Industry Insiders: Kimberly Burns, Literary Maven

Sometimes the person who handles the publicity gets to be as noteworthy as the clients she peddles to the public. Enter Kimberly Burns, literary publicist extraordinaire. Mention her name at any literary event or in the hallway of any publishing house and writers cower behind their spectacles — they know getting her to hype their book could land them a coveted spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. In an era when hard copy has evaporated into thin air and settled onto the digital screen like thick condensation, rest assured Burns will make sure that the written word stays in your face.

(‘DiggThis’)How do you go about making a piece of literature something the world wants to know about? I don’t, the authors do, so my job is easy. I’m in the extremely lucky position that I only work with really good writers. They write a good book and all I have to do is call people who I think would be interested and tell them about it. What an easy gig. How’d you get into it? During grad school I was working in a bookstore at night and I realized, “Wow, I enjoy working in the bookstore more than I do anything else.” I starting running an author series at a bookstore in San Francisco. I moved to LA and started to work in film production, which paid a lot of money, but it felt like my brain was turning to mush. So, I called a friend at Knopf’s West Coast office and asked for a job. I loved doing book publicity so I moved to New York to work at Random House. I was a publicist at Random House, Pantheon and the Penguin Press before I set up my own shop in 2003. Who were some of the most exciting authors you represented when you worked at Random House? This is going back a few but Zadie Smith for her book White Teeth because she was at the beginning of a career and you knew it was going to be big. Adam Gopnik for Paris to the Moon, which is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. He is such a maverick writer and that was his first book. Another one was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald who was with a smaller publisher before going to Random House. This was going to be his big book and it was, then he died in a car crash two months after it came out, so I feel incredibly lucky to have known him and to have helped turn readers on to his books. What about independently? I work for the PEN American Center, which supports writers and is the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization. They are vigorous in their support of freedom of speech and just genuinely awesome people. I help them with their annual World Voices Festival, which brings 160 writers from around the world to New York, so it’s a great opportunity to see how the world thinks. I worked with Salman Rushdie on his last novel, The Enchantress of Florence. A.M Homes wrote a memoir about being adopted called the The Mistress’s DaughterHardball by Sara Paretsky. How do new writers make it today? It is a very difficult time. I know I sound old school saying this but I think the bookstores and the booksellers really matter. They’re on the frontlines. You go into a bookstore and ask what you should read and the independent booksellers will find you something you love that might actually change your life. I also think word of mouth. That’s what happened with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. It got a great front-page review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times Book Review and everybody in the industry and all the literary people were excited, but my understanding is that when women started recommending it to their friends is when it really took off. And then of course, Oprah didn’t hurt. Any big projects coming up? I’m working on a debut novel that will come out in June called The More I Owe You which is about Elizabeth Bishop’s years in Brazil. She went to Brazil for a two-week vacation, fell in love with a woman and ended up staying 17 years. The story is amazing and the writer just writes beautifully. I’m also working on New Yorker writer Marisa Silver’s new collection of short stories. The Story Prize, which celebrates the year’s best collection of short stories, is an upcoming event I’m doing the PR for. The PEN World Voices Festival again this year. And, get this, I just signed on with Natalie Merchant – her new album is free domain poetry she’s set to music. It’s her first album in seven years and the music PR people will take care of her but I’m going to try to help get attention in literary circles. Books that annoy you? What really bums me out is stuff like Sarah Palin’s book. A huge seller like that could have created the opportunity to draw people into bookstores, where they’d hopefully find other books actually worth reading, but then Amazon and Wal-Mart discount it so severely. Why would you go into a bookstore to get it? The other thing that bothers me is that it’s a product. She didn’t even write it. I bet she hasn’t even read it. It’s all that kind of bullshit publishing that really bums me out, makes a lot of noise, and takes attention that could go to read books. I’m also beyond bored with all the talk about E-readers. It’s just another format to read something in. What is inside the books or what is downloaded onto an E reader — that is the important thing to me. In the end I think all people really want is a good story that’s well told. Go-to places in New York? Sant Ambroeus or Soba-Ya for lunch. John the maitre d’ at Babbo is a big reader so I love it there. Commerce and Pearl Oyster Bar and I love Giorgione in SoHo.

Photo: Richard Koek

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