In a book world dominated by corporate giants and the agents who woo them, Gordon Campbell is living proof that you can still do it the independent way.

With his novel "Missing Witness" climbing to No. 31 on this week's New York Times national best seller list, Campbell has become Salt Lake's J.K. Rowling — an overnight sensation many years in the making.

And while comparisons to Rowling, who turned years of scribbling on note pads in coffee shops into the Harry Potter series, may be overstating it a tad, the local literary community is no less flushed by one of its own getting a big fat "advance" from a New York publisher for a book that began back when Jimmy Carter was president.

Particularly since he did it without an agent.

Campbell's story, in a CliffsNotes nutshell, is this: The legal drama he started writing in 1979 was bought last month by HarperCollins after local bookseller Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English bookstore, introduced Campbell to connections in New York.

Campbell didn't get a literary agent until after he'd sold his manuscript.

"Suddenly, my phone was ringing off the hook," he says. "Everybody wanted to represent me."

For the previous 28 years, that hadn't been the case. Campbell, a Salt Lake attorney who is married to U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell, had gotten so weary of rejections from agents that he'd put his manuscript away in a closet and shut the door.

It was only when his daughter, Mary, dusted it off that it got new life.

"Dad," she said, "this is good. You can't quit."

After yet another rewrite, this one with Mary's help, Campbell ran into Ms. Burton at a social event. The topic of "his book" came up, and Betsy said she'd look at it.

"I told her she didn't have to," Campbell said. "But I wanted her to in the worst way."

"I promised to read 50 pages," Burton said. "I also promised to be brutally honest."

That was on a Friday. On Monday, Burton called back.

Campbell's shaky writer's psyche, sandpapered by decades of disappointment, braced for the worst.

"Did you read 50 pages?" he asked.

"I read the whole thing," she said. "I loved it."

Burton's contacts in New York polished the manuscript and sent it to editor Carolyn Marino at HarperCollins, who got to do something seldom done in her line of work — call an author directly and offer to buy his book.

Absent an agent, Campbell told Burton she could be his agent.

"I told him I'm not an agent, I'm a bookseller," said Burton.

"She said what I could do for her was every time I stood up to tell people about the value of an independent bookseller," said Campbell.

Burton sees Campbell as a perfect representation of the independent spirit.

"He epitomizes what we independent booksellers are all about," she said. "We're a close-knit group and when we hear of something that's good we tell one another and it builds and builds until it reaches some critical mass and can't be ignored — and it becomes a bestseller."

"Missing Witness" being the latest example of that.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.