One day Alan Gold was king of the esoteric world of marketing, with a swanky office in North Sydney, a staff of 20 and a shelf-full of awards for his campaigns to sell Scotch whisky, tissues and batteries. The next, he was sitting in the Supreme Court as a judge branded him a liar, said he was responsible for the biggest balls-up in Australian marketing history and declared him liable for a compensation bill that could run to more than $1 million.
“One minute I’m running a multimillion-dollar company, and the next minute my name is bandied all over the newspapers and my professional reputation is in tatters,” he recalls, a trace of bitterness in his voice, although it’s almost eight years now since life as he knew it hit the wall.
“I took my family overseas for a holiday … because I wanted to escape from the hideous reality that my life had suddenly become. We went to Noumea and I sat under a palm tree – I mean that quite literally, I am not being fictional – I sat under a palm tree for seven days and hand-wrote a novel.”
The fiasco of the Triumph Sloggi panties promotion that launched Alan Gold’s career as an author reads like an improb- able plot – not one of his own densely researched historical dramas, but a contemporary black farce by someone such as Tom Sharpe.
International clothing company seeks to boost sales of women’s underwear/approaches marketing whiz-kid who organises a promotion offering two nights’ free accommodation in a motel chain to everyone who buys three pairs of Sloggis/whiz-kid miscalculates popularity of offer and, whoops, within weeks 25,000 women stampede it, claiming $1.6 million of accommodation, every spare room in every Best Western motel for the next three years.
But who to cast as the whiz-kid? You need someone as hyper as Danny De Vito and as Jewish as Woody Allen – a shortish, tactile fellow with receding brown hair, glinting rimless glasses and the makings of a paunch, who could talk under setting concrete. Also, an infinite capacity for bouncing back when all appears lost – that’s Alan Gold.
The upshot of the court case was that Gold, who still cringes at the prediction he is alleged to have made that “women’s underwear is a low-interest item”, found himself at the age of 45 forced to sack the staff, close down the company that was his life’s work and face personal bankruptcy.
He finally settled for “a fraction of a per cent” of the amount the companies said they stood to lose, and managed to keep the house where he has lived for 22 years, among the gum trees in the “two cars, three mortgages” neighbourhood of St Ives. We talk in that rambling pastel-painted place spread over three storeys down a leafy hillside and crammed with the books that are now his life.
Eight years and four blockbuster novels later, Alan Gold is one of Australia’s most successful, but least-recognised, authors. He has sold nearly half a million books here, in Britain, the United States, Japan and Korea – sufficient, says Bryce Courtenay, the guru of popular fiction, to put him in the top 10 per cent of bestselling writers, making $100,000 a year, “a decent sort of a living for a writer”.
The reason most people do not know Gold as an Australian author is that his publishers have deliberately marketed him as an international brand. They gambled on putting his first book among the Tom Clancys and Frederick Forsyths, eschewing kangaroos, boomerangs and titles such as The Great Outback for a dramatic English-designed cover in red, white and black that Gold is proud to say “makes it look like something by Michael Crichton”.
In a way, Gold has never left the marketing industry. Advertising, promotion, point-of-sale, brand images, target audiences, demographics – these are the buzzwords of the new breed of commercial authors, many of whom belong to Writers’ Bloc, an information-sharing club founded by Courtenay, which meets for dinner once a month in an appropriately up-scale private room at Darcy’s Restaurant in Paddington.
Courtenay test-markets his book covers to focus groups, and conducts his own surveys which reveal things you would have thought were bleedin’ obvious – but apparently aren’t – such as the fact that a third of people can’t read type with a face smaller than 12 points (this type is 9 point). Paul Wilson uses advertising-style flip-sheets when he pitches a book to a publisher.
And Gold’s great talent is his indefatigable self-promotion – when the Herald invites him to suggest a striking photograph for this story, he offers to pose naked on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorbike, snorting cocaine. He gives 20 or 30 speeches a month, and is popular at book-signings, interviews and on e-mail – it goes without saying that he raves about the potential of the Internet.
“They have all dropped out of lucrative careers earning $300,000 or $400,000 or $500,000 a year in advertising and marketing,” says the publicist Christine Gee. “They want to be known as creative people rather than for how much money they made selling tampons, but they don’t see any point in starving in some slum in Redfern to prove how literary they are. They see a book as a product which has to be promoted and sold.”
Gold’s new career as a writer did not get off to a promising start. When he showed the thinly disguised autobiography he had written under the palm tree to the Sydney agent Selwa Anthony, she told him it was “unpublishable, self-indulgent”. Says Gold: “You could hardly read the writing because of the tears; it was smudged, there was so much anger, so much vitriol; it all literally flooded out because I felt so abused by a court process that was so unfair …”
But Anthony took the would-be author under her wing and within a year there was a new manuscript she was not too embarrassed to pitch to HarperCollins. Gold thought he had it made when the publisher accepted, but there was further humiliation in store when he presented his “supremely brilliant work of literature” to the eagle-eyed Blue Mountains editor Carl Harrison-Ford.
“Carl ripped it to shreds. Shreds. His exact words were, `I think we can retain the title.’ I used to drive home from Blackheath and I was near to tears.”
After a long and painful gestation The Jericho Files was born, a thriller set in the Middle East, which became a middle- order international bestseller. And Gold was on his way, using this unique style of “team writing” which friends such as Wilson compare with the way a director puts together a movie rather than the way a normal author works.
He does not agonise alone through the long winter nights in the tile-floored basement he calls a study – Gold paces about swinging his arms and acting the parts of his characters, putting on a phoney Russian accent when the role requires. His assistant, Jenny Roberts, takes it all down in immaculate Pitman’s shorthand, telling him sometimes to “shut up, it’s getting boring”.
She types it up on a computer, and Gold gives the text a cut and polish before turning it over to a professional editor. The output is phenomenal – Gold regularly puts out 5,000 words a day, and completes his 500-page novels, which would take most writers two or three years, in three or four months. He’s so prolific his publishers can’t keep up with him – he has already completed books that won’t be published until November 1999.
The danger of such a helter-skelter style of writing is that some of the other people involved will feel they deserve more of the credit. Anthony, his first agent, for instance, says that Gold “didn’t understand the genre, he didn’t know how to tell a story and make his characters come alive” when he came to her. She says she “held his hand” all the way through that first novel.
Her reward, she says, was that Gold “reneged on a gentleman’s agreement we had about the royalties. He was very, very underhand, unprofessional and unethical. I think Alan is a user.”
Gold’s story of the origins of this bitter literary feud is, as you might expect, quite different. “She’s advised, she’s guided, she’s helped, but that’s as far as it has gone. She has claimed that she half-wrote Jericho. It is absolutely untrue.” He says Anthony thought she was entitled to half his first royalty cheque as a fee (the usual agent’s commission is 10 to 15 per cent) and he threatened to sue her to get it back. They eventually reached an uneasy compromise.
Di Morrissey, another successful author, who hates being stereotyped as a romance writer, introduced Gold to Anthony and got caught up in the crossfire. She says: “They are both strong personalities … it was a classic case of misunderstanding.”
Gold doesn’t fool himself that he writes literature with a capital L: “I am a brilliant storyteller … I have no great searing insights into life. Malouf does. Keneally does. Carey does – they write philosophy in the form of fiction. I don’t; I just tell a blindingly good story.”
His Jewishness informs much of his writing. Gold was born in Leicester, England, the grandson of refugees from the Baltic States who fled a Russian pogrom in 1905. His wife, Eva, is the daughter of Jewish refugees from central Europe who came to Australia when she was two.
They met in Israel: “The reason I fell in love with her was because of my antipathy to the lack of sophistication of Israeli women … hair under their armpits, no make-up, their clothes … the minute I saw Eva I just fell in love with her sophistication and mystique.”
As you can tell from the dialogue, Gold is such a glib storyteller he often finds reality boring. In his early career as a freelance foreign correspondent, for instance, he was continually frustrated that the people he interviewed wouldn’t come out with the scintillating quotes he wanted – so he made them up, relying on the fact that the stories were published on the other side of the world to avoid detection.
“It was immoral, it was unethical, it was unprincipled – and I did it.” He even boasts that once, having conned himself into a job with Reuters in Sydney by claiming he knew something about the stock markets, “I’m probably responsible for the Poseidon [nickel mining company] crash because of misreporting”. Take that with a grain of salt, too.
Writers such as Gold do not get invited to writers’ weeks or have their books put forward for prestigious prizes – nor do they jostle at the trough of taxpayers’ money for literary grants. They are, after all, commercial – and proud of it.
Derek Hansen, a co-founder of Writers’ Bloc who has just sold his novel Sole Survivor to Hollywood for $1.15 million, plus another $460,000 for writing the screenplay, rattles off the figures to show how extraordinarily competitive the Australian book market is – there are 230,000 titles on the shop shelves at any one time, and 50,000 new titles launched a year, a new book every 11 minutes, day and night, 365 days a year.
He says of Gold: “He’s an amazingly energetic guy and he directs his energy where it’s important – publicity and promotion. Without that it doesn’t matter what the content is because nobody will be able to find the book.”
But in spite of this mass-market orientation, Gold doesn’t think he deserves the disdain of the broadsheet reviewers, who often make him feel “absolutely mortified”. Eric Weinberger, reviewing The Jericho Files in the Herald, pulled no punches. “There are cliches in every paragraph, in almost every sentence,” he sneered. “… the real problem is a jumpy narrative … Gold’s interesting plot is left without suspense.”
I remind Gold of an even more lacerating review of a book by Paul Wilson, of which a Melbourne critic, John Box, said: “This book is an ugly thing – you approach it with a stick.”
Gold snaps: “I don’t know who Mr Box is. “But [Wilson’s] Little Book of Calm has sold more than a million copies. So Mr Box is right, and a million readers are wrong?”
That could well be Alan Gold’s epitaph, if he hadn’t written one already: “I don’t think I’d like to go to my grave as a person remembered for marketing tampons and cornflakes. I would be much happier if the epitaph read, `He amused the world by telling wonderful stories.’ ”
Alan Gold Resume
Born, Leicester, England.
Cadet journalist on the Leicester Mercury.
Freelance foreign correspondent.
Migrates to Australia, marries Eva (they have three children).
Career in marketing.
Loses: “Sloggi panties” case in Supreme Court, closes marketing business.
First book, marketing for Small business, published.
First novel, The Jericho files, published…
The Lost Testament.
The Final Candidate.
The Gift of Evil (first in a trilogy).
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 2 May 1998
Word count: 2086
Photography: Sahlan Hayes
Caption: Alan Gold … I would be much happier if the epitaph read, `He amused the world by telling wonderful stories’
Comments: “Resume” joined to the story