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Straight to video

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June 15, 2008

Not long ago, I found myself seated with a pimp and three high-priced escorts, the kind favored by the former governor of the great state of New York. I was in a lawn chair while the four of them were in a hot tub -- what is the word? -- gamboling in the steamy water and . . .

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Once upon a time, an author published a book and left the selling to the experts in the marketing department. This was the case as recently as last week. But that quaint notion has suddenly gone the way of Duran Duran. Now, because of recent developments in the world of publishing, writer and merchant are fusing into one. Willy Loman and Arthur Miller have commingled. Call it -- forgive me -- Birth of a Salesman.

Publishers still occasionally provide promotional support for an author to whom they have paid a whopping advance. Other authors, however, the ones without giant deals, are placed on an ice floe and set adrift. Yes, you say. Of course. 'Twas ever so. But if once comfort might have been derived from such platitudes, this was before the Internet and the anticipated Death of Print.

And yet, the ironic thing about the Death of Print is that no one seems to have told the publishing industry. Even as review column inches shrink and fewer writers appear on radio and television, books continue to tumble out like bunnies during birthing season.

It is a faint and slightly maundering sound, muffled, no, smothered by the cacophony of the culture. But to borrow a phrase from the indefatigable Mrs. Loman: Attention must be paid.

How?

Why, the author video. In the last few months, I have become an expert on this subject, as any author now must be. My new novel, "Shining City," will be published in July, and the promotional budget would not cover bus fare to the book party. To attract readers, I find myself looking to do something . . . sizzling. All of which brings us back to that hot tub, with those three high-priced escorts and that pimp.

Yes, yes, I know -- this seems utterly gratuitous: blatant, even prurient. David McCullough would never sit next to a hot tub in which John Adams is frolicking with Dolley Madison and Betsy Ross. But McCullough and I are very different writers, and given my material, pimps and hookers are not so far off the mark. "Shining City" is about a regular guy from Van Nuys, a middle-class dad, who inherits his brother's dry cleaning business and learns it is a front for a high-priced call-girl ring. He needs money, so he does some on-the-fly moral calculations and, presto, he's a pimp. Whatever you may think of the character's principles -- feel free to judge him with your book group -- it's great material for an author video.

These days, of course, author videos come in a variety of flavors -- as many as there are writers, it seems. The most basic features the author -- who has, say, written six novels and never had to do anything this degrading -- seated in her book-lined office casually addressing the camera. "Hi," she says, "I've written a new novel. Here is what it is about and I would like you to buy it." In its subtlety and sophistication, it's like a television ad for detergent circa 1962.

In other videos, the author remains invisible. Instead, we see computer-generated words combined with a series of graphics meant to give a feel for the book. The aesthetic is that of a neighborhood 14-year-old with iMovie on his laptop -- but it's better than the dramatization, in which a scene or scenes from the book are acted out, making us forget about the writer altogether and wonder about the movie, not a good thing when the idea is to pique someone's interest in a book.

Then, there is the high-end soft-sell that portrays the author, torn from the comfort of his office, thrust into the world and moving through locations that evoke the book. In one recent example, John Banville can be seen in Benjamin Black mufti, wandering the streets of Dublin talking about the hero of his new thriller. For novelist Jay Cantor, the setting is a Cambridge, Mass., cheese shop. I don't know what this has to do with anything he's written, but it did get my attention -- hmm, what is Jay Cantor doing near that brie wheel? -- and this, after all, is the idea.

For my video, I hooked up with my friend Jason Kachel, who is the Sergei Eisenstein of the Los Angeles bar mitzvah circuit. If you haven't attended one of these events lately, you might be surprised to learn they often include what has become known as a montage. This is a short film featuring the celebrant; at its most expressive, it can evoke the work of Fellini shot through with the sensibility of Mel Brooks (memo to Cannes: This should be a sidebar -- "Un Certain Bar Mitzvah"). Jason is peerless in this form. What is the connection? He is used to working with people bereft of thespian talent. People, in other words, like me.

I HIRED HIM immediately and we set about writing a script. Although we had no intention of dramatizing the book, we needed human scenery, so I logged on to Backstage.com, created an account, and did an e-mail blast to the appropriate cohort (Author Seeks Actresses for Book Video), and we had our extras. As for the pimp, I called another friend, the novelist Mark Haskell Smith, and quickly explained the proposition: Was he willing to take a day off from writing to spend an afternoon with several beautiful women in a hot tub? He did not take long to commit. Locations were procured, craft services arranged.

We began our shoot at 6:45 a.m. and concluded 15 hours later. Editing took a few days, a score was composed by Stu Thomas, and Bob's your uncle -- the "Shining City" video is now online.

Will this help sales? Who knows? It's a chaotic new world and if a novelist can't have a little fun shilling for his own book then what, finally, is the point? But this is literature, and froufrou aside, it remains serious business. Accordingly, I try to carry myself with dignity and restraint.

Which is how I wound up on the Internet in my underwear. *

Seth Greenland's second novel, "Shining City," will be published in July.

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