Yesterday I wrote something about it being seven days till my book is published, and my various anxieties around whether anyone will ever read it, and my related anxieties that, without publicity, it'll never be read by anyone cos I suck and everything sucks and ...
Among those to comment when the post appeared on my author Facebook page was my publisher, who – for the record – is a font of wisdom, having co-run a successful and much-loved independent publishing business on the smell of an oily shoestring for more than a decade. Here's what she wrote:
Immense angst accompanies the release of any book I've been involved in publishing because ultimately, the numerous people we STILL need (that is, in addition to whoever had the guts to write it in the first place) to ensure a modicum of success are individuals with free will. My ability to control what books they stock/review/purchase is pretty darn limited. 'Damn you Free Will', I say to myself with increasing frequency these days. 'Why won't you all just do as I say?'
I concur: damn free will! Even if free will can't entirely be damned because we're all damned, thanks to Adam, Eve and their stupid free will.
Marketing, in its more primitive forms, has been trying to strong-arm free will since way before the Bible. Its dark arts have been developed over millennia. Advertising lore says consumers have to see something mentioned a certain number of times before getting their cash out. I can't remember the exact number of times – it's like a million or something. Maybe a gazillion.
That was clearly the thinking behind the marketing campaign for The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, released earlier this year. Short of the name of the book coming out with the blue and red stripes in my toothpaste, it was everywhere I looked. I even commissioned a piece on it for my day job. How could I not? The pressure was immense, as was the feeling that I had to read it, I just had to, there was no way to function in polite society without reading it.
And then the storm passed. "Oh," I thought, sheltering behind a rock as the trees stopped swaying and Axl and Beatrice and whoever else is in that book stopped giving me dirty looks. "Maybe I don't have to read it after all. Maybe if I don't no one will care. Maybe I can read something else, anything else; I can do whatever I want. I have free will!"
Doubtless, in crude sales terms, the blitzkrieg worked wonders.
Likewise the full-frontal assault for Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's 55-years-late companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird. I had to read it, or felt I did, even though I didn't feel particularly drawn to the first chapter, published in every paper, kinder update and community newsletter simultaneously, just in case we missed it.
I sympathise more readily with the approach of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, the not-even-real name of the "most important Italian novelist of a generation". She's famous for writing outstanding works of fiction, but equally for shunning all forms of publicity, and the associated mystique around her/his/their hidden identity.
A letter "she" wrote to "her" publisher in 1991, prior to the release of "her" debut novel, Troubling Love, was reproduced lately. "She" didn't want publicity, even if that resulted in "her" book not being published. "She" wrote:
I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind.
There's no reason to doubt "she" meant that. As someone who feels he's going to have to be a singing-dancing monkey on street corners very soon, begging everyone to buy his book and feeling itchy about the whole sordid process because GUESS WHAT, I WROTE THE THING, AND IT TOOK ME YEARS, I found that letter inspirational.
Was I alone in those feelings? Evidently not. The letter was shared many thousands of times, without any thought for the irony. "Good on that woman for shunning publicity." (Share!). "She has every right to her privacy." (Like!). "I totally support her stance." (Pinterest button!) . "Here's to anonymity." (Tumblr post).
Sia's case is analogous, albeit in music not books. She doesn't show her face because she doesn't want to play to an industry that's image-obsessed. And so? Yup – that's Sia's globally-recognised image, and we love it!
Being seen to not care has its own allure. It's cool by definition. But knowing about something no-one else cares about can also be pretty enticing.
Such was the case with Stoner by John Williams, published in 1965 and selling only 2,000 copies over several years. I don't write only disparagingly, by the way – I'd be happy only selling 2,000 copies. It was described by The New Yorker in 2013, nine years after Williams' death, as "the greatest American novel you've never heard of" and has since become a global bestseller.
Similarly – kind of – Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey, which received excited reviews by, among others, James Wood of the New Yorker, who described it in 2014 a "strange and exhilarating journey". Despite that, and coveted window placement in bookshops internationally, it had sold less than 1,000 copies several months after publication. It was, according to the Telegraph in March, one of the best novels published in 2014 – a statement (of fact?) that came with the catnip kicker: "So why haven’t you heard of it?"
I can only imagine it's shifted plenty of copies since.
That kind of anti-marketing angle, it seems, can work wonders. But can it be planned for? Few writers would consciously choose to shoot themselves in the foot, unless it was filmed and immediately uploaded to YouTube, so they could share it with the tagline: He/she thought nobody would read his/her book ... you won't BELIEVE what happens next!!!!
The section of the Ferrante letter I found most beautiful detailed one of "her" reasons for not wanting to promote "herself" or be promoted:
I will only tell you that it’s a small bet with myself, with my convictions. I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.
I like that because it suggests consumers, with their free will, will decide – although Christ-knows how they'll do that if they don't know about the book/film/painting in the first place.
Desperate measures may be the way forward. I'm going to see Will Self at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend and have a half-baked plan to give him a copy of my book while he's signing my copy of his. I'll probably not do it. But what if I did?
Might he then read my book on the plane back to Blighty, mention it to his 56,700 Twitter followers. Might he be my literary champion?
He certainly has a knack for promotion.