Mary Roach

In a behind the book essay, Mary Roach—bestselling author of Spook and Stiff—shares the curious marketing strategy for her latest book, Grunt.


Roach shows off her latest marketing marvel

 

When I do book talks, I always take a moment to display to the audience the special free giveaway for everyone who buys a book. For Spook, purchasers received an “Ectoplasm Bookmark”! Spiritualist mediums in the 1920s used to swallow tightly wadded cheesecloth and covertly regurgitate it during séances. (Spread out in the dark, it looked ghostly and filmy.)

You might not think that a 1" x 4" strip of unadorned cheesecloth would motivate a person to buy copies of a $32 hardback, and there you’d be mistaken.

You might not think that a 1" x 4" strip of unadorned cheesecloth would motivate a person to buy copies of a $32 hardback, and there you’d be mistaken. I personally have always been a sucker for this kind of thing. I am a child of the Cracker Jack era, back when the prize inside was a tiny metal or plastic toy, not a goddam rub-on tattoo.    

With Bonk, I had colorful travel toothbrushes custom-printed to say KEEP YOUR CAVITIES FILLED (and a website URL). In Salt Lake City, a man handed it back, saying, “I’ll just throw it away when I get home.” I recall sitting there at my signing station, carrying on a conversation with the next person in line, all the while thinking, “Who would throw this away? Doesn’t everyone need a colorful travel toothbrush?”  

Packing for Mars readers got a spoonful of genuine simulated moon dust, the kind NASA was purchasing in great heaps to be sure dust particles weren’t going to gum up rover engines or scratch camera lenses when we went back to the moon. We never did go back there, so the whole enterprise was something of a bust. Your taxpayer dollars at work for Mary Roach giveaways.

For the new book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, I tracked down the manufacturers of the tiny toilet paper packets that go into every US MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat—combat rations). They’re made 10 miles from my home, in a warehouse run by the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. Elsewhere I had stickers made up that say GRUNT, plus a website URL. I’ll give the packets out at the signing table during the book tour, but I also plan to leave them in airport and restaurant bathroom stalls. The juvenile double-entendre seemed to dovetail nicely with my reputation.

When I went to pick them up, manager Skip Foster showed me how they’re made. A five-foot-wide roll that the people there call the “King Kong toilet paper roll” is mounted on a machine that feeds it into “slitters” that make a row of normal-TP-width strips. The machine then stacks, folds, and compresses these strips, which are then separated into units, wrapped, and spit into a waiting box at a rate of a thousand per minute.


Roach and Skip with the King Kong Toilet Paper Roll

 

Military TP is made to US Government Toilet Paper Specifications, and as such is stronger than most commercial brands. Servicemen and women complain about it because they want more of it. Skip tried to persuade the military to include two packets in each MRE, but had no luck with that.    

I don’t know how many books it will move, but it certainly made for an interesting morning.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Grunt

 

In a behind the book essay, Mary Roach—bestselling author of Spook and Stiff—shares the curious marketing strategy for her latest book, Grunt.

To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you'd think. You'd think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don't make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don't do it easily. If you were, for instance, a plastic surgeon who had set up a seminar with 40 severed human heads for other plastic surgeons to practice on, would you want a writer there? You would not. I contacted the organizers of this very head event, and indeed, they did not want me there. As the day drew near, I considered paying the $500 fee and registering as a surgeon. Maybe no one would notice that the woman in the back row was holding her retractor upside down and only pretending to make incisions.

In the end, an acquaintance, a plastic surgeon whom I'd profiled years ago, made some calls and got me in. I fear for his welfare once the book comes out. Not that I say anything negative about surgeons practicing on cadavers. I simply describe the things I saw, and most surgeons would probably prefer that the public not know about these things.

Inevitably, the doctors and scientists I wanted to visit would ask me to tell them about the book. I would assure them that I was in favor of cadaver-based education and research and that the book would support and encourage the donation of bodies to science.

This is true, but it didn't really tell them much about the book. For instance, that its title is Stiff. That it's meant not just to inform readers, but to entertain them. What could I say? “It's a fun book about dead people. You'll love it!” What scientist would agree to help me?

My past made matters worse. I used to write an irreverent, goofball column about medicine and the human body for the online magazine Salon.com. Occasionally my columns were about dead human bodies. There was one about car crash tests in the '60s that involved cadavers. I did not criticize these studies, for they were and still occasionally are necessary and have, indirectly, saved thousands of lives. However, my tone was somewhat cavalier. Flippant, you might even say. By and large, it's fair to say that people who do research using cadavers would rather not be the subject of flippant articles. At one point, I contacted a researcher at the University of Michigan to see if I could observe a cadaver impact test for the book. The man asked me how I'd become interested in the subject, and I said I'd done a little research on the topic for a Salon article. You don't figure engineers log on to Salon.com.

“Salon!” he said. “I hope you're not the one who wrote that horrible piece a couple months ago.” My piece had run about a year prior, so I replied that it must have been someone else. Then he began describing the piece, which was in fact my piece. I said, “I have to go now,” and I got off and called a different lab. I became so paranoid about potential sources running a Google search on me and finding my Salon columns that I'd sign off on my e-mails as Marion Roach. (Later I realized that my messages arrive with “Mary Roach” in the From heading.) The man whose automotive impact lab I eventually visited had seen the Salon column too, but he let me watch anyway. To this day I think of him as a kind of saint.

And now comes the part where the people in the book get to read it. There are days when I honestly believe they'll be okay with it, maybe even enjoy it. Other days I imagine them turning up at my doorstep, saying I've destroyed their scientific standing. And then they shoot me, and the author of Stiff is a corpse too. Horrifying, but think of the PR possibilities: Dead author goes on tour to promote cadaver book! Sales through roof!

Mary Roach currently writes the “My Planet” humor column in Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Outside, Wired, GQ and Vogue. A contributing editor at Discover magazine, she lives in San Francisco. Stiff is her first book.

To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you'd think. You'd think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don't make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don't do it easily.

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