Several years ago, my bud Robert Ward, a brilliant crime writer in his own right, was one of the subjects of a brief Q & A series the Los Angeles Times used to do with local authors, and one of the things he was asked about, somewhat predictably, was what he was reading at the moment.
As I remember it, Bob named two or three books, all by very fine authors who just so happened to be both famous and dead. He was entirely within his rights to do so, of course, and I’m sure he was just giving the Times an honest answer to their question, but the next time I saw Bob, I gave him some good-natured hell about his choices, along the lines of, “Hemingway? Really? Hemingway’s dead, Bob, he doesn’t need the free pub.”
Which, needless to say, was my not-so-subtle way of suggesting that a writer like myself — critically well received, struggling to build a readership, and still among the goddamn living! — could have used the mention in the Times far more than old Uncle Ernie did.
I wasn’t really serious, because only a raving egomaniac could have been. But I’ve since come to realize that the point I was making for the sake of levity was not an entirely invalid one. When an author is given an opportunity to show some public love for another author, should he not make a concerted effort to choose a deserving party who could actually benefit from the nod, rather than someone who is beyond giving a damn because they are either six feet underground or already a household name?
If I’ve learned anything in the twenty-plus years I’ve been a published author, it’s that the best publicity is free publicity, and free publicity — especially the positive kind — is hard as hell to come by. The value of having a bestselling author (Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Harlan Coben, etc.) drop your name in a radio interview or newspaper article may be debatable, but I think we can all agree that such shout-outs in the media sure as hell can’t hurt.
All of this has been on my mind lately because Jen Forbus, the brilliant and lovely mastermind behind the exceptional book blog, Jen’s Book Thoughts, routinely posts photos of her favorite authors caught in the act of reading, and she’s recently asked me to take part in the fun. I haven’t yet gotten around to posing for a picture, let alone sending her one, and this is primarily because I can’t quite decide which book I want to be seen reading.
It would be a simple matter to flash the latest title by one of my favorite writers — Martin Cruz Smith, Donna Leon, Robert Crais — which is precisely what I suspect most of the authors already pictured on Jen’s site decided to do when they were asked to submit a photo. But it’s occurred to me that going with a New York Times bestselling author would be a missed opportunity to provide someone who isn’t one — a relative unknown with mad talent whom I’d like to see find the larger readership he or she richly deserves — with a little free press.
Granted, no photo of Gar Anthony Haywood with his nose in their book is going to make or break anyone’s career, no matter where it’s posted. But it could make a reader or two aware of an author they’d never heard of before and send them off to the nearest bookstore in search of that author’s work. Cover blurbs sometimes affect people that way, don’t they?
Aside from whatever promotional value can be found in such photographic endorsements, there’s something else to consider: The ego boost to the author whose work is being touted. Or am I the only writer in the world who gets the warm-and-fuzzies from such tiny moments of recognition? (If I were to read in Essence magazine tomorrow, for instance, that Halle Berry is a big fan, I would keel over dead with a smile on my face a friggin’ army of morticians would not be able to pry from my lips. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)
It isn’t often that we mid-list writers get the chance to offer our opinion on things for the benefit of a wide audience; nobody much cares enough to ask what we think about anything. So when the opportunity presents itself, I think it’s incumbent upon us to make the very most of it, which is to say, in a manner that could do somebody other than ourselves a little good. This is why, when I finally do get around to sending Jen Forbus a photo for her site, the book you’ll see me holding in it won’t be there just to demonstrate how steeped in the classics (OF MICE AND MEN), brainy (A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME), or up on the latest Big Thing (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) I am. It’ll be a book written by an author whom I firmly believe kicks ass and warrants your attention.
And who, not incidentally, is neither deceased nor too successful to appreciate the gesture.