The trenches of publishing can be equal parts reward and frustration. It is amazing to have a publishing house, no matter the size, respond to your work. You engage with the editor, work through drafts, commission an artist, read the proofs and then bam: boxes and boxes of books. The unrepentantly indie Fractious Press risked such a kindness with my collection of short stories, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things.
What do you do with all of these books? Sell them, of course. Distribution can be a nightmare for large houses and indies alike. Marketing a book is more of an uphill battle than ever in our forget-me-now culture of constant media noise. And so were born internet literary stunts.
While Tao Lin certainly didn’t invent the form (check out this April 25, 2000, Village Voice article about a McSweeney’s internet stunt) he sits high atop the virtual landfills of digital fodder created to promote the written word. Since 2005, Lin has dutifully maintained a blog that antagonizes and engages readers. Recently he ran a contest where his devotees were asked to watch a video of him reading and then guess what drug he was on (mushrooms). Everything Lin does online serves to promote his books. Or is it just about promoting himself? In the current issue of Bookforum Joshua Cohen examines this notion in his excellent review of Lin’s latest book. Regardless of what you think of Lin’s persona, or his writing, the extent of his influence on prioritizing an author’s persona can be seen in how this past May his publisher, Melville House, took it upon themselves to inaugurate the Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers. When it comes to internet stunts, Lin might be the most prolific but he isn’t the only writer hoping to go viral in the name of raising awareness about a new book.
With my collection of stories, Fractious went the traditional promotional route, sending out galleys and finished review copies to both print and select online outlets. But nothing really came of it. Meaning that outside a small number of people, most of whom I know, no one really knows about this book.
So, after reading on The Rumpus about Mickey’s Hess’s “I will blurb any book within 24 hours” literary stunt, I decided to send him a PDF for yucks. Sure enough, in about twelve hours he had something for me: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering an author’s troubles, but what it does do is really change my preconceived judgments about certain things.”
A few weeks ago, Hess posted a revised blurb on his personal blog: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Overcoming obstacles such as toothaches, his gently androgynous narrators (all fictional characters) are driven by two things: tough-minded exclamations and 21st-century anxieties.”
Everything else aside, I can tell you that there is not a single toothache in the book. There is, however, a story that involves children losing their baby teeth, painlessly. Am I surprised that Hess hasn’t actually read all of the stories? Not really. Perhaps Hess’s ultimate motive was to create a spectacle of stunts? Make examples of those, like me, who take part in, fall for, such a stunt? Only he can say. I feel like asking would feed into the stunt more – and I acknowledge that writing this piece makes me truly complicit in engaging self-promotional activity.
But thinking about it more, maybe Hess was really calling into question the validity of promotional blurbs, printed or otherwise. Litanies of hyperbolic praise have long adorned the front and back covers of books (writing at Red Room in 2009, Matthew Pearl credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with being the first author to blurb a book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career“). The purpose of the jacket blurb is obvious: if you like Author A, then you’re sure to like Author B, whose debut has been raved about by Author A.
Sit around with enough agents and editors and blurbs will come up – the bigger the name issuing the blurb, the better. Writers tend to know other writers, but many blurbs come in via professional associations – sharing an agent or publisher – so in a way they are also stunts, promoting one person’s words using someone else’s words by virtue of doing a favor for someone you may or may not know very well.
Adjective-heavy, blurbs try to relay a book’s tone, its author’s approach to storytelling boiled down to a sentence, maybe two. While jacket blurbs might not be as connected to the cult of personality as certain online promotional tactics, they still aren’t really about the writing. They are more about the writer and what he or she does with the written word.
The internet provides an outlet to anyone that wants to pipe up about something. This has changed how the public becomes aware of everything, whether a book, movie, storewide sale or a politician’s stance on an issue. In the pre-internet book trade, awareness was created through specific outlets, very much influencing the new books we found out about by via high-profile reviews and interviews. Today, with some degree of perseverance, you can find out about pretty much anything with a simple search and some mouse clicking.
This leaves large and small publishers alike, as well as self-published authors, vying for attention. So, is there a difference between traditional promotional activities and internet stunts? I suppose people talk more about stunts, but then they are talking more about you and not your writing. Promotional marketing tools can be very savvy about blurring the line between objective critiques and ads. Which, after my little foray into this world makes me wonder, more than ever: How much of consumer culture is about actual content?
(Image: for sale, from hive’s photostream)