People were queuing to buy my latest book. I could see them through the glass doors; it wasn’t yet 8.30 but there was a queue waiting for my book-signing session. It wasn’t a big queue but there again, this isn’t a big town.
I had sweated over my manuscript for two years – then spent another two years trying to persuade publishers to look at it. Most of them only accept manuscripts through a literary agent – but the agents are just as bad! When one sniffy character suggested I study a writing manual, I blew my stack.
“You wouldn’t recognise a good novel if it fell off a shelf and bounced on your head!” I ranted. “Did you know that a newspaper in Britain submitted a chapter of VS Naipaul’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to all major publishers – and everyone one of them rejected it?”
“Yes, I know,” said the agent.
“Well did you know that an Australian newspaper submitted a chapter of Patrick White’s Nobel Prize-winning novel to all the publishers here – and everyone one of them rejected it?”
“Yes, I read that,” said the agent.
“Well one bright spark even suggested that ‘Eye of the Storm’s’ author should study a manual on how to write novels – which is precisely what you advised me. Thank you very much.”
“I was trying to be helpful,” said the agent.
“Helpful? Helpful would be representing struggling authors.”
“Don’t blame me,” said the agent, “blame the GST.”
That pulled me up short in mid-rant. “What’s the GST got to do with it?”
“Well, all booksellers had to computerise their accounts to handle their GST returns. That made possible an accurate data base of actual sales. Now we know that the best sellers aren’t the literary masterpieces that publishers would have us believe but diet books – or cricketers’ memoirs.”
“What does that have to do with my manuscript?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, if a famous cricketer brings out a book – it could be about anything, perhaps his favourite food and he calls it say, ‘Bowl o’ Baked Beans’ – as long as it has his name and photo on the cover, it will make a motsa. Now if a publisher took a chance on this novel of yours –”
“‘Rose City Blues’” I prompted.
“Yeah, Rosie Schmooze, whatever and no one’s ever heard of you, it could languish at the back of the shop and end up in the remaindered bin. So they won’t take the chance.”
“But my book should be judged on its merits,” I protested.
“Don’t take it personally, better writers than you have had their egos bruised. Ruth Rendell and Dorothy Lessing were both rejected by their own publishers when they submitted work under pseudonyms. You see, it was the name the publisher needed. Their name is a brand and the brand sells the product.”
A brand? Did he think I was a soap powder? I continued to seethe but eventually conceded the agent’s point: readers trust names they know. A case in point was an author the media had dubbed “Mr Blockbuster”. His first book had been widely acclaimed and sold million of copies; it was later made into a major film. Subsequent books were nowhere near as good but they sold just as many copies as the first because his name had indeed become a brand. His books are still popular although he hasn’t produced anything new for years. Some time ago I discovered why: he’s quite gaga.
After living in New York and London, he had eventually come home and now lives as a recluse on his farm, quite near to here. I thought I’d landed a scoop by arranging an interview with the Great Man but soon realised my mistake. At first he insisted he remembered me although we had never met and then he told me he was expecting a visit from a famous American writer. The man he mentioned had been dead for five years. It explained why Mr Blockbuster never appeared on TV or at writers’ festivals.
That had been two years ago but he was still here, leading a reclusive life with his animals, his farm manager and his housekeeper. He was also still a ‘brand’ name and that was what I needed. Another meeting was arranged – this time he failed to recognise me – but I explained my plan. We could publish my novel with Mr B’s portrait and his name in embossed gold letters on the front cover. Somewhere inside, in very small print, we would reveal that Mr Blockbuster was the franchiser and I, as the author, was the franchisee.
“My old publisher will sue us,” said Mr B in one of his more lucid moments.
“It doesn’t matter if they do,” I explained, “Ian Fleming has been dead for years yet other people have been allowed to write James Bond stories.”
“I met Fleming in the Caribbean –”
“We can cut out the middlemen,” I cut in “and share the profits fifty-fifty.”
“We’ll cut out the publishers!” said Mr B and giggled like a schoolgirl.
(brand new story) 2