About a quarter of the way through this book I was surprised to discover that, back in 1996, Glasgow Phillips co-founded a naming firm called Quiddity. The idea was to profit from the dot com boom by persuading Internet entrepreneurs to hire him and his partner to name their new ventures. "We at Quiddity think of ourselves as genetic engineers of language," went the sales pitch, "and a soundly engineered name is the foundation of effective marketing." Philips is the first to admit that there was a large dose of hucksterism in all this, but, even so, how did he manage to come up with such a poor title for his memoir? The Royal Nonesuch conveys almost nothing about its contents--except, perhaps, that Phillips has a whimsical, offbeat sense of humour that not all of his readers will share.
Fortunately, a book can no more be judged by its name than it can by its cover--which, in this case, carries an effusive blurb from Dave Eggers. In fact, The Royal Nonesuch is a fairly lively example of what is rapidly emerging as a mini-genre: the New Media memoir. The first instance that I know of was Burn Rate, Michael Wolff's hilarious account of his own misbegotten Internet venture, and while this book isn't quite in that league it manages to hold your interest nonetheless because Phillips is such a self-confessed loser. Most New Media memoirs are about failure--if their authors had become rich they wouldn't be writing books--but The Royal Nonesuch stands out because Phillips achieved so little. For him, a first round of financing was a distant dream, never mind the IPO. This book chronicles the Internet gold rush from the point of view of a virtual pack pony.
A graduate of the Stanford Creative Writing Program, Philips published his first novel aged 24 and then moved to Los Angeles where, along with his best friend, he launched a New Media venture in 1998 called CRAP. (Would you hire this man to name your company?) CRAP stood for Certified Renegade American Product and its primary activity consisted of organising an alternative film festival each year at Sundance. Actually, that's not strictly true. Organising a handful of parties in Utah may have been the pinnacle of CRAP's achievements, but the bulk of Phillips's time was taken up with writing business plans and meeting with potential investors. His aim was to raise enough money to cover CRAP's overhead so he could get down to the real business of writing even longer business plans and meeting with even bigger investors. Needless to say, almost no one was crazy enough to give Phillips any money and CRAP went down the toilet in 2001.
One of the few people to cut Phillips a check was Matt Stone of South Park fame who invested $25,000 in a low-budget film that was designed to cash in on the success of The Blair Witch Project. In what must qualify as the sickest New Media venture ever conceived, Phillips' planned to make a fake snuff movie in which he pretended to murder his girlfriend and then broadcast it over the Internet, presenting it as a live event. Phillips's hope was that the ensuing media brouhaha would propel the film to the top of the video charts. Incredibly, Phillips made the film, enlisting the help of a Hollywood special effects company, but he wisely decided not to release it after an Internet porn baron described it as a "monstrosity".
Another madcap scheme involved making a late night talk show for Comedy Central hosted by a character named Tommy the Woodsman. Phillips managed to string the cable channel along, in spite of the fact that his star was a mentally unstable homeless man who's party trick consisted of taking all his clothes off and running around on all fours in the hope of persuading people that he'd over-dosed on LSD. (At other times, he simply overdosed on LSD.) Even after the Woodsman had made two suicide attempts and was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, Phillips refused to give up on this project. (In a blog post on Feb. 22, Mr. Phillips announced that the Woodsman had died.)
The fact that the author stood by the Woodsman, going so far as to take him home for Christmas in 2000, points to the character flaw that prevented him from making a fortune on the web--namely, he's far too nice a guy. Time and again, Phillips would collapse with laughter during some pitch meeting, unable to keep a straight face as he outlined his pie-in-the-sky revenue projections. His Internet start-up was essentially just a device to enable him and his partners to pay the wages of a string of bizarre characters whom no one else would employ--and he didn't have the heart to pretend it was anything else. (Which may explain why he called it CRAP.)
In the end, it is this fundamental decency which makes The Royal Nonesuch such an enjoyable book. Glasgow Phillips is no genius--and he's certainly not someone you'd ever want to go into business with--but he's a very likable fellow, and you'll end up rooting for him even though you know his harebrained ideas will come to nothing.