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On Not Saying What Your Book Is About

Describing and discussing your book to others takes skill, patience, and a little bit of good humor. Here, international bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay shares what to say and what not to say when talking about your novel.

So, title jokes aside, what is the new one about? Everyone always asks.

(6 Effective Steps To Promote Your Forthcoming Book on Social Media and Feel Good About It)

There’s a story (I hope it is true) of a poet who read a short poem on air, and the host promptly followed up with: So what’s the poem about? And the poet paused a beat, then simply read the poem again.

Might have been a tiny bit snarky, but I sympathize. A lot. It is such a routine question and so damnably hard to answer, even if you’ve worked to prepare a reply, ideally a funny one.

I’ve often said that War and Peace or Pride and Prejudice or Song of Solomon can sound banal when boiled down (crushed!) to a sound bite.

On the other hand, I hasten to add, I also feel genuine sympathy for a television or radio host, dealing with a novelist (the horror!) and a book they won’t have read, because they pretty much never have time. (Podcasters are different: If they invite you, there’s a decent chance they’ve read you.)

But when you are on a book tour, there’s a fair chance the radio station’s guest on air before you was explaining their secret for dealing with fruit flies in the kitchen, and the one coming on after you is sharing their take on tornadoes and why they are bad. And then the weather is up and then Murph with the sports. Often I think I’d have more fun chatting with Murph about the Raptors or the Yankees.

Nonfiction is so much easier, by the way, for an interviewer who hasn’t read a book. “Was Silas Runterpole really as awful as everyone says? Dish! And what about Cordelia Fitzmaurice? Any truth to the rumor about their night in Vienna?”


Novelists get: So, what’s it about?

You do learn to prepare. In film and TV, they call it the elevator pitch. By good fortune or devious plotting, you might have a studio exec alone in an elevator: which means you have between the first and the 26th floors to sell them. Go! That’s why there are so many variants of “It’s Batman meets Bridesmaids!” (Fine. I’ll pause to allow someone to say, “I’d watch the hell out of that!”)

There’s a trap for novels in the marketing process.

On Not Saying What Your Book Is About

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If a writer is lucky enough to have a readership base, the main task for publicists and marketing people, and the writer, is to make sure people know the book is out. (Or coming out: Pre-orders are, indeed, love, as the phrase goes.) But for an author trying to build that core of readers, or one who has treacherously shifted ground (which messes everyone up and makes publicists turn to Xanax and author-murder dreams) there are more complex issues in promotion.

The interviewer now asks (let’s make it a filmmaker!), “Your last movies were a Star Wars claymation backstory trilogy shot on an iPhone, but this one is about an unemployed copyeditor’s descent into poverty and alcoholism in Boise. Tell us what happened to you! And, um, what iPhone do you have?”

Better have an answer ready. (Note: I like my copyeditor. A lot. Not alot.)

Also: I am not pausing this time for “I’d watch the hell out of that backstory thingy.

Early in my career, a director of publicity showed me the package she was sending out with advance copies of my novel to media, ahead of an upcoming tour. The package included a sheet entitled “Questions for Guy Gavriel Kay!” (Publicists love exclamation points!)

I said, “Oh, wow. Won’t they be offended as journalists? That you are telling them what to ask?”

She gave me the sort of amused, indulgent look one gives a small child with an adorably innocent question. “Guy, they love when we do this. We can make them look smart, turn a worrisome interview into an easy one! And we get the questions we want asked! Win, win.”

She was right, by the way. Interviewers did love—and did use—those questions. Still happens, all the time.

This is, by the way, why, over the years, I’ve come to value, even cherish, those interviewers who have read the book (or sometimes many of my books) and are ready with good questions. There are people who do this. They ask things that take you out of autopilot, force you to think. They react to what you say, make it a conversation. It is easier for print, or online magazines or blogs, interviewers have more room, can edit the conversation, frame it. (There are risks for the interviewee in that editing, yes, but that’s another essay.) Radio or television is a tightly locked-in window of time. They are doing it every damned day, and the guy with a borscht recipe looms next and he’s smiling!

On Not Saying What Your Book Is About

So, one takeaway here, if you will: If you listen to or watch someone who does really good interviews with guests, you ought to cherish them as much as we do. It is a real skill, and a declining one. It takes time, on-the-spot mental agility, and love for and a measure of pride in their own work.

But at the base of all of this, or in the background, if you prefer, is a larger question: What sells books?

Do tweets? “I’m beyond thrilled to share that a 4-star review has appeared in …” Do Facebook posts? Insta photos (or videos) of the author posing with new book and a coerced feline? Does a strong review? How strong? Where? And how timely does it have to be? (A rave two months later, when the book is already hard to find is … less useful.) Does advertising work? How about these interviews I’ve been discussing here? Maybe a fabulous cover? (Fabulous for you might be boring for a friend!) What about quotes from people a possible reader may or may not have heard of, on said cover?

There’s a general feeling, in the past and today, that word-of-mouth remains the major factor, aside from “this is an author whose work I love.” That word of mouth can range from Oprah’s book club to your own longstanding friends. (If Oprah is your longstanding friend, be in touch? Thx!)

And that circles us back to what I mentioned earlier: One starting point for marketing books appears to make existing readers aware there’s a new one out there. The other, trickier, step is to figure out how to lure people who have never read the novelist currently talking with Chuck on air. And, of course, that means getting on Chuck’s show in the first place. And assuming, you know, that Chuck has lots of listeners? And, well, likes the book.

Or, maybe, you write a ruminating essay on the challenges of book marketing, and mention at the very end that your new book is called All The Seas of the World, that it is set in the same near-Renaissance as your last two novels, and came out on May 17th?

Does that work?

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