Publish or Die

Publish or Die by Bill Capron

There is a whole group of people who might think killing an editor is not a crime. I sympathize with them …

What I know about color I learned from books; no, not the realness of color, but the words of colors, their black and white equivalents. The people in my life don’t have the patience to explain color, but books don’t need patience. I recall a ninth-grade reading assignment, The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane; it is my first exposure to color’s ability to hide what is happening. I’m not a man easily deflected by color’s noise; and though I don’t see it, I know about it. I read a book a week, almost none by the color-blind, so I know a lot about color. And I know about patience, both directly acquired and second-hand.

My mother is a writer, and writers have to be patient, or lucky. Knowing what I know now, I opt for lucky, especially in the arcane world of mystery publishing; and that world was knocked on its collective butt when impatience begat murder.

Four mystery editors died the last month; from Chicago to Phoenix to San Francisco; big and small publishers. They were killed by rejection, the book kind. Many editors stopped sending rejection letters, especially the cold missives copied with no reference to the title or the author; others took their names off the letters. Whatever happened to editorial courage?

The dead editors, two men and two women, were found with a standard-issue query letter stuffed in their mouths. The line where one expects to find ‘in the event of rejection, please return using the enclosed self-addressed stamped envelope’ was instead ‘in the event of rejection, prepare to die.’ The affair had acquired the label, ‘Publish Or Die’; it was quite the spectacle.

For me it was background noise; a reference on Drudge, an article in the newspaper, headlines in the tabloids. It wasn’t real, but more like an improbable TV plot; until the killer got Fred Farrow of Seldom Publishing. Fred and I were friends going back to our college days in Buffalo; we were roommates our freshman year, and off-and-on buddies for the next three years. It had been eight years since I saw a beat up Chevy Nova in front of me at a toll booth on the Jersey Turnpike; it looked like the one Fred owned in college; I pulled even and surprise, it was Fred! We pull off the road, talk through supper, and have been talking ever since. Fred was doing well – despite the car – as an up-and-coming editor for Seldom in New York City; he kept the car to remind him of his roots; his roots were cheap.

Fred transfers west to head up the Seattle office a year before I move to San Francisco. We have supper whenever I am there or he is in SF; guy talk, you know, none of those female soul-searching deep conversations; the male bonding topics of jobs, women and sports. Our knowledge of each other was an inch deep, but a mile wide; Fred was my best male friend.

I read about it in the morning newspaper; he has no wife, but a lot of friends; it’s how most of us heard about it. I feel like a next of kin; I should have been informed before they announced it to the world. His other friends – I’m not knocking them – they feel bad, but that’s all. I’m not wired that way; I believe in justice, and Fred Farrow, my friend, is going to get justice.

I call a woman I know, Karen Kold, a mystery editor for a large publisher in Seattle. She recently chronicled a crime that took six lives and almost got my Becky’s, and me; Hollywood is loosely making a movie about it with the names changed. Karen isn’t at the office but she gets back to me while I am driving to the big city; we decide on Dinty’s for a drink.

Seattle is a stuck-on-itself city, like San Francisco. That’s great for a while, but eventually the city becomes a caricature of itself, like Steve Martin or Eddie Murphy of their original selves, then the real city is gone. It’s already happened to San Francisco where I spent four years, and Seattle is well down that road; nothing ever stays the same, despite or because of misguided efforts to keep it that way.

I find Karen in the back corner next to the kitchen. The bar bustles with the after-work crowd of hormone driven gen-X-ers and middle-aged divorced people looking for sex and a relationship; no, make that sex. The noise provides its own insulation, like rubber walls, but louder. I order an IPA and settle in.

Karen Kold is a very pretty woman, thirty-six, black flyaway hair, light gray eyes; she stands five-four, thin, no breasts to speak of, but an exotically sexy body; a tall version of Becky. We know each other through Fred. I dated her once before she landed her current gig; there was no chemistry for her, but she’d had her problems with men, and I maybe looked like high maintenance, which I’m not.

We get by the preliminaries, how badly we feel about Fred. Their history started on the East Coast too; Fred handled Karen’s first husband, a writer, who discovered late in life that he liked men; go figure.

I open, “This killer must be a nut case.”

She shakes her head and shrugs thin shoulders. “Hey, CB, you’ve got to be a borderline nut case to be a writer. Some people make a splash right from the git-go, but it’s rare. Anyway, we only know them from when they were published, so we might think they’ve always been good or successful.”

“So guys like Clancy have been rejected too?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe; I think the Naval Press was going to be his last try! After a while rejections become the writer’s proof he belongs in the club, absent a sale of course. Writers have to be able to say, ‘It’s not me, it’s them, they don’t see it,’ and mean it. When they stop saying that, they stop writing.”

“I never really gave it much thought, but still, how tough can it be to sell a book?”

Karen explains; “Let me give you a short lesson on what’s involved. Every year there are about a thousand mysteries published in the US. That’s not including the thousands of self-published manuscripts. At this minute there are fifty thousand Americans writing a mystery novel, and there are conservatively sixty thousand manuscripts completed in any year. At any time, from the post office in to the publisher and back to the post office, there are forty thousand manuscripts and queries in play. They range from great to good to okay to truly bad.”

I think on that. “You mean I’m reading the best?”

She is matter-of-fact, “Yes and no. A lot of good stuff never gets read; it’s processed through the publishing business without the benefit of eye to brain contact. So you need luck too.”

“But they’ve all got a shot at the thousand slots. That doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Not really.” Karen shakes her head and the light hair flies out and settles back in a perfect pattern. “It gets worse.” She writes the numbers on a bar napkin. “Of those thousand mysteries, three hundred will go to established mainline writers, or reprints of past masters, basically the famous and the near-famous, the tried and the true. Still, some of it is trash because they’re selling their history. It’s almost criminal, but the public usually needs a couple of bad books in a row to dump a favorite author.”

“But …”

She raises a hand to forestall my question. “Another four hundred go to those borderline writers with one or two pretty good books under their belt, or a moderately successful series character. That leaves three-hundred spots, less than half with mainstream publishers, to be fought over by the great unpublished.” Karen points an index finger like a gun; “It’s not possible to understate the level of competition, or how excruciatingly tough it can be to sell a mystery manuscript. And to rub salt in the wound, most of those who get published make next to nothing, or less.”

I think about the tripe I’d read of late. “But some seem so, what’s the word, like they’ve been written by hacks.”

“Most unpublished authors would give their eye teeth to be hacks. Hacks get published regularly.”

That doesn’t answer what I am thinking, but I get by it; “So who writes them?”

“Everyone writes mysteries. It’s a cottage industry you can do from your house with a minimum investment and no credentials. Retired businessmen, lawyers, cops, housewives, janitors, welfare mothers, paraplegics, you name it, they’re all on an even footing. Past success in other fields doesn’t much affect whether you get sold, unless you’re some kind of celebrity already. It’s not like other jobs. Until you sell, you are nobody, no matter how important you were in your previous life. A lot of writers can’t take being nobody, so they drop out.”

“Our killer, where does he fit in?”

“Pop psychology?”

“Sure.”

Karen speaks through steepled fingers, “At that, it might be more than pop psy. I spent a day with an FBI profiler. She said it’s probably a man, forty to fifty, a blue-collar working slob, fed up with his job, been writing off-and-on for twenty years, laid off from his job and decides to take the big step and become a best-selling writer. He polishes up his stuff and sends it out. He keeps writing, polishing, sending, being rejected. He’s got manuscripts in play, and hundreds of rejection letters. His funds are drying up and he’s not willing to admit maybe he is not cut out to be an author. All he needs is more time, a more understanding editor, a big break.”

“So we look for someone with five,” I made it a question; “manuscripts making the rounds, rejected by almost everyone, large and small? How many can there be?”

Karen’s laugh is immediate; “Thousands, many thousands. The FBI has been down that road. They’re still moving through the names, trying to match the profile, and airline flights. Me …”

I filled the vacuum, “Yes?”

“I think they got it wrong.”

“And?”

She finishes her beer. “I think it’s a woman.”

“Why?”

“The letter. It’s how I would do it. It’s a girl thing.”

“Why?”

Karen ordered another IPA. “Well, first, Golden Plots is made up of a lot of wannabe writers, male and female. Of late a lot of them are going into self-publishing which is the latest incarnation of vanity press at budget cost. No editing, no distribution network, no advertising, no PR, and no editor to pass on the quality of your work.”

“Like they died and went to heaven, eh?”

“Yes, well it doesn’t work out that way. They get to be unsuccessful on their own. I mean, they have one chance in ten thousand, tops.”

“So why do it?”

“Well, that’s the nub of it. We conducted a poll, thinking the results would make a good discussion topic. Why do writers self-publish? When we saw the reasons, we decided it was too gender driven, and not politically correct.”

I bite on the teaser; “So, why?”

“I’ll generalize because the details weren’t so pretty, and you wouldn’t care anyway.” She waits for my nod; “The men, they write to see their names on the cover, it’s an ego thing. That’s pretty understandable to me, and simple, like your average guy. The women, well, it’s more complex.”

“A whole different world view?”

She nods; “Yes. The women self-publish because the system’s not fair. They have a right to their equal shot, like they have a right to self-esteem.”

“Earning’s got nothing to do with it, right?”

Karen laughs; “Yes, like that. It’s a girl problem, so you wouldn’t understand.”

I have sisters, so I understand as much as a man can. I also know that with the way our education system ‘bestows’ self-esteem it will get worse. “And?”

“And when they don’t get their equal shot, it’s because they’ve been denied their rights. The person who writes those letters thinks the system isn’t fair. She tries self-publishing but finds she can’t sell her stuff. Suddenly it’s worse than unfair. She needs someone to blame. But who? It’s too hard to get back at the people who don’t buy her books, faceless customers she’ll never see, so she goes back to the original boogie men, the editors and publishers.”

“And what would you do?”

“I’d start matching the great unpublished against the self-published books, and …”

“So how big is this group?”

“Couple thousand because it’s still new. Five more years and that’ll be a hundred thousand writers with hundreds of copies of their masterpieces collecting dust in the basement, as well as those copies even their friends couldn’t finish.”

“And?”

“I’d look for someone who’d been published traditionally with a loser book. This person has to feel really abused, as if it’s a conspiracy. It’s still a lot of people.”

I twist an idea around in my head as I drive home to Portland; maybe killing editors wasn’t like a real crime. I get by that and think about the business of publishing. I know a lot about business from a previous life, so I extrapolate what I knew to the book business; getting a book into the minds and hands of the public is an expensive marketing job, so aggressively winnowing the manuscripts is a necessity. It’s hard to be nice in that environment, but if I was an author, I’d consider it a rite of passage, a good thing even, once you’ve made it; but if you don’t have a publisher?

I say aloud, “Phone. Dial. Kold.”

The phone beeps her number; she picks up on the first ring; “Yes, CB?”

“How does one of these self-published authors go about marketing a book? I mean, they can’t really mount any kind of broad advertising campaign, right?”

“I know a couple of cases where people advertised their books in the print media, but it’s too expensive for most authors, and too localized. No, most try to get their books reviewed and set up signings with bookstores. There’s no risk to the store, and the authors can hawk their books to real buyers.”

“Still seems pretty localized.”

“Yes, but some use their vacation time to tour the nation, so to speak, getting some press in small town papers, and lots of signing sessions.”

“It wouldn’t pay for the gas.”

I can almost hear her shrug; “You’re right, but they’ll do anything to crack the market. You have to remember, this is a big deal to them. It’s all about being them.”

“It ever work?”

“Yes, once in a while, but it’s really the rarest of the rare.”

I thank her and continue my cogitating.

~                ~                      ~

The case is too big, too spread out, and all the normal threads are being traced by bureaucrats with manpower. Karen’s ideas fit my resources; it is doable, and she is the expert.

I started on the search engine; I develop a list of the mystery bookstores across the nation and circle those near the five cities where the killings happened, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Seven of the stores have websites with a calendar of events. And there she is! Emerald Wayne, a forty-year-old woman from Wheaton, Illinois, is hawking two books from her motor-home; the first published ten years earlier, is He Took It With Him; and the current novel is On Monday I Died; a reviewer called them losers, the last one referenced twice as a ‘victim for all seasons’. I find the website for her lesbian heroine with repressed urges for men, and a myriad of maladies from AIDS to breast cancer (the woman wore the six ribbons on her hat); and on her short story list, First, We Kill All the Editors.

I e-mail the link to Karen, with a note, “This is scary; her logic is persuasive.”

And Emerald Wayne would be signing books in Boring the next day. I call Karen.

Her first comment is, “Boring?”

“Yes, a bookstore there, ‘Crime Street’.”

“Hang on.” The sound of fingers on a keyboard. “An editor for Dead Certain Press lives in Boring. His name is Jack Slayton. He’s known for his hard hitting – read that as insensitive – responses to authors. Emerald Wayne could be a hero by morning.”

I said, “I’m on the way. You call him, tell him to be careful.”

A half hour later Karen calls; “I don’t get an answer from Slayton’s house.”

“I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”

“You should call the cops.”

“Based on what?”

“I don’t know, but you should call them anyway.”

I don’t know any Boring cops. “When, and if, I need them.”

“Don’t do something stupid.”

“I didn’t know you cared.”

She hangs up.

Slayton’s house is at the end of dead end road, up a hill. A small truck, the kind you see towed by a RV, with Illinois plates is parked in the trees; the engine clicks in cool down. A trail leads up the hill; if I drive up, she might hear the car, maybe run, maybe kill Slayton, if he isn’t dead already; but the warm engine says I have time; and she wants him to know why she is killing him.

I opt for the trail. Her picture was on the website; she was a hundred pounds overweight; I thought I might even catch up with her, but she is nowhere in sight as I breach the hill. I should be armed, but who’s to know? A light on in the top floor throws a woman’s shadow on the shade. I work my way to the front door; it is open.

A voice cackled, “You’d judge my work. Look at you, a pathetic, balding, short nothing of a man. What gives you the right to decide my life, to count me as less than worthy. You, you …”

She is stuck for words; that might mean the end. I run through a kitchen to the base of an open stairway; it creaks as I dash up.

She turns her head to me; she is now rail thin, as if she’d been ravaged by disease. She keeps the gun pointed at the short editor who is seated at his desk; he looks too arrogant to be afraid, but he is more watchful than that; really evil people are like that, able to overcome fear. Brave people can too, but Slayton is evil; I know evil.

I put my hands up. “Don’t shoot, Miss Wayne. He’s not worth it.”

As if continuing a conversation, she says, “You don’t know what he did to me.”

“No, I don’t.”

“He raped me.”

Slayton starts to argue; she cocks the gun and the cylinder turns.

“It was the same as rape. He raped my mind.”

“Don’t do it.”

“Why. He’ll be the sixth. It’s not like I’m going to get away with it. But maybe the next one will think twice before attacking another person’s work.”

“You’ve made your point.”

“I’ve got months to live, and this bastard’s going to be my exclamation point.”

I get tougher, “No, it ends here.”

She stamps her heal; “Yes, it ends here.”

I step towards her and she moves the gun in my direction, but she doesn’t mean it. Slayton brings his hand out of the desk; he points wartime forty-five at the writer. I yell, “Don’t …”

The sound fills the room and Emerald Wayne is lifted by the bullet; she is dead before she hits the floor; she looks surprised, but not too.

Slayton comes out of his chair with the gun pointed at her. “Call me short, bald, you bitch. You couldn’t write for shit.” Then he sees me; “It was self defense.” When I don’t say anything, he says, “I saved your life.”

I have nothing to say to that; I didn’t feel threatened; I could have saved them both. I want to hit him; I want to hurt him; he sees this and backs away from me.

I call 9-1-1 and go downstairs to wait for the cops. I think Emerald Wayne should have started with Slayton, that it might have been enough for her and my friend would be alive. I wipe away the tears and swallow my bile, that Slayton is alive, and Fred Farrow is dead.

I am with the Boring police for six hours; I convince them they don’t need to mention me to the press, but I get a pitch in for Karen Kold because she’d solved it; and Stayton, well, he is the hero.

The story makes a splash for Karen Kold; it is a great credential for someone in her position, and a further enhancement to her mysterious background. I don’t watch TV news, so I miss most of it, but it gets good coverage in the papers for a week. There might even be a second movie in it for the girl; I tell her not to let the star-lights dazzle her, but she’d been around that track fifteen years earlier when she crashed and burned for the first time in her career, so it wasn’t new to her.

A month after the hoopla dies down, Diane Simpson, a pretty [understatement] patrol cop I know, calls me for a drink. We dated once, but she is much too young for me; we became friends. She bought the first round.

“So, CB, rumor has it that you found Emerald Wayne?”

I shrug my shoulders; “How does this stuff start?”

“What stuff?”

“Rumors?”

“Don’t you change the subject on me.”

“It’s past history, Diane, and I’m not in it.”

Diane’s a tall girl; she reaches long arms across the table and taps her forefinger against my forehead; “What goes on in that black and white brain of yours, CB Green? I’ve been watching you a long time, and this inquiring mind wants to know.”

“It’s simple, Diane, it’s justice. I got justice, what more do I need?”

“You could be famous; look at your track record, the one no one knows about.”

I’m as famous as I want to be; and, even without the neon light of fame, trouble has no trouble finding me.

 

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