Thursday, August 18, 2005

'Incendiary': The Book That Became Too Hot to Handle

By Vanessa de la Torre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005; C01

The Brit might as well be reclining on a psychiatrist's couch, but instead he broods in a Washington hotel suite, trying to understand how two grisly narratives -- one fact, the other fiction -- could collide on the morning of July 7. How his novel, "Incendiary," in which a grieving mother unloads in a rambling letter to Osama bin Laden, could become a PR mess for his publisher.

"I wrote about something that could happen, and then it did happen, and now I feel that I'm fundamentally tied, probably for the rest of my life, to those events," he says. "Within 20 years' time, people will still be reviewing my book and saying, 'Chris Cleave, whose controversial debut was published in London the same day as the London attacks, comma, has written another book.' "

What happened that July morning on CNN: Suicide bombers (with al Qaeda ties, officials speculated at one point) pulled off simultaneous attacks in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more.

What happens in the first chapter of "Incendiary": Al Qaeda suicide bombers kill more than 1,000 soccer fans packed into Arsenal Stadium for the team's title game against Chelsea. "There were feet and halves of faces and big lumps of stuff in Arsenal shirts with long ropes spilling behind them like strings of sausages," Cleave's narrator describes.

After the "morbid coincidence," the novelist is promoting his book but also trying to assure readers that he is no prophet, no al Qaeda operative and, thanks to pulled advertisements in the U.K., not profiting from terror.

"A lot of people imagine I started writing this book at 9:35 a.m." the day of the attacks, says Cleave, 32. Or that terrorists got wind of his publishing date. Or that 52 people had to die before he sold one book.

"I was going to be in all the shop windows, I was going to be on TV, I was going to have print advertisements taken out for months," Cleave says. "It was going to be on two-for-three promotions, 'Best Summer Reads.' " Then all the shiny new "Incendiary" posters that decorated the tube stations were promptly taken down. Waterstone's, Britain's famed bookstore chain, also pulled its in-store displays. Cleave says he agreed with the decisions: "It was a huge book. And now it's a small book in the U.K."

While "Incendiary" had a first printing of 25,000 copies in Britain (an exceptional number for an unknown author), criticism surrounding its timing and gore has slowed sales.

"We knew there was going to be a lot of dissenting voices," says Laetitia Rutherford, Cleave's literary agent based in London. "It's a very provocative book even if you take out the terrorist attack. It's dealing with death, mutilated bodies. . . . We knew we'd hear a lot of voices saying, 'He's a nutter.' "

The immediate plan is to release "Incendiary" in 15 countries; film rights have already been sold to the producers of "Bridget Jones's Diary." Sonny Mehta, the longtime editor in chief at Knopf, made an offer for "Incendiary" within 24 hours of reading it, says Rutherford. (Knopf originally trumpeted a U.S. printing of 100,000 copies; when it was released this month, that number had been reduced to 50,000.) "It's not about a terrorist attack but a human response to tragedy," says Paul Bogaards, Knopf's publicity chief. "For us in New York on 9/11, some of the imagery resonates."

Bogaards calls the book "a slow burn" -- dependent on a word-of-mouth campaign, and so far the reviews in the United States have been mixed: The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani admonished Cleave for his decision to open the novel with "Dear Osama," branding it "a case of simple tastelessness." Newsweek marveled that it was "arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written," driven by a nameless heroine with an "ordinariness that's compelling."

The Oxford-educated Cleave is a former copy editor for the Daily Telegraph (he says he got fired for writing personal responses to readers who'd sent in letters to the editor). His narrator, meanwhile, is an East End mother addicted to gin-and-tonics and sex when she gets nervous and who becomes manic-depressive after the murders of her husband, a Scotland Yard officer on the bomb disposal unit, and her 4-year-old son in the fictional May Day attack.

"I know you can love my boy Osama," she writes in her slightly mangled grammar. "The Sun says you are an EVIL MONSTER but I don't believe in evil I know it takes 2 to tango. I know you're vexed at the leaders of Western imperialism. Well I'll be writing to them too.

"As for you I know you'd stop the bombs in a second if I could make you see my son with all your heart for just one moment. I know you would stop making boy-shaped holes in the world."

* * *

It was March 11, 2004, when suicide bombers struck Madrid's commuter system during morning rush hour, killing 191 people. The same day, Cleave's son stood on his own for the first time and continued to grow amid a world reeling from car bombs, jihadists, Abu Ghraib. Every day brought more barbaric news, says Cleave, who at the time was writing an odd-couple comedy set in 1980s Brooklyn (wife is a pornographer, husband a mortician). He was writing a fantasy in which the world of terror was not on people's minds, he says, "so I had to stop. And I wanted to write a book that was honest."

The result was a six-week dash to produce the first draft of "Incendiary."

At one point in the novel, the reader has an image of the narrator's little boy in his tiger pajamas, holding a stuffed animal called Mr. Rabbit. Then several pages later, the mother is in an adulterous embrace with a haughty journalist while her son and husband are at the soccer game. The TV is on and she imagines them cheering in the stands of the raucous soccer stadium. She experiences sexual ecstasy at the moment 11 suicide bombers, six with fragmentation bombs under their Arsenal jerseys, the rest wearing incendiaries, detonate their explosives.

Rebecca Carter, Cleave's British editor, has heard accusations (from the press, mainly) that "Incendiary" is sensationalist and insensitive in a time of mourning.

After the July 7 attacks, "I knew people would read the book in the wrong way and that kind of saddened me," says Carter, who rushed the editing process for fear that an inevitable attack on London would precede the book's release. "Our whole campaign appeared tasteless, and in a way that wasn't intended."

In "Incendiary," the British government -- which keeps a sinister secret about the fictional attack -- orders that Muslims be fired from all high-profile jobs, but also in other fields, such as health care. It also installs the "Shield of Hope" to protect the city from kamikazes, clogging the city skyline with gigantic balloons bearing the bloated faces of victims. Meanwhile, Elton John belts out "England's Heart Is Bleeding," a piano anthem that will top the pop charts "probably forever or at least until the sun and the stars burned out like cheap lightbulbs and the universe ended for good and it couldn't come soon enough if you asked me but nobody did," the narrator muses.

In one scene Cleave has Prince William making an appearance at a London hospital, shaking hands with the novel's battered heroine right after she is informed that nothing remains of her son and husband except their teeth. Vomit spills all over his royal shoes. Cameras flash.

"What if," Cleave says, pondering whether a novel can really change world events. "What if Osama bin Laden picks up that book, in a moment of weakness . . . and says, 'Oh, God. Well, maybe I'll think slightly differently.' What if it changed one atom in his brain? I don't know. What if. And I know it's clutching at straws in a drowning world, but you got to clutch 'em. . . .

"If I want to be remembered for anything other than this sick coincidence, then my next book had better be bloody good," he says. "My next book had better be unbelievably fantastic to the point where people talk about that, rather than the coincidence."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I've never read a book says Posh

Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham has admitted she has never read a book in her life - despite having apparently written her own 528-page autobiography.

The 31-year-old wife of England captain David Beckham told a Spanish magazine she does not have time to read.

The singer, who has three sons, also revealed to Chic magazine she was keen to have a daughter.

And she said she did not get jealous when other women paid attention to her famous husband.

She told the magazine: "I know what other women think and I say to myself 'He is very good looking, he dresses very well, he is great with children and he has an enormous heart'.

"I am not jealous and when people look at him, I think it's because he's great."

In the article, she said she would rather listen to music than read - although she admitted to "loving" fashion magazines.

Mrs Beckham, who is already mother to three sons - Brooklyn, 6, Romeo, 2, and six-month-old Cruz - said she wanted a daughter.

She said she could imagine "painting her nails, putting on make-up and choosing clothes" with her.

The interview will appear in next month's edition of Chic magazine but has been leaked to Spanish newspapers.

Mrs Beckham's autobiography, Learning to Fly, was published in 2001.

Story from BBC NEWS:

BBC NEWS | UK | I've never read a book says Posh

Monday, August 15, 2005

Authors Let Bidders Name Characters

The Associated Press
Monday, August 15, 2005; 2:59 PM

SAN FRANCISCO -- It can take years of late-night navel gazing for a novelist to name a character _ or it could come as quickly as an Internet auction on eBay.

Next month, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket, Nora Roberts, Michael Chabon and 11 other best-selling writers will auction the right to name characters in their new novels. The profits will go to the First Amendment Project, whose lawyers have repeatedly gone to court to protect the free speech rights of activists, writers and artists.

"It feels a little scary for most writers because when you're writing, you're completely in charge _ you can say this book is all mine, it's my world," said Chabon. "Whether giving over some of that has any monetary value or not, we'll see."

But bidders beware _ most of the authors are clearly retaining creative control to use the names as they see fit.

King says the highest bidder will get to name a character in a new zombie novel he describes as being "like cheap whisky ... very nasty and extremely satisfying." Cult comic author Neil Gaiman will let his top buyer select the name for a gravestone. Andrew Sean Greer promises the winner may choose the name of a "coffee shop, bar, corset company or other business in another scene," but only "should it suit the author."

John Grisham is one of only a handful promising to portray the top bidder's chosen name "in a good light."

On Sept. 1, eBay Giving Works, the site's dedicated program for charity listings, will go live with the electronic auction. For the next 25 days, anyone with an Internet connection can bid 24 hours a day to insert names into their favorite writers' heads. The event's organizers say they believe it will fetch well over the nonprofit First Amendment Project's goal of $50,000.

The benefit was the brainchild of Gaiman, who approached Chabon with the idea when he heard the group was running out of money. It will now constitute the single-largest fund-raising event for the First Amendment Project, whose legal staff will gratefully leverage the goodwill of authors willing to help keep its doors open. Other writers include Dave Eggers, Dorothy Allison, Peter Straub, ZZ Packer, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Ayelet Waldman, Andrew Sean Greer and Karen Joy Fowler.

"It's nice when people say they want to raise money for you," said David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project, which was founded in 1994. "Because it was brought to us by the writers, it was even more special."

Greene said that money raised by the auction will go to support the organization's pro bono work representing clients being sued over free speech, free press and freedom of expression. One such case, over whether a high school student's angry poetry constituted a "criminal threat," recently went before the California Supreme Court.

Board member Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," said his own work would be meaningless without the freedoms afforded under the First Amendment.

"I don't think anything else can be hopeful or accomplished if you have the fear that you will get arrested or prosecuted or censored," he said. "I saw a cry for help. So it was my goal to try to get writers whose work and whose name would be meaningful to the greatest number of people."

Snicket, who will let the top bidder determine an utterance by Sunny Baudelaire in his upcoming 13th installment of his "Series of Unfortunate Events," said he holds the First Amendment dear because "the only trouble I should get in for my writing is the trouble I make myself."

His only caveat: The meaning of the utterance may be slightly "mutilated."

Authors Let Bidders Name Characters

Getting new books to buzz


August 15, 2005

On a bright Saturday afternoon, a youthful team that often hands out nightclub leaflets fanned out across Central Park, Hamptons beaches and sites in five other cities with an unusual assignment: Give away the first two chapters of a novel.

The team scored right away with Monika Krejeirova, a 31-year-old hedge-fund worker who was sunning herself on Central Park's Great Lawn. "It's just enough to get me excited," she said as she finished the excerpt of "The Black Silent," by David Dun. "I want to know what happens next." She planned to stop by a Barnes & Noble store to ask when the science-fiction thriller would go on sale.

A few blankets away, though, Jackie Spitz, a 26-year-old teacher, tossed the booklet aside. "I only took it," she said, "because I felt sorry for the people handing it out."

Pity the book industry. Of all forms of media, it may face the greatest challenge enticing people to sample its products.

That's why a few publishers are trying guerrilla marketing to build all-important buzz for their books. Some are employing teams to give out samples at concerts, parks and movie theaters to people they hope are trendsetters. Others are using stealth Internet campaigns, the way movie companies do, creating mysterious Web sites to intrigue potential readers. Both techniques helped promote a summer science fiction bestseller, "The Traveler," by an anonymous author with the pseudonym John Twelve Hawks.

In perhaps the most unusual move, some publishers have recruited thousands of ordinary people to act as so-called buzz agents to talk up books to their friends. Books ranging from the bestselling "Freakonomics" to literary novels have recently gotten the buzz treatment.

Reading in decline

These days, it's especially important to find better ways of pushing books, publishers say, as reading continues to decline, especially among young adults. And for books that do catch on, publishing has become a winner-take-all business. One or two runaway bestsellers become the books that seemingly everyone is reading and talking about while the rest of the 195,000 titles published in a year languish.

"This is a business where people know one very difficult fact: Americans want to read hits. They don't want to read flops," said Albert Greco, a professor of marketing and book-industry researcher at Fordham University. "What works? It's hard to say. Most people think that it's word of mouth, called 'buzz' in the business."

Buzz is what propels a book such as "The DaVinci Code" to 124 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The same goes for "The Kite Runner," a first novel set in Afghanistan, now at 47 weeks. Traditional methods like media appearances, ads and author readings help, especially for famous authors, but it's everyday chatter at dinner parties and offices that puts a breakout book over the top.

"Word of mouth is very important," said Laurie Parkin, vice president and publisher of Kensington Publishing, publisher of "The Black Silent." "It's what gives a book what we call 'legs.' Media attention is great, and it's instant and it's immediate. But if people like the book, they talk about it, and that's when you see books hit the bestseller list for 50 weeks, 100 weeks. It's what we all aspire to."

Getting people talking

That's why the new techniques aim at getting people talking. And talking is the essence of BzzAgent, a 3-year-old Boston company. It has 90,000 recruits who've agreed to talk up products ranging from shoes to sausages to books -- for no pay, just for access to some free stuff and the feeling of being in the know about the latest things.

"It definitely sounded kind of kooky," said Rick Pascocello, vice president of advertising and promotions for the Penguin Group of publishers. BzzAgent approached him back in 2002 to do a campaign for free if Penguin would be its first client. So he took a why-not plunge with "The Frog King," by a first-time novelist, Adam Davies.

The book is a somewhat humorous take on a young man coming of age in the work world. But despite its possible appeal to 20-something readers, Penguin had low expectations: no money for advertising, virtually no reviews. Yet, crowds of more than 100 showed up at readings, and the book went on to sell a healthy 50,000 copies.

Pascocello credits 1,000 BzzAgents, who read the book on subways, asked for it at bookstores, reviewed it on and buzzed their friends about it. He's since used BzzAgents for 30 more books, including an Iraqi war memoir, "Generation Kills," by Evan Wright. After selling 40,000 copies in hardcover, it would have been expected to pull in similar numbers in paperback, but it more than doubled that after a buzz campaign.

For the middle-tier book

"This isn't for the big commercial books that are on the bestseller list," Pascocello said. "This is for the next layer of books that everybody here in the industry knows and loves but struggles with how to get people to find them." Other publishers have tried BzzAgents, too, including HarperCollins and Rodale. Doubleday is considering it.

In practice, BzzAgent campaigns lead to encounters like this one in an apartment-complex laundry room, reported on the company Web site: "A woman walked in with her wash. I looked up and smiled, as did she. After a few minutes she asked what book I was reading, and I told her about the 'Young, Fabulous & Broke' book [by Suze Orman]. Her eyebrows raised and said, 'Wow . . . that's me!'"

After comparing stories about debts and child-rearing, the agent gave the woman postcards about the book and reported: "She was completely exstatic !" Authentic or not, that sort of personal connection is hard to duplicate in traditional promotions.

Michele Hanson, in charge of book campaigns at BzzAgent, said agents are encouraged to be honest and buzz books only if they like them. Still, there's been some backlash. Someone posted a reader's review on warning that other positive reviews of "The Frog King" might be the untrustworthy result of buzz marketing.

Stealth is inexpensive

One reason publishers like stealth promotions is they aren't expensive. Pascocello said he spends in the low six figures to buzz 10 books a year.

Low marketing budgets are a leading obstacle to unknown books, according to Greco of Fordham University. Unlike movie companies, which might spend $50 million to market a $100 million film, book publishers rarely allocate more than 10 percent to 20 percent of what they've spent on a book to go out and sell it, he said.

However, publishers have borrowed one page, if an inexpensive one, from movie marketing by trying some stealth Internet campaigns. Faced this summer with promoting "The Traveler," Doubleday set up a series of Web sites.

Posted months before the book was published in July, the sites weren't identified as having any connection with "The Traveler," the idea being to create some mystery and capture the attention of alternative-reality fans, a target readership. Gradually, they discovered the sites and began to chatter about them, including a site that allows people to break into the files of the book's sinister Evergreen Foundation, and a blog for a major character.

Handouts on the street

At the same time, Doubleday hired Sniper Marketing, a Brooklyn street-team company that hands out promotional items for nightclubs, record companies and other youth-oriented products. "They're very good at reaching a younger male market, and that's part of who we were looking for here," said John Pitts, marketing director of Doubleday. It was the first book assignment for Sniper.

The teams targeted campuses, comic book shops and lines for the latest "Star Wars" movie with a promotional DVD. "On the first day of 'Star Wars,' we got the fanatics," said Ozzie Salcedo, the founder of Sniper Marketing. "It was awesome. People were eating it up."

That, along with some good reviews, pushed the book onto The New York Times best-seller list for two weeks when it came out last month. Now 200,000 copies are in print. Not bad, said Pitts, "considering it's a first-time novelist that nobody's ever met."

For its second book project, Dun's "The Black Silent," Sniper hit a glitch: A Central Park employee asked the teams to stop -- he claimed the sample chapters were litter. Still, Sniper gave out 150,000 samples over the July 4 weekend. Kensington Publishing also took out some newspaper ads.

The result? So far, the publisher is shipping 20 percent more copies than it had for Dun's previous books. Absent detailed market research, unheard-of in publishing, it's hard to measure the impact of the new efforts to promote outside the bookstores, said Parkin, the publisher of "The Black Silent." But it's worth trying, she added: "You've got a very limited time to market a book. This gives it a little added dimension."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc. Getting new books to buzz

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