In the early 2000s, while working as a producer at ABC’s 20/20, Bill McGowan put together a branding video for a dot-com entrepreneur. When he showed it to the businesswoman, she asked McGowan for some pointers. “I basically started giving her some feedback, just instinctively,” said McGowan, who had spent 20 years in journalism, both in front of and behind the camera. “She turned to me and said, ‘This is what you should be doing. This is really valuable.’ ”
He followed her advice, and in the spring of 2001, McGowan founded Clarity Media Group, a communications training and coaching firm with offices in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. McGowan also works with high-profile executives and on-air talent, but the company got its start helping authors.
In 2002, the firm offered to hold a seminar at HarperCollins to train its publicists on how, in turn, to train their authors. Clarity Media has maintained the relationship with HarperCollins over the past decade, so it’s only fitting that next April the publisher will be releasing McGowan’s first book, Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.
McGowan’s firm also works with Random House, Penguin, and Hyperion, and authors make up roughly 20% of his client base. Because he works with writers across genres and subject matters, his business tends to move with the news cycle. “I would say that whenever a big story happens, we typically get calls on not just one book, but several books,” said McGowan. After news of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme broke, his team, which consists of 11 trainers, coached three different authors. They worked with Trisha Meili, the Central Park rape victim, and two journalists who covered the scandal at Penn State. Each author normally spends one four-hour session with members of McGowan’s staff—most notably Donna Cornachio, who specializes in working with writers.
The sessions begin with outlining the differences between various interview scenarios—how the considerations in a print interview might differ from those in a morning show interview, and how those considerations themselves depend on whether the interview is conducted remotely. Next, the team moves on to the heart of every book, and every interview: story.
“We really help unearth the best stories that are in their book, the most compelling and engaging points, and make sure that we identify what those are, so they don’t get lost in the interview,” said McGowan. He added that one of the most common epiphanies for authors is that speaking in theoretical terms, trying to distill a book’s entire meaning over the course of one short interview, is the easiest way to derail compelling storytelling.
“An interview is to a book is what a movie trailer is to a full-length feature, and it should give little glimpses of the best scenes and the best points,” he said.
McGowan has trained novelists such as Curtis Sittenfeld and Justin Cronin, and he stresses that when promoting fiction, it’s vital to tell the story to a certain point, and to build intrigue by introducing the audience to specific characters. In the case of celebrity authors he’s worked with, McGowan contends with a different set of interview roadblocks. “What’s really interesting about celebrities and books is the more famous you are, the more reasons the host has to talk to you about other things,” said McGowan. “We teach them to very subtly, gravitationally pull the conversation back to the book, without making it seem clumsy.”
Whether he’s coaching a novelist or a serious journalist or a cookbook author (the latter receive special training on talking while demonstrating), McGowan emphasizes that, above all, authors must maintain enthusiasm. “Even if it’s the 20th time you do this, it’s a performance, and you have to bring it,” he said.
McGowan himself maintains his passion for what he does, especially when it comes to working with authors. “For us, it’s still one of the most fun things to do, because you never know who is walking in the door any given week,” he said. “It could be a celebrity or the dean of a business school. They may not need the training in their normal walk of life, but to promote a book they would.”
So, when the tide turns and McGowan heads out on the publicity trail for his own book next spring, will the master become the student? “I’m going to put myself in Donna’s trusted hands,” said McGowan. “I would never dream of going out there and doing this by myself.”