At a publishing event not long ago, I was seated next to an author I very much admire—and over the course of the evening, I let that admiration show. I told him, several times, how much I loved his work. I asked him specific questions that showed how familiar I was with his books, and I even quoted lines from his most recent book back to him.
Afterward, I told a friend I was embarrassed. "I gushed. I fawned. I definitely overdid it," I said.
"Overpraise a writer to his face?" my friend shot back. "There's no such thing."
Of course, my friend was right: you can never tell an author enough good things about him or his work.
The same may not be true when selling his books to booksellers.
Take J.R. Moehringer's forthcoming The Tender Bar, which Hyperion's Will Schwalbe extolled on the BEA Buzz panel: the memoir of a fatherless boy growing up in his own personal Cheers is charming, touching, delightful. I loved it, and Schwalbe obviously loves it, too. (When he came close to tears reciting its virtues, his passion was palpable.) But Schwalbe was speaking to a heavy publishing crowd—booksellers, agents, other publishers—in which the cynicism and skepticism quotient is fairly high. For all the booksellers and reporters whose attention was caught, there were also some whose contrary natures were piqued. At least one listener was heard to remark snarkily: "This better be the best damn book in years, to measure up to that performance."
To hype or not to hype? That is the question for publishers and publicists in these media-strafed times. Is it nobler to undersell a great book and hope it will find its way (like, say, Reading Lolita in Tehran) or to push it to its limits and hope to duck the backlash (the forthcoming The Traveller)? It's a conundrum—and I don't envy the people who must decipher it. To promote a book these days, it seems you have to be part editor, part publicist—and part shrink. You have to know your customer—what you stress about a novel to a buyer at a major chain may be very different from what works with a magazine editor. You have to be careful not to cross the line into overkill—and that's hard because the line keeps moving.
Publishing types will tell you they decide their promotion on a case-by-case basis, but that in general (the very quiet buzz about E.L. Doctorow's new novel, The March, notwithstanding), less is not more. More is. They'll also tell you that the only really acceptable hype is the type that comes from the heart. But while it's certainly true that in publishing, success has plenty to do with conveying and sharing an intangible "feeling" about a project—I can't think of any other nonentertainment business that relies so heavily on big-mouth lists and the ever-elusive "buzz"—I also think the nature of us publishing folk is often in direct contradiction of this fact. When we get even a whiff that we're being told how to feel, we try hard not to feel it.
The Tender Barmay well live up to its Schwalbian rep. I predict it will go on to be mighty successful. But I can't predict that anything will change the perverse nature of publishing folk who, though hailing from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa, suddenly turn Missourian: "This book is so great?" they say. "Show me."