In early 2002, shortly after I finished the first draft of “Karla: A Pact with the Devil,” the large Canadian publisher who contracted it, General Publishing Co., went bankrupt owing authors and suppliers over $45 million.
Because I had been paid a substantial advance and already collected most of it and somehow managed to keep the property out of the trustees’ hands, I felt extremely lucky. Now I could resell the book for as much or more.
I was certain it would sell like gangbusters. The book was anchored by an 18-month long, voluminous, no-holds-barred correspondence with Karla herself and included interviews with the man who was the architect of Karla’s deals, the man with whom the buck actually stopped. The book, among many other things, told the unknown story about exactly why and how Karla was given a future.
Karla had never spoken publicly to anyone outside of her immediate family. Neither had the lofty government agent, Michael Code who crafted the deal destined to be described in perpetuity as having been done with the Devil. He talked at length and in depth.
Writing in the Globe and Mail, Christy Blatchford called the Karla correspondence “the scoop of the Century.” I don’t know about that but the book contained a plethora of hitherto fore unknown information and perspectives and told a compelling story.
I was convinced I had a well-written bestseller on my hands. And a well-researched one to boot. Publishers would be crawling all over themselves for this manuscript. I had sugar plum visions of bidding wars dancing in my head.
I could not have been more wrong. The manuscript was shopped to sixteen or so of the largest publishing companies in the United States and Canada to no avail.
In spite of the fact that “Invisible Darkness: The Strange Case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka,” my first book about the case, had been contracted by Bantam/ Random House in New York, no one at any of the many Random House companies in New York had ever heard of Karla Homolka let alone wanted a book about her.
The editor who had originally worked with me had long since left the company. Random House and its affiliated companies literally have tens of thousands of mass-market paperbacks in their backlists. Regardless of the fact that “Invisible Darkness” was the least returned mass market paperback book in Bantam’s long and storied history and continues to sell remarkably well 14 years after it was first published, they did not give a rat’s ass.
My New York agent, the legendary and respected Sterling Lord, could not get anyone in the business to even read the manuscript.
I found no solace in Toronto. Canadian publishers said the same thing although a few felt compelled to elaborate. They said nobody was interested in “her” anymore. “Invisible Darkness” was definitive. There was nothing left to say. Some added, indignantly, that it was an unsavory subject about which Canadians had heard too much already and had real animus to the very mention of her name.
No one bothered to read the manuscript in Canada either, with the exception of Diane Martin, then a senior editor at Random House Canada. When Ms. Martin recommended to the publishing committee that Random House publish it, a number of her colleagues said they would resign rather than see that happen. These days’ committees almost universally make publishing decisions. Of course, it was turned back.
Then Fate introduced me to a crazed French Canadian from Montreal with delusions of grandeur and the strange concept of establishing a bilingual publishing empire in Canada.
One evening while I was in the midst of the rejection fest Pierre Turgeon called because he had negotiated the French rights with General but they went tits up before a contract was signed and any money changed hands. He wondered who had the rights now and when the book was going to be published in English and by whom.
I told him I owned the rights. In the process of negotiating a price for the French ones, I told him my tale of woe. I had no idea when or even if it was ever going to be published in English.
He sent me a check for the French rights. After it cleared he called again. “Karla: A Pact with the Devil” became the cornerstone of his cockamamie notion of a bilingual empire. His checks kept clearing so it took about a month after its English publication in the spring of 2003 for me to realize that Turgeon was not only crazy but also a con man and a crook.
Before the enlightenment, we convinced Fitzhenry and Whiteside, a staid, old Canadian owned publishing house to distribute “Karla” . The former president of General Publishing, Nelson Doucette, had sought refuge there, and fortunately remained an advocate for the book.
Again, the one person who took the time to read it, John Winskill, then the Director of Marketing and Sales for F&W, a lovely man who had recently had a heart transplant and was not long for this world, thought it a significant and important work. Between the two they managed to convince the skeptical proprietor to take it on. After all, they weren’t publishing the thing, just distributing it.
To say initial sales were tepid would be an understatement because they were virtually non-existent. The first couple of weeks after a book is published are critical. We all became extremely concerned.
Even a weekend of terrific reviews across the country did nothing to boost it. The book was flat lined. It appeared that everyone else was right and Diane Martin, John Winskill, Nelson Doucette and I were wrong.
That was before the oleaginous lawyer for the families of Paul and Karla’s victims decided to paraded them before the insatiable media for an hour-long, live, nationally televised “press conference”
Between close ups of the solemn and tear-stained faces of Mr. and Mrs. French, Tim Danson self-righteously railed against the book’s publication, waving it like a Pentecostal preacher’s Bible, pointing out the outrageous and possibly “illegal” color photographs contained therein and avowing it was libelous, he called upon the righteous everywhere, including all booksellers, to boycott “Karla: A Pact with the Devil.”
Many intimidated, confused booksellers took his advice. Heather Reisman whose Indigo/ Chapters chain accounts for 90 percent of all bricks and mortar book sales in Canada did not. (This is all BEB – Before E-Books.) She took the advice of her vice-president of all things public and promotional, Tracy Nesdoly, who happened to be another person who took the time to read it, agreed with the few others who had done so and told Heather so. Ms. Reisman refused to sell “Mein Kampf” but took a stand with “Karla.”
“Karla” sold 20,000 copies in the 3 days immediately after the Danson “news conference”. If Turgeon could have found one printer in Canada whom he had not already swindled, it would have been quickly reprinted and the stores restocked in a matter of days, “Karla” would have sold many tens of thousands more in its first month of publication (It is just recently that the book has been published in the United States, so far only in a Kindle ebook edition.)
Sales and numbers mean everything to professional writers – those who actually feed themselves by their writing, rare birds though they are. But the reason “Karla: A Pact with the Devil” became a bestseller had nothing to do with the remarkable and intimate correspondence I shared with my subject.
Nor was it because the book is a well written, spellbinding tale of duplicity and deceit among the rich and powerful but rather because it became the center of rampant, almost rapid nation-wide publicity campaign the magnitude of which no publisher could ever conceive or finance.
Whether Paula Todd and Derek Finkle’s little fiction, “Finding Karla,” has any merit – and most people who have read it say not – many do feel swindled because it is so insubstantial and the tone is one of almost hysterical confusion and outrage, it drew an inordinate amount of national publicity.
The question is why?
I understand why lawyer Timmy Danson did what he did. You don’t, unless you’ve read “Karla,” but we won’t get into that.
The fact the Karla corresponded with me as long and as candidly as she did, was a real “scoop” but it made no difference. Even after reviewers and commentators across the country remarked on the book’s merits, sales remained stagnate.
I did not expect to be arrested – again – but I was, thanks again to Tim and that did nothing to harm the sales of either book – quite the contrary – but that is also beside the point.
It also lifted Random House’s heavy lidded eyes. A few people in the publisher’s employ, other than Diane Martin, read the book and realized she had been right. They published “Karla” in a finely edited mass market paperback and ebook edition that continues to sell well to this day, a full 19 years after Karla was convicted and incarcerated and 7 years after her release.
The publicity that has accrued to Ms. Todd and Mr. Finkle’s efforts is of an entirely different kind. As far as the old media is concerned it sounds its own death knell because it is characteristic of a malaise that has long lain dormant in its blood stream.
As T.S. Elliot so famously composed endings come with whimpers not bangs. The media’s hysterical reaction to the publication of Finkle/Todd’s work of investigative fiction is a whimper.