Post Your Opinion
But Can They Talk
by Gloria Hildebrandt

It isn`t just writing ability that makes some authors more promotable than others WHERE I WORK I am surrounded by books. The three-foot-long window-sill behind me is jammed with unsolicited books and press packages. There is a foothigh stack of books beside the phone, because I have messages in to publicists about scheduling those authors for interviews. Coffeetable books full of gorgeous photography are piling up on the right side of the desk, because we might feature them in a preChristmas program. I`m keeping my eyes open for interesting children`s books for the same reason. Every day, books that have been selected from catalogues arrive, and I note their delivery and route them to the reviewers who requested them. When books arrive for me, I feel like it`s Christmas or my birthday. I take them home and add them to the bookcase (note: bookcase, not shelf) beside my bed, to consider for review. I already have reading material for at least a year, but when new catalogues come in, or the books are delivered, I tremble with excitement. I love books, how they look, feel, smell, the places and times they take me. As administrative producer for the radio program "On the Arts;" broadcast across Ontario by CJRT-FM, I look at all the books, make recommendations to Tom Fulton, who is the executive producer, host, and chief interviewer, schedule all the authors, and organize the reference material. But that is only part of my job, because "On the Arts" also covers visual arts, performing arts, cinema, and television. I have to organize interviews in all those areas as well. And I have to accomplish everything in 14 hours a week. Not that I`m complaining. But it may help you to understand the reality of my job, and why it is that I can state with some confidence what most people know or suspect, but few want trumpeted across the land: merit has little do with which books are promoted in Canada. In an ideal world, every book that is published in Canada would be thoughtfully reviewed at least once, as Books in Canada originally attempted to do, and only the most deserving would receive further attention by features editors, radio interviewers, and television producers. But I don`t have the time or I`m willing to concede - the skills to determine the worth of each book that tosses my desk. Authors are scheduled and books are reviewed for many reasons other than the quality of the writing. This is the case at "On the Arts;" it was the case when I was a regular book reviewer for a Toronto-based monthly publication called Azure, and it is, I suspect, the case at every other publication and program in the country. So if merit isn`t important, what is? Why do some books get reviewed, and certain authors get interviewed, feted, and invited to participate in, host, or speak at public events? My experience with Azure, which was just starting up and was unknown as a vehicle for book reviews, taught me one simple thing: books have to be available to be reviewed. Far from being overwhelmed by books, I was hard pressed to obtain any to review. No announcements came my way. I had to dig and research to find forthcoming titles, and then get my editor to call the publisher and request one specific book. I faithfully mailed the publicists copies of the published reviews, but this did not prompt a flood of publishing news. Quality therefore played no part in the selection of books for review. I tried to write objectively and honestly, but when I was critical or negative several times in a row, the editor began wondering why we were featuring books that I disliked - with all the books out there, surely we should have been recommending just the good ones? That taught me something else: since any kind of a review is exposure, it makes sense to focus on "good" books. Yet it`s easier and more fun to write negative reviews. Quoted out of context, badly written passages can be made to support any theme, can be very amusing, and the reviewer can appear to be witty. Because Azure published only one review a month, the editor became distressed that the daily papers would regularly scoop us by prtnting their reviews of the books first. We then tried to find more obscure works and get advance copies as a way of being more unique and timely. The editor seemed to want to compete with the Globe and Mail, an endeavour I secretly thought futile. "On the Arts" is not so concerned with competition, although we pay attention to what the rest of the media are doing. If a book becomes notorious or controversial, we feel obliged to make some note of it even when we ordinarily might not, as we did this past year with Brett Easton Ellis`s American Psycho and Robert Bly`s Iron John. Marc Glassman, our regular reviewer, was assigned the unsavoury task of reading American Psycho, and after his review was aired, became the target of a feminist campaign accusing him of profiting from women`s bodies. Yet, ironically, it was the female managers at the bookstore he owns, Pages, who had voted to stock the book. For Iron John, I encouraged Tom Fulton and William Van Ree, the show`s technical producer, to attend a male-bonding weekend complete with throbbing drums and rattling spears, but they just stared at each other a moment, laughed, and shook their heads. Tom and Marc ended up discussing the book without fanfare. For most books we rely on publicists to call us up, inform us of authors` media tours, and explain why the writers are worth interviewing. "The belief in the product by the promotional representative is very important;" says Fulton. "So on personal recommendation from the promotional people we`ll often take a flyer -the people we`ve developed a relationship with, people whose judgement we trust. I don`t want someone to hype all product equally, then I can`t trust them. If they hype everybody equally, they`re not a resource for us." If the author is unknown and I`m unsure about the book`s suitability for the show, I bring the book to the weekly story meeting with Tom. There he will consider his own interests and whether the author appeals to him. He does the vast majority of interviews himself, without scripts. If he can`t find anything intriguing, an interview could well fall flat. On rare occasions, an author unknown to us will receive attention beyond his or her fondest dreams. The most recent instance was last September, when I picked up a slim volume from a pile of unsolicited offerings. The cover illustration of swine in a pastoral setting, and the title The Pig Dance Dreams, amused me because Tom is a self-confessed "pig fancier." I glanced through the poems inside and my attention was caught. The poet, John B. Lee, had written poignantly, powerfully, beautifully, and erotically - about pigs. Because the publisher, Windsor`s Black Moss Press, is small and doesn`t follow up with telephone calls, I knew that this book could easily disappear. Tom took one look at the cover and said, "Book him." Then he began reading aloud: Boar shakes his nose like a busted thermos when he`s kicked off the cob. He has those big-thing blues his sex always out and swashing for sows like a cavalry sword. "If he`s any good, we`ll do a double," Tom said. That bit of jargon means that unless Lee is disappointing at the microphone, Tom will give him twice the length of time of a regular interview. Lee would then be on air for 20 minutes of our half-hour show. "I`ll bet that guy was shocked as hell," Fulton says later. "Now, that happens to be a good book. But I wouldn`t have looked at it if it weren`t about pigs. That made me open it and discover that it was a very serious work. And long overdue, I might say. Just blind luck on his part; other places might not be so interested in pigs:` For Lee, such attention came as a pleasant surprise; publishers hope for it. "You have to give it a shot," says Kelly Hechler, the senior publicist for McClelland & Stewart. "You don`t always know what they`re going to find intriguing or good interview material. I`ve noticed in the media more interest in the Canadian authors who are either starting out or not as well known. I think there`s more curiosity about them than there used to be." Tom refers to Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints to explain why. "You look at the first page of that book and you know it`s a winner. This is the guy`s first novel? I mean, it`s incredible. We rushed to get Nino in. And he was a good interview too, as it turned out. What a fortunate thing. That`s why I like to do mid-list. Because you find people who are going to be big names later on. Who are going to make a real contribution to CanLit." While media commentators may give more attention to some authors based on their own personal interests and their evaluations of worthy interview subjects, publicists state that they work equally hard for each author. "I suppose some books interest me more than others," says Janice Handford, the freelance publicist who promoted Nino Ricci for Cormorant Press, "but I work to the publisher`s allotted time. If a book takes off it may require more of my time, and as a freelancer I must go back to the publisher. Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints took off with a lot of interest, with some very good reviews even prior to his winning the Governor General`s Award. I went back to Cormorant and said, `This is taking more time than I normally spend on your books. Are you willing for me to spend more time?`And they were." Although not under the same time constraints, Hechler declares that she treats all authors equally. "We don`t have favourites. If you do a little more for somebody and not as much for someone else, it would be considered not very good. I think what Avie Bennett and Doug Gibson and Bill Hushion want us to do is 150 per cent for everybody." There are some things that authors can do to improve their chances of promotion. Being available helps, and by that I mean being flexible. If your promotional tour is for only one day in Toronto, only a few people will be able to interview you, Interview times also tend to fill up quickly. The more notice you can give people, and the more you can fit into their established schedule, the better your chances. Become known. Get involved with organizations and be willing and able to speak articulately on issues. In the case of "On the Arts;" sometimes we look for commentators to participate in panel discussions of issues like libel, literacy, political funding for the arts, and selection processes for awards. If you do us a favour by performing effectively on air, we`ll invite you back when your first or next book is published. "Of course authors who give good interviews are favoured," says Fulton. "For repeat, that is. You don`t know it the first time. But if an author does a really good interview, there`s every chance that the next book will be looked on favourably." So what makes an interview really good? For Fulton, "Someone who`s fun to be with. Someone who can talk in a forthright manner. Someone who can be honest with you. Someone who can say things that will perhaps be a little controversial. Maybe opinions that are a bit tougher. And also people who respond to questions in an honest way. If you ask a question and they say, `I don`t agree with that at all,` and then they go on to give their opinion - that`s good. That`s a good interview." "Obviously those people who are really lively, who are enthusiastic about their topic, are suited to certain interview hosts," says Handford, "and I`ll say, `This person would be really good for you.` But I`m not going to push them onto a program where the subject or author isn`t appropriate. Because that`s going to backfire on me, the author, and the program." John B. Lee excluded, unless you`re a big-name poet like Irving Layton or Susan Musgrave, stick to prose. "On the Arts" is not alone in featuring poetry infrequently. "People always say, `We have to do something with the poetry this year,` and they get us all excited," says Hechler. "We publish new collections of poetry in April, about four or five. It`s a wide variety. They`re very different from each other: some younger, some more established, some `on the edge,` and every year people in the media say `Yeah, we`ve got to do something with poetry,` and every year for some reason they don`t. It`s like they don`t know what to do with poetry. So instead of taking up the challenge and finding something really different to do, they just go, `Next year. Forget it for now.` That`s really frustrating. Poets get the short end of the stick from the media." Fulton considers the issue. "Poetry is a very difficult thing. I should do more of it. I suppose that ultimately, what percentage of the audience actually reads poetry? Judging by book sales, it`s more into fiction and non-fiction. Poetry would be very low on the list. Poetry in North America is not usually a best seller. Not that that should be what we go by." There you have the tension. The key word in the whole book business is "sales." Quality doesn`t always always sell well, and not every deserving author gets attention. "That`s like saying, Are all people who write good things published?`" notes Handford. "Obviously, if we had unlimited time, unlimited money, and an unlimited book buying public, we could do a tremendous amount. Everybody`s limited by constraints of money and time." That helps me sleep better at night. I no longer feel that I am solely responsible for ensuring that all worthy authors come on the show. The phone rings, and an interview time is now confirmed. I move the author`s book from my desk to Tom`s. As I put more books in my bag to take home for review, I realize that I have much in common with others who work in and around the publishing industry. "I love it," says Hechler. "What other job can you have where you meet some of the most wonderful, imaginative minds of your generation?" After almost 20 years of doing this, Tom Fulton still gets excited. "I want to be an author when I grow up. Don`t we all? I feel really privileged, when they actually come in, that I`m able to talk to the person who created the work, and ask questions. Every serious reader would die to be in my position."

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us