A New Department at Ooligan

At nearly every press, there is a room that is stacked high with cardboard boxes.

For people in publishing, a certain feeling may be invoked by this image. I feel it myself. A book unread is a sadder sight than one unloved.

As a publishing student rounding out my final year in grad school, I have found that bookstores have become bittersweet places for me, especially now that I am aware of a book’s progress among the shelves. I now track them, from their start as new releases to their final days on the discount shelf. When a book disappears after that final stage, I know not to assume that it was sold.

For those unfamiliar with these things, that room in every press is meant to hold books that are to be sent out. How long a book is sitting in this space can determine its future at our press and in our backlist.

As passionate as we are about the industry we love, we are still operating as a business. Book sales sustain it.

And in this industry, some books sell well while others don’t. New titles in particular have only one or two boxes in that back room. Other books have more. Some boxes have even begun to collect dust. Some boxes have been sent out and returned with corners folded in and packing labels torn off.

Sometimes the books we love as publishers don’t end up selling as well as we would have liked. I find it important to note here that a book’s not selling well is rarely a sign of its quality. Some factors (like marketing budgets) can be determined, while others remain pure happenstance. Either way, most unread books exist because somewhere along that lifeline between a press and its readers, a connection was cut and a book didn’t make it to readers in time.

Markets move quickly; sales determine our place in them and whether we can remain there for longer than the “new release” phase. In book publishing, we have a very finite period of time to make a first impression on readers: it is about three months pre-launch and five to seven weeks post-launch. Additionally, over three-quarters of these outreach efforts are directed not at readers but at intermediaries like book reviewers, media outlets, and booksellers.

Currently at Ooligan, we are trying to extend this period of time. My position as a manager is transitioning to take on this project.

How do we do this impossible task? By engaging directly with our readers. Media has an expiration date on timely content, but readers experience time differently (more on this soon). We are currently working on planning several strategies to engage readers. This project is somewhere between mass communication and community building, and it involves creating a brand-new publicity department at Ooligan. As for the day-to-day, I have been working on creating various newsletters that include curated content made especially for Ooligan readers. With this work, we hope to build a more direct relationship with the reading communities that we provide books for. In doing this, we hope to extend the shelf life of our books for a longer time than what the present market and media space can offer.

These newsletters allow for us as publishers to speak about our books and how they came to exist. If you would like to receive newsletters from Ooligan, please contact publicity@ooliganpress.pdx.edu. Our newsletters go out biannually and are tailored to our readers’ diverse reading interests.

One final thought:
A book is a time object that captures its author’s consciousness in the moment in which it is created. A bookstore is therefore a space filled to the brim with people displaced by time. And an author can capture the imagination of readers two decades or two centuries after their book has been released. So, if an author can speak through time and a reader can listen, then why can’t a publisher pull a book back from the past and speak a little about it?

Interview with Tin House Publicity Manager Sabrina Wise

Sabrina Wise, publicity manager at Tin House, explains how her work is similar to “literary matchmaking,” connecting the right book to the appropriate audience. Her days consist of crafting pitches, communicating with her in-house team, and searching for a potential audience to help authors build their platform. For anyone who has ever wondered about the publicity side of book publishing, read on to better understand the inner workings of her position.

What are the details of your position within the company? What does publicity work entail?

I’m the publicity manager at Tin House, which means I get to talk about books for a living. It’s my job to pitch digital media, print media, and radio; secure reviews; plan book events; and help our authors build their platforms—whether through interviews, personal essays, or making the most of social media. I collaborate and coordinate with our wonderful sales and marketing director, as well as editors and designers. Finally, I’m the point of contact for media personnel and for our authors once the promotional process starts. Often my job feels like literary matchmaking: connecting the right reviewer to the right book, the right interviewer to the right author, and the right bookstore to the right event.

At the core of everything is the deepest admiration for our authors. They imagined these books and made them whole, and I want to craft pitches that do them justice. The first step is to spend hours and hours and hours with each book, so as a lifelong reader, I’m pretty darn happy.

What would a day in the office look like for you?

Every day is different. I try to set aside mornings for pitching, since most of the reviewers I’m in contact with are on eastern standard time. Afternoons are for checking in with authors, building mailing lists, drafting press materials, and everything else. Yesterday I sent pitches about Claire Fuller’s new novel Swimming Lessons and Morgan Parker’s poetry collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, researched media contacts for our forthcoming how-to book Grow Your Own, and drafted announcements for our upcoming flash fiction contest centered on Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. I also made lists. Always, there are lists.

What’s one of your most memorable moments as a publicist at Tin House?

Memorable moments abound, but here’s a favorite from this month. We just celebrated the release of Regina McBride’s Ghost Songs: A Memoir, and media responses have been fantastic so far—it’s an Oprah.com editor’s pick, a Glamour best book of fall, and a Paris Review staff pick. But in all the excitement, nothing’s compared to sharing Regina’s joy over a rave review in her hometown newspaper. For me, it was the most satisfying moment of the whole launch.

What are some of the places you’ve interned at prior to working at Tin House?

During college, I was an editorial intern at McSweeney’s. It’s been so exciting to see where the rest of my McSweeney’s “graduating class” ended up: some of them now work at magazines I pitch to, and we cross email paths just long enough for virtual high fives.

After moving to Portland, I was a publicity intern at Hawthorne Books. I count that internship as the luckiest professional thing that’s happened to me—it was a phenomenal introduction to the literary community in Portland and a crash course in all things book publicity.

How has prior experience prepared you for your position at Tin House?

Working in book publicity at Hawthorne and Pomegranate prepared me pretty directly for what I do now—so did being a reader. But work experience outside publishing has also been useful. Right after graduation, I served with AmeriCorps as a college access coach for high schoolers, and the skills it takes to engage a classroom of twenty students—all of whom learn differently, care about different things, and gaze at you with differing levels of skepticism—are bizarrely similar to the skills I use when pitching a book to twenty different editors. I loved being a cheerleader for my students, and now I get to do the same for my authors.

What’s a myth you’d like to dispel about working in publicity or publishing in general?

Myth: To get a “real job” in publishing, you have to move to New York.

Is New York the national hub for publishing? Yes. Are there more publishing jobs in New York than Portland? Absolutely. But there are fierce, wonderful independent publishers outside the Big Apple, and being part of a smaller publishing community can really have its benefits. In Portland alone, there are more publishers than I can list: Hawthorne, Pomegranate, Ooligan, Forest Avenue, Atelier26, Timber Press, Future Tense, Octopus, Overcup Press, Dark Horse, Perfect Day, Beyond Words, Tin House … it goes on. The out-of-the-box creativity and mutual support here is incredible.

What are some aspects you like about Tin House?

While Tin House publishes known greats like Joy Williams and Charles D’Ambrosio and (next summer!) Margot Livesey, there’s also tremendous support for new voices. Alexis M. Smith published her debut novel with Tin House, and so did Claire Fuller, Pamela Erens, and many others who’ve gone on to powerful writing careers. It’s great to be linked up with Tin House magazine and the writers’ workshops, which bring in a steady stream of exciting new work. And because we’re a small team and publish about eighteen titles a year, we get to obsess over our books.

We also have—objectively—the best tote bags in the business.

Why did you go into publishing? Is working in publicity and publishing something you’ve always wanted to do?

I’ve been a reader and writer for as long as I can remember. Books changed my life (they still do!), and I know I’m not alone. But for a while, I felt torn between my bookish, writerly side and the part of me that likes reaching out and making connections and chattering with other humans. Then, as an intern at McSweeney’s, I learned what book publicists do, and it all came together. I realized I didn’t have to choose sides.

What are your future goals or plans within the publishing world?

I’m really happy at Tin House, so right now my plan is to keep at it and to never take this work for granted. To find creative new modes of storytelling, help authors build their platforms, and tie our books into the conversations that matter.

Is there any advice you’d like to give to students interested in entering the publishing field?

Seek out hands-on experience and be fully present for it. If it’s possible for you to take on an internship, do it! You’ll build the practical skills you need for a job in publishing, you’ll learn by osmosis, and you’ll start building your literary community.

That said, it can feel like you need a very specific background in order to go into publishing—like you need to have grown up surrounded by books and literary conversation and be able to take an unpaid internship as a young adult. If that’s not your situation, the doors aren’t closed to you. It’s never too late to immerse yourself in books, to go to literary events and build friendships in the literary community, and to volunteer with local organizations when you can. Whatever bit of experience you find, pour yourself into it. Showing up—really showing up, with the full force of your energy and creativity—makes all the difference.