Each winter and spring, publicists from university presses across the country come to New York and spend a week promoting their forthcoming titles to various books section editors. Representatives from top presses like Harvard, Chicago, Columbia and Yale, as well as from smaller institutions like Vanderbilt and Kansas, jockey for face time with as many editors as they can: Sam Tanenhaus at The New York Times Book Review, Meghan O’Rourke at Slate, John Palattella at The Nation, Erich Eichman at The Wall Street Journal and so on.
But the visit they remember most vividly when they fly home is the one they pay to Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books—not just because it can take up to three hours (your average publicity call usually clocks in around 15 minutes), but because Mr. Silvers, who has been at the helm of the biweekly review of intellectual life since it was founded, in 1963, asks them to work harder than any other editor in town.
When pitching a book to Mr. Silvers, you’d better know precisely what its author is arguing and who in the academy is likely to disagree with it. When you show him your catalog, you’d better be ready to speak at length about the obscure scholarly monograph listed on the last page. And if you haven’t been reading The Review and keeping track of what its contributors have been writing about lately, you might as well just stay home.
“When it’s scheduled on a Monday, it really makes you feel better about the rest of the week, because you’ve gone through the list as thoroughly and meticulously as you’re going to,” said Mark Heineke, who has been visiting Mr. Silvers for six years as the promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. “When it’s on a Friday, it’s always kind of in the back of your mind.”
For many university press publicists—as well as those who work for the more erudite trade houses, like Norton—the Bob Silvers meeting is a rite of passage: a tradition almost as old The Review itself that they hear about from their elders, and a spectacle they sit in on when they’re young, so they know what to expect when the duty falls to them.
Back in the early 1980’s, when he was at Oxford University Press, Jeff Seroy (now the senior VP for marketing and publicity at Farrar, Straus and Giroux) would attend media calls at The Review with his boss. “For him, it was the pilgrimage to Mecca,” Mr. Seroy said.
Meetings take place in a crowded, windowless conference room, overflowing with books and galleys, that is adjacent to the office that Mr. Silvers shares with his army of assistants. Often the publicists will have sent a box of books to the office ahead of time via FedEx. (Mr. Silvers like to see the wares on offer in addition to hearing about them, and this can mean some heavy lifting.) If they have, the box is waiting on the table when they walk in.
Mr. Silvers, when he arrives, is usually accompanied by an assistant, who takes notes and fetches books and articles when they come up in conversation. The assistant remains mostly silent—though occasionally, when it’s a less-than-prominent press, Mr. Silvers lets his underlings conduct the meetings without him—as Mr. Silvers looks through the catalog the publicist has brought him.
When a book catches Mr. Silvers’s interest, he asks the publicist to suggest some possible reviewers—something that is all but unheard of at other publications.
“I remember one time,” said Christian Purdy of Oxford University Press, “I was suggesting a reviewer to him, and he said, ‘But Purdy, that person is dead.’ I was embarrassed and felt so stupid and said, ‘Jeez, no one told me!’ Every time I’ve suggested a reviewer since, I’ve checked.”
Gaffes like that are common enough: When Puja Sangar, a representative for Stanford University Press, suggested that David Brooks review a Stanford book on taxation, Mr. Silvers looked at her skeptically. “It was almost like, ‘Good God! We would never use him.’ That’s what his look implied. He said, ‘Oh, do you think he’s good?’ The Review is very discerning about who writes for them. They have an independent voice, and set the bar very high."”
Worse, perhaps, is when Mr. Silvers asks a question that a publicist cannot answer because he or she has not read the book.
“Occasionally, Bob wanted to know a bit more about a book than was explained in the brief synopsis in the catalog,” said Jon-Jon Goulian, one of Mr. Silvers’ former assistants, in an e-mail. “He would gently press them for more information, and his questions were met with either awkward mumblings or an awkward restatement of the catalog copy or simply a bold, ‘To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that,’ and Bob was always diplomatic about this, never embarrassing them, usually saying something like, ‘Yes, well, one can’t read everything; there just isn’t time,’ and then he would quickly go on to the next book.”
(Though Mr. Silvers declined to comment for this story, he did confirm that he expects a certain level of preparedness from publicists. “It helps to know what’s in the books,” he said.)
Still, despite Mr. Silvers’ forgiving nature, many publicists fear the meetings the same way they feared oral exams back in college—which is to say, they study for them.
“I tried to read as much of the front list as I could, which is hugely daunting,” said one former book publicist, who met with Mr. Silvers regularly for over five years during the 1990’s. “I grilled the editors of the books mercilessly about their content, I looked at all the other presses’ catalogs, I went through back issues of The New York Review. … If we tried to bluff our way through something, he would just look at us really suspiciously. He could always tell. Eventually you’d just have to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
If you could “remotely hold your own with him,” this publicist said, you were doing a good job, because Mr. Silvers is an unparalleled polymath who is not only fascinated by every topic under the sun but usually an expert on it.
“Especially when they were new on the job, [the publicists] were always taken aback at Bob’s interest in the Forthcoming Monographs listed in the back of the catalogue,” said Mr. Goulian. “These were highly specialized works, often former dissertations, primarily intended for scholars, and presumably of little interest to a more general readership. Also, they were often still in the manuscript stage, not due out for many months, little more than a mess of paper on an academic’s desk. ‘Uh, I don’t think you’d be interested in those, Mr. Silvers,’ [the publicist would say. And he’d respond,] ‘On the contrary! Everything is of interest. For instance I see here you have a book coming out on Walter Benjamin, and we have a piece on Benjamin in the works. When can we get it?’”
Often, if he finds a book that relates to a Review assignment in progress, Mr. Silvers takes out a sheet of letterhead, scribbles a note to the writer and has an assistant FedEx the galley with the note. For publicists, this is a great victory, and the mission is considered a success even if ultimately the book sc
ores only a footnote in the eventual piece.
There is good reason for this, considering that The Review—with its astonishing circulation of 137,450—tends to give more space to academic writing than any other popular publication. “The stakes are very high, because you know that getting a review in there will matter a lot to the author, to the editor, to everyone,” said New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, who worked as Mr. Silvers’ assistant for a year in the late 90’s. “It also is a place where the editors genuinely care about the books and understand them. My impression was that it was a high point for [the publicists], but also the most demanding performance that they would probably have to give.”