Rick Paulas is a poster about town currently living in Brooklyn, NY, who self-published a novel called Eastern Span in 2019. If you spend enough time on Twitter, you probably know that Eastern Span is a neo-noir set amongst the housing crisis in Oakland circa 2013. That’s because Paulas’s strategy for selling off a few hundred copies of the book, which have sat in his closet while he looked for ways to sell them in order to break even on printing costs, is plugging it in replies to viral or potentially viral—and usually bad—tweets. By now there are hundreds of tweets like these:
Paulas started reply-guy advertising in January, in response to a Stephen A. Smith tweet, which was itself a reference to another viral Stephen A. Smith tweet. Paulas says he sold a handful of books every week until recently, when sales picked up. In the past few days alone, Paulas’s book promotion has become a meme, and he’s been “moving product” quickly enough that he expects to sell off the last of his copies in a matter of days.
Even before the innovation of Twitter reply-guy advertising, Paulas’s distribution model was something of an experiment, mostly in reckoning with the extractive nature of journalism. When announcing the second printing of the book, the plot of which centers around housing and homelessness, Paulas wrote:
The book is fine. But the “interesting” part of the whole affair was its distribution model, which involved donating a bunch of copies to the Bay Area street newspapers Street Spirit (East Bay) and Street Sheet (San Francisco) and having their vendors — folks who are homeless or housing insecure — sell them to passersby. They then kept whatever money they got.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote it up, as did the Mercury News, as did Street Spirit itself. The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote a bit more about the book’s contents, which might be helpful if, you know, you’re thinking of reading it.
I printed 1,000 copies, and donated about 700, selling the remaining ~300 make up for the printing cost. At a suggested street price of $20, that meant about $14,000 into the pockets of vendors. Rosalind Smith, one of the top sellers, told me she got at least $400 from it.
I talked to Paulas yesterday about writing, publishing, and distributing this book, the shamelessness of creation, how many books he might’ve sold if Glenn Greenwald hadn’t blocked him, and how Twitter can be used to destroy itself. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I’m going to start with the tweets. You said in the podcast you cohost, Industrial Posters of the World, that you first started plugging the book in replies after noticing how much attention Trump’s reply guys would get just for responding to any Trump tweet. I was wondering why you chose Stephen A. as your first target?
Ultimately, it came down to just me staring at 200 books in my closet and being like, “How do I get rid of them?” And that didn’t really happen until earlier this year, where I didn’t know how to get rid of these last 200 copies. I had mentioned it in tweets here and there but I’d never done the reply-guy thing until I happened to be on Twitter—I mean, I didn’t happen to be on, I’m on Twitter all the time—but I happened to be there and the Stephen A. Smith tweet came just as I was scrolling. It was like a minute old. It was super fresh and I’m like, this is going to be a hit. I just put all my info out there and then people started responding to it. The thing that was so surprising to me, because I’d never done it before, was that in a few hours it had 200,000 views. And so that was kind of shocking. And yeah, seven or eight people bought the book off of that one tweet. So all of a sudden it’s like, alright, well I have all these boxes in the closet, there’s a lot of bad tweets every day. In my thinking, the worst tweets are really the best tweets, because that’s what the website is designed to do. And so, there’s a bunch of those around and I have a bunch of books to sell, so let’s just try to see how long I could do this for, and I keep on selling a handful a week. And, in the past few days, it just turned into sort of a thing.
Yeah, it’s definitely kind of morphed into its own phenomenon. I’ll see a bad tweet and check to see if you’ve replied to it yet, or I’ll see one of your replies and know to expect a doozy of a tweet or something. I’ve also seen people helpfully pointing out bad tweets to you. It kind of seems like a way to reclaim the badness of Twitter almost? Have you thought about it in those terms at all?
Well, I mean, none of this stuff I planned on, all this stuff was really just trying to get rid of books. I’m almost looking at it from an outsider’s perspective of, like, what is going on here and how are people responding. Some people are doing ads on their own, just with my book and the photo, and doing it on bad tweets without tagging me or anything and then I just kind of stumble upon them here and there, which is crazy. If I were to guess what I think people are responding to, it’s that the person that’s tweeting usually feels that their words are very important, or they feel that there’s a certain take that they have to send out to the world and they’re very serious about it. Then it blows up, for whatever reason, and all I’ve been trying to do is steal a little bit of whatever clout that they’re going after. But also in a dismissive way, I guess. It’s kind of like, “Yeah, say whatever you want I don’t give a shit, who cares, that’s not the point, the point is that you’re getting hits and so here’s a book.” So I think it seems like people are responding to the dismissiveness of it, in a weird way. And maybe the outward marketing part of it, which is really what Twitter ultimately is, is some type of personal marketing campaign, even if no one will admit it. But that’s how it’s interwoven into online media and journalism and things like that.
I think that makes sense. And so it also makes sense that some people really hate this strategy of book promotion. And some people really do hate it. What do you attribute that to? Just like self-seriousness?
Well, so there’s one person who, and I might butcher exactly what they said, but their excuse was that I was kind of ruining the public forum with my ads. That the use of Twitter, they thought, and the use of conversation on Twitter was to, you know, help society work out some stuff or whatever, and I was kind of flooding that with ads and so I was dismissive of what they saw as the goal of Twitter. I think there’s that, and I think some people are like, “Oh he’s just spamming,” and that’s absolutely true, that’s what it is. So they’re angry at that part. But, you know, after I got in a little back and forth with the guy about the sanctity of Twitter’s public forum, that was the best day of selling books that I had, because all of a sudden there’s an antagonistic force. It’s those two things, you need a clash of sides or in order to create clout, and from there you’re able to build groups behind you kind of propelling you. It’s like, no one really cared for a long long time. And then people are like, “Oh, it’s pretty cool,” and then a handful of people are like this, “This sucks.” And it was that, “this sucks” moment that really propelled it into other people saying, “No no this is really cool.” So I don’t I don’t know, it’s kind of another fascinating thing to observe.
It’s kind of reached like meme status at this point, and I think that’s probably also helping propel it forward, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I would say yesterday [Wednesday] it kind of took on a life of itself. I’ve been doing it since January. People saw it and stuff but I didn’t see it meme-ified or in other people’s comments until about a month, a month and a half ago. And then from there it’s been a slow build until yesterday was the first big hit. It feels like momentum is going to kind of carry until they’re all sold out, and then who knows.
How do you feel about it becoming a meme?
Oh, I don’t care. The goal was to move the 200 copies out from my closet. This is doing that. So that’s it. Yeah, when you print something, I don’t know, I knew a bunch of people who were in bands, and they would just have CDs and records and stuff sitting in their basement that they didn’t sell or whatever. And it always felt like that. I didn’t want that to happen because I also don’t want to carry a bunch of books from apartment to apartment.
You’ve kind of pioneered two different ways of selling books. One was partnering with street newspapers in the Bay Area to donate books to unhoused or housing-insecure vendors, which is oriented as kind of this earnest, regenerative approach, and then there’s this ubiquitous reply-guy strategy. How do you compare them, or do you think of them in the same terms at all, or was the reply-guying just something that happened out of necessity?
The two of them definitely feed into each other. Because it’s a numbers game, ultimately. I printed 1,000 copies—I did this twice—so I printed 1,000 copies and each time 650 or so went to the vendors, and the other 350 I had to sell to make up the costs of the printing. And so that’s really just it. [Working with Street Sheet and Street Spirit vendors] was the most important goal. That was the thing I had in my head as this is what I want to do, and to do that I am going to write a book. So that was the top thing, and then it was how to get funding for that. That’s where the other 350 books that I had to sell came in, and then once I had no other route to sell them but I still needed to kind of recoup that cost, then it was doing a bunch of stuff until I kind of just ass-backwards stumbled into this thing and just kept going. Without the vendors, without that part of the project, I don’t know that I would have been as shameless.
How do you see the shamelessness of your Twitter marketing compared to the shamelessness of traditional book marketing? Interviews, book tours, book signings and all of that—it’s all kind of shameless in a way, anyhow, right?
I’ve never had a book published and so I’ve never dealt with that world. But, I mean, every post anyone does is shameless. Every single article is shameless, every single book is shameless, especially all this stuff about having to go on press tours and book signings and stuff. So, I take the writing that I do very seriously, but everything else is all nonsense to try to move copies, and then hopefully those copies will get into the right eyes of people that appreciate it, or find that it resonates with them or something. But after writing, especially when you’re self-publishing, just having to physically do the marketing yourself, those are two different jobs. And I kind of don’t care—it’s out of my hands—if it hits with someone or not. I don’t know if that even answers your question, really.
Yeah. And I’m not saying doing press tours or whatever is bad. I just think the shamelessness of promoting yourself and your work is all on the same continuum.
Yeah, again I’ve never signed a contract with anyone, so I don’t really know how it works specifically, but my understanding is you have a certain number of book tours that you have to do and they’re contractually obligated to do interviews and shit like that. And for them their choice is already made, but if you’re self-publishing, you can make the rules. You own, not the means of production exactly, but you own the property, the product.
Is that part of why you decided not to reserve the rights?
This might change with other books or whatever, but this one really felt like I wanted to do kind of a punky experiment type of deal and see kind of where it goes. First of all, it’s up on the Internet Archive for free, if anyone wants to read it. The $20 is just for the physical copy. But, yeah, I just want to see what happens.
I want to ask about you posting the ad under news tweets about Bill Cosby getting out of prison, because I think that was what most people, who I saw at least, were mad about. Have there ever been any tweets that you were like, “Ooh I’m gonna hold off on replying to that,” or is it just the more you can push the envelope, the better for selling books?
There have definitely been tweets throughout that I didn’t do, and it didn’t feel right, and it didn’t feel appropriate. The Bill Cosby one came around, and I was sitting around online and I saw it and knew it was going to be the big thing that day. And so I went back and forth for a good 15, 20 minutes, and I’m like I don’t know if I should do this. I knew that I wouldn’t know if I should do it or not and until I did it. And so I posted it. I posted on a few of them. And yeah, I definitely got some pushback and was sort of self-justifying it in the moment. But I do regret it, I think, now. It showed to me personally where my own line is, I guess, which I didn’t know before. And that was a learning experience.
You’ve said you thought it would be good if other authors would do something similar in terms of donating part of their product. Do you think the Twitter reply-guy strategy is transferable, or would it be good if other people started doing it?
For the first part, for me, it was trying to square the circle that I’ve reported on homelessness, and homelessness is like in the book itself, and I’ve never been homeless myself, but I did feel like I was sort of, you know, extracting their stories in a way. It was very specific to the story. I think for writers who are thinking that way, it just depends on the story. But thinking about it as you are taking something out of something, that you should give back in a way that isn’t simply just like, I’m just writing it because I’m getting paid to and I’m just going to cash the check.
In terms of the reply-guy ad, it will be interesting to see. People did it before with like vibrators and sun lamps and things. So it’ll be interesting to see if it is effective or not. I feel like maybe I am a little bit grandfathered in, in a way, because I’ve been doing it so shamelessly for a long time and it feels kind of novel. And so it’ll be interesting to see how other people respond to the other ones that I think will come, and that’s great. Anything to destroy the website is great. So every single ad that ruins the user experience of Twitter I think is the net benefit for all of us.
So you think Twitter is just unsalvageable, and the faster that it can be destroyed, the better? I mostly agree with that, I just want to make sure that’s what you’re saying.
Yeah, I mean I’m definitely like a Twitter accelerationist. It’s a heap of garbage, and it needs to go. We’re stuck with it right now, but when it does go we will be free.
So you’ve kind of found a way to wrestle the badness of it into working for you while also helping bring about its demise, ideally?
I’m just a little more, I think, explicit with this, but so many people have gotten careers off not only tweets but Twitter presences. That’s sort of been a pipeline forever, but no one will admit that. There’s a weird type of like, “I earned this through my work,” and it’s like, “No your tweet just hit or something.”
Yeah, that’s the poster’s brain.
Right, yeah, there’s a meritocratic lie that a lot of writers and a lot of tweeters tell themselves. I think people do respond to me just being like, “Here’s my book, buy it, I don’t give a shit.”
I do think, though, you have a familiarity with the poster’s world and so you can identify which tweets are going to catch on, and people who aren’t as familiar maybe wouldn’t be able to do that as well.
That’s true. I’m monetizing the rot and the rot is my own brain.
Is there anything else you want to say about this? You’re the expert and the entrepreneur here.
Yeah, so none of this stuff is planned, it’s really just me observing what’s happening. And a thing that I do observe, and I tweeted this out recently, is that nobody cares about my book. Nobody cares about what’s in there. Nobody cares about me. It’s just about this weird sense of community and camaraderie that I, in this moment, happen to be the point of reference for people, the point that people are pushing. It feels like a rugby scrum or something, where I just happen to be somewhere and a bunch of people are pushing me over the finish line, and they are somehow getting as much out of it as I am in a weird way. And that is very surprising and that is a very nice feeling. And so I do feel kind of lucky about that.
You tweeted: “Sometimes you tap into the zeitgeist and sometimes you make your own out of complete desperation.”
That’s right, yeah, I do feel that. Somebody said I’m the only person they know who brute-forced a meme. It’s like, that’s great. It feels weird right now and it’ll go away when the books are sold. And then I’m going to publish another book this year and I don’t know that I’m going to do the reply things yet until I get to the point where I get desperate.
Are you self-publishing again?
Cool. Well, I mean it worked for me, I bought one and am looking forward to reading.
Great, yeah, I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t enjoy it, that’s not my problem! It is out of the house. That’s all I care about.
There you go. How many do you have left?
That’s a good question. I was just going to count. I think it’s probably 40 or so. At this rate, it should be gone by the weekend.
Is there one bad tweet that’s resulted in the most sales?
Um, it’s tough to kind of figure that out because no one’s really telling me where they’re coming from, and usually I do like 10 a day or so. Previous to the last few days, when things have kind of gone off the rails, definitely my replies to J.D. Vance did the best. For whatever reason, maybe because he has so many shit tweets to respond to, but definitely he has been the biggest seller, I would say.
Glenn Greenwald blocked me a long time ago. It feels like I would have been sold out if I was able to respond Greenwald’s shitty tweets over the past few months. I did pay someone a few bucks, literally $2, to post ads on his tweets over the last week. He is definitely the big one. His tweets are … they’re very good tweets in that they’re the worst tweets on the website, and so they’re great opportunities to make sales.
It’s also perfect because his tone is so agitated at all times, and the contrast between his tone and yours, just being like, “Alright, buy my book,” I think is probably a really effective combo.
I mean, what are the options? The options are to, you know, like it, quote tweet it, and say, “This guy fucking sucks.” Reply with like, “Fuck you,” or just be dismissive. You can’t just let it roll past you. That’s like a Buddhist kind of way that people say you should be using this website, but no one does it. And so definitely the ads do sort of satisfy that hunger to respond in some way. And I’m using it to, you know, make some money back at the same time.