by X. Libris

Chapter 7: Parma Brings Her Bodyguards to Roy and Fredís

Despite the tremendous competition among "niche" bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Posterior, Calif., everyone marveled at the evolution of Roy and Fredís Books during its incredible 50-year span.

Of course, the term niche was misleading, thought novelist Parma Marmalade as her bullet-proof limousine snaked its way past pedestrians on Posterior's historic Mammogram Ave. As you walked past that wonderful amalgram of dopeheads and professors - and on occasion Parma had been forced by clogged traffic to exit the armored vehicle and proceed under her own steam ("the Jam," as her bodyguards called Marmalade, speaking into their wrists, "is spreading") - you'd see stores with books for railroad buffs, spiritual seekers, metabiotic cooks, dog masseurs, amateur brain surgeons and concert piccolo players.

But Roy and Fred's was special, simply because it had no specialty. Roy and Fred's was not geared to a college crowd, a used-book market or a science fiction audience. It was simply the general bookstore of everyone's dreams. Roy and Fred had been avid readers when they met on an aircraft carrier during World War II, then opened their own bookstore in Posterior. At the time, an abandoned men's room was all the two could afford, but they vowed to build the most wide-ranging inventory of books ever squeezed into 36 square feet of selling space.

Since then, Roy and Fred and their descendants threw every kind of book - old and new, hard and paper, mainstream and small press - into a single, sprawling yet beautifully organized book emporium with all the nooks and crannies and bridges and tunnels and exposed rafters and decorative sewage pipes that had surfaced so splendidly during the many oddball spurts of growth over a half-century.

And now as she checked her interior pockets for the snubnose, fingerslicer, explodadick and nose-wacker ingeniously hidden in her bomber jacket, Parma grew wistful. These days, New Yorkers were infatuated with the "new" audiences flocking into You've Got Piles! and other chain stores all over Manhattan. Of course, why shouldnít they be? New York had few good general bookstores to start out with, so the arrival of the Toys 'R Us approach to bookselling seemed healthy if not downright inspiring.

Meanwhile, all over the country, places like Roy and Fred's had quietly cultivated local audiences and learned how to grow organically when pockets of the market grew, too - when the children's book boom hit in the mid '80s, for example, or when "travel lit" took off in the early '90s. It was thrilling to Parma to see that Roy and Fred's, no matter how big and busy and successful it had become, still resonated with the original men's room exuberance of its founders.

Durant Shattuck, who had bought the store from Roy and Fred a few years after their retirement, showed his store I.D. and last yearís tax return to Parma's head bodyguard and gave the best-selling author a hug.

"Congratulations, Parma," he said, gesturing to the crowds of customers now taking their seats before her. "We get a bigger audience with every book in the series, especially this one, '16,342 and Counting.' "

"I was just thinking," she said, "how it felt to be discovered by Roy and Fred with my first book, 'One and Counting.' It seems like a millenium ago. They had just bought the store and replaced the 'Men's' sign with their first slogan, 'All the Stalls You Can Browse In!' They sure had the touch."

With her secret eyebrow signal, Parma alerted her bodyguards to take up their preassigned stations - #3 at the New Releases table, #6 at Recent Controversies, #24 at Death Threats - and found herself staring at a poster advertising Justin Thyme, the next author to speak at the store.

"Now there's a wild one for you," she said to Cody. "I go back far enough to remember Justinís antics with that first short-story collection, 'The Swollen Member.' Man, did he have one."

"Why, Parma, what do you mean?" said Cody. "Thyme is a notorious hermit, shy as they come, I'm told. Not wild. All he's ever wanted is to teach poetry at HowILoveYaHowILoveYa College in Sewee, Alabama, and never speak to anybody."

"Oh, that's the legend I believed until I got in a cab with him after the Self-Indulgence Book Awards six thousand years ago," said Parma. "I haven't seen Justin since then, thank god, but in a way I'm grateful. If it hadn't been for a certain incident it took three therapists and a half-dozen lawyers to sort out, I wouldn't have Justin Thyme to thank for these blow-dart earrings or my trusty little self-embalmer here" - she pulled out a tiny aerosol can called Neutron Mace.

Durant looked horrified. "Donít worry," said Parma. "It wonít hurt your books. The only trick is not to mistake it for breath spray!"

Sometimes Parmaís humor was a bit too lethal for comfort, thought Durant. He remembered that deranged chef who made such a scene at The Splattered Cover, a cookbook specialty store just down the street. His chief bodyguard had made the mistake of mentioning the chef's use-it-AND-lose-it guide to bulemia, "The Scarsdale Secret Diet Book" (one tablespoon furniture wax with every meal), and the chef went nuts with his pastry bag.

Sometimes authors really did need to be chained to their keyboards, Durant mused, watching Parma reinsert her Neutron Mace into the zipform two-tier hideaway puncture pocket hidden in her jacket sleeve.

"In fact, if I saw Justin today," she continued, "I'd sic my boys on him" - she made kissing sounds in the air toward each bodyguard -"just to see if I could eradicate Justin Thyme on sight."

Chapter 8. Goldie Has An Epiphany

She could throttle that Justin Thyme on sight, thought author-escort Goldie Markings, whose foot hit the accelerator so hard that the car flew down the highway toward the San Francisco airport.

He won't remember what happened in New York, she mused, and dear God, I don't want him to.

Life was so cruel sometimes, Goldie believed. True, publishers loved her agency because it performed all the author-escort services anybody could think of - meeting the authors at airports, taking them to bookstore appearances and media interviews around the Bay Area, getting them fed and to their hotels and seeing their every wish fulfilled (including some Goldie wouldn’t tell her mother - why, that biographer with the thing for whipped guacamole in inner tubes was still paying for the damages).

Goldie had never gone the conventional route - never used limousines or catered to authors, even the best-selling ones, as though they were royalty. Sure, her staff of escorts, most of them women and all professionally trained and driving suitable but not expensive cars, could handle dozens of authors in town at once. She herself drove the battered family Volvo with her kids' toys and books in the back.

Authors who were accustomed to the cold formality of exhausting do-this/do-that schedules knew most book industry folk were polite, even good-humored and respectful. But Goldie, bless her, was eccentric, warm, irreverent and opinionated, and all her "clients," as she called them, loved her.

Best of all, and perhaps historic in its way, Goldie cut through the formality and the exhaustion of author tours by probing the heart of hearts of writers in on-the-road conversations that ranged from favorite foods and movies to The Other Thing (Besides Writing) an Author Really Wanted To Be, as she put it.

Incredibly, time after unbelievable time, Goldie discovered over the years that deep in the heart of every writer there lived an inveterate dribbler.

She would never forget the first time it happened. A record-breaking center for the Women's National Basketball Association in her salad days, Goldie still knew the exact date and time that fast-food king Eddie Coli, having made a killing on Wall Street by counting the number of times a flipped burger could turn in the air to the tune of "Gimme Shelter," confessed he had long harbored a desire to play point guard for the Warriors.

In the car with Goldie, deep in the wee hours after leaving the last of his sold-out appearances, the great E. Coli loved talking about two things - his runaway best-seller, "My (Hamburger) Joint, And I Do Have One," and basketball. His confessions to Goldie about the sport at first terrified him - suppose she told the press he still had fantasies about scoring 3 with the legendary Knee Hook shot straight out of the L.A. Fakers playbook?

But this is how Goldie bonded with these writers while driving them around. They could tell her anything. Even horror writer Stephen Zing, accustomed to sliced heads, monster-sized rats and stalking artichokes, had pointed to a chapter in "Hitting the Entrail Trail" that was actually a basketball metaphor, regardless, he said, of the exploding gall bladder at the end.

Goldie was astonished at how many writers did something like this. Advice columnist Miss Curtsy confessed that in her bestseller, "Bending Over for Etiquette," the chapter on table settings was a metaphorical retelling of the pick-and-roll sequence orchestrated for Patrick Spewing in the NY Tricks' semi-final victory of the previous season. Even that feminist prude Nancy Fallop admitted that "going bouncy with the balls of life on a squeaky court" had a certain uterine appeal.

The jist of it was that Goldie had corralled them all into forming their own basketball team, The Dribbling Doodlers. They were splendiferous in uniforms made completely of endpapers from their own books. Under her tutelage, they had practice sessions outside that great mystery bookstore, A Dark and Stormy Place for Books, before dribbling - well, almost in unison - right down Mammogram Ave. in Posterior.

Best of all, the Dribblers had astonished 30,000 conventioneers at the Arrogant Booksellers Association confab by booth-hopping and elbow-jamming right down aisles 1800-2400 while executing the Wick-and-Toe shots Goldie had made famous and narrating favorite chapters of their books at the same time. OK, truth be told, they were terrible players who loved the indulgence of the slam dunk, but one thing all audiences agreed on: No one played the game more noisily.

Oh, the Dribblers! thought Goldie with tears in her eyes as she pulled into the SFO parking garage 16 miles from the terminal where she was to meet Justin Thyme. It would be an easy walk along the pneumatic-tube moving sidewalks recently installed by the 5th Army. But would Justin behave this time? Would he take one look at her and try IT again?

If he did, Goldie knew that she would nail him, and - well, why wait? She took out her cell phone and dialed Prim Reaper at the You've Got Piles! branch in downtown Posterior. Leave it to Prim to muster up just the right troops, just in time.

Chapter 9: Perk's Great News

Perkins Maxwell looked up from the manuscript on his desk to witness an astonishing sight.

Ever since the German conglomerate Verschleppen bought the venerable publishing house of Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins, not one executive had ever ventured down from the 'Schlep Tower, as some of the more rueful Patriarch employees had put it, to visit the editorial rooms where Perk had built his famous career.

That had been just fine by Perk, who hated publishing interlopers of any kind and couldn't abide the two American executives who had insinuated their way into the head offices of Verschleppen US. Called The Two Stuffies behind their ample backs because expense-account lunches had given them the appearance of two stuffed tomatoes (and because they were stuffier than any publisher had a right to be), Simon Harper and Warner Villard harrumphed and grumbled their way into Perk's crowded office and gazed unhappily at the manuscripts occupying every seat, armrest, counter and shelf in sight.

"Allow me," murmured Perk, clearing a path. He picked up piles of manuscripts and moved them to the corners and shelves of his cramped office.

"All these are current books?" asked Simon, alarmed and annoyed. Despite his reputation outside the house as one of the classiest editors in New York, Perk was regarded as a renegade by The Two Stuffies, someone who just might sneak something by the new Stockholders Acquisitions Panel, an innovation in "bottom-line democracy," as Simon and Warner liked to put it.

SAPs were a Verschleppen form of focus groups where "every average Joe has a say" in publishing policy. Stockholders were enlisted alphabetically from the Verschleppen US list, given "50 bucks and a pizza topping of your choice" and encouraged to vote on such things as manuscript approval, marketing budgets and facial makeovers for authors on tour.

Editors like Perk at first rebelled against Stockholders Acquisitions Panels but soon learned that "the pizzafied hordes," as Perk called them, welcomed new ideas far more readily than "the calcified Stuffies." Soon, word got out to literary agents in New York who realized that "If you can get it past those SAPs at Verschleppen, you've got a deal."

Warner and Simon worried that Perk was becoming too powerful at these meetings. "The purpose of the program is to discover what average people want to read, how they like it packaged and what kind of authors' looks appeal to them," the two execs liked to say. "It's not for us to select books WE think are good and pretend WE have the expertise. That's a sure way to lose money."

Perk knew that if the program had been underway a year before, none of the SAPs at Verschleppen would ever have approved Justin Thyme, the Alabama poet whose first novel, "Ureter Sleeping," had just been released. Thyme's book was literary and complicated; his track record dismal for sales of previous books; his face too full of character for Diane Sawyer or even CSpan12. But Verschleppen had bought Patriarch after Thyme's book had been signed on, so what could Simon and Warner say, Perk thought?

A great deal, it turned out. "Well, we came down here to take you out back of the woodshed about Justin Thyme," said Warner, laughing to himself at an image he thought down-home and original.

"Why? What's the matter?" replied Perk, instantly on the alert.

"Oh, nothing, just that you've got way too high a printing for a first novel by an unknown; you've got Marketing way overbudget on some blind-alley author tour on the West Coast that we've just stopped in the nick of time; and with Thyme's first novel, 'Ureter Sleeping,' you're the editor of the kind of book Patriarch just isn't going to publish anymore."

Perk found himself sitting still for a moment, open-mouthed and gaping. No one in publishing had ever spoken to an editor of his experience and reputation like that before. "It's true the chains haven't discovered Thyme's book yet, Warner," he replied grimly. "But we've got a great advance sale from the independents, and - "

"You're on the wrong track, Perk, come on," said Simon. "The independents can no longer stick it through on a title like this - they get all excited one day and return every copy they've bought the next. You know that."

"Last month you were saying it was the chains that did that," said Perk.

"The chains sometimes over-order and sometimes have to send in returns, just as the independents do," said Warner. "But when things go right with the chains and the numbers stay high, everybody wins. That's the difference. The independents' numbers are horrible."

Of course, the difference was that a mistake by a chain store could involve an entire printing of thousands of books, all returned to the publisher, thought Perk, just for one title. Independents bought low, maybe, but they returned low, too.

"Well, happily for Patriarch," said Perk, catching himself, "and now Verschleppen, it's the independents who have been paying a lot of bills on books by unknowns. Look at 'Finding God on the Way to Epcot' that was self-published last year by Snopak Deepra. No chain would touch a copy until the independent stores discovered it, and they've paved the way for us to start out with the big numbers."

"Right," said Warner. "Well, the independents love these woo-woo books, especially in California, wouldn't you say, Perk? How many of the first printing have sold in the Bay Area?"

"About a third of the printing, but the chains are now in for a hundred - "

"Too much," said Simon. "Clearly, the Snopak book was a fluke. The chains were right not to buy it at first. It's a fad book, so the smart chain buyer waits, you see. Let the independents risk their shirts. If it catches on, he buys. Now the Thyme novel is different. The chains have good reason to turn it down."

"They do?" said Perk, who had been praying for the chains to feature Thymeís book in their new "Snooty But Saleable" program for authors they didn't know how to sell. Of course a publisher had to pony up $50,000 for the privilege of making the Snooty shelf, but Maggie in marketing said it would have been worth a storewide sale of 2000. Instead, the big Youíve Got Piles! chain practically ignored Thyme's novel and bought only 20, just enough for 2 copies each in its 10 SuperLucratives (flagship stores). "Pardon me, but why would anybody turn it down?"

"Well, 'Ureter Sleeping' is too literary, that's all," said Simon. "With a novel like that, you don't want good reviews; you don't want the independents to make a lot of fuss. They'll start throwing out a lot of two-bit words nobody'll understand and scare the audience away. No, I prefer to start slow. Let the 500 or so people who are going to read Thyme discover the book by themselves. Maybe we'll get a nice institutional sale out of it." Right, thought Perk bitterly: When in doubt, let librarians and professors do your work for you.

In fact, Perk realized, Simon and Warner were afraid of the independents. After all, there were thousands of them. You couldn't cozy up to each and every buyer, like you could with Charles ("Chintzy") Debbit, head buyer at You've Got Piles! and pitch the top titles over drinks at the Poke Room. A nod from Chintzy and the buy could increase by 10,000. A nod from an independent and the number might add 10. According to the Two Stuffies, that was all there was to know.

"Frankly, Perk, you're being a bit narrow-minded," said Simon. "Don't get so committed to those maverick booksellers - they're not that reliable."

"Why, those independents in Posterior have the best backlists in the country!" Perk blurted out bitterly. And it was true: In the days before Verschleppen "schlepped in," as the old Patriarch employees liked to say, the procedure was simple. If you got half your printing into the stores before publication date, with good reviews and word of mouth and especially a following such as Thyme's, you could hope for a sell-through that would eat up the remaining 10,000 within, say, three months and be back to press before half a year. That at least was the plan.

Of course, the Two Stuffies hated plans like that. They hated it when people said publishing was a crap shoot. Careful, planned, no-risk publishing was what they understood, and no wonder. After earning their Masters in Business Arrogance, they and their kind had gone on to toy companies, communications conglomerates, Japanese manufacturers. They had never sold a book, edited a book or, it was said, read one. It was ironic that they had come to represent foreign publishers, Perk thought, because historically foreign publishers liked books better than Americans did, made better numbers at failing American houses by cleaning out the silly, sloppy, buy-me! commercial books and adding titles people could actually read.

But to Simon and Warner - so brittle, so authoritarian, so American, thought Perk - literary books were the enemy. To make their self-imposed, self-serving quotas for Verschleppen, they had to take the harder line. Like the head of that chain who admitted he barely read six books a year, or the founder of the online bookstore who had looked at 15 other "products" before deciding books were sufficiently trendy, these two believed that reading destroyed objectivity when it came to crunching the tough numbers. To them, deadwood like Perk fell into the old publishing tradition of thinking that if you loved a book passionately and by some voodoo got enough people to buy the book, you just might change the world.

What a crock, thought the takeover kings: Why, Justin Thyme, who taught poetry down in bogland somewhere, hadn't even done a demonstration video.

"Look, Perk, we might as well get it over with. We really came down here to - " Suddenly Perk's assistant, Jay Tama Ellis, rushed into the room after a perfunctory knock, shocking everyone. No one came in unannounced to interrupt the top guns at Verschleppen US. "Sorry to barge in," he said, tossing a thrilled grin at Perk, who looked desperately back, "but word's just in about 'Ureter Sleeping.' Justin Thyme has just won the Pulitzer Prize."

NEXT: The Staff Gets Ready at Francisco's