When you start writing a novel, you think that everything will be fine if only you can finish writing it. But if you do finish, you realize you need an agent who can sell it for you. As thrilled as you are when an agent agrees to sign you, you then understand that the agent has to find an editor who wants to buy it. So it isn’t until your agent has sold your finished novel to an editor that it dawns on you that the whole business actually hangs on the publicist. Without a publicist, no one will ever know you wrote a book, and if no one knows you wrote it, no one is going to buy it and no one is going to read it. In the publishing business, you’re going to need a great publicist, or you’re sunk. I’ve had a truly great publicist for 22 years, and last week she announced her retirement from her.
Jane Beirn had two poster-sized pictures propped up on the windowsill of her office at HarperCollins, this back when Harper was still on East 53rd Street. One was a photograph of Audrey Hepburn in a black cocktail dress, talking to Humphrey Bogart backstage on the set of sabrina. The other was a blowup of the cover of Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things—a pink water lily floating above a green leaf, very possibly the most beautifully balanced book jacket of all time. I can’t begin to imagine how many hours I spent in Jane’s office looking at those two pictures in the years we worked together, and how perfectly they came to represent the elegant woman who owned them.
Jane and I first met in 2000, the year I signed with Harper for my novel Bel Canto. My new editor walked me down the twisty labyrinth of book-lined hallways to introduce us, then left me there with a slim woman of indeterminate age, perfect posture, and a superabundance of straight, dark hair cut in a bob. She wore a pearl necklace, a sweater set, and Ferragamo flats. I saw variations on this theme over time, but the overall effect was always the same: crisp, old-school professionalism. Jane wasn’t trying to figure herself out. She’d already done that. I had published books with other houses before I came to Harper. I’d had other publicists. There were very hard reasons why Jane and I locked in a friendship early on: My beloved editor, Robert Jones, died a few months after Bel Canto was published. I came to New York to speak at his memorial service for him on September 10th, 2001, with plans to fly home on September 11th. There were also the many happier reasons for our friendship, one of which being that this was my fourth novel, and the first one to do well. Jane deserves the credit for that.
Your publicist is the person who meets the world on your behalf.
Your publicist is the person who meets the world on your behalf. She writes the letter that’s folded into the advance reader’s copy of your novel, the one that goes out to newspapers and magazines months before publication in hopes that someone will want to review it. She sends the book to radio stations and television stations (back in the day when radio stations and television stations were likely to interview novelists), and later to podcasters and bookish websites. She follows up and follows up and follows up, singing the praises of your work. If you’re lucky, she arranges endless, grueling book tours, then listens to you complain about them. “The only thing worse than going on book tour,” my friend Allan Gurganus once told me, “is not going on book tour.”
Publicity is exhausting, invasive, and not what you think you sign up for when you decide to become a writer. But it’s made bearable when the person telling you what you need to do is someone you trust and respect. For 22 years, people have told me how lucky I am to be working with Jane Beirn, the consummate professional. Upon the
announcement of her retirement, Ron Charles, the book editor of the Washington Post, tweeted: “Jane Beirn, VP publicity for Harper, has announced her retirement. I’ll miss her immensely. Twenty-five years ago, she was one of the first (and few!) publishing insiders to help me out.”
Jane was helping out all of us, including Louise Erdrich, who said, “I have worked with Jane Beirn since I began publishing—way back in the mid-1980s. She has inspired unparalleled trust and respect in all of us who’ve worked with her. One of my great pleasures over time has been talking to Jane about what she’s reading—she never steers me wrong. She has honed a sense of what events and venues fit the book she is advocating for, and I’ve always been grateful for her kindness and brilliant judgment of her. I truly can’t express how profoundly I will miss her.”
“One of my great pleasures over time has been talking to Jane about what she’s reading—she never steers me wrong.”
She also helped Barbara Kingsolver, Edward P. Jones, Simon Winchester, and Simon Schama, to name a very few. Her authors have won Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and in the case of Doris Lessing, one Nobel Prize. She has stood behind us, beside us, and has always been out in front of us, pouring her intelligence, energy, and clout into our careers. We are all better for her. Jane’s own career in publishing began at The New Yorker, where she was the second assistant to the legendary editor William Shawn. “Second secretary,” she said. “But I was the first secretary when the first secretary was at lunch or on vacation.” She called her employer de ella nothing but Mr. Shawn, and he called her Mrs. Beirn, though she was 23 years old at the time. It was the age of carbon paper, Wite-Out, and sending messengers to Pauline Kael’s apartment to collect her film reviews of her.
“I came out of college so steeped in the 19th-century novel,” she told me. “I was amazed to see what current writers were producing.”
When Jane and her husband left for California, Mr. Shawn was disappointed. “Oh, Mrs. Beirn,” he said, “I’m so sorry you’re going to a cultural wasteland, but you’ll be back.”
Mr. Shawn was right.
When Jane came back to New York, she worked in publicity at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. In 1988, she came to HarperCollins. To be alive is to see things change: Wite-Out gave way to spellcheck; glossy paper catalogs of a season’s upcoming list became PDFs. Jane’s assistants went on to become editors and publicists and writers. HarperCollins moved downtown, the cluttered, book-stacked offices replaced with open floor plans just before Covid sent everyone home to work.
Jane called to tell me her decision. She wanted me to hear it from her before it was publicly announced. After I told her I was happy for her, and grateful to her, after I told her how much I loved her, we lapsed into our standard conversation, spending more than an hour talking about books and book clubs and what was coming out that we wanted to read. We talked about the Virginia Woolf class she was taking and the novel I was writing. She said she was nervous about the future, and she was excited about the future. “I hope we’ll stay in touch,” she said tentatively. I couldn’t stop laughing. When would Jane Beirn and I not be in touch? What you need in this business is a wonderful publicist. What you need in this business is a wonderful friend. I’ve had both.
Ann Patchett is the author of eight novels, most recently The Dutch House. A collection of essays, These Precious Days, was published in 2021. Patchett has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and a Guggenheim. In November 2011 she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville with Karen Hayes, and has since become a leading spokesperson for independent bookstores.
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