Harold Fry and the Unlikely Pilgrimage

Harold Fry
Harold Fry’s Unlikely Pilgrimage

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the latest book I’ve read. It has nothing to do with marketing and yet it prompted some thoughts on the topic worth sharing.

When travelling, I usually take a book (or more than one).

I love to read.

It engages the brain. It fires the imagination. It gets me thinking.

It’s also an excellent way to keep developing my writing and my ideas.

Without even looking inside its pages, Rachel Joyce’s book illustrates a number of marketing techniques. Tools you may have seen with other novels whilst browsing in the bookstore or online.

The front cover has the book title and author’s name, of course. But there’s more.

At the top of the cover it describes the novel as “The Sunday Times Bestseller”. This tells the book lover the book is already popular. Many, many other people have already read it (with the sense that if you don’t read it you’re missing out on something everyone else knows).

There are two blurbs towards the bottom of the front cover. Both quotes from reviews by two national newspapers, The Times and The Sunday Express. The book is, according to one paper, “impossible to put down” and, according to the other reviewer, “Touching and charming… made me laugh and sob”.

This is a form of social proof. Readers of either paper would be likely to be influenced by what the respective reviewers say.

The cover illustration is simple. A black bird, probably a crow, perched on the “The” of the title words at the top. At the bottom, a pair of lace-up deck shoes for yachting. The images imply walking, a challenge and a sense of foreboding, even death.

And one other tool is used on the front of the book. A sticker-like circle, in earth red, containing the image of another front cover and the words “includes sneak peek of her new novel”. It lures you in. You will be one of the first to get a look at Joyce’s next novel as a bonus. Extra value. No charge.

Flip to the back outer jacket and there’s more marketing and persuasion at work.

The bottom half illustrates a blank postcard marked with three more blurbs, quotes taken from reviews by two more national newspapers and Spectator magazine.

The “postcard” is embossed with a red sticker which says “Includes additional Reading Group material”. This presents the book as ideal for book club members.

The main blurb, which tells people what the story is (without giving the whole story away), goes like this…

“When Harold Fry leaves home one morning to post a letter, with his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other.

“He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else’s life.”

In all, I counted at least 10 ways the publishers of this book attempt to persuade the reader to buy it. Just on the front and back covers. Without even opening to the inside pages.

When was the last time you took a look at a book and really took notice of how the covers, front and back, are working to persuade you to take it to the till or online checkout?

Inside the book, the selling is done by the story.

A compelling and engaging story tugs at human curiosity. It grabs the attention.

A strong story holds the attention so the reader wants to continue turning the pages.

A well-written story has its own structure, pace, tone, atmosphere and characters the reader can connect to, whether good or evil.


Early in the novel, the titular character Harold Fry has a jaded married life with wife Maureen. He wants to write a letter in reply to one he received out of the blue from a former work colleague from years ago. Queenie Hennessy is now very ill in a nursing home.

Here’s how Harold struggles with working out what to say…

“… What did you say to a dying woman with cancer? He wanted to know how sorry he felt, but it was wrong to putĀ In Sympathy because that was what the cards in the shops said after, as it were, the event; and anyway it sounded formal as if he didn’t really care.”

Harold thought about “Dear Miss Hennessy, I sincerely hope your condition improves” but when he saw the message on paper it looked stiff and unlikely.

Harold had never been good at expressing himself. He sensed if it had been the other way around, Queenie would have known what to do.

Harold ends up writing a lame message.

If the story was just that he posted the letter with that message then it would not be much of a story.

The intrigue rises when Harold decides he’ll walk to see Queenie instead. He lives in the south west of England. She lives in Berwick in Scotland, hundreds of miles away.

His pilgrimage is not just a walk. It’s about love, friendship, guilt, a man’s place in the world. It’s about challenge, focus, determination, faith, the power of action. It’s about the change you can make and the things you cannot change.

Micro-messages threaded throughout the plot. A finale. A taste of the sequel.

All designed to engage the reader and build an interest in future offerings from brand Rachel Joyce.

There’s more to books than just reading. If you look properly.



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