Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Blog, page 5
October 7, 2015
A while back, I promised I would look at the new report from Author Earnings. I needed time to assess the data for the purposes of this blog.
For those of you who don’t know, Author Earnings is a website started by Hugh Howey and a man known only as Data Guy. The site takes snapshots of the Amazon rankings on a given day and analyzes them to see what’s actually going on with ebook publishing.
Hugh and Data Guy have done this seven different times now. In addition to their report, they release the raw data, so anyone can see the facts and figures they work from.
They’re also not shy about their bias. They state it on their website’s home page:
Our purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.
I have the same philosophy at this blog. However, I also write this blog primarily for career writers, those who are either in the writing business for the long term or hope to be in it for the long term.
That automatically makes me an outlier among bloggers. I have 30+ year professional career in publishing, in all aspects of publishing except agenting (which is something I never, ever, ever wanted to do), so I have a long term approach to all that I look at, including a historical approach. What is old is often what is new.
And what looks obvious sometimes isn’t.
That said, I have three problems with Author Earnings. Hugh and Data Guy do not work magic. They’re trying to find out information here, and they are limited by the way they have set up their company. They’re aware of the problems I am going to list below, and address them in their report, mostly by saying they don’t have access to that particular data.
My problems with the data? First, Author Earnings measures one day on one bookstore. Yes, it’s the largest bookstore in the United States, but not in the world.
Second, Author Earnings only measures ebook sales on that one bookstore. Not print sales, not audio sales, not outside earnings.
Finally, Author Earnings tries to separate their data into “traditionally published writers,” “self-published writers,” “writers published by Amazon” (which is, by the way, a traditional publisher), and “hybrid writers.” Their categories leaves out the most business-minded writers, those who understand how to set up corporations, how to establish their own small traditional publishing companies, and those who publish a multitude of books in a variety of ways.
That makes Author Earnings data small and specific, not really a snapshot of the industry at all, but a snapshot of the ebook sales on one bookstore in the United States, a snapshot that shoves some of that information into categories where it doesn’t belong.
In other words, like any statistical analysis, it has flaws.
Once you recognize the flaws, however, as Hugh and Data Guy do, you can work with the numbers to make some conclusions. Especially given the last report they released at the end of September.
That report, which they’re calling, “Individual author earnings tracked across 7 quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015” tracked the consistency of authors’ earnings over time. Hugh and Data Guy felt they finally had enough raw data to make some stabs at what’s going on in the publishing marketplace for writers.
Hugh and Data Guy used that data in this way:
[We’d like to see] a study that tracks the earnings of those same individual authors over a longer period of time. And we’d especially like to see such a study done with a statistically well-defined and economically representative sample of authors — such as all authors whose books appeared on any Amazon best seller list over a seven-quarter period — rather than done based upon the self-selected responses of a handful of narrow-demographic, association-dues-paying survey participants.
They created a study that did the things they wanted. They wanted to know, specifically, what route a new writer of 2015, with manuscript in hand, should take to have success. Success, as Hugh and Data Guy define it in the study, is hitting Amazon bestseller lists and making a “midlist” income of at least $10,000 per year.
Let’s ignore the fact that most one-book midlist authors in traditional publishing do not hit bestseller lists nor do they make $10,000 per year even if that was the advance.
Let’s just go with the study as Hugh and Data Guy defined it.
Hugh and Data Guy found that long-established writers, who were publishing before the year 2000 and still consistently hit bestseller lists out earned every other writer on the list. But, according to Hugh and Data Guy:
13 out of the 20 authors who debuted in the last five years, and 8 of the 10 authors who debuted in the last 3 years, and who are now consistently earning $1,000,000+/year from just their Kindle ebook best sellers are indie authors.
So the thrust of the study is this: If you want to earn the most money as a writer in 2015, publish indie. Which to me is a well-duh, because indie writers earn at least 65% of their retail prices (which the indie writers set themselves), and traditionally published writers—ebook only—earn 25% of net price paid, minus 15% for an agent.
However, ebooks on Amazon make 70% of retail, and Amazon is what Hugh and Data Guy measure.
So for an ebook priced at $10 (because $10 math is easier for Ole Kris here), the indie writer would earn a minimum of $7.00 for each sale.
The traditional writer earning number is dicey from the beginning. What is “net” after all?
“Net” varies from contract to contract, writer to writer. But let’s assume that “net” is 75% of the retail price (assuming, perhaps falsely, that a traditional publisher will get a better deal from Amazon). That means the publisher gets paid $7.50, and the writer gets 25% of that number, which is $1.875. The agent then gets 15% of that $1.875, and the writer is left with roughly $1.59 per book.
The indie writer earns $5.41 more per ebook sold than the traditional writer.
See why I “well-duhed” the fact that indie writers outearn traditional writers? You don’t need a big study to see that.
What writers, who are often math-challenged, usually don’t see is this:
A book that sells 1,000 copies indie at that (unbelievably high price) of $10 will earn $7000. A traditionally published book has to sell roughly 4.4 times as many copies to earn that much money. (The number is 4,402.52 copies)
We’re talking ebook here, where traditional publishers have no sales advantage whatsoever. (We can—and probably should—argue someday over the fact that traditional publishers really don’t have much sales advantage on the midlist paper books either.)
In fact, that $10 price is more likely to be a traditional publisher price. If you look at Amazon’s Kindle price calculator, which is designed to help a writer set her prices, you’ll see that for each dollar increase over a certain amount (depending on things like genre and book length), the sales go down significantly.
However, as anyone who has set prices knows, the amount earned might go up as prices go up and sales go down. As you can see from above, each copy of a book sold indie at $10 will earn $7.00 for the writer. To earn that same $7.00, a writer who prices her books at 99 cents would have to sell over 20 books (20.20 books to be precise). So it is a calculation every indie writer has to make: Is it worth charging more and making more, and selling less?
Traditionally published writers don’t get that choice. Their ebooks can now be priced by the publisher again after the Amazon/Traditional Publisher wars, and often a newly released ebook sells for $12.99. No indie that I know of ever prices that high, because it does depress ebook sales. Publishers do this to drive readers to the paper book, generally the hardcover, but what is really happening is that publishers are training readers to buy something else unless the reader really, really, really wants that book.
(This is all basic price theory, by the way.)
Let me give you the math in a different way:
Most traditionally published midlist ebooks sell the same number of copies as an indie published ebook by the same writer, if the books are priced the same. The indie writer will make more money. Significantly more money.
However, the books are rarely priced the same. Generally, the traditionally published ebook costs twice as much as an indie title ($12.99 on a traditional new release versus $5.99 for an indie new release (depending on genre, of course).) The writer earns significantly less of that $12.99 than they would if the book were published indie at the lower price. (The traditional writer, with an agent, will earn $2.76. The indie writer pricing at $5.99 will earn $4.19, making $1.43 more per book and selling more copies without advertising or marketing changes. Just the price change.)
More copies, more money…
When I look strictly at ebook sales, I have to wonder why anyone would go with a traditional publisher any more. (When you factor in paper books sold over three years [as opposed to six months of release], the sales numbers are similar, and the indie writer earns more as well. But that’s a blog for another day.)
The ebook sales favoring indie writers is the upshot, really, of the report by Hugh and Data Guy. They try to cover it, try to say every writer is different, but looking only at ebook sales, Hugh and Data Guy believe that a writer is much better off indie publishing.
They’re looking at the numerical basis, and frankly, they’re right on everything, except one point. They write:
There are fewer than half as many traditionally published authors as indie authors who debuted in the last 3 years and are now earning consistently at the $25K/year level or $50K/year level from Kindle ebooks.
Numerically, Hugh and Data Guy are correct, but the situation is worse than they allow. They make it seem like they’re doing an apples-to-apples comparison for writers whose work released in the past three years, but the comparison isn’t apples-to-apples.
What’s the difference? Traditional publishing does not (yet) allow for a writer to release more than four books a year under the same name and in the same series. Yeah, there are a handful of exceptions, writers who release more than four books per year traditionally, all in romance. There are also exceptions who are forced to publish only one book per year traditionally, mostly in mystery or literary mainstream. So it balances out. That four books per year is me being generous.
Assume, though, that the debut traditional writer is “fast” and working in a genre other than romance. He’ll publish one book per year, no matter what his genre. So at the end of three years, he has at best three books. In many cases, because of the vagaries of a publishing schedule, he’ll publish two at the end of three years, with a third coming “real soon now.”
A debut indie author can publish as many books as he wants in that period of time. If he’s really fast, he can publish a book per month. But let’s give him two books per year. Not really a huge advantage, but still, he’ll have six books out (or five with a sixth coming out) in three years.
Readers like it when an author has a lot of books to choose from. That indie author will double his e-book money simply by doubling the books published.
Oh, and the indie author won’t have a noncompete, so if he’s feeling ambitious, he can write two more books per year in another genre, or a bunch of novellas or some short stories. (Some traditional non-competes won’t even allow the short fiction without publisher approval.)
When you compare the first three years in the life of an indie writer with the first three years in the life of a traditional writer, you are comparing a career writer with a beginner. Which is inherently unfair.
So, let’s be fair. Let’s look at writers who debuted in 2005, rather than writers who debuted in 2012. That harms indie, since the Kindle didn’t revolutionize ebook sales until 2009/2010. (Ebooks existed before the Kindle, but the Kindle made them take off.)
Looking at the charts from Hugh and Data Guy, you’ll see that at the lower earning levels—$10,000-$50,000 per year—the traditionally published writers who debuted in 2005 do better than indie writers. (Although the two categories are almost neck and neck in the $50,000 range.)
If you look at the higher earnings, however, indie writers win hands down. The farther up the earnings go, the higher the advantage indie writers have if they debuted in 2005.
Career writers versus career writers. Sure, all probably started as traditional writers. (There weren’t a lot of successful indie writers in 2005), but those who are indie only had serious bad luck in traditional publishing and probably would have quit if the indie revolution hadn’t come along. The “platform” that the traditional-to-indie writer had from that period wouldn’t have translated into tons of sales.
If you cut off the analysis right there, you’ll see that writers who want to earn more than six-figures per year on their writing should go indie.
But if you add in what I just mentioned above, that the indie writer who debuted in 2012 will already have a career while the traditional writer is still finding her sea legs, you can extrapolate forward. For writers who debuted in 2010 or 2012 or 2015, indie is the way to go.
Indie writers earn significantly more money. They’ll publish more books. They’ll have a career much faster, and one that is sustainable. A traditional publishing career requires the writer to be flexible and write under many names–if the writer signs the proper contract. Most don’t.
Think this through: even if the indie writer only makes more money selling ebooks (with fewer sales), he makes so much more money and has so much more freedom to write what he wants that I honestly can’t see a career path for writers going forward in traditional publishing.
I can see a lot of people with other jobs selling books traditionally. And the occasional lottery winner. By lottery winner I mean the writer whose debut novel receives a six-figure advance. (Very few of those writers end up publishing more than five books traditionally though, before the sales figures catch up to them and they either have to take lower advances or stop publishing traditionally.)
But if you want a career as a writer, if you don’t want to have a day job, if you only want to write, then it seems to me the safest path to take is the indie path. You’ll have more opportunity. You can work hard and publish a lot and make money doing so.
Will every indie writer make six-figures per year? Hell, no. Nor will every traditionally published writer. But what this particular Author Earnings report shows is that if you want the chance of making six-figures or more per year with your writing, the best publishing path is indie.
(Provided you continue to learn your craft, are a damn fine storyteller, have excellent covers, do the right amount of marketing…and on and on and on.)
Is it guaranteed that you’ll even make a living? Not on either road. But that hypothetical writer that Hugh and Data Guy mention in the front of their report, the one standing with a manuscript in hand, trying to decide which road to take? That writer should ask himself: Do I want to keep my day job for the rest of my life? Or do I want the chance to be a full-time writer?
If he wants a chance at being a full-time writer, he needs to learn how to be an indie writer.
I think it’s that simple.
And that hard.
I love being a full-time writer, but it does mean juggling things. That includes writing this nonfiction blog, which I enjoy. Like everything else I do, it must pay its own way.
So if you learned something, agreed with something, or enjoyed the blog, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Author Earnings,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / jirsak
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October 5, 2015
At night, Darren dons his secret identity. He becomes the Amazing Quizmo, the Great God of Answers. He presides over bar trivia contests and no one can beat him. Until a girl appears. A pretty girl. A very pretty girl who just might be smarter than Darren. And for Darren, that just won’t do.
“The Amazing Quizmo” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
The Amazing Quizmo
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Darren works as quizmaster at local bars. He has an empire: five bars rotate his services and one, the Triangle, promotes his appearances heavily. When he works, he is no longer Darren. He is Quizmo The Great God of Answers, and woe to all who doubt his superiority.
In real life, Darren works as a bike messenger, pedaling across Portland to deliver important packages. Usually he leaves his helmet on when he takes a package inside a building, worried that one of his regular quiz participants will see him and realize that the Great God of Answers doesn’t know how to get a Real Job.
The rest of the time, he trolls Internet cafes for esoteric information. He can’t afford an Internet hookup in his two-room apartment (a deluxe studio, the landlord calls it), so he must do his online work elsewhere.
He doesn’t approach anyone. Even when he’s running the quizzes, he doesn’t socialize. Between rounds, he plays music—mostly to annoy—and he rarely leaves the mike stand. When he’s on his bike, he says hello to no one. He delivers his packages and leaves.
This morning’s package goes to a law firm in one of the hoity toity doorman buildings that recently opened in the Pearl. The Pearl used to be the worst section of downtown. Now it’s exclusive, and pretends to be part of a larger city, like New York.
But the Pearl is not New York. Doormen still don’t know how to act. They pretend like their job is important—they half-bow to people coming in, offer to help the residents with baggage, smile at anyone dressed in a suit. They also scowl at the messengers, not realizing that in a real city, bike messengers are treated with respect.
As Darren saunters in, holding up the manila envelope and saying loudly, “Package for Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore,” he realizes that the doorman scowling at him is Yukio, one of his best players—a member of the team Brainiacs that plays at Buzzard Bill’s on Wednesday nights.
Darren’s stomach turns. Yukio is an excellent observer as well as a good player, a competitive man who seems to blame Darren whenever the Brainiacs lose.
Darren keeps his sunglasses on as well as his helmet, glad he wore the chinstrap today because it hides his trademark wispy goatee.
“Can’t let you in, buddy,” Yukio says in a decidedly unfriendly tone. “I’ll make sure they get the package.”
And you get the tip, Darren thinks but doesn’t say because as a messenger, he tries not to have the same edge he has as Quizmo.
“Sorry,” he says even though he isn’t. Half the messengers in the city fall for this crap from doormen and building security, and it isn’t right. Tips are part of the job. “Got to give it directly to the client.”
Yukio grabs his arm. “No can do, kid. Not without I.D. and approval.”
Darren shakes free, sighs loudly, and hands over his messenger I.D. No photograph—none needed—and his real name, which no one in the bars know. To them, the mighty Quizmo is a person with only one name, like Madonna, only a little prettier and a lot smarter.
Yukio takes the I.D., looks at it for a moment, then hands it back to Darren, the battle lost.
Darren walks to the elevator, his cleated shoes clicking on the brand-new marble. He gets the floor number from the digital information board which lists all the businesses and coyly states that Floors 6-14 are residential, without revealing any resident names at all.
The gold-edged mirrored doors ping open and as he steps on, he sees himself, and realizes that, in his get-up, he doesn’t look like a small Lance Armstrong, but like a subspecies of insect, something with a carapace over its head and probably multiple lenses in its non-human eyes.
No wonder no one smiles and nods at him as he rides by. They see him as something other, something alien, something inexplicably frightening. They don’t realize that under the spandex and messenger company logos is a man who, at thirty-five, still doesn’t know what to do with his life and is hoping that somewhere, somehow, he will be discovered for the genius that he is.
The elevator stops with a bounce that new equipment shouldn’t have. The doors open, and he gets off on a generic floor with 21st century brown carpets and off-white walls, with poster art that someone thoughtfully signed so that it would be more expensive than hotel art, and rows and rows of dark brown fire doors, each with the plaque that announces some corporate name.
He immediately turns right, even though he hasn’t been on this floor before, because law offices with names that big often have the largest door with the most space and the best entry.
He’s not disappointed. Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore have a wooden plaque on their brown door announcing their extreme importance, and as he pushes the door open, he steps into a world of glass that overlooks the Pearl and all its pie-in-the-sky condo construction. Maybe the view’ll be pretty some day. Right now, it’s just the same as views from high rises in Chicago and Dallas and Los Angeles, except that the receptionist doesn’t wear make-up and has on Birkenstocks that match her simple blue dress.
She is authorized to take the package and give him his tip. Apparently Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore have an account with the messenger service, because all she does is sign the company invoice and hand it to him, tip already tallied.
He suppresses his bitter response. He wouldn’t’ve fought with Yukio if he’d known he’d get the standard tip. It’s low—about seven dollars—and certainly not worth the hassle or the lost time for his other packages.
Still, he says thanks like a good drone and clatters his way to the elevator and Yukio.
Yukio doesn’t even notice Darren as he steps off the elevator and makes his way outside. No good-bye, no sportsman-like “Next Time!”, nothing.
If Darren had known Yukio was this rude, Darren would’ve never let Yukio have an extra thirty seconds in last week’s Impossible Round.
Darren shakes his head as he gets on his bike.
People. They’re never what you want them to be.
That night, he appears at the Triangle. The Triangle is Portland’s best gay bar, some say the best gay bar on the entire West Coast. It’s downtown, near the Pearl but not of the Pearl, and has bleached wood tables, found-art glassware and collages hanging on the walls.
It took Darren weeks to get used to working here—the occasional pinch on the ass from men who look like they could break him in half; the kissing women who don’t do it for titillation, like they do on the late night porn programs he pays too much of his messenger money for; the ultra-stylish clothing favored by half the clientele and the worker-bee anti-style clothing favored by the rest.
At first, he thought they’d see him for what he is, an imposter who has no one—gay or straight—waiting for him when he gets home, a man who doesn’t know how to pick up anyone of either gender, a man who isn’t even sure he has a gender because nothing—and no one—has interested him in years.
But once he made it clear he wasn’t there to meet men or influence people, once he took control As A Professional, the clientele of the Triangle accepted him as one of their own—or maybe a little more than one of their own. Here they don’t like calling him Quizmo—they think it’s too country-western. Here they call him the Quizmaster with a little more relish than he would like.
The Triangle also provides his best teams. People pay more attention here; they’re less drunk and better educated than the teams at the other bars. So he always puts on his best material, the stuff that stumped the other players. When he comes to the Triangle late on Thursday nights, he has his A game, practiced and polished and ready to defeat the masses.
Tonight he doesn’t feel on his A game even though he has his A material. It’s been a good week. His favorite teams won at each bar, and he hasn’t helped them along in any way. He found little pieces of information that no one else seems to know on an obscure website from England, and he finally got his DVDs of Remington Steele’s third season, which he’d ordered back in July.
So he should be happy, anticipating the clash of minds that always happens at the Triangle. Instead, he’s still thinking about Yukio, how that man bruised his arm trying to steal his tip, and wondering how he will react when he sees Yukio again.
The Triangle provides Darren with a little booth right in the middle of the dance floor. The booth dates from the 1980s, when the Triangle was a dying disco bar, and with the touch of a button, Darren can fill the place with flashing lights. Before he arrives, the bar turns on a soft red light over his chair. When he’s ready to go, he changes the light to blue. It’s annoying and makes the screen of his laptop hard to read, so he also has a tiny desk light that he places just beside the computer, resting the light on the printout of his questions in case the ancient computer bought on the cheap dies.
The format for the quizzes is easy: Players form teams who then compete to answer five rounds of questions. The first round (which he privately calls the Lull Round) is designed to make everyone feel smart. It’s the only round in which he uses pop culture questions—and those he usually steals from this week’s People, which he doesn’t even buy, but reads on the grocery store stands every Monday morning when he gets his fruit, yogurt, and Grape Nuts for his daily breakfasts.
The second through fourth rounds are middling hard for anyone with a general college degree. He’s found that people who are good in one area (say English Literature) suck at things like Geography and really suck at Science. Still, teams learn to balance such things and long-lasting teams, like the Dominos here or the Brainiacs at Buzzard Bill’s, have a good mix of general interest folks and science nerds.
It’s the final round, the round he calls the Impossible Round, a phrase stolen from one of the great quizmasters in that quizmaster paradise, Philadelphia, which separates the smart from the brilliant. If teams in the Impossible Round get one question right out of ten, they’re doing well. This round benefits only the truly esoteric trivia mind—the kind that, for instance, not only knows the exact date of Stalin’s death, but also the day of the week, the hour, the method and the identities of the suspected killers.
Tonight’s teams are the long-standing Dominoes and Sherlock Holmes Smarter Sisters (or Shiz for short [Shits, some of the other teams call them as the evening devolves into drunkenness]), as well as the fairly new BeBop Babies and the Woodhull Group. Two other quickly assembled teams died in the second round, unable to respond to any questions once pop culture disappears as a category.
The Dominoes and the Shiz have a year-long rivalry, based mostly on gender. Someone issued the age-old challenge—that boys are smarter than girls or vice versa—and ever since, the rivalry has been intense.
Darren likes it: he likes digging deep into his bag of tricks. He’s got the teams figured and he varies the competition. One week, he leans the questions toward the Dominoes, the next toward the Shiz. The win-loss ratio has remained steady, especially in the last six months when he started instituting the alternating week policy.
But tonight, the Shiz have a new team member. Liz is gone, replaced by a woman named Cindy. The name surprises him, which is why he can remember it. She seems too exotic to be a Cindy. She isn’t pretty but she’s not ugly either. She’s arresting and as he stares at her throughout the night, he realizes she looks, as Conan O’Brien might say, like the perfect lovechild of K.D. Lang and Lucy Liu. Only an orange scarf, worn babushka-like over her too-short black hair, gives her any mark of normality at all.
She’s a ringer. She can answer pop culture questions, science questions, math questions, esoteric religion questions, and history questions, as well as questions about literature, art, and music.
Her knowledge seems as encyclopedic as his and, from a distance, more vast. By the end of round five, she hasn’t missed a single question.
This makes him grouchy. He puts on Poison between Round Five and the Impossible Round because he knows the music will piss off everyone in the place. Then he climbs off his chair, steps out of the booth, and heads to the bar.
Everyone watches in surprise. He never goes to the bar.
He can’t decide what to order. Should he order liquor straight up? Or should he order a wimpy-ass drink that has umbrellas and lots of sugar to hide the taste?
In the end, he realizes he should order what he wants. In this bar, as opposed to all the other bars in which he works, no one cares what everyone else does.
He gets, of all things, seltzer water because he wants to keep his brain clear, and he gives the bartender a ridiculously large tip. As he turns around, he finds himself surrounded by the Dominoes.
“Cindy shouldn’t be allowed to play,” says their leader, Genghis. Genghis, of course, isn’t his real name, but it’s his stage name, just like Quizmo is Darren’s.
Darren isn’t going to get into this kind of pissing contest. He learned early in his quizmastering days that the composition of the teams—so long as each has no more than six players—is none of his business.
He clutches his seltzer water and tries to push past. Genghis’s second, Kubilai steps in front of him. Genghis doesn’t scare him—he’s smaller than Darren with no muscles to speak of, but Kubilai had been a biker in a previous life and still has the tattoos. He still has the muscles as well, and the shaved head over which Darren had once seen him break a chair.
“Cindy ain’t no queer,” Kubilai says. “She don’t belong here.”
“Teams are teams,” Darren says, knowing it sounds lame.
He pushes past, remembering now why he never goes to the bar. Usually a cocktail waitress brings him something when he signals. But he felt trapped and a little surprised that Cindy could answer all of his questions. He needed to move to shake off the unease that she had engendered in him.
As he starts up the stairs, she appears beside him. She is big, with huge muscles in her arms, and large breasts that sag the way that real breasts sag. Up close, she looks a little familiar.
“I like your game,” she says, leaning on the railing beside the stairs like a groupie.
“Thanks.” He keeps his head down. He doesn’t want to play favorites.
“I heard it was hard.”
She grins. “Maybe it’s just my night.”
He feels a flare of anger which he would normally indulge in, but he’s still off-balance from the conversation with the Dominoes. Besides, from her perspective, she’s right; the game has been easy.
He climbs up the stairs and doesn’t look at her. Instead, he punches a few keys on his laptop, calling up the Truly Impossible File, the questions that no one has been able to answer in two years of the game.
He pulls twenty at random, then checks to make sure they cover at least half his categories. He shuts off Poison, changes the lights, and forces everyone back in their seats.
Then he fires off the questions in rapid succession:
—What was the name of Dorothy Parker’s first dog?
—What was the chief export of Rome in 1433?
—In what language did the word zenith originate? What was the word’s original use and meaning?
Cindy answers all three of the first three questions, but the fourth stops her: What is Fermat’s Last Theorem and why is it famous?
Most math people can answer the second part. The theorem is famous because the proof disappeared. But very few people have memorized the theorem itself. Someone on the Shiz thinks she remembers the theorem. The Dominoes argue quietly among themselves.
He hits the timer when no one rings in after four minutes, and for the agonizingly slow sixty seconds that remain, he finds himself twisting his fingers together like an evil wizard.
At least four players in Bailey’s Saloon would have been able to answer this question. The only reason it remains in the Truly Impossible File is because the night he asked the question, those players had gotten exceedingly drunk.
In fact, a lot of questions in the Truly Impossible File remain because the teams had too much to drink, something that would never happen here at the Triangle.
The buzzer sounds. Curses echo through the bar and some other patrons applaud, happy to see that not even the Shiz know all the answers this night.
He smiles, feeling superior once more.
Then he leans into his microphone.
“Since none of you losers even tried to answer that question in the time allowed, we’ll subtract ten points from both sides.”
The groans around the bar please him. He’s in his groove again. He asks the next five questions, satisfied that Cindy only gets one right.
Maybe it’s just my night indeed. Maybe it was.
But it is no longer.
His good mood lasts until three p.m. the next afternoon, a half an hour before his shift ends. He’s gets his last package, and realizes that again it goes to Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore.
He doesn’t want to see Yukio, but he has no choice, he’s already answered the first half of the call. As he peddles across downtown toward the Pearl, Darren realizes he could simply forego the tip—after all, it’s on account, and not very much.
But forgoing the tip also means losing face, and if Yukio ever finds out who he is, then he’ll never live this down—not that he could live it down anyway. His days as Quizmo of Portland would be over; everyone would laugh at a seemingly all-powerful man with a brilliant mind who rides a bicycle for a living.
He tries not to think about the upcoming encounter. He tucks the package in his bag and hurries across the streets. In Portland, drivers obey the rules of the road, so he takes advantage of red lights, stop signs and polite drivers stopping for pedestrians.
He makes it across the downtown in less than five minutes. When he reaches the outside of the Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore building, he padlocks his bike illegally to a parking meter, grabs the package and heads for the door.
Yukio isn’t there. The doorman is a middle-aged man whom Darren hasn’t seen before. When the doorman offers to take the package upstairs, Darren lets him, willing to lose the tip to add a few more minutes to his weekend.
All he has to do is ride back to headquarters, drop off his bike bag and his payment log, and then head home. He has the entire weekend ahead of him—no bars host quiz programs on Fridays or Saturdays; he doesn’t have to be back to work until 9 p.m. on Sunday night and then at the easiest bar on his list.
He unlocks the bike and sees a movement near the alleyway. Yukio, in his doorman’s blues, tosses a still-burning cigarette into the gutter.
Darren fumbles with the lock, his fingers suddenly shaking. He has to focus on the combination; for a brief moment, he cannot remember it.
When he finally snaps the lock open, he looks up. Yukio has gone back inside.
Darren hates that one of his players is on his regular route. It’d be so easy for the player to out him, and a player like Yukio, who can’t take responsibility for his own losses, is the very sort of man who would do so.
Darren rides back to headquarters so distracted that he nearly rear-ends a Volkswagen stopped at the light near Waterfront Park.
On the way home, he picks up a six-pack of Budweiser but forgets to stop at the video store. He’s stuck with O Brother Where Art Thou, which he has already seen twice.
He watches it again that night, then follows it with the director’s commentary. He listens to the music, looks at the trailer, wonders if George Clooney is too thin, if the Coen Brothers are as whacked as they seem. Over the course of the weekend—a weekend that he had planned to spend in Portland State University’s library, looking up information in newly minted doctoral theses—he sees O Brother a total of five times (the director’s commentary three times, which really takes his total to eight times).
By Sunday night, he’s so woozy he considers taking 1930s bluegrass out of the pop culture category and putting it in the general category. Then he realizes his mistake. He’s not sure he can handle a quiz crowd, even a quiz crowd at Buster’s Bar and Rodeo.
Still, he shows up. He hasn’t missed a night at any of his bars, not even when he had the Martian death flu two winters back—the kind that had him yacking every fifteen minutes or so into a bucket beside announcer’s booth.
He goes and he works, ignoring the screams from the mechanical bull riders two rooms over, glad that this crowd muffs most of the questions while trying to answer them because that means the contest ends quicker.
But somewhere around round three, he realizes that one team is getting its questions. He squints through DVD-blurred eyes and sees a woman with a purple kerchief, worn babushka style. She’s toward the back and she’s not ringing in, but she’s supplying answers to her team—the Great American Cowgirls.
He’s half tempted to get off the chair behind the dance platform, leaving the mike off, and get a drink, just so that he can see if she’s as square as he remembered, her arms as thick, and her breasts as saggy.
But he shakes himself free of the impulse and continues as if she’s not there at all. While he plays half of Billy Ray Cyrus’s only platinum album during the break after Round Five (Billy Ray in quantity is guaranteed to piss off any good country loving crowd), he pads the Impossible Round with as many esoteric math questions as he can get away with, much more esoteric than the math questions that stumped Cindy at the Triangle.
He starts the round just as the crowd gets surly, and for the first time, he wonders if he’s lost them. A woman down front starts screaming for Alan Jackson until someone shuts her up, reminding her that Request Night isn’t until Tuesday. One good ole boy punches another near the bar, and the bar back, a former high school linebacker nicknamed Dumbbell (for both his weight and his IQ), drags both men out by their ears so that the punches don’t turn into an out-and-out brawl.
This Impossible Round matches Round Four at the Triangle in degrees of difficulty. Sure enough, Cindy—or the woman who looks stunningly like her—manages to answer the first ten questions covering everything from astronomy to microbiology to the development of the pillow book in premodern Japanese literature.
But she misses the math questions. All of them. And that oversight brings the only remaining competitive team—the Beer Goggles—into first place. They win a gift certificate for Powell’s Books, some free beers that they don’t need, and five rides on the mechanical bull as well as a little computerized award sheet that looks oddly like a diploma that the manager of the bar insists on making up after each Sunday night competition.
By the time Darren finishes his announcements on the prizes, Cindy—or her look-alike—is gone, vanished into the crowd or off to try her luck on the mechanical bull.
Darren feels oddly relieved. He doesn’t want to think about her.
He doesn’t want to think about anything except tomorrow’s quiz.
Darren packs up his gear and slides his laptop under his arm, walking out to his piece-of-crap car (no bike on quiz nights) before remembering that he hasn’t gone to the bar manager for his check and his cut of the night’s proceedings.
He gets woozy sometimes, and he’s gone into the job sick, but never before has he forgotten to pick up his check. He’s still not on his A game.
For the next two days, he manages to avoid deliveries to Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore. He conducts his quizzes, stocking his Impossible Rounds with math questions because he feels like he’s being stalked by Cindy the Trivia Wonder Creature.
Finally, on Wednesday, he can’t avoid another trip to Hanley. Yukio is there, cupping an unlit cigarette in his hand as Darren locks his bike to the nearest parking meter.
“You can’t park there,” Yukio says.
“I can’t park anywhere else either,” Darren snaps. “You people won’t guard it for me.”
He puts a nasty emphasis on you people that surprises even himself. Yukio frowns at him, and Darren’s breath catches. In that biting sentence, Yukio probably heard the voice of Quizmo. Yukio probably recognized it.
Yukio puts one hand on his hip, tilts his head, and says, “You’re that bike messenger who snuck in here last week.”
Darren’s relieved. Yukio has recognized him, but not as Quizmo.
“I didn’t sneak,” Darren says. “I was doing my job. I showed you my identification.”
And then because he must retain his power in this relationship, Darren stalks into the building.
The second doorman, the middle-aged loser, reaches for the package, but Darren doesn’t give it to him. Even though he will only get a seven-dollar tip, even though he will lose time on his next (and bigger paying) job, he must do this. He must show Yukio who is in charge.
His cleats click on the marble. The package is clammy beneath his arm, probably from his own sweat. He watches reflections in the mirrored glass of the elevator, hoping for Yukio, but Yukio doesn’t come after him.
As he puts the package in the hand of the Birkenstocked receptionist and takes his paltry signed form, indicating his tiny tip, he realizes just how petty he’s become, playing games no one else participates in, games no one else even knows are going on.
He feels, for the first time in his aimless life, as if he’s trapped in a Coen Brothers’ movie, and he has no idea how to get out.
The Brainiacs always show up early at Buzzard Bill’s on Wednesday night. They eat dinner together, have a beer or two, and relax before the quizzing starts.
As Darren sets up, he stares at their table. Yukio is there, wearing a faded blue shirt over ripped jeans. He seems shorter, squatter, than he does in his uniform—and not as exotic.
Yukio clutches a book—Great Minds’ Trivia Challenge—something Darren only used in his first year of quizzing and has since moved beyond, preferring to draw up his own questions.
Something niggles at him, something he’s missed in his assumptions, something that has bothered him from the start. Darren sets his sheets out for the first round as the door opens. In Buzzard Bill’s, the mike stand is only a few feet from the door and early in the evening—particularly in the summer—he gets blinded whenever the light shines in.
It is no different now. But as the door eases closed, he sees the scarf first—this one a loud yellow and green—and then the rest of her, done up in green pants with a yellow blouse, and weird yellow sandals.
She grins at him, and he feels surprise. She has tracked him down. For a week—maybe more—she has followed him from bar to bar, playing the quizzes and doing better than most.
But for the math questions…
Math questions Yukio usually aces.
Darren’s frown grows deeper. She walks across the bar floor after waving three fingers of her right hand at him and then slides into the booth beside Yukio.
There is a resemblance, the resemblance of siblings or cousins, the kind that leaves no doubt that these two people have sprung from the same gene pool.
Darren’s stomach flops over. Is Cindy somehow involved in Yukio’s obsession or is she just humoring him?
I heard it was hard, she’d said to Darren that first night. Heard from Yukio? Was she practicing? Scouting? Or trying to show Yukio up?
In the end, Darren decides it’s none of his business. He’s going to do what he always does: He’s going to put on the best quiz show possible for everyone involved.
It isn’t until the middle of the first round that he realizes he’s in trouble.
Cindy has joined the Brainiacs, bringing their number to the requisite six. Technically, that wouldn’t be a problem except that she can answer every question he throws at them.
Except the math questions.
Which he has loaded heavily into the last three rounds.
Math questions Yukio can answer in his sleep.
Quizmo will no longer be all knowing, the great god of information, champion of the geek Olympics, smartest man in the room.
He will become worse than his losers—a man who can be beaten at his own game.
He will become, in the space of an evening, absolutely nothing.
By the end of round two, he knows he must find other questions, new subjects, some way to defeat the juggernaut that is Yukio and his sister.
Darren knows that Cindy is Yukio’s sister because one of the Brainiacs hits on her, and Yukio looms over him, warning the would-be Lothario to leave his sister alone.
At the end of round three, Darren has exhausted his laptop’s deep files—all the information he’s hidden over the years of running quizzes has risen to the surface, and is now part of the game.
He cannot use any questions from earlier in the week, because Cindy has participated in every round.
He is stuck, and he knows it.
Sweat breaks out on his forehead. His fingertips are slick with condensation from his glass of water mixed with the weird stuff that coats Goldfish crackers. He’s been eating those by the handful, trying to calm himself. All he’s managed to do is turn his hands yellow and make his stomach feel like mush.
As he heads for the men’s restroom in the now-closed restaurant, a hand grabs his arm. He recognizes the grip. It hits the same bruises that formed a week ago, after Yukio tried to stop him from getting into the Hanley, Hanley, Combs and Whitmore building.
“We’re going to beat you,” Yukio says. “We’re going to leave your brain battered and bloody, exposed for all to see.”
Then he releases Darren’s arm and it is all Darren can do to keep from rubbing the newly aggravated bruises. He staggers into the private section of the restaurant, where only employees can go after ten p.m., and disappears into the men’s room. He almost shoves the large metal garbage can against the door, but decides against it. All that will do is show his own fear.
Why does Yukio hate him so? What has he done, really? All he’s been doing is running a little game.
At least Yukio still doesn’t recognize him.
Yet in both places – in the bars and at the Hanley building—they have ended up in pissing contests, and so far, Darren has won.
At the thought of pissing, his bladder reminds him of the reason for his trip across the bar. He heads to the urinal, braces himself with one hand against the spotless wall because he’s still a little too shaky to remain upright, and relieves himself.
Threats of violence usually didn’t shake him. He’s small but he’s tough thanks to all those years of cycling. But that image—his brain bloody, battered and exposed—won’t leave him.
He washes his hands, splashes water on his face, and peers at himself in the mirror. The Brainiacs are going to beat him—Yukio and Cindy are going to beat him.
He doesn’t know how to stop them.
He makes himself breathe. It’s one night. One night of one game. It’s not as if he’s going to lose his entire empire.
Except that Cindy has scoped out every bar, learned the names of his favorite teams in all of his weekly haunts. If she and Yukio defeat him here, they can—and perhaps will—defeat him everywhere.
He doesn’t know what to do.
But he knows he has to do something.
By the end of Round Five, Yukio is smirking. Cindy isn’t even pretending to be a part of the Brainiacs’ backup team. She buzzes in quicker than anyone else, even her brother.
The other teams have already been eliminated, and so there is no need for the Impossible Round.
The crowd is getting surly. They want to see a competition, not one team crushing another. Darren’s asked all his most difficult questions, wasting years of the Truly Impossible File on a single game. He can’t even go back to the questions from earlier in the week because Cindy has heard them all.
Still, he leans into the mike and says, “Believe it or not, folks, we are going to have an Impossible Round. It’ll just take a moment to get it organized.”
He is so angry that he puts Olivia Newton John’s last album on the sound system, forcing the crowd to listen to whining songs about inappropriate lovers while he tries to come up with a solution.
Yukio and Cindy are laughing with the Brainiacs. The other teams have crowded the bar, demanding even more alcohol. For Buzzard Bill’s, the night is still good.
It’s only going badly for Darren.
Cindy looks up, grins at Darren and then winks, as if they share a secret. She takes the ugly scarf off her hair, and he finally understands why she wore it. Without it, her resemblance to her brother is startling.
Darren clenches his fist. Yukio and Cindy have made a point to know all sorts of esoteric information about all sorts of things. They have minds that capture inane facts and save them for no apparent reason. They’re smart people with unsmart jobs—at least in the case of Yukio—and they probably wonder, deep down, why they aren’t running the world.
In short, they’re like him.
But they’re not like him. A doorman has no practical function. He’s not a janitor or a plumber, someone with hands-on skill. All a doorman has to do is scrutinize people who come and go from a building. And when Darren confronted Yukio, even though Yukio got physical, he backed down.
“You gonna shut that crap off soon?” The cocktail waitress stands behind him. She sets down a bottled water and a glass of ice, just like he requested at the beginning of the night. And another bowl of Goldfish crackers. “I never liked this stuff when it was popular twenty years ago.”
“Me, either,” Darren says.
“So do something, would you?” She makes a face at him, as if he’s the most stupid person on earth, and then she wades back into the crowd.
Of course. That’s the problem with Brainiacs. People who spend all their time learning useless facts have no practical side. That’s what he’s been groping for, that’s what he needs.
He has to ask questions smart people will miss—simple questions, questions that are about practical things. Yet they have to seem esoteric.
If only he can think of questions like that.
He turns the sound down on that horrible music, then grabs the mike so hard that feedback echoes through the bar.
The crowd grows instantly silent.
“The Brainiacs win tonight’s prize,” he says—and there’s a groan from the other teams, who somehow hoped for a lightning elimination round or something—“but we have an extra special prize, a once-in-a-lifetime prize, that goes to the winner of the Impossible Round.”
He has the crowd now. They’re staring at him.
His heart pounds as if he’s pedaled all across Portland. If he screws this up, he’s done.
“Since we all know that the Brainiacs won because of their two team members, Yukio and Cindy, who answered every one of tonight’s questions, I’m making the Impossible Round their round. Only Yukio or Cindy may answer a question. No one may help them. The rest of you Brainiacs, get yourselves a beer and absent yourselves from the team table. If anyone helps Yukio or Cindy, they forfeit and their team forfeits—”
“What if someone from another team helps?” a Brainiac shouts, clearly worried.
“Then the team’s barred from the game here at Buzzard Bill’s.”
The bartender looks up in panic. Darren isn’t authorized to make these kinds of rules or those kinds of decisions. He hopes it won’t come to that.
“Ten questions,” he says, “with ten subheadings.”
“Do they get the special prize or do all the Brainiacs?” another Brainiac shouts.
He makes a quick decision. “You all do. Yukio and Cindy are playing for the whole team.”
The Brainiacs cross their arms, but they move away from the team table. Suddenly Yukio and Cindy are in the spotlight, and for the first time that night, they look nervous.
“Yukio and Cindy, are you ready?” Darren asks.
“Sure,” Yukio says, his bravado back.
Darren clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and asks, “Question One: What is the albedo of the earth, in aggregate?”
“I’ll take that.” Cindy grins at her brother. He shrugs. She presses her handheld buzzer, then says, “It’s zero-point-three.”
“Subquestion A,” Darren says, “How is the albedo calculated?”
“Oh, shit,” Cindy says without hitting the buzzer. “Who really cares?”
“I do,” Yukio says. He buzzes in. “If you have a spectoradiometer and you face it toward the sun…”
Darren listens but he doesn’t really hear. He pays just enough attention to know that they are getting each question and the following subquestions. And as he suspected, Yukio takes the math questions while Cindy handles all the rest.
She destroys the history section. And the literature section. Finally, Darren gets to his most esoteric question, the one he doubts even a collector or an antique dealer can answer.
“What is…” he asks slowly “…a Caron Derringer?”
Yukio hits the buzzer. “It’s a gun manufactured in—”
“It’s a perfume atomizer,” Cindy says over the top of him. Darren’s stomach does a flip-flop.
“Yukio buzzed in,” Darren says. “He has to give the complete answer.”
She turns to her brother, whispers to him.
Darren bangs a hand on the counter, making the mike reverberate. “Yukio has to answer on his own.”
“We’re playing as a team,” she says. “Team members can consult.”
Darren supposes he can challenge that. They’re playing as a truncated team. He can disqualify this question, and make sure they don’t work together again.
But he doesn’t want to defeat them by default. He wants the win to be fair and square, so that no one, particularly not Yukio, can say he cheated.
“Okay,” Darren says. “Yukio, give me the answer.”
“It’s a perfume atomizer marketed in 1963 under the Caron brand. It’s so small it can fit into a purse or a lipstick case. It doesn’t look like a derringer, but rather like a derringer’s bullet.”
Complete, accurate, and devastating. A question like that would demolish even the better-than-average player. Cindy isn’t better than average. She’s the best Darren’s seen. Her math weakness is her only flaw.
Darren’s hands continue to shake. He’s not sure he can keep up this game much longer. His head is throbbing and he feels slightly woozy. If she can answer the Caron Derringer question, she can answer almost anything. And his own math skills aren’t great enough to take on Yukio—at least not on the highest levels.
He hasn’t thought of any real world questions, not any he’s sure of the answers to. He doesn’t know much about plumbing or construction either.
But he does know biking. Only, if he asks a bicycle question, will Yukio realize that the Great Quizmo is really a lowly bike messenger?
Yukio is staring at him. So is the rest of the bar, waiting for the next question.
Either Yukio and Cindy defeat him here, defeat him now, or Yukio defeats him later—should he recognize Darren.
The risk is Darren’s.
And he takes it.
He says, “In cycling, what was Kryptonite’s kryptonite?”
The entire bar gasps. The Kryptonite lock, the best of all bike locks, supposedly undefeatable, impossible to break into, turned out to be easily opened with a ballpoint pen. Because Portland has such a large cycling community, the story made front-page news in the Oregonian a few years ago. The company that makes Kryptonite fixed the flaw immediately and offered every cyclist who had purchased a Kryptonite lock a replacement.
Yukio is looking down. Cindy frowns. Around them, people squirm in their chairs. A few of the Brainiacs, sitting as far from the competitors’ tables as possible, whisper to each other, obviously shocked at their teammates silence.
The whole bar knows the answer.
“It was in the paper,” Yukio says without buzzing in. “I saw it.”
Cindy studies him as if she can will the answer out of him.
“Something picks that lock,” Yukio says.
Cindy remains quiet.
Yukio turns toward the bar, but Darren clears his throat into the microphone. No one says anything, even though a few people clearly want to.
Then Yukio looks at Cindy, who shrugs.
“Your first four minutes are nearly up,” Darren says. He wonders if he can live with himself if he sets the final minute timer at thirty seconds.
But he doesn’t have to cheat. Instead, Yukio buzzes in. “It’s a paperclip!”
The entire bar groans. Darren allows himself a small triumphant smile, then leans toward the mike. “You people want to tell him what he did wrong?”
In unison, the patrons shout, “A ballpoint pen!”
Yukio looks stunned, Cindy confused.
Darren’s heart is still pounding, but the pounding comes from an unfamiliar elation. He’s never felt like this—at least not in quizzing. Once or twice when he’s had to beat the clock messengering, he’s hit a biker’s high. That’s what this feels like. The quizmaster’s high.
“And that’s it for tonight’s game. If you losers are still feeling confident, come back for next week’s tournament, and see whose brain ends up bloody, battered, and exposed for the weak muscle that it is. Until then, this is Quizmo, reminding you all that my mind is greater than yours.”
Yukio cringes, but looks defeated. He doesn’t seem like a man who has recognized a bike messenger. He seems like a man whose brain has been exposed.
If Yukio was going to do anything, he would have done it the moment he lost the question.
But he didn’t.
Darren’s won. He wants to jump with his arms overhead like a football player who has just made a touchdown.
Instead, he settles for blaring Queen’s “We are the Champions” over the sound system.
Yukio’s teammates have surrounded his table, battering him with questions—How could he miss that? It was so easy. Darren smiles. Yukio looks lost, clearly wondering why one missed easy question destroys his entire reputation as a brainiac.
Because, Darren can tell him but won’t, the easy questions show the posturers for the real-life losers that they are.
“My brother thought he could beat you.” Cindy’s standing near the back of the mike stand. Darren looks for the cocktail waitress, the bouncer, someone in authority to tell Cindy to move out of the way, but they’re busy.
“No one beats the amazing Quizmo,” Darren says, but there isn’t as much heart in the words as there was a few minutes ago.
She gives him a saucy grin. “I’d like to.”
It takes him a minute to realize she’s making a double entendre. Then it takes another minute to realize she’s serious. He blushes so deeply that the heat in his face actually hurts.
Her dark eyes meet his. He studies her for a moment. He’s beginning to get used to her exotic look and he’s starting to think she’s handsome in a way that only improves with age.
Her mind is compatible with his—right down to the level of trivial interests and her inability to go to higher levels in math. If he says yes, he could be with her for a very long time. They’d be perfect together—the kind of couple who would build a geeky life in this geeky town.
He’d quit quizzing and take a job at Intel or one of the other remaining high tech firms. She’d continue doing whatever it is that keeps her in beer and potato chips.
Together they’d have two scarily brilliant children, a few cats, and a house in the West Hills. Eventually, he’d gain weight because he can’t cycle any more, and he’d start frequenting bars like this one just once a week, coming for the “entertainment” and not for the escape, wondering what it would’ve been like if he’d continued in his quest for fame.
He would never know, but he would fantasize about it, like all of these people here, people who leave every week and go back to their average lives in their average houses with their average spouses.
He can’t believe he’s thinking of dating her. He can’t believe he’s thinking of sleeping with her.
For a moment—just a brief moment—he forgot he is the Amazing Quizmo, Master of All He Sees.
“Sorry,” he says to Cindy as he pushes past her, “but the only person who can beat me is myself.”
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The North American Review, May-August, 2009
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Swinnerrr/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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September 30, 2015
Maybe two months ago, at our weekly professional writers’ lunch, we discussed frontlist and backlist, and how old-fashioned those terms are now. I came home, wrote that on a sticky note for a future blog post, pasted it to my computer, and planned to get to it.
This is that post.
In the meantime, I read part of Carolyn Reidy’s keynote address on September 18 at the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting, as excerpted on the publishing aggregation site, The Passive Voice. Reidy is president and CEO of Simon & Schuster. Passive Guy, who runs the site, added a snarky comment at the end of the excerpt:
Big Publishing discovers Marketing 101 (sort of).
And he’s right, for as far as it goes. A lot of the stuff that Reidy says in her remarks are Marketing 101 for any other business. But traditional publishing hasn’t had to do real marketing for more than fifty years now, and has no idea how to do it.
The article PG excerpted is “Carolyn Reidy at BISG: ‘The Sales Power of Metadata’” by John Mutter on Shelf Awareness. I urge you to read the entire article. (You have to scroll down Monday, September 21’s articles.) A lot of that basic marketing PG snarfs at is stuff that indie publishers don’t do either—which is rather mind-boggling, considering most indies are only dealing with five to ten books.
As I mentioned last week, for those with five to ten books, basic marketing on each title is easy. It takes little concentration and even less organization. But when you get to where I am—400 short stories, assorted collections, 50 [?] novels, six active series, six more starting up, and so on—even basic marketing is hard.
Reidy is the CEO of Simon and Schuster, which deals with so many books per year that most people can’t imagine it. So I’m going to help you. Get ready for your brain to explode:
Simon & Schuster has 12 active imprints for adult fiction. Imprints are book lines, standalone, with their own catalogues and their own voice (in theory). On its website, S&S defines the imprints this way:
The Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group includes a number of publishing units that offer books in several formats. Each unit has its own publisher, editorial group and publicity department. Common sales and business departments support all the units. The managing editorial, art, production, marketing, and subsidiary rights departments have staff members dedicated to the individual imprints.
S&S has 10 active imprints for children’s fiction of one form or another. S&S has two audio imprints.
S&S International lists three major companies (not imprints): S&S UK, S&S Australia, and S&S Canada. These companies publish different books (with some overlap) from the U.S. company. Those three companies have their own imprints. For kicks and giggles, I clicked on the U.S. link for S&S Australia and got this little note:
Simon & Schuster Australia is one of the region’s Top 10 book publishers. We publish and distribute fabulous books in Australia and New Zealand across a broad range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories under our local and international imprints, including Aladdin, Atheneum, Atria, Fireside, Free Press, Howard, Kangaroo Press, Little Simon, Pocket, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Simon Spotlight Entertainment and Touchstone. Simon & Schuster Australia also acts as the local sales and distribution partners for Duncan Baird Publishing (mind, body & spirit, well-being, and cultural reference) and Kyle Cathie (illustrated cooking and lifestyle books).
Now, consider this: In 1939, Simon & Schuster started America’s first paperback publisher, Pocket Books, when S&S was still wet behind the ears. (The company was founded with crossword books in 1924.) It has had corporate ownership of one form or another since 1975.
According to Wikipedia, S&S has at least nine former or inactive imprints. This number is on the low side. I know of a few that aren’t on Wikipedia’s list.
So, think about this: S&S has been publishing fiction and nonfiction books continually since 1939. Some of those books have gone out of print. Some of them have had their rights reverted to the authors. Many of those books were licensed before all the changes in the U.S. copyright laws in the 1970s. Some of those books (very few) have slid into the public domain.
According to S&S’s corporate overview, S&S “publishes approximately 2000 titles annually.” The word “approximately” is theirs, not mine. In 2014, S&S placed 294 titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Individual titles—different books.
Now, let’s pretend that S&S has consistently published 2000 titles per year in the 21st century. (Honestly, it was probably more pre-Recession, but we’re waving our magic wand—and guessing.) Since a few of those S&S books are mine, I can safely tell you that S&S still controls most of the rights to those 21st century books. (S&S is almost impossible to get rights back from and has been that way for almost a decade.)
This means that for the past 15 years, S&S has published 2000 titles per year. Which means it controls the license of roughly 30,000 titles.
Thirty thousand different book titles. And that doesn’t count the titles it still controls from the 1990s or the 1980s or the renewed licenses for books that have been continuously in print from the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, and so on. Or the books it has under contract for 2016, 2017, 2018….
I have no idea what S&S’s book inventory is, how many rights and titles it still controls, but it’s at least 50,000 titles.
Makes my roughly 500 seem like nothing—and an indie-published writers’ titles seem link a speck of sand on a gigantic swath of beach.
Consider all of those 50,000 book titles. Then realize that the bulk of those titles are merely names on a spreadsheet. Long ago, the acquiring editor was fired, downsized, acquired by another imprint, moved to a different job, or, gosh-golly-gee, dead. Many of the earlier titles (those still in print from the 1950s upward) are controlled by estates. The authors are dead too.
What this means is that no one who controls the rights to these still-in-print book titles knows what’s in the books. Nor does anyone know what awards the books won, whether or not they hit a bestseller list back in the day, or if the author had done something that’s newsworthy to a 2015 audience.
You can post here about how stupid it is for a corporation whose livelihood is based on content doesn’t know the content of the properties it owns—and I will agree with that statement.
However, mentioning that will change nothing. It’s a fact. It is what it is.
No one in these big conglomerates (and the other Big 5 publishers are the same) knows what their backlist is composed of at all.
Now, in that context, consider the following statements from Carolyn Reidy. She was speaking to a traditional publishing audience. In that context (the context of 50,000 titles or more), realize just how revolutionary her comments are.
“…exercise a deep knowledge of our entire catalogue and determine how our books relate to what’s happening in the world today,” whether that involves an entertainment or media hit or to tie in with a current event. And now it’s a part of S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, she said, to bring up those and a range of other opportunities, whether a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity.
Making these connections applies to the full backlist (which is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it”), and needs to go from monthly and weekly planning to “looking at our lists through a lens of daily opportunities.”
These statements are revolutionary because they change the entire focus in the publishing part of the huge S&S conglomerate. For the past fifty years or more, all of traditional publishing had limitations. Bookstores were small, first in comparison to the chain stores that sprouted up later, and then in comparison to the unlimited virtual shelf space of online competitors.
Shelf space really and truly was limited. Books that didn’t sell had to be pulled off shelves to make room for books that might sell. Books that sold well stayed on the shelves, and books that sold a little stayed on the shelves longer than books that didn’t sell at all.
This need to churn product turned into the velocity model. A big push to get the books onto the shelf and selling immediately so that they would stay on the shelf—for two weeks, a month, maybe three months, but rarely longer than that.
It was a necessary business model for its time that started to fade in the 1990s and has been slowly dying ever since. Well, not so slowly now. 2015 will probably be the year that traditional publishing realizes the velocity model is well and truly dead.
Hence, Carolyn Reidy’s comments. She once tried to prevent this decline in the velocity model, which is one of the reasons she participated in the ebook price fixing that got her corporation slapped by the courts and the U.S. Justice Department. The traditional publishing business has not improved since those fateful conversations with Apple five years ago. In fact, things for big publishers have gotten worse.
And, as those of us who understand big business were trying to say back then, wait. The big publishers will catch a clue that the business has irrevocably changed.
Carolyn Reidy’s statements show that. Now she, and the other Big 5 publishers (and the other traditional publishers—those with 500 books per year instead of 2000), have decided to change the way they do business.
They will have to hire people to examine the history of their inactive books—what we used to call the backlist. Those new employees will have to read the backlist, rebrand it, and figure out how to market it.
Then, those new employees will have to continually update the inventory on a daily basis. If an independent film company wins the Cannes Film Festival with a film made from a thirty-year-old novel that sold 5,000 copies in its lifetime, the new employees at the publishing house that still retains the rights to the novel can update the metadata to reflect that. If some Turkish writer who has had only one book published in translation in the U.S. wins the Nobel Prize for literature for her body of work, those employees at the U.S. house where the English language book is in print can change the metadata that day to reflect the win, while the company works on rebranding that book (and acquiring and translating the rest of her work).
If some community chooses To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe as its Community Reads book, the metadata from its publisher will reflect that. (By the way, when I typed this, I looked up To The Lighthouse to doublecheck the title, and found that it’s still in print from a variety of sellers, all with five- to twenty-five-year-old covers, all of them ugly, even for their day.)
But these are new jobs at the traditional publishing houses and new ways of thinking about publishing and brand new ways—for a traditional publisher—to market books.
The task, when looked at from the perspective of 50,000 titles is overwhelming.
In that keynote address, Reidy went on to speculate that the plateauing of ebook sales at Simon & Schuster “occurred in part because in early digital days, readers buying a new book from an author would buy their backlist, too, something that’s apparently not happening at the same rate.”
She is truly speculating here, and she misses part of the big picture, which Data Guy and Hugh Howey have dealt with in the Authors Earnings Reports last month (yes, I’ll get to those in a future blog post Real Soon Now). Those of us who work as hybrid or indie writers know that the “shadow industry” as the Authors Earnings Report calls it has continued to grow, while traditionally published books have slipped in sales—mostly due to ridiculous pricing.
(For example, Little, Brown and Company’s $12.99 ebook edition for Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On actively discouraged me from assigning the entire book at the last minute to my students at last week’s mystery workshop. Instead, I waited until they all arrived, gave them my hardback copy of the book, and had them read only one story in it. [I would have had them read at least three if they could have had the ebook edition one week ahead.] Not only did that ridiculous price lose 12 or more sales for the book, it also discouraged these avid mystery readers from sampling more of Rankin’s work, which probably resulted in a missed opportunity for even more sales.)
Reidy is right about one thing: In the early days of the ebook revolution, readers were picking up backlist at an astonishing rate. What Reidy misunderstands is that those backlist sales pointed to a huge problem in traditional publishing.
Readers were hungry for those backlist books, so the readers snatched them up, even in badly scanned editions with typos on every page. Readers generally don’t care if a book was published last week or five years ago. Readers only care about writers who are new to them.
Readers are the original binge consumers. Readers find a writer whose work they like and read everything the writer has done.
Nowadays, everything by that writer can remain in print—if the writer is indie or hybrid.
But not if the writer is traditionally published.
Because there’s another whole set of employees that traditional publishers need to hire. The traditional publishers need to beef up their legal department, and have many employees finding and reading old contracts, to see if the publishing company still has the rights to the book, the rights to reprint, the rights to reprint in an ebook, the rights to reprint in paper…
It’s a mess.
And every contract is different, even contracts with the same author. The manpower involved in implementing the tasks in Reidy’s keynote address is astonishing.
Think of it this way. Simon & Schuster is a gigantic cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, heading from the UK to the East Coast of the U.S. Suddenly, that ship gets orders to head to Australia. The ship has to plot a new route, figure out the difficulties of doing that, refuel, stock up on new supplies, and at some point, begin to move in that new direction.
The cruise ship won’t get to Australia on the same day it would have arrived in New York. That ship will take much, much longer to get to Australia.
It’s exceedingly hard to move a ship of that size.
But indie publishers are anything from a cigarette boat to a top-of-the-line yacht. The top-of-the-line yacht will have more trouble changing its direction as well (having some of those cruise-ship problems on a smaller scale), but the top-of-the-line yacht is built to travel the ocean. A cigarette boat is not.
We all have our issues. But we all need to stop thinking in the terms “frontlist” and “backlist.” I love Reidy’s phrase: backlist is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it.”
But she doesn’t take it far enough. She’s only starting on this understanding.
Because a reader will get frustrated—deeply frustrated—if that book she’s heard about doesn’t come in the format she wants. That format might be paper. It might be a Kindle ebook. It might be a Kobo ebook. It might be audio.
Our Sunday professional writers lunch came up with a different way of thinking about back- and frontlist.
If a title isn’t accessible, it’s not going to get read. Not in this modern world. So the inaccessible title is the backlist—or out of print—title. And that will determine a reader’s purchasing decisions.
In other words, in the case of discoverability, all accessible books are created equal. They are new to the reader, and the reader can buy them at will.
But inaccessible books become forgotten books. Readers will try to get them, and then, after a few continual failures (including prices so high on rare book sites as to be unaffordable), the reader will move on to another book.
The days when readers would haunt used bookstores, trying to find that one copy of a missing book in a series are gone. Now, if a writer’s books aren’t all in print, the reader writes to the writer, demanding to know why. Explaining arcane contract terms simply won’t satisfy the reader, who just wants the book.
What does all of this mean?
A bunch of things to all writers.
First, the traditional publishers will implement that course correction. They will change the direction of that cruise ship. Their entire business depends on it. It will take years, but eventually, all of their “backlist” will become accessible.
Therefore, in the future, readers will expect accessibility even more than they do now.
Also, as traditional publishers change course, it will become even harder than it is now for a writer to get her rights reverted to a book. Right now, it’s hard, but not quite impossible. In a few years, it’ll be impossible. That asset (and that’s what a book is in business) has just become even more valuable to the publisher.
Second, once traditional publishers complete their course correction, an advantage that hybrid and indie writers have had since the beginning of this revolution will disappear.
In the beginning, lo these five years ago, writers who controlled their own backlist put that backlist out. Books that had been inaccessible became available in lovely editions (not the crap traditional publishers were putting out back then), and readers flocked to those older titles.
Readers will continue to read the older titles, but readers don’t care who publishes anything. They only care about the writer as a brand (like Raisin Bran), the series (also a brand), and the book itself. The brand is what sells the books, not the fact that it was packaged by JoeWriter or Simon & Schuster.
So, indies will no longer be the primary source of backlist titles. That will have no effect on indie sales—again, readers don’t care—but that divide between traditional and indie will close up a bit.
The divide will remain in the one area that savvy writers already understand: the older titles will pay the writer more if the writer publishes the book than if some conglomerate does. But readers won’t give a rat’s ass at all.
They just want the book when they want it.
Third, the velocity model will cease to be the only model in traditional publishing. That’s already happening. I looked at my BookBub emails last week, and I was startled to see books published by William Morrow, Bantam Books, Harlequin, HarperCollins, and other Big 5 imprints on Bookbub’s daily deals list.
I’ve been a Bookbub subscriber almost from the beginning, and way back when, every book advertised through Bookbub was indie or self-published. Last week, only about one-third were. I have no idea how that reflects across all of Bookbub’s offerings over the entire year, but the presence of so many traditional publishers shows me that this sea-change I’m talking about—the decline of the velocity model—is already well underway.
That means competition for post-publication ad space will go up. It also means that traditional publishers will not just concentrate their efforts and their dollars on those first few weeks after publication.
It will remain to be seen whether or not they’ll continue to promote books that sell poorly out of the gate. But they will change their behavior to be a lot more like indies.
In a nutshell, this means that the business we know as publishing is changing. It’s finally starting to reflect the way the modern world works. It has taken traditional publishers five years to realize that they can’t bring back the days when they were the only players in town. So they’ll start playing the new game.
With millions of dollars and entire companies behind them, they’ll play the game in a different way than indies will. But traditional publishers will also trod the paths that indies forged. As those Bookbub ads show, traditional publishers already are.
What do indies do? Keep collecting our 70% instead of 25% of net revenues. (25% of net revenues often comes out to pennies on the dollar, which is another blog post.) This change will affect readers more than it will affect us.
But it also means that hybrid writers have to be exceedingly careful. When a writer licenses a book to a traditional publisher, the writer is going to have to realize that the license will be for the life of the copyright, unless the writer has clout to get a better deal or unless the writer is hybrid only outside of the U.S.
If a writer goes to traditional for short-term discoverability and ad boost, then the writer better be prepared to get paid a small fraction for that book for the life of the book.
A writer’s choices are no different than they were last year. Indie, hybrid or traditional. But the traditional/hybrid path has become a lot more rigid, and will become even more rigid as traditional publishers hire those new employees, learn how to properly use metadata, and eventually hire people who actually know business and marketing to consumers, not just to bookstores.
Indies—your job also remains the same. You need to get your work in front of readers. But you need to get it in front of all readers. Leaving your work in one store only [cough: Amazon] becomes an even worse business decision than it was a year ago.
Traditional publishers can make deals with big stores like Amazon that allow the traditional publishers to participate in special deals without requiring the trad pubs to have the exclusivity that indies are required to have. So, if a traditionally published book is in Kindle Unlimited, that book is also available on Barnes & Noble. No self-published author can do that.
Again, it comes down to accessibility. As the traditional publishers make their books available on all platforms, in lovely editions, at all times, so too should indie publishers.
Because if the buzz word is now going to be accessibility, then readers will get mad at books that aren’t accessible—in the right format for that reader.
This attitude will only grow stronger as time goes on. Be prepared for it.
Make your published books accessible on all platforms now. Train your readers to find your stuff everywhere. Keep your readers happy.
Because that’ll be the key to success in the next five years—for all writers and publishers, not just a select few.
I hope these blogs make you happy. I know they give me the time to think about trends in publishing, which I appreciate. I also appreciate the support for the blog, in the shares, likes, and comments both personal and private. I also appreciate the donations, which keep me blogging.
Thanks so much for the support.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Tawng
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September 28, 2015
A handsome man walks into a bar…and can’t pick up women. Sounds like a joke. Or a bar bet. Or maybe, just maybe, a bit of magic follows him everywhere. A short, somewhat malicious bit of magic, with a fondness for Piña Coladas.
“Say Hello to My Little Friend” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Say Hello to My Little Friend
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
He was strange from the start, yet oddly compelling.
I can explain the strange. The compelling is harder.
He’d come into my bar about 3:30 Friday afternoons, thirty minutes before the official start of Happy Hour. He’d take a seat as far from the door as he could get. He’d order two drinks—one, a piña colada, the other, light beer on tap.
Then he’d wait.
He was stunningly handsome. That’s the thing you’d see first off. The square jaw, the black-black hair, the laughing blue eyes all accented his broad shoulders and perfect male model physique. Only he dressed like a regular guy: nice suit with a jacket he’d remove when he sat down, white shirt, and shoes that could use some attention. Before the drinks arrived, he’d loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves, revealing muscular arms.
And then he’d nurse the beer.
Any red-blooded woman would look at him, as well as a handful of closeted males. So of course I looked at him. I’m as red-blooded as the next woman—even if it is my bar.
I’m red-blooded, but not pretty. I’m perfectly cast in my role as bar owner. I’m muscular and broad-shouldered too. My father used to say I looked like Bette Davis—and he didn’t mean the young beauty of her early roles. He meant the battle-axe from “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” with the crumpled skin and the bugged out eyes and the voice that sounded like she’d smoked a thousand cigarettes too many.
A few men like this look. They figure I’m easy (I’m not) because I’m lonely (I’m not that either), and they try to woo me with lies. The occasional guy who enjoys my friendship takes it a stage farther, but we usually agree to go back to platonic after a few months.
Men who look like this guy never give me a second glance. And if one of them had slept with me by accident (and none of them had), it would have been an invitation that came at last call, and the night would end with him chewing his arm off in the morning.
I know that. So when I started talking to Mr. Weird But Beautiful, I did it not because I wanted him (even though I did). I did it because he looked like he needed some advice.
To understand why he needed some advice, you need to know what my bar looks like. It’s not a fern bar or a sports bar. There are no big screens scattered around, all turned to ESPN. There are no giant booths with huge backs because I don’t want couples making out in my place and getting us slapped with violating the decency laws.
There are round tables of various sizes scattered across the floor, and they get pushed aside on Saturdays, when my favorite DJ comes in to spin the tunes—usually oldies, because I don’t tolerate that hip-hop crap in my bar.
The rest of the time, it’s the juke that’s been here since I bought the place. A pool table against the back wall gives the regulars a reason to return besides my lovely presence.
The bar’s the first thing you see when you come in the door. The back bar is large and mirrored, so it looks like we have even more booze than we do. I put the expensive stuff back there because the business travelers who’ve just had a meeting in the big conglomerate across the street make it worth my while.
The bar is a classic U and made of expensive wood with a polyurethane top, so that I can wipe the thing off every night. Everyone vies for the twenty bar stools that surround the outside of the U, and during Friday Happy Hour, the line for those stools can be five deep.
Although it’s not fair to call them stools. They’re actually tall chairs with rounded backs that hug the backside of whoever’s sitting there. I bought the things from a bar going out of business about five years ago, and they’re the best purchase I ever made. They keep the hard drinkers—the guys who pass out with predictable regularity—in their chairs. These guys don’t fall four feet to the floor, hitting their head on the bar rails on the way down and thinking lawsuit when they finally wake up.
Guys who drink like that—and every neighborhood bar has them—keep our local taxi service in business, especially weekend nights. I don’t even have to call any more. At closing, half a dozen cabs show up here like they’ve been summoned. I confiscate keys, pour the hard drinkers into the cabs, and sign the tab. Then when the drinkers come back for their cars, I won’t hand over the keys until I get reimbursed.
It works for all of us, and rarely does the hard drinker get mad.
I take care of my people. That’s what I’m known for.
Which is why no one was surprised when I started talking to Mr. Weird But Beautiful.
He started coming in long about February, with that uncomfortable look most first timers in a bar often have. He wore a shiny silk suit and a matching silver tie, and he looked good enough to eat.
When he sat at the bar, I was surprised. When he ordered his light beer and piña colada, I waited for the pretty business associate to show up for their meeting.
Only she never came. The beer got nursed and the piña colada disappeared, although I never saw him take a sip.
And as the bar filled up, a bottle blonde stopped beside the empty chair, leaned against the bar, and displayed her assets prettily for him. After she ordered, she turned to him, and he smiled one of those Tom Cruise mighty megawatt smiles, the kind that makes you hot just thinking about it.
She smiled back and I could tell she was feeling like I was feeling—the right word and she was his.
He had one of those deep Barry White voices which carried even though he probably didn’t intend it to.
Her eyes danced and she leaned in, just a bit, as he said, “Please say hello to my little friend.”
Then he looked down.
She flushed, grabbed her drink, and left the bar.
And he leaned back, looking very confused.
Now most guys, when they have a pick-up line that fails, try another one. And any guy who looks like him doesn’t need a line at all.
It was a testament to his attractiveness that no woman ever dumped a drink on his lap or slapped him or called him names. Every woman he approached—and by April, he was approaching the desperate ones as well as the pretty ones—gave him that what-the-hell-did-you-just-say? look and fled.
But he never varied his line, he never altered his routine, and he never ever got anyone to say hello to his little friend.
Until, of course, me.
It was just after Easter when I finally had enough. When you have regulars in your place, you develop an emotional attachment to them. Sometimes that attachment is loathing, sometimes it’s friendship, and sometimes it’s pity.
With Mr. Weird But Beautiful, I found myself feeling oddly responsible. I wanted to sit next to him and say, “What? Your mother never taught you manners?”
But I knew that wasn’t the way to approach him.
Instead, I pulled a bar stool over to his other side, the side away from the empty stool he hogged every Friday, and said, “Your little friend routine doesn’t work.”
He looked at me like he didn’t know I could speak English. Maybe he thought the only sentences in my repertoire were “Light on tap and piña colada, right?” and “That’ll be six-sixty-five.”
It seemed to take him a minute to process this new sentence, and then he said, “It’s gotta work.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “You need a new line, that’s all. Half the women in this place would go home with you if you asked them right.”
“I don’t want them to go home with me. I want them to go home with Marty.”
That’s when I sighed. I couldn’t help it. “Look,” I said, “to get them home with Marty, you need to charm them first.”
“No,” he said. “That’s not fair. Marty needs to charm them.”
“Marty can work his magic in the privacy of your own bedroom,” I said. “You—.”
But by that time, Mr. Weird But Beautiful was giving me the what-the-hell-did-you-just-say? look. He flushed and he was starting to get out of his chair when I grabbed his wrist.
His muscular oh-so-strong wrist.
“I’m trying to help you here,” I said. “It’s been nearly three months, and you can’t get a girl to spend thirty seconds with you. You’re going about it wrong.”
He pulled his wrist from my grasp. “First, I don’t want her to spend time with me. I’m trying to fix up Marty. Second, Marty and I do not share a bed or even a house. Third, what the hell even makes this your business?”
“Nothing, I guess,” I started, but by the time I finished the third word, he was gone.
Without paying for his beer or his piña. And, as usual, the beer was barely touched, but the piña was gone.
It really bugged me that I never saw him drink it.
Especially this time. When I was sitting beside him from the moment I set the drinks down.
I figured that was the last I’d see of Mr. Weird But Beautiful, so I wrote off the drinks and went back to my routine. No one asked after him, even though a few of the regulars noticed he was missing.
These were the closeted guys, one of whom got very drunk on a Friday in March, sidled up to Mr. Weird But Beautiful, and said, “I’ll say hello to your little friend” in a suggestive voice, and nearly got tossed across the room.
Mr. Weird But Beautiful left after that too, although that time he paid, hands shaking. He did come back, though, the following week, and when his closeted stalker came up to him a second time, Mr. Weird But Beautiful held up his hand.
“Look,” he said in a polite voice, the same voice he used for his pick-up line. “I vote Democrat. I believe in equal rights. I know we should be flattered because you’re probably a very nice man. But believe me when I say that my friend and I are not your type.”
The closeted stalker nodded once, then went back to his chair, probably trying to maintain some dignity. He never approached Mr. Weird But Beautiful again, but he did watch from time to time, maybe hoping Mr. WBB might change his mind.
Although I could have told him that he wouldn’t. A guy who doesn’t change his pick-up line is not going to change his orientation, no matter how much the other party hopes he will.
Believe me, I know. Because most guys are oriented toward beautiful—or at least pretty—and no matter how friendly they are, no matter how much they talk to me or flirt with me, they’re not going home with me, and they’re certainly not going to invite me to spend time with their little friend.
At least, not when they’re sober. And I’ve been a bartender long enough to know, they’re not worth a damn when they’re drunk. After a while, you look for meaning, you know? Just a kind word, a phrase, a bit of understanding.
I try a little kindness once a night, just to keep my hand in the game, which was why I talked to Mr. Weird But Beautiful in the first place.
Sometimes kindness pans out. Sometimes it doesn’t.
And sometimes it leads you places you never thought you’d go.
He came back the next afternoon. Mr. Weird But Beautiful, who never darkened my door on any day but Friday, had shown up on Saturday wearing a blue chambray shirt, faded jeans, shit-kickers with no added heel. If anything, he looked even more delectable. The blue shirt stretched just enough to show the muscles on his chest. The jeans hugged his ass the way…well, the way I wanted to.
He didn’t sit at the bar. Instead, he took a table in the middle of the room.
And since none of the cocktail waitresses would go near him, I had to wait on him. From the bar, I said tiredly, “Beer and piña, right?”
He looked at me, those blue eyes flat, his expression reserved, his tone one you’d use with a six-year-old. “Just the beer.”
So I brought him the light, still foaming over the stein, and onto the tray. Man, was I out of practice.
I set down the napkin, then the beer, and started to leave, when he said, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation.”
“Good,” I said, and returned the tray, wiping it down before I set it near the server’s station.
“And I’d like to ask you a few questions,” he said just a little louder.
Jodi, the cocktail waitress, raised a single eyebrow. It was her who-does-this-asshole-think-he-is? look.
But there was no one else in the place. So I told her to man the bar, and I walked back to him.
He kicked out the chair beside him. I sat. This wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.
“So why doesn’t it work?” he asked. “That line, as you call it.”
My turn to give him the incredulous look, and I almost hauled out one of the sentences I’d been thinking since he first came in—“What? You were raised by wolves?”—but if I did, he’d bolt, and spend the rest of his life trying this stupid gambit at bars all over town, until he finally gave up and stayed home—alone—for the rest of his life.
I couldn’t decide if that outcome was a crime against nature or just the way things should be.
For a minute, I toyed with answering the question delicately. But I’d tiptoed around delicate the day before, and it hadn’t worked. This guy had spent all night wondering why “Say hello to my little friend,” repelled women. He wasn’t going to get delicate.
He might not even get blunt.
“Look,” I said in my best I’ve-been-around-the-block voice, “we all know that most men name their penis, okay? We know you have a close relationship—a friendship—with that part. We just don’t need to know it from the moment—”
“You think Marty is my penis? Are you nuts?” He stood up, bumped the table, and knocked over the stein. I slid my chair back so I wouldn’t get doused in light beer.
Jodi tossed me the bar rag, but she wasn’t getting anywhere near good ole WBB.
“Who else would he be?” I asked as I set the rag on the table and went for some bar napkins.
“My friend,” WBB said. “You know, the guy who comes in here with me. The guy who drinks the piña coladas.”
“I hate to tell you this, pal,” I said as I tossed half the napkins on the table and the other half on the stain spreading across the floor. “But you come in here alone.”
I expected an argument. I expected him to tell me all about this Marty, who accompanied him. I expected to hear every detail about the delusion.
Instead, WBB said, “That fucking son of a bitch,” handed me a twenty, and walked out of the bar.
He walked back in an hour later, dragging an ugly little man who had blood dripping from his nose. WBB picked up the little man—who couldn’t have been more than three feet tall—and said,
“This. This is my little friend. Marty the fucking bastard. Say hello, Marty.”
“Hello,” the little man said in a nasal tone. He was dripping blood over the floors I had just cleaned the beer off of.
“Hello,” I said. “Do you want to press charges? I can call the police.”
The little man shook his head. Blood dripped everywhere.
“Show the nice lady what you can do, Marty,” WBB said. “She’s been kind to me. She deserves to know.”
I flushed at the word “kind.” No one had noticed before.
Marty closed his eyes. His nose was still dripping.
WBB shook him. “Show her.”
And Marty disappeared. But the blood kept dripping on my floor. Ping, ping, ping.
Jodi and I exchanged glances. I’d seen a lot of strange things in my bar, but that was the first legitimate disappearing man.
“Now,” WBB said. “Explain what was going on.”
He shook his fists. Only Jodi and I knew that there was a little guy between them.
Either that or WBB was David Fucking Copperfield.
“Tell them,” WBB said.
“We had a bet,” the little guy said, and reappeared as he spoke. He was dangling between WBB’s hands and looking as forlorn as a human being could. “We bet that no matter how good-looking he is, he couldn’t get me a date.”
“The rest of it,” WBB said.
The little guy sighed.
WBB shook him again.
“We handicapped him,” the little guy said, “by making him say, ‘Say hello to my little friend.’ You know, like in golf. Figuring the good player needed a level playing field with the ugly player. Me.”
“Ugly.” WBB said. “Damn straight.”
I didn’t say anything. I’d seen bar bets before. But judging from WBB’s face the day he first came in—all stunned at the way the bar looked and smelled—he didn’t. He had no idea that cheating was part of the process.
“How much was the bet for?” I asked.
“The year-end bonus,” WBB said. “Five grand.”
“He doesn’t need his,” the little guy said. “People give him stuff because he’s so pretty.”
I stared at WBB. His beautiful blue eyes flashed. He was furious.
He shook the little guy one more time for good measure. “Tell her the rest of it. I’d say, ‘Say hello to my little friend.’ And then you what?”
The little guy cleared his throat. “I disappeared.”
He vanished then quickly reappeared.
“To everyone except me,” WBB said. “I could see the little bastard.”
“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but he disappeared long before you came into the bar. If he really was with you.”
“He was,” WBB said. “Tell her.”
The little guy shrugged one imprisoned shoulder. The movement looked like it hurt. “It’s my only talent. It’s all I can do. I trained it. Because people always looked at me with pity. I’m short and I’m ugly and you wouldn’t believe the jokes.”
“So you turned the table on your friend?” I asked. “A man who was going to help you? You played a trick on him?”
“He promised he wouldn’t,” WBB said. “He promised he’d stay visible.”
“I did!” The little guy said.
“To me,” WBB said. “And only me. The man who believed in him. I figured once someone talked to him, she’d want to go out with him. I used to think he was clever.”
The little guy tried to wipe his nose but WBB held him fast.
“I believed in him,” WBB said, and dropped him.
The little guy bounced in the pool of his own blood.
“Fucking bastard,” WBB said, and left.
And of course, I never saw him again.
His little friend, on the other hand, haunts my bar like an out-of-work Rumpelstiltskin. I think he makes his living by winning bar bets.
Like “betcha I can’t appear and reappear.” Like “I can make a piña colada vanish without even touching it.” Like “I bet a handsome man like you can’t get a woman to give me a second glance.”
I let him stay. He’s a curiosity. Now that they’re used to him, the regulars place bets right alongside his. The entire place is getting rich.
Because there’s a part of me that still wants the fairy tale. You know, you help the gorgeous guy, and even though you’re a plain Cinder Ella, he sees through the grime and makes you his princess.
But WBB hasn’t come back. I haven’t even gotten enough courage to ask his little friend for WBB’s real name.
I know real life is not a fairy tale.
But I also know that tiny men who look like Rumpelstiltskin can’t disappear at will.
And yet this one does.
Somehow that’s not quite enough to overcome my belief in the way the world really works.
You see, I own a bar. I know that people never change their orientation. And WBB, for all his willingness to help his little friend, was oriented toward beautiful—or at least pretty.
And no matter how nice I was, and how much I was willing to help him, and how much his pride made him come back to talk to me, to explain he really wasn’t crazy, I knew he wasn’t going home with me.
I knew he was never going to invite me to spend time with his little friend.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Imaginary Friends, edited by John Marco and Martin H. Greenberg, Daw Books, 2008.
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Alphababy/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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September 23, 2015
I’m teaching the mystery workshop this week, so my brain is mostly on craft. (And murder…lots of murder). I had hoped to get this blog post done last week, along with another (for last week), but since my brain turned to fried cheese, I wasn’t able to get either done.
I had to remind myself that failing to complete them was not a crisis. I am back on a streak, more or less, posting every week even with the accident, and I didn’t want to break that. But as I mentioned last week, I promised myself when I returned that I wouldn’t push past my limits to get a blog done like I had in the past. I would do my very best to pace myself.
Pacing myself was pretty easy back in the days when traditional publishing was the only game in town. I had my contracts. I sketched out my deadlines, moved them up one month, then worked backwards from that date, so I knew how many words I needed to write per day to get the project done.
I would often finish early, just like I used to with assignments in school. (Yeah, sorry. I was one of those kids). Depending on the company and the editor, I would either turn the book in at that moment or I would turn the book in on the due date. If the editor was completely disorganized and would lose the manuscript, I would wait to the due date. If the editor was a friend, I’d ask what he wanted in regards to turn-in.
If I was working with the editor for the first time, I would turn in the manuscript early, which accomplished several things. It let the new editor know that I was a professional who got the job done. It also gave the editor an extra book in the pipeline because new editors often fail to account for writers who chronically miss deadlines. When a writer misses a deadline, the editor usually had to shuffle other writers’ deadlines. If the editor already had a finished book on her desk, she could move the book to the writer’s missed deadline slot with little muss or fuss.
But that was the extent of my involvement in the traditional publishing cycle. Yes, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of wasted time on the phone with editors, a lot of wasted e-mails, a lot of back-and-forths with agents, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of chasing money and missing payments—just a lot of time spent on bullshit.
I used to think of traditional publishing as one big giant game of Telephone. Mentioning the game probably shows my age. I just Googled it to see if children still play, and can’t tell. I also can’t tell if it’s a U.S.-only game. So, for those of you who have never played it, the game is really simple.
A group of children sit around a big table. The first child whispers something into the ear of the child to his left. That child has to whisper the same message to the child on her left. And so on. The children can’t ask for clarification. One sentence, whispered, usually ten or twelve times, all the way around the table, until the final child hears the sentence in a whisper, and then repeats it out loud.
When I was a kid, we used to play the game at every single birthday party I went to, and the end of the whisper campaign was always the same. The last child always ended up saying something totally random, completely stupid, and often hysterically funny. That sentence, spoken by the last child, was never the same as the whispered sentence. It wasn’t even close.
I suppose the fact that I compared the systems in traditional publishing to a game of Telephone showed my frustration with the entire system. It does explain why, a few years into having an agent, I never had the agent rely a single message to my editor. I called the editor. I had a direct conversation.
The reason I went through so many agents was because I did have direct conversations with the editor. Often I learned that the agent didn’t think my message worth passing along. Or, one significant case, the agent never let me know when money the publisher paid me had arrived in the agent’s office. The money would sit there for weeks unless I nagged, which I did, for years. The agent would always explain that it was company policy to hold the money for at least two weeks to make sure the check cleared. I, of course, was too stupid to realize that “company policy” was both unnecessary in the modern publishing world, and was a firing offense. (I eventually figured it out.)
Yeah, much of what you read in these blogs—particularly the warnings, the mistakes “stupid” writers make—aren’t about me being superior to the rest of you or about me being wiser than all of you. Much of what you read are the mistakes I made. When I say “stupid writers do x,” often I mean, “myself included.”
Sometimes I look at all the things I’ve done, all the truly stupid mistakes I’ve made, and I’m amazed I still have a career.
Fortunately for me, indie publishing came along. I was able to get out of the traditional publishing novel merry-go-round, which never suited me, and able to publish my novels on my own.
There are a lot of capable people working in traditional publishing, some fantastic editors, and publishers who really care about writers and books. I love working with those people. I consider it a privilege to interact with them.
But now, I’m straddling both worlds, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the weirdness of both pace and deadlines.
Traditional publishing has its systems, many of which have existed for more than a century. A book gets turned in. The editor reads it, edits it, then the writer revises (if asked). The book goes back to the editor who reads it again (reads again in theory—I’ve had dozens of book editors who have punted on this step). The editor approves the book, puts in for the acceptance check, and sends the book to the copy editor. There are rounds of copy editing, proofing, cover design. There are sales meetings, scheduling, planning charts, promotion discussions—none of which involve the author, especially if the author is being paid less than six-figures for the project (and sometimes not even then).
The book goes out for review four to six months in advance of publication. The book is also in the catalog, and about that time, major retailers are placing advance orders. The book gets finalized, it gets printed, and, on the big day, it hits the shelves. (There are lots of steps in between which I am leaving out.) Then the promotion machinery hits its peak. With luck, the book sells lots of copies very fast, it hits lists, it gets good word of mouth, and then…and then…
The pages of the calendar turn. Another book comes up in traditional publishing’s queue. Your book becomes less important, then it becomes unimportant, and then it gets forgotten.
You—the writer under contract—are working on your next book, and that machine gears up for it again.
The moment the publishing house commissions a book from you to the month after publication usually takes two years. Some special projects take less time—Dean and I did some tie-ins which went from commission to publication in six months—and many take more time. My first novel took so long from commission to publication that I had sold eight more books to other publishers before it appeared. My editor at the time (a born salesman) kept revising the release date and putting more and more publicity behind the book. It was a weird, but ultimately good, experience, one that, sadly, never got repeated.
But let’s go back to that topic sentence in the paragraph above. (Yeah, I’m teaching. Can you tell?). A traditionally published book takes two years, generally, to work its way through the process, only to dominate the shelves for a month or so (if, indeed, you’re lucky enough to be a dominant author). God knows how many years it took you to get a publishing house interested in the book.
So for a writer, a book might take anywhere from three to five years from the first proposal to publication. Some traditionally published authors wait to write another book until the first one sells. I call those writers hobbyists. They clearly don’t have a profession or a work ethic, at least for writing.
The rest of us wrote a lot, wrote more proposals than I want to consider, and wrote other stuff.
Traditionally published short stories take a lot of time from submission to publication as well. I currently have four stories on the desk of an editor who loves my work. One of those stories has been there, unpurchased, for six months. She’s an outlier. Most short story editors get back to me in three months or less. Several, whom I’ve sold to regularly, respond in two weeks.
But once the story gets purchased, it goes through a mini-version of the book pattern discussed above. If the story goes to a magazine, that magazine stays on the shelf (virtual or otherwise) for one month before moving on.
Fiction River, the bimonthly anthology project that Dean and I act as series editors on for WMG Publishing, is a traditional publication in many ways. The major difference between Fiction River and other publications that come out on a regular schedule is that Fiction River stays in print. Promotions continue long after the book comes out. (For example, Fiction River: Special Edition Crime is up for two different Silver Falchion awards. It’s up for the Best Anthology Silver Falchion, and it’s up for the Silver Falchion Readers Award, [along with several other WMG books] which you can vote on, if you like. WMG is promoting the volume, even though it appeared over a year ago.)
But, from the writers’ experience before publication, Fiction River is 100% traditional. Stories take months or, in some cases, a year or more to see print from the moment the editor (not always me or Dean) expresses an interest in them. The rounds of editing and covers and blurbs and interaction all happen.
And there’s a war board (a white board, actually) up at WMG on one of the walls so that everyone involved with the project can have a visual representation of where, exactly, each upcoming volume is in the process, what the deadlines are, and when a volume will hit print.
WMG is a traditional publishing company. Yes, Dean and I started it and we’re involved with it, but it’s a corporation, with others who actually run the business. WMG is a small traditional publishing company, and purposely nimble. (Actually, in traditional publishing, WMG fits into the medium size press category, based on the sales and number of titles printed. When I say small I’m referring to the number of employees, and the overall business structure. WMG Publishing doesn’t have a lot of baggage, no longer has too many employees who can get away with sitting on their asses and getting paid for minimum effort, and therefore there is no possibility for a game of Telephone.)
WMG uses the some of the best parts of indie publishing (quick turn arounds on some projects, the ability to rebrand immediately, flexibility in the schedule) and the best parts of traditional publishing (all of the sales systems that have existed for decades, for example) to become a new entity. A hybrid-traditional publisher.
But when I finish a project that will end up being published through WMG, that project goes on a schedule. It goes through rounds of proofers, copy editors, design, much of that stuff in the traditional publishing section above. The project acquires a publication date, and sometimes there’s a promotional push behind that publication date. Meaning that we’re using the traditional system to gain attention for the book—reviews, getting preorders, making sure the book is on shelves before release.
However, with WMG, the books don’t die a month after publication. In most traditional publishing houses (like 99%), if a book does worse than expected, it vanishes. Yeah, its little ebook ghost remains on all the ebook retail sites so that the publisher can claim the book is still in print and the book remains an asset on the publisher’s books, but the book never gets thought of again—as a book—again.
If the book is about the Battle of the Bulge, and five years after that book is published, novels on World War II (particularly the Battle of the Bulge) get hot, no traditional publisher would reissue the book, because the book had done poorly in its first release. That book never gets a better cover, it never gets thrown into a major promotion, or even mentioned as one of the books that the publisher has about World War II.
The poor little book’s ebook ghost continues to float out there in the marketplace with the cover it got five years before, a cover that’s probably dated and a cover that’s probably awful (because bad covers do hurt sales), completely forgotten except by the readers who happen on it.
Not so with a company like WMG. That company keeps its assets active. In fact, as some of you know, WMG has spent much of the summer rebranding its larger projects, so that they look better for the market of 2016, rather than looking like books published in 2010.
WMG is not the only company like this these days. Several other small publishers have arisen in the past five years similar to WMG, and all of these new companies keep their assets alive as books. A book is a book is a book, and the newest book is no more important than a book published five years ago.
In fact, the good folk at WMG actually prefer the older titles. They’re more familiar with those titles, and the staff have a ton of marketing ideas for them. The office has two promotion scheduling places. The first, another white board, shows projects in development. If the project needs pre-publication promotion, that fact is listed on that white board. Then the project gets its own little promotion schedule.
But WMG has a second promotion schedule, a calendar with planned promotions listed by day or by week. This schedule is primarily backlist, because so many of the modern sites that allow book advertising want backlist. In fact, Bookbub, a free service for readers that provides them with email listings of book deals, rarely accept brand new books for its service.
In a blog post aimed at those who want to advertise with Bookbub (and who pay fees for that privilege), the Bookbub folks wrote this:
While there is no specific “minimum requirement” for reviews, our editors are generally more likely to select books with higher numbers of authentic and positive customer reviews. This is why we rarely accept new releases for Featured Deals — books with established platforms and positive reviews tend to perform best with our readers.
I underlined that section, because to writers and publishers who are coming out of traditional publishing, that little phrase—we rarely accept new releases—is a complete and utter mindfuck. And I do mean “mindfuck.” There are few other words to describe what that phrase does to the brain of someone whose entire career was based on promoting something before it was released, only to be told that such promotions aren’t allowed in a promotion venue no matter how much the advertiser wants to pay.
I’m sure Bookbub has dealt with a lot of writers and publishers who want to send them new titles to skirt the reader review issue (Bookbub prefers reader reviews and likes). Eventually, when you try to game a system, those running the system notice and put up roadblocks to prevent.
Bookbub, and the dozens of services like them, want to advertise what we used to call backlist. The stuff I mentioned above, the stuff that gets forgotten by old-school traditional publishers.
Yet most of the promotions Dean and I have done through WMG have been backlist promotions. For example, you probably noticed the Storybundles that I’ve done. Most books in the bundles I’ve participated in (and Dean has participated in) have been backlist.
Once in a while, a writer will contribute a new release. I did in a writing bundle in the spring. But only because I had already bundled a lot of my writing books (and promised the only remaining one to another bundle coming in November). So I used it as an excuse to compile blog posts into a new book that I had been planning anyway.
Starting in mid-October, I’ll be participating in a boxed set of novellas with eight other writers. This is not a WMG promotion. This is me. I’ve contributed a novella that’s part of a series of shorts that I’ve written. If interest grows in the series, I’ll write the novel I was planning.
And here’s where it all gets dicey.
When your backlist—wait, let me start again, using 2015 language.
When your inventory is as big as mine is, then the promotion of old titles can take all day every day. It’s well and good for people with five or ten books to spend weeks of time and effort promoting those books (old and new). But the kind of attention that I’ve seen other writers do with their one series (eight books, maybe) or their ten standalone novels is simply impossible for me if I want to continue writing.
I wrote a post a while ago about the way that the time I used to spend trying to sell books into traditional publishing is now freed up to promote books in hybrid publishing. But I discovered this summer that even that brand-new free time (and believe me, it’s a lot) isn’t enough.
I have three pen names, all with separate fan followings (with a tiny bit of overlap). I write three major series as Rusch, with several in other stages of publication/plotting/planning. I write Grayson romances and Grayson YAs. I have three Grayson mysteries sketched out. I write the Smokey Dalton mystery series as Nelscott, and I’m working on two separate series under that name right now.
None of that counts the non-series books I want to do. None of it counts the nonfiction, the blog, or the editing. None of that counts the short stories—which have their own resales and promotions going. (I just sold a short reprint to a market I hadn’t even known existed. The editor found me. That happens a lot.)
None of that counts the overseas promotion or the Hollywood negotiations (and the existing options). None of it counts the financial work that we do or the contracts that have to be negotiated or the emails or…or…or…
The problem, for me, is that I am not WMG. As Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher, said to me jokingly last week, she’s caught me cheating on her with other publishers more than once.
That’s right. I do a lot of work for a variety of venues because I can, and because I enjoy them. But I haven’t yet figured out how to run my own version of the trad-pub pre-publication schedule and the indie-pub post publication schedule in a satisfying and organized way.
I keep track of all of it on calendars and reminders and my version of a spreadsheet. But sometimes I get backed up or something unexpected happens, like that accident in August. One change of plan, and the entire row of dominoes topples—not in the way I expect.
It’s a new problem. It’s a great problem. But, as we used to say back when we taught a master class before the ebook revolution, it is a problem you trade up for. It’s a problem of too much. It’s also a problem of possibilities.
All of those old titles, the ones that were dead in traditional publishing, have come roaring back to life. The old titles have fans who want a particular series book now, the old titles have opportunities (do you have a high fantasy to promote, because we’d love to include you in this…?), the old titles have value again as much more than a book listed as an asset on a spreadsheet (with an ebook ghost floating around).
It’s fascinating and overwhelming.
Because I’m reorganizing due to the lost weeks after the accident, I’m looking at all of this. And because I’m looking at all of it, I feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote. I was doing fine when I was standing on a puff of air. But now I’ve realized there’s no ground beneath me. So that sinking whistle you hear, that’s me, wondering how the hell I got here and what I do to keep from ending up as a puff of dust on the desert floor.
I’ll figure it out. It’s a great problem to have
I think the real solution is that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do right now. I’m going to have to learn how to pace myself…again.
That’ll require some rethinking, maybe a better way of scheduling the non-writing stuff. And I’ll do it all…
When the mystery workshop ends.
You readers brought me back to the blog. You asked my opinion on a lot of what’s happening in publishing, even when I wasn’t blogging. And of course, I had opinions. I always do [grin]. So I came back.
But as I’ve said before, the blog must earn its keep. I put it up for free, but donations sustain it.
So if you got something out of this or if you just like the weekly discussions, please leave a tip on the way out.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: The Overwhelmed Writer,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / tomas1111
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September 21, 2015
George has lived a full life as a decorated WWII veteran, high-end attorney, family man. But the incident that haunts him only took five minutes—five minutes when he shared a Coke with a woman on her way to California, a woman who would die hours later. Murdered. Maybe even by George.
“Details,” an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers’ Choice Award-winning story by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
No more alcohol, no more steak. In the end, it’s the little things that go, and you miss them like you miss a lover at odd times, at comfort times, at times when you need something small that means a whole lot more.
I’ve been thinking about the little things a lot since my granddaughter drove me to the glass-and-chrome hospital they built on the south side of town. Maybe it was the look the doctor gave me, the one that meant you should’ve listened to me, George. Maybe it was the sight of Flaherty’s, all made over into a diner.
Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m seventy-seven years old and not getting any younger. Every second becomes a detail then. An important one, and I can hear the details ticking away quicker than I would like.
It gets a man to thinking, all those details. I mentioned it to Sarah on the way back, and she said, in that dry way of hers, “Maybe you should write some of those details down.”
So I am.
I know Sarah wanted me to start with what she considers the beginning: my courting—and winning—of her grandmother. Then she’d want me to cover the early marriage, and of course the politics, all the way to the White House years.
But Flaherty’s got me thinking—details again—and Flaherty’s got me remembering.
They don’t make gas stations like that no more. You know the kind: the round-headed pumps, the Coke machine outside—the kind that dispenses bottles and has a bottle opener built in—and the concrete floor covered with gum and cigarette butts and oil so old it looks like it come out of the ground.
But Flaherty’s hasn’t been a gas station for a long time. For years it was closed up, the pumps gone, plywood over the windows. Then just last summer some kids from Vegas came in, bought the land, filled the pits, and made the place into a diner. For old folks like me, it looks strange—kinda like people being invited to eat in a service station—but everyone else thinks it looks authentic.
The authentic Flaherty’s exists only in my mind now, and it won’t leave me alone. It never has. And so I’m starting with my most important memory of Flaherty’s—maybe my most important memory period—not because it’s the prettiest or even the best, but because it’s the one my brain sticks on, the one I see when I close my eyes at night and when I wake bleary eyed in the morning. It’s the one I mull over on sunny mornings, or catch myself daydreaming about as I take those walks the doctor has talked me into.
You’d think instead I’d focus on the look in Sally Anne’s eyes the first time I kissed her, or the way that pimply faced German boy moaned when he sank to his knees with my knife in his belly outside of Argentan.
But I don’t.
Instead, I think about Flaherty’s in the summer of 1946, and me fresh home from the war.
I got home from the war later than most.
Part of that was because of my age, and part of it was that I’d signed up for a second tour of duty, World War II being that kinda war, the kind where a man was expected to fight until the death, not like that police action in Korea, that strange mire we called Vietnam, or that video war them little boys fought in the Gulf.
I came back to McCardle in my uniform. I’d left a scrawny teenager, allowed to sign up because old Doc Elliot wanted to go himself and didn’t want to deny anyone anything, and I’d come back a twenty-five year old who’d killed his share of men, had his share of drunken nights, and slept with women who didn’t even know his name let alone speak his language. I’d seen Europe, even if much of it’d been bombed, and I knew how its food tasted, its people smelled, and its women smiled.
I was somebody different and I wanted the whole world to know.
The whole world, in those days, was McCardle, Nevada. My grandfather’d come west for the Comstock Load, but made his money selling dry goods, and when the Load petered, came to McCardle. He survived the resulting depression, and when the boom hit again around the turn of the century, he doubled his money. My father got into government early on, using the family fortune to control the town, and expected me to do the same.
When I came home, I wasn’t about to spend my whole life in Nevada. I had the GI Bill and a promise of a future, a future I planned on taking.
I had the summer free, and then in September, I’d be allowed to go East. I’d got accepted to Harvard, but I’d met some of those boys, and decided a pricey snobby school like that wasn’t a place for me. Instead, I went to Boston College because I’d heard of it and because it wasn’t as snobby and because it was far away.
It turned out to be an okay choice, but not the one I’d dreamed of. Nothing ever quite turns out like you dream.
I should’ve known that the day I drove into McCardle in ’46, but I didn’t. For years, I’d imagined myself coming back all spit-polished and shiny, the conquering hero. Instead I was covered in the dust that rolled into the windows of my ancient Ford truck, and the sweat that made my uniform cling to my skinny shoulders. The distance from Reno to McCardle seemed twice as long as it should have, and when I hit Clark County, I realized those short European distances had worked their way into my soul.
Back then, Clark County was so different as to be another country. Gambling had been legal since I was a boy, but it hadn’t become the business it is now. Bugsy Siegel’s dream in the desert, the Flamingo, wouldn’t be completed for another year, and while Vegas was going through a population boom the likes of which Nevadans hadn’t seen since the turn of the century, it wasn’t nowhere near Nevada’s biggest city.
McCardle got its share of soldiers and drifters and cons looking for a great break. Since gambling was in the hands of local and regional folks, its effects were different around the state. McCardle’s powers that be, including my father, took one look at Siegel and his ilk and knew them for what they were. Those boys couldn’t buy land, they couldn’t even get no one to talk to them, and they moved on to Vegas, which was farther from California, but much more willing to be bought. Years later, my father would brag that he stared down gangsters, but the truth of it was that the gangsters were looking for a quick buck and they knew that they’d be fighting unfriendlies in McCardle for generations when Vegas would have them for a song.
Nope. We had our casino, but our biggest business was divorces. For a short period after the war, McCardle was the divorce capitol of the US of A.
You sure could recognize the divorce folks. They’d come into town in their fancy cars, wearing too many or too few clothes, and then they’d go to McCardle’s only hotel, built by my grandfather’s dry goods money long about 1902, and they’d cart in enough luggage to last most people a year. Then they’d visit the casino, look for the local watering holes, and attempt to chat up a local or two for the requisite two weeks, and then they’d drive off, marriage irretrievably broken. Some would go back to Reno where they’d sign a new marriage license. Others would go about their business, never to be thought of again.
In those days, Flaherty’s was on the northern-eastern side of town, just at the edge of the buildings where the highway started its long trek toward forever. Now, Flaherty’s is dead center. But in those days, it was the first sign you were coming into civilization, that and the way the city spread before you like a vision. You had about five minutes of steady driving after you left Flaherty’s before you hit the main part of McCardle, and I decided, on that hot afternoon, that five minutes was five too many.
I pulled into Flaherty’s and used one thin dime to buy myself an ice-cold Coca-Cola.
I remember it as if it happened an hour ago: getting out of that Ford, my uniform sticking to my legs, the sweat pouring down my chest and back, the grit of sand in my eyes. I walked past several cars to get to the concrete slab they’d built Flaherty’s on. A bell ting-tinged near me as someone’s tank got filled, and in the cool darkness of the station proper, a little bell pinged before the cash register popped open. Flaherty himself stood behind the register in those days, although like as not by ’46, you’d find him drunk.
The place smelled of gasoline and motor oil. A greasy Philco perched on a metal filing cabinet near the cash register, and it was broadcasting teen idol Frankie Sinatra live, a pack of screaming girls ruining the song. In the bay, a green car was half disassembled, the legs of some poor kid sticking out from under its side as he worked underneath. Another mechanic, a guy named Jed, a tough who’d been a few years behind me in school, leaned into the hood. I remembered Jed real well. Rumor had it he’d knifed an Indian near a roadside stand. I’d stopped him from hitting one of the girls in my class when she’d laughed at him for asking her on a date. After that, Jed and I avoided each other when we could and were coldly polite when we couldn’t.
The Coke bottle—one of the small ones that they don’t make any more—popped out of the machine. I grabbed its cold wet sides, and used the built-in bottle opener to pop the lid. Brown fizz streamed out the top, and I bent to catch as much of it as I could without getting it on my uniform.
The Coke was ice-cold and delicious, even if I was drinking foam. In those days, Coke was sweet and lemony and just about the best non-alcoholic drink money could buy. I finished the bottle in several long gulps, then dug in my pocket for another dime. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was or how tired; being this close to home brought out every little ache, even the ones I had no idea that I had. I stuck the dime in the machine, and took my second bottle, this time waiting until the contents settled before opening it.
“Hey, soldier. Mind if I have a sip?”
The voice was sultry and sexy and very female. I jumped just a little at the sound. I hadn’t seen anyone besides Flaherty and the grease monkeys inside, even though I had known, on some level, that other folks were around me. I kept a two-fingered grip on the chilly bottle as I looked up.
A woman was leaning against the building. She wore a checked blouse tied beneath her breasts, tight pants that gathered around her calves, and Keds. She finished off an unfiltered cigarette and flicked it with her thumb and forefinger into the sand on the building’s far side. Her hair was a brownish red, her skin so dark it made me wonder if she were a devotee of that crazy new fad that had women lying in the sun all hours trying to get tan. Her eyes were coal-black but her features were delicate, almost as if someone had taken the image from a Dresden doll and changed its coloring to something else entirely.
“Well?” she said. “I’m outta dimes.”
I opened the bottle and handed it to her. She put its mouth between those lips and sucked. I felt a shiver run down my back. For a moment, it felt as if I hadn’t left Italy.
Then she pulled the bottle down, handed it back to me, and wiped the condensation on her thighs. “Thanks,” she said. “I was getting thirsty.”
“That your car in there?” I managed.
She nodded. “It made lots of pretty blue smoke and a helluva groan when I tried to start it up. And here I thought it only needed gas.”
Her laugh was deep and self-deprecating, but beneath it I thought I heard fear.
“How long they been working on it?”
“Most of the day,” she said. “God knows how much it’s going to cost.”
“Have you asked?”
“Sure.” She held out her hand, and I gave the bottle back to her, even though I hadn’t yet taken a drink. “They don’t know either.”
She tipped the bottle back and took another swig. I watched her drink and so did most of the men in the place. Jed was leaning on the car, his face half hidden in the shadows. I could sense rather than see his expression. It was that same flatness I’d seen just before he lit into the girl outside school. I didn’t know if I was causing the look just by being there, or if he’d already made a pass at this woman, and failed.
“You’re not from McCardle,” I said.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and gave the bottle back to me. “Does it show?” she asked, grinning.
The grin transformed all her strange features, making her into one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I took a sip from the bottle simply to buy myself some time, and tasted her on the glass rim. Suddenly it seemed as if the heat of the day had grown more intense. I drank more than I intended, and pulled the bottle away only when my body threatened to burp the liquid back up.
“You just visiting?” I asked which was the only way I could get the answer I really wanted. She wasn’t wearing a ring; I suspected she was here for a quickie divorce.
“Taking in the sights, starting with Flaherty’s here,” she said. “Anything else I shouldn’t miss?”
I almost answered her seriously before I caught that grin again. “There’s not much to the place,” I said.
“Except a soldier boy, going home,” she said.
“Does it show?” I asked and we both laughed. Then I finished the second bottle, put it in the wooden crate with the first, and flipped her a dime.
“The next one’s on me,” I said, as I made my way back to the Ford.
“You’re the first hospitable person I’ve met here,” she said and I should’ve heard it then, that plea, that subtle request for help.
Instead, I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll meet others,” I said and left.
Kinda strange I can remember it detail for detail, word for word. If I close my eyes and concentrate, the taste of her mingled with Coke comes back as if I had just experienced it; the way her laugh rasped and the sultry warmth of her voice are just outside my earshot.
Only now the memory has layers: the way I felt it, the way I remembered it at various times in my life, and the understanding I have now.
None of it changes anything.
No matter what, she’s still dead.
I was asleep when Sheriff Conner showed up at the door at ten a.m. two mornings later. I was usually up with the dawn, but after two nights in my childhood bed, I’d finally found a way to be comfortable. Seems the bed was child-sized, and I had grown several inches in my four years away. The bed was a sign to me that I didn’t have long in my parents’ home, and I knew it. I didn’t belong here anyway. I was an adult full grown, a man who’d spent his time away from home. Trying to fit in around these people was like trying to sleep in my old bed: every time I moved I realized I had grown beyond them.
When Sheriff Conner arrived, my mother woke me with a sharp shake of the shoulder. She frowned at me, as if I had embarrassed her, and then she vanished from my room. I pulled on a pair of khakis that were wrinkled from my overnight case, and combed my hair with my fingers. I grabbed a shirt as I wandered barefoot into the living room.
Sheriff Conner was a big man with skin that turned beet-red in the Nevada sun. His blond hair was cropped so short that the top of his head sunburned. He hadn’t changed since I was a boy. He was still too large for his uniform, and his watch dug red lines into the flesh of his wrist. I always wondered how he could be comfortable in those tight clothes in that heat, but, except for the dots of perspiration around his face, he never seemed to notice.
“You grew some,” he said as the screen door slammed behind my mother.
“Yep,” I said.
“Your folks say you saw action.”
He grunted and his bright blue eyes skittered away from mine. In that moment, I realized he had been too young for World War I, and too old for this war, and he was one of those men who wanted to serve, no matter what the cause. I wasn’t that kind of man, only I learned it later when I contemplated Korea and the mess we were making there.
“I guess you just got to town,” he said.
“Two days ago.”
“And when you drove in, you stopped at Flaherty’s first, but didn’t get no gas.” His tone had gotten sharper. He was easing into the questions he felt he needed to ask me.
“I was thirsty. It’s a long drive across that desert.”
He smiled then, revealing a missing tooth on his upper left side. “You bought a soda.”
“Two,” I said.
“And shared one.”
So that was it. Something to do with the girl. I stiffened, waiting. Sometimes girls who came onto a man like that didn’t like the rejection. I hadn’t gone looking for her over to the hotel. Maybe she had taken offense and told a lie or two about me. Or maybe her soon-to-be ex-husband had finally arrived and had taken an instant dislike to me. Maybe Sheriff Conner had come to warn me about that.
“You make it your policy to share your drinks with a nigra?”
“Excuse me?” I asked. I could lie now and say I was shocked at his word choice, but this was 1946, long before political correctness came into vogue, almost a decade before the official start of the Civil Rights movement, although the seeds of it were in the air.
No. I wasn’t shocked because of his language. I was shocked at myself. I was shocked that I had shared a drink with a black woman—although in those days, I probably would have called her colored not to give too much offense.
“A whole buncha people saw you talk to her, share a Coke with her, and buy her another one. A few said it looked like there was an attraction. Couple others coulda sworn you was flirting.”
I had been flirting. I hadn’t seen her as black—and yes, back then, it would have made a difference to me. I’ve learned a lot about racial tolerance since, and a lot more about intolerance. I wasn’t an offensive racist in those days, just a passive one. A man who kept to his own side of the street and didn’t mingle, just as he was supposed to do.
I would never have flirted if I had known. No matter how beautiful she was. But that hair, those features all belied what I had been taught. I had thought the darkness of her skin due to tanning not to heredity.
I had seen what I had wanted to see.
Sheriff Conner was watching me think. God knows what kind of expressions had crossed my face, but whatever they were, they weren’t good.
“Well?” he asked.
“Is it against the law now to buy a woman a drink on a hot summer day?” I asked.
“Might be,” he said, “if that woman shows up dead the next day.”
“Dead?” I whispered.
“I never saw her before,” I said.
“So you usually just go up and share a drink with a nigra woman you never met.”
“I didn’t know she was colored,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows at me.
“She was in the shade,” I said and realized how weak that sounded.
The Sheriff laughed. “And all pussy’s the same in the dark, ain’t it?” he said, and slapped my leg. I’d heard worse, much worse, in the army but it didn’t shock me like he just had. I’d never heard Sheriff Conner be crude, although my father always said he was. Apparently the Sheriff was only crude to adults. To children he was the model of decorum.
I wasn’t a child any longer.
“How’d she die?” I asked.
“Blow to the head.”
“At the station?”
“In the desert. Her pants was gone, and that scrap of fabric that passed for a blouse was underneath her.”
The desert. Someone had to take her there. I felt myself go cold.
“I didn’t know her,” I said, and if she had been a white woman, he might have believed me. But in McCardle, in those years and before, a man like me didn’t flirt with—hell, a man like me didn’t talk to—a woman like her.
“Then what was she doing here?” he asked.
“Getting a divorce?”
“Girls like her don’t get a divorce.”
That rankled me, even then. “So what do they do?”
He didn’t answer. “She wasn’t here for no divorce.”
“Have you investigated it?”
“Hell, no. Can’t even find her purse.”‘
“Well, did you trace the license on the car?”
He frowned at me then. “What car?”
“The ones the guys were fixing, the green car. They had it nearly taken apart.”
“And it was hers?”
“That’s what she said.” At least, that was what I thought she said. I suddenly couldn’t remember her exact words, although they would come to me later.
The whole scene would come to me later, like it was something I made up, like a dream that was only half there upon waking and then came, full-blown and unbidden, into the mind.
That your car? I said to her, and she didn’t answer, at least not directly. She didn’t say yes or no.
“Did you check with the boys at the station?” I asked.
“They didn’t say nothing about a car.”
“Did you ask Jed?”
The sheriff frowned at me. I’d forgotten until then that he and Jed were drinking buddies. “Yeah, of course I did.”
“Well, I can’t be the only one to remember it,” I said. “They had it torn apart.”
“Izzat so?” he asked, stroking his chin. “You think that’s important?”
“If it tells you who she is, it is,” I said, a bit stunned at his denseness.
“Maybe,” he said, but he didn’t seem to be thinking of that. He seemed focused on something else altogether. The look that crossed his face was half sad, half worried. Then he heaved himself out of the chair, and left without even a good-bye.
I sat on the sofa, wondering what, exactly, that all meant. I was still shaken by my own blindness, and by the Sheriff’s willingness to accuse me of a crime that seemed impossible to me.
It seemed impossible that a woman that vibrant could be dead.
It seemed impossible that a woman that vibrant had been black.
It seemed impossible, but there it was. It startled me.
I was more shocked at her color than at her death.
And that was the hell of it.
I tried not to think of it.
I’d learned how to do that during the war—it’s what helped me survive Normandy—and it had been effective during my tour.
But it stopped working about a week later when her family showed up.
They came for the body, and they seemed a lot more out of place than she had. Her father was a big man, the kind most folks in McCardle would have crossed the street to avoid or would have bullied out of fear. Her mother was delicate, with the same Dresden features as her daughter but on much darker skin. The auburn hair didn’t seem to come from either of them.
And with them was her husband. He wore a uniform, like I did, and his eyes were red as if he’d been crying for a long, long time. I saw them come out of the mortuary, the parents with their arms around each other, the husband walking alone.
The husband threw me, and made me even more uncomfortable than I had already been.
I thought she had flirted with me.
I usually didn’t mistake those things.
But, it seemed, I made a whole lot of mistakes in that short half hour I had known her.
They drove out that night with her body in the back of their truck. I knew that because my conscience forced me over to the hotel to talk to them, to ask them about the green car, and to tell them I was sorry.
When I got there, I learned that the only hotel in McCardle—my family’s hotel—didn’t take their kind. Maybe that, more than an assumption, explained the Sheriff’s remark: Girls like her didn’t get a divorce.
Maybe they didn’t, at least not in McCardle, because the town made sure they couldn’t, unless they had some place to stay.
And there weren’t blacks in McCardle then. The blacks didn’t start arriving for another year.
The next day, I moved, over my mother’s protests, into my own apartment. It was a single room with a hot plate and a small icebox over the town’s only restaurant. I shared a bathroom with three other tenants, and counted myself fortunate to have two windows. The place came furnished, and the Murphy bed was long enough for me, although even with fans I had trouble sleeping. The building kept the heat of the day, and not even the temperature drop after sunset could ease it. On those unbearable summer nights, I lay in tangled sheets, the smell of greasy hamburgers and chicken-fried steak carried on the breeze. I counted it better than being at home.
Especially after the nightmares started.
Strangely they weren’t about her. Nor were they about the war. I didn’t have nightmares about that war for twenty years, not until I started seeing images from Vietnam on television. Then a different set of nightmares came, and I went to the VA where I was diagnosed with a delayed stress reaction and given a whole passel of drugs that I eventually pitched.
No. Those early nightmares were about him. Her husband. The man with the olive green uniform and the red eyes. I knew guys like him. They walked with their backs straight, their faces impassive. They didn’t move unless they had to, and they never talked back, and if they showed emotion, it was because they thought guys like me weren’t looking.
He hadn’t cared about hiding any more. His emotion had been too deep.
And once Sheriff Conner figured out I had nothing to do with it, he’d declared the case closed. Over dinner the night before I left, my father speculated that Conner’d just shown up to show my father who was boss. Mother’d ventured that Conner hoped I was guilty, so it’d bring down the whole power structure of the town.
Instead, I think, it just brought Conner down. He was out of office by the following year, and the year after that he was dead, a victim of a slow-speed single vehicle drunken car crash in the days before seat belts.
I think no one would have known what happened if it hadn’t been for those nightmares. I’d dream in that dry, dry heat of him just standing there, looking at me, eyes red, face impassive. Her body was in the green car beside us, and he would stare at me, as if I knew something, as if I were keeping something from him.
But how could I have known anything? I’d shared a Coke with her and gone on.
I hadn’t even bothered to learn her name.
In the sixties they called what I was feeling white liberal guilt. Not that I had done anything wrong, mind you, but if I had known what she was—who she was—I would have acted differently. I knew it, and it bothered me.
It almost bothered me more than the fact she was dead.
Although that bothered me too. That, and the dreams. And the green car.
I went to Flaherty’s soon after the dreams started and filled up my tank. I got myself another Coke and I stared at the spot where I had seen her. The shadows were dark there, but not that dark. The air was cool but not that cool, and only someone who was waiting for a car would choose to wait in that spot, on that day, with a real town nearby. She must have been real thirsty to ask me for a drink.
Real thirsty and real scared.
And maybe she took one look at my uniform, and thought I’d be able to help her.
She even tried to ask.
You’re the first hospitable person I’ve met here, she’d said.
I’m sure you’ll meet others.
What she must have thought of that sentence.
How wrong I’d been.
I took my Coke and walked around the place, seeing lots of cars half finished, and even more car parts, but nothing of that particular shade of green.
Her family had taken her home in a truck.
The car was missing.
And as I leaned on the back of that brick building, the bottle cold in my hand, I wondered. Had the mechanics started working on the car because they too hadn’t realized who she was? Had she gotten all the way to Nevada traveling white highways and hiding her darker-than-expected skin under a trail of moxie?
I went into the mechanic’s bay, and Jed was there, putting oil into a 1937 Ford truck that had seen better days. A younger man stood beside him, and I wagered from the cut of his pants and the constant movement of his feet, that he’d been the guy under the car that day.
I leaned against the wall, sipping my Coke, and watched them.
They got quiet when they saw me. I grinned at them. I wasn’t wearing my uniform that day, just a pair of grimy dungarees and a t-shirt. Even so, I was hot and miserable, and probably looked it.
I tilted my bottle toward them in a kinda salute. The younger man, the one I didn’t recognize, nodded back.
“You seen that girl the other day?” I asked. I might have said more. I try not to remember. I can’t believe the language we used then: Japs and niggers and wops; the way we got gypped or jewed down; laughing at the pansies and whistling at the dames. And we didn’t think nothing of it, at least I didn’t. Each word had to be unlearned, just as—I guess—it had to be learned.
Jed put a hand on his friend’s arm, a small subtle movement I almost didn’t see. “Why’re you askin’?” And I could feel it, that old antipathy between us. Every word we’d ever exchanged, every look we had was buried in those words.
He wouldn’t talk to me, not really. He wouldn’t tell me what I needed to know. But his friend might. I had to play that at least.
“I was wondering if she’s living around here.” I said with an intentional leer.
“You don’t know?” the younger asked.
My heart triple-hammered. I knew then that the sheriff hadn’t told anyone he’d come after me. “Know what?”
“They found her in the desert with her face bashed in.”
“Jesus,” I said softly, then whistled for good measure. “What happened?”
“Dunno,” Jed said, his hand squeezing the other boy’s arm. Jed saw my gaze drop to his fingers, and then go back to his face. He grinned, like we were sharing a secret. And I didn’t like what I was thinking.
It seemed simple. Too simple. Impossibly simple. A man couldn’t just sense that another man had done something wrong. He needed proof.
“Too damn bad,” I said, taking another swig of my Coke. “I woulda liked a piece of that.”
“You and half the town,” the younger one said, and laughed nervously.
Jed didn’t laugh with him, but stared at me with narrowed green eyes. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear of it,” he said. “The whole town’s been talking.”
I shrugged. “Maybe I wasn’t listening.” I set the Coke down beside the radio and scanned the bay. “What’re they gonna do with that car of hers? Sell it?”
“Ain’t no one found it,” the younger boy said.
“She drove it outta here?” I asked. “She said it seemed hopeless.”
Finally Jed grinned. He actually looked merry, as if we were talking about the weather instead of a murder. “Women always say that.”
I didn’t smile back. “What was wrong with it?”
“You name it,” the younger one said. “She’d driven that thing to death.”
I knew one more question would be too many, but I couldn’t stop myself. “She say why?”
“You gotta reason for all this interest, George?” Jed asked. “You can’t get nothing from her now.”
“Guess not,” I said. “Just seems curious somehow. Woman comes here, to this town, and ends up dead.”
“Don’t seem curious to me,” Jed said. “She didn’t belong here.”
I stared at him a moment. “People don’t belong a lotta places but that don’t mean they need to die.”
He shrugged and turned away, ending the conversation. I picked up my Coke bottle. It had gotten warm already. I took another sip, letting the sweet lemony taste and the carbonation make up for the lack of coolness.
Then I went outside.
What did I want with all this? To get rid of some guilt? To make the dreams go away?
I didn’t know, and it angered me.
“Hey.” It was the younger one. He’d come out into the sun, ostensibly to smoke. He lit up a Chesterfield and offered me one. I took it to be companionable, and we lit off the same match.
Jed peeked out of the bay and watched for a moment, then disappeared, apparently satisfied that nothing was going to be said, probably thinking he had the kid under his thumb. Only Jed was wrong.
The younger one spoke softly, so softly I had to strain to hear, and I was standing next to him. “She said she was driving from Mississippi to California to join her husband. Said he’d got back from Europe and got a job in some plant in Los Angeles. Said they’d make good money there, but they didn’t have it now, and could we do as little as possible on the car, so that it’d be cheap.”
“Did you?” I asked. And when he looked confused, I added for clarification, “Keep it cheap?”
He took a long drag off the cigarette, and let the smoke out his nose. “We didn’t finish,” he said.
I felt that triple-hammer again. A little bit of adrenaline, something to let me know that I was going somewhere. “So where’s the car?”
“We left it in the bay. Next morning, we come back and it’s gone. Jed, there, he cusses her out, says all them people are like that, you can’t trust ’em for nothing, and that was that. Till the sheriff showed up, saying she was dead.”
The car I saw couldn’t have been driven, and the woman I saw couldn’t have fixed it. She would not have stopped here if she could.
“You left the car in pieces?” I asked. “And it was gone the next day? Someone drove it out of here?”
He shrugged. “Guess they finished it.”
“That would’ve taken some know-how, wouldn’t it?”
“Some,” he said. He flicked his cigarette butt onto the sandy gravel. I glanced up. Jed was staring us from the bay. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise.
I took another drag off my cigarette and watched a heat shimmer work its way down the highway. The boy started walking away from me.
“Where was she?” I asked. “When you left? Where was she?”
And I think he knew then that my interest wasn’t really casual. Up until that point, he could have pretended it was. But at that moment, he knew.
“I dunno,” he said, and his voice was flat.
“Sure you do,” I said. I spoke softly so Jed couldn’t overhear me.
The man looked at my face. His had turned bright red, and beads of sweat I hadn’t noticed earlier were dotting his skin. “I—left her outside. Near the Coke machine.”
With a car that didn’t run, and no place to take her in for the night.
“Did you offer to give her a lift somewhere?”
He shook his head.
“Was the station still open when you left?”
“For another hour,” he said.
“Did you tell the sheriff this?”
He shook his head again.
He glanced at Jed, who had crossed his arms and was leaning against the bay doors. “I didn’t think it was none of his business,” the boy whispered.
“You didn’t think, or Jed there, he didn’t think.”
“Neither of us,” the boy said. “Jed told her she could sleep in there by the car. But it woulda been an oven, even during the night. I think she knew that.”
“Is that where she slept?”
“I dunno.” This time the boy did not meet my gaze. Sweat ran off his forehead, onto his chin, and dripped on his shirt. He didn’t know, and he was sorry.
And so was I.
If I was going to pursue this logically, then I had to think logically. And it seemed to me that whoever killed the girl had known about the car. I couldn’t believe she would have talked to anyone else—I suspected she only spoke to me because I was in uniform. And if I made that assumption, then the only other people who would have known about her, about the car, about the entire business were the people who worked the station.
“Who was working that night?” I asked.
“Mr. Flaherty,” he said.
Mr. Flaherty. Mac Flaherty, whom I’d known since I was a boy. He was a hard decent man who expected work out of his employees, payment from his customers, and good money for a job well done. I’d seen Mac Flaherty in his station, at church, and at school getting his son, and I couldn’t believe he had killed someone.
But then, I had. I had killed a lot of boys overseas, and I would have killed more if Hitler hadn’t proved he was a coward and did the world a favor by dying by his own hand.
And the Mac Flaherty who ran the station now wasn’t the same man as the one I’d known. I’d learned that much in my few short days in McCardle.
A shiver ran down my back. Then I headed inside, looking for Mac Flaherty, and finding him.
Mac Flaherty was drunk. Not falling down, noticeable drunk, but his daily drunk, the kind that made a man a bit blurry around the edges, kept him from feeling the pain of day-to-day living, and kept him working a job he no longer liked.
Once Flaherty’d loved his work. It had been obvious in the booming way he’d greet new customers, in the smile he wore every day whether going or coming from work.
But then he left for the war, like I did, only he came back in ’43 minus three fingers on his left hand to find his wife shacking up with the local undertaker, and a half-sibling for his son baking in the oven. The wife, not him, took advantage of the McCardle’s divorce laws, and Flaherty was never the same. She and the undertaker left that week, and apparently, Flaherty never saw his kid again.
I went inside the service station’s main area, and the smell of beer mixed with the stench of gasoline. Flaherty was clutching a can, staring at me.
“You harassing the kid?” he asked.
“No,” I said, even though I felt that wasn’t entirely true. “I was just curious about the woman who died.”
“She something to you?” Flaherty asked.
“Only met her the once,” I said.
“Then what’s the interest?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and we both seemed surprised by my honesty. “Your boy says he left her sitting outside. That true?”
Flaherty shrugged. “I never saw her. Not when I locked up.”
“What about her car?”
“Her car,” he repeated dully. “Her car. I had it towed.”
“That morning,” he said. “When it became clear she skipped out on me.”
“Towed where?” I asked.
“My place,” he said. “For parts.”
And those parts had probably already been taken, along with anything incriminating. I didn’t say that aloud, though.
“You have any idea who killed her?” I asked.
“What do you care?” he asked, gaze suddenly back on me, and sharper than I would have expected.
I thought of Jed then, Jed as I’d seen him that day, staring at me, that flat look on his face. “If Jed killed her—”
“I didn’t see Jed touch nobody,” Flaherty said. “And I wouldn’t say if I did.”
I froze. “Why not?”
Flaherty frowned, his eyes small and bloodshot. “He’s the best mechanic I got.”
“But if he killed someone—”
“He didn’t kill no one.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“What happened, happened,” Flaherty said. “Let’s not go wrecking more lives.” Then he grabbed the bottle of beer he’d been nursing, and took a sip, his crippled hand looking unbalanced in the grimy afternoon light.
By the time I got back with the sheriff, Jed was gone. Not that it mattered. The case went down on the books as unsolved. What else could it have been with the other kid denying he’d even talked to me, and Mac Flaherty swearing that the girl’d been fine when he drove by at midnight, fine and unwilling to leave her post near the Coke machine. He’d winked at the sheriff when he’d told that story, and the sheriff seemed to accept it all.
I went to Jed’s apartment, and found the door open, all his clothes missing, and a neighbor who said that Jed had run in, not even bothering to change, and packed a bag, took some money from a jam jar he’d had under his bed, and disappeared down the highway, never to be seen again.
He’d been driving one of Flaherty’s rebuilds.
When I found out, I told the sheriff, and the sheriff’d been unimpressed. “Man can leave town if’n he wants,” the sheriff said. “Don’t mean he killed nobody.”
No, I suppose it didn’t. But it seemed like a huge coincidence to me, the girl getting beaten to death, Jed watching us talk, and then, when he knew I’d left for the law, disappearing like he did.
It was just the sheriff saw no percentage in pursing the case. It’d been interesting when he could come after me because of my family, because of the power we had, but it soon lost its appeal when the girl’s family took her away. Took her away, and pointed the finger at a good local boy, a mechanic who could down some beers and tell great jokes, who’d gone off to serve his country same as the rest of us. Jed had had worth to the sheriff; the girl had had none.
I don’t know why he killed her. We’ll never know now. Jed disappeared but good, and wasn’t heard from until five years ago, when what was left of his family got an obituary mailed to them from somewhere in Canada. He’d died not saying a word—
Sorry. Got interrupted there. Was going to come back to it this afternoon, but things changed this morning.
About nine a.m., I walked into my front room, buttoning one of my best shirts in preparation for yet another meeting with that pretty doctor down at the glass-and-chrome White Elephant, when I saw Sarah sitting in my best chair, feet on the footstool my granny hand-stitched, and all forty hand-written pages of this memory in her hands. She was reading raptly which I found flattering for the half second it took to realize what she was doing. I didn’t want any one to read this stuff until I was dead, and here was my granddaughter staring at the pages as if they were something outta Stephen King.
She looked up at me, her heart-shaped face so like Sally Anne’s at that age that it made my breath catch, and said, “So you think you’re some bad guy for failing this woman.”
I shook my head, but the movement didn’t stop her.
“You,” she says, “who’ve done more for people—black, white or purple—than anyone else in this town. You, who went and opened that civil rights law practice back east, who fought every racist law and every racist politician you could find. For godssake, Gramps, you marched with Dr. King, and you were a presidential advisor on Civil Rights. You’re the kinda man who shows the rest of us how to live our lives, and you’re feeling like this? You’re being silly.”
“You don’t understand,” I said.
“Damn straight,” she said, and I winced, as I always do, at the sailor language she uses. “You shouldn’t be mulling over this any more. You did what you could, and more, it seems, than anyone else.”
“And even that wasn’t enough.”
“Sometimes,” she said, “that happens, Gramps. You know that. Hell, you taught it to me.”
Seems I did. But that wasn’t the point either, and I didn’t know how to tell her. So I didn’t. I took the papers from her, put them back on my desk where they belonged, and let her drive me to the doctor so that they both could feel useful.
And all the way there and all the way back, I thought about how to make my point so that girls like her would understand. You see, the world is so different now, and yet it’s still the same. Just the faces change, and a few of the rules.
These days, Jed would’ve been arrested, or the sheriff would’ve been bounced out of office, or the press’d make some huge scandal over the whole thing.
But it wouldn’t be that simple, because pretty women don’t approach strange men any more, especially if the strange men are in uniform, and pretty women certainly don’t wait alone in gas stations while their cars are being repaired.
But they’re still dying, because they’re women or because they’re black or because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s so damn many of them we just shrug and move on, shaking our heads as we go.
But that isn’t my point. My point is this:
I wouldn’t have marched with Dr. King if it weren’t for that poor girl, and I wouldn’t have made it my life’s work to stamp out all the things that cause the condition I found myself in that hot afternoon, the condition that would have led me to ignore a girl if I’d noticed the true color of her skin.
Because I think I know why she died that day. I think she died because she’d flirted with me.
And that just wasn’t done between girls like her and men like me.
Jed wouldn’t have taken her to the desert if she were white. He would’ve thought she had family, she had someone who missed her. He might have roughed her up for talking to me. He might have had a few words with me.
But he didn’t. I did something unspeakable to people of our generation, and he saw a way to get back at me. If I’d talked to her, then I’d want to do what was probably done to her before she died. And if she’d fought, then I’d have bashed her. That’s what the sheriff was thinking. That’s what Jed wanted him to think.
And all because of who she was, and who I was, and who Jed was.
The sad irony is that if I’d kept my place, she’d be alive, and because I didn’t, she was dead. That had bothered me then, and bothers me now. Seems a man—any man—should be able to talk to whomever he wants. But what bothered me worse was the fact that when I learned, on the same morning, that she was black and that she was dead, it bothered me more that she was black and that I had talked to her.
It just wasn’t done.
And I was more worried about my own blindness than I was about one woman’s life.
Since that day, hers is the face I see every morning when I wake up, and every night when I doze. And, if God gave me the chance to relive any day in my life, it’d be that one, not, strangely, the day I enlisted or the day I deliberately misunderstood that German kid asking for clemency, but the day I inadvertently led a pretty girl to her death.
White liberal guilt maybe.
Or maybe it was the last straw, somehow.
Or maybe it was the fact that I had so much trouble learning her name.
Learning her name was harder than learning the identity of the man who killed her. It took me three more weeks and a bribe to the twelve-year-old son of the owner of the funeral home.
Not that her name really mattered. To me or to anyone else.
But it mattered to her, and to that man in uniform with the red, red eyes. Because it was the only bit of her that couldn’t be sold for parts. The only bit she could call completely hers.
Not quite as exotic as I would have thought, or as fitting to a woman as beautiful as she was. But it was hers. And in the end, it was all she had.
It was a detail.
An important detail.
And one I’ll never forget.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1998
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Amuzica/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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September 16, 2015
That’s how I described my brain today to a few folks. Fried cheese. Not Swiss cheese, which would imply that there’s space for air to go through. Fried cheese, all melted together—crusty on the outside and unrecognizable goo on the inside.
Last night, I turned in Women of Futures Past: Classic Stories, right on time. I’m unbelievably stunned I did this.
For those of you who don’t know, this is the first anthology in the various projects I’m doing for Women in Science Fiction. This anthology will be published by Baen in 2016. For some reason, I had thought six months was a reasonable amount of time to put this together. Part of that assumption, I guess, was because I thought I had most of the stories picked out. Then I realized that what I had chosen really didn’t fit with what I was trying to do.
So I read and worked and contacted people and mentally wrote and rewrote the 10K essay that was part of the contract. Then I actually wrote the essay, plus other materials, and revised those, and checked all of my facts, and found out that often Wikipedia was wrong (surprise, right?) and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was often wrong and Fancyclopedia was mostly right (but limited in its scope for my purposes). Primary Sources R Us for Rusch. Thank heavens we have a large collection of digest from the time period in question, and I had access to other materials.
Anyway, this is a long way of saying that once I downloaded all of this information onto the page, my brain quit. It’s just refusing to work today. (You should’ve seen how long it took to figure out how to spell crusty.) I could power through a major blog, but I’m not going to. I promised myself when I came back to blogging that I would take days like this more or less off.
However, if you’re missing your blog fix, head over to the Coode Street Podcast. Last night, in the middle of compiling everything, I took 90 minutes to talk with Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan about my various projects, including indie publishing, the Retrieval Artist, and the women in science fiction material. We ended up having a long discussion about editing, which I found fascinating. I hope you will too.
See you next week, when (I hope) spelling crusty is easier and my brain actually works again.
“Business Musings: Fried Cheese” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / gvictoria
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September 15, 2015
I’ve been so busy finishing up two major projects before I teach the mystery workshop next week that I almost forgot to tell you my big news!
Crystal Caves, the second book in the Interim Fates series, just appeared today. A writer shouldn’t love one baby more than her others (heck, writers shouldn’t call their books baby either; we’re all professionals here. [snort]), but I love Crystal. She’s my favorite Interim Fate—which surprised me, considering I would have told you that Tiffany was before I wrote the books. (Poor Brittany. I love her too. And so do her friends and family.)
Crystal’s book is very different from Tiffany’s, which appeared last month. Tiffany learned how to negotiate life in a small city high school in Oregon. Crystal’s hip-deep in uppercrust Manhattan. And of all the Interim Fates, she’s the one who never wanted to leave Mount Olympus in the first place.
I hope you pick up this book. WMG Publishing marketed The Interim Fates series as YA, but it’s really just a fantasy series with protagonists who happen to be high school age. So, please, read. Enjoy. And remember, if you like this book, you can preorder the third, Brittany Bends, so you don’t miss a single word.
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September 14, 2015
Bethanne Dupree runs a computer dating service and pretends she doesn’t need it, too. She manages to separate her personal life from her business life until Ray Greco comes to the office of the dating service to make a video. The handsome Greco distracts her staff, and his video crashes her server. In fact, he crashes a lot of things. Including Bethanne.
“Geeks Bearing Gifts,” by bestselling author Kristine Grayson, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Geeks Bearing Gifts
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
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September 11, 2015
That accident I had a few weeks ago knocked some information right out of my head, and I forgot my plans to announce some things. The day before the car and I had our incident, I had some wonderful news. My novel, The Enemy Within, won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History-Long Form.
I’m incredibly thrilled about this. I love the books and stories that get shortlisted for the Sidewise. I’ve been lucky enough to be in that company a few times. I’m really honored to win.
Here’s a link to all the winners and nominees. If you love Alternate History, you can’t go wrong with reading everything on this list.
And, if you love Alternate History, take a gander at this new anthology. David V. Barrett came up with this creative world in which Pope John Paul the First does not die one month after his ascension in 1978. Instead, he lives and becomes the most reforming pope of all time. The anthology postulates that John Paul opens secret Vatican documents to the world, and every story in the anthology comes from those documents.
It was a fun world to play in, and to imagine. My story, “The Island of Lost Priests,” which takes place in the 1970s, touches on the very edge of the time period we were allowed to touch. Some stories go all the way back to 800 A.D., and explore everything from magic to demons to alternate crime. (Guess where mine fits in.)
Unlike a lot of the things I mention here, this anthology appears in the United Kingdom first. So you folks across the pond can get the ebook and the paper version right now. The rest of you can order the paper version through online retailers, like Amazon.
I just got my copy, and what I’ve seen makes it all a must-read for me. I hope you’ll think so as well.
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