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reporters” hit the road
to flog their paperback.
Good morning, Stillwater, Oklahoma!
By Ralph Vigoda
Ralph Vigoda is a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and co-author of a 1998 book entitled "Fatal Match."
I'm pretty excited because my first book has just been published. I'd be a lot more excited if you'd buy a copy.
Called "Fatal Match," it's an account of the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz and the trial of multimillionaire John du Pont. You may have already seen it in bookstores, and I'm trying to get it noticed before it ends up with the cover ripped off, the words "99 cents" crudely scrawled in red Magic Marker across the first page and dropped into a bin at a "Sidewalk Sale" in a suburban shopping mall where there actually are no sidewalks.
Toward this end I have taken a deep breath, swallowed my pride and become a cheap, shameless shill. It makes no difference if your radio station can be picked up by just three insomniacs in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. I don't care if your newspaper doesn't circulate outside a small subdivision in Irvine, California. Need me to drive two hours for an appearance on a cable station in New Jersey? You can have me.
I have put myself in this position for a couple of reasons. First, I think the book is pretty good (I've read it 12 times). Secondly, the publisher has decided it has better things to do than to promote another mass market paperback. So that leaves it to me and my co-author (Bill Ordine, my colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer) to do what we can to create our own buzz.
We hope that creating this buzz (by, for example, spending our lunchtimes walking around with "Fatal Match" in Barnes & Noble and muttering things like "riveting" and "a real page turner") will lead to more sales, more money for us and, perhaps, the attention of a big-time Hollywood producer (or a small-time cable station executive who is looking for a movie-of-the-week possibility that stars John Ritter and Swoozie Kurtz).
The book is an honest 357 pages (the type isn't blown up nor the margins reduced to make it look longer), and it's got a first line that pulls no punches: "David Schultz, Olympic hero, was dying very quickly." (Compare with the wishy-washy ambiguity of, say, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.")
It's published by a pretty big outfit, Avon Books, which occupies a tony address on Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan and buys display ads in The New Yorker (neither of which negates, in my opinion, the fact that our book appeared at the same time as Avon's "I Don't Know Why I Swallowed the Fly," described as the author's "humorous account of her induction into angling").
It's not one of those quickie books, filled with spelling mistakes, that magically appear a couple of weeks after a news event (although there are a couple of typos and one garbled quote in "Fatal Match"). It is a detailed look at a senseless tragedy that left a true sports icon dead and a sad, mentally ill man in prison. It has a murder involving one of the most recognizable names in the world, a police siege, legal wrangling, athletics, history, a fascinating trial, a primer on the legal issues of competence and insanity, some very colorful characters, lots of new information and (no surprise here) a look at how vast wealth can let you get away with almost anything.
It does not have the scope of James Michener, the insight of Richard Ford or the phrasing of Anne Tyler. But it's not supposed to; this isn't the Great American Novel. It's a true crime book that fits into a niche where there are an awful lot of readers. It is not long enough to get boring or short enough to be cursory.
When Bill and I signed a book contract more than two years ago, I never thought I'd be dreaming up ways to promote the thing. I naively believed that would be the job of Avon's publicity department. In fantasies, I envisioned a tour on the wine-and-cheese circuit meeting cool people--even while acknowledging that an appearance on C-Span was a reach.
Instead, Avon sent out review copies to some media outlets, accompanied by a one-page, overheated press release that incorrectly calls du Pont a "billionaire," spells Schultz's name wrong four times (without the "c") and describes us as "veteran reporters" (a euphemism for "middle-aged newspaper hacks").
"Fatal Match" is, after all, one of about 50 books Avon printed in August, and hardly a priority. I have quickly learned that the glamorous world of book publishing--endless parties, power lunches, city tours--is not that common. At our level, it's downright embarrassing. Publish and perish.
True, Bill and I made a few dollars from the advance; actually, a few thousand dollars (minus $500 for a lawyer to read the contract; $110 for publicity photos for the book signings we set up ourselves; $176 in copying costs, postage, phone bills, gas money, tolls--and the agent's 15
percent). And we were given 50 free books each (which we can rip the covers off and sell ourselves for 99 cents).
Plus, we did get this sage advice from our Avon editor (our third; the first two quit) regarding publicity. "Call in every single favor you might be owed to get the book review attention." I don't think, though, that anybody owes me any favors. So in lieu of calling in such favors, I have spent nights and weekends sending e-mails to editors I don't know at newspapers I've never seen in places l've never been to (like San Mateo, California, and Stillwater, Oklahoma) where there is some peripheral connection to the story. (Schultz's widow lives near San Mateo, and Schultz is in the Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater.)
In these notes I offer a.) myself and Bill for interviews; b.) a free book for review; or c.) both. I have blindly called the community affairs people at bookstores within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia to try to line up readings and appearances. (My wife told me I couldn't do them, though, unless I bought a new navy blazer, because the one I have is "pilled," although this will eat further into my advance.)
I have initiated a correspondence trying to get an on-air interview with something called "The Sports Animal" (this is actually how the phone is answered), which is an all-sports radio station in Oklahoma City. (I picked Oklahoma City because wrestling is huge there.)
I have, to put it bluntly, methodically done things that have turned me into a huckster.
Like writing this story.
Late on Friday afternoon, January 26, 1996, our editor in one of the Philadelphia Inquirer's suburban bureaus came out of his office and said he'd just heard there was some kind of disturbance at du Pont's Foxcatcher Farm estate in Newtown Square, about 15 miles outside Philadelphia. Arriving there, Bill and I quickly learned du Pont had shot Schultz, but it was another hour or so until the wrestler's death was confirmed. Du Pont holed up in his mansion for the next 48 hours.
The story dominated national headlines and made news around the world. For those two days, Bill remained at the scene with numerous other Inquirer reporters and photographers, while I hunkered down in the office with another team, making calls and doing rewrite. It was a long, exhausting weekend. (Our coverage was a finalist for the Pulitzer; we lost to Newsday's account of the downing of TWA Flight 800.)
Du Pont was taken into custody about 3 p.m. on Sunday. We all left work about 11 p.m. On Monday, when Bill and I walked into the office, the calls from agents, movie producers and television executives started coming in. (This is not unusual; any big story brings these folks out of the woodwork.) Most of these people just wanted to pick our brains; one or two held out a whiff of cash in exchange for our promise not to talk to anyone else.
We parried all their requests (except for "Nightline"; Bill was a guest that night). One of the calls was from an agent in New York who had followed the story and was convinced there was a book in it. "Whaddya think?" Bill asked me when he hung up the phone. "Nah," I said.
A few days later we learned that a writer who specialized in quickie crime books had signed a contract, with an April release date. Another book followed not long after; both relied extensively on reports in the Inquirer.
So at the agent's suggestion, we put together a 10-page proposal and faxed it to his office on Broadway; no more than a week passed when he called with an offer from Avon.
I was surprised at how little money was offered. But we learned that it was in the ballpark for a book like ours. The six- and seven-figure offers that make the news are rare, reserved for John Grisham (or celebrities who feel the need to write about who they've had sex with). Most of the industry is built on unknowns who will take small advances--a few thousand dollars--just for the chance to call themselves authors. Like us.
The contract promised incentives for things that had no chance of happening: $10,000 if the book was published in hardcover, another $10,000 if it made the New York Times bestseller list. We signed and committed ourselves to turning in a manuscript 90 days after a verdict. (To avoid any conflict, we didn't want to finish the book until the trial was over; our first priority was the paper.)
That verdict came at the end of February 1997. We began writing the book almost immediately. It wasn't hard to divide the writing duties. Bill, who spent many years as a sportswriter and knew about du Pont's involvement with wrestling and other amateur athletics, tackled the sports angle. I did the du Pont family history. We wrote our sections separately, getting together on weekends to add, delete and edit.
Slowly, the paragraphs became pages, the pages chapters. During the first week of June we handed in nearly 400 double-spaced pages. I had talked once with our first editor at Avon, who said he was eagerly anticipating our work. Then he quit. (I don't believe it was anything I said.) That is common; editors move around frequently, looking for better positions with other companies.
We were assigned a second editor, a lovely, intelligent fellow who looked to be about 12 and was juggling 30 manuscripts. He was effusive in his praise ("the seamless synthesis of two writers into one voice" is one phrase from his note that sticks in my mind), had some very good suggestions (and some others we ignored), and treated us to lunch (a hamburger joint) in New York. Then he quit.
Shepherding the thing through the final stages--approving a book cover, sending us the page proofs for our editing, handling the epilogue--was a young woman whom we've never met but talk to frequently. (She hasn't quit yet.)
On June 26, 1998, two years and five months to the day that Bill and I began covering the story, two small packages came in the mail. We opened them, pulled out the first copies of our book and congratulated each other.
In July, when the book was shipped out, Bill and I really went to work. I called bookstores to see if "Fatal Match" was on order. One had 15 copies coming in, another 10, a third seven. That was heartening, although I have figured out that, based on the percentage we earn from each sale, we won't make another penny until 35,715 copies are sold.
I've been tracking our rankings on amazon. com. Overnight we went from No. 64,004 (meaning that 64,003 books were selling faster than ours) to No. 5,758. But the next day we were No. 73,256, so I've decided those rankings are stupid (although I still check them).
Bill sent letters to Philadelphia radio and TV stations, alerting them to the publication. A couple of people did respond to Avon's press releases, including a producer for "Jersey's Talking," a live, prime time, hour-long interview show on a New Jersey cable station; we took up the first half-hour of the program. And a longtime Philadelphia radio personality did 20 minutes with us for a syndicated interview show that airs on a handful of independent stations with frequencies at the far end of the dial.
I even agreed to tape a radio show that can be heard at 7:30 on Sunday morning (although even I wouldn't get up at 7:30 Sunday morning to listen to me). I sent out letters and book jackets to newspapers, radio stations and wrestling magazines. And we called bookstores, asking if they'd like to have two "veteran reporters" do a reading and signing.
We rewrote the Avon press release and printed it on orange paper. We put together a biographical sheet (all the facts are 100 percent true, but worded in a way that makes it sound as if the world of journalism could not survive without us) and printed it on green paper. We hired a kid who has a summer job at a photo store to take some black-and-white pictures, and made copies of the pictures (at 99 cents each) at Staples. We put it all into a neat press packet.
The efforts paid off. Eager to fill in their summer calendars, marketing executives at bookstores in Pennsylvania and Delaware booked us (pun intended) for events throughout August and September. A reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle, responding to my e-mail, requested a copy of the book (although, for all I know, she's got a short table leg and a 357-page paperback is the answer). The guy who runs Wrestling USA magazine said he'll put a book excerpt on his Web site and let readers know how to order. (This is no small thing; the site has been hit nearly 1 million times in the last eight months.) So if the book flops, it's not for lack of trying.
And at the very least, I've gained something no one can ever take away: a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number (98-92451). In the meantime, though, why not buy the book and read it? Then mention it around the office water cooler. Drop the title into casual conversations. Just get the buzz started. Leave the rest to me. ###