A Finished Book Is Just the Beginning

The first book written about Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, Michael Tomasky’s Hillary’s Turn, came out early last year, gently rippled the marketplace, and was remaindered. Beth Harpaz noticed. By the time her Clinton book appeared last October, America had put so many miles between itself and the 2000 campaign that she could readily imagine The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary entering instant oblivion. Harpaz had two years invested in it, and she didn’t intend to let that happen.

At a cost of 84 cents postage paid out of her own pocket, Harpaz sent me a thick packet of information last month about herself and her book. She was coming to Chicago to do some readings, and she hoped “that you might be able to help me with a little advance publicity.” Publicists asking for ink call all the time, but when the appeal comes straight from an author I’m usually dealing with a lone ranger whose vision’s too pure for the profitmongers. Authors who self-publish and market their own books are like independent filmmakers–some of the work is astonishing and a lot of it’s awful.

But if someone praised Harpaz’s book for its brave, uncompromising voice she’d probably laugh out loud. Her letter to me described The Girls in the Van as a “funny, breezy, behind-the-scenes look at the [Clinton] race.” And though St. Martin’s Press, which published it, isn’t the biggest, richest, most powerful house in the land, it’s a lot closer to that than to Kinko’s.

“Not to take anything away from St. Martin’s,” says Harpaz, whom I called in her Brooklyn apartment, “but they have a lot of books to promote. I have one book to promote. I can do it full-time. They can’t. I pretty much spend the day on the Internet and sending out packets and fulfilling whatever commitments I’ve booked. Of course I’ve spent several thousand dollars in postcards and postage, etc. But other authors who hadn’t done this and whose books went nowhere despite good reviews said, ‘I wish I’d spent part of my advance on publicity.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t want to be wishing that. I’ll do it.'”

A conversation last spring with Tomasky helped her make up her mind. He’s a columnist for New York magazine, she’s a reporter for the AP, and they met at a press conference. By then it was clear to Tomasky that his Hillary book wouldn’t be assaulting any best-seller lists. “He said he’d done some national talk shows and some readings at Barnes & Noble,” says Harpaz, “but he was feeling there were some missed opportunities.”

He suggested that she try to buy the Clinton fund-raisers’ mailing list. “That just didn’t work for me for all kinds of political reasons, journalistic reasons, financial reasons,” says Harpaz. “But it made me start thinking about how I could better reach the people who might be interested in this book.” She’s been thinking about that ever since.

Harpaz, who covered the Clinton campaign for the AP, has since taken a year’s leave to flog The Girls in the Van. As a journalist she knows how to pitch journalists. She understands that a paper is more likely to carry a “soft feature” than a review, and that while the review might be mixed or negative the simpler goal of the feature writer is just to make you and your book sound interesting. And since an interview with an author is such an easy story to do, a newspaper can easily be talked into doing one. Harpaz’s letter to me cajoled, “I figured between my upcoming appearances and Hillary’s roots in the Chicago ‘burbs, there might be enough of a local angle for your readers to be interested.”

The letter was headed “Dear Mr. Milner.” I ask how she came up with her list of people to reach in Chicago.

Friends give you names and from those names come other names, she explains. And then there’s the Internet. “Type in ‘alternative weekly,'” she says, “and you get various things.”

She adds, “I go on Web sites about women in politics. I look for professors–women’s studies professors and political science professors. I keep it short and simple. ‘I wrote this book, I’m not famous, but you might be interested in this book. Here’s my Web site.” She’s banking on a lot more than a single sale to these academics. Once the paperback comes out this fall, she’s hoping that some of the profs will add it to their syllabi.

Her brother-in-law set up the Web site. When you go there you get to know Harpaz a little and can read an excerpt from The Girls in the Van. “It’s gotten 45,000 hits,” she says. “It’s another thing that gives you credibility. If they’ve never heard of you or heard of your book, if you can refer them to a Web site you’re not some lunatic or anonymous. When the book was first published I E-mailed everyone I personally knew with the Web site address and I said, when you E-mail anyone you know please mention the Web site. And now I’ve gotten 15 or 20 invitations from people I don’t know to speak at high schools or book clubs, etc. Friends of friends of friends. Most of my appearances aren’t paid, but it’s all about creating word of mouth. Charlie Rose is not knocking at my door.”

St. Martin’s financed her trip to Chicago. It yielded a Q and A in the Tribune’s women’s section, but the crowds at the readings were small. She drew better on Super Bowl Sunday when she read at a bookstore in Ithaca, New York. The next day Cornell, her alma mater, paid her to give a talk. Ithaca was a trip she’d set up by herself, and she stayed with relatives.

Because nobody was thinking of books for weeks after September 11, her book seems newer than it is, and it’s still newsworthy. Two weeks ago Harpaz scored three pages in Newsday. “My sister lives on Long Island,” she explains. “I booked myself at a bookstore there, and then I went to Newsday and said, ‘I’m going to be at this Long Island bookstore.’ And they did a story. It was amazing it was so easy to get it to happen.”

As a reward for the eight-hour days she’s devoted to The Girls in the Van–while raising two children under ten–Harpaz now worries that the print run of 20,000 will sell out before the paperback edition arrives in the fall. That’s one nightmare Michael Tomasky didn’t have. He told me he really doesn’t know how many copies Hillary’s Turn wound up selling–he didn’t stay on top of such things. “I just wrote it,” he said. “All of this other stuff is somebody else’s job.”

Not any longer. Despite the publishing industry’s tradition of diligent assistance to worthy authors, books are going the way of cars. If you want them to move you’ll have to pump the gas yourself. “I have come to dread book tours,” wrote Ann Beattie, beginning an essay in the New York Times this past Monday. “Maybe it’s fun for a first-timer.” But as for her, “I have serious doubts about the value of a book tour.”

So does first-timer Harpaz. Everything she’s done has been by way of creating an alternative. Some authors these days go so far as to hire PR agencies to make their books famous, and Harpaz thought about doing this too. She knew exactly whom she wanted, but she couldn’t justify the fee of a few thousand dollars a month.

Early on, she heard an inspiring story about an author every bit as successful as Beattie. A woman Harpaz knows through her four-year-old’s day care said she lived in the same Brooklyn apartment house as Terry McMillan when Waiting to Exhale hit the market back in 1992. McMillan had no intention of letting her new book rise or fall only on its merits. “She’d walk down the steps with a shopping bag full of postcards,” says Harpaz. “She was as much responsible for making that book a huge hit as any other factor.”

Green Bay’s True Colors?

The executive director of the Multicultural Center of Greater Green Bay applauds her city for looking into Michele Ranger’s tale of racial harassment. But she questions the depth of Green Bay’s commitment to get at the truth.

Chandrika Mahadeva reached me the day last week’s Hot Type came out. I’d written about the story Ranger told to Sun-Times columnist Carol Slezak of being taunted by Packers fans early last December as she watched the Bears and Packers play at Lambeau Field. Slezak wrote on December 16 that Ranger, who’s black, was “inundated with derogatory racial comments.” Mayor Paul Jadin promptly ordered a police investigation, but late last month he announced that despite “individuals who exhibited behavior that certainly we would not condone” and who probably had had too much to drink, “there was in fact no racial harassment.”

“That’s unacceptable to us,” says Mahadeva.

Jadin told me that before publishing Slezak’s story the Sun-Times should have done what the Green Bay police would later do–test it by interviewing the people who sat in the seats around Ranger’s. Mahadeva isn’t sure how much stock to put in these witnesses: “Were these all men? Were they all white? Were they all drinking? Were they all Packers fans?” Mahadeva says she doesn’t know because the police didn’t say, but she has an idea. “When you’re asking the perpetrators, the culprits as it were, ‘Did you victimize her?’ what answer are you going to get? ‘No, we didn’t mean it that way’? Yikes! Could we have dug a little deeper? Yes.”

Mahadeva says Green Bay “should have put Miss Ranger at the center of the investigation and listened to her rather than trying to negate what she was saying. It should have been proactive instead of defensive.” In January a four-person delegation led by a police captain and a police lieutenant drove south to interview Ranger, who lives in Skokie. The only woman along was June McKenzie, a Multicultural Center board member who was a late addition to the group. The lieutenant, as I wrote last week, concluded that Ranger was someone who had got herself “in a corner” and was “saving face.” McKenzie, however, found her credible. Among other things, she recalls Ranger telling the group that her brothers are police officers and that she wished the Sun-Times “had mentioned some of the positive things at Green Bay, in particular the person at Red Lobster after the game who was very wonderful to her.”

Mahadeva says the Multicultural Center and the mayor’s office are now developing “protocols” that will help them work more comfortably together whenever charges such as Ranger’s are made. “We want to have access to the information of who’s calling and what’s happening to the calls. We want to monitor and advise and guide the mayor’s office, and the mayor needs to be referring to us as well. We feel very sad at the end of the day with what happened with this incident. It takes great courage and fortitude to go to a newspaper and say something needs to be done with this. And that was not recognized and not honored, and she was brushed aside.”

News Bites

Question posed in the Tribune last Friday to Democratic gubernatorial candidates who met with the paper’s editorial board: “Can you give us two ideas that would fundamentally reform education in this state and would not cost more money?”

Question presumably upcoming: “Obviously education isn’t one of them, but are there any fundamental reforms in this state important enough to spend money on?”

If there’d been some kind of public poll taken after the opening ceremonies of this week’s Olympics, the overwhelming choice as the greatest moment in American sports history in the 20th century would have been the American hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics on their way to winning the gold medal. The American hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union in the 1960 Olympics on their way to winning the gold medal would barely have been remembered. Even journalists have forgotten it, not to mention the dignitaries who plan opening ceremonies.

Michael Wilmington, handicapping the upcoming Oscar nominations in last Sunday’s Tribune: “Berry and Spacek are sure things, and Kidman would be, if she weren’t competing against herself with both ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘The Others.'”

Mark Caro, doing the same thing in the same Tribune: “Kidman’s biggest competition is herself; votes for her for ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘The Others’ might cancel each other out.”

The same logic was widely applied a year ago to explain how tough it would be for Steven Soderbergh to cop the Oscar for best director after being nominated for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Yet Soderbergh won and Kidman was just nominated, and I wish someone would put chalk to blackboard and demonstrate why it’s so much worse to lose votes to a competitor when the competitor’s yourself instead of somebody else. If Soderbergh had cornered all five nominations, victory presumably would have become mathematically impossible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.