In which I discuss Fantastic Fungi, Wave Books, Seattle, specificity, building media lists, and offer the very first publicity exercise for your (future) book.
Truth be told, publicity starts with the very first thing you ever publish. I wish the first thing I ever published would disappear, but it does hold the kernels of my obsessions stylistically and in subject matter, my thrulines, my “writerly brand” to use marketing language. I like to think everything we write can be compared to how the documentary Fantastic Fungi describes fungal networks—it’s all a regeneration of what was once there (we even consume the dead parts, or parts we think are dead), it’s all a part of a network, and it’s all working through our subconscious to create some sort of body of work, key word: body, that is uniquely ours.
On a phone call this week, the brilliant writer Emma Bolden (who’s memoir The Tiger and The Cage you can preorder today) told me she thought she was done with a certain writerly tic, but realized recently that it wasn’t done with her. What I love about this is that the very writerly tic you want to get rid of, the thing you say, “will I ever stop writing about ______?” is the exact thing (& part of the larger mixture) that makes you marketable. To be very infomercial about it: the key to good publicity is to be uniquely you. Like your seventh grade language arts teacher taught you (or at least a girl can hope), specificity is your strength.
Wave Books is one of my favorite publishers of poetry, and while they publish outstanding poets, they’ve also created a very specific brand. The image below is their most recent tweet of forthcoming titles.
The signature beige and black design, a sprinkle of color occasionally for editorial series, the bold and interesting font and alignment choices, all tell me that these books are Wave Books. If I see a Wave collection in the bookstore, I know immediately who the publisher is. What’s really particular about the whole thing to me though is this design tic also feels very counter culture, very Seattle, where Wave is based.
In a place known for noise (literal and metaphorical): rain, big tech, Starbucks, ocean liners, markets, the heckin’ great outdoors, these covers feel minimalist to me. I also, stereotypically, like to think of folks from Seattle as cool, effortless, nature folk, and these covers give me that exact vibe. Like they don’t need to be noisy to be important, they don’t need to have bright colors and gold embossed letters to move the literary needle.
A little old but in 2012, LA Review of Books and Broc Russell did a “Portrait of a Press” with Wave Books. Henry, the then EIC of Verse Magazine (which would partly grow to become Wave) was designing the first book they decided to take on (it involves Wendy’s the fast food chain) and, “He settled on a design that looked somehow contraband, with a minimalist cover reminiscent of mimeographed ‘zines of the sixties: no page numbers, no blurbs on the back cover, no images anywhere, no biographical author note.” That first book folks, Letters to Wendy’s, was reviewed in The Rolling Stone.
When CJ Wright (then Director of Dia Art Foundation) became involved with Verse, which later became Wave, he said this in his interview with Russell, “it’s not just about publishing the poems, it’s about putting the poets in touch with one another.” Russell wrote, “A sense of community is built into the fabric of Wave’s business model, and they often undertake large-scale projects to bring poets together.”
This is exactly what publicity is: building a sense of community. Not only are Wave Poets automatically thrust together in terms of uniform design, they are then automatically in conversation with each other. When design becomes almost a non-factor in the creation of a book, and yet a factor that’s already creating both community and brand recognition, then the poet’s voice, the matter inside the jacket begins to take precedent over the look. What makes the book unique then isn’t the fancy neon color scheme, but what the poet is doing inside the pages, and how those pages are already in conversation with barn stalls of other poets through press design.
If I was going to publicize a Wave book, I would automatically look at where other Wave books have been featured, which Wave authors seem to be in conversation with each other thematically and stylistically, and how I can link the poet’s sister books within the press. (You can also do this with your own book, but this is the topic of another one of these newsletters). You can see how being totally and completely themselves, nothing flashy, has hastened their success as a press and therefore the success of their authors and books.
But back to the uniquely-you part of this whole thing—how do you take those unique qualities of you and your writing—the matter inside the jacket (our body of work), and use them to your advantage. How do you make the pages matter? (Though a bad cover truly can make publicity an uphill battle, so fight for your right to party!) If you have a publicist, they’ll send you an author questionnaire (mine is six pages, it is no joke—I want your whole life story). If you don’t have a publicist, you’ll have to question yourself.
Here’s an exercise: Let’s take this back to fourth grade. This might seem kitschy and you can answer these in a list or a phone note or however you like to plan, but I’m a visual learner and I love maps. (See my essay mapping newsletter).
Put your synopsis (or the aboutness of your book) in the center of a piece of computer paper, or a piece of poster board. On a second piece of computer paper, or poster board, put your favorite photo of yourself in the middle (ideally one that’s empowering). Get ready to make two big ol maps.
Around that center of the photo of you, I want you to write everything you can think of for the following questions:
Who are you (the census & biographical details)?
Who are you (your interests)? These can be book related or you-related.
Where are you from? Where have you moved & why?
Where did you learn or have you learned?
How do you describe yourself to people?
What’s your day job / where do you work?
What about you gave you the ability to write this book now? (now is the key word here)
What interview questions would you like to be asked about your work?
Around that center of your synopsis, I want you to write everything you can think of for the following questions:
What memories inspired this work?
What are the one-word topics of this work?
What themes are you striving for in this work?
What other work inspired this work (artists, organizations, jobs, people, books, art, music, sense, conversations, memes, tweets, movies, television shows)
What work is this work in conversation with (different from inspired—what conversation are you adding to? This could be a topic, a writing style, a structure choice)
If you had a “bag of miscellany” (thank you forever, Zora Neale Hurston) for this book, what would be in it? Another way to think of it is if this collection would a Where’s Waldo map, what elements would be Waldo for you—the little gems that stick out, the little references, the small details?
What are the genres of this work?
What timely topics intersect with this work? (the news, movements, cultural phenomena)
What research went into this book?
What school subjects intersect with this book (is it scientific? does it feel like figuring out a formula, is it tied to history and historical moments?)
What’s the tone of the book (academic, funny, visceral, scathing, disgusting, thrilling)?
How do talk about the book to different groups of people: friends, colleagues, your mom?
Who do you want to be in conversation with around this work?
Who helped this book along the way (whether they know it or not, whether it’s a magazine that published a poem from the collection, or someone you read and admired from afar)?
Where is this book from?
Leave these maps on the kitchen table for a few days, or in your Google Doc, or your notes app, and when you think of things, add to them. Sometimes ideas will slip by and go to the land of the washing machine socks and that’s fine, but to the best of your abilities, write it all down over the course of stewing for a few days. Stewing is part of the process, give yourself time. If you start working on this a year out from book release, or as soon as you sign, think of all the things you can come up with.
Now this next part is the hard part—look at your answers. With every answer, you’re going to start your search and your spreadsheet of contacts and contact information. Publicity shouldn’t feel like you’re commodifying yourself, but in some ways you are—for a purpose!
Let’s say you learned and studied math at Ohio State University, here’s everything I would pull from that one bullet:
Do they have an alumni network with an email?
Do they have a blog or newsletter (college & department)?
Do they have Facebook groups for students?
Are your professors still there and can you email them?
Does Ohio State do events with speakers?
Do they have a library that buys books?
Does their library do events with speakers?
Do they have a creative writing / English program? (Do they do events? / workshops? visiting writers?)
Do they have a campus newspaper? A campus literary magazine?
Let’s say you have a series of poems about the show Mad Men:
Who has covered Mad Men in their magazine / media? (People & outlets—as in who is the writer writing about it and where are they writing about it?)
Who’s talking about Mad Men on social media?
Are there Mad Men podcasts?
What are the key things associated with Mad Men (advertising, 1960s, despicable men, New York City)—who’s writing and talking about these things?
Let’s say you’re a lesbian and you’re comfortable talking about that and being reviewed or interviewed as an author that is a lesbian:
Who’s writing and talking about other books by lesbians? (podcasts, magazines, literary magazines, book lists, radio shows, local television and national television, newspapers, etc)
What are the lesbian & LGBTQIA+ media outlets?
Who are the lesbian influencers (bookstagram, booktok, booktube, bloggers) or folks that want to read queer lit specifically / especially. There’s a whole dang booktok Sapphic literature community, and it is brilliant.
Who’s writing book lists about lesbian characters or of lesbian authors?
When does your book come out and how does it align with PRIDE month / who’s writing lists for Pride Month / who wrote them last year?
Let’s say your book is about grief and family reconciliation:
Grief support groups & blogs & organizations
Look at the hashtag #familysaga on instagram and booktok
Grief booklists and newsletters
Mental health podcasts
Grief and art programs at community centers, museums, schools, etc.
Placing essays or work about grief and art that are parallel or intersect with the book
Placing excerpts in magazines that reach audiences who are grieving
Looking up where other books about grief and family reconciliation have been covered and by who (use your comp titles friends!)
search “books for grief” (& other ways of saying that) in Goodreads groups, on Twitter, Instagram, in Google, ask your librarian, etc.
Pitching a grief writing workshop at your local university, library, or bookshop
Look up book clubs with a focus on family or grief
What you’re doing, essentially, is taking your specific, uniquely-you qualities, and turning them into search terms, key words, similarities, and broader qualities to find the audiences of your book AND to begin, or continue being in, conversation with an already established community. The community part is *key*—Wave Books gets it.
This list of folks in your audience and community is called a media list. Trust, most in-house publicists will not have the ability to go this deep—they just can’t with the number of books they have in a season, so they have a media list of regular hits, and it’s probably extensive, but much less specific unless you’re a lead title. (More about lead titles and mid-list and all that in another newsletter). This is part of the reason a freelance publicist is worth it. (Here are some recommendations for publicists).
Walker, the amazing in-house publicist at Deep Vellum, introduced me to Airtable, so that is where my media lists now live. And here is how the page for A Boy in the City by S. Yarberry looks with contacts and contact information hidden. Usually I do have more notes, but I’ve been moving fast on this one. Sometimes I copy and paste an “about” page on a website in the notes section, and sometimes I make notes to myself about the editor or reviewer I’m sending along to. Sometimes I note what my ask will be (interview, review, conversation, blurb?). Completely up to how you work!
I like to call this media list building part of publicity my “finding-your-ex’s-new-girlfriend’s-cat’s-name journey.” This is the sleuth period of publicity. Use all your answers to the questions above to create spokes for finding the audiences already talking about what you’re bringing to the table in new ways. Believe me, there is an audience, organization, radio show, or magazine for *everything* under the sun.
The task is large, my friends. But doable if you start early!
Define your(unique)self. Define your work. Find your people. <3
I wouldn’t be a good publicist (or a good agent) if I didn’t tell you about the great books I’m working on that are coming out soon.
Caroline M. Mar’s Dream of the Lake (MAY—Poetry) from Bull City Press. I don’t know how Carrie did it, but you truly do feel like you’re drowning when you read this collection. Telling the story of Carrie’s ancestors and the Chinese railroad laborers who worked on Lake Tahoe, this collection is about inheritance as much as it’s about identity, recovery, loss, and love. It’s beautiful and tragic and true.
S. Yarberry’s A Boy in the City (MAY—Poetry) from Deep Vellum. Blurbed by Paul Tran & Carl Phillips! A Boy in the City interrogates how our bodies both seduce and elude. Told through the lens of an intimate partnership, Yarberry explores the way we inhabit and are simultaneously distanced from our bodies–our loose seams, our disappearances and infinities, our longing among the brilliance and mundanity of the “streets and lights and strangers” of our cities. The collection feels like an easy Sunday morning a few months after a break-up; a raw nerve, romantic and splintered.
Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space (MAY—Memoir) from SFWP. Lilly’s memoir is a year old in May and I just ask: if you haven’t read this, why? It’s such a tender exploration of art & addiction & daughterhood? There’s so much earnest-feeling on the page in a way that feels like the truthiest of creative nonfiction. It’s also a book you will finish in an afternoon because Lilly sucks you right in to her story. I implore you, order your copy.
Caylin Capra-Thomas’ Iguana Iguana (JUNE—Poetry) from Deep Vellum. Blurbed by Diane Seuss & Dorianne Laux! I’m always interested in writing that feels like driving a backroad, and by that I mean a book that isn’t afraid to reckon with the past without rose-colored glasses–to tell a palpable truth. In this collection, Caylin traverses the idea of smalltown longing through the many places she’s called home. Taking readers on a ride from Montana to Florida, Iguana Iguana has the feeling of waiting for something good to return, and the loneliness too.
Afua Ansong’s Black Ballad (JUNE—Poetry) from Bull City Press. Blurbed by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers! This book has so much heart, and is so sense-driven that you can taste the foods on the page, smell the atmosphere of the places, and it’s both heartbreaking and sordid. A Ghanian-American woman reckoning with the intimacies of identity. In so few pages, it really blew me away.
Jehanne Dubrow’s Taste: A Book of Small Bites (AUGUST—Essays) from Columbia University Press (blurbed by THE Lia Purpura!) A poet’s lyric exploration of taste in bite size essays (for you flash nonfiction folk). It’s sensual, visceral, memory-driven, provoking, moving, and the topics range from Campbell soup cans to the Garden of Eden to Joy Harjo to honey & the Holocaust. I really enjoyed how lush Jehanne’s prose was all the way through, and Taste truly feels like an afternoon delight. I recommend this one to the foodies, the poets, and people who love to meditate on a topic. Who doesn’t love poets talking about food?
Sara Moore Wagner’s Swan Wife (AUGUST—Poetry) from Cider Review Press (& in November Hillbilly Madonna from Driftwood Press) Got to listen to Sara read from her chapbook, Tumbling After, on THE chapbook pod with Ross & Noah, and I’m obsessed with her poetry. Swan Wife is about transformation, fairy tale, the housewife stereotype, and is blurbed by THE Maggie Smith, THE Nancy Reddy, and THE Jessica Jacobs—the trifecta of goddesses which are the cherries on top of Sara’s already brilliant work.
Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts (OCTOBER—Essays) from WVU Press. Is there any nonfiction writer on the planet I respect more for their ability to try, to build, to play dough, to construct, to take a shell of one structure and make it wholly new, more than Kristine? There is not. This book has mall parking lot graveyards and fossils—need I say more? It feels superstitious to say, but I really do believe this collection is infused with some sort of magic, it feels so alive on the page.
I do not work on publicity for the following books, I am the literary agent (they do, however, have great in-house teams!):
Emma Bolden’s The Tiger and The Cage (OCTOBER—Memoir) from Softskull. If you want a book that can upset your ideas (in the very best of ways) about women’s bodies, our medical systems, how history has treated women, what ‘care’ means, and structure—it is a vivid fractal, a book I love very much, and a must-have on your shelf and for your conversations with the people in your life.
Daniel Dockery’s Monster Kids (OCTOBER—Narrative Nonfiction) from Running Press. Now you might think, huh, a Pokémon book among all these lyric-driven books. And yes, I contain multitudes. Daniel and I have known each other since summer camp, so I can without a doubt tell you that he’s one of the smartest people I know. Taking you on a wild ride of history through the beginnings and peaks of Pokémon and inspirations that came after, this book is SO INTERESTING. I love a niche deep dive, and Daniel always delivers. I also wish I could tell you about his next project, but you’ll have to wait.