Fishing for Compliments



The book pictured above, available here for about $10, is — as the cover suggests — about fly fishing. It contains 127 pages about the hobby as described by author J.R. Hartley, who you’ve probably never heard of unless, maybe, if you lived in the United Kingdom. The book is summarized on that linked-to Amazon page thusly: “Looking back on a lifetime of great fishing, the British angler [that’s Hartley] shares his fondest memories of fly fishing in the chalk streams, spate rivers, and lochs of his native country.” It was published in 1991.

It seems like a pretty uninteresting book, unless you’re a fly fisherman or fly fisherwoman, and even then, 127 pages about memories of fly fishing seems like a lot. But there are three things about this book that make it stand out among all other fly-fishing books.

First, it was a best-seller. Yes, a best-selling book about fly fishing.

Second, the United Kingdom was first introduced to the book in 1983 — eight years before it hit bookstores.

And finally, J.R. Hartley didn’t write the book. He couldn’t have, because he didn’t actually exist.

Here’s what happened.

In 1983, the Yellow Pages aired the TV ad, below, featuring an older gentleman visiting used bookstores in search of an out of print book titled “Fly Fishing” by J.R. Hartley. He fails repeatedly and when he arrives home dejected, his daughter has a suggestion. Instead of walking around going from bookstore to bookstore, open up the Yellow Pages and do your legwork at home, via phone. Ultimately, the man finds the book, and asks the store clerk to put it aside for him. When the clerk asks for the man’s name, he says that he is J.R. Hartley.


It’s a pretty good ad. But the man purporting to be author J.R. Hartley in the ad isn’t him, of course. It’s an actor playing the role of the previously non-existent (and still fictional) author of the previously non-existent (but now real) book on fly fishing. And while the advertisement was for a book, that book was the Yellow Pages, and not for a treatise on fly fishing — unless one considers a very small section under the letter “F” as dispositive of the other pages’ content.

The advertisement was very popular, sticking in the public consciousness for years to come. Many people throughout the region knew who J.R. Hartley was, that he was an expert on fly fishing, and that he was completely, totally, and utterly made up. Real or not, though, name recognition like that is valuable. Credit a fly fisherman named Michael Russell for capitalizing on Hartley’s Yellow Book-created fame. He not only wrote a book about fly fishing, but he did so using Hartley’s name as a pseudonym. And he cashed in: the book sold well over 100,000 copies, according to the Guardian.

Bonus Fact: Why are the Yellow Pages yellow? In 1883, a printer in Cheyenne, Wyoming was running off copies of the phone directory and ran out of white paper, so he turned to yellow. The custom stuck.

From the ArchivesCalling Dar Bizziebee: The world’s coolest phone book.

RelatedThe fly fishing book by the fake J.R. Hartley.