Geisha girls of the literary world

Publishers employ publicity 'girls' to promote, wine, dine and mother their clients. Not to think
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The Independent Online
Pimlico, 8pm. A wine bar bubbling and beaded to the brim with the publishing trade, at the fun end of the working day. Flesh-tint-stippled walls. A Booker-level author, a publisher-turned-author, a literary editor, a journalist: powerful folk in the literary world. With them, making the party go for the sake of books coming out next week, are publishers' publicity people.

Guess the sexes? Bizarre. The people being feted are men. The others are women: but not called women. They're publicity girls.

Flavia's mobile phone rings. "Sorry," she says. "Kilburn? Why should I go - oh, alright. Name? Address? OK." She closes it ("Sorry - one of my authors") and carries on about the New York reading tour. Discussion shifts to passages in the about-to-be-promoted book. "That's exactly what it's like when someone gives you a blow job," says the author. ("I love being surrounded by publicity girls. Longer-haired the better. My idea of a great time," he confides later to a friend, in the Gents.)

I've never met a publicity man. Ninety-nine per cent of people doing this job are women. They serve many masters. "You have to submit yourself to everybody else's will," says Flavia. "You're always serving the author, editor, sales department, journalist, bookseller."

Some people buying books may not realise what hard work lies behind the way books get to them. Flavia planned and accompanied authors' tours, lunched with journalists (telling them about the book), rushed copies to reviewers, interviewers, producers, chatted up booksellers, editors, book-show presenters: anyone who can get the book into the air, page, screen and competed-for public skull. "It's an essential job," says Flavia. "It helps books reach readers. If I've liked a book, I want everyone to share what gave me pleasure. I love seeing a book I worked on go into the bestseller lists or even sell better than anyone expected. You're glad you've done that for it." "It's an important job when done well," agrees Rebecca. "It shouldn't be underestimated."

The job's not underestimated - but the people who do the job often are. "I used to feel apologetic when I told people what I did," Rebecca says. "You were made to feel you were a lower form of life. It was something I resented and fought against. I used to think, 'You're making an assumption about me and I'm going to show you who I actually am'."

"People pay you for a certain skill," says Tilda, "not for what you think." They're not interested in that. The men at Flavia's table don't want her literary opinions (though she's read and thought about these men's books). They enjoy her company and listen avidly to what she says about marketability. "It's his breakthrough book in terms of accessibility," the journalist will hear. Meaning there's a popular angle he can write up. Flavia may hate the book and its author, but has to serve both. ("I do tell journalists when I don't like a book," says Rebecca, "otherwise you lose your credibility." Not what editor, author and sales department always want to hear.)

Author-nannying is part of the job. Some male authors would like sex with "their" publicity girl on a reading tour. You have to set boundaries without injuring your author's opinion of his own performance or of the service his publisher provides. "In nine years on the road," says Tilda, "I've only had a couple of really nasty moments. I've been lucky; or sent out the right signals. Still, I'm sympathetic to authors on tour. You can forgive them quite a lot. They've been writing this thing alone for God knows how long, and now they're in public with it every night. I don't mind soothing nerves. It's carrying their train tickets for them, showing their ticket to the guard as if you were their mother or their geisha, that gets me." Christ! Do you have to hold the towel when they wash after a pee? "The ones that aren't so famous are the worst. They're suddenly playing the great author. You're the one they play to hardest."

"Authors aren't the biggest problem, though," says Rebecca. "Journalists are." Really? Tell me more. "When you need them, interesting them in a first-time author, that's fine.They can be nice to you then. But when you've got a big author, something they need, you become this powerful person for them. They resent needing you. Journalists are parasitical on publicity girls but they really hate the fact they rely on them. They don't observe normal courtesies on the phone." She used to get furious and phone them back and say, "Can't you say 'Thank you' and 'Goodbye' at the end of a call?"

Surely that's only men? "Nope. Women too. It's equal." That's something, I suppose. Something worse.

"There's something about being a woman that lets you do Publicity," says Flavia. "And it has to be said there's something about the job which attracts young women. They often go into it without understanding the ambiguity and dilemma of what they're asked to do. I get through by telling myself my opinions are important. But that does undermine the job."

When I publish a book, I love being looked after. Of course I do. It's very nice to be bought drinks, have someone arrange readings, distribute fliers, chat to booksellers. But why are the people who do these things for me always women? It's not that I want men serving me (and I can carry my own train tickets, thanks), but I mind that it's still like this at a time when Greenwich Observatory is selling off the last minutes of the millennium. You might expect the literary world to be a touch more self- sceptical than some. But it's thrown up this service with an implicit geisha-value agenda infuriatingly intact. At the fun end of the working day, that wine-bar is work for Flavia, on and off the phone. She can't, if she wanted to, get merrily sloshed like the men she's serving. It's that way round still. And no one's surprised.

Poetry readings this month set up by (mainly) publicity girls:

Elaine Feinstein and Jamie McKendrick, The Voice Box, Festival Hall. Tuesday 8 April, 7.30pm (0171-960 4242)

Tom Lynch, Poetry Society, 22 Betterton St, Covent Garden. Wednesday 9 April 7.30pm (0171-240 2133)

City Writers, Southampton, series of readings in The Gantry (behind the "Rat and Parrot" in the heart of Southampton: (01703 572739)

Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Donaghy, Galway Arts Festival, Wednesday 16 April, 8.30pm. (Galway Arts Centre 00 353 91 568 303)