Publishing is an industry full of mysteries. Authors conceal themselves behind what they write, with the exception of memoirs and other personal narratives. Books are usually perfect hideaways for untold secrets.
Still it’s rare to have a writer, in this era of questioning and this growing culture of fame seeking, who is so diligent about keeping his or her identity a mystery. And very good at it.
When Tony Buổi Sáng, or Tony Morning, launched his Facebook page in 2013, it was almost impossible to foresee his rise to prominence. He posts regularly in unpolished Vietnamese about his life, study and work, in a voice that is amusingly egotistical, sometimes mildly sarcastic. It’s a style that has been overworked by countless writers. But somehow Tony has managed to hit the right chord with thousands of young readers in Vietnam.
There is no clear through-line in what he writes. One day he may post about his experience with unfriendly Vietnam Airlines flight attendants, and the next he asks his audience to think about the social costs of eating dog meat. His voice at times borders on being didactic, if not patronizing. But what he lacks in poise, he makes up with sincerity: he just wants young people to improve the image of the nation by being the best version of themselves.
The tapestry of his public persona — a Harvard-trained, cosmopolitan, outspoken entrepreneur with an unwavering interest in agriculture — has been mostly woven from the scarce threads provided in his short writings. The rest comes from what can be speculated between the lines. For instance, he may have a disdain for the media, based on his recurring criticism that it only focuses on negative things and gives the public nothing to be hopeful for.
In terms of popularity, secrecy strangely never works against him. Local netizens have kept the rumor mill running over the past two years, gradually turning him into a household name. His Facebook page now has more than 340,000 fans, twice the number six months ago, and continues to add nearly 700 new followers a day.
That hardly qualifies him as a social media star in Vietnam, where top singers and comedians can have up to seven million followers. But for a new writer that nobody has ever met, Tony could make any brand-name author in the country jealous.
The secluded Tony Morning had his first big break last fall when "Coffee with Tony," a collection of his most popular Facebook writings, hit the shelves. The book became an instant bestseller and is still in the top fives of many bookstores both online and bricks-and-mortar.
Vu Thi Thanh Thuy, a spokesperson for Lantabra, the publisher of the book, confirmed that it was a big hit. More than 40,000 copies have been sold so far and the upcoming fifth reprint of 20,000 more is being planned. In Vietnam’s relatively small publishing industry, any title that can move 15,000 copies is considered a major commercial success.
The publisher had followed Tony’s online footprints for months before finally securing the rights to republish his essays, seeing a life beyond the Internet for them. One of the conditions of the deal, Thuy said, is that her company has to keep mum about the author.
"We are fascinated by his writings and by how many young people have been inspired by him. We want more readers across the country to be uplifted by Tony's positive thinking on life and work, especially those in rural areas who haven’t read him on the Internet yet," Thuy said.
Industry insiders believe the publisher has taken quite a leap of faith with the book and some are actually surprised that it has paid off. They say publishers like authors who already have name recognition. Banking on a new writer from social media is not a good idea, much less one who refuses to appear publicly or speak to the press to promote the book.
International experts confirm that it is extremely rare in the book world to see a case like this. Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, said in English-speaking countries, using a pseudonym to hide one's identity is not very common.
"The reason for using a pseudonym, or nom de plume, is often that the author has a public persona and feels that the book is in some ways contradictory with it," he said.
Two recent cases, Gordon said, have been the Man Booker Prize winner John Banville and "Harry Potter" author J. K. Rowling. Both of them changed genres under a pseudonym, and both were soon unmasked because "pseudonyms in English rarely provide much privacy for very long," he said.
"But the situation in Asian countries may well be different, politically and socially, and pseudonyms may therefore play a different role. But even so, I think it will remain rare: books sales and anonymity are not always entirely compatible," Gordon said.
One can only guess as to why Tony chooses to stay hidden. No matter what the reason, if that allows him to write freely about things that he otherwise would probably keep to himself, then there’s no point wondering who he really is.
But privacy may come at the cost of believability, because who tells the story is just as important as the story itself. For someone whose social commentary has been praised as original and dead on, Tony has yet to legitimate his authority as an interpreter of events. More often than not he still feels like a fictional too-good-to-be-true character.
And yet that’s probably what his avid fans need. Tony, they say, is not an author but a funny, successful uncle whom they can reach out for moral support, over the titular symbolic cup of coffee. He is the epitome of social mobility and self improvement. He is their new role model.
The way many of his fans review the book is inexplicably similar to how devout people often describe their faith. Thuy of Lantabra, the publisher, seemed to support this far-fetched idea. “We do think this is more than just a book. It’s a kind of faith and the author is a missionary who is promoting it. We want readers to be enlightened and inspired,” she said.
If that’s the case, questions about the author and his credibility can easily be rendered invalid. When it comes to faith, storytelling is never bereft of mystery and fantasy. You either believe it, or you don’t.