WHAT IS BRINGING smiles to both Jacqueline and Bert Briskin's lips these days is the $1000-a-month billboard over Whisky-A-Go-go on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. As you drive down the Strip, there is an enormous die-cut poster of the cover art of Paloverde - all palm trees and oil wells and beautiful women and fast cars and trains and the movie business and planes with their pilots - in short, a visual panorama of Jackie Briskin's new novel. Read the bill-board and you could almost skip the book.
There's a waiting list on this choice piece of air space, and the Briskins can rent it only through the end of November. It takes fortitude to pull oneself away from it just to come to New York for a publication party and to meet the press, but Bert does have a number of photographs of the billboard with him. He gave some to McGraw-Hill, Jackie's hardcover publisher, and some to Warner, who own the paperback rights to Paloverde.
It's difficult to separate the Briskins, husband and wife, when talking or writing about them. True, Jackie is the novelist, working long hours at her Selectric to develop intricate plots and multipile characters and multi-generational novels, but Bert does everything else. He does the marketing and the cooking, handles the family finances and, when Jackie adds the last finally revised page to the rest of the pile, Bert Briskin doffs his apron disguise to become Superagent: springing into action against the forces of the publishing world, wresting, gigantic delas from publishers' grasping fingers. Something like that. No, exactly that.
Take Paloverde, for example. If there was ever a mass market paperback born to its role, Paloverde is that. And no offense. It is carefully researched and lovingly written, but the elements - the raw growth of Los Angeles at the turn of the century, a bitter fued between two brothers, the building of a great Angeleno fortune, an incestuous romance - that's the stuff that makes people going to Detroit pick the book out of a rack at the airport store. In the normal course of things it would be either a paperback original or a hardcover book with with a smallish first printing and a huge paperback reprint sale, bustled into paper covers at the earliest opportunity. But Jacqueline Briskin wanted more than that. She wanted a hardcover novel with all the trimmings - big first printing, large adbudget, book club sale, then the paperback profits. And Bert set out to get them for her.
The Briskins had already talked to a minor hardcover house owned by a major paperback hose (we won't say who). They were offered a lot of money for the joint cloth and paper rights, Bert said, "We want 60,000 first printing and a $100,000 ad budget." The publisher's response was to offer more money up front. The Briskins shook their heads. They didn't want more money up front, they wanted a 60,000 first hardcover printing and a $100,000 ad budget and those were the terms. The publisher balked.
Bert then sent copies of the Paloverde manuscript to every major hardcover house. That was on a Thursday, he mailed them overnight express. By the following Tuesday, his phone was ringing off the hook. Bert and Jackie took counsel. We have to got to New York, they decided. When they arrived, there wasn't a hotel room to be had anywhere, and they had to hole up in an obscure hostelry, since torn down, but then within walking distance of most publishers' offices. Bert set out to do battle ("Sixty thousand first printing and a $100,000 ad budget") while jackie stayed behind in the hotel, playing secretary. Nobody knew where they were staying, but the phone rang nevertheless, they had been tracked down.
"This is Bernard Shir-Cliff," said Bernard Shir-Cliff's voice. "I hear your're in town with a hot novel. I want it. I'm editor-in-chief at Warner Books." "But you're a paperback house," gasped Jackie. "We want hardcover." "No problem," said Shir-Cliff. "Get me that manuscript at once."
Hastily borrowing back a manuscript from one of the hardcover houses, Bert went to comfront Shir-Cliff. "We want 60,000 first hardcover printing and a $100,000 committed to advertising the hardcover." "No problem," said Shir-Cliff," with his customary Celtic aplomb, (Bernie is the only man I know who personifies the word aplomb." Rather doubtfully, the Briskins made their way back to Los Angeles, and were soon followed by a phone call from Warner. "Is McGraw-Hill acceptable as a hardcover pubisher?" "Sure. And the 60,000 first printing and the $100,000 ad budger?" "You got them."
Whatever the arrangements are between McGraw-Hill and Warner, Briskin won't reveal them; it's a separate deal. For their part, the Briskins keep all the paperback money; McGraw does not have the usual share in the royalities.
All the arrangements appear ideal. Jackie is left to pursue her career without the hassle of dealing with either business of domestic matters. Their children are grown, or nearly so. Bert - an astute businessman, gave up a thriving chain of gas stations to manage Jackie, but he is hardly a star's go-fer. He contributes full measure to the Briskin family fortune. Besides, Jackie is having the time of her life. To her, work isn't work, it's fun. To create a set of characters means that she goes to live in their world, to be amused by them, astonished by them, entertained by them, and embraced by them. Her office is a fantasy castle in which she's the princess, and Bert is the knight who keeps the dragons away. It should only happen to me.