Aidan Hartley

Lessons from Toby

A great white hunter takes aim at a few sacred cows in contemporary Africa

Text settings
Comments

Malindi

After five years in the writing, my book The Zanzibar Chest is coming out in July. Based on the advice of my friend Toby Young, whose New York memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People has been such a success, I realised I had to make every effort to promote it myself. Toby lives in Shepherd's Bush. I live on a ranch in Kenya's remote Laikipia plateau, where we don't even have a phone. I saw this was going to be difficult.

'Think of some news hooks,' Toby advised by email. But whereas he had stories of cocaine-snorting celebrities in Soho's fashionable clubs to generate newspaper publicity, I had none of that. My book deals partly with nasty African wars, from Ethiopia to Rwanda. As Reuter correspondents we used to say that, in news terms, the death of one American equals ten Israelis, equals 100 Bosnians, equals 1,000 Africans. About 2 million people die in The Zanzibar Chest.

When I got to Nairobi and logged onto the Internet, to my dismay I saw that several websites advertised my story in the category 'holidays and travel'. One website linked the book to a list of travel agents selling vacations to Indian Ocean beach destinations.

Toby had a brilliant strategy to promote his book through his email contacts. He succeeded in this to great effect. In the last year I have, therefore, assiduously collected just under 4,000 email addresses. Most of them are from round-robin emails like 'Forward this message from the Dalai Lama to everybody you know and you will receive good luck within three days'. Another example is the email being circulated around the world, urging recipients to protest against the Japanese hobby of 'bonsai kittens', where cats are raised inside bottles. Most recipients in my address book, I realised, would regard an email from me as unwelcome, kooky 'spam'. Either that, or they would be people with whom I have fallen out, or they are my bank managers etc.

When I email my publicity ideas to my publishers, they usually respond with silence, or hints that I should leave it all to the professionals. I decided that what I could do was promote the book locally.

For a long time I didn't think much of the local bookshops in Kenya. I was told that booksellers here ordered titles by weight, as in 'Penguin classics one ton, bestsellers one ton, health and spirituality half-a-ton ...' On a recent visit to a Nairobi bookshop I was browsing the 'self-improvement' section and found Model Behaviour by Jay McInerney, which I think is a novel about girls and drugs in Manhattan. In the beauty section was a book about the 'beauty' of African landscapes. But I have quickly learned that Nairobi's best booksellers are incredibly well-plugged into the international scene. And this is an exciting time in Kenya. African novels used to be about virgins being turned into prostitutes by colonialism. White writing was all about memsahib's big hats, funerals and little Juma in the kitchen. But that's all in the past. I believe we are on the cusp of a big wave of new East African writers, from all backgrounds.

Publicity sponsorship from product placement, I reasoned, was one excellent area to explore. I like my beer. In my book I make no fewer than 16 references to Tusker, our best lager named after the elephant that killed the company's founder in 1912. I wrote to Kenya Breweries, but quickly realised that getting sponsorship from them was unlikely 'at this moment in time', as Arthur Scargill might say. A recent lottery, in which the numbers were printed under the bottle tops, had a jackpot number of 5774. Unfortunately 4,000 drinkers turned up at the factory, all with 5774 on their bottle tops. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowds in the ensuing riot, but the brewery has generously agreed to pay out a substantial amount of money. It seems unlikely to me that they will have spare funds to sponsor my book launch.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, completion of my book has been an event anticipated with excitement among the farm workers. For months, the shepherds who peered at me as I toiled over the computer in my office thought I must be ill to be spending so much time indoors. 'When I finish the book,' I told my right-hand man Celestina, 'there will be lots of money.' The day the book's uncorrected proof arrived on the farm, Celestina grabbed a copy and wouldn't let go of it. He displayed it to the shepherds, announcing that this was a cause for riotous celebration. Meat, beer and extra pay would follow. The shepherds looked doubtful, but even I thought my boat had come in. I went out and bought 18 fine Boran breeding heifers. The bill was immense. An email from my literary agents followed, informing me that I had squandered my entire book advance. 'And it is unlikely that you will make anything from royalties,' they concluded.