by X. Libris

Chapter 4: Maggie Pulls a Fast One

"All right, then," said Simon with finality, his huge eyebrows sticking out like tentacles. "Now what's this unauthorized $1900 for Justin Thyme? This is the kind of thing you might have gotten away with at Patriarch, but you know the folks at Verschleppen are a bit more conscientious about structuring the promotions dollar."

Simon Harper was the president of Verschleppen US, the New York office of the huge German conglomerate that had recently purchased Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins, one of America's legendary publishers. Sitting at the giant partners desks in their executive suite at the top of the 'Schlep Tower, as it was called by embittered Patriarch employees, Simon and Warner Villard, Verschleppen's vice president, were meeting with Maggie Editoria, marketing V.P. of Patriarch.

Often called "The Two Stuffies" behind their backs, Simon and Warner regarded Maggie as the kind of literary sobsister who might have wielded a lot of power in the book industry a few years before but had to be reeducated now - or shown the door. Maggie loved books, loved authors, loved the sales reps on the road who worked for her. It was so unfortunate. Of all things, she loved crabby independent booksellers when it was clear to the her new bosses that chain bookstores like You've Got Piles! with its stacks and stacks of books everywhere were outselling independents by the ton.

That Maggie didn't see things that way wasn't the point. She took every decision personally, fought to get her favorite (read: literary and non-selling) authors bigger budgets and worst of all loved Justin Thyme, that Southern bozo from some podunk college who taught English or poetry or something in the swamps of Alabama.

"Look at his track record," Warner chimed in. "Justin Thyme's short story collection sold 2,528; his book of poetry before that sold … well, don't even ask. We write off poetry anyway. Now on his upcoming first novel, 'Ureter Sleeping,' the chains - and you know, altogether we're talking about thousands of stores - have bought a total of 20.' He looked at Maggie with irritation. "End of story; end of budget. Whatever you were planning for the $1900, ditch it." Unbelievable, thought Maggie. An hour earlier the Verschleppen execs had approved an unnecessary $100,000 for the promotion of Parma Marmalade's latest mystery, "16,342 And Counting," knowing that Parma had built up a huge audience since her first book, "One and Counting." Now to object to less than $2000 for a gifted writer like Justin Thyme, whose career as a novelist showed so much promise - well, it was outrageous.

"Actually, there's some heat building under this guy," she said evenly. "The independents are ordering by the dozen instead of in ones and twos, and you know that still builds up. Thyme has a cult following from the short stories, which are now taught in college. Advance reviews for 'Ureter' are better than good. Primitive Weekly even calls Thyme a visionary." She didn't mention that Kickus, the other advance-review service, called him an illiterate pig.

A great cloud of dismissal settled on The Two Stuffies. "Well, unfortunately, visionaries don't pay the bills," said Warner. "Critics rarely review Parma Marmalade, and look how much that's meant. We're up to a 1.3 million first printing. With Thyme we're taking a chance on 8,500."

"But Warner, we announced a first printing of 25,000," Maggie objected.

"Oh, we'll have them if we need them," said Warner with his trademark supriority grin. "We printed sheets for 15, bound 8.5 and can go back anytime for another 10."

"I believe that would be a second printing, then," said Maggie. Meaning we lied about the first printing, she thought silently. But the men shrugged in unison. Lying by the numbers, after all, was their stock in trade. "Look, Maggie, whatever you planned for that $1900, forget it. These numbers don't work, and that's the end of the matter."

"Fine," said Maggie amiably, getting up to leave. Too bad it's been spent, she thought. Justin Thyme is already on a plane to the Bay Area.

Chapter 5. Justin's Little Twinge

He was a huge man, 6'6", already paunchy everywhere - stomach, eyes, jowls - and a formidable presence as he folded himself into an aisle seat in the economy class of Flight 64 from Atlanta to San Francisco. Still, nobody recognized the great writer as he grumbled to himself and stuffed each booted foot under the seat in front of him.

Friggin' NY publisher, he thought. Couldn't spring for first class, well, frig 'em. His only hope was the instant appearance of the liquor cart, as the three Bloody Marys he had just consumed were already wearing off. All he wanted now was a plastic glass and the pretense of satisfaction from two or three little bottles of bourbon off the cart. The flat but hefty flask inside his suit coat would do the rest.

At 42, Justin Thyme was both a has-been and boy wonder in the publishing industry. His first collection, an expose of Southern men's clubs called "The Swollen Member And Other Stories," had been hailed 10 years before as a literary breakthrough - "Faulknerian in its evocation of the Southern sexual landscape yet Daliesque in its deliberately misshapen symbology of men's exclusivity and the significance of private entry," as the Esoteric Review of Books had put it.

Thyme had hooted at such acclaim, and, when the equally prestigious Snootfill Landscape had proclaimed the exact opposite - "despite its classical overtures, this novel is simply and unerringly about getting stuck in the act of joining" - he had scoffed just as heartily. To his mind, the best review had come from somebody in San Francisco who had insisted that "Thyme displays his 'member' in front of us as a real writer would his pen." Damn right, Thyme thought. The blessed thing speaks volumes. Well, let them twiddle each other, he had thought of literary critics. That's all they know how to do anyway.

"Excuse me, darlin'," he said to a passing stewardess shortly after takeoff. "I'm feeling a bit poorly. I wonder if you could get me a glass of water?" He said "watuh" with that lazy grin that looked sheepish and lascivious at the same time. The stewardess stopped, wide-eyed. "Why, I can't believe it," she said, crouching by his aisle seat. "You’re Justin Thyme, aren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said with a practiced blend of lechery and good manners. "Oh, I just loved 'The Swollen --; " she began, but Justin had casually moved his third finger over to rub the top of her wrist and was leering at her mightily. She pulled away immediately. "I'll get the 'watuh'," she said in a tremulous (or was it shocked?) voice.

It was probably the poetry that had made her a fan. His first volumes, "The Hidden Tool I & II," had been embraced by feminists and crackers alike as a "sensitive yet daring literary investigation, full of peekaboo insights, certainly, but with rhymed meter as well as groping hand," as the powerful Peepers Journal had put it. Still taught in Beginning Poetry classes - half to show the brilliance of poetry; half to show its horrible self-indulgences - the book had given him entrée to every impressionable sweet young thang who had enrolled in his courses at HowILoveYaHowILoveYa College in Sewee, Ala.

The thought of sleepy Sewee gave him a little twinge, which he covered nicely by drinking the water from the stewardess' glass and leaning over to tie his shoe - not easy when wearing boots - while unscrewing and tipping over the flask just enough for a hearty snort into the glass before anyone noticed.

In fact, Justin had lived the last damn ten years in an alcoholic haze. Not that it was anybody's business, not even his wife's, and she he tried to avoid at all costs. Why, Melody Thyme was the one who drove him to drink, and to other women - though never to write, or not often, Justin mused. No, the last decade, if he could remember much about it at all, had been punctuated by only two memorable events.

First there was the cajoling and the nudging and the probing of his editor, Perkins "Perk" Maxwell, who had gotten Thyme through the writing of (and probably wrote half himself, truth be told), Justin's newly published first novel, "Ureter Sleeping." For this, having spent the advance, paltry as it had been, Thyme was now hauling himself out of his stupor to visit those junior readers in the Bay Area who loved it, he thought with glee, when the wool was fitted tightly over their eyes.

Second, there was that delicious and comely 18-year-old freshman named - well, who cared what she was named. He had called her Spanky for reasons that kept him awake another ten minutes. He just hoped, Thyme thought with a sudden snoring sound that convinced him the bourbon was working, that Spanky's paternity lawsuit and that crazy stalking father of hers wouldn't make the papers by the time he hit the ground in San Francisco. With fans like those waiting for him there, surely it was a good place to hide.

Chapter 6: A Presentation at The Book Review

"And I'd say the biggest book we have on the next list is the new Nancy Fallop title," announced publisher's representative Horatio Toast to the two book editors at the San Francisco Monochrome, the oldest morning newspaper in the Bay Area.

"Oh, my lord, here she comes again," said Cody Kepler, the paper's chief book editor. Fallop's books with their deliberate protofeminist bias were not to Cody's liking. Women's reclamation of bodily parts was fine, she thought, but Fallop's poetry was entirely too mucous dependent.

"The new Fallop is a novel called 'Vulvania,' " explained Horatio. "Here the ancient heroine, a little Cro-Magnon girl who invents the first IUD, finds a home with the earliest ferrets. We feel this one will appeal to men as well." Just the hint of a smirk on Horatio's face insinuated that the company line about Nancy Fallop might be a bit too ambitious.

"Oh, of course," said Copper Field, associate book editor. "Remember all the men who flocked to Nancy Fallop's first book, 'My Thicket, My Thingie?' " Horatio nodded. "Yes, when they realized her thingie was not THEIR thingie, we got blindsided by returns!" Everyone laughed. Naturally, Nancy Fallop had made a fortune in the confusion.

The "we" Horatio mentioned was one of America's oldest and most revered publishing firms, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews & Male Cousins, founded by Patrick Patriarch in 1842. Recently acquired by the German conglomerate, Verschleppen, the company was having a tough time "up-flooring the transition," as the new president and vice-president of Verschleppen US liked to put it.

Transitional Up-flooring, Differentiate Branding, Profit Back-ending - these were the new MBA code words that had infected the publishing world like a virus, as far as people like Horatio were concerned. His job - the real work of publishing, he felt - was to get his company's books solidly into the stores, not just displayed but read, talked about and hand-sold to customers one by one. True, blockbusters sold to the masses and in massive amounts through chain bookstores headquartered in New York. But then, so did hair products.

Horatio tried not to think about this as he presented the list to The Monochrome's book editors. Since The 'Chrome,' as it was called, was published 3000 miles away from the New York mainstream, Cody Kepler invited local sales reps to "sell" her the upcoming Fall and Spring lists of titles in the same way they sold these lists to the buyers at independent bookstores.

She and Copper learned more about up-and-coming writers this way, and besides, local reps like Horatio knew all the gossip from the stores. It was common knowledge that most sales reps in the Bay Area felt closer to their bookseller clients than to their mainstream publishers in New York.

"This next one is 'Finding God on the Way to Epcot,' quite a coup for Patriarch," Horatio began as the three turned the catalog page. "The author is local and he's been discovered by Perk Maxwell, who as you know is Justin Thyme's editor."

"That speaks well for him," Cody said. "But Hory, you know we don't review a lot of spiritual memoirs -- ."

"Well, you might make an exception with this one. Maybe you've heard of Snopak Deepra. He self-published the book a few years ago and has already sold 20,000 copies."

"Oh, I've seen it," said Copper. "It's jacketed in burlap, right? With actual tire tracks from the author's mountain bike, the semi-200 rear-bastio ned Wheel Sting maxout?"

"Exactly, but with the rehitchable autobeam," Horatio said. "Snopak's real name is Richard Pompquiss, and by night he's a bouncer at the 4 AM Club in Posterior. He tried to climb the Himalayas several times but kept having panic attacks whenever he got off the plane. It's all documented in the introduction. He had just bought a bus ticket when he experienced this religious conversion and named himself after the nearest sherpa."

"There were sherpas selling bus tickets?" asked Copper. "Well, it was a baggage claim guy. Anyway, Snopak looked out the window at this blizzard and the snow getting very, very deep and bam, that was it. His transformation began."

"I know I shouldn't ask this," Cody said, "but did he ever CLIMB the Himalayas?"

"Why no," Horatio answered patiently. "He never got out of the bus station. That was the point, you see. His readers love the fact that he faced his demons BEFORE he left baggage claim -- . "

"But why does the book have Epcot in the title?" Copper asked.

"Oh, that was those two executives from Verschleppen's idea - they felt India and Nepal and especially the Himalaya mountains themselves are 'tapped out,' as they put it. Epcot is a great family place, so in it went."

"I can't believe someone like Perk Maxwell has edited this book," fumed Cody. "Let's say it's well-written. Let's say the 4 AM Club gives it a Happy Hour discount despite its phony title. It's still beneath the Maxwell name."

"Well, you're thinking of the old Perk Maxwell at Patriarch," said Horatio. "The word in New York is that since Verschleppen took over, Perk's been told to get his 'bottom line into gear' - that is actually the way they talk - or he's out the door."

"What? Why, they would never fire Maxwell!" exclaimed Copper. "He's an institution! He discovered Porcina Hamingway! Thomas Ulf! F. Scott Fitzenstarts!"

"Right," said Horatio. "And remember, he even discovered" - and here the veteran book traveler reached into his sample kit.

"You don't have one. Really?" said Cody.

"Indeed, I do," smiled Horatio, delightedly pulling out an early bound copy of Justin Thyme's long-awaited first novel, "Ureter Sleeping." The three gazed in silence at the photo of a bright yellow tube looping and dripping dreamily across the cover. "It's HIM," sighed Copper.

"Gee, if you've got bound books already, we'll go ahead and redo the cover of next Sunday's section," Copper said. "And Hory, we have a little surprise for you - we're giving Justin Thyme the double-kabammy."

"Oh, no," Horatio murmured, steeling himself though thrilled beyond measure. The double-kabammy meant side-by-side reviews, one favorable, one negative, of the same book. Double-kabammies always made novelists furious (too much criticism) and publishers anxious because the effect was either a huge sale or a huge backlash, nothing in between.

"Who's doing the pro review?" he asked.

"Norman Baylor, who loves it, of course. Anything violent and swaggering gets a thumbs-up from him. Name a male body part and he gives you a rave."

"And opposing?"

"Kammie Pigmalia. She's no known quantity, though. Name a male body part and she either falls in love or cuts you to shreds. Of course neither reviewer is going to stereotype the book to death. That's against our policy."

Horatio and Copper stopped in mid-sentence to gaze sympathetically at the chief book editor: It was well known that Cody had policies for everything about book reviewing, not one of them enforceable.

"Speaking of getting sliced to ribbons," said Horatio, standing up with his now-empty sample kit. "I'm off to Roy and Fred's to make sure they're ready for Parma Marmalade. You know she's bringing her full entourage this time?"

"Goodness," said Cody, "Armored car and all?"

NEXT: Parma Brings Her Bodyguards to Roy and Fred's