How Do You Celebrate the Release of a Book on Not Screwing Up? Or When to Say No to Publicity.


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.

11639_10151525029445948_392331699_nI 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 failed.

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.

Would You Pay Someone To Read Your Book?

I came across a web site today that charges $150 to have one person read your book and post a review on Amazon.  When I balked at the idea of paying to have someone read my book and express an opinion the “promoter” replied:

“It’s expensive to hire smart, well-read, well-written people to review a book. Most authors are lucky if they sell 100 copies in a book’s life. You never know what the right reviews can do.”

Think for a moment about this pitch and compare it to the data you might get if you considered buying ads from a traditional media outlet.  The Detroit Metro Times, for example, provides a media kit that provides testimonials, gives data on its circulation and so on.

The online book promoter says “hey you never know who might see the review.”  You never know.

Also embedded in his sales pitch is the fact that most authors sell fewer than 100 copies of their books.  What he fails to mention is that this figure includes authors with great reviews on Amazon.  In other words, one good review on a book review site is not likely to alter that fate.

“Hey you never know who might see it” is not a marketing strategy.  Yet it seems to be the one most employed by struggling independent authors.

Paying someone to write a review for Amazon is ethically muddy. They claim the reviews are objective, but if you are paying good money do you really expect them to come back with a negative or even a lukewarm review?  These services run the risk of making all legitimate positive reviews look fake.

My personal feeling is that when you get to the point that you have to pay someone (more than $100!) to read your book it might be time to pack it in.  What do you think?  Would you pay $150 for a review of your book?

Tragedy and the “Prize” of Fame

There is something that makes me a little uncomfortable about Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the school shooting in Connecticut.  I noticed it the first time in his coverage of the movie theater shooting in Colorado.  It is the earnest insistence on not using the shooter’s name.

I am sure that his motives in taking this stand are noble, he assumes as most of surely do, that mass shooters are motivated by a desire for fame, to make a mark, however sinister, on history.

Clearly a lot of people agree with this stance, if a viral Facebook post falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman is an indication.  Focus on the victims and the heroes not the shooter.

Yet all of this reveals an assumption in our culture that makes me uneasy.  That is, fame is the big prize.  Being the most known, regardless of the reasons, makes you somehow the most admired.

Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote.  “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right.  But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”

It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness.  Not fame but shame.

In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule.  They were placed in the stocks.  That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment.  In other words, the most famous.  No one confused this type of fame with honor.

Now someone who goes on a reality television show and becomes known as an obnoxious jerk is a “reality star.”

A few years ago, Elizabeth Edwards appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about her book that dealt with her feelings about her husband, John Edwards, affair.  She did so under the condition that the mistress’ name not be used.  The underlying assumption was that being publicly known, even as a mistress in the middle of a scandal, is a prize.

After the Colorado shooting, a grieving, angry parent wanted to know why the shooter was being shown on television when it was the victims who should be featured.  I understood this man’s grief, I empathized with his desire to see his son honored and known.  I could empathize with how he might feel seeing the face of evil everywhere, hearing reporters digging for information on his rotten life as if he were an important person.

Yet fame is not the prize.  If the world were fair, his son would never have come to the attention of the general public at all.  If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him.  Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history.  It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.

I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  None of us should ever have heard of her.

The desire to know the name of the killer, to find out who did this thing, where he came from, what might have brought him to this act is not only understandable, but also necessary if we want to be better prepared to deal with troubled people in the future. The fact that we seek to know his name is not an honor we bestow upon him.  It is a piece of a messy puzzle we’re trying to assemble.

Anderson Cooper, and the CNN evening announcers, may be right though.  Given our cultural biases, other would-be killers will no doubt view the media attention as an honor.  They might seek the prize of infamy.  So even as the underlying assumption about fame and honor makes me uncomfortable, I do applaud this attempt by the news network to be responsible and not part of the problem, even as I wonder how successful this “don’t say his name” tactic is likely to be.

As Anderson Cooper says, we should honor and remember the victims.  Yet, those who can truly honor them are the ones who knew who they were in life, not only their manner of death.  We, the general public, can share our sympathy, our compassion, our support, our love, but we can’t truly honor the memory of someone we did not know.  It is only in our power to support those who did.

Making the victims public is not necessarily the greatest honor we can give them.  We can also honor them with privacy.  Talking about someone on television can be a tribute, and some families will long to have people acknowledge their loss.  They will long for that affirmation that their loved one existed.  They did not pass through the world unnoticed.  In such a case the brief, respectful spotlight is an honor.  But being televised is not by definition an honor.  We need to be very careful to recognize what we are doing for ourselves, to fill our own needs, to answer our own pressing questions.  Our desire to know is natural, as is our desire for catharsis, for those emotional stories that make us weep.  But we should be careful not to confuse those things with something we are doing as a tribute to the victims.  When it comes to how to honor those who were lost we need to be good listeners.  Let those who are grieving tell us, not the other way around.