One of the benefits I feel we have in being fans of SF/F is that it seems that relativity everyone that works in the industry is really cool and interesting. Having had the opportunity to meet several such people over the last few years I came to realize how much work really goes on in the background to help make a successful author. The author does account for the majority of the success but he wouldn’t be as successful if it wasn’t for all the amazing people that surround him. Many of us know of the hard work that Peter, Brandon’s assistant, goes through in helping Brandon. But what about the rest of the background people? Well, that’s where I come in! I hope over the next several months to do interviews with various people in the industry that work directly with the books that we love.
The first of these interview is with Justin Golenbock. Justin is the publicist that works with Brandon in promoting his books. He does things such as setups up his tour schedule, sending advanced reader copies of books to people, and ensuring a successful marketing strategy. With no further adieu our first interview of many more:
How long have you worked for Tor?
Three years as of this upcoming Comic-Con.
What got you into working as a publicist for a publishing house?
Sheer luck, actually – I knew very little about the publishing industry when I first starting applying, and no idea how hard it was to get a first job...it took over 70 applications before I landed an interview. By coincidence, that interview was for an internship with Tor, which it turned out I wasn’t eligible for, and the awesome (Tor YA editor) Juliet Pederson felt so bad about it she helped set me with an interview for an entry-level publicity position with another Macmillan publisher. I ended back up at Tor two years later anyway. There are neither beginnings nor endings but it was a beginning...
What's the best part of your job?
On my dark days, it seems like so many deserving authors never find the success they deserve – but when it happens, it’s hugely rewarding! I think a lot of readers (and aspiring writers) underestimate the sheer amount of work (beyond the writing itself!) that it takes for an author to find an audience, especially these days. But when it happens its rewarding for everybody, from the editor, publicist, artist, sales and marketing teams, and everyone else whose hard work goes too often underappreciated.
What's an average day look like for you?
That’s hard to say – there aren’t really any “average” days for us publicists. Hopefully, it doesn’t involve an 11pm phone call from an author stranded in Dallas or somewhere. I would say on any given day I can be found doing a lot of writing, working on marketing copy and pitches, taking and making phone calls, working on travel schedules, and mailing lots and lots of books.
How many authors do you do publicist work for?
Publishing schedules at most houses are divided seasonally – the bulk of my work goes into the books coming out that season, of which I might be working on a dozen or more. But there are plenty of authors from past or upcoming seasons that I continue to work with... we’ll just say enough.
Do you find that some authors have strange or weird habits when it comes to going on tour?
You don’t know the half of it! In their defense, I will say that going on book tour can be a strange, stressful, unpredictable, and downright exhausting process... and as a reluctant traveler I sympathize. The hours can be all over the place, and you can never know when you have to be “on call” for an interview, stock signing, blog post, or any number of other obligations. Hopefully they come knowing that all the hard work was with it... then get to crash hard.
How far into the writing process due you start planning your marketing strategy?
It depends on the author, but generally we work a couple seasons in advance. Anywhere from 6 months to a year before publication, and in some cases even further out.
Do you read all the books that you help publicize?
Would I say no if I didn’t? But seriously, I can hardly hide the fact that I’m a huge SF/f geek... as my mom pointed out when she moved last year, pretty much all of the boxes in my old room were stuffed full of books with the little Tor mountaintop on the spine. Reading the first book in a new fantasy series or the new book from an author I grew up reading doesn’t exactly qualify as “work” in my book.
What makes you think that a book is worth publicizing? Is it based on being a good book alone, or does it also have to do with current trends?
Every book I’ve ever worked on has an audience... it wouldn’t get published if it didn’t. So they’re all worth publicizing, even if the eventual resultant isn’t what we hoped for.
As far as trends, I think they’re very overrated as far as the acquisition process goes. Occasionally you’ll see a handful of books from competiting publishers all coming out around a huge event (like, say, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and everybody and anybody in politics writing a cure-all for the American jobs market). But you have to keep in mind that the acquisition and publishing process takes a long, long time, and whatever was trendy two years ago probably will have come and gone by the time the book reaches stores. Then again, some things (Zombies!) never really stop being popular.
What is your opinion of how Brandon published Warbreaker free of charge on his website? Do you think that has hurt his sales or helped them? Do you think that this type of marketing strategy could be used more often?
Well obviously I think it was brilliant! But more than just putting up his books for free, Brandon has always been very open, honest, and engaged with his fanbase, which is something you like to see with every author. To use WARBREAKER as an example, Brandon didn’t just give it away for free; he put up an annotated draft with all of his editorial notes, which was really cool and interesting, and not necessarily a replacement for the finished book so much as a supplement. As an overall marketing strategy (giving away books for free), a lot of authors have been tried it over the last few years, with mixed results. It works for some and it doesn’t work for others, for a variety of reasons, but you like to see authors and publishers willing to try new things.
SF/F readers tend to be a semi-reclusive group that pushes hard against the “hype machine”, how is it that you balance over hyping a book and not pushing it to hard?
“Hype” is a hard thing to gauge; sometimes it’s defined by the most vocal group, not necessarily the largest, especially on the internet. That said, I’m poorly paraphrasing Cory Doctorow here, but for an author the biggest fear isn’t hype, it’s anonymity. As a publicist, it’s my job to anticipate the reaction something I do will have on readers and media, and once I see interest in something start to spark, perhaps pull back a bit and let the fans do their thing. But I’d rather do too much than too little.
How close to a release date do you start pushing copies out to advanced readers?
Differerent books come in at different times, depending on editorial & production deadlines and such, but you generally want the earliest advanced readers going out at least 5 months early. A lot of media in the print world (magazines, newspapers) still work on those lead-long times.
What dictates who gets these advanced reader copies?
Me, and me alone! Bwahaha. No seriously, it depends on the book and whom we think will have the most interest in covering it. We publicists work fairly regularly and keep in close touch with a lot of regular editors, producers, and bloggers, who are the most likely candidates, but it’s also part of our job to always be on the look out for new readers and reviewers who might help spread the word.
How or whom chooses what cities/states Brandon will visit while on tour?
A lot of it depends on his schedule; he’s a busy man! Then it depends on the bookstores, which ones we know will work hard to put on a great event. But we always try to include as many new cities as we can, especially those we know have a big fan base that haven’t gotten an event in a while.
To use an example from his tour for THE WAY OF KINGS, we set-up an event with a store in Raleigh NC largely because a bunch of fans started a Facebook group called (and this is near exact wording) “Bring Brandon Sanderson to North Carolina for a book tour event for THE WAY OF KINGS!” So the best thing you can do as a fan who wants an event is get a bunch of friends together to bug Brandon and us.
Is there something fans can do to “push” Tor to send him to a town near me?
Haha, anticipated that one didn’t I!? Brandon’s website (any of our authors’ websites) is a great place to start. Then check out Tor’s facebook page and our twitter account (@torbooks) and start your campaign. We pay a lot of attention to that stuff. It especially helps if you have a great local store or venue you can suggest; that can often be the most difficult part, especially in today’s tough climate for bookstores, finding a good one willing to do all the hard promotional work that goes into a big author event.
It seems that there are a select group of bookstores that always get authors to come visit them. Is there a reason why those stores get them while others don’t?
Yes! It is because they are AWESOME. They have staff who are really into the authors and the events, which take a lot of extra hard work that doesn’t always contribute to the bottom line, but does a lot to build loyalty among their community readership. It’s become tougher for us to find stores like that, because so many great stores have sadly closed over the last few years. But they’re still out there and they’re doing great work.
Who are some of your favorite authors, meaning who do you run out and buy the day the book comes out?
I’ll exclude Tor authors (who are all my favorites!) in the interest of objectivity. China Mieville (an ex-Torite) is one of my all-time favorites, I owe my buddies at Del Rey for hooking me up with a copy of EMBASSYTOWN which was fantastic. George RR Martin’s ASOIAF books, anything by Ian McDonald. Outside SF/f (sorta), anything new by Haruki Murakami (can’t wait for 1Q84) or Cormac McCarthy, the great American author of our time. I did a favor for one of his publicists at Vintage and she sent me his entire backlist in paperback... that was like 3 solid months of gold right there.
Are there things that you know about the series that sometimes you tell authors not to talk about (RAFO), such as upcoming books that change things in the series?
As a reader and a publicist, I HATE spoilers. A lot of people don’t for some reason…there was even a study recently showing that people preferred knowing spoilers in advance (*citation needed. [Ed.: This, I believe. ]http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/soc/2011_08spoilers.asp]). Made the story seem more familiar or something. I don’t know, that’s crazy talk. Nothing I would normally warn an author against, except to use their common sense when answering questions.
Being a day after the 10th anniversary of 9-11 I think it would be fitting to ask what were your experience with the day the towers came down. Was there anything that stuck out to you? What did you go through?
I remember that day like no other day in my life, like I imagine a lot of Americans do. I was living in Boston at the time and remember vividly watching coverage in my high school library with my friends, classmates and teachers when the second tower went down. Horrifying, surreal experience. A lot of brave people died that day, I don’t think any of us who lived through it will ever forget or stop appreciating that fact. I spent the 10th anniversary weekend taking a tour of the U.S.S New York with my friend who served 5 years in the Navy, it was a very rewarding experience. Puts what we do in perspective.
Thanks guys for the opportunity! Feel free to hit me up at @jgolenbo if you have any follow-up questions.