My friend Jim Halperin has done it again. In his first novel, The Truth Machine, he speculated on what the world would be like — how fried O.J. would be right now (though he didn’t use that example) — if we ever invented a 100% accurate polygraph of some kind. The saga of the book’s publication was as amazing as the book.

Here was a guy who’d 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 rare coin dealer (Jim and his partner are the country’s largest), yet it 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 the while, he was running his business and fathering two small boys.

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, a huge first printing for a first novel. He established a web site so people could read it free and comment.

Then one day he got a call from Ballantine, a division of Random House, offering him a couple thousand dollars for the paperback rights. Jim accepted.

And I am watching all this, from 1500 miles away, somewhat bemused. Everybody wants to write a novel, but who actually does stuff like this?

Then a month or so later, July 1996, he gets another call. Ballantine’s higher-ups have been reading the manuscript. They want him to stop selling the hardcover so they can publish it. In fact, they want to make it their lead title for the fall.

Now I am not just 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 is beyond agape to anyone who’s ever dealt with a book publisher. Normally, it takes a year after a novel is finished to hit the stores. They were proposing eight weeks for this one. 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, rejacketed them, and raised the price from $19.95 to $24. Thousands were sent free to reviewers and "opinion makers" to get a buzz going. A thousand were handed out at the 1996 Republican National Convention — which is pretty funny when you consider that in the book (as in real life a short time later), 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.

Look for the movie from Twentieth Century Fox.

But none of this will make you live forever. It’s his second novel, The First Immortal, that deals with that. To read the prologue and first chapter, click here.

 

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