Keeping Up Appearances

Community Relations Coordinator... or Juggler?

Stacie Herndon, David Hutts, Fiona Cherbank and Diane Everman

photograph by Kenny Braun

It is 20 minutes into the interview, and David Hutts, the affable and energetic marketing manager for Book People, is telling disaster stories. "She showed up about 30 minutes late for the signing," he recalls of a certain prize-winning short-story writer who shall remain nameless. "We had billed it as a reading - that was promised - but she got there and refused to read. She was drunk." He rolls his eyes in remembered disbelief. "We're scrambling around, getting the chairs up - there's 250 there. She's up there signing, y'know, rubbing her face and complaining. And about 30 minutes into it she stands up and shouts at the top of her lungs: `No more fucking autographs!' Walked out of the store.... It was bad. It was real, real bad."

Another time, an author well into his scotch started in with some serious Southern-fried grab-assing, reaching across the signing table for a tweak or fondle as the opportunity presented itself. It fell to Hutts to do what he could to restrain those anxious fingers. "Trying to get through that signing was such a headache," he remembers. "I would see a pretty blonde woman coming up and think, `Oh, here we go again. It's gonna happen.'"

Luckily, they aren't all that way for Austin's community relations coordinators, the bookstore publicists responsible for author appearances and other community events. And it's a good thing they aren't - with all of the other tasks they handle, community relations coordinators (CRCs in the lingo) have scant time to deliver sensitivity lectures or otherwise dry out pickled poets. In addition to coordinating a calendar of national and local author appearances, CRCs are responsible for event promotion, community outreach, marketing research, media relations, and a host of attendant duties - essentially, anything that might raise the public profile of the store that signs their checks. In the small world of retail book sales, they are classic wearers of many hats. Austin is home to four such hatracks: Hutts, Borders' Fiona Cherbak, and Barnes & Nobles' Stacie Herndon and Diane Everman. (Although Hutts' title is marketing manager, he serves the same function as the CRCs.)

Perhaps the biggest of those chapeaus - at least to the public eye - is coordinating author appearances. Big names have come through town in the last few years, from Anne Rice to Jimmy Carter to John Berendt to, more recently, Martin Amis and George Plimpton. And while James Michener literally knocked on the door of Barnes & Noble Arboretum after closing one Christmas Eve - a visit that resulted in an in-store 89th birthday party more than a year later - most of those appearances were born more of hard work than chance. Working for an independent, Book People's Hutts takes the most aggressive tack in courting national authors - scouring publishers' catalogues to find authors on tour, writing proposals, sometimes calling agents directly with his pitch.

Often his chances are very slim, but, Hutts says, "It never hurts to ask." (At Borders and Barnes & Noble, this is all negotiated through national headquarters; the local affiliates are told what national acts are coming, when they're coming, and the terms of their appearance.) Occasionally a publisher will come to Hutts with a proposal, and on the local level, even authors will make a pitch. It is an inexact science, to say the least, but within all the back and forth, a calendar of events emerges. In Hutts' case, that calendar is increasingly star-studded; among CRCs, Book People has a clear reputation for bringing in the biggest national authors, and bringing them in with an enviable regularity.

Ironically, it is the chain stores - Borders and Barnes & Noble - that rely more on local and regional authors. In part, this is because their national slate is not that full - headquarters sends only a few national authors down the pike each month - but it is also, in part, a conscious strategy. Each chain encourages its local affiliates to develop an independent, regional, even neighborhood identity, and the calendar of events is expected to reflect that identity. Cherbak, Everman, and Herndon all operate with a fair degree of autonomy from the corporate mothership, using tips and referrals from the sizable Austin literary community to book a calendar heavy in local and regional events. And while their use of local authors may be born of necessity, it has proven downright popular. There's a wealth of local talent to tap, and hometown heroes such as Kinky Friedman, Bradley Denton, and Molly Ivins are always big draws.

And when people come, sales jump. Just how much is hard to say, and for their part, the CRCs aren't talking. (But consider this: When Anne Rice came to Book People, over 3,000 fans filed through her signing line. With her hardbacks at 26 bucks a pop... you do the math.) They insist that event planning is not only a bottom-line proposition. "We want people to come and enjoy themselves," says Herndon, "to get exposed to new ideas and new books. That's the bottom line. It's great if we have a bunch of sales... but it's not our main goal." The goal, as Herndon sees it, is to put on an enjoyable event, and to create a public reputation for the store as a comfortable, even happenin', place, good receipts or no. Still, it doesn't take a business major to realize that, somewhere down the line, that goodwill will translate into cash. If it didn't, there wouldn't be any CRCs.

While Austin's smaller bookstores do host readings and other community events, only the big fish have a large enough budget to assign someone to promotions full time. That so many of these promotions are in-store events reflects a change in the bookstore business itself. It is almost pointless by now to note that the newer breed of stores encourages its customers to stop and dawdle - if not fall gap-mouthed asleep in the overstuffed chairs - but the CRCs take seriously the notion of their stores as destinations. They see their stores not just as retail outlets but as entertainment centers and relaxation stations - de facto community centers built around a shared love of books.

Of course, running such a warm and fuzzy bookstore ("cafes, couches... community!") pays off at the register as well, and each CRC sees special events as a way to build an informed and interested core audience for their stores. (Often, they tailor events to the particular communities they serve: the North Austin stores [Borders and Barnes & Noble Arboretum] market to a high-tech, business-savvy crowd; Barnes & Noble Westlake hosts a lot of arts, education, and house & garden events; Barnes & Noble on Guadalupe promotes poetry and faculty authors. Family events are big in both Westlake and North Austin. Part of the CRC's job is to know who is coming into their store, and why, and to produce events that will both satisfy the regulars and attract new customers.)

Not that a folderful of market research and a well-chosen author will necessarily get folks into the store. At least Fiona Cherbak, former film producer and currently Borders' CRC, doesn't think so. "Book events are no longer a novelty," Cherbak says. "You can pick up a paper any day of the week, and there is a signing going on somewhere... I realized very early on that having an author show up at a store with a stack of their books and a table was just not very sexy." To increase sex appeal, Cherbak concentrates on "multifaceted" events - adding film, food, or live music to spice up an author's appearance. With her cinematic background, her diverse media interests, and her talk of "multi-tasking" and "maximum exposure," Cherbak may be the most techno-savvy of the CRCs, but she is not alone in her approach. Increasingly, author appearances are not just readings, but "book events," with a high entertainment quotient and sleek production values. For Cherbak, it's a change for the better. "It's always great to have an event and stand back and watch the people's faces and know that they're having a great time.... You're creating a moment. And that's a big deal for me."

If Cherbak is in it for the moment and the multi-tasking (it beats "sitting in the corner and counting widgets," she says), David Hutts is in it for the books. He is passionate about books and the authors who write them. The same is true for Herndon and Everman: While they enjoy hosting multimedia "book events," it is clear that they have an old-fashioned reverence for the simple elegance of an author and the work. In many cases, they are not just promoters but unabashed fans of the writers they host. Hutts speaks adoringly of James Lee Burke; Herndon allows a schoolgirl's grin to escape her lips when Kinky Friedman's name comes up; Marion Winik draws praise all around. And when it comes to out-and-out celebrities, well... we'll just say the CRCs are as susceptible to stargazing as anyone else. Hutts seems particularly smitten with Dolly Parton (hey, I've been there, Dave); Herndon ratchets up her already liberal use of superlatives when talking about Oliver Stone ("He was so wonderful. He was so kind and very gracious.... He was just an angel. He was so sweet."). Harking from Burbank - and the film industry at that - Cherbak takes a somewhat cooler approach towards celebrity, but the chance to brush sleeves with childhood heroes is definitely a perk of the CRC position.

Of course, not all childhood heroes turn out to be Stonian angels - and some are bona fide assholes. Hutts recalls being disillusioned more than once, meeting authors he had idolized for years and finding them pretentious, rude, or "downright hateful." And there are the occasional headaches from artistic idiosyncrasies and strange contract demands: The famously fussy Anne Rice was preceded to town by a five-page memo outlining, among other things, her preferences in table position, tissue paper, pen type (red Sharpies), and beverage selection (warm Tab, and warm Tab only). There are security concerns: James Redfield requested a plainclothes policeman (he draws an, uh, interesting crowd), and both Oliver North and Jimmy Carter brought bodyguards - Carter's even saw a little action when a wild-eyed woman approached him with a letter from "extraterrestrials." And there are days when Kinky Friedman just won't put out that damn cigar.

But for every sodden scribe or petulant prince (and we don't mean you, Kink), there are at least a half-dozen authors who are unexpectedly gracious. Hutts uses recent guest William Wegman as an example: "I was so impressed with him, with his demeanor and his kindness towards his fans. A good quarter of them had pictures of their dogs, the Weimeraners... and he showed interest and asked questions about every single one of those pictures. And he made the owners of those dogs feel so good.... He must have seen literally thousands of pictures of dogs, but still took the time to show personal interest, [and] they went away feeling great - about meeting him and about the experience." Other authors getting high marks from Austin's CRCs include Jimmy Carter, Deepak Chopra, John Berendt, David Sedaris, Dolly and Ollie (Parton and Stone), and octogenarian adventurer Mary Carey, who left audiences in two Barnes & Nobles stores slack-jawed and spellbound. And Hutts happily reports that Anne Rice, despite the rather exacting demands of her contract, proved a real professional, remaining warm and kind throughout a six-hour signing.

For Hutts, such minor blessings are at the heart of his job. It is with particular satisfaction that he tells the story of a certain childhood hero he met not long ago: "I got to ride up on the private elevator with Walter Cronkite and his wife and a few other people from the store, and he told a joke. And I was just like, `I can't believe this. I'm sitting here in this elevator with this man I grew up with, watched on the television, got my news from for so many years - and he's cracking jokes. It was great. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. And that's why I continue to be in this business."

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