Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Stupid Writer Tricks"

or, "How far would you go to market your book?"

by Michelle Gagnon

A few weeks ago, author Tawni O'Dell wrote a very funny essay about some of the, oh, let's call them "interesting," experiences she had when marketing her first book. The article incited a rabid response on the Sisters in Crime listserv, where the debate centered on whether or not Tawni was taken advantage of because she was female, if she was a fool to go along with the absurd things that were asked of her, or if any author (gender be damned) would do the same.

Here's what kicked off the uproar:
Tawni O'Dell's debut, "Back Roads" is a dark, gritty portrayal of a family in crisis told entirely in the male first-person voice of 19-year-old Harley Altmyer. Entertainment Weekly offered to write a brief piece on O'Dell to coincide with the release.
Now, you can just imagine how excited her PR team was. A feature article, including photos, in a major periodical? Barring an Oprah appearance (more on that later), it doesn't get much better.
So here's how it went down, in O'Dell's own words:

I was busily signing books at a table set up in the middle of the mall when I happened to look up and saw an anxious, overcaffeinated little troupe of petite Ray-Banned androgyny and ethnic ambiguity all dressed entirely in black and all clutching cups of Dunkin' Donuts coffee coming toward me. (We didn't have a Starbucks.) As they did so the wide-eyed, whispering herd of extra-large Steelers sweatshirts and camouflage hunting jackets milling around me split decisively in two to let them pass. The parting of the Red Sea couldn't have been any more dramatic.

They turned out to be my photographer, Nathan (pronounced the French way, Nat-on,) his assistant, his other assistant, a makeup artist and a stylist.

One of the assistants informed me that Nathan would like to shoot me outside in some authentic Pennsylvania woods because his favorite scenes in my book had taken place in the woods and he envisioned me there. I told the assistant to tell Nathan, who was standing right beside us but apparently didn't like to participate in his own conversations, that it was January and it was snowing. The assistant then told me not to worry, they would keep Nathan warm.

They then loaded me into their van like I was a kidnapping victim and off we drove in search of some authentic Pennsylvania woods. We didn't have to go far. We found some behind the mall. A bunch of my family and friends that had been in attendance at the signing also came along. Nothing in the world was going to keep them from seeing this.

Nathan was thrilled with the woods. He found his voice and began barking orders in an accent I was never able to place. It was sort of a cross between Desi Arnaz and Kazu, the meddlesome martian on the Flintstone's.

I stood by blowing on my hands and stomping my feet to keep warm when suddenly he turned to me, eyed me up and down, and proclaimed, "We need to tease her hair. I want glitter. Lots of glitter, and the clothes will have to go."

"You want me to be naked?" I spluttered.

"Do we have some fabric?" he went on, ignoring my question and my obvious distress. "I see swaths of tulle billowing out behind her and hanging in the tree branches like a morning mist."

"You want me to be naked?" I repeated.

Before I could do or say anything else, I was ushered back into the van where I was stripped down to my underwear and sprayed in glitter.

When I re-emerged, my chattering entourage became deathly silent. Jaws dropped open and I heard a few gasps as I crunched barefoot through the snow, wrapped in yards of sparkling gauze, with my butt hanging out, and wondering to myself, Did John Irving ever have to do this?

Nathan positioned me and began snapping away with his camera.

"You're a wood nymph!" he cried. "Yes, you're a wood nymph! You're an ethereal spirit. You're an incarnation of the sky. You're real yet you're not real at all."

So. Should O'Dell have objected? Absolutely. Can I empathize with the fact that as an overwhelmed and inexperienced young author, she participated in the shoot without thinking it through first? Certainly. Have I done things in the course of hawking my books that I regret? Without question (although nudity has never been involved. Yet.)

The sad truth is that in a time of severely limited marketing budgets, when authors are must rely largely on their own resources with very little guidance, the results can occasionally be quite ugly.

Here are some of the more bizarre and extraordinary things writers have done in an attempt to sell their books:

* In 2008, an Indonesian writer threw $10,700 in cash from an airplane to promote his book. His editor probably should have clarified that when she told him to throw his entire advance into marketing, she didn't mean it literally.
* This past spring, the aptly named Paul Story pitched a tent outside the cottage where his book was set and camped there for two months, selling copies to passing hikers (although I believe the book was mainly about isolation, so I question how many potential buyers he actually encountered).
* Remember when someone threw a book at Obama a few weeks ago? Turns out that was no political protest, but a misguided attempt by author Michael Lohan (who I can only hope is not related to Lindsay) to promote his work. No, I'm not kidding. The best part? The Secret Service released him without pressing charges.

So...I almost shudder to ask, but where would you draw the line on promotion? (Basil, I can practically hear you sharpening your quill in the wilds of Alaska.)

Oh, and don't feel too sorry for poor Tawni. Turns out the EW article never went to print- because Oprah called and invited O'Dell to appear on her show fully clothed.


  1. Not being published, my opinion is based on my perception of what I've read about marketing over the past few years, but I suspect the nudity part was inflicted upon her because she was female. (Men are never asked to do this. I can guaran-damn-tee you that at 6'1", 250, I'll never be asked.) The rest, I suspect, was just because she was new and they figured she could be pushed around.

    As far as I can tell, the author is now the low end of the publishing hierarchy. I don't know what Tawni's advance was, but I'm sure Nathan was paid more for his work than most authors are for the whole damn book.

  2. I may be alone here, but I wish you'd posted the wood nymph picture strictly as illustration for the episode.

  3. I don't feel sorry for her. I can understand being confused and overwhelmed and signing something you're not supposed to. But this? Gimme a break.

  4. Dressing up like the character in the book for a photo shoot. They made Ken Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) do that for the papebacks of the Archer series. He was an academic type and wanted to be take seriously as a writer, so I'm sure that couldn't have pleased him.

  5. My worst author photo--bar none--was the result of an 8-hour (!) photo shoot by a twitchy photographer with his assistant. While nudity was never part of the equation, outdoor costume changes were. The result, which appears on the US hardcover of NATHAN'S RUN was part of a not-so-nice review of the book. The reviewer said I looked like "a gnome squatting in bushes."

    My experience has been that there's a direct, inverse relationship between the pretentiousness of the photographer and the quality of the photograph.

    How far is too far for promotion? I think that has to be judged retrospectively. If it was mildly embarrassing yet sold a lot of books, it would be worth it. If it was just mildly embarrassing, then it probably wasn't.

    And I'm with Miller here. Would it have killed you to post the nymph photo?

    John Gilstrap

  6. Michelle, there's still time to go back and insert the nymph photo. We'll wait here.

  7. We should all post our most embarrassing publicity photos. Mine is not nearly as fantastic as a wood nymph--it would be the one a friend of mine dubbed "Blue Housewife." (It was supposed to be moody, dammit!)

  8. Maybe Tawni was into a new kind of market share. Wood nymphs read, don't they?

  9. Rule #39, #40, & #41 in The Art of Staying Alive and Not Paying Someone To Humiliate You or Take You Into The Woods and Hack You Into Little Pieces as Part of a Pagan Sacrifice.

    #39 - Dont' go anywhere with someone who speaks to you through an intermediary, especially when they are standing right in front of you, especially especially if they wear sunglasses inside and are dressed entirely in black and you can't tell by looking at them if they are male or female or vampire.

    #40 - Never get naked with strangers in the woods, especially when they are not reciprocating or if they stand there and watch you undress while feigning indifference from behind their sunglasses

    #41 - If said intermediary speaking througher person has managed to get you into the woods, then got you naked and is crawling about like Gollum shouting how you look like a wood nymph the best tactic is to suddenly pretend to be demon possessed and speak in a deep satanic voice muttering "I am not a wood nymph! I am Legion!".

    addendum to #41 - make sure your clothing is not in the photographer's vehicle prior to scaring the willies out of the weirdo.

  10. LOL

    Good for Tawni O'Dell for telling her story with such humor.

    And yes - as someone who had been on both sides of the camera in a photo shoot as model and makeup artist - I can say with some certainty that this happened because she is female. In fact, she says so in her post gazette article about the inequities in the publishing world that must have started all this.

    She also debates whether she would like to go on that ride again.

    Thanks for the interesting subject, Michelle.

  11. I agree, Dana- there's an excellent chance Nathan was paid exponentially more for that one shoot than O'Dell received as an advance.

    Sadly, the nymph photo was not part of the piece. If I were O'Dell, I would have done my damndest to get those negatives back.

    The story reminded me of when the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies was chosen as one of People Magazine's "50 most beautiful people," and they asked her to pose nude holding a bouquet in front of her chest. She refused and wore a turtleneck instead- and more power to her for doing so.

    Basil- you never disappoint.

  12. I'm reasonably sure they'd pay me not to be photographed nude in the woods (and gee, I went looking for the photograph). On the other hand, I asked some friends to take a look at my last series of photos to help me pick out one for the book and one friend told me the black-and-white one made me look like Uncle Fester; my brother told me one looked like I was willing to rip the top off a Budweiser with my teeth; another friend, "you don't look as fat in that picture."

    Really, is being told you look like a fairy (faerie?) in the woods ALL that bad?