"If you can't say something good about someone, come sit by me."
Embroidered on a sofa throw-pillow in Alice Roosevelt Longworth's parlour.
|Want to read some juicy Publishing Gossip? Come sit by me.
|On the rare chance you haven't heard of Michael Korda, here's a brief backgrounder.
Michael is the son of Vincent Korda, a filmset designer, and the nephew of film producer Alexander Korda. The family emigrated from Hungary to London. Michael eventually moved to New York.
Michael's now retired. Previously, as the Editor-in-Chief of Simon and Schuster, Michael was one of the most powerful figures in publishing. He had a sure sense for good literature and an even surer sense for potential best-sellers.
As well, Michael is the most fascinating raconteur I've ever met. At a dinner party in my home in Laurel Canyon, he held my guests spellbound with his tales of his family, including how his Uncle Zoltan would hold a baguette of bread, a chunk of cheese, and a sausage in one hand, and slice them all with a knife held in his other hand, making all the slices fall into place as a sandwich. (I picked up a Cockney saying from my London publisher, T.G. Rosenthal: "I believe it mate. Thousands wouldn't.")
Even more fascinating and hilarious was Michael's tale of Uncle Alexander's gambit for financing a new movie.
Well after that dinner party, Michael turned his tales of family into a best-selling memoir. And he's subsequently become a famous memoirist, novelist, and historian.
When I mailed a 2-page sales letter for The Hungarian Game to Michael, I had no idea of how important he was, or that his family was from Hungary, or that he'd been involved in the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
As luck would have it his secretary gave him my letter, rather than dumping it into the Abominable Slush Pile. The day he read it, Michael called me to ask for my unfinished manuscript. "Pucker factor" covers my response.
My work-in-progress manuscript landed on his desk on a Monday. Three days later Michael phoned again, this time to tell me he wanted to publish The Hungarian Game. Major pucker factor.
From the start, Hungarian was Michael's baby at Simon and Schuster. He assigned the greatest book cover designer of all time, Paul Bacon, to create the jacket, and assigned his top editor, Phyllis Grann, to edit the manuscript. (Phyllis later moved over to Putnam's, where she was the publisher for some 20 years or so.)
Michael also authorized the hiring of an outside, top-flight book publicist to help promote the book, as well as directing S&S's internal promo staff to give it priority treatment.
Pucker factor on steroids.
On the other hand, Michael's belief in his infallibility led to an unqualified disaster.
Michael had directed Paul Bacon to add a line of text in a circle on the dust jacket.
When I flew to New York to meet the Simon and Schuster staff and to review Hungarian's publication progress Michael showed me Paul's jacket design.
At first I was knocked out. It was more than I'd anticipated.
A closer look, I read Michael's circle of text: "If you have a Hungarian for a friend you don't need enemies."
Unqualified disaster on steroids.
Didn't occur to me that this was an ethnic slur; I only responded to the fact that this circle of text had nothing to do with the story in the book, and that the line would be a negative sales factor; it set up anticipation of a story element (an untrustworthy Hungarian friend) that didn't exist in my novel. I'd spent most of my professional life at major ad agencies; my advertising instincts told me "never promise what you can't deliver."
I tried to talk Michael out of using the line. He was firm. The line stayed.
While waiting to go out for lunch with Phyllis, I went into the publisher's Copy Editing room where they had Stevenson's Home Book of Quotations, a massive, 2,860-page volume of quotes. Spent 45 minutes going through Stevenson's and ended up with four pages of hand-written alternatives to Michael's "don't need an enemy" text, all of the quotes relating to the novel and all of them sales hooks to get book browsers to pick Hungarian up for a look inside.
But when I showed my ideas to Michael, he remained firm. "Don't need enemies" stayed on the jacket, no compromise. The Great Michael Korda had spoken.
Flash forward to publication day.
Because of the pre-pub promotion, including a wildly favorable review in Publishers Weekly, bookstores all over the country were featuring The Hungarian Game, many of them putting it into their front windows.
Krock's and Brentano's on Michigan Avenue in Chicago had a huge pyramid of Hungarian in their window.
And Krock's and Brentano's on Michigan Avenue in Chicago started getting anonymous threats because of the "don't need enemies" slur, including one crank who said their front window would be smashed and all the copies of The Hungarian Game would be torched if they didn't get that novel out of their window immediately.
Similar threats were repeated nation-wide.
Simon and Schuster ended up reprinting new dust jackets without the slur, and sent them around to their sales force and to book retailers, with the request that all of the offending jackets be replaced with the new. Imagine the happy bookshop owners, replacing dust jackets on dozens of novels in their inventory.
Later, Simon and Schuster's director of marketing, Charley (who's last name I can't recall, to my regret) told me that S&S had received something on the order of 2,000 anonymous letters and phone calls about the insult to Hungarians on the cover of my novel. One of the threats was to firebomb Simon and Schuster's offices in Rockefeller Center.
Later still, at a book signing in Los Angeles, a Hungarian emigre jumped at me and was all prepped to beat me into a gelatinous pulp. Security pulled him off and dragged him away. At a social event in Beverly Hills I was verbally attacked by a Hungarian couple who'd escaped the revolt of '56. None of these people understood that the writer didn't have control over the design of his book.
I wonder how many more copies of the hardcover edition might have been sold if The Great Michael Korda hadn't been so bullheaded.
Bottom line on this was Charley's comment about why Michael did it: Charley said Michael wanted to amuse his Hungarian family.
|Phyllis Grann was a brilliant editor. Again, I had no idea that Michael had gotten the hands-down best for The Hungarian Game. With Phyllis's help I tightened up the story. And she kept me from overindulging my offbeat sense of humor in a number of places.
But, like Michael, Phyllis had a blind spot.
When I went to New York to meet the Simon and Schuster team, Phyllis asked me when I'd be sending her a photo for the back of the dust jacket.
I told her that the photo had been taken, but I was still in the process of merging another photo into it. (This was pre-computers and pre-Photoshop. I had to razor-blade the merged photo, then retouch it into place with SpotTone and an ultra-fine brush.)
Phyllis wanted to know what I was merging into my photo.
I told her it was a shot of me in my white dinner jacket, my left hand lifting up a pair of sunglasses so I could peek out from under them. The photo being merged was of an attractive blonde, caressing her cheek with a Mauser broomhandle pistol, reflected in the lenses of my shades.
Phyllis didn't quite hit the ceiling, but she told me very firmly that the photo was inappropriate, and she wanted something more author-ish. (Like maybe a photo of me in a leather-elbowed tweed jacket holding a pipe? With a big shaggy dog at my side?)
I told Phyllis I'd send her a couple of photos and leave it to her to pick the one she thought was more appropriate. Later, after I'd finished merging the shots, I sent her two photos. Both were exactly alike - the photo with blonde and Mauser reflected in my shades.
Flash forward to the American Bookseller Convention in Los Angeles, where I met a terrific young woman named Polly Somethingorother, the book buyer for Bloomingdale's in New York. Polly told me that she'd had placed a display of The Hungarian Game on a table in the book dept, with half the books lying face up (Paul Bacon's terrific design and illustration), the other half with the back-cover up (the reflected-girl-with-the-Mauser photo).
Bottom line - Polly said her Bloomies (these are the young women who haunt Boomingdale's on a regular basis) would ignore the copies of Hungarian that were placed with Paul Bacon's cover showing, but would pick up the copies with the picture of the raffish character in a white dinner jacket. And that most of these smart young things ended up buying the book.
So ... what do you think?
|Another of my generous mentors at Simon and Schuster was the firm's publisher, Dick Snyder. He was incredibly thoughtful. Despite that I was a first timer - and during pre-publication about as profitable to his company as a box of paper clips - Dick treated me as though I was an important writer. He backed up Michael's investment in me without any hesitation. I'll always be in Dick's debt for his generous heart.
Later, when Dick left S&S, I read much gossip by people in the biz who disliked him ... disliked him to the point of slurring Dick and letting themselves be quoted by name in the publishing press.
On the other hand, the writers that Dick published revered the guy.
I'm on Dick Snyder's side. He was generous and thoughtful toward me. More important, Dick Snyder nurtured a lot of fine writers, and American literature is better because of him.
|The Director of Marketing at Simon and Schuster was Charley - whose last name I can't remember, dammit!
The story of Hungarian's marketing goes like this ...
I was an early adopter of automated typing systems. I'd bought an Itel 1041 robotic typewriter for my ad agency, and had written The Hungarian Game on it.
The machine was based on the IBM Selectric, and was driven by punched paper tape. As you typed, the punch would cut holes of code into the tape. When you fed the tape back into the reader on the other side, the machine would type out what you'd done, while cutting a fresh tape. You could stop the reader in order to type in revisions, then advance the reader, if you wished, skipping to a new word, sentence, paragraph, etc, thus facilitating re-writes and editing.
And so, as well as being a robotic typing system, it functioned as an early version of the word processor.
There was also an auxiliary reader, which could be used to merge other data into whatever the primary reader was typing.
In my own ad agency I'd used this dual-reader system to write automated letters for promotional purposes, merging the recipient's name into the body of each letter.
I told Charley about this, and said I hoped to use the automated typing system to write letters to bookshop owners around the country, merging the names of their shops into the body of the letter, if Charley would supply me with a list of shops and addresses.
Charley, bless him, one-upped me.
He ordered all of his nation-wide book salesmen photocopy their bookshop contact lists, complete with the names of the shop-owners and their significant clerks. Charley sent the lists to me, and I transcribed the data - names, stores, addresses, etc - into a master list on the automated system. Then, with copies of The Hungarian Game supplied by Simon and Schuster, I sent personalized letters and autographed copies of the novel to 500 bookdealers around the country.
Later, when I was on the road plugging the book, the bookshop owners and their chief clerks remembered my letters and autographed copies of Hungarian, and greeted me warmly. And I returned their warmth, not alone because I was hustling a novel but because I happen to love books. And because I love literature's front-line troops, the people who peddle books. They are bright, friendly, and well-informed on a multitude of subjects.
One guy who owned a bookshop in San Francisco told me about a novelist who obviously didn't love the people who peddle books.
Her name was Jacqueline Susann.
I'd come into his shop unannounced, and he had one of his clerks rush to the interior of the store to move copies of Hungarian to a front table.
I told him something like, "It's not a big deal, you don't have to bring anything up front on my account - I'm not that important."
At that he laughed and told his clerk to put The Hungarian Game into the window.
Then he told me about Jackie Susann, who'd been to his shop just a few days before. (In fact, I'd been following Jackie around the country with my own book-plugging safari.)
Jackie had also come into his shop unannounced. And when she saw that her latest novel wasn't in the window, wasn't on a front table, she had a hissy fit. And demanded that he get her book up front toute de suite!
"Yes, Miss Susann, I will certainly do that," the guy said as he ushered her out the door.
Then he told his clerk to bundle up every copy of every one of Jackie's books in the shop, including all the earlier novels and paperbacks, and ship them back to the publishers for credit.
San Francisco is a major book-reading city.
The guy's shop was one of San Francisco's major book stores.
|At any rate, that's my publishing and promotion gossip.
Hope it gave you a chuckle or two.
|There you have it, all the publishing gossip that my lawyer will let me share with you.
Short of posting a photograph of myself in the nude ... which would send you screaming into the night ... I can't think of any more revelations to include.
Thanks for visiting.
© Roy Hayes