Going Undercover—The Story of Knock-Off

POSTED ON Nov 13, 2009

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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The call came one day while I was trying to squeeze a giant squid into a 7″ x 10″ book. I was working on Search for the Giant Squid for Lyons Press, and some of those fellas are pretty big, so big I was wrestling with the idea of turning the book sideways, not something I usually like to do.

A gruff, friendly-sounding man introduced himself as Bill Levy from Cleveland, and started to describe a publishing project he was embarked on. As it turns out, Bill was the author of eight non-fiction books, all from major publishers. Now, he’d written a novel but he’d run into a brick wall.

“You’re a non-fiction author, Bill,” his agent and editors said to him, “you can’t publish a novel.” This wasn’t a good thing to tell Bill Levy, and he had determined to prove them wrong. Bill wanted to do it in a very specific way. Having been a reporter, and being familiar with the publishing world, he knew a self-published novel would face rough going in the book trade. He had a better idea.

An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

“Look Joel, this is what I want to do, you tell me if you’re the right guy for the job,” Bill said. I loved that old-time reporter talk he would drop into, and quickly assured him that I was his man, whatever the book job turned out to be.

Here was Bill’s idea: He’d hired a top editor in New York to moonlight and edit his novel. He picked someone who worked on these books at her day job, because he was going to try to replicate the entire process that a big novel would go through in a major house.

In fact, I think he picked me for the job not just because my books looked so good (and that was a bitter pill to swallow) but because I was way off in San Rafael, California, not usually known as a hotbed of book publishing.

“I want this book to look exactly like the last Sidney Sheldon or Jacqueline Susann,” he said. “Can you do it?” It wasn’t really a question, so after assuring Bill he was in good hands I headed down to the local chain store and picked up a remaindered copy of a Sidney Sheldon. It was pretty standard stuff, really, but these books are done to a formula, and I set about cracking the code.

I wasn’t really worried about the interior of the book—the tools we had at the time (Quark 3.31) would allow me to mimic just about anything, given enough “fiddle” time. Soon enough, I had a layout that looked exactly—and I do mean exactly—like the Sheldon book. You could hold my page up to the window over a page from the book, and there wasn’t a point’s worth of difference between them.

Cover Conspiracy

The whole subterfuge we were embarked on was ironic, given the subject of Bill’s book: consumer product counterfeiting. In a very breezy and entertaining style, it told the story of the new world (at the time) of fully computerized warehouses, the businesses that turned a blind eye to products that were manufactured to look like the “real thing” but which were, often, very low-quality replacements for the originals.

What we needed for this book was a cover just like the big boys. Using Bill’s method, I got in touch with a designer I knew from my days in the New York publishing world, Bob Aulicino. He turned out a terrific cover, and we were getting ready to go.

After warning my client about the research abilities of bibliographers and book reviewers, he decided to set up his publishing company—Silk Purse Press—in Connecticut, so there would be no link between him and the publisher. I used my own ISBNs to register his book, and brought in a friend as a freelance marketing person to run the book launch, and off to press we went.

What Goes Around…

Pretty soon we had a couple of thousand copies of Knock-Off and I have to say, it looked just perfect. You could have tossed it on the remainder table at any BigBooksInc. and it would have looked right at home. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended up.

Even with all the care and money lavished on the book, it’s still really hard to make independently-published novels into something they aren’t. Lacking the publicity machine used by the big publishers, and without the long reach of national distribution, the book was doomed from the start.

I felt bad for Bill, but it didn’t faze him at all. We had a “celebration” dinner when the whole project was over and, sitting around the comfy tables at Buckeye Roadhouse, It seemed that Bill had done what he had set out to do. He made his novel into a book that, to anyone’s eyes, was just like the blockbusters coming out of New York. Apparently he’d been angling for a sale to Hollywood, but it wasn’t to be.

A PoD Coda

I hadn’t thought about the Knock-Off caper for years, until one day I heard that voice on the phone again. With print on demand, Bill wanted to bring his book back. We recreated the book, shifted it to softcover, and threw it up on Amazon, along with a Kindle version. It’s there now, and it’s a pretty good read. Lots of action, and you’ll learn something about goods that aren’t all that they seem to be.

There are millions of stories out there in the self-publishing world. This has been one of them.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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