My (semi-professional) engagement with matters bookish had started promisingly enough. I’d found a publisher who was list-building and placed my unagented debut with them; I’d winkled out some coverage from the national press, for a book that was too jolly to be treated as Literature and too literary to be considered an Entertainment; and barely three months into what would wrongly be described as my ‘promotional campaign’, I’d shimmied past the 200 copies that I would reasonably have expected to shift had the thing sold to friends and family alone. I looked set, if not for a spangly future, then one that bypassed Lulu.
And then... nothing. As quickly as it had begun, interest in my book stopped. Sales dried up. My readers were reading anyone but me and I was heading for the shortest-lived literary career in recorded human history. I needed to stimulate a renewed curiosity in my work; worse, much worse than this, I needed to ‘drive sales’. But how? At first, I considered taking the easy option. I would blog, work the Amazon forums. Then I realised I had no-one to blog to and that there’s better book chat above urinals.
I settled then, for an altogether more honest effort, involving shoe-leather, brass neck and gumption. The Times review of my book had said that it was a ‘celebration’ of the Birmingham suburb in which it is set. So I decided to stick this quote on a flyer and leaflet the neighbourhood in question, door-to-door.
I say door-to-door. But I quickly realised that flyering an entire postcode is an expensive business. Ink and decent quality paper aren’t cheap and I couldn’t afford to waste my resources. I needed to be canny, to make sure my promotional literature reached the right people. In practical terms, this meant gauging the reading habits of a household – if any – with nothing more to go on than a glance through the front window, or at the contents of a driveway or a porch...
It wasn’t easy. Some of the indicators were obvious. A room with a full bookcase was promising, bare walls and a 12 foot television less so. A dirty car was another welcome sign, showing as it did a lack of interest in a non-interior life. An organic veg box or carefully overgrown garden? Good. A porch full of running shoes or buggies? Bad. Net curtains iffy, porcelain horses a nono; bamboo blinds a possible, an Emile Nolde print a cert. But this was only the start of my trend data analysis. Once I’d identified readers I had to guess what they might read. In addition to the ‘celebration’ line, the book was described as ‘seedy’ and ‘open-minded’ and ‘bohemian’. Who would buy such a thing?
I’ve never been much into the semiotics of brands, but as I schlepped around the porches of the burb, I found myself attributing much significance to the contents of recycling boxes. Evidence of Miguel Torres Chilean Cab Sauv never failed to lift the spirits; empty cans of Carling Black Label and I’d turn on my heel, the letterbox in question unmolested. For some reason, chilli sauce began to assume a particular significance. Any sign of supermarket own brand Thai Sweet Dipping Style and I’d probably save a sheet of paper; extra-hot or Whittingstall-esque poncey and I’d tally up another sale. A multi-pack of Pepsi Max and – visible bookcase or not – I’d pass; desperate I might have been but my work was to be savoured goddammit, not skimmed breathlessly like some low-rent thriller...
So much for the science. There were more loaded judgements too. Clearly my flyers didn’t qualify, but would I be wasting my time sticking one through a letterbox proclaiming ‘No Junk Mail’? What about a ‘These Colours Don’t Run’ St George’s flag in the window? A Pro-Life sticker on a Chelsea tractor in the drive? A strip of non-occidental language – Urdu perhaps, or Arabic - above the front door? What did it say? Did any of these people read? And if so, what?