“We know that small press publicity is trench warfare …”
After decades in publishing, where she carved out a niche as one of the industry’s top publicists and marketing strategists, Caitlin Hamilton Summie has just brought out her own first story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, with Fomite Press. The book represents twenty-five years’ worth of story writing, editing, mulling — and delays for “happy interruptions” such as children and her marketing career. The book has attracted wide acclaim, with Steve Yarbrough calling it “nothing short of magnificent.”
“10 stories, 1 book, 25 years in the making …”
Click here to read the full interview, or test the waters with the excerpt below …
BROAD STREET: Related to the question of creation: Is there some process by which you evaluate the honesty of the piece, once you’ve written down the voices that have been speaking to you?
SUMMIE: I remember something that Paula Danziger, the renowned author of books for teen readers, once said to me about my writing. I was young — eleven or twelve, maybe? She read a novella I had written and asked me what disease my character had. When I couldn’t answer, she told me I was lying to my readers. I think Danziger felt that I was being emotionally dishonest, creating a character whom readers mourned, yet I couldn’t name the character’s disease. I keep that in mind. You can’t play with readers or manipulate them.
But let me clarify — that doesn’t mean you have to write something you yourself have experienced. I agree with Nancy Willard that we “write what we understand,” a phrase that was a relief when I heard it, as it articulated something I had long struggled to say. We don’t have to write what we know personally. We can write beyond that. My stories tell the truth of my characters’ lives — faults and all — but I am not a man, for example, and I am not paralyzed.
We can write about feelings or other experiences because we can imagine and empathize. It is what makes fiction so important, in part, that ability to walk in another’s shoes.
“Paula Danziger … read a novella I had written and asked me what disease my character had. When I couldn’t answer, she told me I was lying to my readers. I think Danziger felt that I was being emotionally dishonest.”
Now let’s try out another hat — or maybe I should say other shoes. You’ve worked as a book publicist for a long time and are well known in the field. How do you find the “truth” that you want to market for your clients’ books? That is, how do you help a book find its voice and its spot in the marketplace, and how do you present it in the best light? Maybe I’m asking for your philosophy as a publicist here …
We only take on books we can get behind, books we want to wave about. Even during our worst times financially, when the economy wasn’t great, we have turned down books rather than take the wrong ones. We believe each book is unique and deserves passionate advocacy, and our work with authors is a partnership. It begins, though, with respect and admiration for the writing itself.
“Every author has to be involved. I do tend to stick my nose in …”
What does a publicist do for a first-time author — and are you doing all of those things for yourself?
What we do for a first-time author depends on lots of factors: Who hired us, the publisher or the author? Are they getting a marketing budget and if so, what does that free us to consider? Does the writer have experience doing readings? Are they active on social media? Have they published before, and where? Did they pursue an MFA and have they networked with a connected literary community?
But overall, our goal is to reach any book’s readers through a careful, tailored campaign of media, events, and marketing.
We know that small press publicity is trench warfare. It always has been. My husband, Rick, who is also a book publicist, has handled my campaign for me. I have been involved. Every author has to be involved. I do tend to stick my nose in, but I have tried as much as possible to let Rick handle things for me.
I would say he’s doing the very same kinds of things for my book that we consider and/or pursue for others: contacting publications for reviews and interviews, setting up a variety of events, booking some ads, doing social media, etc. As I said, since short story collections don’t usually attract as much attention as novels do, Rick has—like in every campaign—prioritized efforts where they might do the most good. For this book, we have emphasized reviews, but we have also, for example, made an effort to build the book on Goodreads, where we seem to have reached a (hopefully growing) group that generally doesn’t read short story collections but has been quite supportive of mine. Another thing we did was that we shared how long it had taken me to complete all the stories, which translated into a catchy tagline: 10 stories, 1 book, 25 years in the making. This resonated with people.
I think our effort on my own behalf has been realistic, with a dash of hope, which every campaign has to have. I say a dash of hope because short story collections don’t do as well in the marketplace, and as ever, any titles coming from the Big 5 [commercial publishing houses] will get the most notice.
Read the full interview with Caitlin–including musings about truth, marketing a small-press book, what keeps a writer going for 25 years on a single project, and much, much more–by clicking here: Caitlin.
Before the book, Caitlin’s work appeared in journals across the country, including Puerto del Sol, Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Mud Season Review, Hypertext Magazine, South85 Journal, and Long Story, Short. She got advice from her colleagues in the MFA program at Colorado State University and even (at the very beginning) from Paula Danziger, the ideal mentor for a budding eleven-year-old writer.