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Merlin's Magic

Raise the sword and pass the royalties

By Murray Waldren

STAND by for Merlin mania. Hundreds of years after the mythical magician last wove his wizardry, he's back to ensnare the world. This time, though, his alchemy will transmute the base material of a slim 48-page picture book into golden sales and a worldwide craze.

The Merlin Mystery, written by a quiet Kiwi children's fantasy author, is poised to rewrite publishing history. But it's not the lure of its lavishly-illustrated tale that will attract the lucre - it's the sting in its internationally co-ordinated promotional tail. Up for grabs is a possible $3 million-plus cash prize and a $70,000 trophy. Which, in theory, anyone who buys the book can win. And that's incentive enough to impel international ardour.

It's a cunning concept, a triumph for the mandarins of marketing and the crusaders of cross-promotion. Hidden within the text are clues to a puzzle, and the prize goes to the first solver. Simple but effective. Yet while it will certainly attract attention and preoccupy millions of readers around the world, it also raises disquieting questions of the whither publishing kind.

Make no mistake - the industry is doing it tough, despite more books being printed than ever. Market share is declining against the electronic allure of video and television, the interactivity of computer games, internet immediacy and the disinclination of a time-limited and increasingly print-phobic population to read extended texts. Straightened times demand lateral resolve; publishers are desperately seeking solutions from alternatives such as downloadable electronic texts, books with reader-guided endings, pocket-book-sized computer libraries, multimedia CDs and incentive campaigns.

But nothing works better in the buyer-attraction field than old-fashioned greed, especially if the consumer bribe is the chance to become a multimillionaire for relatively little outlay and the chance to prove your smarts. The theory's simple: reading is an enriching experience, if intangible. How much more rewarding, though, if it were also tangibly enriching ... say millions of dollars' worth of tangibility for the cover-price alone?

There are well-established precedents for otherwise sober people going feral over books offering rewards for solving a conundrum. Perhaps the most notable was in Britain in the 70s when international wealth-seekers trampled o'er dingle and dell (and the odd well-ploughed field) in search of a buried jewelled rabbit. Its location was encoded in clues in Masquerade, a story by Kit Williams about a colony of anthropomorphic bunnies; rabbit fever spread quicker than myxomatosis, with fortune hunters digging around in the most obscure places. That made many people very unpopular and/or cantankerous very quickly, and it was a relief to all when the treasure was finally unearthed. The book, however, sold in record numbers.

Promotional rewards for reading are not uncommon, either; among many others, Mike Wilk's The Ultimate Noah's Ark carried a $5000 bounty for the eagle-eye who first spotted a mateless animal among some 350 densely-drawn pairs, while HarperCollins offered a $25,000 Caribbean holiday based on questions culled from its jetset novel, Platinum Coast.

All small change though when compared withThe Merlin Mystery booty. Publisher HarperCollins is sparing no hype in selling its "ground-breaking global project", which promises, it says, four publishing firsts. It's touted as the "most intricate puzzle book ever conceived", with more than 1000 clues but only one solution and one winner (although if all goes to plan, the real winners will be the publishing house, the author and all those associated with the project). MENSA's CEO David Chatten is cited as validifier, endorsing the book as "an elaborately constructed but ultimately solvable puzzle".

There's today's unprecedented simultaneous worldwide release, a logistical logjam of coordinating supplies while maintaining secrecy in 20 countries (including Britain, Germany, the US and Japan). It's been translated into 12 languages for an estimated readership of 15 million, although HarperCollins Australia has been surprisingly conservative in releasing a first print-run of just 20,000 copies here.

Then there's the prize, Merlin's wand, a 5kg sculptured artefact crafted by nine different artisans in New Zealand, Mexico, Afghanistan and Brazil which will tour the world in exhibition. It features a 150-million-year-old gold-threaded Brazilian crystal set in silver upon a staff representing a branch of the Tree of Life, complete with alchemical motifs in bronze and brass with lapis lasuli attachments and a glass vial of 24-carat gold from the River Nile, valued at $70,000 on today's exchange rate.

Finally, the coup de greed, an accumulating cash bonanza - a kitty of $280,000 will increase by just over 50 cents for every copy sold until the booty is claimed. Given that the publishers anticipate selling millions of copies in the (hoped for) year or so before solution, this cash component could easily exceed $3 million.

Even if someone cracks the puzzle quickly, the prize will be substantial. The book has been released to capitalise on Christmas market hysteria, and will be available in non-traditional outlets such as supermarkets, video stores, music chains and toy shops as well as bookshops. No solutions will be opened before New Year's Day, and the contest cut-off is December 31, 2001; if it is unsolved then, the wand will be auctioned and the proceeds and prize pool will be given to charity.

The target market is wide-ranging: children for the story and pictures, computer gamers of the Myst persuasion, crossword and puzzle freaks, lovers of Arthurian myth, illustrated book aficionados, Masquerade fans, the needy ...

The answer is on an encrypted disk in the Bank of England vaults, apparently known only to the author. That's a weighty responsibility ... Several million dollars is a large incentive to larceny ... as to the prize's integrity, the competition is being overseen by an independent adminstrator with whatever protection caveats on company and associated family entries brings.

The concept is the brainchild of Jonathan Gunson, a 47-year-old Auckland-based author/illustrator whose cv includes six children's books and a 22-episode TV series, Space Knights. He also created the sf TV serial, The Boy from Andromeda, and was a longtime creative director of TV commercials. The marketing pedigree is obvious, but the Arthurian obsession is owed to his father, who wielded a painted oak wand as a prop in teaching the young Gunson about the magical qualities of the natural world, while whispering "Alchemy, Jonathan".

Gunson's own lore says the idea for the book, puzzle and wand prize came amid a pilgrimage to his father's legendary haunt. "Just before he died in 1970, he called me, and the last thing he said to me was 'Find the castle ... the real Tintagel on the coast of Cornwall. There's a cave runs right under it, Merlin's cave. You'll find the magic there ... and maybe we'll even talk again'.''

It was a dark and stormy day when Gunson arrived at Tintagel some eight years later, and as he sheltered in the legendary cavern from a sudden downpour, the wind and waves seemed to whisper his father's words, "Alchemy, Jonathan". Then the rain stopped, the sun came out ... "and the idea for this story rushed into my mind .. . almost in its entirety."

Realisation waited 20 years; he had the plan but didn't want to repeat Williams's effort. A news item on a $280 million British accumulator lottery suggested the how, the "alchemy of increasing prize" power via multitudes of small inputs to a central pool.

Writing the text was relatively straight-forward and the puzzles were devised to be as solvable for a schoolchild as for experienced cryptographers. The intricate illustrations, however, required the co-option of a fellow Kiwi fantasist, Auckland artist Marten Coombe. The easiest part was selling the idea last year to HarperCollins UK execs, who sensed a multimedia and co-promotional goldmine.

Those nuggets include pr spin-offs from multinational co-sponsors and a CD of Celtic mood music using medieval instruments and orchestra complete with whispered clues by actor/narrator Joss Acland. And a website - - which goes on-line today for puzzlers to share their knowledge. And the financial pleasure from the inevitable selling boom of $29.95 copies ... What this has to do with literature is minimal. Although the promotion will generate world-wide enthusiasm, the focus will be on the booty, not the book. Publishing's underlying dilemmas will remain.

And the dilemma for the author as he sits in his London hotel awaiting today's international pr spotlight is that his tale will become obscured amid the brouhaha of gold-fever, that the means to the end will be subsumed in the end by mean avarice. Still, that bounty of royalties that will inevitably flow should nicely console any artistic angst ...


This story was first published in The Australian.
Copyright Murray Waldren 1998

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