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One Man's Battle to Revive a Novel : After a Shot of Fame, He's in the Trenches of Book Promotion

June 11, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

On a Sunday, Duane Unkefer was soaking in the celebrity of being a best-selling author. His first novel, "Gray Eagles," was on the Canadian list with LeCarre and Ludlum. An early U.S. review had bellowed praise. He was broke, but soon there would be royalty checks to buy that freedom to write the second book.

"Everything's OK," Unkefer thought as he headed home to Santa Barbara after a five-city promotion tour of Canada. "They're taking the book seriously."

On Monday, some sixth sense told him that everything was far from OK.

"I didn't know why or what. But on Monday, March 3, I knew something had gone terribly wrong."

The Terrible Truth

It certainly had. After the one review, nothing. No author interviews. No royalty checks. Worse, William Morrow, his New York publisher, could offer neither an explanation for the disinterest nor encouragement for a more active tomorrow.

Impatient, curious, even afraid, Unkefer poked around and discovered the terrible truth of his novel about a reunion shoot-out among former World War II fighter pilots.

It wasn't in all bookstores, it hadn't reached important reviewers' desks, it was going down in flames.

Angry, confused, even a little frantic, Unkefer decided on a move that other rookie authors might consider about as wise as burning their books.

He decided to plug and push his book at his own expense.

Last month he was at air shows in San Diego and Chino . . . setting up a folding table alongside hot, dusty runways and hawking his $17.95 novel from the back of a Chevy Astro.

Then it was Phoenix . . . traveling by budget air fare, staying with friends to save funds, and talking on five radio shows.

He has borrowed money to advertise "Gray Eagles" in this month's issue of Flying magazine. He has written to the book review editors of the nation's 50 top newspapers and invited their criticism. Five thousand bookmarks, each carrying excerpts of published praise, have been shipped to bookstores as giveaways. He is reaching out to flying clubs, veterans associations, their magazines, the nation's 820,000 licensed pilots and engineering interviews that will buttress this crusade of one author working beyond the publishing pale.

Vowed tall, broad, bluff Unkefer: "I'm going to put the book on the best-seller list in the United States on my own. I'm into this thing (self-promotion) for eight (borrowed) grand, and the next step is Los Angeles. In the next two months I'm going to do everything I can to get on the electronic media in Los Angeles. Then there's Saturday Review. Time. Newsweek. USA Today. The Wall Street Journal. They're all getting pounded on."

That pounding, he claims, has already produced profit.

"The reviews, to my great delight, are starting to come in. I can count eight excellent ones. Associated Press. San Diego. Akron. Philadelphia. Phoenix. Los Angeles. Atlanta. Denver."

There also have been 1 1/2 negative reviews.

"The whole one was Cleveland, a woman reviewer who had a relapse, a suspension of disbelief, and she thought the whole thing was preposterous. And silly. Those were her exact words. The half was the Milwaukee Journal, which got all sideways over the sex in the book."

Morrow Publishing, it should be noted, is supporting its author. Not with any traveling money, but certainly with all the books Unkefer can distribute.

'Sort of Collaborating'

"We're sort of collaborating," vice president Jim Landis said, "and we think what he's doing is great."

The personal attention and self-interest an author has for his work, he continued, cannot possibly be matched by an industry that must attend to 50,000 books annually.

"A publishing house has to move on, to other books, to other seasons," Landis explained. "Books have a certain life in a publishing house, and it's certainly shorter than the life of that book in an author's mind."

Landis considers "Gray Eagles" to be "an accessible, exciting, readable book that should be selling better."

Unkefer believes: "Everything is riding on this. My career. The gamble of 3 1/2 years out of my life. This is my bid to establish myself as a novelist."

All He Ever Wanted

Unkefer, 48, an artist, sports car racer and a former advertising and promotion director for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, has never wanted to be anything but a novelist.

His schooling was New York University, his apprenticeship was several dozen short stories and magazine articles. There was a first book: "The Color Is Goodbye."

"It wasn't published but did win an award for a manuscript in progress," he said. "It was one of those angry-young-man-in-New-York sort of things that everybody was doing then. And it was rejected by all the best publishers."

Four years ago, Unkefer, ever the lover of things airborne and mechanical, was scuffing around an air show at Chino Airport. The emphasis was on yesterday's eagles and the planes and air battles of World War II. An idea slammed Unkefer. "What if . . . "

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