On the unseasonably hot April Thursday that The Nanny Diaries , the roman à clef about rich 10021 mommies by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, reached No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list, media coach Joyce Newman-the same woman summoned by Farrar, Straus & Giroux to help Jonathan Franzen express himself on the idiot box after he made the mistake of dissing Oprah Winfrey-was in an Upper East Side diner sipping iced tea, eating tuna salad and preening like a cockatoo.
“I want to show you what they wrote me,”Ms.Newman said, pushing a copy of The Nanny Diaries across the table.
The inscription, in a girlish script,read: “To Joyce-our savior. You are the Easter Bunny, our Fairy Godmother,&Santa Claus rolled into one truly awesome teacher-we would be tongue-tied without you.” It was signed, “Emma and Nicki.”
Ms. Newman’s perfectly manicured hand snatched the book back. “Isn’t that special?” she said.
To the modern fiction writer’s small, fleeting entourage-agent, editor, publicist-now add the media coach, an image consultant–slash– communications expert hired by publishers to bang the author into fighting shape before he or she faces down Katie or Matt (for the cheesy books); Terry or Leonard or Charlie (for the tweedy books); or the Big Kahuna, Oprah (for those who would straddle the difficult fault line between cheese and tweed).
The so-called “chick-lit” set must also contend with The View . “Star Jones was tough ,” said Ms. Newman about the Diaries duo’s experience. “With Star, it’s always about Star. And you have to know that going in. Was it comfortable for them? No. You know what? It was what it was-get over it, go on to the next thing, don’t obsess.”
In exchange for his or her publisher paying the coach a fee of a few thousand dollars-the size of many first-time novelists’ entire advance-an author might receive an afternoon of videotaped mock interviews, a set of customized talking points, and tips on grooming and dress. “I’ve taken people out of a video session and said, ‘O.K., we’re going to continue this at Salon AKS,’” said Ms. Newman, a fifty something honey blonde with vivid blue eyes who seemed at ease in her flowered Capri pants. “Video is the instant ego-leveler.”
The long list of authors who have submitted to her ministrations include such unlikely bedfellows as post-feminist Katie Roiphe, Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda and Helen Fielding, author of the blockbuster Bridget Jones’s Diary .
“Media training one of great delicious experiences of life,” wrote Ms. Fielding in a 1998 account published in England’s The Daily Telegraph . “Word ‘scarf’ came up within three minutes …. Suddenly understand why Americans so fluent and sound-bite-esque on TV. Am trained to ‘scope out’ my ‘bullet points’ …. Must, however, not try to be funny but simply decide what going to say; tell them am going to say it, say it, then tell them have said it whilst ignoring interviewer, apart from using interviewer’s name as often as possible and remembering to ‘stay in the moment’ and clenching the buttocks to avoid tense-looking mouth.”
The literary Wunderkind of the moment, 25-year-old Princeton graduate Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated , has clenched buttocks with an Upper West Side coach named Bill Parkhurst-a favorite of Mr. Foer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. Not that either of them want to admit it.
“My specialty is what I call ‘zero to 60′s,’” said Mr. Parkhurst. “Somebody who is on a best-seller track and nobody’s heard of the person, but the book is likely to make the best-seller list, and that’s when the publishers tend to bring us in-to hopefully spruce ‘em up. What I always find is that you’ll get somebody just off a campus whose only media mix is All Things Considered , and they’re always the ones who have to do the Howard Sterns of Tampa.”
Though he wouldn’t cop to coaching Mr. Foer, he said that he had recently worked with a “first-time literary author, someone breaking through,” who he is “quite certain … will have a best-seller within five or six weeks.”
Neither Mr. Foer, Mr. Franzen, Ms. McLaughlin nor Ms. Kraus returned calls inquiring about their media training.
A quick survey of the old school ran the gamut from unfamiliarity to dismay.
“What a terrible idea, oh dear,” said John Updike. “Has it come to that? Maybe I need a media coach, but I didn’t know they existed. My goodness.”
“To tell the truth, I never heard the term before,” said Tom Wolfe. “I’ve heard of something like that for businessmen, but it seemed like more to deal with uncomfortable subjects and so on.”
Joan Didion, who recently appeared in a glamorous Vogue spread, said plainly, “I’ve never heard of a media coach” and that, “for better or worse,” she just wings it.
“I don’t have, and never would think of having, a media coach,” said Gay Talese. “I don’t know any writer that I would hold in such high esteem that I’d call him a writer that would have a media coach.” Told that Michael Korda had used one, he said: “But of course, he’s a Hollywood guy!”
Oprah’s B.S. Alarm
While Mr. Parkhurst works exclusively with authors, Ms. Newman also plies her trade in industries like NASCAR racing and doughnuts. A former speech therapist, she fell into media training after she married a public-relations man with a seminar business and attended one of his oral-communications workshops. “It was like A Chorus Line ,” she said. “You know, ‘I can do this!’”
Her first book project was the racy Shirley Conran novel Lace in 1982, from which she had to extract passages and anecdotes for TV and radio appearances that would pass muster with the F.C.C. “I loved Shirley,” she said. “Shirley and I really bonded.”
But while media coaches may have been brandishing their A/V equipment since the Network era, it seems that only recently-perhaps since Ms. Winfrey underscored just how a few minutes on television can make a book-have they been called in to straighten out rumpled literary authors.
Not every contemporary author is willing to kowtow to the process. Take David Foster Wallace, who turned down the morning shows entirely and accepted a turn on Charlie Rose with the condition that his buddy Mr. Franzen, and the then-hot Mark Leyner, accompany him for what became a discussion of modern fiction.
“I think part of what I think makes his readers respect David, and admire him, is that there’s no screen between him and them,” said Mr. Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell. “He will say, ‘Boy, I’m so nervous.’ You really can tell that this is not what he likes doing, and I think the audience appreciates this and in some ways is won over by this-a genuineness, a certain lack of slickness that they can say is really there.”
Paul Bogaards, vice president and executive director of publicity at the über -literary imprint Knopf, eschews media coaches entirely.
“My view is, you can’t reanimate a corpse, O.K.?” he said by cell phone in a car on the way to an event for Andrew Weil, the best-selling health writer. “If it’s too canned and structured, it’s a turnoff.” He recalled working on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at William Morrow years ago with author Michael Chabon. “The host of CBS This Morning would ask Michael a question,” he said, “and Michael would pause and look up toward the ceiling before answering the question. So I said, ‘Michael, are you aware of the fact that you kind of look away at the interlocutor and up at the sky?’ And he said, ‘Actually, I am aware of it.’ I said, ‘Why do you do that?’ And he said, ‘That’s where the answers are!’”
Ms. Newman has no patience for these dreamers.
“A book is a product,” she said. “My job is to take information out of the book and find a way to package it. I do not make any book a best-seller. The authors are talented. They’re writers; they have a great story to tell. But just because you can write doesn’t mean you can necessarily speak . I am a teacher. I teach them to tell that story in three minutes, four minutes, seven minutes or 10 minutes.”
She offered some tips for going on the Today show, gratis: “Know that Katie may have only read excerpts of the book, but she will have done her homework. She starts out pretty general and then can ask a couple of wringers, but if you know what you’re going to say and what your messages are, you can keep coming back to them-as long as you give her something that she feels is going to be entertaining and informational for her audience. Matt is not as chatty. It’s more of a gender thing: He’s more direct, he’ll interrupt more, he’ll ask you to wrap up more quickly-’All right, come on, get to it, what are you really saying?’”
Meanwhile, here’s Mr. Parkhurst’s limn of Ms. Winfrey: ” Never try to impress Oprah,” he said. “She has a B.S. alarm, and she doesn’t really suffer fools. So if you’re going on the Oprah show, don’t try to get too clever, because what the Oprah show is always about is self-discovery and transformation of the house-bound woman, and if she doesn’t embrace the book, trying to push it is a fool’s errand.”
Of Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah dust-up, Ms. Newman would say only, “He didn’t do the homework,” deflecting questions to Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s senior vice president of publicity and marketing, Jeff Seroy.
Mr. Seroy said that it’s extraordinarily rare that Farrar, Straus & Giroux brings in a media coach, because the list is “highly literary and not driven by television.” He explained the Band-Aid use of Ms. Newman: “Two things that were said initially and repeatedly by Jonathan Franzen and others is that he thinks in very complicated, long, interconnected thoughts. He’s a kind of ‘Why use one word when a thousand words will do?’ person. That doesn’t work on TV, O.K.? And the second thing is that you may have picked up that Jonathan has a principled and constitutional animadversion to television, and yet he was suddenly famous and television was calling, and television was part of why he became even more famous, and television seemed to be the appropriate medium for him to use to show people who he was and express his feelings and positions. Everything he said and did was in his own words and his own thoughts, and it was really a matter of refining those so that they worked through the medium.”
The Corrections had been on the best-seller list for a long time, but by that hot Thursday, it had fallen off the Top 10. “It was a very complex book, but everybody who read that book sees somebody they know,” said Ms. Newman. “You can have the best book in the world, but if nobody knows about it, it’s a ‘ So what? ‘, not an ‘ Ah-ha! ‘”
Follow Alexandra Jacobs via RSS.