The Book That Became Famous Before it Was Published

Jun 13, 2022 0 comments

Fly Fishing: Memories of Angling Days is one of those books where the story behind is more interesting than the book itself.

It’s not that the book is terribly uninteresting—it has 244 reviews in Amazon with an average rating of 4.6. But seldom does a book get popular before it is even published.

Photo: Joseph/Flickr

In 1983, British television aired a commercial for the country’s Yellow Pages as a convenient way to track down local suppliers. The commercial depicts an elderly gentleman, played by actor Norman Lumsden, looking for a copy of an apparently out-of-print book titled Fly Fishing, by J. R. Hartley. We see him go from one bookstore to the next, but always failing to find it. When he returns home dejected, his daughter hands him the Yellow Pages so that he can continue his search from the comfort of his living room chair. Using the telephone, he eventually manages to find a shop that has the book. When the shopkeeper asks for his name so that he can keep the book for him, the old man, who is visible delighted for having found the book, replies ‘My name? Oh, yes, it’s J. R. Hartley.’

The commercial touched the heart of British television viewers, and soon bookshops and libraries began receiving requests for the J. R. Hartley book. Of course, the character was fictional and no such book existed. And herein, angling expert Michael Russell saw an opportunity. He wrote a book about fly fishing and published it under the pseudonym J. R. Hartley. Publisher Stanley Paul even hired Norman Lumsden, who played J. R. Hartley in the advert, to promote the book as the public face of the author. The book flew off the shelves. It became so popular that there were eight reprints and it became a bestseller selling 130,000 copies in the Christmas of 1991 alone. The book even yielded a sequel called J. R. Hartley Casts Again: More Memories of Angling Days, which was equally well-liked.

Despite its somewhat deceptive roots, the book received a positive response among reviewers. “I sat down to read it just before lunch, thinking to get through a chapter or two,” wrote Sidney Vines for The Spectator. “I put it down at 4.15pm, having finished it, and feeling like someone who has gone to a dinner party expecting to be bored and finding instead that the evening turns out to be a delight.”

The memorable commercial, although no longer aired, continues to charm British viewers. In a poll conducted by Marketing Week in 2018, viewers voted the  J. R. Hartley ad as the best commercial of the 1980s. The ad was also voted into the top 15 of Britain’s 2000 “Greatest TV Ads” poll.

# Book on fly fishing has a certain lure, The Indianapolis News
# Aldi, Guinness, Yellow Pages: The nation’s favourite marketing campaigns revealed, Marketing Week
# A whopper landed by central casting, The Spectator
# J.R. Hartley Yellow Pages: how would today's marketers reimagine this classic ad campaign?, The Drum


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