The day of the Great Train Giveaway was fast approaching. On this day, I would be visiting all 10 mainline stations in London and leaving copies of my book on outgoing trains The evening before the big day, I sent out the press releases.
Let me repeat that last part: I sent out the press releases! How cool is that?
Neil, the friend from the writing course, had kindly given up his valuable time to lend me his publicity expertise. He put together a form of words for the local press, radio and even the Evening Standard which gave some background as to who I was and what I was trying to achieve, It all looked very official and professional. All I had to do was send the press releases off, via email, to the contacts he gave me.
This I found very exciting.
Because it was a whole new world for me; a world, in my eyes, normally inhabited by the rich and famous, the politically astute, the movers and shakers; a world where people influence, manipulate, announce, criticise, expose, inform, support causes; a world of glamour, excitement, controversy, opinions; a world of hypothesising, predicting, reporting, in some cases, distorting.
A world which, apparently, doesn’t really give that much of a toss about a middle-aged bloke hopping on and off of trains to leave his book on an empty seat.
But more on that later.
So it was on a fine bright Thursday morning, laden with books – Joe with a stash in his rucksack, me with a stash in a wheelie case – we trundled noisily down (okay, I trundled noisily) to the station for the 6:15 train to Liverpool Street. The Great Train Giveaway was go!
To get some social media traction on the day, I would need to post lots of pictures and video. The sound engineer, camera-man and director in the form of my son, Joe, and his phone, was a cost-effective way to carry out this aim. The upside for me was that it left me to concentrate on the more artistic aspects on the other side of the lens. The upside for him was that he could have a good laugh at me concentrating on the more artistic aspects on the other side of the lens.
My first post would be crucial. We needed a high-impact and visually stimulating video which would immediately pull people in and keep them hooked to the event I had set up on Facebook. If they were sold on the idea early, then the chances of lots of shares could mean my Great Train Giveaway would be all over social media by the time we arrived at Liverpool Street. I did not let anyone down. In the glare of public and media scrutiny, under severe pressure with commuters hustling by on their way to a busy day at the office, somehow, from somewhere, I found the wherewithal to stare confidently into the camera and say the right words which encapsulated the significance and drama of what I was about to do.
‘I’m off,' I said.
One take was all it needed. A true pro. Had Facebook had a status called ‘off’, I would have set it as that because, within minutes of that one stunning shot of a man in a cap holding a book and standing in front of the railway sidings at Colchester, I was, indeed, ‘off’.
Still, my first foray into the world of presenting wasn’t a bad start. One of my biggest concerns was how well I would be able to perform in front of the camera. I am, by nature, shy – reserved signs at restaurants are made for people like me to hide behind. I have had to step out of my comfort zone already since I started publicising this book (which was partly the gist of the story behind all of this anyway) and this was going to be another test of my character. For now, though, we could relax. At least Joe could; I was too busy worrying about whether the battery on my phone would last until we reached London.
The paparazzi did not materialise at Liverpool Street, nor were they ever likely to. Despite the press releases, there were more important things to focus on. The silly season was not as silly as it might have been compared to other years with Brexit and Boris dominating the headlines. Undeterred, we headed for the first of the 10 mainline stations we would visit that day – Fenchurch Street. En route, we fell naturally into our roles. I was in charge of putting the books onto trains, the content and distributing the posts; Joe was in charge of filming, directions and watching me taking an age distributing the posts.
I look on with envy at those who can walk and text at the same time. I am very good at one part of it: walking. I’m just utterly hopeless at texting whether I am walking or not. We must have spent about 5 hours of the day walking between stations and an equal amount of time with me writing the posts. Even with my reading glasses on, I cannot seem to make my finger yes, my one finger, (to all youngsters out there who use two thumbs, RESPECT, by the way), hit the correct letters on the phone. On top of that, I have to correct any punctuation or grammatical errors – it’s the teacher in me.
The presenting side generally took several takes but I got better at it and became less stilted as the day wore on. The content did get quite creative. At Fenchurch Street, we spotted an opportunity to exploit its name. My main character is called Fen so this fact was shoe-horned into that first video. From then on, we made a link between the names and my book. The strength of these connections ranged from the very obvious (London Bridge – ‘The book is set in London and it’s about a bridge’) to the very obscure (Liverpool Street – ‘My characters regularly reincarnate – they liver-a-lot of lives’). Great fun thinking of them (painful hearing them, I suspect).
It was at Fenchurch Street station where we encountered two problems. The first, fortunately, turned out to be easily resolved. I thought I might have to blag my way past ticket inspectors to get onto platforms. I am a conformist by nature – a policeman’s son. Anything that involves any deception is out of the question. I was not even comfortable telling the truth about something as innocuous as leaving a book on a train because I was worried they might refuse it on the basis it was a suspect package. As it turned out, our ‘all zones’ travel cards covered us. No blagging required. Phew!
The second problem was not something we had anticipated. As trains pull into the mainline stations, they are cleared of all rubbish. Having just completed my first proper take followed by my first daring hop on and book deposit, we watched aghast as a man proceeded down the carriage towards it with a bin bag. Having plucked up the courage to leave the book, I had to quickly pluck it up again to pluck it up again, if you see what I mean. We were much more wary after that. At London Bridge, it was actually picked up and looked at by someone tidying but he put it back down again. At Victoria, one cleaner came through the adjoining carriage door just as I was leaving it on a table. I explained what I was doing and he said he would like to have it (and then, no doubt, put it into his black bag as soon as I got off).
We had a couple of other very dodgy moments. At London Bridge, we chose a platform where the trains pass through on their way out of London. We aimed to leave 3 books here. Getting them on board was hairy and involved a quick jump on, a rapid search for spare seats, an assessment gauging customer suspicion about what we might be doing (I bottled it a couple of times because of this) and then an about face and off again. People talk about pressure – no-one really knows what pressure is until they’ve tried a self-imposed book promotion stunt involving trains.
The most nerve wracking incident for me was at Kings Cross. When we arrived, we identified a train that was going to Leeds, departing in 10 minutes from one of the furthermost platforms. It was packed by the time we got there with 5 minutes to go. There were no spare seats on which to leave a book and I was not prepared to just leave it on a table where people were already sat (I refer you to the concerns I shared earlier). I decided that I had time to get to the other end of the train where it would be quieter. Joe stayed put while I dashed off.
‘Dashed’ might be an exaggeration (the only real dashing I do these days is when I am editing my punctuation), it was more of a mild uplift in body activity. These trains used to be called intercity trains for a reason; the nearest carriage starts in one city and the far most one ends in another. They are really long. Thus, it took me a while to get to a carriage that was more-or-less empty. I lost another minute fumbling around in my pocket for my phone and finding the home button so I could check the time. Aghast, I realised I only had a minute until departure. My heart was racing. The thought of ending up in Leeds was unbearable! I opened the door, went through the sliding doors, spotted a spare table, heard the whistle and got straight off again... book still in hand. Pathetic!
‘Did you do it?’ Joe asked when I got back to him.
‘No, but there was another train on the opposite platform not leaving for 20 minutes. I hope there are people in Milton Keynes who like sci-fi.’
Most of the other drops went to plan. We laughed most of the way round London and Joe was brilliant throughout. It was well-worth the money for the tickets just to have a day with him in a fantastic city. We met up with my daughter, Abbey, at one of the stations and she gave moral support. She bought me an orange juice so that we could sit down while I sent the latest post. We found that not all the stations had convenient seating areas, a strange amenity not to have, bearing in mind the time often spent waiting for trains. On the plus side, you don’t need to pay for the privilege of emptying your bladder anymore after drinking over-priced orange juices.
We gave a couple of books to people already on trains and it was nice to have positive reactions from them. No-one batted an eyelid at the videoing. It’s common-place nowadays so why should they? We were not arrested, not even once. And we had the greatest fun. We finished back at Liverpool Street exhausted but content.
So, did it work in terms of publicity? Well, yes and no. I had one person get back to me because she had found a book on a train and another traveller found one at Stansted (I left some there afterwards when flying out on holiday). I had a lot of engagement on social media which went beyond my usual group (or fans, as I like to call them). And I got in the newspapers, albeit fairly local news via the Halsted and Colchester Gazettes (see the link at the bottom of the page).
It is also something to add to my author CV. It shows commitment and ingenuity (thanks to Neil) and will help to increase my profile. Neil reminded me that building a brand does not happen overnight which is a good point. The fact that I can contemplate building anything that could be considered to be a brand is amazing. Writing these blogs about it may help too. We had hoped to get a national newspaper pick up on the story. That may yet happen but I might have to do another promotion event.
With that in mind, feel free to use the comments section or contact me via social media, email etc with your ideas on what you think I should do. I will seriously consider all suggestions, except those involving parachutes, small spaces and Ipswich Town Football Club.
Oh... one more thing. On your next train journey, if you happen to find my book, feel free to extract it from the bin and put it into circulation. I would be most grateful.
Go to my author page to see some of the videos... if you can bear them. @ianmichaelhornett