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Episode XLIII: "People see what they want to see. Or what they had hoped for."

Published 12/16/15
In this installment, I speak with Lauren CerandTopics include celebrity in contemporary lit, mainstream attention, sleeping in fur coats, taking risks & more.

 Photo credit: Zack DeZon

Photo credit: Zack DeZon

Today I’m with Lauren Cerand, publicist and literary figure and out of everything that’s been said of her, the most memorable is from Oprah.com: “a figure from another era, a sophisticated lady who wears sparkly things, eats fabulous feasts, dances at swank cocktail parties until dawn, and hobnobs with New York City’s artsy elite.” She’s also the second member of Flavorwire’s 20 Most Stylist People in Literature to be interviewed for this series—Richard Nash being the first. Lauren, if you were to meet someone at a very non-literary event and they asked you what you do, how would you answer?

If I were in a big city, I would say that I am a publicist. In other places, I might say I work on books, fiction mostly.

And then they say "Oh, a publicist? Like you work for a publishing house?"

Yes, sometimes. People definitely want to associate you with some place, or corporation. America is really set up like that. And then I get to sound like Greta Garbo and say that I work alone.

You say "I work alone" and shade your eyes?

Just before I roll up the car window.

So now let's say someone's asking you that in an interview for a literary-inclined website. What do you say then?

I would say that I am an independent or freelance publicist–– that role is pretty clearly defined in the industry, and people usually have a good sense of the scope of what I do, and how I collaborate with authors and publishers to extend their efforts. I often add that I specialize in pretty avant-garde and literary fiction. Because the next question is always who do you work with who's famous, and contemporary literature doesn't quite interact with celebrity that way.

Is it an allusion that it used to?

Well, I haven't really watched television since the 90s, but I definitely would if writers were on the news discussing current events. And that used to be a feature of life, not necessarily always, but certainly at the height of mass media.

What happened?

I'm not really sure. It could have to do with the way that late-night entertainment changed, or the influence of television entertainment meaning that more shows were taken seriously and so now there was a new stream of talent for talk show couches. I definitely do remember how it was when I started out as a young publicist, that there was a finite number of outlets, and a huge number of people watching them. I cold called the Daily Show and booked the author of the first book I ever publicized in 2004 and it became an overnight best seller. I can't imagine that happening now.

Most of the interviewees on this series praise that change as a sort of democratization. What's the counter-argument?

I would say that it is a fantastic new world in terms of dialogue, perspective and the possibility of increased representation, although there doesn't seem to be an attendant awareness that everything is a tradeoff. Authors still have the expectation that exposure will have the same impact it had 15 years ago, where in some cases, it doesn't have the same impact it had even 6 months ago. Right now there's so much information, so much choice, and so many infinitely expanding galaxies of conversation and discourse, which is great for the strongest signals, and can certainly give a boost to the otherwise overlooked, but so much just comes and goes with no notice whatsoever.

I agree that occasionally having a literary piece 'monopolizing' the conversation can give it the awareness it needs to enter the more public discourse. Now it's not unusual for someone out of the lit world to just have not heard of CITY ON FIRE, for example.

It's hard to even say that things enter the mainstream as a way of gauging attention when I'm not at all sure that there's a mainstream anymore. I mean, you can show someone the facade of it, but what it that, really? And then of course, there's the reality that we live in a vast country, with very loosely connected markets.

I can’t get enough of the social event summaries you write for Literary Hub. There are certain affectations (“Do pick up his debut”, “Pleasing, too: the potted palms”, “I thought that was perfectly stated, complimented him on his fine gray flannel suit, and moved on into the evening”), that might be hard for nearly every writer who’s not you to pull off, but you do. It’s refreshing because most of my digital contact with the publishing words comes from tweets I imagine being written in sweatpants, but you’re conveying a textured social experience and, more interestingly, a person reminiscent to all readers: the elegant woman (or man) of letters. How much of this person is who you are, and how much of it is a heightened identity, for lack of a better term?

Thank you. That's very kind. People who know me "in real life" who have told me that they enjoy it have more or less all said it is because it is written exactly like I talk. Like all perceptions, some of it's true and some of it's wildly exaggerated. In terms of how people perceive me, it's not like I sleep in a fur coat, but then sometimes I do.

One of your Literary Hub pieces is headlined “Actual civilians show up at a literary party”. What are the most salient differences between civilians and the literary crowd?

Well, when I first agreed to write the column, I made it very clear that I wanted to venture outside of the usual expectations and norms of the industry which can be extraordinarily insular. And I have been to all of the usual galas, some many times over, so I wanted to go into some new rooms and meet some new people. That was the first party I'd been to in a long time, though, where I didn't know almost everyone there. And like I said, I would have talked to more people but the drinks were pretty good and I got distracted.

Outside of that party, when you meet someone, what tells you "this person is in books"?

I like to say to the man I'm seeing, "Let me take of my glasses and put down my tote bag and seduce you."

What could be a more signature item in publishing?

Tweed, but then again, they could just be British.

What does the word “glamorous” mean in the literary world in 2015?

To me, it's really the world I thought college would be like, and collegial in the best sense––I transferred to an Ivy League school from a well-regarded but much more modest university and I sincerely thought people would be sitting under a tree debating Keynesian vs. other types of economic theory when I arrived. I am sorry to say that was not the case, but I have been looking for that scene ever since. Glamour to me is an awareness of the world, so it's ideas, consideration, being well-read, appreciating what you like, and having a little fun with it all. That's all good style is, really. 

On a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is “live and let live” and 5 is “well, I won’t say too much of it, but he enjoys a drink” and 10 is “I put a tracking device in his moleskin”, how gossipy is the publishing industry?

It's a business that revolves entirely on gathering intelligence, and building relationships, so I'd say about a 10. The other career I seriously considered was working for the State Department. 

Are you being serious?

Oh yes. Absolutely. I didn't even know what a publicist was when I was in college. And I studied Industrial and Labor Relations, and Finance before that, and used all my electives for Russian and Marxian Theory. Publishing couldn't have been less on my radar. I took the Foreign Service Exam, and passed, which most people don't, but the next stage was a group interview and I didn't think I'd excel in that. All of this was before 2001. I went to work in the labor movement instead. And the only job I could get was in the media relations department where they basically said, do you like writing and talking on the phone? And I was like, I can do that.

And then?

That's how I learned what I do in a fundamental way–– major media campaigns for social justice issues and often, huge public demonstrations. I was very good at it. There are about 65 unions and I think 64 of them are in DC. I managed to get the one in NYC to offer me a job, because I always wanted to be here. By then, though, I realized that unless I wanted a career in politics, or a life in DC, I'd have to find another way to support myself.

I imagine you being in DC would be like a fish swimming in tomato sauce.

I was born there! Now that I am older I find it more charming. I didn't realize when I was a child how unusual it was to live in a place that was entirely driven by power rather than money or appearance.

And now take us through the fast-forwarded montage of you just being in book PR to you becoming the woman who you are today.

Well, that's about a decade of my life. I am in my mid-thirties now, and the gift of that experience is truly understanding that the differences that made me feel like an outsider when I was younger are what distinguish me in my work today. I am not interested in the status quo, or things that seem good enough.

What other differences?

That was a hard path to walk in my twenties. I don't mind taking enormous risks as long as I can visualize the payoff. That's a pretty rare quality, I've learned. I am intensely curious. And I have extremely high standards.

What's one of the biggest risks you've taken?

Every book I take on is a risk, because the client sees the project as an investment, and they expect a better than average return on their money.

Fair.

I have to balance my choices with what seems underrated and what I know I can make successful. Working harder than everyone else doesn't always do it. I used to think that was all it took. After ten years in the literary world, though, I'm much more aware of the incredibly intricate and sophisticated systems that are always whirring. Like distribution. Or "buzz."

Is this intelligence proprietary?

No, I think it can be gained by observing things as they are. Too often though, people see what they want to see. Or what they had hoped for. Setting expectations is the hardest part of my work, because you want everyone to be wildly happy, but that's just the high point. There are so many days of sitting at your desk, sifting through rejections, trying to figure out what to do next, and come up with the idea that will break the stalemate standing between the writer and a broader reception for their work. That's not the glamorous part though, and I have a firm rule of not saying anything negative online.

That's fair. What forms does this breakthrough idea sometimes take? As in, public praise from the right person, the right review, the perfect launch party...

Well, because it's a world built on relationships, much of the challenge can be perception. In my experience, there are many, boundless even, opportunities around, and lots of people looking for the right candidate to fill them. The resources are there, but the question is, how do you prepare the author to be seen in that light? The key thing is to have the book in people's hands, much in the way that sales come from having the book in stores. For a long time people asked me what made a book work, and I didn't have a specific answer. I do now, it's print as many galleys as you can afford.

I love that. A friend recently asked me if everyone in publishing got into it because they wanted to be a writer. I said “yes”, for lack of knowing. What has your experience told you?

I would say that's true of many people, although I'd extend it further, and say that everyone who is in publishing does this work because they want to spend their days meaningfully. It's challenging when people don't have business experience or training, and they're running a company. But I never have a boring conversation.

How do you mean, "when people don't have business experience or training, and they're running a company"?

There's not a lot of emphasis in publishing on being a wonderful financier or a skilled manager. The canon of what you're expected to read is so vast, most people understandably spend their time on that. Whereas I think in a comparable setting in other industries, most people at a certain level would have an MBA, but that's not really valued in the literary world and lots of people would say that it's because there's not a lot of money at stake. That's been my experience across the cultural world, though. Other kinds of expertise are more important in the day-to-day work.

Who are you reading?

Right now I have three proposals and two strategic consultations to write in the next 24 hours, along with all of my other work for clients, but if I have time, I'd love to read Mavis Gallant's Paris Stories, which is still in my suitcase from my trip there last week.

We’re nearly out of time, so I’ll send you out with a softball: Who are your literary heroes?

Andre Schriffrin and the Duchesse de Guermantes. 

Thanks for your time Lauren, and your words.

Thank you, Andrew. It's been a very charming way to spend an hour on a Friday morning.