'The Oxygen of Publicity' was a phrase used in the 70s to describe the urban terrorists' tactics of generating huge amounts of attention to their activities through ourtrageous acts of violence, which served no purpose other than to re-direct the public's attention to their random and capricious capacity for truly terrifying behaviour. It was pure terrrorism visited upon innocent civilians, and it worked.
It may seem frivolous used in another, innocent context, but the metaphor is a a good one. How do people and causes propell themselves into the public eye when they have no means of propulsion? Publicity...
Publishers have budgets, but these scarce resources are spent on proven winners, ironically the people and books who need them least. What chance for a virtually unknown academic to interest the Big Fish in his life-story? Or his first novel? Any doubts were soon dispelled by a cynical realist in Bloomsbury: "be in a boy-band, kick a football well, write recipes, disclose secrets about celebrities. do 'Reality' TV, or best of all, have a track record of publication: these are the golden routes into the publishers' purses, for the few. For the rest, improvise, create publicity, and exploit social media. Simple."
A NATURAL AUDIENCE
Most books have a natural audience, a constituency, however small. Cooks are drawn to the cookery section in bookshops, however many cookery books they already have: there's always something or someone new, a new face. Ten years ago most people would have guessed that Ottolenghi was a recent signing by Manchester City FC....
The obvious audience for an academic's autobiography would be their former students. It is an entirely natural thing for student's to be curious about their teachers' private lives: every week we perform before them, familiar figures and yet somewhat remote in terms of access, unless they are prepared to cross the divide by continually finding reasons to talk to them between lectures, though this carries the risk of being seen to currry favour or seek advantage. For as long as I have been in education students have been seen, spending unnecessarily long amounts of time studying notice boards outside staff offices!
So FESS brought to the table a small goldmine of inside information that would have been fascinating stuff for many people for many years: and potential sales of up to 10,000 copies (the number of people I had lectured to over 30 years, not to mention a certain amount of interest amongst my colleagues to see how they had been portrayed.. No mean feat, and probably the kind of figure that would justify hard copy publication by an established publisher. And all that had to be done to achieve this - for free - was to contact the Alumni Association for their membership list, to contact individual former students personally, and perhaps place an ad in their magazine. What could possibly go wrong?
A FLY IN THE OINTMENT
At first sight it might seem that there is little connection between ISIS beheadings and the publication of an autobiography by the Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Westminster,
However, in 2009 it emerged that the link was Mohammed Emwiza (a.k.a
'Jihadi John'), allegedly 'the most wanted man in the world' as the ISIS chief Executioner, who had attended a computer course at UoW and who was also said to have recruited at least eight other students to the ISIS cause. This was a public relations disaster for the University, and it reacted with massive force, effectively taking over control of all the University's commerce with the outside world, including those which had nothing whatsoever to do with ISIS atrocities,
terrorism, computing, commmunication with former students, through effectively vetting and vetoing (where it deemed necessary) in a blanket fashion any material which had the slightest chance of reinforcing the link between the University and ISIS in the public mind - and much else besides - including material where there was zero evidence of having done so or attempting to do so.
In practical terms: the author was not allowed acces to the former students' mailing-list, was not allowed to place a small factual advertisement on the alumni facebook page, and any references to the book on the alumni website
pages were immediately deleted.
This blanket ban was maintained for some time, appealed without success, effectively shutting off information about the book to many cohorts of UoW students, with no grounds or credible reason. At a stroke, the book's principal readership was removed.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF (with apologies to Norman Mailer)
Until this time I had never taken Facebook very seriously - as a platform for writing or anything else but a bit of news commentary; but then I remembered that I had used it in the early stages of writing FESS to test-bed some episodes for public consumption, and the response had been persuasive. I had only moved on to writing the whole book 'direct to page' because the longer pieces required more attention-span than the average fb post, or it was chopped off into a see more... (second page) by the algorithm, and unless the first paragraph was particularly enticing, many readers wouldn't bother. Besides, I was beginning to believe that long pieces were the opposite of what was required: short, hopefully punchy, ads, organised as a campaign, to establish a 'brand' and then consistently remind the reader of the 'product', not through mind-numbing repettion, but through variations on a similar theme.
Conveniently, the book cover itself provided the most appropriate brand image, being the right dimensions in the right orientation, the right size and bold enough in colouring band typography to command attention on the page. In retrospect, however, it could be said that in its earliest incarnations, a little more emphasis on the fact that it was a book for sale, not some other rectangular object, should have been given.....
The Truth is that students are ravenous for information about their lecturers' lives and any information a lecturer lets drop circulates rapidly: "Oh, he's gay? I was certain he was married and straight", "You know he only got a 2:2 from Swansea, he's quite lucky to have a job here, really", "Apparently he's had a warning about that kind of behaviour, skating on thin ice I'd say...", "You know if I had a problem I wouldn't worry about going straight to him with it, top bloke I reckon"....and so on. So Lecturers loom very large on the student landscape familiar on a daily basis, yet tantalisingly separate: the perfect recipe for for active curiosity and gossip during breaks in lectures or simply wandering minds in duller sections of the lectures.
FROM AD TO BLOG
From feedback it was clear that these ads were effective in drawing attention to the book, but they are ephemeral and there is a limit to the number of puns, words that are homophonic with FESS, and thefts from other styles of advert that can be generated. How to bridge the gap from the one-off ad, to the permanent source of information that is flexible enough to respond to change? There is not a single answer but a triangular relationship between free advertising on Facebook, a dedicated blog, and a permanent website seemed to cover most bases. Each drew attention to each other such that the FESS website has secured 30k hits since its inception, and the blog, The Sunday Items, developed a weekly readership of 2000+.