Hi,I’m Walter. Buy me. And other tales of the road
Every spring and every fall, it happens again. The great flocks begin to gather, herded together by the shrill cries of their leaders and by an instinct as old as time itself. Individual members of the flock become agitated—they begin to preen themselves, to make short dashes to and fro, disturbing and exciting other members. The cries become more strident, more insistent and then, suddenly, one of the flock is airborne, followed by a second, a third, a fourth, until the very sky seems darkened by their passage.
The Great Semi-Annual Book-Flog is
When swallows, salmon and caribou migrate, they do so for sensible causes—sex and food. Authors have no such excuse. We are simply trying to sell more books, on the notion that any given writer, if he or she appears on enough TV talk shows, butters up enough reviewers, signs enough autographs and survives enough open-line radio performances, will somehow become a best seller, and his monumental work, Me And My Mushroom, will climb up there with The National Dream. Sometimes it works. Besides, the publisher, with some help from the Canada Council, is paying the shot. And, as one publisher said to me years ago, “You get to see the country.” Fat chance. What you get to see comes in this order:
1. The insides of the cars of publishers representatives.
2. The insides of radio stations.
3. The ditto of television studios.
4. The ditto of hotel rooms.
5. Other authors.
The publishers’ reps look harried, the other authors bewildered, and everything else looks dingy. Recently, at the end of my sixth great book flog, I realized that I had only the dimmest recollection of what had
try—I imagine swallows feel much the same when they report in at Capistrano. All that was left was a blur of klieg lights, microphones, blank faces and a voice, my own, saying, “I’m glad you asked that question. Um, er. Would you mind repeating the question?” That, and a few highlights.
The time, in Regina, when the publisher’s rep wheeled me up to an autographing session at Simpson’s, where the signs blazed MEET THE AUTHOR, and I was wondering nervously what to do if the crowd, thrusting forward with their books, turned ugly and provoked a riot. Nobody showed up. None. Zero. Zilch. For half an hour the rep, the book department manager and I stood around talking about microwave ovens. Madame Jehane Benoit was in town, pushing microwaves, and I guess they had to beat her mob away with clubs. So we left and went over to a bookstore, where I sold one book and bought two, for a grand daily total of minus one. I consoled myself with a story Pierre Berton tells of the day—“Before we were either of us well known,” Berton says carefully— when he and Farley Mowat were doing a dual autographing session at Morgan’s in Montreal, and nobody showed up. The authors took all the jackets off their books, exchanged them, signed each other’s works and went home.
There was the time I settled down in a radio studio for a soulful chat with an interested, aggressive interviewer who obviously had the wrong book, or author. Most interviewers have never read the book, and I don’t blame them—publishers release their spring and fall lists in a sudden torrent that no one, least of all harried interviewers, can cope with. But this chap had read somebody’s book, and was full of hot stuff about it. I diverted him onto my own work. “That’s all very well about Tom Thomson, he certainly was a great artist. Speaking of art, there is an artful anecdote in my book, Strike, which you will no doubt want to hear.”
He didn’t. But 1 got the title out, which is the object of the exercise. (The record in this line belongs to George Bishop, who managed to work Witness To Evil into the conversation 17 times in 30 minutes with Don McGowan of CFCF-TV in Montreal. McGowan still speaks of the occasion with awe.)
The time, in Winnipeg, when, 10 minutes into an open-line radio show, my host, Peter Warren, suddenly announced that he wanted the people of Winnipeg to know that 1 had called him a yahoo on the CBC a few months before. I had, too, and it all came back to me just as he said it. I knew the name was familiar. The program was
not a public relations success.
The memories an author carries away from book-flogging are mostly embarrassing. This is as it should be. It is one thing to write a book, another to flog it. The talents required are not the same. This national pastime boasts a few super-floggers— Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Charles Templeton—who are also top-selling writers; we have a great many in-and-out runners, Margaret Atwood, Dan George, Roloff Beny, whose public appearances are sometimes triumphant and sometimes a bust; and we have some authors who, frankly, would do better to stay home and hope for the best.
The in-and-out runners provide publishers with the liveliest moments, because sometimes they sparkle and sometimes they don’t. AÍ Purdy, the poet, an erudite and witty fellow, turned up in Montreal not long ago, reinforced with drink. In fact, he was so reinforced he was unintelligible. Most of his performances were taped for later, kindly editing, but he was slotted into one appearance, on Helen Gougeon’s radio talk show, that had to be done live. For 10 minutes, Gougeon chirruped, Purdy mumbled, the producer waved frantically and Montrealers wondered what the hell was going on, until a merciful commercial break ended the debacle. “Longest 10 minutes of my life,” says Gougeon.
Who could blame Purdy? John Newlove, the poet, insists that “anyone who does these things cold sober is crazy.” I had telephoned Newlove to check up on a story. Was it true, I wanted to know, that once, while book-flogging in Nanaimo, BC, he had been beaten up by a prostitute? Newlove’s denial was instant and indignant. “She didn’t beat me up—I beat her up... I was in a hotel bar, uh, preparing for a poetry reading, when this hooker sat down beside me and said ‘What’s in the folder?’ 1 said, ‘Poems’. She said, ‘No, I mean really, what’s in the folder?’ I said, ‘Really, poems.’ So she picked up the folder, and it was really poems, and she dumped them on the floor, so I dumped her on the floor. After that, it got kind of confused.”
Drink taken can lead to planes missed, which is sometimes bad and sometimes good. Photographer Roloff Beny, whose 1976 tour on behalf of his book on Persian photographs is one of the great Norse sagas of book-flogging, got on the wrong plane in Ottawa. He was headed for Montreal, but wound up on the Toronto plane, and by the time he was hustled off, he had missed his connection and most of his Montreal interviews. On the other hand, I was being interviewed in Calgary by Marie Hohtanz of CFCN-TV, one of the nation’s most thoughtful, as well as most comely, interviewers, when the publisher’s rep came up during a break to announce that a west-coast actor and poet had missed his plane in Edmonton. He could not be pried
out of a bar, and would not be coming to Calgary.
“Thank God,” said Hohtanz. I asked her why she said that.
“Well, sometimes he’s senile, and then it’s bad. And sometimes he isn’t, and then it’s terrible.”
Authors on the trail sometimes suffer from the delusion that they are sexual superstars, and the chief burden is borne by the publishers’ reps. These efficient folk, usually female, attractive, intelligent and poised, are supposed to arrange interviews, shepherd the author, and look after miscellaneous chores, from finding a lint brush (for the fastidious Richard Rohmer) to doing the laundry (for Irving Layton). They are reluctant to discuss their work, but one former publisher’s rep, writer Sandra Martin, describes the job as “loathsome.”
“You have to be professionally polite, and I am not—you are caught between the authors you’re flogging and the media, to whom you are always lying or being evasive ... I wanted to ask the questions instead of hanging up the coats, so I quit.”
The rep, in short, must bone up on the book, put up with the author, suck up to the press and stick up for the publisher. The job requires the tact of a diplomat and the stamina of a mule. A TV host may want to have Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat and Charles Templeton—and no one else on his show. The rep’s task is to suggest, without giving offense, that for every Berton he must take a Stewart. Movie distributors work the same racket—if the movie house wants Star Wars, it will also have to take Ma And Pa Kettle Go To Camp.
It is also the rep’s job to con the showhost into believing that his viewers will love the author of Whiter The Kumquat?: An Overview, and, when the bid is rejected, to con the author into believing that he is being saved for Front Page Challenge. The fact that we are all out beating the bushes at the same time makes the task doubly difficult. I once walked into the city room of a Winnipeg paper to see the book review editor, who had already processed three authors that day, make a wild dash for the elevator. The rep and I tried to corner him in the hall, but he escaped, laughing wildly, down a stairway we had foolishly left uncovered. The rep said he had probably forgotten our appointment.
But the time when the candle of life flickers lowest for the rep is the time when the author makes his pitch. (I write from a clear conscience—when I go book-flogging, I insist on traveling with my wife.) “They seem to think we go with the hotel key,” one rep complained bitterly, “and the techniques are not exactly subtle. Usually you will arrive back at the author’s room at night and he will say there is something in the paper he wants you to look at. Then he chucks the paper onto the bed. Ye Gods.”
One famous eastern author likes to parade around his hotel room in the nude, to
shock, entice or titillate the rep. He told one girl, “1 trust my nakedness doesn’t offend you.”
She replied blandly, “No, little things never did disturb me.”
He covered up.
Reps sometimes get their own back, though not always against the appropriate author. Alan Edmonds, an amiable soul, was taken to the airport after a day of promotion for his book Voyage To The Edge Of The World. The rep, Ruth Fraser, got out to remove his luggage from the car trunk, and Edmonds stepped forward gallantly to take it from her just as the trunk lid snapped up, caught him across the forehead and laid him out cold. Fraser giggled, revived him, and thrust him onto the airplane, where he sat with a ringing in his ears and a welt across his forehead, all the way back to Toronto.
One chore frequently landed on reps who work with Roloff Beny is packing flowers. Beny travels with a mysterious female companion. Lady Joan AshtonSmith, and he or she is always buying flowers or being given them, or both. While he was promoting his Persian book, Beny was presented with a bouquet of carnations from the Empress of Iran, and he lugged them around long after the flowers had expired. As he was leaving his hotel suite—for Beny, it is always a suite—he asked Nancy Chadwick, the rep, to bundle
up the flowers. Chadwick recalls, “I asked myself whether 1 was really going to spend my days bundling up dead, dyed carnations, and the answer was no. So 1 refused.” Some authors, like Beny, take on an enlarged persona when they go flogging,
which not only attracts attention but provides a protective barrier. They play act. Beny throws tantrums, or simpers. Farley Mowat wears a kilt and insists on being provided with a bottle of rum before he will perform. Beny greeted one rep with “Well, darling, what will you dress me in today?” Mowat greeted her with “Where’s the Lemon Hart?”
Uniforms help. Just ahead of me on the great flog this year was a man who traveled around with a bag over his head. Bureaucrat X, the author of Cover Your Ass, covered the other end instead. His book is supposed to lay bare the secrets of Ottawa—it doesn’t—and his bag to conceal his identity—it does. X turned up at CFRB Radio in Toronto and scared the bejabbers out of the receptionist, who assumed he was there to rob the joint. He was thrown off Jack Webster’s open-line radio show in Vancouver on the grounds that he was not sincere, but it didn’t matter—he attracted attention everywhere, and that boosted sales. Mel Hurtig, his publisher, chortles, “The trip was a triumph—a very thin idea was hyped into a sale of 10,000 books.”
Maskless authors can only grind their teeth in fury.
Bureaucrat X couldn’t sign autographs, of course, and so missed one of the treats of the great book flog. Authors like to sign books, not because they are anxious to exchange views with the adoring multitudes—only a handful of authors can draw a multitude, adoring or otherwise—but because the volume, once signed, cannot be returned to stock. Books have a habit of rebounding from seller to publisher as if they were made of India rubber, and then, of course, the author’s royalty is lost. Once
signed, however, they are sold. So authors always carry a pen at the ready, and frequently have to be restrained physically from affixing their names to everything in sight. Once, when Dennis Lee was in a Maritimes bookstore, he noticed miles of Alligator Pie stacked around. He approached the store’s manager, whipped out his pen, and introduced himself. “I’m Dennis Lee, the author of A lligator Pie. I’ll sign a few of these, shall I?”
The manager looked him up and down judiciously. “If it was Pierre Berton, I’d say yes. But in this case, I think not.” Lee sheathed his pen and left.
At least he was better off than John Diefenbaker, who was autographing his memoire one day when a copy of Renegade In Power, Peter Newman’s devastating critique of Diefenbaker, was thrust under his nose.
“I won’t sign that,” said Diefenbaker.
“Why not?” the book’s aggrieved owner wanted to know. “Newman did.”
At some point, usually toward the end of his nationwide tour, the book flogger will begin to ask himself if the trip was necessary. Publishers, reps and the Canada Council all insist that it is. In 1976, the council paid out $40,000 to send 73 authors across the land. That works out to $547.95 per author, and is intended to cover transportation only... the publisher is expected to bear hotel and other costs. This year the amount will be around $50,000. According to Luc Jutras, who manages the program from Ottawa, “We are confident that something is happening as a result of this activity.”
I’ve been on six book flogs now, and I’m far from convinced that I wouldn’t have done better to stay home and concentrate on writing winsome letters to book reviewers and editors. (“Dear Sir: I am sure that when you called my latest work ‘the scabrous outpourings of a diseased mind’ you wrote in a spirit of constructive criticism. May I ask you, in the same spirit, to blow it out your earhole?”)
But what’s the use? I know that when the flock begins to gather again, the old urge will come upon me. As the Bertons, Benys and Mowats start to surge across the land, my blood will rise, my pulse will pound and, publisher’s rep at my side, I will soon be elbowing past somebody’s receptionist and clawing my way into a television studio to go into what my wife calls “the old motor-mouth routine.” Isn’t that what literature is all about?
And yet, and yet, I will always remember the gloomy dawn when a comely publisher’s rep, followed closely by a camera crew and interviewer, bust into my Vancouver hotel room and ran full-tilt into my helpmate.
“Oh, Mrs. Stewart,” the darling thing gushed, “it must be such a thrill, traveling across the country with a famous author.”
Joan eyed her levelly. “It may look like a thrill to you, sweetie, but it’s a pain in the ass to me.” 0