May 15, 2011
Being a literary publicist is no task for slouches. When you’re paid to buzz a book, the inherent dilemma seems simple enough: why should people believe you about how great something is, when they know you’ve been hired to say so? The task, then, seems to be a combination of developing a reputation for impeccable integrity when it comes to working only with products you truly adore, combined with cultivating a public persona so that your tastes are themselves trendsetting. In an industry where most publicists at the corporate publishing houses are bubbly, young and enthusiastic, but too often faceless and with little control over which projects they take on, freelance public relations representative Lauren Cerand is a singular powerhouse of vision and personality. If there’s a hotter freelance publicist in the country . . . well, there isn’t a hotter freelance publicist in the country. Specializing in “strategic consultation,” Lauren’s clients range from Barnes & Noble to the Authors Guild to writers as diverse as Meg Cabot and Tayari Jones. Time Out New York called her one of the “cultural gatekeepers in the literary world,” and indeed, she is so much in demand that she only takes on approximately one in sixty writers who query her. She regularly speaks to audiences, from the big boys and girls at Book Expo America in New York, to small-and-intimate local forums like the Pilcrow Literary Festival in Chicago where I first met her—and regardless of the venue she knows how to rock a house. She also knows how to dress like a cat, what music you should be listening to, and is generally too fabulous to even be called fabulous.
Recently, Lauren took the time to answer a few questions for TNB, which, as is typical of her, means she shot me back her thorough answers about 15 seconds after I had pressed the “send” button with questions. Did I mention that she never seems to sleep? If you’d like to find out more about Lauren’s current projects, go to LaurenCerand.com—and to find out more about her current passions, you can always follow her on twitter at @luxlotus.
TNB: Okay, so first things first: every time I get on Facebook, you’re either in Paris, or contemplating where to go on your next holiday, or you’re raving about some amazing hotel or piece of vintage couture . . . why do you have a way more decadently fabulous life than anyone else in our nerdy little book industry? And, uh, how do the rest of us go about getting that kind of life?
LC: What can I say? I’m a dreamer. And I don’t maintain an office. Most of my work is online or on the go, so as long as I don’t have an event, I feel no particular obligation to be in the country. I’m single and I have no dependents, and when I’m not working (which is way too often), I am experiencing every day’s potential with the same dedication I give to my clients. And I do like beautiful things. I also take great pleasure in conversation, and I’m insatiably curious. That doesn’t stop at eleven o’clock or whenever I’m done for the day. And, to be fair, one of the nice things about expensive taste is that you don’t have to buy much. Is it possible to rhapsodize about a sweater from H&M? First, I used to work in the labor movement, so I try to spend my money only on things that have been made under humane conditions. And second, give me one nice thing over ten inferior ones any day. Some people might see me with my Vuitton and not realize it’s pretty much my only purse. I’m also into living the life I want as long as it lasts. The few times I’ve skipped an opportunity that I knew in my heart I should’ve taken, it’s been lost to me forever. And, I don’t talk much about my disappointments. Rest assured, I’m human. I have those, too.
TNB: There’s a lot of talk these days about how vigorous and innovative writers need to be in terms of promoting their own books. Other than the time commitment this involves, and the fact that many writers may have full-time day jobs, what are some reasons that an author should work with a freelance publicist rather than doing it all solo? What are some of the things authors just can’t do for themselves—and what should writers still be doing even if a public relations rep has their back?
LC: I’m hugely in favor of authors doing it themselves, and I suggest it so often that I know it freaks people out. They want to spend money and have my fix all of their problems. But that’s not how it works. I like to use my expertise and skills to advance a project, and all the while show everyone how it’s done. I’m very transparent in that sense. Anyone can learn how to use technology in an elegant way to meet the challenge of reaching readers. You should have someone help you do whatever it is that is beyond your reach. You don’t fix your own shoes. Authors should be thinking really long-range, ten, twenty years from now, who do you want to know about you? How are they going to find about you? The answer in 2011 is probably some combination of online exposure and strategic opportunities in print and broadcast media. But the old review brigade is not enough. You’ve got to say something truly meaningful for people to hear that message and then carry it onward on your behalf. I love the essay. It’s perfectly suited to the 21st Century.
TNB: Talk about what’s going on with regard to in-house publicists at corporate publishing companies. What’s the overwhelming reason some writers still choose to hire their own publicist even if their publisher provides one?
LC: They work a lot. When I did the lectures publicity at the 92nd Street Y for nine months in 2003, most of my friends were under the impression I had moved out of the city. Working in-house, your allegiance is to your employer, and work is often assigned on a hierarchical basis. I had very little say over what my priorities were, which was understandable given the volume we were dealing with. Authors are well-served by approaching publication as an intensely collaborative relationship, wherein the publisher will distribute your book and tap into a broad network of possible placements. For the rest of it, you’re on your own. Steer your own ship. It makes the trip much more pleasant. Or at least understand how it’s done, so while someone else is at the helm, you can help out. When someone hires me to handle their publicity, I’m tightly focused on their project and advancing their immediate and career-term goals and interests. It’s a different scale.
TNB: I’ve seen you answer this question in other forums, but the answer is probably always different depending on which writers you’re promoting at the time so I’ll ask it again: what is your work day currently like? What might you do as part of a typical day?
LC: Wake up. Three days a week I work out at 7 with my personal trainer, herself a writer. Other days, breakfast meeting. Answer emails in cab. Answer longer emails on laptop. Lunch meeting. Every other week, I have a standing midday acupuncture appointment. Repeat mid-morning schedule until about five, with a call or two scheduled. Go out for drinks, dinner, and/or event. Look for strategic connections for my clients. Work on pitches, following up, connections until midnight or 1. Opportunity is everywhere. I’d like to say quiet nights at home are my favorite, but I’d rather be at the Ritz in London.
TNB: In addition to books, you write about fashion and music. How did your passion for fashion originate? Was your mother stylish and glamorous when you were a little girl?
LC: My parents are both extremely stylish and glamorous, in their own ways. My mother, a former flight attendant from New Orleans, likes pretty things and people. My father, the half-Italian, half-Swedish child of Jazz Age immigrants, likes antiques and cars and solitude. They both grew up with far, far less than they have now, so I think that spending most of their childhoods pressed up again the glass gave them a highly developed sense of what they would do with a little money when the time was right. And they have always been really magical people to me, charming and clever and so different from other people’s parents. My mother gets very upset when I say that she’s not nurturing. I was sick in Paris and she didn’t make me chicken soup or anything, but she did bring me a fur stole and matching hat. On a personal level, I don’t think that I was really all that fashionable until I made a little money myself. Being flat broke all through my twenties definitely taught me about style. I was definitely wearing vintage before it was the thing. I guess I was always stylish because I knew how to make do with whatever I had to work with; that definitely runs in my family, along with a sense that there is such a thing as good taste and classic style, and that investing in the right things is always worthwhile. And not caring what anyone else is doing. When you’re not born to it, you make it up.
TNB: I remember hearing you speak at BEA a few years ago and coming to the conclusion that the secret to your success is your refusal to do anything you don’t love. Which—and I mean this in the best possible way—seems positively un-American to me in terms of a philosophy of work. We live in a culture that often reinforces seeing one’s profession as a duty, an obligation, a grind and responsibility at best and a burden at worst, and that almost disapproves of people presuming to pursue their passions. Tell TNB readers your views on this—and how did you make doing what you adore work for you?
LC: Well, the key point there is that, even though there may be little distinction between my professional and personal lives, I am not my job. My identity is self-contained, and I don’t get my validation from external sources. If I feel like something is right, I do it. If I feel like I failed, I don’t care if everyone else thinks it was a great success. So that societal thing doesn’t have much influence over me. I almost died when I was a teenager, more than once or twice. I haven’t made it this far to make other people happy. I wouldn’t say it necessarily works for me anymore. I’m ready to change my course, and see how things are evolving in such a way that my current job may not exist one day. It’s a similar feeling to the one that I had when I left my last union gig at 23. What’s next? I wonder.
TNB: You’re not cheap, but you’re very much in demand. Do writers usually pay for your services out of pocket, or do their publishers often do the contracting? How many queries do you get versus the number of clients you actually take on in a given year, and what are the factors—other than the quality of their work—that go into those decisions?
LC: Cheap is overrated. Moreover, I operate at a huge loss both in terms of what it actually costs me to do my job and how much work I do without compensation, for various reasons, most of which have to do with my own high standards and the cycle of exposure (e.g. the point in a campaign at which buzz really gets going, I can’t stop working, even if I’m not getting any more checks), and a few to do with me being a soft-hearted idiot. Writers often split my campaign fee with their publisher. I encourage that. I probably get a new query every business day and take on about six to ten projects per year. Right now, I’m building up my micro-consulting business, which allows me to work with a much broader audience on a scale that is affordable and meaningful. Anyone who contacts me and specifically mentions the Nervous Breakdown between today and Memorial Day can have a one-time strategic consultation for $250, half-off the usual price.
TNB: The publishing world is changing at the speed of light. What are some of the most extreme differences in how books are marketed now as compared with when you first began working as a public relations consultant? Do you have any interesting predictions about the future of books?
LC: When I was learning how to be a publicist, the article in the New York Times or piece on NPR was the successful conclusion, because everyone who we considered a decision maker would see it. Now that’s where you begin, because everyone is paying attention to different things. I wish that people would be far more experimental and adaptable. I read so much more today than I did when I was a kid. We live in a relatively affluent, highly-networked, fully global economy. Why publishers aren’t billionaires yet, I’ll never know.
TNB: Tell us about your one-time consulting services, for those who may not be able to hire you full throttle. And are there any hot young publicists out there to whom you’d like to draw writers’ attention, since not everyone can work with you personally?
LC: I do a lot of speaking gigs, and at a certain point, I found that my favorite part was when someone would stand up in the audience during the question-and-answer portion, and tell me his or her challenge and ask for help. I realized I liked helping people come up with one or two good ideas that would solve their immediate quandaries and maximize results. That’s the idea behind the consultations. People sometimes get very attached to the idea of me being their publicist, and I don’t think anyone else has my perspective, per se, so it’s a chance to give writers an opportunity to see how I might approach things for them. If you write me and I am fully booked, I will always write back and suggest someone who would be a great fit for you. There are many publicists who have thriving careers based on my referrals, and paying it forward delights me. Often, they write back and ask me to stop because they are overwhelmed with inquiries, so the line-up always changes.
TNB: What are your feelings about printed vs. e-books? Do you own books that are treasured physical objects to you?
LC: I love digital books. Anyone who’s ever dated me can tell you that I want what I want when I want it. And I don’t hold on to anything, unless it’s dedicated to me. The highest compliment I can pay an author is to insist that someone else read the book right away.