Maker & Marketer: An Interview With Caitlin Hamilton Summie

August 17, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 9 min read


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Take one or two steps into the world of literary marketing and commerce, and you will likely encounter the name Caitlin Hamilton Summie. In particular, if you are a champion of independent publishing and bookselling, the degrees of separation to Summie will be few. For literary writers coming out with a debut, or perhaps seeking to improve their second or third book’s visibility, the search for an independent publicist will likely begin with personal recommendations; and it’s via that word-of-mouth chain that Summie — a lover of books but also, clearly, of the human side of literary creation and marketing — rises to the top of the referral list.

It’s commonplace these days for authors to participate actively in publicity efforts, and, while doing so, to comment on the fact that publicity requires an extremely different temperament and skill set from writing. And so it’s not often that publicists double as authors. Here, too, Summie, age 47, is exceptional: next spring, her debut collection of stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, will be published by Fomite Press.

Bloom: You’re a books and lit person through and through, that much is clear. When and how did it start? Did you grow up in a bookish family?

Caitlin Hamilton Summie: I grew up in a household filled with books, and both my parents are avid readers. I remember falling in love with writing before I fell in love with reading, oddly enough. I started writing as a preschooler. I wrote stories and gave them to my mother to read, but since I couldn’t write yet and had only scribbles, she quite smartly asked me to read my stories to her instead. I have always appreciated the respect she gave me, even then. I can’t remember when books became as important to me — lifeblood — but I believe I was an adult.

Bloom: You’ve worked as a bookseller, a marketing and publicity director for a corporate publisher, a marketing, publicity, and sales director for an independent publisher, and as an independent publicist for both individual authors and small presses. We who love books but have never worked inside the business don’t realize how complex is the web of book publishing and selling. But we authors do hear stories of how dysfunctional the publishing world can be. I wonder if, as someone who loves books as much as you do, knowing so much of the inside baseball — the “sausage-making” as they say — is ever discouraging or demoralizing?

CHS: Yes, it can be discouraging. There are several things about the industry that can wear one down, especially for those of us deeply involved in the small press world — the fight for review space being one. There is the continual vast difference in resources in general — financial, staff — that make small press life more of a challenge.

But I am interested in what books and publishing can become. I am quite energized by the revolution in books, the different ways people can now publish — POD [print on demand], hybrid, traditional, large press, small press, self. There used to be only one real way to share stories, but now we have stories being published in a variety of ways, and I think we as an industry will benefit, that it will spur continued innovation.

Every discouraging moment comes with a moment of success or joy — a great and important review, the discovery of a new talent, that perfect pitch to a niche outlet — and so we here in this firm get up and turn the lights on to make certain those voices are heard.

Bloom: Of all the jobs above, which would you say is/was the most challenging, and why?

CHS: I think that publicity is the hardest right now. Things are changing quickly, as we go mobile and more communities and publications proliferate online, and more books hit the marketplace. But those very challenges keep it exciting, too. One has to keep learning, and I believe that is a great thing in a job.

Bloom: Most of your work has been in the indie world. Has that been a deliberate choice, or just how it turned out?

CHS: I began in the big house world, in editorial at Vintage. But I am not a New Yorker, and so my focus changed the day I started counting the trees in my neighborhood. I thought I was leaving books for good when I left New York, but of course I didn’t. I worked at an indie bookstore, then slowly found my way back to publishing by joining MacMurray & Beck.

covercoverAt the indie bookstore I handled events and also maintained the biography section. Sadly, I could never decide how I wanted the section to look: should I alphabetize by author or subject? On the floor, I hand sold the same two novels over and over (Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi) so I learned the power of handselling, the importance of independent bookstores, and what they mean to a community.

I remember that when we closed, I was somehow tasked with the job of announcing the discounts over the PA system. I felt such resentment as people swept through the doors, people I had never seen before. My dad came in looking guilty, and I told him to buy away. He was a genuine, regular customer, and he of all people should get a discount.

At MacMurray & Beck, I was the marketing director, but I was also the publicity director, and for two years roughly I managed all sales nationwide, from Barnes & Noble to mom-and-pop stores. My college major was in Middle Eastern history, so basically I learned everything about marketing on my feet.

As my career progressed, I developed a growing love of small presses, and so yes, it became a conscious effort on my part to remain involved in the small press community.

Bloom: What made you decide to open up your own book marketing and publicity firm in 2003?

CHS: Ah! I was laid off from Penguin Putnam and looking for jobs. But quite quickly, the phone began ringing. First, a small press publisher needed publicity help for a really literary novel.

I had done publicity, marketing, sales, and bookselling so I felt ready to assist in a variety of capacities, which is what I did whenever someone called: I determined where they needed me on their team (and still do.)

I really enjoyed my freelance work, and about the third time the phone rang, it hit me: I have started a business.

Bloom: What advice would you offer to authors who are considering hiring an independent publicist? What have you learned about how/whether a book “breaks through” to get press attention and sales?

CHS: I advise any author who wants to hire a publicist to treat this as a business. Develop a set of expectations and a budget prior to speaking with publicists, and make certain they fit your needs and plans. I believe publicity is all about fits, so an author should interview people, review their websites, speak with them to make certain working with them on a day-to-day basis is possible, get references. Ask questions.

Sometimes breaking out an author is actually a ten-year process, a slow build from book to book. Sometimes it comes in a lightening-flash of bookseller and media love. I have seen it happen both ways. What I have learned is that for the books I represent, there is no set formula. There are definitely things that we know will be helpful — starred trade reviews, other reviews in publications that really fit the book’s audience, a striking cover, handselling — but I believe in remaining creative because you can develop all those things for an author and still not break out.

Bloom: I confess that for a long time, when you and I were corresponding about Bloom, and book biz, and other subjects, I assumed you lived in New York City. Talk about that common misperception — that all literary work and life happens in New York — and the ways in which it’s wrong, misguided, possibly even damaging to literary life?

CHS: You are not alone! When people find out I live in Tennessee, there is usually an awkward pause. People forget too easily the importance of the South to American literature, and even more so forget the importance of Tennessee itself to American letters. We have Parnassus Bookstore, and Burke’s, and Union Avenue Books. Vanderbilt and UT both have MFA programs. Also, we host The Southern Festival of Books and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. And so many writers are here! Pamela Schoenwaldt, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Kallet, Michael Knight, Amy Greene. Alex Haley was originally from Nashville, Charles Wright was from Pickwick Dam, James Agee was born in Knoxville as was Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy set his first four novels in East Tennessee. William Gay lived in Tennessee as well. Poets Laureate Allen Tate and James Dickey went to Vanderbilt, and Robert Penn Warren, also a Poet Laureate, taught there.

The fact is that for the majority of my career in books (all but one year), I have not been in New York. There is a vibrant, different literary world outside New York—and some incredible work being done—and I think the presumption that the best of literature is in New York or that New York is the center of literary life is in fact damaging. MacMurray & Beck published the first novels of Steve Yarbourgh, William Gay, Patricia Henley, and Susan Vreeland, among others, out of small offices in central Denver. Free Spirit Publishing, with whom I was an intern the summer after I graduated from high school, is in Minneapolis. When I interned there, they were publishing books for gifted and talented kids that address real life issues, something they began back in the 1980s to fill a gap. They’ve continued to innovate. She Writes Press in Berkeley is succeeding with a new publishing model. Don’t get me wrong. New York is important, of course. But as book lovers and readers we are more than what one city discovers.

Bloom: What would you say have been some of the most significant changes and trends in bookselling, marketing, and publicity over the last 20 years? 10 years? What do you think might be the Next Big Change?

CHS: I have seen tons of changes: the shrinking of book review pages, the development of paid reviews, the rise of the Internet and Internet media, the development of the citizen (consumer) reviewer, and the creation of online engagement through social media.

I’ve begun to think the next change will be in delivery — in the methodology itself as well as in how current delivery options are perceived. I am so intrigued by the book vending machines abroad. I imagine soon we will be delivering books in great, fun new ways here, too. I think POD ought to be more acceptable than it is in some quarters. It is a smart choice for smaller houses.

Bloom: A Next Big Change for you is that you are about to become a published author of a collection of short stories.  A lot of folks who work in publishing — as editors, publicists, booksellers, etc. — have creative projects going on the backburners, in hopes that their time will come. And it has for you, after many years of working steadily and quietly on your fiction. Tell us about those years, that journey, and what this moment means for you.

CHS: I earned my MFA from Colorado State in 1995 and had had a few stories published in 1995 and 1996. Since then, I have continued to write. I even sent a few pieces out, though none were accepted. Like many, work and motherhood were happy distractions for many years (and still are.) The recent acceptance of my short story, “Sons,” at Mud Season Review, was a sweet moment. I wrote that story in 1992. I have always loved it, and for someone else to find merit in it was really exciting.

For as long as I have been writing, the book acceptance happened very quickly. As tickled as I was to get the news, I was also stunned. A few days later, when my family met to celebrate, I was more joyous than the night I had read the acceptance email. It is tremendously exciting!

Bloom: What do you think lit the fire under you to begin pursuing publication more seriously recently?

CHS: I had been working on a middle-grade novel and needed a change, so I decided to revisit my stories. I had sent a couple out, including “Sons.” When it was accepted, I thought, “Why not go for it?” I sent more stories out and then decided to go for it wholeheartedly and sent the collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, off to Fomite.

Bloom: What can you tell us about the stories in your forthcoming collection?

CHS: The stories are about family — often about loss and about accepting each other as we are, sometimes about accepting ourselves as we are. Many of the stories are set in Minnesota and involve snow. I grew up in Minnesota and Massachusetts — snow everywhere during the winter. That may sound like a trivial detail, but snow, and weather in general, are important to my writing. The collection begins with the story of a kid, follows people as they age, and ends with the story of an old man. But what links them isn’t as much age or aging as it is the themes of family, loss, and hope.

Bloom: How will it feel to put the marketing, sales, and publicity of your book in the hands of someone else? How do you see yourself being involved?

CHS: Fomite is a press with a small team and asks authors to do a lot of the marketing, so I will be working on my own book, with the assistance of my husband, who is also a book publicist. We chose the cover image with the publisher shortly after the book was accepted and just chose the book title and that has been a great process. We made team decisions, which I like. I have no problem letting others in on the marketing. In my experience, teams are best. Even when a team disagrees, we all refine our thinking and get better. Also, I may be too close to these stories and so having the Fomite team share their perspectives is essential.

Bloom: Are you working on new fiction now?

CHS: Yes! I am taking the middle-grade novel through a last rewrite and then revising a couple of children’s picture books. I still have a few short stories to reconsider. Also, because some of the stories link, I want to revisit a manuscript that is a novel-in-stories—a few pieces for that book are from the collection and then there are a bunch of others to add.

Bloom: You have so much experience with book release triumphs and disappointments; and you’ve already said that a book’s reception is unpredictable. What will you consider a “success” for the roll-out of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts?

CHS: Reviews. Good reviews will mean the book is a success to me. Sales would be sweet, but short story collections are always a tough sell. The critical reception matters most in building my brand as a writer.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.