When I worked as a book publicist at Biblioasis in Windsor, Ontario, which I did from 2017 until September of this year, we had a joke in the office that ends with the punch line, “...is the title of my publishing memoir,” told after an intrepid employee has made a work-related comment or observation that is sardonic, despairing, or both. Sample “titles” include: When Does It Get Better?, The E-mails Keep Coming Back Worse, My Life Is a Blur Made of Blurry Stuff, and I Coldly Reject Your Sadness and Disappointment (that one was mine).
As the publicist, it was my job to constantly put the best foot forward for our titles to media, booksellers, and the general public. I pitched every book as a fantastic one that you just have to read—or cover, or buy, as the case may be. Cynically, this work could be framed as spin-doctoring. Uncynically, I prefer what my predecessor said on his way out the door: “Every book deserves a lawyer.”
I enjoy that thought, particularly as I’m also an author—I’ve published two books of fiction, edited an anthology, and I frequently review books. Ideally, the authoring business involves wrestling with hard, messy truths out loud, without consideration for reputation or sales. I can’t objectively say what a writer’s job is, but I’m pretty sure I can objectively say a writer’s job is not to be anybody’s lawyer.
As a publicist, I would take a book and fight for it no matter what—even if, say, in an alternate world where it went to another publishing house, then got pushed to me under a reviewer’s hat, I might have weighed the book differently.
Has thinking about this made me feel like a fraud, made my head spin? No. It actually makes my heart warm—how’s that for a schmaltzy PR turn of phrase? I also worked as a bookseller for years before publishing, where of course I’d cheerfully sell books I didn’t always feel undilutedly happy about. And the more I work in the book industry, the more I love our varying roles in its ecosystem, of which authors and publishers and booksellers are just three interdependent organisms of many.
My job as a writer is to come up with a manuscript that can get turned into a book. My job is to make it good, not fret about how well it might sell or if it’ll intrigue the festival circuit—that’s the job of my publisher, Arsenal Pulp, and my publicist, Cynara Geissler, knocked it out of the damn park.
Conversely, my job as a publicist was to get another book attention, not to fret about whether it would survive the annals of literary fame or whether it had flaws (100% of books have flaws). Down the line, that would have been a reviewer’s job, right along with readers who might have bought the book and recommended it to friends, which is their job too.
In other words, it’s the same difference as the work of an editor, distributor, reporter, typesetter, printer, operations manager (who are the true unsung butt savers).
And whenever I get a peek behind the scenes at their labor, I think two things: “Thank God that’s not me,” and, “Thank God for them.” If you ever want to feel less lonely in this business, find your way into the back room of a part of publishing you don’t work in.
Of course we have myriad problems in the book biz. Staying financially afloat is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. In this age of climate disaster and weakening democracy, many of us grapple with what good books are going to do. The strides in diversity made are dwarfed by the distance we have to go; certainly there are some limits to my predecessor’s “lawyer” maxim.
Still, my trifecta of experience in bookselling, publishing, and writing has only grown my appreciation for our work. Getting intimate with the anxieties, trials, and camaraderie on tap for the various stops on the bookmaking train? What it’s given me is colossal, stupid shreds of hope. Which, of course, is the title of my publishing memoir.
Casey Plett is the author most recently of Little Fish (Arsenal Pulp), which won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and the story collection A Safe Girl to Love.