What was meant as a throwback retro promo campaign for a period piece novel turned out to be the most “cutting edge” idea I ever had.
The novel I was writing — The Golden Basement — spans the Seattle ‘90s from the Goodwill Games at the beginning of the decade to the WTO protests at the end. To keep everything historically accurate (and to justify an enormous amount of procrastination), I thoroughly researched everything about Seattle in that era.
I was extremely impressed by the early days of grunge rock and how it managed to go world famous starting with just zines, xeroxed posters, and word of mouth. It made me wonder how I would have promoted a book back then, way before social media.
Instead of using Tiktok, Instagram, or Twitter, I decided to see how far I could go with just paper, staples, and an AOL email. To keep it as simple as possible I took one poem from the book, written by a character, and stapled it to utility poles all over Seattle in a strategy I called “anti-content.” One poem for one novel:
Reward If Found
Lost Boy, Lost Dog, Lost Bike, Lost Cat
Each corner stapled
To keep the paper flat
This splintered old pole has tasted
Scraps of hope
Never has it ever learned
Of vanished things being returned
A final sun-faded flake falls without pity
On the cement footprints of a long gone kitty
Air eats away at the rusty tack
Somebody wanted you back
It didn’t reveal anything about the plot but it got the tone of the book down. I figured if people liked it, they would like the novel.
After stapling them up, the poem poster spread from the Seattle sidewalks to the entire world. A visitor from Edinburgh took a stack back home to make into a collage. In fairness to social media, Dan Savage sharing it on his Instagram also helped a bit. Some people emailed poem responses. Some people thought somebody was stalking them.
When the book was finally ready to go I emailed everybody who reached out, disappointing many that the poem was written as a fictional character. Others were relieved that nobody was stalking them.
Most importantly, people who would never normally read a Seattle-history-themed sci-fi-horror novel were willing to give it a chance. Over the following months The Golden Basement developed a “jury duty” readership of people with nothing in common besides once walking past a poster. A relatively influential Amazon employee and an urban hermit who used to sermonize and whip himself on cable access both related to it for reasons I never planned on.
As word spread that the posters were promoting a book I started getting contacted by local authors, some surprisingly prominent, who were not only looking for social media alternatives, but alternative to all forms of communication period. People who had published multiple books could no longer reliably reach their publishers by phone, email, or letter. It was no mystery why.
When I was writing food reviews at The Stranger in 2019 I saw the managing editor’s email alerts and it looked like a strobe light. That little rectangle in the corner of her laptop must have been flashing at least 18 times a second. Plus, that was in those fat juicy pre-COVID days when the paper could still afford a managing editor. Literary magazines with 50 readers have 50,000 submitters and nobody to actually read all the submissions.
Whether communicating by telegraph or smartphone all forms of communication are only useful if there is somebody on the other end to receive the message. For the bulk of writers, musicians, and artists, all forms of communication besides directly putting stuff out on the sidewalk are now obsolete.
Physical reality is one of the few venues where you are not in cutthroat competition with other artists. While a billion writers will clamor for the approval of a literary website with a name like Doorjamb that pays nothing and has no readership, extremely few are interested in the streets of Seattle which give direct access to thousands of wealthy, well-connected people from all over the world.
In my months of putting up the posters I never encountered anybody else doing anything remotely similar, besides the famous Seattle rapper Fantasy A, whom I did a movie with.
For our film Fantasy A Gets a Mattress I came up with a pro-graffiti “Don’t Draw on This” poster. It showed Fantasy A pushing a huge mattress which doubled as a big white square to draw graffiti in. Overnight random people transformed every poster into an individual work of art, Pigs on Parade style. It became so popular we taught a class on it at MoPop.
The Beacon Cinema — where we sold out 20 screenings — frequently does paid Instagram marketing, but for Fantasy A Gets a Mattress they didn’t have to. Beacon staff told us normally a regular clientele make up their audiences, but the audience for Fantasy A was largely made up of people they’d never seen before. One of the biggest perks of poster marketing is it brings in new people in a way that appealing to the same group over and over again doesn’t.
Then my co-writer-director, Noah Zoltan Sofian, came up with the better idea of just spray painting the film’s title on discarded mattresses. A mattress leaning on the side of a building is basically a free eye-level billboard, and they’re already there. Reddit loved it. We went from sold out shows to having to turn away dozens of people at every show.
At a time when so many arts organizations are going digital AND going out of business because they can’t get audiences to show up it was really cool to see lines snaking around the block at the Grand Illusion Theater in the U-District. Although we had to turn away over 50 people in one night, they were all happy to get a photo with the star next to a spray-painted mattress.
“How did you hear about the movie?” We asked them.
“That.” They pointed at the mattress, not their phones.
David Norman Lewis is an author and filmmaker whose work focuses on northwest culture. He has written for The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and Blackpast.org. His film Fantasy A Gets a Mattress has won awards at the Seattle Black Film Festival, Tacoma International Film Festival, and NWFF Local Sightings Festival. His novel, The Golden Basement, had the honor of being picked by the Terrible Book Club podcast who actually liked it, despite originally planning on trashing it.