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Anonymous' Book Is as Good as the Marketing Strategy

February 23, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Colford is a columnist for Newsday

A cartoon in the New Yorker speaks for most writers these days. A man, waking in a hazy light within reach of a typewriter, says to his bedmate: "I had a wonderful dream that Anonymous turned out to be me."

Anonymous is the hottest author in the country. His or her "Primary Colors," a thinly veiled account of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign praised for its page-turning story and uncanny accuracy about the political scene, has raced to the top of the national bestseller lists. Less than a month after publication, there are 817,000 copies in print.

But is it the strength of the writing or the lively guessing game about Anonymous' identity that has propelled "Primary Colors" in the marketplace? More to the point: If the name of an obscure author appeared on the cover, would the book be such a hit?

Yes, it probably would be a hit, publishing figures suggest. But no, the book would not have been the instant hit that Random House now has.

Harold M. Evans, president and publisher of Random House, says he thinks the novel has moved so quickly out of the gate because the mystery over Anonymous has attracted such extraordinary media attention. "That's what got it going, because it became piquant for people to know who wrote the book," he says. "With a name like Fred Schmuck on the cover, I think 'Primary Colors' would have been a success, but it would have moved more slowly, maybe in the range of 100,000 copies by this point."

The author of "Primary Colors" insisted on anonymity. Evans says he rejected an offer to put a pseudonym on the novel because it seemed dishonest to do so. At the same time, Evans concedes that he had hoped the use of "Anonymous" would make for "a lot of fun." He adds: "I didn't know it would be quite as much fun. This thing has turned into a national Deep Throat witch hunt."

Of course, Evans, who claims not to know his author's identity, was well positioned to get the witch hunt started. He publishes many leading media and literary figures and knows the players perhaps better than most.

Among those to whom he sent a copy of "Primary Colors" was a competitor, Phyllis E. Grann, chairwoman of the Putnam Berkley Group Inc. "I really thought the book delivered," says Grann, who found that it hooked her as thoroughly as Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent" and Pat Conroy's "The Prince of Tides," two other megasellers.

"I stayed up late to finish it," she says. "It was not just a curiosity to me. I think a book that's a curiosity book, but doesn't deliver, can't hold its place. This book is selling because it's a really good book."

And if Joe Schmo's name were on the cover? "The book would have elevated the standing of Joe Schmo if it were a plausible book," Grann says, "but it would be disconcerting to know that the author had no access to the 1992 campaign."

Grann characterizes the use of "Anonymous" as "an excellent marketing tool. It's almost impossible to read this book and not believe that the author was not connected to the campaign."

Therein lies a potential problem for novelists who lack a marketable tie, or the appearance of a tie, to material they are presenting.

David Chalfant, an agent and vice president of IMG Literary, says he has been unable to find a publisher for a thriller submitted by one of his clients, J. Madison Davis, mainly because there's "nothing sexy" about the writer. Davis, the author of four literary mysteries, including "The Murder of Frau Schutz," teaches at the University of Oklahoma and counts Joseph Wambaugh and Frederick Barthelme among his admirers. His unsold novel concerns a medical researcher whose family is held hostage by a ruthless Russian terrorist demanding to take possession of a killer virus.

Chalfant says editors to whom he has pitched the book have asked how Davis knows so much about killer viruses. "They say, 'What's his authority?' They're looking for a hook on which to market the book instead of applauding it as a feat of imagination based on the author's research."

In Chalfant's view, using "Anonymous" as the author of "Primary Colors" was a nostalgic strategy--the publishing equivalent of a blind item, a term used to describe a gossip-column tidbit that offers juicy news about someone who remains unidentified.

"It's a different style of publishing, and I'm not so sure that every publisher would have risen to the challenge. How do you publish someone who wants to remain nameless and faceless?"

Afterwords: From Pocket Books, which gave us two big sellers by conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, will come a book by his WABC radio mate, Bob Grant, who also has a syndicated show out of New York. "Let's Be Heard," subtitled "The King of Conservative Talk Radio Speaks Out to America!" will be published in May. . . .

Cash as a wedding gift? Miss Manners, the mistress of etiquette, disapproves.

In "Miss Manners on (Painfully Proper) Weddings," alter ego Judith Martin writes that Miss Manners "only grudgingly" admits cash presents "to the outer rim of propriety when people plead that they are bedridden, out of touch with the tastes of the recipients or dealing with ingrates who spurn all other offerings. Even then, she can't help asking why one doesn't order by mail, or why one is anxious to please those one hardly knows or knows to be ungrateful."

So there.

The book is newly published by Crown.

* Paul D. Colford's column is published Fridays.

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