Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Feature: Interview with Matt Staggs

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Matt Staggs is a publicist specializing in book and author publicity. This year, he launched Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. Matt is currently guest-blogging at Ecstatic Days.

Hi. Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.

It's my pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity!

I've never talked to a book publicist before. How does one become a book publicist?

There are a lot of different ways to get there, but I don't know any of them that are direct routes. I would advise anyone looking to break into this business to be sure that you really love books - maybe to an irrational extent - and learn how the media works. Get out there and work in journalism, blog, do it all. Get to know publishers and authors. Be willing to help out and go the extra mile. Sometimes you can build professional experience simply by volunteering. Consider it a self-guided unpaid internship. Do whatever you can to learn the business, and above all - and I have to say this again - really, really love books and writers!

How similar or different is it from Marketing or PR?

They're all aspects of the great buzz-making beast, but each performs a different role. As a marketer you'll find that you're focused more on making sure that product gets picked up by distributors, wholesalers and retail chains. It's a sales-oriented business. Public relations people often work with responding to situations that can positively or negatively affect the overall identity of an individual or corporate entity. Book publicists work on building up public knowledge and enthusiasm for titles and authors. Sometimes a particular author or his or her book, other times perhaps the entire seasonal catalog of one publisher. Sometimes all of these roles overlap, and I've done all three.

How did you end up becoming a publicist?

That's an interesting question. An eclectic combination of professional experience and personal inclination led me to where I am today: Professional experience in the sense that I've worked in journalism, public relations and publishing, and personal inclination in that I've been a helpless bibliophile my entire life that can't help but to talk constantly about books and writers.

Before becoming one, have you thought of pursuing a different career, such as being an author yourself?

Well, it's a matter of what comes easiest and most naturally to me. I love the work that I do, and I get to work side-by-side with people I completely idolize anyway, like Ekaterina Sedia and Jeff VanderMeer. That's hard to pass up. However, I enjoy writing, too. You can catch me contributing the occasional article here and there around the web, and If you look around hard enough, you can even find fiction I've published: stories of both varying quality and length in small magazines, chapbooks and webzines.

Who were some of the authors or what are some of the books that made a big impression on you when you were younger?

It depends on what you mean by "younger." As a child, one of my strongest book-related memories is of reading Peter Benchley's novel Jaws all night while burning up with fever. I couldn't sleep. It was one of those terrible summer flus, and I was passing the night reading, alternating between that and The New Testament. I think I was in second grade. I was a terribly precocious reader, and skipped a lot of the children's literature other people grew up reading. Part of this was due to the fact that I practically grew up in the public library. While not poor, my family didn't have a lot of money and we went to the library practically every week. I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of books. I discovered science fiction when I was in fifth grade, and cut my teeth on Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Harlan Ellison. In my teens, I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson and that sort of thing, eventually stumbling on to Michael Moorcock's Elric books. From there I became a lot more flexible about the kinds of books I read, and not so particularly concerned with genre. In college, my reading was pretty eclectic. Some of the most important ones to me were Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Elmore Leonard, Mark Leyner, Shirley Jackson and Charles Bukowski.

How about in the present?

Not all of these are new, but they are books that have truly moved me in this phase of my life: Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery, Thunderer by Felix Gilman, To Charles Fort with Love by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Boy's Life by Robert McCammon, Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan, Boomerang by Barry Hannah, The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale, Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop Wow, I could probably go on for days.

Do you think a publicist needs to be a "big fan" of the authors they represent?

Not necessarily. I think, however, it is important to love and respect writers, and remember that there are readers for every book. A publicist does his or her best to identify those readers and bring the book to their attention. I've worked in a book store and a library in college, and there's always a certain joy in making sure people find something they want to read. My job now isn't that different from this.

Do you think every author needs to have their own publicist?

I think that even the most media-savvy writers will find at a certain point in their career they need professional help because they'll get too busy with their writing to effectively manage their own publicity. It's up to the writer to decide whether they're at that point. Other writers don't have a knack for self-promotion, and may consider the services of a publicist even earlier in their career. Still, there are exceptions to every rule, and some people may find that they never need the services I provide.

What's your reaction to authors who claim that they simply want to focus on their writing and don't want to devote time to market their own work? Are these your ideal clients or the clients you want to avoid?

I think that most authors would prefer to do things this way. As a writer, your work should be your main priority. I try my best to make sure that they receive the maximum public exposure at the most minimal level of intrusion. That being said, I think that things work best when I can collaborate with my clients in the execution of a publicity campaign to the extent that they are able to do so.

When's the best time to hire a publicist? Like if you're an author who just has one story out in the market, is it advisable to get a publicist or should he/she wait until they have amassed a modest collection of stories or a novel?

I would suggest that publicity campaigns are best structured around specific items or goals. In other words, if you have a novel or story collection coming out, or maybe just won an award or a fellowship, maybe then this could be a good time to think about a publicity campaign.

What made you decide to establish Deep Eight LLC? What makes it different from the other publicity firms?

I felt that the genre writers I enjoyed suffered in the marketplace because they didn't have access to the same kinds of publicity opportunities mainstream writers enjoyed. These men and women are among the brightest and most inspired writers in the world, yet hardly anyone gives them the attention they deserve. I established Deep Eight LLC with the specific goal of meeting that need. Deep Eight LLC differs from other publicity firms in a few very substantial ways: the first is that I'm a fan of the literature I promote. I know it sounds like that would be obvious, but it really isn't. There are publicists out there who don't "get" speculative fiction. They don't know or appreciate their writers or audience. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading SF/Fantasy/Horror, collecting comic books, watching Star Wars - I'm not trying to say that speculative fiction fans can be so easily defined with these sorts of signifiers, but I will say that from a very early age this kind of stuff was in my blood. I know the audience because I'm a part of it, and I care about what happens to it. Another aspect about Deep Eight that differentiates it from other companies is that I'm not afraid of new technologies and emerging social media. I embrace it. I know that the world is different now than it was, say, five years ago. I know you have to keep up with the times. Getting a review in a print magazine and leaving it at that won't do it anymore.

Your clients tend to involve authors/publishing houses that tend to be involve in speculative fiction one way or another. Is Deep Eight limited to promoting speculative fiction?

I'd say that this is a specialty of mine, but as a public relations generalist, I can work within the needs of any author.

What is it about fantasy/science fiction/horror that appeals to you?

Wow. That's a really difficult question, and one I think that most fans ask themselves at one time or another. In my own case, I would think that maybe it stems from a combination of an extremely active imagination and a sense of general dissatisfaction with the world as it stands. Speculative fiction authors tackle big issues in extremely creative ways, so it's like catnip to me. I feel like our world doesn't value fantasy enough. As a matter of fact, sometimes it seems like it goes out of the way to crush it. I'm reminded of the Yeats quote: "Tread softly, for you are treading on my dreams."

What's the great challenge you've faced so far?

Probably the suicide of author Thomas M. Disch. I was working with Tom to promote his book "The Word of God," and am still scheduled to promote his story collection "The Wall of America" from Tachyon Publications. The suicide affected me in a lot of different ways, not all of them solely from a professional standpoint. I have a long family history of suicides, and lost my father a few years back. Tom's death brought back some rough feelings for me. I felt a lot of guilt. I had tried to call Tom and speak with him about his problems, but he was very private, and preferred not to discuss them. I also felt like I should have tried harder to promote his books, and that maybe he would have not done what he did had there been a bigger response to what he was doing. I know that this is completely irrational, but it's the kind of thing with which I'm still dealing, while still having to come up with a way to respectfully and tactfully increase awareness of the title.

What in your opinion is the most underused non-traditional method of reaching out to potential readers? How about the most overused but over-exaggerated traditional method?

The most underused method of reaching out to potential readers is trying to engage them on their own ground: if you're an author, blog. Join forums. Network. Make yourself available to opportunities like this. Also, more people should be reaching out to bloggers, web-based publications and genre websites. These offer the potential for exposing your work to a much more focused and dedicated audience. As far as over-exaggerated and overused? Depending solely on traditional mediums, like newspapers, to carry your message and assuming that just because you get a review in a major newspaper you can rest on your laurels.

Can you give an example of how Deep Eight combines both traditional and non-traditional methods?

Sure! I've been working with Ekaterina Sedia lately to promote her novel "The Alchemy of Stone," and came up with a sort of "rolling interview" meme to get the word out. Basically, I asked her five questions, then tagged another blogger to ask the next five and so forth and so on. It was a lot of fun, and resulted in significant exposure for her while developing good content for the bloggers who participated. It was a win-win. In other cases, I use the same sorts of strategies along with sending out review copies of books and setting up author interviews with genre-friendly print journalists.

Is your popular blog, Enter the Octopus, officially part of Deep Eight?

Enter the Octopus is my own personal blog, and it reflects every aspect of my life. Sometimes I'll talk about projects I'm involved with, but most of the time you'll find me blogging about books, projects and authors I have absolutely no professional contact with at all, as well as things that generally interest me like sea creatures, weird art and popular culture.

Right now, who in your opinion are some authors that are under-appreciated? Who are your personal favorites?

That's hard to say. There are probably tons of writers out there right now who have hardly ever been published, yet write brilliantly. I can think of one in particular, a friend of mine named Tessa Kum. She runs a great website at http://www.silence-without.blogspot.com. She writes these incredible little slices of creative fiction that you should really check out.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers? How about advice to established authors?

In both cases, I think that the best advice I can offer is to really develop a relationship with your fans. They're the people who will stay by you through thick and thin. Podcasting authors like Mur Lafferty, Matthew Wayne Selznick (I'm working with both of them, along with their Swarm Press label mate Van Allen Plexico) and Scott Sigler are among the new wave of writers who are recognizing the value in building a grass root network of support. Also, help each other. Work to support other people in your field. If you want more, give more.

What advice can you give to someone who's interested in becoming a book publicist?

Beyond what I've addressed in the prior questions, I have to offer the same advice I give to anyone looking to start a career: be prepared to volunteer your time, to make mistakes and to keep an open mind. Never assume that you've learned all that there is to learn. Continue to evolve.

Anything else you want to plug?

Yes! I'm working right now to promote the release of a new edition of Tim Power's novel "The Stress of Her Regard." I'm very excited about it, and you can learn more at www.tachyonpublications.com. Also, my friends Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have a new anthology of pirate fiction coming out very soon from Nightshade Press called "Fast Ships, Black Sails". It should be out toward winter, I imagine. It's full of good stuff - I've read it already, and can confidently say that this book is fantastic.


Dom Cimafranca said...

So...can we hire you (Charles) as our book publicist?

Actually, wouldn't hurt to have you as an agent, man.

Charles said...

What I tell local writers first is that YOU NEED TO COME OUT WITH BOOKS before I can publicize them.

So go write/publish.

Van Allen Plexico said...

I appreciate Matt mentioning me (Van Plexico) and my work. He's doing a great job.

My stuff can be found at www.swarmpress.com or visit the main page for my novel series at www.whiterocketbooks.com/sentinels

Thanks, Matt. Keep up the great work!