Around Memorial Day I told you about my friend Jim Halperin, rare-coin magnate turned spare-time writer. He had written his first ever anything, a novel called The Truth Machine.

Ah, the difference a single machine can make [I wrote]. The automobile, say. The telephone. Or how about a machine that can always tell when someone is lying — a sort of polygraph that truly works. Now wouldn’t that muck things up.

Such is the world imagined in The Truth Machine, which may be the first and only pre-publication novel posted on the Web. It won’t be in bookstores until October, but you can read it free until September 30 by visiting: http://www.truthmachine.com/.

Save yourself $22 by reading it on the Internet — and if you don’t like the way the plot thickens or his imagined world turns, click and shoot off a nasty critique to the author.

Well, now that Labor Day has come and gone, it’s time for an update. It has been a remarkable summer for Jim Halperin.

Here he was, a guy who had never written anything in his life other than one slim tome on rare-coin grading. I have a copy. It’s probably Biblical in its significance if you’re a coin dealer, but shows no signs of literary grace whatsoever.

But he had an idea for a book — this truth machine notion — and he just set about doing it. He wrote it. He sent it to all his friends for comment. The first chapter was great. The rest needed work. He rewrote it 20 times. He took a night course in writing. He hired local editors to coach him. All this while running his large coin business and being father to two small boys. And still the FedExes arrived with new drafts for his friends to read.

The book got better.

Then one day an actual bound book arrived at my door with a jazzy jacket exactly as you’d expect to see it on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Jim had hired a jacket designer, contracted with a printer and a distributor — in addition to writing the book, he was publishing it. He printed 35,000 copies (he was publishing it optimistically — that’s a huge first printing for a first novel). He established his web site (12,600 hits so far).

And that’s about where things stood when I wrote my little piece at the end of May.

Then one day he got a call from Ballantine, the giant division of Random House, offering him a couple thousand dollars for the paperback rights. It seems that one of the friends he’d sent it to was friends with an editor at Ballantine who liked it.

Jim accepted the offer, because Ballantine’s interest gave the hardcover more legitimacy (and in case it did well in paperback, he’d naturally share in its success through royalties).

And I am watching all this, from 1500 miles away, somewhat bemused. Everybody wants to write a novel, but who does stuff like this? Not that everyone has Jim’s resources, yet even so.

But there’s more.

Jim’s lowly editor at Ballantine called him repeatedly as the summer progressed — “some of our vice presidents are reading it and they really like it.”

Then one day in July he gets another call. Ballantine would like him to stop selling the hardcover, they want to publish it. In fact, they want to make it their lead title for the Fall.

Now I am not bemused, I am agape. Beyond agape. Agape would be that they want to make it their lead title. Plenty to be agape about, no? But that they want to make it their lead title for the Fall, to anyone who’s ever dealt with a book publisher is beyond agape. Normally, it takes a year after a novel is finished to hit the stores. This one, they were proposing: eight weeks. And they hadn’t even begun negotiating the deal!

Long story short, Ballantine upped its offer from “a couple of bucks” to Real Money, took the remaining 30,000 of Jim’s books (a few of which had been sold and a lot of which had been sent out as promotional copies), rejacketed them, and raised the price from $19.95 to $24. Some will wind up in stores, but about half have already been sent out free to reviewers and “opinion makers” to get a buzz going. A thousand copies were handed out at the Republican National Convention, which is pretty funny when you consider that in the book Clinton wins reelection.

First Ballantine printing: 150,000 copies. This is surely ten or twenty times the size of the first printing of, say, John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Not to say The Truth Machine will succeed. It could take off, or you could find most of those 150,000 copies on remainder tables at a buck or two apiece one day.

But what a story, either way. “This really says something about persistence,” I told Jim.

“No,” he said — “utter obsession.”

Even better. I love quoting Calvin Coolidge, who said: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I fully expect Jim will soon be calling to let me know who bought the movie rights. And I can’t wait to read his next book, now that he’s gotten the bug. Is he writing one? Well, actually, he’s got only 35 pages left to write, he told me this morning. It’s about cryonics.

 

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