There is a sense in book marketing circles, indeed in most circles in these United States, that one should never turn down a chance for publicity. This is not necessarily true, and presently I will tell you why.
This morning my latest non-fiction book, Don’t Screw It Up, published by Reader’s Digest. (Incidentally, this cover was designed before the final manuscript was submitted. I wrote fewer, but longer bits than they anticipated, so there are not actually 500-some entries, only 400-some.)
The working title of this book was How Not to Screw Up Just About Anything. When I was asked to write it, my first thought was, “That is a book no one is qualified to write.”
Certainly I am not qualified to tell you how to have a perfect life. In fact, like most people, I keep a tally of all of my past screwups in a special place in the back of my mind that I can’t help running through when I feel apprehensive about something. A bit of free advice from the “do as I say” file: Don’t do this. You can’t fix past screwups, but you can learn from them and try not to make more.
So let me tell you off the bat that I am not a certified expert in home repair, sports, etiquette, parenting, relationships, managing money, or avoiding run-ins with deadly snakes and bears. What I am is a person who knows how to screw up, but who also knows how to research and ask real experts how to avoid doing it again. To paraphrase Will Rogers, we are all screwups, only in different areas. My second concern with writing this book was that if God enjoys irony, I am setting myself up for some sort of disaster down the line. In addition to this book, I have written a book on how to avoid dangerous things and a book on schadenfreude, which is a German word for the pleasure one gets from the misfortune of others.
I can picture the “Odd News of the Day” headline now: Author of Books on Avoiding Dangers and Screwups Dies in Freak Dishwasher Accident. Thankfully, A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, put my mind at rest on this account. He pointed out in his book Not That It Matters that “Fate does not go out of its way to be dramatic.”
We changed the title from How Not to Screw Up Just About Anything in recognition of the fact that such a book would be impossible to write. There is too much “anything” out there to screw up. If we were aiming for completeness, I would have to write something like the Encyclopædia Britannica, a 32-volume set. Even then, some haphazard reader would find a new way to err, and I would have to get to work on volume 33. A book of that size and scope would be a bit costly for you, dear reader. So this exploration into the world of human error is limited and the selection somewhat subjective.
Of course, when a new book comes out, it is common for a writer to do something to commemorate the fact. When my book The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation came out, for example, I decided to take a weekend vacation to Los Angeles, and to have the airline lose my luggage and the hotel decline my credit card.
So what better way to celebrate a book on screwups, I thought, than to spend the day creating an all new creative one for the sequel. This brings me back to my point about publicity– it’s an article about publicity.
About a month ago, I think, I received a mysterious message through twitter from a man who simply said he produced an NPR program and wanted to put me on the air. The obvious follow up question, of course, should have been “Why?” Instead, my enthusiastic reply was “When?”
To be fair to myself here, I made a few assumptions about the “why” question that seem as though they might be reasonable. I assumed it had to be one of two things, either the producer wanted me on to talk about the novel I was then doing my best to plug. (I hoped it was this!) Or it would be about my new Reader’s Digest book slated to come out today.
It wasn’t. The producer was interested in my 2006 book Blame it on the Rain. My heart sank. It’s not that I do not like that book. It’s just that I have published six books since then and even when it was fresh in my mind, it was the hardest of any book I wrote to do interviews for. You see, Blame it on the Rain, covers a period from the beginning of time to the present day. It is full of historical anecdotes, names of battles and dates. I was always furiously flipping through pages during radio interviews, hoping I’d remember the names of the leaders and battles in question before I got to the necessary noun in the sentence. My joke answer at such times was “I wrote this down so I wouldn’t have to remember it.” Let me tell you that when they put you on air as an expert on history and you blank on the names of the leaders of the Battle of Barnett in 1471 (I looked it up) you sound, to put it charitably, stupid.
So of course I said, “Yes, I would love to do an interview.”
I don’t know if you spotted my subtle screw up here. It is easy to miss what with the common cultural belief that all publicity is good. As it turns out, if you are fairly certain you are setting yourself up for a train wreck, the best choice is not to do that.
But I’d done many interviews on the subject before (back in 2006) and had managed to get to the point where I sounded like something other than a total idiot. Harper Collins did not entirely disown me, as far as I know, and the book has been translated into many languages. So I couldn’t have been that horrible, I reasoned.
I did know that I could not do the interview while I was on a two month, multiple state ballet tour. (As I was when I was contacted, tour route pictured left.) So I continued to focus on the “when” part of the interview question. My plan was to get home (which I did two days ago), unpack (which I have not done yet) and study my book like a college student cramming for an exam.
So here’s the thing about that– cramming for exams doesn’t work well. Cramming for exams when you’re exhausted works even less well. It didn’t work in college, and it doesn’t work when you’re well past college. Last night I skimmed my own book, I highlighted, I tried to command to memory things that I thought might come up. (From the beginning of time to the present day.)
I couldn’t learn it all, and half way through the 1 hour interview, I fell silent after a question and had to admit I had no memory at all of the historical episode the host was asking me about. Maybe this makes for entertaining radio. It probably doesn’t sell books. (Hey, that author is an idiot, where can I get her book?)
I think this was a marvelous way to celebrate the release of Don’t Screw It Up.
The moral of the story for those marketing books is this: It’s ok to turn down interviews. If you know you’re going to bomb, just say no. It is much better to admit this before you’re on the air than after.
And now, gentle readers, I am going to go back to bed.