Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Having no literary agent, finding this sort of advocate to be even more difficult to procure than an actual publisher, I have, for many years, been struggling to get any of my books published.  While I have no particular advocate in the publishing world, I do, however, have an Uncle Randy, and this individual, rarely present but for the occasional holiday, happened to have once been college dorm roommates with a man named Alex Hanson, who later became the head of Acquisitions at Shinplaster Publishing, LLC.   In addition to a well-meaning uncle, I also have unpublished manuscripts, the number of which is near to surpassing what can be counted on two hands.  My uncle has owed me a favor for some time, and he has managed to get me a meeting with the actual head of acquisitions.  I have failed in my interactions with publishers for five years now, most of my rejections occurring at the query stage, without a single word of a manuscript being read, but I have vowed that this meeting with Mr. Hanson, this foot in the door, will change everything.
I enter the small office on the 28th floor.  This is one of six floors that Shinplaster Publishing manages and uses.  It is a large operation, and I know they have three other headquarters, as well.  This is New York, however, and main headquarters, and as I enter Mr. Hanson's office, I am suprised to find myself in a room devoid of books or shelves.  There is a strange mosaic of a percent sign hanging on the wall, the symbols of the zodiac circling it.
Mr. Hanson is a pudgy, twitchy man, sitting in his desk.  The desk is an expensive bit of furniture, mahogany and well-waxed.  When I sit down opposite the desk, he promptly sets down a styrofoam to-go box that contains half of a sandwich.  He chews, swallows, wipes his mouth with his sleeve, and promptly lights a cigar.  He then folds his arms across his chest, obviously annoyed with having to meet with me.  After digging in one of his back teeth with his tongue for a moment, he inquires about Randy, my uncle.
            "Oh, he's good," I say, "And he had a lot of good things to say about you, Mr. Hanson.  I'm glad we're getting this chance to meet."
"What the hell does somebody like Randy do when he retires?" Mr. Hanson asks.
"Well, he fishes and... uh, he's just enjoying his life and all."
            "Does he get any tail?"
            "Fish or-"
"Who cares about fish?" the publisher says, interrupting me.
"Right.  Well, Uncle Randy's been married for twelve years, so... I guess yeah, technically there's... there's tail.  One."
            "I'd bet she's a four.  Candy Randy only ever dated fours.  Sixes in the Summer."
            "Candy Randy?"
            "Hell, she's probably a three with makeup."
I do not respond to this statement, not certain what I might say regarding my aunt Wendy being a three or a four.  I suppose she would hate being mentioned in such a way.  The silence in the room becomes awkward, but is broken quickly.
"Well?" Mr. Hanson asks.
"Sure, okay.  On to business.  The reason I've come to Shinplaster Publishing is because-"
"I know.  It's always the same.  I don't need a cover letter here; we're in the same room.  Lemme guess:  You toiled away for a hundred years or something and after all that hard work, you finished 'The Novel'.  Now you want someone to act like they care," he said, carefully putting out the cigar in an ashtray.  It had remained lit for less than a minute.  The office had a terrible odor, saturated in old smoke that rode hints of sweat and suit cloth.
           "Uh, well, not a hundred years, and I actually have nine books, but what I've-"
           "Great!   That was the handshake!  Banter!" he says before lowering his brows, "Now can we move on?  This is my lunch break, here, so let's get to it:  Why should I print your book?"
            "What I've got is a solid story that regards-"
         "Nope, stop right there.  Don't get all bent pinky on me; don't have the patience for it.  Tell me about money.  That's why we're here."  I watch as he begins lighting the cigar again.
"Yeah.  What's your book worth, in real-world dollars?  What type of money will buy it?"
"Oh, you're wanting to purchase!  Great, I'm open to negotiations.  What do you-"
"Not money for you," he says, rolling his eyes, "Good God.  Money for me.  What type of money will your book get me?  Not how much... we'll get to that.  I mean what type."  At this point, he puts out his cigar for the second time in two minutes.  This is strange behavior.
"Like... what country's currency would your profit come in?" I ask, confused.
"No.  I mean gay money.  Feminist money.  Teenager money.  Housewife between the ages of 24-36 money."
"Oh, people.  You mean what sort of people would buy the book if you published it?"
"Not people.  Money.   People don't buy books.  Money does that.  What sort of money would buy your book?"
"Uh, I don't know.  Gay fives and housewife tens?  Urban debit cards?"
"Oh, you're a jokester," he says, aggravated and getting ready to re-light his cigar, "Your uncle was a jokester too.  Look at him now.  Crap fishing and coming home to a three.  But fine.  We can focus on this... this people thing, since that's all you seem to be able to grasp.  Who  -snort-  will give your book sales numbers?"
"Well, people that read books and that like the idea of a story that involves-"
"Start over.  That wasn't an answer.  I said:  WHO?"   He is staring at me as the flame burns into the charred end of the cigar. 
"...uh... fans of... a good story and strong writing?"
"That's not a who.  That's puke.  Be precise.  And the more precise you are, the more I'll be interested."
"Are you asking me to talk about demographics?"
"I'm asking you to know about money.  MONEY.  What is so hard to understand about that?"
"I think the book would make some?"
"Which money?  What kind?"
"Money from people's paychecks?  Shit, I don't know... that's not really my skill in all of this.  I don't know what you mean.  I write books.  Selling them is more your forte, right?"
"Don't you tell me about my job.  I know all about my job, you prick.  That said, tell me about my job:  How would I market this book?" 
Trying to catch my thoughts on the matter, I watch with bafflement as he then puts out his cigar.  He has lit and snuffed it three times now since I entered the office.  It seems a troubling and odd way to smoke.
"Can I ask you about the thing with the cigar?  You keep lighting it and then putting it out, over and over again," I say.  Mr. Hanson raises an eyebrow and debates with himself for a moment, gauging me.  He then decides to explain himself.
"If you were smart, I wouldn't tell you, but since you're not, I don't have to worry about giving up one of my interview exploits.  You're so dumb it'll work even if you know about it.  I read some marketing a few years ago that said schmoes get intimidated by a person in power lighting a cigar in their presence."
"Oh," I manage, "but why do you keep putting it out and re-lighting it?"
"If lighting a cigar gives me a bonus to managerial command, it only goes to say that if I do that ten times in an interview or negotiation, I become ten times more commanding.  Nobody can compete with that."
"That makes no sense," I say.  I watch as he quickly lifts the cigar and sticks it in his mouth, staring at me with menace and applying the flame to the gnarled, black end as if I were the recipient of that flame.  "Take that", his action infers.  I am a little more intimidated.  He leans back with a smile.
"There's plenty of sense about it," he says then, "Numbers and facts.  I'm a hundred percent correct, which means I don't just make sense, I make all of it.  All the sense ever because there's nothing bigger than 100%.  That's everything with nothing left over.  I know what works and what doesn't when I see the report and the percentages.  Now shut up about my exploit and answer my question:  How do I market this book?"
"I... I guess I would expect you to use your... your percentages?  And your marketing abilities?"
"What are those?"
"...You don't know?"
"Oh, I know."
"I lost track of what we're talking about," I say, struggling with the room.  He puts out his cigar, but not well.  Smoke still trickles upward from the ashtray.  The room seems hostile to my presence.
"Christ, you're somethin'.  Old Candy Randy's brother must have had the Syndrome, eh?  Fine, we cut straight to the orgasm.  I can go rough.   Hit me with it.  Gimme the Pitch.  Ten seconds:  Go."
"Wh-  hold on, wait, uh, I- I... just wait-"
            "That pitch did nothing to me."
"No, no, see... I really just don't know anything about marketing.  I'm a storyteller.  Won't you just look at the book?  Please, just take a look at the actual book.  That's... that's what I do and where I shine.  Just read a bit of it.  That's what a written story is for."
"I know what book is for, dipshit.  They're for niches and not everything can be made for TV.  What I'm baffled about is why the fuck you're here.  Does your uncle know how clueless you are about your own field of work?  This is just... you're not even in this room right now.  You haven't brought anything to the table.  Good God, you're decapitating my lunch break."
"I'm sorry, what would you like me to do?"
"Let me see if I can put this into words you can understand:  Romance.  Me."
"Okay.  See, Mr. Hanson, you're... you're absolutely going to love my book.  It's-"
"Don't pitch me on what I'd like.  I don't like anything.  Pitch me on WHO ELSE would like it.  Enough to buy it.   Who are we marketing to?"
"We're just going in circles.  I think you'd have a better idea of what marketing could be done if you took a look at the book and-"
"READERS DO THE READING," he shouts, throwing the still-burning cigar at me, "I PUBLISH.  YOU WRITE AND MARKET."  The cigar has bounced against my shoulder and I begin furiously slapping my palms against my lap, where the glowing bits have ended up.  When I am no longer in the position to suffer burns, I attempt logic.
"Mr. Hanson, I don't know anything about marketing.  That's an entire career I did not major in.  People spend vast amounts of time learning to be a marketing analyst, and that is not my trade.  I write fiction.  Books.  Lots of them.  It's difficult and I work very hard at it.  I can no better market than a marketer can write.  Why won't you even try reading some of the book? I have it with me.  Please?"
"WAAAAAAH.  Baby just wants to write.  Waaaaah."
"Are we still talking or am I supposed to leave?" I ask.
"Are we talking?"
"That's what I asked you."
"Pal, I see your lips moving, but all I hear is farts.  Let's start with fact, here:  What size are we looking at?
"140,000 words."
"Words are stupid.  How big is the book?"
"In page count?"
"In fingers, dipshit.  How many fingers is the book?"
"Uh... I guess about... two fingers thick?"
"Little fingers or big fingers?"
"That's 25% too much finger, buddy." 
Against a variety of walls, I reach over and quickly take his desk's lighter and the ashtray, startling him.  He raises an eyebrow, about to speak when he notices that I am slowly lifting the cigar from my lap and placing it in my mouth.
"Hold on, there.  Don't you-"  I light the cigar, puffing on it, drawing the flame into the wet, grotesque thing.  I watch him and drag the smoke into my mouth, attempting the look of power.  He swallows, nervous and intimidated.  I have gained 10% more command.  At this, I remove the cigar, and put it out.
"Okay, all right," he recants, "I can see you're someone to hear out.  Lay it on me, tell me about your story."
"The story involves two men, migrant workers, that travel the countryside looking for-"
"...yes, two men that-"
"Are they cool?"
"In some ways.  Basically-"
"Is one of them a woman?"
"No.  There's a woman later in the book, though."
"How later?"
"Three chapters in," I said.
"That's way too late to launch a chick arc.  Empowered?  Feminist?"
"Not really, no."
"Risky.  How old is she?"
"Young, newly married.  She's not a major character.  She's background story."
"Then I'm bored.  You're dumb."
I lift the cigar again, preparing to use it, but Mr. Hanson, in a desperate manner, throws his entire body onto his desk and flails a fat arm out, stealing the lighter right out of my hand.  I sigh and rid myself of the foul-smelling cigar.
 "Look," he says, panting as he sits back into his chair again, holding the lighter, "Now that we're on even ground, I'm gonna do you a favor and give you a crash course in how this works.  I don't ever do this, so you'd better pay attention.  Publishing 101.  You ready?  Might want to take notes."  I listen closely as he wipes the sweat from his forehead and begins.
"All right, Rule #1:  Your book is bad.  No matter what critics say, no matter what your friends say, or other writers, or professors, or publishers, or even fucking history.  It doesn't matter; your book is utterly awful, by default, for not being a movie.  Rule #2:  Your book is irrelevant.  Stories are like lies and people only like them if you lie about cool shit.  Fiction is pathetic and asks people to commit to a bunch of thoughts that are about as useful as half-ply toilet paper.  If I could sell books with nothing in them, believe me, those are all I'd sell.   Rule #3 is the most important rule, so listen close:  The market is the truth, the way, and the life."  I frown at this, frustrated and tired of listening to this man relate everything in the world to money.
            "I don't see how anything new or original could ever function in that system, Mr. Hanson.  Writing involves risk, right?  So does publishing.  You can't remove the risk or you have nothing to gain or lose," I say.  Mr. Hanson dabs his finger at an intercom button and gives an order.
"Get me Cody Oatmeal."
Not twenty seconds have passed, Mr. Hanson glaring at me and refusing to speak, before the door to the office swings open and a gangly, tired, young man enters.  He closes the door behind him and steps forward, halting beside me, glancing down with worry, as if afraid I am going to strike him.
"There he is.  My good pal, Cody Oatmeal.  Say hello, Cody," Mr. Hanson advises.
"Hello," the weak, young man mutters, fidgety.
"Cody here wrote a book for us, and that book was a bestseller last year.  You know how much we like Cody's book?"
"A lot?" I offer.
"We paid him.  We paid him in money.  Sure, it didn't amount to more than about twelve grand, which comes out to about .80 cents for every hour of work he puts in, and he would have made more money working in a fast food franchise, but to someone like Cody, twelve large might as well be a billion."
"He wrote a bestseller?" I ask.
"No, he wrote a book.   We made a bestseller with it.  You're working on a sequel, right Cody?"
"Of course, sir," Cody says, weak.
"Watch how this works," Mr. Hanson says to me before returning his attention to Cody.
"Why should I print your next book, Cody?"  The young man gags and then leans forward, emphatic, speaking extraordinarily fast and continually pointing at Mr. Hanson.
"The book categorizes mainstream applications from advertising campaigns and pits them against consumers in a subjective format that will appeal to commercial interests across a variety of strong-market demographics.  38% of men aged 29-39 have an inborne understanding of these comparisons and will identify with each chapter in an experiencial way.  Combined with the female age 20-27 demographic in rural outlets with at least one Wal*Mart, and the single mother demographic aged 18-24 and its cross-pollination with the cage fight fan demographic of males aged 30-58 in urban areas, and 12-70 in rural areas of unemployment at greater than 10%, we can have an imbedded readership of 1.1 million individuals comprising 39 states that contain a Barnes and Noble outlet, and 842 thousand through online retailers within the first two quarters, after which we delineate in readership 12.8 percent for each subsequent quarter, pulling the book from market and burning remainders in the following year." 
"Cha-Ching!  There we go.  See how it's done?" Mr. Hanson asks me, proud.
"I- I just don't know how to do that," I reply, "It doesn't make any-"
"What's your book about?" he asks me then, indicating Cody and the manner I should describe my book.
"Uh, well, it's a story about the loss of hope and confidence among migrant workers that-"
"Stop.  Jesus Christ, stop.  Did you just take a shit in my office?  Yawn.  Cody, slap him."  At this command, Cody spins and yanks his hand back, about to strike me.  I throw my hands up in a panic.
"Whoa, stop.  Cody, man... relax, it was a figure of speech," the publisher says with a laugh.  Cody starts shaking.
"I don't like those," he mutters, "they don't say things right."
"I know.  It's okay," Mr. Hanson coddles.  He then turns his attention to me.
"All right, you.  Last chance.  Gimme a good hook."
"The hook...  Uh, the friendship of two traveling laborers is destroyed when a series-"
"WAIT, you said 'series'.  Hold on... is this book part of a series?"
"No, it's not," I say.
"Ah god, then don't say 'series'; you just gave me blue-balls.  What a waste of my lunch break.  You've bored me and cheated me.  Can't even provide a good hook.  Cody, show this amateur what's what.  Let's hear what your book is about."
Cody Oatmeal throws his skinny arms out, his eyes like those of a stabbed cat.  He swivels into a stance of impending danger, a pose of action, and launches his storyline with much emphasis.
"Twitter comes to life-"
"Holy shit!"
"-and turns into a monster with a green head!"
"You just made me attracted to you, Cody.  I'm confused, yet stiff.  But why green?" Mr. Hanson asks.
"Because people have been proven to prefer green heads on monsters by many studies in reputed schools.  In my book, the monster hunts young, attractive girls in C and D cup sizes who sexually experiment with one another.  These experiments are formatted to provide moderate sensuality without alarming older generations.  One of the girls likes three of the songs that we have projected to be in the single digits of the Top 40 at the time of estimate release, tying the book into mainstream American music culture, which is what kids are."
"Did I say 'attracted', Cody?  Let me rephrase that:  You can pound me right here and now.  Write in me, Cody.  Write in me."
"We'll market the book on Twitter, as well, culling 140-character tidbits of awesome synergy into our campaign.  I've already made Twitter accounts for all of the characters.  The profile pictures are hot.  Not regular hot; porn star hot.  The book starts with one of them tweeting 'I feel like a monster is watching me.  Still horny, though.  Lol.'  The story is very networky and keenly social."
"Dear God, it's beautiful," the publisher mutters, "That's-  This is me screaming eureka, Cody.    Now... oh, you incredible, glistening, veiny love of my life, can you give me a hook in less than ten words?"
"Twitter," the young writer mumbled. 
"O-M-G, Cody.   O-M-F-G."
Mr. Hanson then reaches into his desk's thin, front drawer and retrieves a quarter.  After waving it in the air, getting Cody's attention and bringing the young writer to the point of moaning, I watch as the publisher tosses the quarter on the floor.  Cody immediately drops and begins eating it, his eyes lost in manic pleasure.
 "Now, let's see if we've learned anything.  Once again," Mr. Hanson says, turning to me, "Why should I publish your book?"
"I can't talk to you.  This is madness," I say, "Just read it.  Shit, read a one page of it.  Just... just take a look at it."
"Why would I do that?  There aren't any shows on it."
"You have to read it.  The story is in the words."
"Here we go again," he sighs, "You can't tell me if I'd like it or not."
"By reading it.  That's how you know if you like it or not."
"Reading your book would tell me nothing.  Good, bad, either way.  Show me the market.  If I jump off a skyscraper, how do I know I won't be killed when I hit the ground?  I need information."
"A skyscraper?!  You would be killed.  You should know that because lots of people have died that way and it's common logic that a fall like that will kill you.  You... you do know not to do that, right?  Jump off a skyscraper?"
"NUMBERS!" he shouts, slamming his fist down on the desk, "VELOCITY!  MATH!  THAT'S how I'd know.  You show me the diagram and give me the market, and I'll believe whatever the hell you hippies want me to."
"Fine," I say, relenting, "Let's try this:  If you read my book, a demographic of one, I think you would like what you read, which is 100% market saturation in this situation, because... because 100% of every... of every you that opens the book will note a proven experience 85% positive, and this is... well charted, and has been cross-pollinated with the 18-70 demographic of...  you, an established publisher of fiction who is... is in 75% of the United States publishing world... which is... which is a demographic of... of 100% of you, yourself... um, across America, quarterly.  The uh, research speaks for itself.  Also, plus... we can burn the remainders and sell the ash to big tobacco." 
I am now lost and poor in the office, entirely submerged in a lake of triviality.  It is as if I have just tried and failed at making love to a hair style I do not like.
"Do... do you like any of that?" I ask.
"Your marketing plan... it's interesting.  I think I follow.  Show me your proposal," he concedes.
"You want me to write down everything I just said as if it were fact?"
"You don't have it written down?!"
"No, that was fake.  I just made it up."
"Write it.  Fax it to me.  No letterhead."
"But it's a lie.  It wasn't real," I say.
"Can I enter it into a spreadsheet?"
"I guess, but-"
"THEN IT'S REAL!" he roars, startling Cody and causing the young writer to run from the room while making a frightened, hooting sound. 
"But it's not!  It's just-"
"Is this fucking amateur hour?" he interrupts, "Why can't you authors figure this shit out?"
"Because we're not marketers?  In the entirety of the publishing system and all the arrangements that are made in it, the author is probably the absolute least qualified to talk about marketing.  The LEAST qualified.  By the time an author comes to you, that author has already done all the things they can do regarding the book.  They wrote it, revised it, and are on hand for more of that.  We write the books that publishers print.  Someone has to.  All the books in the world were written by someone, at some point.  They do not write themselves."
"That's your fault, not mine.  Get me that fax by Tuesday." 
"Is... is there any way I can get you or... or someone in Acquisitions to read the book?  Even just a small sample?  That's... that's the actual product you'd be selling.  Don't you want to see the product?"
"Once I know it's good.  Until then, absolutely not.  We don't have the time to look at things unless there's a good reason.  If a writer can't provide that good reason, get lost."
"The good reason would be in the book.  What it's about, how it's written, whether it's a good book to print."
"Oh, that's enlightening!  Because I could have sworn my economics classes back in college said something about how commercial business was done in money.  But I guess your book solves everything!  We can pay off our national deficit by giving other countries crates containing tons of big words.  Perfect."
I lower my head and rise from the chair.  There is nothing I can do to convince Mr. Hanson, the head of Acquisitions for Shinplaster Publishing, to ever look at even a single page of my manuscript.  I toss the old, wet cigar back onto his desk and prepare to exit his office.  I will go home, I suppose, and be what I continually am:  An ignored man.
"I do have another book," I say then, "about viral videos on YouTube made by child celebrities.  It's one and three-quarter fingers thick.  My hook is:  Tween Dreams." 
Mr. Hanson stumbles upward from his chair and falls against his desk in exasperation.  His mouth opens as if he is being strangled.
"WH-  FOR REAL?!"  
"No.  I think we're done," I say.  His head deflates and I believe for a moment I can discern the sound of someone howling in pain from a distant room on one of the floors above.
"We're done, huh?  Well, that's a logical absurdity, because we never started, asshole.  Give my regards to your uncle.  My regards look like this," he says, extending his pudgy, middle fingers.
"I'm leaving," I say, going for the door.
"Pal, you never even got here."

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