After struggling to sell my debut book for two decades, I’d finally made a deal with Delacorte Press at age 42 and was nervous to meet Barb Burg. She was the publisher’s vice president and director of publicity, responsible for bestsellers by Rita Mae Brown, Stephen Hawkins, Jimmy Carter, Oprah, Sophie Kinsella, and Sting. As I walked into her huge, intimidating office at Random House, a cute, curly-haired, blue-eyed, big-boned woman in a black dress offered her hand and a beaming smile and said, “I love Bob Dylan, my dad’s also a doctor, I have too many brothers, and the greatest tragedy of my life is that they never got me the Barbie Camper.” It was love at first sentence. In seconds she let me know that she’d read my memoir, related to specifics, had a great sense of humor, and was on my side. That was Barb: fast, funny, generous, kind—no bullshit.
Of course, then I had to get her a Barbie Camper. But they’d stopped making them. My brother Eric helped me find one on eBay. When Barb went on vacation, I snuck the huge toy into her office, dressing Barbie and Ken dolls as characters in my book. On the card I wrote, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” quoting Tom Robbins, one of her authors. She loved it!
Not that working together was always a dream. She was tough, honest, blunt, and knew what she wanted. She hated the author photo of me posing in a turtleneck, leaning against bookshelves. “You look like a college professor,” she complained. “I am a college professor!” I told her. “Not anymore,” she said. “You just sold a sexy book about going to find your ex-boyfriends. Put on a tight black dress, heels, and red lipstick, get on your roof and look hot.” I tried my best. She was right, that photo ran everywhere.
When she booked me on the Today show, Barb insisted I be ready by 5:30 a.m. “I can’t see straight or look good that early,” I blurted. “Any chance for late night shows?” She yelled, “Are you a complete moron who just crawled out from under a rock? You are the only author in 20 years I got on the show who isn’t thanking me profusely.” I thanked her profusely, then did everything else she told me to do during the three nonfiction book projects we worked on together. Alas, they didn’t sell well. Thus Random House didn’t bid on my fiction. When I sold my first novel to St. Martin’s in 2009, I called Barb. She picked up the phone, crying. After 20 years, Random House had just laid her off.
“I’m so sorry—I’m sending you a check today; you’re my publicist,” I said. She refused. But then at lunch, she asked about the origin of my new title, Speed Shrinking. I told her that when my shrink had moved away, I’d freaked out. In a hurry to replace him, I saw eight shrinks in eight days. Instead of speed dating, I was speed shrinking. “It’s so Susan Shapiroean,” she said, taking me on as one of her first clients. She invented Speed Shrinking parties on the spot, where eight self-help authors would give three minutes of advice to all my students and guests. “We’ll invite PW to cover it,” she suggested. After a PW feature ran, the Daily News covered it. Then the New York Times, CNN, CBS, and Fox. She had the magic touch. Although she’d warned me that she probably couldn’t get me on TV for a first novel, she got me on TV for my first novel—six times!
When I was mortified by a horrific early review, she rushed right over to my apartment to console me. “You’re too important to ignore,” was Barb’s spin. She took a pen, scribbled out all the mean lines, added a bunch of ellipsis, and read me her version: “Chatterbox self-help whiz melts down when her shrinks leaves town.... A clean, easy-to-digest style... and dialogue that reads like a spiritual cousin to Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talks.” Barb could always see the silver pull quote.
Soon she had so many freelance clients, she was making double her old salary. Then Reuters hired her full-time as v-p and global head of communication. When she told me her cancer diagnosis, I called my dad, an oncologist, to translate. “I’d say four months,” he admitted. Four years later, Barb was still working at Reuters and going to Paris with her beloved husband and her teenage son and daughter, who, Barb proudly told me, had raised $80,000 for a cancer charity. Throughout harrowing treatments and recurrences, Barb remained the warmest, most upbeat, loyal, hilarious, and generous person I knew. Just weeks before she died at 50, she was still taking care of me, sending this beautiful email about a piece she’d seen on a new coauthored memoir I had coming out: “Wow. Amazing review, and THIS should validate your gut that you know what you’re doing.... I’m kvelling!!!! And so proud of you for keeping on growing as a writer. Following along with you every step of the way. Lots of love, Barb.” And she emailed me a picture of the Barbie Camper, which she’d kept all these years.