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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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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’

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“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.”

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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.”

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“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 . . . “

He was trapped, completely, by the fantasy of two groups of aging warriors, theirs and ours, all motivated by revenge, ego, lost youth, boredom and money, re-flying their yesterdays. And in 1976 in the same planes with hot guns until death do them satisfy.

‘It Took Everything’

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“I took a kamikaze approach to the book and it became the direction of all my attention, time and intellectual energies,” he said. “It took everything out of my life.”

It certainly took the Datsun sports car out of his life. It was repossessed. Financial support, almost $40,000 of it, came from family and friends.

“I began writing at 3:30 p.m. on June 21, 1981, and ended at November 4, 1984, at 8:30 p.m.,” he said. “But I knew the book was good fiction that had accomplished a lot. Then I went out and got drunk.”

There was more than work’s end to celebrate. His agent, Peter Livingston, had closed negotiations with Morrow; Unkefer’s advance was $160,000, one of the highest figures ever paid a first novelist. Canadian rights were bought by Collins Publishers in Toronto, an agreement on paperback production was automatic and a feature movie maker began nibbling.

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And Morrow--already mailing promotional packages that included an aviator’s silk scarf for each book reviewer--was spending heavily on a marketing campaign that would cost $67,000.

Best Seller in Canada

Came the Canadian tour, “Gray Eagles” was already on the Canadian best-seller list.

“During that tour I got a taste of what every successful author hopes to get,” said Unkefer. “There were stores with stacks of 50 or 60 copies of my book and window displays with models of World War II aircraft.”

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Then the return to Los Angeles, the book’s first major U.S. review . . . and a moment of euphoria that quickly soured.

“I sensed, more than anything, that the book didn’t have momentum,” Unkefer said. “I called Morrow and they said: ‘Be patient. You never know.’ But my feeling only got worse. So on March 3, I made up my mind I’d better get my butt in gear and find out.”

He quietly hired book publicists Dunham & Fisher of Denver.

Grim Reports

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“They called the top 25 newspapers, called me back and said: ‘Here are the numbers. Over one-third of these people have never heard of your book and have no plans to review it. Some were undecided. Some planned to run a review.’ ”

Unkefer again called Morrow. He asked them to call the book’s chances. Poor, he was told.

“I felt as if the whole thing was sinking, that the book was lost and beginning to disappear. But I also knew it wasn’t a piece of trash. . . . So I decided to make up my own marketing plan.”

Unkefer’s four-page pitch, backed by his two decades of advertising and promotion expertise, suggested tacks for cultivating wider reviews while penetrating the specialty market, i.e., the aviation-minded. He presented it to Morrow.

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“They thought it was wonderful and there were lots of encouragement and compliments,” he said. “But no financial help.”

Personal Battle Began

So Unkefer, allied once more with Dunham & Fisher, began his personal battle.

Landis believes Unkefer is being a little myopic on the question of Morrow’s promotion of “Gray Eagles,” the book’s reviews and its sales pace. Nor does he share the author’s view that Morrow might have worked harder to profit from its investment of more than $250,000 in Unkefer and his book.

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Morrow’s $67,000 expenditure on promotion, Landis said, made it “one of the most heavily promoted books we’ve published.” He estimated current sales at 32,000 copies and “for a first book that’s exceptional . . . for any book it would be unusually high.”

And Unkefer should have been quite satisfied with his lone early review “because most books don’t get reviews anywhere . . . not even in the author’s hometown.”

No Guarantees

There also is a flip side, he said, to the question of which major newspapers received review copies of “Gray Eagles.” Morrow, he said, mailed books to every major newspaper.

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Yet a mass mailing to newspapers, Landis said, is no guarantee of mass reviews because of the daily deluge of books sent to reviewers.

Owing to Morrow’s semiannual accounting system, Landis said, the financial success or failure of “Gray Eagles” will not be known until October. He has no idea why a book that quickly made Canada’s best-seller list (and stayed there for 13 weeks) did not show up on national lists in this country.

Unkefer understands the arguments. He accepts that publishers are short on precise feedback from an unpredictable marketplace. He recognizes their necessary dedication to quick commercial payoffs. Yet that, he says, only reinforces his belief that the publishing industry remains a lumbering machine in desperate need of a sophisticated overhaul.

One starting point could well be development of specialty markets for its products.

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‘Sudden-Death Syndrome’

“They throw it (a book) out there to the great swamp between the publisher and the book buyer and it sinks or swims,” he said. “It’s a sudden-death syndrome, and they (publishers) have been doing it for 50 years. Once published, it’s over. There’s no follow-through, no follow-up on a book.

“God knows, my prose nearly sunk in the swamp because a basic premise, letting people know about a book, just wasn’t being done.

“And what do those poor people do who aren’t as lucky as I was? I had a major advance from a major house and a major launch. If my book gets into trouble with all of that, what chance is there for anyone else?

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“The publishing business is in the Stone Age. It has always been that way. It will always be this way. Nobody is going to change it.

“But I tell you what. The next time I sign a contract, it will have some really interesting clauses concerning promotion and marketing.”


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