SLIDESHOW: Infamous book promotions over the years
by Kevin Murphy
Last week, when news broke that Ray Dolin, the author writing a book about the kindness of Americans, was allegedly shot by a random motorist while hitchhiking across the country, people reacted with the remorseful acknowledgement that such a book was probably doomed from the start to suffer such a cruelly ironic fate. But as we know now, the real irony was not that the author was shot by a stranger, but that he actually shot himself, in what authorities are suggesting was a desperate attempt at self-promotion.
Shooting yourself is a desperate act. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. But in terms of book publicity, history shows us that many authors have been willing to go to the extreme in order to get noticed. Here’s a look at some of the more fabled attempts made over the years …
The story goes that in 440 BC, Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Agean and then, unannounced, took a stage during the Olympic Games at the temple of Zeus and read his Histories to the influential audience. A gamble, sure. But Herodotus scores points for sheer brazenness.
Grimod de la Reyniere wanted to give some readers a truly memorable experience while promoting his book, Reflections on Pleasure, so he invited them to dinner, locked them in a hall, and insulted them for hours on end while black-robed waiters placed plates of food on top of a catafalque-turned-table. His book enjoyed multiple printings.
It’s hard to beat the savviness employed by Mary Ann Evans. Evans, living in Victorian England, pulled off one of the best promotional stunts of all: writing as George Eliot, her work avoided public scrutiny and was taken seriously by the critics, who were under the impression she was a man.
Guy de Maupassant had Le Horla written on a hot-air balloon and sent it flying over the Seine. Le Horla is about a man going mad. Shortly after its publication Maupassant himself was confined to an insane asylum.
Walt Whitman was a notorious self-promoter. He self-published Leaves of Grass and also wrote many of its reviews: “An American bard at last! Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.”
In 1927, for 100,000 francs, Georges Simenon agreed to write a novel while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge. Passersby could suggest subjects, characters, and titles. Too bad the stunt never went off. The newspaper funding it went bankrupt. Still it made headlines and helped bolster Simenon’s reputation.
JT LeRoy was a transgender writer whose background included prostitution, sexual abuse, vagrancy, and drugs, all of which informed the writing of acclaimed books Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Else, and Labour. Turns out JT is actually Laura Albert, a New York-based writer and mother of a young son.
Authors aren’t the only ones willing to go the extra mile to see a book succeed. Legendary Random House publisher Bennet Cerf, trying to get Ulysses legalized in the U.S., constructed a plan to have a copy of the book seized by custom officials when it arrived in New York. Initially the officials didn’t sieze the book, because they said everyone arriving was already reading it. Cerf urged them to seize it anyway, which they did, and the idea that the book was popular and had literary value went a long way in getting it successfully published in the U.S.
Never shy about courting controversy, Grove publisher Barney Rosset’s now famous legal battles to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer resulted in a storm of media attention, which in turn cultivated much publicity for the books and their authors.
Who else? Which book promotions strike you as especially daring, or desperate? Let us know and we’ll add them to the list …
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.