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Publishing houses, unlike record companies, rarely dispense posters, T-shirts, or other items to promote their writers—after all, who wants a Dick Francis bumper sticker? While authors regularly press the flesh at book signings, word of mouth remains the ultimate advertisement. But Van Whitfield doesn’t like those passive tactics. The Lanham, Md., resident, a former corrections officer at Lorton Prison and employee of the Kelly administration, is both an aspiring novelist and his own publicist. Whitfield’s manuscript, Beeperless Remote: A Guy, Some Girls, and His Answering Machine, comes with all kinds of promo. All that’s missing is a publisher.
Whitfield has gone the traditional route in some ways; he says he has an agent and has peddled his book to various publishing houses. But since he’s a currently a “consultant” with time on his hands, he also has taken over duties normally delegated to a marketing department. “I felt like if I could help to develop a PR campaign for a prison system, mayor, and the government at large, then I should certainly be able to put those energies into myself,” Whitfield says. So far, he’s designed Beeperless Remote‘s red, black, and white cover, a laminated bookmark, a ’96 calendar, and a mock-up CD packet optimistically labeled “Original Soundtrack from the hit novel by Van Whitfield.” (Sade, En Vogue, Al Jarreau, and Pat Metheny are among the artists on his wish list; Track 20, “SportsCenter Theme Song,” would be a “Bonus track on CD only.”) Whitfield admits that the soundtrack—provided rights are granted, of course—has the potential to be more popular than the book: “I’ve had a lot of people…see the soundtrack and say, “Look, I could care less about the book, I want the soundtrack!’ ” he says.
Whitfield has even formed “focus groups” to discuss Beeperless Remote—by his estimation, he’s held some 50 meetings to elicit opinions and marketing strategies. Long after finishing his manuscript, he continues to convene focus groups, stating that they keep him abreast of what the public is interested in buying. Unfortunately, none of the brainstorming sessions have yielded the magic formula for published fame; though Whitfield claims some publishers have nibbled, a book contract still eludes him.
“We are running into problems with the publishers because the main character [a ’90s bachelor in search of a soul mate] is not a drug addict, an abusive person, or a womanizer,” Whitfield laments. “He’s real person without extreme views or extreme personality traits. My push now is to get a progressive publisher to pick the book up and just give it a chance.”
The biggest risk is that all of Whitfield’s publicity schemes will be for naught. “I envision once it goes to the publisher I will have to do another rewrite,” he acknowledges—in other words, his promotional material would advertise a book that no longer exists. But the author/publicist is undeterred: “If you believe in your material,” he says, “get out there and represent it.”