Barb Burg, longtime publicity executive at Bantam who most recently ran her own PR firm and was v-p and global head of communications, Reuters, at Thomson Reuters, died on Tuesday. She was 50 and had battled cancer for several years. Her funeral takes place this morning at 10 a.m., at Temple Beth Abraham, 25 Leroy Ave., Tarrytown, N.Y. (The service will be livestreamed through the Temple's website; click on the box on the left sidebar.) Here author Meredith Maran remembers Barb:
"Order the oysters," Barb Burg ordered me, the first time we had lunch together.
We were at the Union Square Café in New York City, September 1994. Bantam had just won the auction for my first book, What It's Like to Live Now.
Remember auctions? Remember when an unknown '60s-activist-turned-Oakland-bisexual-momoirist would be flown to New York for a flurry of auditions with editors, salespeople, editors, publicists and the Publisher, whose conference room cameo confirmed that the House was very, very excited about making the author not only a bestseller and the screenwriter of the box-office-smash-movie based on the book but also the voice of her generation?
"I don't get it," I told Barb, slurping down a raw Kunamoto. "I'd have to sell 75,000 copies to earn out my advance. Why is Bantam throwing so much money at me?"
Over the iced tray of traif, Barb fixed her icy blues on me. "Do you have 10 books in you?" she asked.
I knew oysters made me horny. I didn't know they made me dizzy. Or was it this magical moment, the delightful, disorienting sense that I was already playing myself in the movie?
"Ten books?" I stammered. "Sure."
"Of course you do." Barb nodded briskly, her corkscrew curls bobbing. "We're not just here for your first book. We're here for your 10th. We're not just publishing you to sell books. We're publishing you to contribute to the culture."
The hell of it was, Barb meant it. She believed that Bantam would be my publisher for life; that they'd stick with me in the venerable tradition of Shawn and Salinger, that together we'd plant our flag in the fecund soil of the American literary canon. Because publishing was still like that then.
Fast-forward to 1999. Book One--launched, rocket-style, from Barb Burg's cannon--had made a respectable showing. Book two had bombed. After multiple submissions of multiple proposals, my agent told me: Barb or no Barb, Bantam would never publish me again.
Fast-forward to 2009. While I've been ringing round the nine circles of publishing hell--shrinking promotional budgets lead to shrinking sales lead to shrinking advances lead to shrinking promo budgets (rinse/repeat)--Barb has been promoted, promoted, promoted, and, incredibly, fired.
The minute I heard the news I sent her a check for $5,000. She called, crying, to ask me what it was for. I told her that she'd just started her own publicity firm and I was her first client. Laughing, she accepted the job.
A few months before my book came out, Barb called to tell me that she had Stage Four cancer. She offered to refund my deposit and refer me to another publicist. I stuck with her, of course. She promised not to let me down. And she didn't, of course. She got me more national media than I'd ever had, and for a very difficult book.
"Please do not spend a nanosecond worrying about My Lie," Barb wrote me that summer. "I am as guardedly optimistic as ever (or maybe even a bit more since I've now had actual conversations with people who don't know you or anything about the book and are intrigued and hopefully reading it as we speak)....
"As for me, I've had a tough couple of weeks. As promised, weeks 5 and 6 of chemo and radiation are the worst.... Happily, there's Percocet for pain and the mornings are still good for working and living my best life.... Just four more treatments to go and then I'm free to recover for 6 weeks and catch my breath.
"Sending huge hugs and lots of love,
I tried and failed to wrap my mind around Barb's new reality. Happily, there's Percocet?
Fast-forward to April 29, 2014. I'm poolside on an unseasonably sizzling day in Los Angeles, working on my next book. An e-mail pings into my inbox. The subject line sinks my heart. "Barb Burg Schieffelin, Wife of Steve Schieffelin, mother of Ceece and Drew."
"Oh, no. Barb Burg," I post on my Facebook page. Instantly my page becomes a shrine to Barb, a hastily raised roadside cross where someone much-loved has died. "She was one of those women who really supports other women," wrote Bridget Kinsella. "In her memory I hope I can remember to BLB (Be Like Barb) more than I do on my own."
"I'm so sorry for your loss and everyone else who knew Barb--such a force of good for books," wrote Katie Freeman, associate director of publicity at Riverhead Books.
"Barb was the perfect publicist for her era," I wrote at the end of a long stream of comments. "That era is gone. And now, so is Barb. Rest in Power, BB."