When you’re a kid, and later, if and when you’re a parent, you sometimes hear the term “bad attention.” As in, “We know you like attention, Lochinvar, but setting Mary Lou’s braids on fire will only get you bad attention.”
Bad attention: the sort of attention that goes down in your permanent record, that possibly keeps you out of a job or the college of your choice, the sort of attention that maybe comes with media attention and perhaps a lengthy jail sentence.
There are those, I know, who believe that all attention is good attention because, well, attention, right? And this belief feeds into the sort of marketing rhetoric about doing something different, something that will get your novel (or submission) noticed. In my slush-reading days, this meant I sometimes encountered submissions that were strung along over weeks with postcards that said “LOVE’S UNDERWEAR DRAWER is coming!” or “Only two weeks until you can open LOVE’S UNDERWEAR DRAWER!” etc. This did not, in fact, ensure a closer or more sympathetic reading when the manuscript finally arrived. Quite the opposite, in fact: when LUD finally did show up, people were hard put to give it a serious reading, although we tried, honestly. In trying to stand out from the crowd, the author of Love’s Underwear Drawer had shot herself in the foot; no one could take it seriously.
In the same way, approaching readers or people you want to blurb your book with some high concept attention-getter is very likely to backfire. Last week I, and a bunch of other BVC members, got an email for which the subject line was “Death Threat ;)” Most of us didn’t even see it because their spam filters pulled them out. My spam filter is not that diligent, and I got it and even opened it. Like the Elephant’s Child, my curiosity is sometimes ‘satiable. At the top of the email, in letters generated by Ransom Note Generator, was the message “I would kill for a review from you. Target must be an asshole.” Below that was the first chapter of a novel the author hoped I might read and blurb.
Um. Let’s just unpack that a little.
First of all, in this day and age, when even the most mild mannered of us encounter people who might have an erratic relationship with reality, an email labeled “Death Threat” (even with the winky emoticon) is likely to be, at the very least, unsettling. I was unsettled. And yet, because I was curious, I clicked through. But the “I would kill for a review from you” in faux ransom-note style creeped me out. I closed the email, trashed it… only later, when I thought about it, did I fish it out of the trash, smooth out the metaphorical wrinkles, and re-read the header. Line two made no sense (it is a sign of my disordered sensibilities that I thought “Target” referred to the chain store). I looked at the other people on the distribution list, realized that all eight of us were BVC members, and inquired as to whether anyone else had noticed the email.
As I’ve said, spam filters caught it for some of us. Most of us trashed it unopened. I may be the only one who was dumb enough to open it (at least one person suspected it contained malware of some devious sort). It was only on Saturday that someone parsed the second line of the headline: The writer of the email offered to kill someone in order to score a review, but only if the intended victim was an asshole. Okay, then.
So the email was discussed. The unwisdom and out-and-out ickiness of the email was discussed. No one thought it was particularly funny or witty and at no time did any of us decide we wanted to read the book. As a matter of fact, the consensus was that we wanted to not read it.
Much like the based-on-a-real-writer author of Love’s Underwear Drawer, the sender of the “Death Threat ;)” email was a little too clever for his own good. The best way to get attention, really, is to write something terrific, but we all know–or at least, we fear–that that won’t be enough. The same people who believe that publishing is populated by Big! Mean! Gatekeepers! may also believe that their only resort is to do an end-run around the gatekeepers by being clever. By being different. By being really interesting. By being memorable.
And that’s what the second grade teacher was talking about when he talked to little Lochinvar about Mary Lou’s braids. Lochinvar might be memorable, but only because the teachers of the third, fourth, and fifth grades will all have heard about him, and drawn their own conclusions, long before he joins their classes.