WHY BERTON WORKS SO DAMNED HARD
“BOB: THE BERTON BOOK was discussed at this morning’s publishing meeting. I feel it’s an important book and we should go ahead with a first printing of 100,000 paper and 3,000 cloth. Please take it from here, JM” That’s the way Canadian publishing history was made, at any rate according to Elsa Franklin, who sent off reproductions of this scrawled memo from Jack McClelland, the publisher — sent them off to book dealers to promote the publication, on February 10, 1968, of Pierre Berton’s new book, The Smug Minority. Well, a cynic might suggest that McClelland’s memo looks a little contrived. A little hokey. you know? Why would a publisher tell his printer that a book was “important,” anyway — even if it was a book by his great friend, Pierre Berton? But they aren’t cynics in the book business, at least not where Pierre Berton is concerned. The point of reproducing the memo was that there never had been a first printing of anything like 100,000 copies of a Cana-
dian book. The usual first printing is 5,000 copies. No Canadian book had ever sold 100.000 copies in a single season until a critique of the church establishment, of all things, sold 150,000 in 1965. That was The Comfortable Pew, by Pierre Berton. The first printing of Pew was only 15,000 copies. McClelland’s confidence in Berton’s new book was fantastic, sensational, downright Centennial. “I’m warmed and appalled by his enthusiasm,” Berton himself said.
As it turned out, Elsa Franklin’s memo distribution wasn’t altogether successful. She’s a good publicist, among other things, but she was harried, she was tired, she was developing a painful boil in her nostril . . . She forgot to write an explanatory caption to go out with the reproductions of the memo and of a printing order. A number of people in the trade discreetly returned this material to her, assuming that it had reached them by mistake. “As long as they read it,” she said.
Elsa is one of several women who work for Berton in various capacities, and who seldom forget to do anything. Aggressive, shrewd and devoted — “Pierre is better at everything than anybody I know” — she fulfilled an unladylike ambition by becoming producer of Berton’s TV series. As such, she draws her salary from Screen Gems (Canada) Ltd. Her promotional activities for McClelland and Stewart bring her to Berton’s side again, when he dons his author’s or editor’s mantle. (It is possible to take these things too seriously, but at a certain level in Toronto journalism and broadcasting circles everybody really does work for Berton. Some of the interrelationships would puzzle a titled Lancashire genealogist. A tiny sampling: One of Berton’s researchers on The Smug Minority — he was charged with reading every speech made to the pukka Empire Club of Canada in the past 10 years — was Ivan Shaffer, who is Elsa Franklin's brother. Elsa Franklin’s husband, Stephen Franklin, has had a
book published by the Canadian Illustrated Library, a new division of McClelland and Stewart whose editorial' director is Pierre Berton. Leslie Han-, non, who succeeded Berton as managing editor of Maclean’s, is now Berton’s managing editor—of McClelland and Stewart’s Illustrated Books Division.)
The Smug Minority is Berton’s 16th* book, not counting something called Historic Headlines, which he edited and helped write, nor I Married the Klondike, which he ghosted for his mother, nor three Berton manuscripts that unaccountably haven’t been published. This trio includes a satirical novel, part of which appeared — in mutilated form, Berton insists — in a short-lived Canadian periodical called Parallel, to be greeted with derisive squawks from the literary set. There is also, yellow with age, a manuscript about a bush pilot, and an even earlier, manuscript, which Berton can’t find, written during his time in the army. No Berton literary property ever really
: ciies, however, and it’s probable that Jhe novel will be polished and published (“I’m rewriting it in my head,” JJerton says), that the bush pilot has jjieen celebrated in other Berton books, »columns and magazine articles, and possibly on television or in a lyric poem, and that the subject of the lost army manuscript, too, is not unfamiliar to Berton fans. (Typically, the mining operation Berton describes in This issue of Maclean’s has been described by him before — in Maclean’s and in a previous book called The tMysterious North — though not, he says, in autobiographical form.) Jack McClelland hopes to publish Berton’s 17th book in the fall of 1969: It will "describe the building of the CPR, a subject that has kept a Berton researcher busy in the Ottawa archives for the past year. “The book looks like half a million words,” Berton says.
All this book writing has been subsidiary to Berton’s other roles in the -communications field. Currently, and in no special order, they are: syndi-
cated television personality and moderator (The Pierre Berton Show, Under Attack); TV panelist (Front Page Challenge); syndicated daily radio commentator (Dialogue, with Charles Templeton); free-lance magazine writer (his usual rate is $1,500, but he recently demanded, and got, a case of Chateau Tafite - Rothschild '59 for writing a quickie for Toronto Life); and supereditor (Berton’s Canadian Centennial Library series has sold nearly one million copies of eight titles, at $2.95 and $3.95 each, and succeeding mail-order series of the Illustrated Books Division of McClelland and Stewart will probably do even better — a virtual revolution of Canadian book publishing).
Most observers of this journalistic miracle miler have long since stopped trying to figure out what makes Pierre run. Consider his personal book production. The simple fact is, or seems to be, that Berton writes books for the same reason that other journalists don't write books; namely, to enjoy himself. “I look forward to sitting
down at the typewriter,” he says. “I write books for fun, not money. I think in advance. I always know how to start writing. I never encounter a block. Writing is not work for me . . . Nobody ever does what they like all the time, but I do what I like 75 to 90 percent of the time. I don’t work hard, I work fast.” Still, Berton’s work load would stagger Napoleon, and the money he earns — five years ago, before he went into the publishing field, it was a reported $100,000 a year — makes him the E. P. Taylor of Canadian journalism. “It’s a funny situation,” says Jack McClelland, who disagrees with some tenets about work and leisure Berton expresses in his new book. "Here’s a guy with possibly the biggest income in Canada — certainly the biggest from working — taking off at the smug minority.”
But Berton can’t see any contradiction. “People are very confused,” he says. “They think all work is the same. Big executives think that because they like their work, the poor slobs who
stare at machines all day long must like theirs. They can’t get it through their goddam heads that there are people who work for them and don’t like it. As for income, I’m prepared to subsidize my beliefs to any extent through a graduated income tax. I’m secure enough to think that I'll always make a little more money than I spend. Of course I take advantage of all the loopholes. You have to do it. I take advantage of the fact that there’s no capital-gains tax. 1 jaywalk, too, but I’d like to see a law against it. Look at the stupid bastards who make money. It’s easy — I could make a pile. Anybody of average intelligence can make a million dollars.”
The genesis of The Smug Minority was a running argument between Berton and
continued on page 44
Although he works harder than any 10 men, Berton does not toil, neither does he spin. Turn the page for his own definition of "toil.” IPtEr
PIERRE BERTON continued from page 27
What helps sell a book? “Not promotion but word of mouth”
Gordon Sinclair — who is stuffed with cash from ear to ear and proud of every penny — about work and welfare. “It was a book you think about,” says Berton. “The actual writing wasn’t difficult. I started researching it a year ago September, but I wrote it at the last minute. I did some writing weekends and corners, but it didn’t really come together until the second draft. I did that in five days down in The Bahamas. I went there to get away from the phone.
The first thing I wrote was the piece you’re running in Maclean’s. I did it first because it was easy and fun. The book was an assembly job. I started in the middle and worked both ways. But I didn’t really know' what it was about for a long time. The next thing was that Jack called and said he couldn’t put it down. He’s convinced it will sell more than The Comfortable Pew. 1 don’t know, and 1 really don’t care. I just hope it will sell enough copies so that nobody will be able to make an idiotic speech to the Empire Club again about security sapping initiative.
The guys who say that, inherited their wealth, for God’s sake.”
If Berton is blasé about the success of his book — and his indifference is not altogether credible, since a supplementary royalty deal he made with McClelland and Stewart doesn’t go into effect unless the book has a second printing — McClelland, Elsa Franklin and others are working extraordinarily hard to run up a big sale.
Berton himself likes to have a finger in every pie, making small decisions — concerning layout, type faces, illustrations, jacket design, promotion and so on — traditionally left to the publisher. (He was interested enough in how Maclean’s used the excerpt in this issue to send along instructions and a 12-line “box to accompany article with pic of book jacket”
—which the magazine had not requested and w'hich it didn’t use.) One contentious area was the book’s title. The working title had been Call It Tomorrow. Berton’s choice was The Smug Minority, but to get it he had to overcome McClelland’s opposition to the word “smug.” McClelland wanted to call the book The Conscious Parade. Elsa Franklin was pushing for The Clichés of the Fat Cats (“I love that term, ‘fat cats,’ ” she says). Pierre prevailed.
Elsa Franklin’s initial reaction to the book was one of unrestrained enthusiasm and, as she now sees it, a
naïve desire “to rush out and sell it like cornflakes — how 1 made that mistake I don’t know. We have to treat the book like it’s profound. If we didn’t take it seriously, nobody else would.” She recalls with a shudder a lunch with Berton and McClelland at the Westbury Hotel during which she uncorked her first ideas. “They looked at me as if I had lost my marbles.”
Elsa had wanted to launch a poster campaign showing big-shot businessmen with wasps on their noses (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant wasps) and such accusatory captions as, “Do you believe in the idea of work? Then you are a member of THE SMUG MINORITY.” She had wanted to sponsor a cliché-spotting competition (“First prize — a new outlook on life”) and to compare the book to “a new inweapon: a myth-gun.”
The promotion, as it evolved, was straightforward — even subdued —
but comprehensive. (Promotion budget for the first printing alone was $20,000.) Elsa consulted Who’s Who, Financial Post directories and other reference books to find the 1,000 most influential opinion-makers in Canada (“an enormous task”), and a specially packaged copy of the book went to each. Gordon Montizambert, the sales manager of McClelland and Stewart,
was dispatched across the country to encourage wholesalers and book stores to push the book like Valley of the Dolls. Elsa lined up MP David Lewis and some other articulate parliamentary types to participate in an Ottawa press conference on February 13. An elaborate distribution plan was organized and executed. “This book is going into every cigar store, every drug store and every hotel lobby,” says Elsa. Jack McClelland geared the operation to projected sales of 250,000 copies in three printings. “I think it’s likely to
be every bit as controversial a book as The Comfortable Pew,” he says hopefully. “There was nothing new in that book and there is nothing new in this one. What Pierre has done — and this is his great ability — is assemble material in a compelling, readable way.” There were the usual little flights of fancy. Elsa sent out sacks of goldwrapped chocolate coins (“There’s gold for you in Pierre Berton’s new blockbuster”). Special envelopes and release forms were printed without the name of the publisher, just THE SMUG MINORITY in red. One release disclosed that, for three 2,500-word excerpts from the book, The Star Weekly “paid a higher price per word than Winston Churchill received from LIFE magazine for his memoirs,” and planned a promotion campaign “running into several tens of thousands of dollars.” (The Star Weekly, according to its sister paper the Daily Star, paid Berton more than $10,000 for its excerpts. Maclean’s paid Pierre $2,500 for 2,500 words. Other magazines were outbid, in terms of cash or collateral promotions. Jack Batten, managing editor of Saturday Night, told a crony he’d offered $100 for an excerpt. But — “Saturday Night didn’t bid,” says McClelland. “They were miffed when they didn’t get a chance at The Comfortable Pew, but our policy has been to offer Berton books only to the big four [i.e., Maclean’s, Weekend, The Star Weekly and The Canadian).” “I did too offer $100,” says Batten.)
Berton contrived to seem untouched by all this wheeling and dealing. “Bennett Cerf and 1 agreed the other night that promotion doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he says. “My first book, The Royal Family, had more publicity than any McClelland and Stewart book up to that time, and it sold fewer than 2,000 copies in Canada. Word of mouth is what’s important. A book is an unknown quantity. I didn’t think The Comfortable Pew would sell any more than 15,000. I didn’t think I would make anything out of it. I wrote it
In the narrow sense, at least. Berton really is independent of such things as book sales, employers and the sort of toil he professes to detest. “My whole goal in life is to be secure enough to tell anyone to stuff it on five seconds’ notice,” he once said. He reached that point years ago. “If people know you don’t need a job,” he says today, “that you’re doing it because you like it and you’re doing it well, the usual irksome things that happen to a guy who needs his job
don’t happen. You must always be able to quit. I’m totally free in that sense. When Maclean’s dropped my column, I didn’t give a damn. I had a hard time working up a rage. But the first time I quit Maclean’s I had no prospect at all. My wife was in the hospital having our fifth child. I went in to see her and said, ‘Hi, I just quit.’ ‘What do you mean? I’m having another baby.’ T know, but I’m irritated. That’s worse than being mad.’ ”
Pierre Berton, one of a kind, sailing along in the clear blue: “I went to Las Vegas twice in the last year and didn’t put a dime in a slot machine. It’s a great place for a holiday if you don't gamble.” “I forget to look at the financial page. If I’m making money my broker calls me. If not he doesn’t . . . My bag is writing and communicating.” “I’d like to have a column in the [Toronto] Globe — the whole double column down the section page.” Worshipped by his employees: “I know how he thinks,” says Marilyn Douglas, who was Berton’s “Operative 67” at the Star and who did some research on The Smug Minority. “I can’t explain it, but it’s something I’ve felt only for Pierre and my father.” Envied by his contemporaries: “All newsmen hate him,” says Elsa Franklin. “They say. T hate the bastard, because he’s insensitive . . . Sure, I’m > jealous.’ ” (But he is insensitive. “How much do you get for a piece in Toronto Life?” he asked a writer. “Usually $400.” “Too much.”)
Despite Berton’s assiduously won independence, he is a compulsive worker, a prisoner of the Protestant work ethic, perhaps to a greater degree than a cleaning lady in a babushka is a slave to her mops and pails. (Berton admits as much in a forthright “Dialogue With Myself” in The Smug Minority.) “He has great feelings of guilt unless his work is done,” says Elsa Franklin. “He never has a drink before he does his show. He can’t party unless he’s finished everything for the day. His work is his pleasure, but he does work too hard, even for him. In the end it comes down to his health. When he gets sick he fights it. In Japan he had dysentery and he couldn’t function, but he wouldn’t let on. He couldn’t give in to it.”
It is possible that Berton’s writing of The Smug Minority — and its 15 glib predecessors — is as revealing a comment on the nature of work as the contents of the book. If that’s true, Canada’s journalistic miracle miler is probably running too hard to notice. ★