Surviving the eBookalypse
by Randy Henderson
I entered the City Public Library wearing my plastic replica chainmail and sword, and my suede “book jacket” with a laminated author’s license clipped to the collar.
Before me stood a fully automated checkout kiosk for scheduling author recitals. The library floor beyond that was filled with neat rows of author cubicles, each with a desk and chair. Most were occupied. The air was filled with the soft tickity-ticking of keyboards, and the smells of coffee, “New Book” scented air fresheners, and Cup o’ Soup. Heads popped up over cubicle walls in response to the clacking of the door, then disappeared again when they saw I was no customer or potential patron.
I understood their disappointed expressions too well. This was not at all where I thought I would be two years after publishing my first e-book.
A woman’s smile caught my attention. It was like cherry-haloed sunshine, floating between her neon blue hair and her black lace dress. She emerged from a cube in the Romance section, walked up to me, leaned in close and sniffed at the air. Then she said with the hint of a Mexican accent, “I smell a transfer from Bainbridge library, no? An MFA boy, if I’m not mistaken?”
“That obvious?” I asked.
“Lucky guess.” She laughed, and flicked my author’s license. “Says so right here.”
“Oh. Yes.” I felt the fool. I glanced at her author’s license. “Myra Sweet.”
“That’s me,” she said. “So, the great literary novel didn’t work out like you thought it would, eh?”
“You’ve heard of my book?”
“No, but it’s the same old story. Follow me. I’ll show you around.” She turned and walked away. I followed in the wake of her sugary perfume, and my eyes were drawn down to the swaying of her hips. There lie danger, I felt certain, but tempting danger.
On the back of her black suede book jacket were reviews of her work.
“Myra Sweet’s recital style would make an audience in Antarctica sweat.” – Romance Recitals Monthly
“Sweet lives up to her name with The Bride Wore Pistols. This one has to be heard to be believed.” – Jenna Johnson, Amazon-Random House
“Myra Sweet blends sex and action so seamlessly her work deserves a new genre – sextion? Sacxy? Whatever, she’s smoking hot.” – Phoenix Jones
I wondered if the reviews were real. I hoped they weren’t. If someone with reviews like that didn’t have a patron supporting her, what chance did I have? I reached back to make sure the blurb for my own book, “Magic Daze and Dark Knights,” was still Velcroed securely to the back of my jacket.
We walked past the row of thriller authors, almost exclusively men with crew cuts dressed in various colored jumpsuits and bomber-style book jackets. A few of them gave me an informal salute or a cursory nod as we passed, and their musk cologne made me cough in response.
We passed the row of horror authors, with their all-black clothing, red or black hair, and pale skin. Most of them arched a single eyebrow at me, or stared at me until I looked away.
Further off I saw cowboys and cowgirls, Renaissance-garbed folks, and business-casual attire. Seeing so many authors of the same genre together just reinforced my opinion that “dressing to genre” was not a good idea for everyone. One man’s mustachio was another man’s weasely whiskers. One woman’s ghostly was another woman’s sickly. It reminded me to straighten my posture and suck in my modest gut.
At the back of the library was a “timeline of books” displayed across the wall. We walked along it, following the growth and fall of the book, from Guttenberg and Cervantes to e-books and the print-a-book kiosks. At the end was a glass case with a collection of outdated e-reading devices, each with their own file format that had died with them.
And after the timeline display sat, ironically, a bank of print-a-book vending machines. Anyone could pop in a memory stick with a pirated file, pay a couple bucks and print a copy of my book, and the only people who would see the money was the machine’s owners. It was hard not to be bitter about the way all this technology had helped destroy the old publishing industry before I ever got a chance to be published.
At last we reached a small office in the back corner where I was introduced to Agnus the librarian, a thin woman with wild brown hair and a face frozen in an irritated expression. Her office smelled of corn nuts.
“Transfer?” she asked.
I nodded. “Andre Jackson. This library has the most recital requests for fantasy, so –”
“Okay,” Agnus said. “Here’s your cube assignment and public housing ticket. You have two months left on your author’s license to find a patron or register fifty recitals. Otherwise your license will expire, you will no longer receive Public Arts Funding, and you will be removed from the library’s author listings. Questions?”
“Just one,” I said. “What time do you get off?”
“One hour after you turn into Hemingway,” Agnus said. “Save the charm for your audience. You’ll certainly need every ounce you’ve got.” She slid a virtual reality visor down over her eyes, effectively ending the conversation.
Clearly, charming the librarian would not get me a favorable cube position or online listing status in this library.
Myra led me to my cube.
“So,” she said as we walked. “What kind of fantasy do you write?”
“Historical fantasy,” I said.
“Really? You know, I write historical romance, but I’m looking to make the jump to junglefey. If you’re any good, we should think about collaborating.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said.
Me, write about Amazon fairies in steamy jungles, or jungle fairies fighting and loving steamy Amazonians? I swore I would die before I jumped on the junglefey bandwagon, and not just because of the confusion of Greek Amazons and the Amazon jungle. I agreed with my graduate advisor that such pulp was not literature, it was pandering to the lowest common denominator among decadent and lazy-minded patrons. Writing historical fantasy was at least close to my true literary interests, and it was compromise enough.
“Right,” Myra said. “Well, while you’re thinking about it, I’d just like to point out that I had a patron for four years, and had a party draw rating of two hundred before I left. So don’t think you’d be doing me the favor, stud. It’s the other way around.”
A party rating of two hundred wasn’t like having a spot on the New York Times Best Tellers list, but it would still guarantee Myra’s patron a decent attendance at any recital he or she sponsored, with a respectable return in stature and profits as a result. So I assumed she was attempting a joke on the gullible newbie. Pranks were common between authors in libraries since we often had too much time to kill between recitals.
“Why are you here then?” I said. ”You should easily be able to get a patron.”
“What can I say? I’m a girl of mystery.” Myra stopped and motioned like a game show hostess to a cubicle. “And here we are. Your new home.”
A man’s voice said, “Your sword is wrong for your armor.”
I turned, and found a man peeking over the cubicle wall at me in such a way that I could see only his eyes. He had on a wizard’s pointed gray hat.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Your sword. It is clearly modeled on the Sword of State of the City of Canterbury, which was early –”
“Waldo,” Myra said. “Why don’t we give the new guy a break on his first day, okay?”
She leaned in close to me and whispered, “Waldo the wizard there is kind of Rainman meets Gandalf with zero social skills. Don’t take offense at what he says. He usually means well.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem.” She stepped back. “I’ll go ahead and leave you to your literary ambitions. Let me know how that works out for you.”
She gave me another one of those bright smiles, and walked away.
Man, I thought, I hope I get out of here soon.
“It really is the wrong sword,” I heard Waldo mutter.
The first two weeks flew by.
I put my marketing plan into effect. I invested in a premium profile on Patron-Match.virt, uploaded new recital teasers to Café Virté, blasted social media, put up flyers, attended local conventions, the works. I even decorated my cube with a half-sized cardboard standup of a knight riding a horse.
My goal was to be well-placed to promote myself to all the genre fans who would show up when Zachary Chenko came to give his guest recital at the end of that two weeks.
Yes, the Zachary Chenko, shining example of how you could earn enough money and fame as an epic fantasy author to become your own patron. And the Zachary Chenko equally famed for his insulting portrayals of women in his fiction, and his womanizing and drunken exploits in real life.
Yet despite my best efforts at self-promotion, I finished that first two weeks with just twenty-four e-friends and only four recitals performed in the recording-proof recital room. I had exactly zero patronage offers by the time Chenko arrived for his recital.
Chenko strode in on a wave of alcohol fumes, a squat man with wild white hair and a pro golfer’s fashion sense, and announced, “I refuse to give a recital as long as that crowd of feminist harpies is outside having a PMS fit.”
It turned out a group of women were protesting the recital. I peeked outside and saw signs being waved.
Chenko Writes Women Like Pimps Employ Women
This is a Library not a Men’s Club
Writing Sex Fantasies While High is NOT Sexy High Fantasy
Chenko is Stank-o!
Apparently, this had happened at every recital he tried to give for the past year. We waited to see if the protestors would leave or be cleared out so that Chenko would perform, and I managed to get an opening to speak with him alone as he was exiting the men’s room.
“Sir?” I said. “I was wondering if you could give me some tips on how to succeed as an author?”
“You’re black,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, and felt the smile on my face stiffen into a mask.
“Why are you wearing armor?”
“Because,” I said, and took a calming breath. “I am a historical fantasy author.”
“I see. Well then, my first tip would be to wear, I don’t know, Zulu armor or something. It’s not like Lancelot was black, kid. Write what you know – it’s the oldest tip around. Write about voodoo magic in the inner city, or vampire tiger people in Africa or whatever. No, scratch that, my first tip would be to not write fantasy at all. You’ll never get a patron that way. People just don’t expect fantasy from a black man. They’re barely used to it from black women, and I only listen to them if they’re hot.”
I stopped myself from hitting him. Barely. That would only get me booted from the library and end any chance of getting published – end any chance of making him eat his words someday. I retreated to the bathroom instead, where I knocked over the trash can and kicked the stall doors until the anger dimmed and one of them was bent on its frame.
Luckily, Chenko cancelled the recital and had left by the time I came out. But Myra was waiting for me.
“You look hot, and not in a good way,” she said. “Something happen?”
I shook my head. There was no point in whining about it to her. “I’m fine.”
“If you say so,” she said. “Come on, I’ll take you out to lunch.”
We settled on a 1950′s themed deli crowded with business-casual office workers who smelled of drudgery and cologne. Halfway through lunch, Myra jumped up from our booth and ran into the woman’s bathroom. When she came back, I said, “You okay?”
She patted her stomach. “I will be in about six months.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Want to guess who the father is?”
“Uh, your former patron?”
“My married former patron. Now see, you aren’t as slow as you pretend.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “I wondered why you would give up a successful patronage. And is that why you wanted to collaborate?”
“Yep. If I had a fantasy co-author, that would help defuse certain expectations patrons have of me as a romance author. They would also be less worried about my being pregnant if I appeared to have a partner. And then there’s the little fact that I don’t know how to write fantasy very well.”
I supposed that was the part where I should offer to collaborate. But I didn’t want to, and I did not. Instead, I changed the subject.
“So,” I said. “What made you want to be an author?”
“You want my patron interview answer?” She switched to a sultry tone, “I love to bring pleasure to others.” She smiled at me, then continued in her normal voice. “Honestly? I happen to like food and shelter and buying things, but I didn’t want a boring day job. And I’m a rather sensual person, but I didn’t want to be a porn star or a prostitute either. So, you know, this seemed like a nice compromise. Besides, inside this smoking hot bod lies the heart of a sappy romantic.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Indeed. How about you? Why are you a fantasy author?”
I thought for a minute. “Interview answer?” I did my best to mimic her sultry voice, “I love to make people’s fantasies come true.”
She laughed. She had a pleasant laugh, an honest laugh. My ego puffed up, and for a second I was tempted to build on my small success and flirt with her – the instinctive male response when a beautiful woman laughs at your joke. But I had also seen her verbally and brutally slap down plenty of would-be suitors in the library, and so did not embarrass myself.
“Nice answer,” she said. “And the real reason? What made you want to be an author?”
“The real reason? When I was seventeen, my mother died,” I said. “It was slow and painful. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. Then my aunt gave me a paper book titled ‘The Life of Trees and Mothers,’ by Sara Sitaya. It was like the author knew all my feelings, all my fears, all my questions, and had woven a tale around them. That was when I first knew I wanted to author a great literary masterpiece, something that could touch others the way Sitaya’s book had touched me.”
Myra was silent a minute, then said, “Have you written your masterpiece?”
“No,” I said. “I thought I had, but apparently it wasn’t good enough. Or maybe it was. I don’t know. Like lots of people, I thought my book would be different, that people would be willing to pay for it. I even paid an e-mob agent for three-P help with publishing, promotion and protection –”
“Are you crazy?” Myra said. “You’re going to end up writing V.P. Anders novels!”
I shuddered. The e-mob had a whole stable of writers whose unlucky job it was to churn out new books in series created by now-dead authors. They had strong-armed the rights from the deceased’s families. It was even worse than their public domain “mash ups” which, at this point, were really scraping the bottom of the barrel. _Secret Garden of Triffids_? _Little Haunted House on the Prairie_? I shuddered again. It was my nightmare that in two months time I would find myself writing that crap as an anonymous word slave to pay off my debts (and of course to avoid bodily injury).
“I know better now,” I said. “It wasn’t like my agent went under the business name ‘e-mob,’ and they didn’t teach us about this stuff in school. He offered to have his hackers take down any bootleg copies of my book, and promote me, and said they would just take their fee from the profits, no money down. It sounded great. But once I have a patron I can pay them off and put all that behind me, and I will write my true masterpiece.”
“Well, I sure hope you get your chance. I’d love to hear it when you’re done. And hey,” Myra said, and put a hand on my knee. “Don’t be afraid to tell potential patrons that you want to ‘touch them’ with your words.”
Joey, my e-mob agent, was waiting in all his blocky balding glory at my cube when I returned from lunch. His goon stood behind him, a man with biceps like bowling balls who smiled at me the way a dog smiles at a mailman.
“Yo dog!” Joey said. “Heard you’re not having much luck on the patron tip. That’s really too bad.”
I had learned that Joey only used his outdated urban slang with his black authors. Lucky me.
“I’m doing fine, Joey.”
“Word! Just remember, you’re a great writer with a great attitude, and great things will happen to you. Like Alexander the Great — he didn’t just do well because of his name. Think about it.”
Sadly, Joey consumed too much of his own product, namely, Self-Help books written by his hack writers. I certainly didn’t respect any advice he spewed.
I did, however, respect the fact that his goon’s hands were the size of my head, so I kept my full opinion to myself.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Word,” Joey said. “Oh, and I suppose I should also add that soon you’ll be doing those great things for us. Unless you pay us back, of course. See you in six weeks.”
Joey and his goon wandered off.
Waldo’s voice floated over the cubicle wall. “Alexander the Great conquered half the world by the age of thirty two. You’re almost thirty two.”
“Thanks, Waldo. I know.”
“He was worshiped as a god, you know. You’ve got … twenty-four e-friends. And I think most of these are porn spam.”
“I know, Waldo.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s a valid comparison.”
“Drop it, Waldo!”
The next two weeks went better than the first two.
My recital requests were increasing as my marketing plan and word of mouth started to have an effect. I even had a patronage offer. Unfortunately, it was from a man who spoke knowledgeably of medieval torture devices, and who asked suggestive questions about how well I could use my sword. I politely declined.
I also managed to avoid being pranked by the other authors, although I began to wonder if that was a good thing. One of the more popular pranks was to sneak up and yank down an author’s pants during their recital. It had gained our library a bit of a reputation, which apparently helped draw in more viewers. Still, I doubted anyone at a patronage level would be drawn by such plebian entertainments, or be any more likely to employ me if they saw me in my underwear. It might work for someone like Myra, but not for me. Not that Myra seemed to be having any better luck finding a patron or a collaborator that she liked.
And then Zachary Chenko returned.
Myra apparently knew Chenko from her glory days giving romance recitals, and had hit him up with her ideas for a junglefey novel during his last visit. She had somehow convinced him that collaborating with a woman was the best way to repair his reputation, and now they began working together.
I was tempted to tell her what he had said to me, but refrained. If I wasn’t willing to collaborate with her, then it didn’t seem right to mess with her other opportunities — even if the opportunity was with a complete ass.
When I walked by the soundproof “quiet room” where they did their work, I saw that Myra had cracked the door open. Given the waves of Old Spice that wafted out, I understood why.
“Zach, no,” I heard Myra say. “The Amazons are not going to be lesbian nymphomaniac nymphs from Lesbos. Now, I’ve got an idea for how they could reproduce using –”
“Okay,” Chenko said. “Well if they are human then I still think they need to have men. How else would they become lesbians unless –”
“Hijo de puta! For the last time, lesbians are born lesbians! They don’t have penis envy. They were not abused. They do not require men to hate in order to exist. And if you’d listen, the Amazons don’t need to be lesbians or have human fathers.”
“So were you born a lesbian?”
“No, Zach, I was not born a lesbian. Now –”
“Good. Then why don’t we go back to your apartment and finish this argument there, over some wine? Or I suppose some seltzer for you.”
“Not going to happen. Now focus. Can we at least figure out who our Amazons are today, please?”
“I know who they are,” Chenko said, and his voice took on a superior lecturing tone. “The women are a race of ensorcelled love slaves released into the jungle to battle for the right to breed with the men. The men understand and control the powerful magic left by their ancestors, and watch the women from their hidden city. But without direct exposure to the guidance and rationality of men, the women revert to –”
Myra screamed, and something plastic was thrown against the wall. I hurried away.
I was not envious of either Zachary Chenko or Myra. And while I had only a month left on my license and my e-mob deadline, I was feeling more hopeful about getting a patron than ever. I felt like I was just on the verge of success, and every recital felt like it might be the one that returned a patron offer.
Joey was waiting for me when I reached my cube, his goon at his side. “Hey dog!” Joey said. “Heard the news?”
“Actually, have you heard?” I responded. “I had a patron offer. And I expect more soon.”
“Ah, so you haven’t seen this.” Joey held up a tablet and touched the screen. A vutube vid played of me giving a recital.
I felt as though my stomach had just fallen out.
I was ruined. Having your latest material on the virtnet was the kiss of death, especially for authors like me who relied more on content than packaging. Viewing online allowed a potential patron to skim, to skip, to get only a superficial impression and then move on. There would be no need for them to come audition me in person, where I would have their attention, their investment of time and personal interaction to win them over.
Even if I could write all new material and get the word out in the next month, it would not be enough time to undo the damage, or generate new buzz.
“So sorry to be the bearer of bad news, dog,” Joey said. “Just thought you’d want to get the four-one-one from a friend.”
“Okay,” I said. “Send a friend over and I’ll listen.”
“Oh snap! But hey, you made a good run at it. Still, you teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime, but there used to be plenty of fish in the sea, word? Think about it.
“True up,” I said.
Joey and his goon strolled off, both grinning.
I turned back to my cube and grabbed my chair, ready to collapse into it.
On the seat was a paper horse head. I looked up, and confirmed that it had been ripped off of my cardboard display.
“What the hell?” An author prank, perhaps? But it felt more like vandalism than a joke. Joey?
Waldo’s voice drifted over the cubicle wall, “It’s from the Godfather.”
“The horse head. It’s from a scene in the Godfather, a mob warning, a reminder of power.”
Joey and the e-mob then. They had probably made the bootleg vids, I realized, just another way to remove competition for their current authors and leave new authors with little option but to work for them. Joey was rubbing my nose in it.
“You know,” Waldo said, “In the Godfather movie, they used a real horse’s head from a dog food factory.”
“Waldo, please!” I said. “Not right now. I’m having a bad day.”
I plopped down into the chair and rested my head on the edge of the desk. There had to be something I could do, some way to avoid becoming an indentured anonymous author. At this point, I would settle for a patron who paid with cheap room and board just as long as they advanced me the money I needed to pay off the e-mob.
Waldo said, “Don’t feel bad. They recorded Ted Marko over in Thrillers too. Probably used lip-reading software and voice replication. I saw this example once where they lip read a guy right through the recording protection screen, and then had a virtual Elvis sing the words online. It actually made the author famous for a while as The Elvis Guy, but then –”
“Waldo, seriously!” I said.
And then thoughts fell into place like divers into a water ballet, forming a beautiful pattern.
I might not be able to use Elvis to get my name out there, but I did have another option.
“Waldo, you’re the best,” I said, and ran to Myra’s cube.
She looked up. “Come to say goodbye?”
“No,” I said. “How would you like to collaborate on a junglefey novel?”
“Seriously?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Andre, but to be brutally honest I don’t think it would matter now. With your license expiring soon, and those vids of you, I don’t think we’d have time to build enough buzz and –”
“I have an idea about that. It means sacrificing your friendship with Zachary Chenko, however.”
Myra raised her eyebrows. “Oh.” She smiled. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? At this point, I’d happily sacrifice Zach himself. Let’s hear this big idea of yours.”
Two weeks of marathon writing later, our plans came to fruition at a party organized by another of Myra’s contacts to announce Chenko and Myra’s collaboration. Myra was dressed in a flowing black dress, and I was wearing a tuxedo. I also carried a duffel bag with our book jackets in it.
The party was in a three-story mansion that looked faintly gothic in style. The crowd of guests was spread throughout the first floor, mostly middle-aged women in evening wear, with the occasional author working the crowd in their genre costume and book jacket. I recognized a couple of e-mob reps as well, including Joey and his goon. They had gotten my anonymous invitation.
“Hey buddy!” Joey said, stepping out of the crowd. “Hoping to get Chenko’s table scraps?”
I shook my head. “You know I don’t have anything to offer a patron now,” I said. “I’m just here to support Myra.”
“Yeah, tough break about those vids. Well, I’ll be in touch next week to discuss your work for us.”
A chime sounded, announcing that it was time to gather for the recital.
“Excuse us,” I said to Joey. Then Myra and I made our way to the recital room, a small private theatre with an interference screen erected in front of the stage like a glass wall to prevent most forms of recording. We found Zachary Chenko already waiting backstage, behind the curtains. He gave me an up and down glance.
“What’s he doing here?” he asked.
Myra brushed dandruff off of his shoulders and said, “This is Andre. He’s a fan, and just wanted to watch from backstage. Turn around, you’re a mess.”
Chenko grunted but did as Myra asked. “This had better work,” he said. “I’m tired of those crazy feminazis screwing up my gigs.”
Myra pulled a rolled-up sheet of felt out of her sleeve and smoothed it across his back as she brushed with her hand. Chenko did not appear to notice.
“There, looking good,” Myra said. “Now remember, stick to our story, no improvising. Just play nice tonight, and tomorrow you will be able to have recitals protest-free.”
“Right,” Chenko said. “Let’s get this over with.”
A second chime sounded. “Good luck,” I said.
Myra winked at me, and took Chenko’s arm. Together, they parted the curtains and walked out onto the small stage. Zachary’s voice poured from the speakers in the room.
“Welcome to a reading of A Woman’s View, a new short story by Zachary Chenko and Myra Sweet. Any unauthorized recordings or transcriptions are illegal, yadda yadda. Now, apparently there are some strong opinions about my supposed views and treatment of women based on my books, and a few … incidents at my recitals. Clearly, explanations and apologies are not enough. So I hope that my collaboration tonight with the lovely Myra Sweet, and the powerful message of the story we’ve written, will be the first step in demonstrating my true feelings and moving us past any misunderstandings. Thank you all, and now, A Woman’s View.”
I went up on stage, and tapped Chenko on the shoulder. He turned around.
“What?” he said.
I yanked down his pants.
There was a second of silence from the audience, and then several women began to laugh. The rest of the crowd soon joined them.
Chenko’s face turned bright red, and from his expression I knew it was more from anger than embarrassment. He pulled his pants back up. “You’ve just ruined yourself, you talentless punk!” he said, and rushed offstage, pushing me roughly aside as he passed. I watched him go, with the large white letters on his back that read:
“I may be an ass, but I would not turn my back on Amazonian Fire by Myra Sweet and Andre Jackson, a cheeky romp filled with love, lust and magic.”
I doubted the audience was able to read much more than the first line, but it would get heavy viewing online. Especially if Joey was recording this, as I hoped he was. The e-mob would finally do their job promoting me, or miss out on all the views this event could get. And Joey would surely get in some trouble for not only losing me as a writer, but actually helping me to escape.
Myra said, “Thank you all. May I introduce my true collaborator, Andre Jackson.”
I bowed, and stepped up in range of the microphones. “Thank you. We will now recite the first section of our new novel, Amazonian Fire, and gladly accept offers of patronage following the recital.”
Myra and I ripped off our tear-away outfits, revealing her leopard-skin one-piece and my gold lame’ fairy armor. I gave an especially wide grin to Joey, who looked as though he had just discovered there was no Santa Claus. Then we gave our recital, and the audience laughed, and cried, and applauded at the end with calls for us to continue.
I was touching people with my words.
I decided maybe this wouldn’t be such a horrible way to live for a while. I would still one day write the Great American Novel that would transform people’s lives and the world of literature forever. But in the meantime, what was wrong with a few steamy Amazons fighting and loving urban fairies?