A Memoirby Bill Barich
In my youth I was chronically underemployed, always casting my lot with risky enterprises destined to fail, so when the illustrious firm of Alfred A. Knopf hired me as a book publicist, I thought my troubles were over. I had no idea how difficult writers can be. I imagined lofty literary chats with John Updike when he came to town, but I wound up steering hard-drinking authors away from bars and even rescuing one from an East Bay ashram. Updike I met only once by chance on the Sausalito ferry, and I was too tongue-tied to speak.
The job came about by accident. An editor friend at Knopf hoped to open an office in San Francisco, but his wife chose to go to law school at Yale. Given my editorial experience at a defunct environmental magazine, I felt qualified to take over. I had in those days what Mexicans call cojones. My suggestion probably met with high hilarity on East Fifty-Second Street, but Knopf paid serious money to a Los Angeles PR company for its author tours in California, and someone did the math and realized I’d do the same work for one-quarter of the price.
So began my career as Knopf’s under-assistant West Coast promotion man. The Stones song was still in heavy rotation in 1972, and when Mick Jagger sang, “Sittin’ here thinkin’ just how sharp I am,” I identified with the sentiment. PR looked easy. I sent an author’s book to various media outlets, then tried to arrange TV, radio, and print interviews. People took the bait or not, and that was that. The deal couldn’t be more basic, but some writers refused to believe it. They assumed I could get them on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, even though they were nobodies and their book was a history of the Treaty of Ghent.