A woman struggled to come to the surface of the wild surf off Hawaii. She wasn't far from drowning when an experienced American swimmer came to her rescue. The year was 1922. It's a shame we don't know the hero's name because he'd just saved Agatha Christie from becoming an author's footnote instead of the world's bestselling novelist.
Five Billion Sold: The Amazing Facts Behind the Fiction by David Glynn not only lists the giants of bestselling authors (Christie, by the way, is out in front by a country mile at two billion sales - yes, that's billion) but is also an intriguing snapshot of every one of the 30 authors' lives that made the cut for this anthology.
How about this little nugget: JRR Tolkien's original manuscript for Lord of the Rings was 500,000 words of longhand that took 12 years to pen. Then there's vampire interviewer Anne Rice, who was named Howard Allen O'Brien after her dad. The smart young girl changed this gender name anomaly on her first day of school.
Next there's Mr Smith senior who, in a moment of insensitive parenting, told his son Wilbur he would starve as a writer and persuaded him into accountancy. Years later, Smith Jr owned properties across the world, including an entire Seychelles island, from the proceeds of his novels.
Twilight phenomenon Stephenie Meyer was going to call Bella's first outing Forks - which could well have knifed her chances of success from the get go.
But perhaps the most interesting thread pulled from these pages is this: some of publishing's biggest names only became writing legends because they bombed in their first choice of career.
Christie wanted to be an opera singer but didn't have the voice - at least, not in that medium. Jeffrey Archer wanted to be prime minister. Whether this would have helped him stay on the right side of the law is debatable, but his 16 novels sold a collective 140 million anyway and his stint in jail helped rather than hindered sales. One-time lawyer John Grisham (The Firm), who to date has sold 250 million books, yearned to be a professional baseball player. Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity), estimated total sales of 300 million, was desperate to become an actor.
So what happened? What turned these people away from initial failure to massive success?
It's the billion-dollar question. Empathy and a long memory, say some. Timing, say others. Perseverance and need, says Glynn.
"Sidney Sheldon said all you needed to become a successful writer was paper, a pen and a dysfunctional family," says Glynn. "That was genius to my mind, but personally I go for perseverance and the need, which, while they are not necessarily the tools, they are two sides of the same coin. If you ache and need enough, the end result is the perseverance to carry you though. That's the message from these conglomerated biographies. The writers' need to succeed transcended the fields they first tried and none of them gave up."
To get that golden tag "bestseller" you need to sell in the thousands - about 10,000, give or take genre. Authors in Five Billion Sold, from Christie to Stieg Larsson, have all sold at least 50 million. The collective five billion is a conservative estimate, says Glynn. It's probably closer to eight billion. Billion schmillion - that's a book mountain. And it includes everything from highbrow to a brow level so low it could be a beard.
"The one author I couldn't bring myself to read was Jackie Collins," confesses Glynn. Joan Collins' sister had her first novel, The World is Full of Married Men, banned in Australia and South Africa because of its immodest treatment of sex. Another 27 novels down the track and Jackie can count 400 million books sold - the same number as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. It's a testament to the popularity of both authors - even if Collins erred on the side of pulp fiction. Not that Glynn looks down on popular writers.
Titan of terror Stephen King is an absolute master storyteller, Glynn states. "He can write rings around those people who look down on him." Well, 52 novels and total sales of 400 million don't lie.
Five Billion Sold isn't going to sell billions itself, but it might well tip the top as a must-have reference book of success.
Since having had to delve into these authors, says Glynn, he's found himself dipping into books he had previously judged by their covers.
"That's the thing about books," he says. "You have to read that first paragraph to know that this one, this book, is for you."
"Sidney Sheldon said all you needed to become a successful writer was paper, a pen and a dysfunctional family. Personally I go for perseverance and the need, which are two sides of the same coin." <div class="endnote">