08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Is Work? Promoting Authors and Books in New Ways

In our last post on the nature of work, a couple passionate about graphic design and baking as well as each other created a business selling T-shirts and cupcakes in Boulder, CO.

In this post, we'll look at another way that individuals of passion are creating careers for themselves.

Russ Marshalek is a new media-savvy publicist for books, authors and imprints. We met at the Twitter 140 conference in New York. But even before we met, his passion for books -- and his hatred of Manhattan's notoriously fickle F-Train -- had inspired me to follow him on Twitter.

"I've always been madly, stupidly, passionately in love with books," Marshalek told me over the phone one Friday afternoon, as he was preparing to cook up an Indian feast in his apartment.

(If you're noticing a common element among the people profiled in this series -- they love to cook and eat -- that wasn't intentional. But it may bolster the claim that passion transcends categories. Which is just one more plus about doing work that we love. Not only does it make our lives worthwhile; it makes dinner taste better.)

Russ was raised by his grandparents in a small town in Georgia. As a kid, he remembers not being not-too-comfortable around other kids.

"I didn't really know how to have friends," he said. "As fucked up and creepy as that sounds."

But he was massively happy around books.

When the local Pizza Hut ran a promotion designed to get kids to read, Russ found his niche. The promotion was designed to get young readers to trade a series of stamped cards, proving that they'd read a certain number of books, for a pizza. The official contest ratio was something like five books per pizza. Russ turned in fifty cards, refitting the promotion to his best purposes.

It would have been a no-brainer to imagine a grown-up Russ sharing his passion for books. But like many people, Russ didn't find professional passion in his first job, as a teacher.

"I realized something really quickly," he says. "I hate kids, but I really loved books. I love to press a book into someone's hand [and say]...this book will change your life."

His next step was music PR, which led to a job in an independent bookstore in Atlanta. It was a great soul-match. But it didn't last.

"When the economy tanked in late '08, I kind of saw the writing on the wall," he says.

This is the point where a bit of counter-intuitive thinking can go a long way for us in finding jobs we feel passionate about.

The great thing about a bad economy is that it levels the playing field. If there are no real possibilities, folks who craft their own jobs figure, then everything's an option. Right?

And so, instead of moving backward (teaching, anyone?) Russ did an exploratory work-trip to New York City. There, the (allegedly dying) print media was busy writing about publishing's death-on-tap.

Being a logical person, he called on established companies in the hope of finding a job.

If this were a movie, Russ's years of passion for books would be requited. He'd start out in the mailroom, perhaps, and progress to being the CEO of a publishing powerhouse that defied the market despite the odds.

Instead, during an interview with the much-admired head of PR at a major publishing house, Russ heard the words that changed his life.

"You should really go freelance," the PR pro told him. "Show people what you can do."

If this were a movie, Russ might have said, "By gum, I'll do it!"

But this was real life. His "Hero"s Call to Action", as screenwriters like call it, left him less than enthused.

"Freelance always scared me," Russ says. "And I hated New York -- hated it with a fiery passion."

And so, he did the sensible thing: he went home to Atlanta, broke up with his girlfriend, packed up his things and went back to New York.

Less than a year later, Russ is the kind of guy people turn to to find out what to read -- and what to write, by way of Twitter, blogs and live events, like "Just Working on My Novel," a night of works-in-progress by publishing folks and their friends held at Manhattan's arts space, "The Tank."

Passion has been the key to creating a career despite the odds of economy, geography and industry. It also defines his personal relationships.

"Ever since I decided I wanted to do what I believe in and follow my dream, doors have opened. I surround myself with good people. I'm incredibly happy."

Those good people include a new girlfriend, who passionately does her own kind of PR. And a host of folks who naturally gravitate toward the guy who loves words and stories, in a classic- yet-21st century way.

As for the future of books?

"The death of print has been greatly exaggerated," he concludes.

And if anyone can keep it alive, I'd bet, Russ can.