Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, March 19, 2002


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[Authors (and publishers) complain about crowded and rushed publicity tours in the United States so often that it's easy to lose sight of different ways THAT books can be promoted in other countries. A trip to England turns out to be quite an eye-opener in this regard.]

It's 8:00 a.m. in London, and here we are at the famous BBC building, where my partner Terry is about to begin the first of 18 interviews in the course of two days.

One might think a true story based in the American Midwest, about a housewife who saved her family from poverty by winning contests during the '50s and '60s, might not have much appeal in the United Kingdom.

But the opposite is true, says the gifted publicist hired by Ebury Press, Claire Bowles: It's *because* of her mother's genius at word-play that the British publication of Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less," has already been heralded by a two-page spread in the London Express, to be followed soon by articles in the Guardian and Sunday Times.

But today Terry is concerned that with so many 10- to 30-minute interviews packed into a few days, she'll repeat herself or forget to mention key points as she moves from BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cornwall and 15 other "down-the-line" conversations in studios all over this building.

It's the old "if this is Tuesday I must be in - what's the date? what's the city? are we late? where's the schedule?" delirium many authors experience in the States, only for Terry it's packed into 48 hours.

"Now don't worry," I tell "Tuffy" (her childhood nickname). "I've got a new plan." As the beautiful assistant on these tours, I'm often called upon to provide professional advice.

"Each time you sit down with a new person, look for something about him or her that's so stunning or so memorable or so fascinating, you won't forget who you're talking to. That way you'll remember what you've said and where you are in each interview. It's probably like selling on the road - you just have to find a way to keep it fresh. That person in front of you is the key."

"Got it," Tuff says gamely as Claire leads the way to Studio BBC-1R for an interview with Brian Tansley of Radio Nottingham. We enter a tiny room with a single microphone and earphones. "Does the host not use a headset?" I ask as Claire settles Tuff at the microphone.

"Oh, he isn't in London," says Claire. "None of the interviewers will be. That's what 'down-the-line' means. Brian, for example, is down the line in Nottingham. Dave Monk will be in Essex; Martin Ballard will be in Leicester, and so forth.

"Sometimes, the way these tours go, you could be interviewed for two days straight and not see a single soul." Tuff looks at her beautiful assistant and asks for a glass of water. This is one thing I can do with flair.

Nevertheless, the down-the-line hosts are distinctive and refreshing, so that every interview takes on a character or flavor of its own. Brian in Nottingham, for example, refers to Terry as "Toof" and is so exuberant about the book that after Terry recites one of her mother's jingles, he responds with a resounding, "Well done, Mum!"

Brian says that Toof has "painted such an evocative picture of Defiance that I'm reminded of a favorite singer from America," and suddenly over her earphones, Tuff hears Tennessee Ernie Ford. "Born on a mountain top in Tennessee," he sings in that distinctive country twang. It seems that Brian has looked at a map of the United States and concluded that Tennessee is near Ohio, and in a sense he's right.

"Tennessee Ernie Ford was my mother's favorite, too," Terry says. "He was everyone's for a time," Brian replies. " But now tell us, Toof, what did the word 'Dial' mean to your mother?"

In fact, this and others like is constitute the big question of the day. Terry's book shows how her mother, Evelyn, wrote jingles that won astounding prizes - cars, trips to Europe, TVs, a washer-dryer, jukebox, freezer and so forth - and sold most of them to help her impoverished family of 12 pay the always-overdue bills.

In the United States, readers have been delighted with Evelyn's jingles about such products as Tootsie Roll, that all-American candy bar that comes in segments and about which she wrote:

For chewy toothsome, wholesome goodness,
Tootsie Rolls are right -
Lots of nibbling for a nickel
And they show me where to bite!

But Tootsie Roll is not sold in England, and no amount of explaining about segments or rings or scored lines in the candy makes Evelyn's jingle as funny or endearing as it is to American audiences. So Tuff substitutes a contest entry about a product the British see everyday:

Kleenex is so handy
I use it every day
Costs so little, helps so much -
Big blows! Sore nose? Passe!

The BBC hosts love that one, and once they learn that Dial is a soap company that sponsored fantastic contests ("Win Your Weight in Gold!" "Win a Producing Oil Well!"), they delight at the fact that Evelyn found resources for jingles in everything, even her husband Leo's alcoholism:

I'm glad I use Dial.
It's the one bar in town
With a chaser for troubles
Plain water won't drown.

The interviewers have all done their homework and in some cases attempt a little word-play of their own. "'The Prize Winner' is so loving and warm you can toast your crumpets by it," says the host from Cornwall.

>From Ireland, host Gerry Ryan turns out to be distantly related to the Ryans of Defiance. He's the one who's most concerned about Terry's drunken father ("Did you ever make your peace with 'im?"), and as the father of five he loves Tuff's joke that "my mother practiced the rhythm method - she had a baby every two years."

They all feel a certain kinship with Evelyn Ryan because in Great Britain today, contests involving skill with language are still popular - not yet taken over by automated sweepstakes as they have been in the U.S. - and the idea of a single housewife supporting her huge family by her wit alone appeals mightily, not only to Gerry but to every interviewer Tuffy meets.

As Claire escorts Terry from studio to studio, it becomes clear that the BBC has its own down-home quality. After World War II, the network began taking over the building in chunks of floors while it hastily renovated others, so that unseen barriers bar the way from one section to the next.

To get to the popular Woman's Hour at BBC Radio 4, for example, Claire leads Terry up a steep escalator, where an elevator is used to descend to the same level, so that they can proceed a few feet down the hall.

Sketches and a video loop in the lobby celebrate plans for an all-new BBC when the building is razed and rebuilt behind the famous All-Souls Church in a few years. But we feel lucky to have witnessed the eccentric and quirky spaces of this great old barge of a postwar institution.

And the extra minutes in travel time give us a chance to observe Claire, the classic book publicist, ironsided and nurturing at once, in action. Having arranged for British reporters based in the United States to interview Tuff a week earlier so that articles will appear in England when Tuff is doing live interviews with BBC, Claire has also mixed in three face-to-face meetings with the lonely down-the-line interviews so that Terry won't feel too isolated.

One time a "hard news" reporter barrels his way in front of Tuff to make use of a studio Claire has reserved and timed to the minute. But she so quickly lapels a producer to make certain the "hard news" is dispensed with in time to keep Tuff on schedule that we almost don't notice the disruption. And when something goes wrong - a host who's read the book is ill and his replacement stumbles several times because he hasn't read it - Claire praises Terry, cracks a joke, talks about something else, points the way to the next and next so that spirits won't flag and the focus remains intact.

Perhaps most valuable, though, is Claire's own focus: Halfway through the 19 interviews, Claire notices that some of Tuff's answers are beginning to sound "a bit too polished, as though they're recited." She phrases this observation with such care toward Terry's feelings that Tuff is able to make the correction without feeling bombarded by the usual author angst.

Claire says that she took a three-year publishing course to "study everything from editorial to legal aspects of the business." After graduation she interviewed with publishers to become an editorial assistant but is glad to have wound up as a publicist instead.

"Working with authors in publicizing their books has taught me how to talk to writers in ways I might never have learned in-house," she says. Now considering an editorial career again, Claire feels she can bring new authority and confidence to the development of manuscripts in the future.

A test of her present skill came up just before Terry arrived in England when the most popular TV show suddenly said yes to an interview that Claire had proposed long before. Booking this show meant that Claire would have to cancel another TV interview show - one whose producer had liked the idea of interviewing Terry from the start - because that show broadcasts to a smaller audience.

So Claire canceled the smaller show and felt she did the right thing by book and author. But then, the day before Terry was to appear on the bigger program, the producers decided to scrap all guests in favor of a show about the six-month anniversary of September 11. Thus Claire, having compiled a publicity schedule of pure gold for about eight hours, was left with a schedule with no TV at all. Terry was pretty sanguine about it ("of course, what do I know?" she said pragmatically). Claire, knowing far more about what the cancellation meant, was heartbroken for Terry.

Still, by the end of what is now Terry Ryan's historic 2-day tour in London, book sales have risen sharply (Amazon.co.uk shows the rating to have grown from 7,900 to 351). "We can hope to assume," Claire says to Tuff, "that what you did is working." What an understatement. Were it only that straightforward at home.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm writing this to share a personal experience even though you've passed on to other topics now. Until today I'd somehow missed your issue #303 where you make a joke about singing "God Bless America" as a way of being identified as "the one true patriot" in airports.

I thought things had calmed down somewhat at national airports until I had a conversation with my college-aged daughter just before her semester break a couple of weeks ago. She told me that since 9/11 she has been stopped and put through a complete luggage & wand search EVERY single time she's flown - about 8-9 times to date. Why?

Not because she's young, not because she probably was dressed in the sloppy fashion of today, but because she is Samoan. My daughter was adopted from Western Samoa in infancy and raised in the Midwest. Not too many Polynesians in the Midwest, or in the South or Southwest for that matter. She has thick straight black hair, huge brown eyes and beautiful coffee-with-cream skin. It's very difficult to guess at her nationality, and of course her accent is pure Midwest American. So... she gets stopped every time. Racial profiling? She doesn't appear the least bit Middle Eastern to anyone with a pair of eyes - she's 5'9" and doesn't wear ethnic clothing, it's purely the color of her skin, IMHO.

Fortunately she is still pretty philosophical about all of this, but on her last trip she brought her passport thinking that might help. Instead it seemed to earn her even harder scrutiny. It's pretty strange to think that someone could mistake my lovely daughter for a possible terrorist! Maybe I should suggest she practice her singing?

Patricia Bush

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I distrust Amazon as much as anyone, but it's possible that the problem described by "An Author" is an innocent mistake, rather than a nefarious plot.

"An Author" wrote: "I write to ask whether you've been clued into the latest scandal re Amazon.com, viz. that they are listing books as OP [out of print] that are indeed in print, mine included....And then, suddenly, I realized what it may be about: Amazon makes more money selling secondhand books than selling new books. Or could there be another explanation?"

The Amazon rep's response sounds like a bunch of boilerplate and fails to address "An Author's" problem.

But there could be another explanation. There are easy,innocent ways for OP mistakes to happen. Errors from publishers, wholesalers, and references can propagate to booksellers' databases.

Some publishers' packing slips and invoices are very cryptic. A pack slip may seem to indicate that an unshipped book is OP.

Wholesalers can err. Ingram seems to have a penchant for calling books OP when publishers are temporarily out of stock.

And key references can err: experienced booksellers know that Books in Print, the reference-of-record for our industry, is riddled with misinformation. In-print status is among the least reliable information on Bowker's CD, but there are many other mistakes there. (My favorite: One of the subject listings for "Watership Down" is "Nautical Story" -- well, it does have "water" and a "ship" in the title...)

I think the real scandal is Amazon's clueless response. The Customer Service rep treated a complaint about Amazon's factual error as a whine about placement.

A Recovering Bookseller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I don't know if you happened to see the review of a new gay children's book, "King & King," in the 2/25 issue of PW. Besides being a lousy review (see Kirkus 2/1 issue for what I would call a much more accurate review), the reviewer refers to another kid's book - "Jack and Jim" - as being a better choice for a "more nuanced treatment of diversity in general."

Well, I was excited to see there was another gay children's title, especially one I had never heard of, so I immediately ordered it for the store. Turns out, there is NO gay content in it at all - it's a story about racial acceptance, using a blackbird (named Jim, which prompted a lot of discussion around here) and a white seagull. It seems pretty homophobic to tell the reader to substitute a book that has no gay content at all for one that is totally gay, as a "better choice."

Barb Wieser
Amazon Bookstore

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Maybe it is yet again time to re-evaluate the "returns" policy of bookstores unique, I believe, among retail outlets. I once heard that it was instituted during the Depression of the thirties, to help book stores stay in business. I've heard the arguments about how it helps unknown and mid list writers, who might never get ordered for browsing because of lack of promotion, but I would love to hear a panel discussion by knowledgeable book people, really brainstorming in free (and crazy?) ways about a more fundamental change in the way books are displayed, ordered, etc.

A Mid List Writer and Independent Publisher (intimately acquainted with damaged returns and poor distribution)

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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