How Writers Build the Brand
By TONY PERROTTET
Published: April 29, 2011
As every author knows, writing a book is the easy part these days. It’s when the publication date looms that we have to roll up our sleeves and tackle the real literary labor: rabid self-promotion. For weeks beforehand, we are compelled to bombard every friend, relative and vague acquaintance with creative e-mails and Facebook alerts, polish up our Web sites with suspiciously youthful author photos, and, in an orgy of blogs, tweets and YouTube trailers, attempt to inform an already inundated world of our every reading, signing, review, interview and (well, one can dream!) TV appearance.
Advertisement From P. Ballantine & Sons, Newark (1951)
In this era when most writers are expected to do everything but run the printing presses, self-promotion is so accepted that we hardly give it a second thought. And yet, whenever I have a new book about to come out, I have to shake the unpleasant sensation that there is something unseemly about my own clamor for attention. Peddling my work like a Viagra salesman still feels at odds with the high calling of literature.
In such moments of doubt, I look to history for reassurance. It’s always comforting to be reminded that literary whoring — I mean, self-marketing — has been practiced by the greats.
The most revered of French novelists recognized the need for P.R. “For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed,” Balzac observed in “Lost Illusions,” his classic novel about literary life in early 19th-century Paris. As another master, Stendhal, remarked in his autobiography “Memoirs of an Egotist,” “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.” Those words should be on the Authors Guild coat of arms.
Hemingway set the modern gold standard for inventive self-branding, burnishing his image with photo ops from safaris, fishing trips and war zones. But he also posed for beer ads. In 1951, Hem endorsed Ballantine Ale in a double-page spread in Life magazine, complete with a shot of him looking manly in his Havana abode. As recounted in “Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame,” edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, he proudly appeared in ads for Pan Am and Parker pens, selling his name with the abandon permitted to Jennifer Lopez or LeBron James today. Other American writers were evidently inspired. In 1953, John Steinbeck also began shilling for Ballantine, recommending a chilled brew after a hard day’s labor in the fields. Even Vladimir Nabokov had an eye for self-marketing, subtly suggesting to photo editors that they feature him as a lepidopterist prancing about the forests in cap, shorts and long socks. (“Some fascinating photos might be also taken of me, a burly but agile man, stalking a rarity or sweeping it into my net from a flowerhead,” he enthused.) Across the pond, the Bloomsbury set regularly posed for fashion shoots in British Vogue in the 1920s. The frumpy Virginia Woolf even went on a “Pretty Woman”-style shopping expedition at French couture houses in London with the magazine’s fashion editor in 1925.
But the tradition of self-promotion predates the camera by millenniums. In 440 B.C. or so, a first-time Greek author named Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Aegean. His big break came during the Olympic Games, when he stood up in the temple of Zeus and declaimed his “Histories” to the wealthy, influential crowd. In the 12th century, the clergyman Gerald of Wales organized his own book party in Oxford, hoping to appeal to college audiences. According to “The Oxford Book of Oxford,” edited by Jan Morris, he invited scholars to his lodgings, where he plied them with good food and ale for three days, along with long recitations of his golden prose. But they got off easy compared with those invited to the “Funeral Supper” of the 18th-century French bon vivant Grimod de la Reynière, held to promote his opus “Reflections on Pleasure.” The guests’ curiosity turned to horror when they found themselves locked in a candlelit hall with a catafalque for a dining table, and were served an endless meal by black-robed waiters while Grimod insulted them as an audience watched from the balcony. When the diners were finally released at 7 a.m., they spread word that Grimod was mad — and his book quickly went through three printings.
Such pioneering gestures pale, however, before the promotional stunts of the 19th century. In “Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris During the Age of Revolution,” the historian Paul Metzner notes that new technology led to an explosion in the number of newspapers in Paris, creating an array of publicity options. In “Lost Illusions,” Balzac observes that it was standard practice in Paris to bribe editors and critics with cash and lavish dinners to secure review space, while the city was plastered with loud posters advertising new releases. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant sent up a hot-air balloon over the Seine with the name of his latest short story, “Le Horla,” painted on its side. In 1884, Maurice Barrès hired men to wear sandwich boards promoting his literary review, Les Taches d’Encre. In 1932, Colette created her own line of cosmetics sold through a Paris store. (This first venture into literary name-licensing was, tragically, a flop).
American authors did try to keep up. Walt Whitman notoriously wrote his own anonymous reviews, which would not be out of place today on Amazon. “An American bard at last!” he raved in 1855. “Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.” But nobody could quite match the creativity of the Europeans. Perhaps the most astonishing P.R. stunt — one that must inspire awe among authors today — was plotted in Paris in 1927 by Georges Simenon, the Belgian-born author of the Inspector Maigret novels. For 100,000 francs, the wildly prolific Simenon agreed to write an entire novel while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub for 72 hours. Members of the public would be invited to choose the novel’s characters, subject matter and title, while Simenon hammered out the pages on a typewriter. A newspaper advertisement promised the result would be “a record novel: record speed, record endurance and, dare we add, record talent!” It was a marketing coup. As Pierre Assouline notes in “Simenon: A Biography,” journalists in Paris “talked of nothing else.”
As it happens, Simenon never went through with the glass-cage stunt, because the newspaper financing it went bankrupt. Still, he achieved huge publicity (and got to pocket 25,000 francs of the advance), and the idea took on a life of its own. It was simply too good a story for Parisians to drop. For decades, French journalists would describe the Moulin Rouge event in elaborate detail, as if they had actually attended it. (The British essayist Alain de Botton matched Simenon’s chutzpah, if not quite his glamour, a few years ago when he set up shop in Heathrow for a week and became the airport’s first “writer in residence.” But then he actually got a book out of it, along with prime placement in Heathrow’s bookshops.)
What lessons can we draw from all this? Probably none, except that even the most egregious act of self-promotion will be forgiven in time. So writers today should take heart. We could dress like Lady Gaga and hang from a cage at a Yankees game — if any of us looked as good near-naked, that is.
On second thought, maybe there’s a reason we have agents to rein in our P.R. ideas.