Why Every Celebrity You Know Has Been Seen Reading Samantha Irby’s ‘Meaty’
Through the power of Photoshop, the author is getting her book into the hands of celebs from Oprah to Jon Snow
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Samantha Irby’s new book Meaty is a re-release of an essay collection published in 2013—not usually publicity gold, even for an author whose second collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life was a New York Times bestseller. Sam Irby herself, though, is a publicist’s dream: wildly funny, wholly unabashed, relentlessly charming (even when being extremely gross; there are whole essays in Meaty about bathroom stuff), and, it turns out, a book marketing innovator. To promote the new release of Meaty and her multi-state book tour, Irby has masterminded a series of Photoshopped images showing her book in the hands of such luminaries as Hillary Clinton, Bob Ross, and Michael Jordan. If you follow her on social media, you’ve seen that hedgehog on her cover more than you’ve seen Grumpy Cat or the bad pun husky lately, which is a hell of a coup.
I talked to Irby over email (set up through her publicist, who, yes, has stars in her eyes about all of this) about self-promotion, the awkwardness of having to tell your friends that Oprah isn’t really a fan, and hoping to hear those 11 little words from Idris Elba (“hey dummy stop using my likeness to sell your ridiculous book”).
Jess Zimmerman: What’s the thought process behind your campaign to photoshop Meaty into the hands of every important celebrity/fictional character in American culture? (It strikes me as a kind of “fake it till you make it” approach but I suppose it could just as easily be “I have a graphics program and a beer.”)
Samantha Irby: When Meaty first came out a few years ago my friend Walt sent me a picture of Drake that he’d Photoshopped reading it, so when the new version was about to drop I hit him up like “Hey…wanna do that again?” So he did and I posted it and got this amazing response and I then I started thinking we could make a regular series out of it. My friends Geno and Christopher are both graphic artists and wanted to join in the fun, so I just scoured the internet for pictures of celebrities holding papers or books and sent them to my dudes. I couldn’t make a realistic-looking fake photo if I tried. So basically I’m the art director and they do all the grunt work. I do the googles and come up with the caption, they make it look like Michelle Obama is actually reading my stupid book.
JZ: How many people sent you excited DMs when they saw the Oprah one? In general, how long did it take into this project before people stopped getting excited about each one and realized what was going on here?
SI: The first Oprah one was wild because so many people who are my actual friends texted me like WOW DUDE OPRAH!!!1!11!!! filled with excitement that she had chosen a book about defecating in the street for her fancy book club and it was pretty jarring and upsetting for me to realize how many people I know are actually dumb? It was so embarrassing! After I posted the next couple after Oprah people started to wise up and figured out what I was doing, but nothing will ever erase the death pit in my stomach as I had to text back people with advanced degrees who run business and practice medicine “wow sorry dude that’s fake.” The worst.
JZ: On the flip side, has anyone started doubting your real photos? You posted a picture of Meaty on a bestseller list, for instance — anyone assume that was fake?
SI: Hahahaha no! I guess if Madonna was holding the bestseller list people might get at me but so far everyone has believed all of my ~realistic~ photos!
JZ: Have you gotten any pushback, either from the people in the photos or from the general public? Are there any celebs you’ve included specifically in the hopes that you would get pushback, perhaps in the form of a perfumed and personalized DMCA notice?
SI: No pushback! I mean I would kind of love it if Idris Elba’s intern’s intern reached out on some “hey dummy stop using his likeness in an attempt to sell your ridiculous book” but so far: NADA. And I know people love to get mad about things but if someone’s pissed about this I haven’t heard about it. Besides, who could be angry with pure joy? If you’re salty about these then the problem is definitely you. And I’m only a lawyer on television but even I know that if someone sent me a cease and desist or whatever I would just write FAIR USE PARODY BLAH BLAH BLAH on the subpoena and send it right on back.
SI: Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. I feel like she and I ride the same wave.
JZ: Do you think coming from a blog background makes you more inclined to take book publicity into your own hands, rather than waiting for publicists to do it for you? Did you do anything similar for We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, or do you have any future self-marketing plans?
SI: Selling myself is embarrassing to me, it always has been. I’m not a natural self-promoter. The Photoshop thing is easy because it’s hilarious and literally requires Google image-searching people I admire or movie/TV stills that a book could fit into, then reposting them on Instagram and Twitter, then letting the internet work its magic from there. I knew that because the book was a reissue it just wasn’t going to get the same type of buzz or make the same kind of splash, so the photos seemed like a funny, lowkey way to both lure new people into the fold and convince people who already read that shit five years ago to buy a new copy. My sincere hope is that I will never have to do this again, because contrary to what you might believe there aren’t dozens and dozens of paparazzi shots of famous people reading books. And sometimes you gotta let a sleeping dog lie, you know? Maybe for the next one I’ll do a series of still lifes next to exotic garbage cans or something. We’ll see.
JZ: Should publicists be launching this kind of campaign on behalf of their authors, or does it lose its charm if it’s coming from a marketing professional? More importantly do you think professional publicists will be copying your work, and if so do you plan to sue?
SI: I am sure other people have already started copying me, because we live inside a giant computer where things can be replicated in an instant and no idea is original or new. And who cares? It’s fine! Also, imagine me flop sweating to death in front of a judge trying to explain that a person owes me money because I photoshopped my book cover into a movie that I don’t own. I would die of shame. And I’m gonna sound like a real asshole here but I would hope that if you went to marketing school and wasted upwards of $100,000 of your mom’s retirement money to get a publicity degree that you would have better strategic ideas than those of a person who got a C- in a high school communications class.