Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Thursday, April 4, 2001





Here we are winging our way to Los Angeles, where a TV studio and media coaches await the arrival of my partner Terry, who wrote a book about her mother as a way to handle mourning and now finds herself faced with a Today Show appearance that sends her into apoplexy.

Just making this trip brings up a question critics like me often ponder in this post-Jacqueline Susanne age:

How do unknown authors who've never been comfortable in the limelight find a way to "sell" their book to the public? How do people who write in solitude welcome (even exploit) radio/TV/newspaper/magazine interviews as though they've been accustomed to media attention all their life?

Well, if they're as lucky as Terry, they get to work with Stacie Hunt and Betty Shapian, long-time veterans of the interview circuit and founders of On the Scene Productions, a worldwide company that's famous in these parts for hosting satellite interviews with authors and celebrities (not the same thing most of the time).

Two more loving and wise mentors in the world of media relations you cannot find, and Terry, who discovered resources she never knew by reading her book aloud for the audio abridgment (see #223 and #224), seems to relax when they usher her away from (rather than toward) TV cameras for the first hour.

Terry's book is called "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." It's about the contest era of the '50s and '60s when Madison Avenue invited consumers to save boxtops and coupons and write jingles, poems and limericks extolling the wonders of advertised products.

Evelyn Ryan, Terry's mother, developed a gift for filling out lines such as "I wonder where the yellow went" for Pepsodent toothpase ("The yellow battled/As it went/(But it didn't make/A PepsoDENT)" or writing such hope-chest jingles as "Dial is wonderful:/Sweet young things/Declare that Dialing/Gets those rings."

As her family got larger and her alcoholic husband drank away a third of his paycheck, Evelyn started winning more and more big prizes - cars, trips to Europe, gold watches, refrigerators, color televisions, washer-dryers, a jukebox - as well as small cash awards ($1 per poem), toys, sports equipment, accordion lessons and (Terry always gets a laugh at this one), three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.

The book has a playful, witty and often very moving side that Terry knows is perfect commercial fare for radio and TV. She has even perfected the reading of some of her mother's entries that make people think of Erma Bombeck or Ogden Nash, such as:

Poison Ivy

Victims share a symptom,
Which is:
Everyone who has it

And she has figured out answers to questions she believes interviewers will ask: What's this book about? Why did your mother win so much? How did it feel growing up in such a household? Given enough practice (and enough drugs to stun an army), Terry figures if she just knows the questions the Today Show will ask, she'll be all right.

This, of course, is her first mistake. "If you wait for the 'right' question," says Stacie, "you'll fail to get your book across and leave the interview sputtering. This is known as squandering your time.

"You have to remember that TV interviewers are different from newspaper reporters. They're under incredible time pressure, probably haven't read your book and worry they don't know enough to make the interview work.

"So you can help them look good by leading the discussion - using segues, anecdotes, facts and humor. They'll not only let you do this; they're anxious for you to take over.

Terry's mouth is open. Moths are flying in and out and planning their vacations. "Taking over" an interview on national television was never her agenda.

"And that is your agenda," Stacie continues. "As subtly and powerfully as possible, you are going to take every question asked and give it your own 'right answer.'

"If an interviewer rambles all over the place because he's been given a synopsis of your book only an hour before, your job is to get him off the tangent and back to the book. Don't worry, we're going to take this very slowly so you'll learn as you go along."

So for the next hour Terry, grateful that she still hasn't been led to slaughter in the TV studio proper, works with notepaper and pen on what Betty calls "the basic tricks of the trade":

LIFE RAFTS - these are the warm and fuzzy anecdotes that bring a book alive, that instill visual images, that put us inside the story and make it memorable to readers.

So when Stacie asks: "Now Terry, what was it like to grow up in the house of a mother who won so many contests?" Terry launches her first warm-and-fuzzy:

"Well, it was chaotic, of course, but a lot of fun, too. We rarely used the kitchen sink because Mom was always soaking the labels off soup cans and peanut butter jars. The cabinets were stuffed with so many boxtops and coupons that we kept our food in the dishwasher, which never worked anyway."

All right, says Stacie: Now that is a great Life Raft. Who could forget those cans soaking in the sink.

FACTOIDS - to distinguish the book from every other, give listeners facts (colorful, funny, poignant, telling) they can remember.

"Sometimes interviewers will make this easy because they often ask shallow questions," says Stacie. "For example, what was the biggest/silliest/smallest/least useful prize your mother even won? Listen for this kind of question and deepen it with factoids.

That's interesting, I think: A silly term like "factoid" will stick in Terry's mind far longer than a dull word like "fact."

Sure enough, Terry comes up with some doozies: Her mother had an incredible "win rate," she says, winning 1 contest for every 4 she entered. Also, the total cash value of Evelyn Ryan's winnings (in today's dollars) would be well over a half-million dollars.

As to the shallow question, how about this: "The biggest contest my mother won was sponsored by Dr. Pepper," Terry says. "The Grand Prize was a Ford Mustang, two trips to Switzerland, two gold watches and $3,440.60 in cash.

"But the reason it was the biggest to us was that my father had taken a second mortgage on the house without telling anybody, and the bank was going to foreclose on our house in about three days unless Mom could pay $4,000."

Stacie and Betty's eyes are as wide and shining as reflector lights. "Now there, see what you did: A life raft and a factoid in one!"

ASKING FOR THE ORDER - without ever being overt about it, you want to motivate listeners and viewers to rush out and buy your book, Stacie explains. Hit a nerve, trigger a response, refer to something they know and like.

Wow. How to be blatant and unseen at the same time. Again the language is fascinating: Most writers would never think about "asking for the order" - they are here to spread the news, period. They are here as the author, period.

But Stacie forces them to remember: They wrote a book; the book costs money; nobody can motivate people to pay for it better than the author.

"For example," says Stacie, "how do you feel when your book is compared to 'Angela's Ashes'? That's also a book about a poor Irish family in which the father is an alcoholic."

"Well, there's more family humor in 'Prize Winner,' " says Terry. "Maybe I could say the two books would be similar if 'Angela's Ashes' were written by Erma Bombeck."

Wow. Even I know this is a much-loved Hollywood concept called "relatability!" Make your story sound like something that's already proven and you've got a ready-made audience.

"Or how about this," Terry adds: "If you liked Erma Bombeck, you'll love my mother."

Gad, sounds like Lucy selling VitaMeataVegimin to me. "Perfect!" say Stacie and Betty in unison, nodding at Terry proudly. "Now you're cooking."

TURNAROUNDS AND BRIDGES - these are ways to take a question that doesn't serve your agenda, turn it to your advantage and ask for the order in one clean, simple, never-too-long answer.

For example, if the interviewer goes off on a tangent about greedy companies exploiting consumers to write jingles for free, try the following:

  1. turn it around (Actually, many housewives like my mother made a lucrative income winning contests);
  2. add a factoid (Contest-winning groups my mother joined, like the Affadaisies or Versatillies, were the equivalent then of the Beardstown Ladies today);

  3. throw in a warm and fuzzy Life Raft (After her win, my mother and the president of Dr. Pepper became friends through a warm and lengthy correspondence ); and

  4. take it home! (If you liked Erma -- ) a different one! (contests of skill haven't been replaced by sweepstakes - they're thriving on the Internet. I will provide links to them and conduct the Evelyn Ryan Memorial Contest ["Name the Prize Winner in YOUR family!"] at www.thePrizeWinner.com.

That's a little complicated but she's gettting the idea. By the third hour, Terry is given a room (still not the TV studio) to work on more examples as Stacie and Betty confer. After a few moments, they turn gravely to me. "What about her makeup?" they ask.

Well, I explain, although Terry is a person who's never worn makeup in her life, she's consulted with a professional makeup artist and in fact "did" her face in the Los Angeles airport before coming here today.

Two quizzical gazes stare back - they didn't realize she was wearing any.

Of course, Terry's willing to wear makeup for television, but it's important to remember that it shouldn't be too heavy, or she'll feel inauthentic and lose her confidence. Something that brings out her features is fine, but we'd never want to approach a Dolly Parton look, don't you agree? We wouldn't want her to feel like a clown.

"Yeah, well, get over it," Stacie says firmly. "We're going for Dolly Parton."

Wait a moment, I say. Maybe I didn't explain this right - sometimes these TV people go overboard, and the effect is appalling. Have you seen Regis Philbin? He wears so much pancake it looks like he just took a mudbath. You don't want a makeup person to just trowel it on --

At this they burst out laughing."Trowel it on? Are you kidding? You're looking at The Spackle Queens! This is television! You have to be bold!"

With this, they leap up to call James Higgins, the makeup expert they have used for years, and within minutes he is in the studio with what looks to me like a giant tackle box full of unctions and brushes where all the fish hooks and bait used to be - not an inappropriate metaphor.

Terry finally goes into the TV studio, but only to "run a tape" for about 15 seconds. Then she is in James' chair, where he regards her face like a rare canvas, painting and blotting and dabbing and penciling. Lashing, brushing, powdering and blushing. Covering, layering, plastering, cementing.

So we are well into the fourth hour by the time Stacy and Betty seat Terry in the interview chair with TV camera rolling for real.

Thanks to the magic of technology, their technician splits the screen, showing Terry on one side in her own makeup looking tasteful but a bit unfocused ("like a brown wren," they two mutter grimly); and on the other side looking, well, unusually colorful, like Dolly Parton without big hair.

"There! You see?" Betty and Stacie exclaim. "What a difference!" That's for sure.

And so we are down to the last tips that will make this unknown author look poised and collected for her big interview on the Today Show. As soon as Terry is seated, she is instructed to watch out for the:

NODDING PIGEON EFFECT - too much earnest agreement with the interviewer makes a person look clucky as the face goes up and down on the small screen. Keep the head still. Nod sparingly.

SWIVELING CHAIR - watch yourself; these things can twist around without your knowing it. Never swivel; the camera can't follow your torso movements and you look childish and silly

PRISON MUG-SHOT LOOK - don't face the camera straight on, even if it's right in front of you. Turn your shoulder toward the interviewer slightly. This creates the slightest of profiles that makes all the difference.

CAMERA DISTRACTION - never look at the TV camera; only look at the person you're talking to. Think of the interviewer as your conduit to the constituency you're trying to reach.

CHEAT SHEET SYNDROME - don't bring your book with you. You're not here to hawk it (openly); and don't use your book to hold typewritten notes in case you go blank. Learn to do television without a net! Besides, if you glance down at notes, you're back to the nodding pigeon effect.

I won't go into the way Bett and Stacie analyze (and reject) Terry's clothes, her tendency to count on her fingers (they like it but not below camera), her need for a volumizer (in her hair, that is) and "just a little more color around the lips, James!"

What is apparent to everyone is that something transformative is happening to Terry. Bit by bit, her personality seems to advance into the room through the camera. She seems animated, thoughtful, charming - even modest under layers of paint that would put Emmett Kelly to shame.

And the stuff stays on! By the time Terry and I are on the airplane leaving Los Angeles, I look at my seat-mate and feel like singing a chorus of "Nine to Five."

Since then, Terry has had about a dozen interviews, most of them on the phone, a few on radio, several with newspaper reporters - and zero TV.

It is the special tyranny of national TV shows that their obsession with exclusivity forces the novice author to go on camera cold, unless a publisher (in this case, Simon & Schuster) has found two master media chefs like Stacie and Betty.

But as they would say, "Hey, get over it. This is television! You can write your books someplace else." Terry's appearance on the Today Show is scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday, April 6) between 9:15 and 9:45 a.m. Let's see how she does.



Dear Holt Uncensored, Here is another example of the "unlevel playing field" when it comes to sales tax:

We recently received a terse letter from our POS system company (Wordstock) informing us that they are being audited by the California State Board of Equalization regarding sales of supplies and hardware to us, for which Wordstock did not collect Calif. sales tax. We were stunned to receive this letter, in light of the fact that Wordstock is located in MASSACHUSETTS, and does not have any obvious physical nexus in California... Certain sales and shipping arrangements made by Wordstock may indeed constitute nexus for sales tax purposes; that's not the point here. We simply find it appalling that the Board of Equalization is raking a (relatively) tiny out-of-state firm over the coals for a pittance in sales tax, while intentionally ignoring MILLIONS of dollars of uncollected sale tax from online retailers (and campaign contributors) with obvious physical presence in California!! Apparently when it comes to the State Board of Equalization we're all equal-but some are more equal than others...

Jim Walter
Toyon Books - on the Plaza in Healdsburg since 1986
Healdsburg, Calif

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote about your partner Terry's taping of the audiobook of her new book awhile back, but I know you wouldn't toot your horn on this big news, so let me! Terry's book, "THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less," has been voted a Book Sense 76 Top Ten pick for May/June; in fact, it came in at #3!

What's even more remarkable is that Terry's book had to pass muster at an even higher level than most books. Everyone knows you're the indie friend, but the passionate emails I got about this book showed they were clearly very moved by the story of life in the Ryan household in 1950s Ohio; I suspect most didn't even know of the connection to you. But I did, and you said nice things about me in these "pages" last year...so I dreaded having to read the book! What if I didn't like it????? Would I just be mum?? So I started - ok, a great start, but could she maintain it? A resounding yes, and it only got better and better; it became one of those can't-wait-to-get-into-bed-each-night kind of books. And it moved me to write some "poetry" of my own, like Terry's mom's jingles. This book is a perfect joy, and the independent booksellers agree!

If this doesn't touch many, many lives with emotion AND laughter -- AND become a big bestseller -- I am going to sell all my Steely Dan CD's and become a monk. Readers of this newsletter - don't let me do this! Buy Terry's book. Now. And call your mom.

Carl Lennertz, Editor
Book Sense 76

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I didn't see the HBO production [of "Wit," in which a shopping bag from Barnes & Noble proved distracting to many a viewer], but I do know something about product placement, having worked in that area both for a company and for a placement agency in California. It is highly unusual for companies to pay a production for placement. They will pay an agency to handle placements, but not the production company. With movies, "payment" will usually come in the form of backend marketing. (Our PEEF book character appears regularly on "Everybody Loves Raymond.")

Dorothy Molstad
Waldman House Press

Dear Holt Uncensored,

To my knowledge, Ingram's standard policy is that when a title is bought at less than trade discount, they take 15% as the margin. This happens a lot with university presses. That is, a book they buy at 40% is offered at 25%, and a book sold to them at 20% is resold at 5%. This is a slightly higher margin than they probably receive on most trade books, which they buy at 49-50% (and higher, for smaller publishers) and resell at 40-42%.

If Random House is offering them 40% on the rights to "Lightning Print" titles, they are using this formula and offering 25% to their customers. This is not a defense of the policy, but simply an explanation.

Daniel Goldin

Holt responds: You'd think that since Ingram owns Lightning it would try to help Lightning get these books out with better terms, and then once the technology gets cheaper, which is happening every day, losses could be covered. But maybe that's too idealistic (or fair-minded)? I don't think independents will ever go for 25% nonreturnable, do you?

Daniel Goldin replies:

I never thought I would buy books at Ingram at 25% when a publisher, even a small press, had it available at 40%, but after I looked at freight charges (25% is not unusual on one book), handling costs, accounting costs and the like, I changed my mind in some cases.

This, however, is a different situation. Random House is a vendor that all but the smallest bookstores can easily access. The extra costs for Ingram to carry these books at the lower discount are virtual, not real. At worst, they are, as you say, built into the cost of the technology. I think Ingram's mistake is defaulting to their existing discount schedule, which is based on the idea that the extra margin (15% instead of the 9-10%) is due to the lower volume of sales.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Offhand, I'd say that the terms offered "short discount (25%) as a nonreturnable book" was set by the publisher. To quote from the Lightning Source site: "Publishers determine the returnability of their titles."

Also, the reference to "a piece of paper was passed around" is lacking in specifics. Was this some information that an individual had put together, was it a promotional piece from the author, was it something from the publisher?

Curiously yours,
Michael Walsh

Holt responds: Excuse me! There were two sheets of paper actually, one showing the book coming from Books In Print and one showing the same book coming from Lightning Source, and both were offered at 25% nonreturnable. The title had been reprinted as a POD and the point was that booksellers would do well to check on POD sources, as the publisher might very well be offering it at as a returnable book at standard trade discounts.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Isn't it possible that the supply chain, including Ingram, had books in the system even after the publisher's own printrun was gone, and that the publisher's sell sheet, or that of its warehouse or whoever, had not been updated? I can't imagine what advantage there would be to anyone to take a low-margin, high-labor POD book and pit it against a standard printrun edition.

But what do you mean by a "leetle" extra. POD books just plain cost more. And not just a little more, but maybe twice as much as the offset variety. Factor in the savings that comes from reduced warehousing and cost-of-money type things and you still have a lot of margin-destroying costs. So. Short discount? Raise the price? Publish at a loss?

How about something in between. Bookstores take less because they don't have inventory either. Publishers take less because they still need to provide an incentive to retailers and consumers. And consumers pay more because otherwise a lot of books they want will become unavailable.

The solution to end all this whining is to get everyone educated as to what the true cost of information freedom is. In my opinion, the largest group in need of educating is the consumer. But who wants to give them the bad news? It's a lot easier for booksellers to accuse publishers of being greedy and leave it at that.

An Independent Publisher

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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