I'm Robert, read me

When Robert Chalmers's novel failed to leap off the shelves, he resorted to giving it away in the streets. Or, at least, trying to... Rhodri Marsden joined him
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The Independent Culture

At lunchtime, the Otley branch of HSBC is a hive of activity. On the pavement outside, a writer stands with a bag bulging with copies of his latest novel. He's attempting to engage with a Londoner who is fidgeting uncomfortably under close questioning.

At lunchtime, the Otley branch of HSBC is a hive of activity. On the pavement outside, a writer stands with a bag bulging with copies of his latest novel. He's attempting to engage with a Londoner who is fidgeting uncomfortably under close questioning.

"Hello. Would you like a book?"

"No, you're alright, mate."

"It's free."

"No, really, I don't want it."

"I wrote it. Go on, you might like it."

"I don't really read books, so it'd a bit of a waste of time."

"You could sell it on eBay and buy beer instead."

"Nah, you're alright, thanks."

"You sure? Do you know anyone else who reads books?"

"No."

"Oh. What, no one?"

Giving away your books in the street isn't a marketing approach that's embraced by many authors, but Robert Chalmers is prepared to do whatever's necessary to move up the literary ladder. Both his novels have met with critical acclaim, prompting the likes of Alan Bleasdale, Steve Coogan and Hunter S Thompson to offer up glowing dust-jacket testimonials. Sales, though, have been slow. Sitting in a hotel just outside Otley the night before the planned give-away, Chalmers bemoans the difficulty that his loyal publisher, Atlantic, has had in competing with larger companies in a saturated market.

"The likes of HarperCollins and Macmillan can blanket-bomb towns with those huge bookshop displays. I've always wondered whether 'ordinary people' with no influence or literary connections would actually like my books - I mean, it's not like they're Dostoyevsky or something. So, we had this joke in the pub a while ago... and now, well, here we are."

Inspired by finding novels littered on Manhattan subways by authors trying to create a word-of-mouth buzz, Chalmers devised a scheme to help promote his new book, East of Nowhere. "It's putting the litter back in literature. I had this idea of bombarding a small town with books, so they end up everywhere and can't be avoided." But why Otley? "When my novel was serialised in a newspaper," he explains, "there was a credit-card hotline number which was actually an answerphone in my bedroom. Only three people called, but all of them were from Yorkshire. So Yorkshire seems to be lucky for me." On account of its size, shape, and the fact that it competes for the national title of having the most pubs per capita, Otley was chosen. Known chiefly for its portrayal of the town of Hotton in TV soap Emmerdale, Chalmers has come to town with 1,000 copies of his novel and is hoping that handing them out to 4 per cent of the 25,000 residents will give him a slightly more realistic chance of local fame than he has had in London or New York.

As the scheduled 1pm start time approaches, the rain is lashing down. "Ooh, it's a lovely day," trills an upbeat barmaid at Korks Wine Bar, project HQ. Chalmers, wearing a leather jacket and a damp woolly hat, looks rather less cheery. "I just went in a pub called the Rose & Crown to try leaving a couple of books, and the landlady said 'There's no READERS in here!'," says Chalmers. "It might all end in tears... But on the other hand, I might get invited back to open fetes and supermarkets."

To distribute the books he has enlisted the help of local eccentric musician Brendan Croker, who happens to be assembling an exhibition of his art in the back room of the wine bar. Croker is a larger than life figure who bounds into the book-filled room wearing a neckerchief and trilby. He outlines the schedule, while squatting on the floor sketching out a map. Apparently, things can't get underway until someone called Skum has arrived. "Skum is 40 years old, has a pacemaker, and knows how to handle trouble," explains Croker. Chalmers blanches, no doubt imagining the streets of Otley filled with axe-wielding maniacs. A couple of minutes later, Skum arrives, extensively tattoed. "Er, are you Skum?" asks Chalmers. "Yes," replies Skum. "And... is that what you'd like to be called?" "Well, that's my name." Standing behind Skum is Skum's friend, Stuart. He is carrying an axe.

In the back room, four local teenage recruits are decorating the books with such phrases as "read this, it's good for you!" and "pick me up!" They stuff as many as they can into bags, and are sent off by Croker to target any premises with a waiting room. "Good luck!" shouts Chalmers. "If they come back black and blue," he adds, sotto voce, "I might think again about the whole thing." Meanwhile, book-laden Skum and Stuart head off predicting a favourable response at the bikers' chip shop.

When the teenagers return unscathed, Chalmers springs into action. He marches to the Post Office with Croker; the first person he encounters reviews books for the Yorkshire Post. "Incredible. I try to find someone with no literary connections, and look what happens," he laughs. The other customers are glad to be diverted from queuing, and Chalmers emerges six books lighter. Down at Netto, though, the clientele have a slightly cooler attitude. "No thank you," snaps a woman, eyeing the cover suspiciously as if it's some extreme religious propaganda. A grey-haired man is approached at the checkout. "Would you like a book?" "What, free? Aye." He slips it into his bag with the oven chips. Another satisfied customer.

But won't all this generosity be lowering the intrinsic value of his book? "Of course!" Chalmers laughs. "No doubt there'll be a few hundred on eBay before the week's out. It's probably commercial suicide." Karen Duffy, associate publisher at Atlantic, takes a different view. "Recommendation by a friend is the surest way of finding the next book you read - and a publisher can kick-start that process. Getting the book on Richard & Judy is one way, but leaving copies in public places to surprise passers-by might just be another."

A trip to the Otley Conservative Club proves particularly successful, with three copies given away and a fourth rewarded a place in the "library", a bookshelf of six battered titles. "I'm glad we got rid of a few there," says Chalmers, "the book's basically a parable about the evils of the Conservative Party."

Meanwhile, Croker has upped the ante by walking into town with a ukelele and a triangle that he made out of a driveshaft. "Reverse busking," explains Chalmers. "Brendan starts playing, and instead of people giving him money, they take a book."

Giving copies away is now becoming easier. "People seem happier to accept one after they've seen someone else carrying it," notes Chalmers. But before long they're having difficulty locating people who aren't carrying a copy, having managed to secure East of Nowhere the same kind of ubiquity that The Da Vinci Code has on London Transport - but after only a few hours work.

Back at Korks, the computer's been stolen. "I notice they didn't steal any of my books," points out Chalmers, with slight irritation. Suddenly, the doors swing open. It's Skum and Stuart, carrying six empty bags and looking incredibly pleased. "We just scared Otley," grins Scum. "How so?" To demonstrate he bares his teeth and, brandishing a bag, shouts: "We've got something to give you!" Chalmers winces. "I may not be a name in London or New York," he says, "but I've got a feeling I'm going to be massive in Otley."

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