The distress of giving
On Sant Jordi (Saint George’s day), the international day of the book, I decided to hit the streets of Barcelona, giving away short stories in order to promote my book — the short story collection 999 Abroad. A priori, the plan sounded fun and easy. How hard could it be to walk around and give away stories? The execution did indeed turn out to be fun, but it was far from being as easy as I had imagined.
In the weeks leading up to Sant Jordi I prepared two A6 formatted flyers — one in English and one in Spanish. Each flyer included a short story, together with information about my book, links to my websites and information about how to reach me on Twitter. The Spanish flyer included the story La Tormenta and the English one told the story of Elves and kings.
Upon hitting the street, together with a good friend who had volunteered to help me, we started discussing how I should go about distributing the stories. Should I walk up to people on the street or was it perhaps easier to address people sitting at a terrace café? How long introduction should I give before presenting the gift? How much emphasis should I put on myself being the author giving away my own stories?
Without knowing the answers, I headed for the first square. I started by approaching a group of three women drinking coffee on a terrace at Plaça del Sol in the Gràcia neighborhood. I introduced myself and offered them my short stories. They reacted positively to my offer and we had a short chat about me and my writing. I was thrilled by how enjoyable the experience was.
The rush did not last long. Continuing my journey between tables I was more often than not faced with negative reaction. In some cases people looked at me as if I was harassing them with my intrusion. I was taken aback. How could people react so negatively to me offering to give them a short story?
I decided it was time to change the scene by moving to the next square. I set out for Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia where I continued walking between tables at terrace cafés, offering my short stories. The change of scene had little effect on the end result. While in some cases the reception was positive and enjoyable, I was more often met with hostile looks and negative reaction.
My morale was hurt. Again, it was time to alter the scene and try something different. It was time to abandon the squares and try our luck the streets. Thus we made our way to the main street of Gràcia — Gran de Gràcia.
The move to the street introduced an additional challenge. As in most cases I was addressing people passing-by, I had less time to introduce myself and my intensions. It was thus maybe not surprising that the positive reaction ratio turned out to be even lower in the street, compared to the squares. In many cases the interaction was as follows.
—¡Hola! :), soy un aut…
People would cut me off at the beginning of my introduction and strongly express their lack of interest in whatever it was that I had to offer. It was interesting to see how people seemed to spot me from a distance, brace themselves for impact or make an effort to avoid our crossing of paths.
My fiend and I looked at each other in disbelief. Yet again it was time to re-think the strategy. What could we do? My friend had an idea. What if I wore a sign on my chest saying that I was giving away short stories? Intuitively, that should take down the initial communication barrier and facilitate the exchange.
We made our way to the nearest stationary shop to buy paperboards, twine and a permanent marker. We sat down on a bench, applying our handcraft skills to create a sandwich board. On the front side the board read “regalo relatos” and on the back we wrote the English equivalent “giving away short stories”.
With the sandwich board strapped on my torso, we continued our journey down Gran de Gràcia, optimistic about having solved our initial communication problems.
To our surprise, the sign seemed to have no effect whatsoever. The ratio of positive reactions did not increase. If anything, based on a rough analysis of a non-statistically-significant sample, it seemed to decrease. Was it really so cruel to give away short stories on the street? Was I really invading people’s privacy by shoving my stories into their life? Was it time to give up and head home with my tales between my legs? (sic)
On the brink of admitting defeat, we heard someone call out “¡Quiero uno!” — “I want one!”. We looked up and saw a girl standing at a table in front of a restaurant, giving away tasting samples. She waved us, repeating her desire to receive a copy of my story. Hurray!
We walked over to the girl and exchanged goods, I gave her a story and she gave us delicious tapas with tuna and avocado. We chatted for a while, sharing our accounts of how skeptical people seem to have become toward receiving handouts on the street.
After a refreshing snack and discussion, we refined our action plan. We argued that it would be best to adopt a passive approach. I would walk slowly down Passeig de Gràcia, looking around to see if people paid attention to the sandwich board. Then I would establish eye-contact with the people approaching and only if I saw a curious and positive facial expression would I engage and offer a story.
It worked! We walked down Passeig de Gràcia, to Plaça Catalunya and then up Rambla Catalunya. I did my best to pay attention to the passers-by and evaluate whether I should engage with them and offer a story. It worked fairly well, although absent minded as I normally am, my friend had to occasionally pinch my shoulder and point me to prospective clients.
The walk turned into an enjoyable event where I gave away the entire stock of 100 flyers I had prepared. Pre-selecting my targets using the sandwich-board and eye-contact lead to a big jump in the positive reaction ratio. From time to time the interaction turned into a pleasant chat about me and my writing. It is amazing to see how much difference a small sign and a passive strategy can make.
Of course I could maybe perhaps have anticipated the initial negative reaction to my offering based on my own general response to people giving away flyers on the street. The thing is that my perception of my stories is as of a new parent. My stories are the most interesting and adorable creations on this planet and I was surprised that people were not chasing me down the street begging for copies. To the people on the streets, however, I was just another strange bloke giving away flyers.
Predictable or not, I learned a lot from the experience. I learned new things about myself and about social interaction. The adventure opened my eyes to how giving away things on the street has developed a negative association, and my main take home message from this day is the importance of establishing a clear communication channel before giving away promotion material to strangers.
I consider this publicity stunt to have been a great success. While it did little for the short-term sales of my book, I did have great fun and learned important lessons I can exploit while moving on with my life.