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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Prose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

"Like many little-known authors, Janis Jaquith often wishes that some of the people buying best sellers would pick up her book instead. Now the online retailer Amazon.com is giving her a chance to express those feelings.

"Two weeks ago, Amazon's Web site added a feature that lets users suggest that shoppers buy a different book than the one being perused, and Ms. Jaquith, the self-published author of the memoir Birdseed Cookies, has taken full advantage. . . . "
--The New York Times, May 5, 2002.

I was dreading going into work today. The Mittleschmerz contract needed a final revision, and my boss, Sandy Fleabane, was riding my tail hard to get it done. So as I endured my commute into Manhattan on the packed LIRR train, I tried to forget my troubles by immersing myself in the latest Dean Koontz book, Fear of Terror. It took me a while to get back into the novel. It wasn't quite as good as Koontz's last one, Deathly Living, or the one before that, Suspicion of Mistrust, or even the one before that, Life Amidst Death. But after a while, I found myself lost in Koontz's technically adept prose, glad to have put aside my worries thanks to a somewhat engaging book.

A few stops before the city, my seatmate got off, and I moved my briefcase into the empty seat, hoping that no incoming passenger would claim it. Having the extra space would have been another small comfort in my harried day. But of course, the way my luck was running, not only did a new passenger, a woman, quickly zero in on the seat, but she was carrying an enormous clunky duffel bag. When I saw she was intent on sitting next to me, I sighed and removed my briefcase from the empty seat. She plopped down with her load, banging my knee in the process. The duffel held something hard-edged, and it hurt.

"Ow!"

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry!"

Although pretty, and dressed conventionally enough, the woman looked a little ditzy, and I didn't want to start a conversation with her. So I simply said, "No problem," very cursorily, then tried to return to my book. But she wasn't letting me off so easily.

"Are you sure you're okay? Perhaps you should go to the lavatory and see if I bruised you."

Well, my knee was throbbing, and I thought it couldn't hurt to have a look. "All right. But I assure you, even if I do develop a little bruise, it's really inconsequential."

She smiled. "Still, I'd feel so much better if you checked."

I laid my book down on my seat and went to the lav. When I returned, I was able to reassure the woman that my knee seemed fine.

"I'm so relieved!" she gushed.

I smiled wanly and tried to shield myself from any further conversation behind my book. But immediately I encountered something that baffled me. The Koontz novel no longer resembled what I had been reading. The text was completely different. Mistrusting my own senses, I looked at the dustjacket, then the pages, then the dustjacket again. The incongruity between package and contents was baffling.

During this inspection, my new seatmate, contrary to her earlier effusiveness, tried to hide behind a copy of The New York Times Book Review.

Finally I had an inspiration. I removed the dustjacket and examined the spine of the book. There I read an unexpected legend: Paper Poppies, by Barbara de Seville.

"What's this now?" I demanded, turning to the woman. "Have you switched my book with another one?"

She set down her tabloid shield. "Me? Of course not! Why would I do a crazy thing like that?"

I had no way of disproving her claim of innocence. Still, who else could have played such a trick...?

"Well, did you notice anyone messing with my book while I was away from my seat?"

"Yes, now that you mention it, I did. He was a tall Hispanic man with a Zapatista mustache and a limp--"

Just then her cellphone rang. "Hello, Barbara de Seville here, Alternative Author Project--"

"Ah-ha!" I snatched the cellphone out of her hand and cut the connection. "It was you then!"

Caught red-handed, Barbara de Seville put up a bold front. "All right, I admit it. I took your horrid piece of bestseller trash and replaced it with a heartfelt, winsome, slice-of-life, coming-of-age memoir. At least that's what The Chicago Mercantile Intelligencer said about it. Instead of berating me, you should be thanking me!"

"Thanking you? For stealing my book?"

"Oh, come now, I merely substituted something of equal or greater value. Monetarily, you're no worse off. And as for as entertainment value, your experience has been greatly enhanced. Trust me! Can't you see that I'm trying to broaden your tastes and literary experience? Surely you didn't really want to be reading that awful Koontz book, did you?"

"Why would I have bought it if I didn't want to read it?"

"Because you've been brainwashed! You and all the other poor deluded readers whose collective purchases constitute the immense sham that is the bestseller list! You've never been exposed to the marvelous alternatives that are out there. Wonderful books composed of the authors' blood, sweat and tears which go begging for readers."

The image of books dripping precious bodily fluids repelled me for a moment, but then I started to consider Barbara's argument. Perhaps I hadn't really invested much thought in acquiring the latest Koontz book. What had once been a real consumer choice based on past enjoyment had become a mere habit leading to boredom and stultification.

As if sensing that I was weakening, Barbara pressed her case. "All I'm doing is engaging in a little guerilla marketing. As a businessman yourself, surely you can understand about positioning your product where consumers can find it. And this is not about just my book. I'm striking a blow for all unsung authors everywhere!"

My innate cynicism came to the forefront. "Oh, really? Then why didn't you slip me a copy of someone else's book, and not your own?"

Barbara blushed. "Well, I only get the author discount on multiple copies of my own title... I'm not as rich as Koontz, you know! If Paper Poppies really takes off, then I'll expand to other authors. I have a friend who's written this exhilirating tale of sisterhood. Belle Kerve, Sistahs and Mistahs--"

Barbara's sincerity had won me over, at least partially. "Okay, what if I'm willing to give your book a try? Can I get my Koontz back if I don't like yours?"

"Certainly!"

"All right then. I'll give it a shot."

"Wonderful! Here, let me autograph it! What's your name?"

I told her. As she signed my new book, I took the chance to look her over more closely. Somehow she didn't look so ditzy any more.

"Let me get you a real dustjacket to go with that." Barbara unzipped her duffel, revealing a few dozen copies of her book.

"What are your plans once you're in the city?" I asked.

"I'm going into several Borders and Barnes and Nobles to sneak more copies of my books onto the shelves."

"What do you do with the jacketless bestsellers you remove?"

"I bury them under the wet paper towels in the ladies room." Sizing up my new interest, Barbara said, "Want to help?"

Ditching the Mittleschmerz contract and Sandy Fleabane was an easy call. But I had to think a little longer about hanging out all day in Bryant Park. Finally I proposed an alternative.

"Let's get the train to Coney Island. This year's beach books are a bunch of stinkers."

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