The other day a man called me (on my unlisted number) and said he worked for a women's morning talk show on the Lifetime channel called "The Balancing Act." He thought my newest novel might be a good fit for a "summer reading" segment. "Wow!" I thought, "Finally some serious publicity. I wonder how he heard about my book? I wonder how he got my number? Do I have time to lose 30 pounds before the taping?"
He asked me if I was familiar with the show.
He said I could watch that day's episode on the website, and he told me about the two hosts, one lively, one smart. He explained that the show is optimistic and solution-based. Then he recited the show's stats; it's on from 7 to 8 a.m. daily. Viewership was blah blah number of women between the ages of blah and blah. They would need to shoot the segment fairly soon. How did the end of April, beginning of May look for me to be flown out for the taping?
I glanced at my coffee-stained calendar. Most of April, along with a good deal of May, June and July, were blank.
Mind you, the TV man wasn't sure they'd decide to have me on. He explained that his job was just to tell me about the show and answer any questions I might have. Then some Bigger Billy Goat Gruff would call back to make the arrangements.
While the TV guy talked, I fretted about my chins and how when women my age wear stage makeup, we look like we're in drag. I thought about the YouTube video a friend had recently shot of me, in which my ear poked through my stringy hair the whole time.
The TV guy said there would be lots of cross-media support; the show's website, network promos and print ads that would have my book cover plastered all over them. For my part, he needed me to overnight him two copies of my book.
Then he said they were investing something like $100,000 worth of publicity per episode, and all they needed from me was $4,900 as insurance that I was really interested, and ...
That's when I squawked, "What? You want me to pay to be on your talk show?"
He didn't know what I was objecting to.
I hung up quickly, feeling utterly creeped out.
But righteous indignation quickly gave way to self-doubt. Had I just blown a great opportunity?
There are hundreds of TV channels with airtime to fill, and not enough advertisers to go around. Maybe in this sickly economy, this is how the game is now played. The old "you have to spend money to make money" thing?
With the publishing business, bookstores and libraries all spiraling toward the new dark ages, publicity money for us mid-list, noncelebrity authors is nonexistent. We know we have to do our own promotion, but few of us have the stomach for it. So the idea that some entity would discover and promote our books … well, I for one would have been the perfect mark — if I weren't both broke and cheap.
I belong to a list-serve of authors who write for teenagers, and so I posted my experience: "I think I've been slimed!" The list is made up of people like me who constantly recheck their e-mail in search of distractions from their work, so replies came quickly, and I was soon looking at a whole website of concerns and complaints identical to mine. People who now felt tricked and befuddled, embarrassed by their own hope.
For a few days, I talked about the TV man to anyone who would listen, while gradually returning to obsessing about my agent and reviews. But about an hour ago I got an e-mail from a writer on the list-serve, reporting that my TV man, or one just like him, had just struck elsewhere in the kid-lit-o-sphere. I went to the fresh victim's blog and read his account. He too was clearly flattered by being sought out, and thrilled by the possible publicity, but wondering if it wasn't maybe a tiny bit sketchy that the TV guy asked for money.
How many more of us are out there? Self-employed types working alone in obscurity; artists, writers, craftsmen being preyed upon by bottom-feeding, low-life crooks? Or are they low-lifes? They're offering a service for a fee: exposure, visibility, recognition. The show really exists, and people are on it being enthusiastically interviewed. So especially in this, the Golden Age of Greed, rife with truly breathtaking scams and schemes and swindles destroying people's lives, I suppose my TV guy is small potatoes.
Still, I had some questions. So I got my nerve up and called the show back to ask whether it's simply a big infomercial. The nice woman I talked to objected to that characterization.
"No, it's not an infomercial at all," she said in a broad New York accent. "It's ‘branded entertainment.' "
She then explained that spending a fortune on a television ad doesn't guarantee people will see it, because they're likely to "just TiVo it out." But "branded entertainment gives" an author the "opportunity to get integrated into a regular show."
By that reasoning, maybe she should be paying $4,900 to be integrated into this Op-Ed piece.
But of course I'd never ask. Instead, I'll just die a broke, crabby old fart insisting that it was better in the old days when shows were shows and ads were ads and everyone could tell the difference.
Amy Goldman Koss' latest book, "The Not-So-Great Depression," comes out in May.