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Episode LVIII: "There are very few zero-sum spaces in book publishing"

Published 7/18/16
In this installment, I speak with Jynne Martin. Topics include her road to publishing, "creative" publicity, risk-taking, media fragmentation, (non-)zero-sums & more.

Today I’m with Jynne Martin, the Associate Publisher and Director of Publicity at Riverhead Books. Riverhead is as hallowed as publishers come, having brought to light the works of George Saunders, Marlon James, Junot Díaz, Meg Wolitzer, Chang-rae Lee, Dinaw Mengestu, Emma Straub and more. There’s no formula for publishing success, but for the sake of simplicity let’s say it’s: a) buy extraordinary works, b) edit those works to be more extraordinary, c) forge those works into the public consciousness. In this discussion we’ll be focusing on this last step, possibly the most slippery of the three. But first: your background. When did you start in publishing, and what was your journey to where you are now?

Normally I like to argue that there is no formula but when you put it like that, I can certainly agree to those terms! My own start in book publishing came in the 1990’s – I moved straight to NYC from college, as it had been my dream to live here and work in books. It was the days when you read the job listings in the New York Times and faxed your resume and cover letter, for $1 per page at the local Queens deli, which was a small fortune to me at the time. I thought I would be a book editor, but my first job offer was in publicity at St. Martin’s Press. I needed employment so I took the job, and it was kismet. Publicity turned out to be a great fit for me. It is – or can be – a wildly creative and relational practice. It’s arts advocacy, the nurturing and care of brilliant writers, and applying curation and intelligence to important books, all in one job. I love doing it. I first saw “creative” publicity in action when I had moved up to be a publicist at Simon & Schuster and had the privilege of working with Dave Eggers on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; I learned so much from that process. From there, I spent over a decade at Random House working with all the literary stars (Norman Mailer, David Mitchell, Liz Strout, Gary Shteyngart, etc) and then in 2011, I came to Riverhead to spearhead its first ever dedicated publicity team. It’s been the best job of my life.

I want to dissect what "creative" publicity means and what sort of (unexplainable, I'm sure) strategies you're willing to try to explain. But I want to go into Riverhead first, and what sets the imprint apart. It's impossible to look at a successful book and say when the intrinsic value stops and the legwork of a creative publicity team begins. In your mind, what differentiates Riverhead in process (on both the publicity and editorial side)? What built-in method, freedom, discipline, values—whatever—is to thank for your track record?

First of all, Riverhead is the only imprint I can think of within major publishing that has, at its heart, a values-driven mission: to publish urgent and unheard voices from around the world. Riverhead’s very first year of existence – 1996 – they published Junot Díaz’s Drown, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker and James McBride’s The Color of Water. They could’ve just mic-dropped right there – can you imagine coming out the gate like that? So there is a sense of purpose and passion every day here at the office, that feels different from any other place I’ve worked. The entire team cares, and takes it very personally, that we find readers for writers like Marlon James or Katie Kitamura or Brit Bennett. Another difference is the tone set by our tremendous publisher, Geoff Kloske, who emphasizes risk-taking, innovation, and a very lateral and collaborative working style. He often says “I don’t care if you fail, just fail in interesting ways.” I think many corners of publishing can, at times, feel beleaguered, conservative or jaded in their approach.  For understandable reasons: it is an incredibly difficult business, and there are good reasons to be scared of failing. But I love the open and collaborative atmosphere that Geoff has established and nurtured here, and I think (I hope!) you can feel our team’s passion and fearlessness suffusing everything that we do.

A review of your list would surely give credence to those values, but I'm curious in what ways they tangibly manifest. That is: what is an example of a recent problem or decision, in which you've relied on your mission, whereas a publisher without it would have proceeded differently?

I can’t ultimately speak to what other publishers would or would not do. But for instance, we’re publishing the new novel from Juan Gabriel Vásquez into the heart of September. It’s a book in translation, something most big publishers shy away from even in quiet months of the year, but that has not stopped us from putting Reputations right up against Ann Patchett and Jonathan Safran Foer, to name a few, and from putting enormous time, care and resources into the publication. We believe Reputations is brilliant, uncannily resonant with our current political moment, and that Vásquez deserves an even wider and bigger readership, and so we are positioning him in this way.

And so now let's dip into that aforementioned "creative" publicity magic, using Vásquez as our example. (For the uninitiated, the marketing copy includes that the book "examines the weight of the past, how a public persona intersects with private histories, and the burdens and surprises of memory"—and so we don't need a ton of imagination to see the connection to today.) What is the strategy behind such a task, transmitting the idea this is an important book that ought to be read?

Well there are all the traditional behind-the-scenes tactics: push to get Vásquez selected for Winter Institute, the prestigious annual indie bookseller convention; after he’s chosen and wowed booksellers there – you can’t listen to his voice and not fall in love – we then have quotes and IndieNext nominations coming in from the booksellers around the country, over two dozen already have submitted them (sample: “Brilliant! Will surely be one of the literary sensations of the season.”Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover, Denver, CO); create jacket art you believe is striking and iconic; bring Vásquez to New York in the spring for an early media event with key book editors and features writers; set up a big tour at publication time. Then there are the small creative and nontraditional touches all along the way. Since the main character in the novel is a political cartoonist, and one of the themes (as you reference below) is the uncomfortable experience of public representation of self, I had the noted illustrator Jason Polan do an individual portrait of everyone attending our media lunch; it was a surprise, waiting as their placecard, and many experienced the same mix of flattery and vulnerability/exposure that Vásquez illuminates so deftly in the novel. We had a letterpress artist who is a friend do a run of beautiful bookmarks with a quote from the book, that went out to some of his longest-standing supporters in the media and bookselling community. We featured Reputations as the opening image for our fall pin catalogue, which is itself a whole other story. Those are a few small examples for this particular project, but it looks different every single time; the effort is curatorial to the book and author at hand. But it’s putting deep, careful, creative thought into everything we do along the way, every time we are talking about the book or presenting it to someone new.

Well that solves the problem of defining creative publicity. If somebody happens upon Reputations in a bookstore, it's very conceivable these measures would make them look twice, read the flap copy, and soon be purchasing. But I wonder about those who never step foot in a bookstore. I don't mean just a physical one; I mean that population that might enjoy Reputations, but haven't picked up (or enjoyed) a novel since college, or earlier. Are they on your radar?

Our dream with every single publication is to find the widest readership possible, including people who – for instance – never thought they would enjoy an 800 page novel told in 79 different dialects, many of them Jamaican patois. And indeed, to my unending delight, A Brief History of Seven Killings has now reached hundreds of thousands of readers in the US alone. So yes, we strive to make our books pop up not only in all the traditional corners of book media, but as with Marlon James’s novel, in a zillion other outlets that rarely touch on books – everything from ESPN to The Moth radio hour to Penthouse Magazineto a Club Monaco newsletter. You don’t need a big budget to do this, but you need an enormous amount of time – time to cultivate contacts at these more unlikely places, to bring the right book to them thoughtfully, each and every time.  

What do you think it takes for a book alone—that is, just the words on the pages—to have the potential to break free of the lit world's orbit? What is it about a book that makes your job easier?

I think nearly every book I read merits a wider readership than it is necessarily finding – no question that it is a fight, in our fragmented and media-saturated modern age, to get people’s attention for something as radical as a many-hundred-paged book that will require days and maybe even weeks of their time and attention. But I am sitting here feeling very resistant to naming a single quality or two about a book that would make it have more ‘potential.’ Perhaps that is the 1990’s punk rocker in me. In fact the weirder, the ‘smaller the potential,’ the harder or more challenging the style of fiction, those are the books I get the most joy out of publishing aggressively and wildly into the world.  This year for instance, Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, or just coming out this week, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, those are two totally sui generis works of fiction that have both been passion projects of mine.

Fair. And very punk rock. Implicit in your answer is the question of inter-medium competition—how many books does Orange Is the New Blacktake the place of? (Not that we'd ever put such a well-loved show in a negative light.) But there's the question of intra-medium competition too; no more than a few books (at most) can end up on non-book-centric outlets like ESPN, Penthouse, a Club Monaco newsletter. Realistically, a challenging (and rewarding) book is a challenging (and rewarding) sell, and if there's not a rigid set of traits a book must have for potential, there is a rigid set of booksellers who have limited space on their shelves. By way of standards, we must be positive about the book world in general, but there's the hard fact that for a Riverhead book to sell, others have to sell less. I'm going to guess you'll refute me here, but I'm curious in what exact way.

Ha! I do completely disagree although I have no statistics or hard math to refute you with. I will say, from my perspective, there are very few zero-sum spaces in book publishing. Here are a few I can think of: only one book a week can be the cover of The New York Times Book Review; only one a month is the #1 IndieNext pick; only fifteen per category go on the New York Times bestseller list. Limited space on shelves used to be an issue, but there is INFINITE SPACE on the internet. For someone like me straddling the pre- and post-internet era, that still never stops blowing my mind. Where you argue limitation, I see more potential than we ever had before. Limitation was the 1990’s when in fact books could only be bought in a rigid set of booksellers, during a fixed set of opening hours. Now it is book nirvana! Nearly all books are available at all times, on all days of the year! It still feels like a miracle to me. Anyhow – back to my incredibly idiosyncratic, unsupported refutation. I am convinced that there are plenty of people, millions of them, with time in their life to read one more book. Borrowed from the library, bought from a store, loaned from a friend, I don’t care. Even I, who read a few books a week – if you added up all my time crumbled away daily on Facebook, I’d have time to read one more book a week, and I’m sure be the happier for it, frankly. So my mission is connecting more people with more books, and no, I don’t think it means others have to sell less. Along those lines, I’m not only interested in how to find readers for individual Riverhead titles but how we can cultivate, nourish, sustain a culture of literacy and reading in general. This is why a few years ago I worked with a team to create the National Readathon Day, and why Riverhead biannually throws fundraisers for organizations like PEN, Libraries Without Borders, and Girls Write Now.

And then it seems like the thing creating possibilities (Facebook or social media or just the internet) is also the thing plugging the new slots. We're nearly out of time, but I want to close with one last question: With everything that's different today than when you started, what part of your day (re)ignites your passion, and brings you back to when you first got into the industry?

So true on social media being both the source of discovery and the cause of time drain! Always a yin and yang. And thank you for an astute question about re-finding my passion; no question that sometimes I do feel depleted, or droop a touch from how relentless publishing is – always the next season, the next book to get off the ground. But it’s also a clear answer: it’s the team of people here at Riverhead and our incredibly collaborative authors that energize me again and again. I come in each day to such phenomenally creative minds. I have all kinds of off the wall, half-baked ideas (today’s was about ice cream), but there are so many people here who I can just pick up the phone and call or walk into their office, ramble about my weird half-formed idea, and have them make it so much better. Also, when a book first comes out into the world and we see it start popping up on everyday readers’ Instagrams and Twitter posts. That first rush of affirmation, that there are real live readers in the world falling in love with the work just as we did here. I spent my walk to work looking up Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett on Instagram and trying not to walk into poles while making squeaks of delight at all the postings. Each book and each reader matters so much, and little moments like this each day still give me joy.