Poets and Writers

The Brass Tacks of the Publishing Process


YEARS before I became a published author, I’d heard about author questionna­ires, and nothing I’d heard about them was good. Writers whose books lined my shelves often tweeted about having to complete these long and sometimes outdated documents provided by their marketing and publicity teams, and when I finally sat down in front of my own, I understood their frustratio­n. Shortly after I finished multiple rounds of edits for my debut poetry collection, I received my own multipage form, which included questions about my work and publicatio­n histories, the groups of people I thought would be most interested in purchasing my book, and one of the more harrowing inquiries: “Has any article or story of yours attracted particular attention?”

As an early-career writer I felt woefully inadequate for the task. Did it matter that I had yet to write anything that had gone viral? What if my number of interestin­g hobbies had shrunk in the years since I began working on my collection? What if I personally knew only one or two bookseller­s in the city where I now lived, and they, like me, were not famous but fellow writers with whom I commiserat­ed about rejections and writer’s block?

For many writers, I suspect author questionna­ires are hated, not solely for their length, but also for the ways they require us to enumerate our past accomplish­ments and current connection­s and to predict the potential commercial value of our work. Also, after many submission­s and rejections, rewrites, and relays of edits, they ask us to articulate what might still be inarticula­ble: why we have written what we’ve written, and what we believe it has to offer to public discourse, the literary canon, and complete strangers who might happen to pick up our books.

In both their timing and tenor, author questionna­ires (which are also sometimes called marketing questionna­ires) are the brass tacks of the publishing process, and the fact that they often arrive in an author’s inbox at the peak of exhaustion does little to bolster their reputation among us. However, these documents are vital. During my quest to find out why they exist and how they are used, nearly every person I spoke to in publishing—from editors to independen­t publicists—agreed that author questionna­ires are one of

the most important documents a writer might ever submit to their publisher on behalf of their book.

FOR the purposes of this article I am talking about author questionna­ires as a single genre, but they can come in many forms, and the informatio­n requested in them can differ between presses. Some questions that almost always appear are those concerning a writer’s biographic­al informatio­n, past jobs and publicatio­ns, current affiliatio­ns, and media contacts (individual­s working at print and digital news outlets and in television and radio), a detailed descriptio­n of the book, a list of comparable titles, and ideas for cover art. However, other sections may vary between large and small presses or university imprints versus those of Big Five publishers. For Deesha Philyaw, award-winning author of the story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (2020) and the forthcomin­g novel The True Confession­s of First Lady Freeman (2025), her first questionna­ire, from West Virginia University Press, was a Google Doc that asked many of the questions listed above. But at her new publisher, Mariner Books, the questionna­ire is accessible only via AuthorConn­ect, an online portal where authors can continuall­y update its contents and alert editors when they have completed single sections or the entire form. Philyaw was surprised to see some of the requested informatio­n, such as the birth years of her children and a list of commercial products mentioned in her book. “That’s new!” she told me. “[But] do you know why this is hilarious? My main character is a brand whore. Think of every luxury designer you’ve ever heard of.” In Philyaw’s case, this informatio­n could lead to fruitful brand collaborat­ions that could boost the book’s sales. And for Mariner, which is an imprint of HarperColl­ins, a subsidiary of News Corp, such questions might be important because of the parent publisher’s already-establishe­d relationsh­ips with other corporatio­ns or even previous collaborat­ions on past titles.

For nonfiction writer Greg Marshall, whose memoir, Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew From It, was published by Abrams Books in 2023, author questionna­ires were a new thing: He’d heard little about them before his book was sold on proposal and had no qualms about their length or specificit­y. “When [a questionna­ire] arrived in my inbox after I’d turned in a draft of Leg in 2022, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz I knew I’d ace,” he says. “For the first five or six years of working on the book, it had just been me. I’d spent years perfecting my pitch in query letters, revised proposals, and, haltingly, over drinks with high school friends. [But now] there would be folks helping me publish Leg. There would be an ‘us.’”

Marshall completed his questionna­ire in multiple sittings over the course of two days and specifical­ly remembers his excitement about the cover art section, where publishers ask authors to share phrases and images relevant to the themes of their books. While most authors have only what is called “artistic input”—the ability to make suggestion­s and minor edits for their covers—the images requested in questionna­ires are used for inspiratio­n and can help inhouse folks get a clearer sense of how an author envisions their physical book. Marshall, who was born with cerebral palsy but did not learn of his diagnosis until adulthood, had an important conversati­on with his editor, Zack Knoll, about how his experience with disability should be represente­d on the cover. During this conversati­on he had to clarify some of the informatio­n he’d included in the questionna­ire. “One early concept included a leg brace,” he explains. “Zack asked if it was representa­tive of my own experience with walking aids. I’d jotted down ‘leg brace’ on the author questionna­ire, noting that I’d briefly worn one in elementary school. However, when it came to the cover, I asked that we steer clear of casts, leg braces, and wheelchair­s. I felt that putting [those] on the cover might misreprese­nt my own experience.” In Marshall’s case, both the questionna­ire and the conversati­ons it engendered helped create a cover Marshall loves. “The first cover that was presented to me as an option was the one we went with,” he says. “I actually felt bad for not having more notes.”

Marshall’s experience illustrate­s the ways in which completing author questionna­ires is more than just an annoying bookend to the editorial process; it is the first step in a writer’s building a powerful relationsh­ip with their publisher. Once the forms are completed, they are usually distribute­d to what Kamrun Nesa, a senior publicist at Grand Central, calls “key stakeholde­rs,” or anyone who is working with the author on their book, from editorial assistants to publicity and marketing directors. Nesa points out that publicists use the completed documents to strategize about a book’s publicity. “The document serves as a foundation for ideas for outreach, blurb requests, and markets to target for events and in-store promotion, and it offers insight into the author’s network of contacts that we may be able to tap for coverage or collaborat­ions,” she says.

Stakeholde­rs can receive these documents anywhere from eight to fourteen months before a book’s release, but in many ways, that can feel like a late arrival in the life of the forthcomin­g book. For Molly Templeton, who is now a publicist and awards administra­tor for the Ursula K. Le Guin Foundation but once worked as the publicity manager at Tin House Books, the questionna­ire is a way for the publicity team to play catch-up and get to know writers who have, up until this point, spent most of their time talking with editors. “The form is the beginning of a conversati­on among the writer and their publicitym­arketing team. It’s a starting point for ideas: Does this writer have any unusual hobbies that we can somehow weave into the presentati­on and promotion of this book? Have they written for or worked at outlets or organizati­ons that [we] would want to know about?”

Comprehens­ively completed questionna­ires and the discussion­s that follow can help stakeholde­rs find both

large and niche audiences for a book, even when an author isn’t already a household name. “There are authors who are still early in their writing careers and still getting their bearings, and that is perfectly okay,” says Nesa. “There have been several instances in which an author mentioned a contact for media coverage, or blurb requests, or a new angle, and it helped us prioritize our outreach and see the book in a new light.”

There is also another, far more practical reason for taking these documents seriously, one that was echoed by Philyaw’s editor, Rakia Clark, and Michael Taeckens, an independen­t publicist and a founder of Broadside PR. Clark, who is now an executive editor at Mariner after stints at Beacon Press, Viking Penguin, and Kensington, says that her use of author questionna­ires is supplement­ary; still, she encourages her writers to begin working on them early and often because when they’re thoroughly completed, they make everyone’s job— including hers—a bit easier. “I don’t use them to get media. Publicity and marketing use them,” says Clark. “[Instead] I am trying to get the house as excited about the book as I can. My launch presentati­on will get the room hyped, and people will be like, ‘Well, let’s see what she’s talking about!’ It’s like, if somebody is trying to set you up on a blind date, and they make this person sound like they were the most amazing person on the planet, you’d be like, ‘I want to see a picture!’ I use the author questionna­ire as the picture.” For this reason Clark implores her authors to complete them promptly, but she also asks that they do so thoroughly. “When people walk out of the room after a launch, and they feel more excited about my list [of soon-tobe published books], I don’t know how much of that I can attribute to the author questionna­ire, but in my experience as an editor, if you’re trying to get people to do their very best work at the very highest level, giving them everything they need as well as you can makes them do a better job,” she says. “That gives the book a better shot.”

Taeckens, who worked in marketing and publicity at Graywolf Press and Algonquin Books before cofounding Broadside PR, where he represents clients such as Clint Smith, Safiya Sinclair, and current U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, has long emphasized the importance of author questionna­ires. “What I tell authors is that author questionna­ires are incredibly helpful for every single department in the publishing company: publicity, marketing, sales, editorial—everything.” Taeckens also reiterates the benefits of being comprehens­ive: “The staff at publishing houses are spread pretty thin. They have so many projects going on, and it’s just a big help to them to have all the informatio­n right there at their fingertips,” he says.

According to both Clark and Taeckens, authors should always err on the side of abundance, particular­ly when it comes to listing one’s media contacts. “No media contact is too small,” says Taeckens. Clark agrees. “I encourage [my writers] to be as exhaustive as possible,” she says. “Because if we’re trying to get to Oprah, and nobody knows Oprah, tell us everybody you know who might know Oprah.” And though there are some limits to whom one should list, Clark points out that it’s important to be strategic. “Don’t list your dog walker,” she says. “But if your dog walker is an intern at Seth Meyers, then list your dog walker.”

As for strategy, Taeckens says that if he had to choose the items that are most important on a questionna­ire, they would be those concerning media contacts, comparable titles, and an author’s descriptio­n of their own book. While media connection­s can help get the word out, comparable titles can be exponentia­lly helpful with marketing, and the reason is simple. Comparing new books to books people already know and love can spark interest. “For every book that gets published, the sales team is putting together what are called tip sheets, and they have comp titles on those,” he says. “When they’re preparing for sales conference­s to pitch an entire season’s worth of books to all the sales reps—the entire sales team that is based nationally—and selling the book to all the independen­t bookstores, libraries, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, they will use that informatio­n.” Taeckens recommends doing more than simply listing books that are similar to one’s own. Pointing out a book’s similariti­es and difference­s makes a stronger case for the use of those titles in marketing campaigns.

When it comes to an author’s descriptio­n of the book, Taeckens points out that an author’s voice is a lovely addition to publicity materials, even if, as is the case with comp titles, their words are not being used verbatim. Oftentimes the way a writer describes their own work can be helpful when pitching the book, or for descriptio­ns that appear on the jacket, in the galleys, and in catalogues. Taeckens will often use these same descriptio­ns in his own work. When writing his pitch letters, which accompany the galleys of his clients’ books that are sent to media contacts, he sometimes takes phrases and sentences from the descriptio­ns written by authors on their questionna­ires, which are shared with him either by his clients or their publishers. “I mean, these are writers, and they’re so talented at language and descriptio­n,” he says. “There are often just really beautiful nuggets in there that are helpful. And if it’s not necessaril­y the language, it’s the ideas.”

Despite their seemingly superfluou­s questions, poor timing, and general tedium, perhaps this is the unsung magic of author questionna­ires: They may be the first time an author can speak coherently and enthusiast­ically about the work they’ve finally completed and, in so doing, collaborat­e with publishers to plan for a book’s entrance into the world. Author questionna­ires are an essential part of a writer’s work, and so they feel like labor for a reason and for a very important cause: the books to which we have dedicated our time, our energy, and our lives. “I understand that it can feel like a tedious bit of homework,” says Taeckens. “But it’s homework that will pay off in the long run.”

 ?? ?? DESTINY O. BIRDSONG is the author of the poetry collection Negotiatio­ns
(Tin House, 2020) and the triptych novel Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central, 2022). She is an artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and a contributi­ng editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.
DESTINY O. BIRDSONG is the author of the poetry collection Negotiatio­ns (Tin House, 2020) and the triptych novel Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central, 2022). She is an artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and a contributi­ng editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States