how are the publicity efforts for a specific book tracked and recorded? How does someone know that you’ve contacted these three magazines, but you don’t think this other magazine is appropriate, and so forth?

Howorth: A publicist is expected to keep track of his or her own efforts, but we have weekly meetings and have one central “update,” where we track reviews and other publicity (radio, TV, etc.) according to title. Most of that update is stuff that’s already happening or in the pipeline. As far as keeping track of what’s being pushed but isn’t yet confirmed, we know what we’ve done and with whom we’ve followed up. There’s a lot of communication and exchange of ideas for every book, both around the publicity department and among our house’s staff in general.

Slushpile: Is there a difference between being a publicist and working in marketing?

Howorth: Yes. In a very broad sense, marketing is something you pay for, publicity is free attention.

Slushpile: Let’s say that you are the publicist in charge of a new novel. Are you working as more of a project manager role where you say “we need some ad copy” and you assign it to a copy-writer to do the work and you’re just making sure things get done? Or are you saying “we need some ad copy” and you actually write the text yourself? In other words, do publicists actually execute the plans or do they manage the plans while others carry out the details?

Howorth: Ads are a collective effort among editorial, art, marketing, sales, and publicity. As far as executing other publicity goes, it depends on the house and the book. We all write our own press releases for the titles we’re working on, and we all come up with our own lists for reviewers. Deb Seager, the Director of Publicity, looks over our stuff to make sure it’s done right, but she also does her own releases and review lists. Grove/Atlantic is a smaller house where we are in charge of our own details, but we work very closely with each other and between various ranks. I’m sure that differs from house to house, and from seniority of position.

Slushpile: How many people are involved in publicity campaigns? Let’s say that for a small publicity budget project, maybe a first time novelist, would you be given free reign to do what you want? How about on a large project, with a famous novelist and a huge book? How do those two projects differ in terms of the people involved?

Howorth: One publicist would handle a smaller book, doing everything from sending it to reviewers, handling interview requests, and setting up whatever appearances will be made. No free reign for everything—a budget exists for each book, so you have to work within those confines. For a big title, there might be several people handling the details—the tour, the review coverage, interviews, all that—but one person would macromanage the effort and keep in contact with the author.

Slushpile: Many authors detest participating in publicity efforts. Other authors are overly concerned with publicity and always seem to be telling the publisher how to do its job in marketing the book. What do you think is the proper attitude and perspective for an author to have in regards to working with the publicity department?

Howorth: Well, to put it bluntly, if an author wants his or her book to sell, he or she should be prepared to do any publicity recommended by the house. On the other hand, if an author is too pushy, he or she might drive his publicist up the wall, which wouldn’t be a great thing. I think the best thing an author could do is go read Elizabeth Royte’s Publish and Perish piece from the New York Times Book Review, October 23, 2005. If you keep that article in mind, everything should be sweet as candy. Can I say that? Cop out by referring to someone else’s article?

Slushpile: What’s the most original or cool publicity technique you’ve heard of? What makes you say “I wish I thought of that!”

Howorth: There are little marketing toys, but you can’t use them for everything because they’re title-specific, and they’re expensive to produce. I think one of the funniest things I’ve seen—and maybe this is because I went to Boulder—is for a book by Bob Flaherty called Puff, they had rolling papers made in cases that were the images of the book cover. For the media mailing for James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love, coming out this winter, Canongate sent out little airplane bottles of Stolichnaya vodka wrapped in Russian newspapers with the galleys, which was very creative. I have an extra bottle of it sitting on my desk, waiting for an appropriate day to be swallowed on the job. Sebastian Junger’s Fire had publicity matchboxes with his picture and the cover image on them. These gimmicks are designed to draw attention to a book—obviously I remember these specific devices and the books they were for—but they’re not an end-all-be-all nor do I think they affect sales in any direct way. As far as an approach goes, I can’t really think of one off the top of my head that doesn’t also involve marketing.

Slushpile: Give us an idea of your typical day.

Howorth: I wake up and drink as much coffee as possible. I check my voicemail and e-mail for any messages and take care of loose ends from the day before. Then I like to browse the Internet for a bit, take a look at certain sites—the Times online and Gawker.com are always the first two—to see what’s happening (or being lampooned) in the world and in New York. Then I drink some more coffee. I might bother some reviewers, organize schedules for tours (there’s a lot of inputting into and outputting out of various databases for various reasons), talk to an author or two about what’s happening with his/her book. Then I drink a Diet Coke. Then I sort of recycle the morning’s activities, with another set of authors and books. Then I go home and don’t drink any more caffeine until the next day.

Slushpile: What is your biggest frustration in publicizing your authors?

Howorth: That every book can’t be a bestseller or have a multi-page, nationally published rave review. I’m not trying to be a smartass, but I love books, and I love the books I work on, and it’s frustrating when a book I care about doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Slushpile: What projects are you working on now? What are you publicizing that we should know about?

Howorth: Whoo. Pressure. Um, everything? I’m sort of wrapping up working on The Great Hurricane: 1938, and I’m currently working on The Amphora Project, which is William Kotzwinkle’s first novel in a decade, and Nell Gwyn, a biography of the infamous mistress of King Charles II, written by his direct descendant, Charles Beauclerk. Two books I’m excited about coming up are In the Time of Madness, by Richard Lloyd Parry, which is about Indonesia and the civil turmoil there—I don’t think we pay enough attention to Indonesia, and we better start; and White Ghost Girls, this incredible first novel by Alice Greenway—a beautiful and heartbreaking story (Camille March is the particular publicist for it, but I loved it).

Then in the summer, I’ll be working on a book about the Cosmos soccer team, which is going to be awesome. A very groovy and interesting 70s-80s American story, and there’s a documentary coming out at the same time—both are titled Once in a Lifetime. And the movie has a fantastic soundtrack.

Slushpile: In Bret Easton Ellis’ recent Lunar Park, the publicist character Paul Bogaards is shown making excuses when the narrator is too high or hungover to perform at readings or appearances. Without naming names, have you had to make up such excuses or stories yet in your career? What’s the most embarrassing jam you’ve had to get an author out of?

Howorth: I loved Lunar Park. And Paul Bogaards is great. That’s a pretty incomparable (and fortunately—or so we all hope—fictional) instance of a publicist fibbing for his author. No, I haven’t had to make anything up. Yet. But if I did and I told you, I wouldn’t be a very good publicist, would I?

Slushpile: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were famous (or infamous) for their exploits during their era in literature. How would you publicize, and clean up their messes, if they were writing today?

Howorth: I’d probably be in love with both of them, and therefore quite useless. No, seriously, it would be such a different matter to handle them today, because the media today is so obviously changed—completely accelerated and immediate—that I’m not sure exactly what a publicist could do. Maybe no tour? I guess Bogaards would have to handle them.

Slushpile: What would be your dream assignment? What one author would you love to work with?

Howorth: I wouldn’t mind working for Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but as far as contemporary authors go, hmm… You know, this is a tricky question, because there are particular books I worship, but the authors might be horrendous people to work with. I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate everyone I work on now. I must say that there’s a Grove/Atlantic author, a debut novelist named Stephanie Kallos, whose book, Broken for You, went all the way, and continues to go all the way (it’s an excellent, beautifully written book), and the woman is a dream. I mean the sweetest, most genuine, lovely person you could hope to know. Deb Seager is her publicist, but I had the honor of attending SEBA with her, and she was incredible. So unassuming, so smart, so eager to please all of us at Grove, all the booksellers, just sincere as could be—and I just want to shout to her, “But it’s about YOU!” I could probably go on forever. I’d love to work for any author who is like her.

Slushpile: What are your long-term career goals?

Howorth: I suppose just to continue to work with great authors, and to be as happy and fortunate in any future, in any job, as I’ve been at Grove/Atlantic, which is a remarkable place to be, for its list, the absolute intelligence and competence of the editors and the rest of the staff, the way Morgan [Entrekin] has built and runs the house.

Slushpile: From what you know of the publishing industry, what is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring writers?

Howorth: Yikes. Well, maybe it’s easy: don’t give up. One man’s garbage in another man’s gold, trash/treasure, rejected manuscript/bestseller. So don’t stop writing.