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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- discount sales.

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 Easter weekend.

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 marketable title."

"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 rights."

"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- improvement manual.

"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:



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 !!!



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 forgotten?

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:



"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 Clanship

"Nearly as good as if it had been a book of my own!" -- Anthrax C. Clerk

"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 [6]") 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.

The End