by John Grant
It was in the Spring of 2001 that I decided it was time to
produce a bestselling novel.
Not just any old bestselling novel, mind you. There are
bestsellers and bestsellers, after all. I wasn't interested in
producing the type of bestseller that just sells billions of
copies in the bookstores, making the publishers and booksellers
rich and happy but yielding a surprisingly small share of the
bounty to the author -- which is generally paid a year or more
after the customers have bought the books.
How small is that share? Well, it gets smaller and smaller the
whole time. Once upon a dream, an author could expect to get 10%
of the cover price of most copies of the book, with a bit less on
some of them in special circumstances. Then 10% became more like
7%. But there was a clause in the contract that said roughly
this: On copies sold at particularly high discounts (usually
65%), the percentage shall be calculated on the monies received
by the publisher rather than the cover price of the book. Bring
on the clowns -- or, rather, Barnes & Noble and their ilk. The
chain booksellers demand such enormous discounts from the
publishers that this high-discount clause applies to all the
copies they sell. Well, that was the status quo for a while
before the bean-counters in the publishing companies realized
it'd be much more efficient if the percentage the author got
was just a flat 7% of the monies the publishers received right
across the board, forget about it being just for the high-
Figure it out for yourself. That old standard royalty of 10% of
the cover price has dropped to something under 3%. Less than one-
third of what used to go to the author when you bought a book now
does so. It's surprising there hasn't been rioting in the
streets. And where does all the money that's been filched out of
the authors' pay-packet go?
Hm. Let's hope a substantial part of Barnes & Noble's extra
profit goes towards replacing the windows that authors passing by
on their way to the soup kitchen have chucked bricks through.
But I digress.
My bestseller. That's what I was talking about.
No, I didn't want to produce just the kind of bestseller that
sells a gazillion books. I wanted to produce one of those which
is sold into every foreign language imaginable, plus Esperanto;
which brings in an enormous advance for the movie rights (the
resulting movie to be a box-office blockbuster starring Julia
Roberts); which is adapted for a video game; whose theme song
(also produced by myself), sung by Jennifer Lopez, zooms straight
to the top of the charts and stays there for months; which
bestsells in video and DVD formats . . .
You get the idea.
You'll notice, by the way, that, in keeping with the tenets of
the modern book-publishing industry, I am using the term
"produce" rather than "write". I knew from the outset that the
actual writing part of it was the smallest and least important
element of the whole enterprise. In fact, I tossed the text off
with the help of one of the cats over an especially drunken
I suppose I should be embarrassed about the fact that as a result
I cannot actually remember the plot of my novel, or indeed
anything about the characters -- oh, except that the one who
repeatedly takes her clothes off just happens to be a dead ringer
for Julia Roberts.
In fact I'm not embarrassed about my forgetfulness at all. Again
in keeping with the tenets of the book-publishing industry, I
knew that the actual content and quality of my bestseller were
completely insignificant considerations -- utterly irrelevant, in
fact. What was important was the novel's marketability.
The truly creative bit was thus producing the title.
I phoned a marketing consultant who owes me a favor, Dave Knuckle
of the well respected firm Knuckle, Duster, Snatch, Greenbax &
Scarper. I explained my problem to him -- that I wanted to devise
a title that would sell no matter how dreadful the garbage
between the covers.
"First," he pontificated, "are you absolutely sure this novel
you've produced really is unmitigated garbage?"
"As far as I can remember, yes," I replied. "I can't speak for
the bits the cat did, though."
"We'll assume the cat was as drunk as you were," he continued in
the voice that has had him hung in effigy in every nation
throughout the civilized world. "So it's garbage through and
through, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, hm? That's a
very good start along the road to bestsellerdom."
"I found several of those websites that quote extracts from
various publishers' slushpiles, and plagiarized them wholesale,"
I assured him. "I think."
"Better and better!" he cried. "Plagiarism's very in at the
moment." I could hear the zeroes being added in his internal cash
register. "This sounds like an opus worthy of a truly fine
"I kept the novel short as well," I interposed, "so that people
could call it a tour de force."
From the other end of the line there was that distinctive rustle
a hundred-dollar bill makes when it's being rolled up and stuffed
into a nostril.
"Sex," said Knuckle. "Violence. Self-interest. Greed. Crank
medicine. Co-eds. Showers. God. These are just some of the
ingredients that go into a bestselling title. I trust you've not
used too many of them in the actual book?"
"Not that I recall," I said, "except . . ." And I explained about
the Julia Roberts lookalike with the penchant for taking her
clothes off. "It's an artistically essential component of the
plot," I concluded, "and integral to the sale of the movie
"That's OK," he commented. "Julia Roberts isn't sex anyway. She's
wholesome as apple pie and appeals to all the family. To repeat:
Sex. Violence. Self-interest. Greed. Crank medicine. Co-eds.
Showers. God. That's the magic recipe."
"As in, say, God Help the Co-Ed Who Gets into the Shower with an
Aggressive Quack Physician?"
I could hear the doubt in his voice as he responded. "You missed
the greed and the self-interest," he said, "but otherwise you're
on the right lines."
Greed, hm? "God Help the TWO Co-Eds Who Get into the Shower with
an Aggressive Quack Physician?" I ventured.
We finally settled on something quite different, the briefer and
near-elegiac Lots of Co-Eds in the Shower: An Alternative to
God? I angled strenuously for Lots of Julia Roberts in the
Shower, but Dave said that sounded too much like a home-
"You could, of course," said Knuckle, "publish this yourself.
That way you'd not be caught in the poxy-royalty trap you
mentioned earlier -- you could pay yourself as high a royalty as
you wanted. I'd handle the marketing of your masterpiece for my
usual modest fee. A few calls to Oprah, the Nobel Committee,
George W. Bush (OK, scratch that one, you say the book hasn't got
any pictures), David Letterman, Martha Stewart and other arbiters
of culture -- that should do the trick."
All this seemed a very good idea to me, and I immediately struck
a deal with my ol' buddy Dave whereby, in exchange for his
marketing services, I wouldn't tell his wife about the marmoset.
I knew that the New Technology permitted the easy production of
books by individuals via the process known as print-on-demand, or
POD, so my next stop was the internet, where I investigated a few
likely POD companies. LightningSource. BodySnatchers ("The POD
People", as their banner proudly proclaimed). Print-O-Matic.
iUniverse. There were lots of them.
I eventually settled for the Ballsin Press because of the highly
marketable special feature they advertised for their productions:
A THOUSAND NOVELS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE !!!
Just open the covers, pick the pages up off the floor, shuffle
them into any order you please, and start reading what is to all
intents and purposes a BRAND NEW NOVEL !!!
CREATIVE FUN FOR ALL THE FAMILY !!!
It was a matter of moments to upload my MS Word document to them
-- I was pleased to notice as I did so that Word had, with
typical helpfulness, automatically corrected all my obvious
typing errors, although I couldn't remember having called one of
the characters Junior Rockets. For a cover illustration I just
seized a supermarket magazine at random and slapped the front of
it into my scanner. Lest you think I wasn't showing due diligence
here, I did actually check before uploading the JPG to the
Ballsin Press that the photograph actually was of Ms Roberts --
there was always the chance I'd got Britney Spears by mistake.
That was the text done, the book in production, the title fixed,
the marketing set up . . . Everything seemed to be well under
way, and visions of being toasted by the literati on Jerry
Springer filled my head. But surely there was something I'd
Ah, yes, the cover quotes.
Back to the internet. Brief missives went off to the websites of
Steven King, John Grisham, Charles Dickens, Tom Clancy, Arthur C.
Clarke, and, just for luck, Julia Roberts, none of whom replied.
This might have been regarded as a setback, but I remembered the
lesson I'd been taught by Word's automatic spellchecker. Yes! --
all I had to do was type up some suitable stuff and let Word work
its user-friendly magic with the names.
Soon I had my cover quotes ready:
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR LOTS OF CO-EDS IN THE SHOWER
"I have seen the future of horror, and it is Lots of Co-Eds in
the Shower!" -- Stewardship Kudos
"Pulse-pounding, brain-rotting action! The tender love scenes
between the management consultant and the marmoset literally
carved themselves into my brain!" -- Joint Grimoire
"Good enough to wake the dead!" -- Chartists Dinosaur
"Lots of Co-Eds in the Shower fills a long-needed gap!" -- Torn
"Nearly as good as if it had been a book of my own!" -- Anthrax
"Wonderful en dishabille romance!" -- Junior Rockets
Of course, none of the names were now recognizable at all, but
this didn't matter. When you see a rave cover quote on a novel,
you assume it's your own fault that you don't recognize the name
of the quoter, who is presumably a household name in every
household except your own. In fact, the longer you look at the
name the more you become convinced that you do know it. Wasn't
he the guy who ran last time as the Reform Party candidate? And
wasn't that one married to Liz Taylor?
The books arrived in the Fall and Dave Knuckle's marketing
operation swung sleekly into action. Nary a yard sale in the
whole of New Jersey lacked a stack of copies. Review cuttings
poured into my mailbox from some of the most prestigious journals
in the land: the New York Times ("Wanted -- Single female to
share spacious closet with four others"), the Chicago Sun-Times
("Lost -- Small gray cat, answers to name Tibbles"), the
Philadelphia Examiner ("4 ac. Large marsupial ") plus a
bunch of those newspapers in Denver that you never hear about
except on the back of paperback covers.
But all of that was largely immaterial, being concerned with the
book itself. As any modern publisher will tell you, actual
reading is yesterday's news.
There were the merchandizing deals -- you must have seen the
Junior Rockets action figure, complete with aggressive quack
physician. Burger King were giving away copies of the book in a
bun, although this caused confusion among the customers and I
gather several lawsuits. Someone set the Library of Congress
Catalog information on the back of the title page to music and
chalked up another #1 smash for Britney Spears. (In fact, the LoC
bumf wasn't on the back of the title page but upside-down in the
middle of page 147, thanks to an unfortunate mishap at the
Ballsin Press, but no one noticed.) The Reverend Jerry Falwell
bought the sermon rights for a six-figure sum. There were T-
shirts, novelty savings banks, collectible trading cards, Junior
Rockets toothbrushes, a downloadable CGI video game, the Co-Ed
Lollipop (with "Suck me in the shower" tastefully engraved on
every stick), breakfast cereals, oddly colored fizzy drinks,
fridge magnets . . . You name it, and Dave Knuckle had flogged
the rights in it.
But most exciting of all was the megamillion movie deal. Although
this proved as lucrative as I'd anticipated -- I'm having one of
my secretaries type this article at my mansion in the Bahamas as
I sip pina colada off one of my other secretaries by the pool --
its details were less expected. Not to beat about the bush, Joel
Schumacher declared that he wasn't actually interested in the
novel per se but was ready to slap down large chunks of loot
for the movie rights in those cover quotes.
Apparently they're all that Julia Roberts is going to be wearing.