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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Patton of the Arts

"Defense Department officials are negotiating to buy and destroy all 10,000 copies of the first printing of an Afghan war memoir they say contains intelligence secrets, according to two people familiar with the dispute."
The New York Times, Scott Shane, "Pentagon Plan: Buying Books to Keep Secrets," September 9, 2010.

TIME TO start my new novel, and I was more nervous than at any point in my career—more so even than when The Daily Beast had gotten hold of those videos from my college days. Luckily that short-lived mini-scandal had only increased my sales among the heavy-partying Millennials who read that blog.

But today, despite having published ten prior books, all of which sold reasonably well, I had a bad case of the jitters, due to the current crazy publishing climate. Five years had intervened since my last book, and the world I safely knew had gone nuts. Kindles, iPads, book trailers, Lulu dotcom—I couldn't make heads nor tails of how one got a book into print in the year 2011—if that phrase "into print" even made sense any longer. As for marketing—well, none of the boring, tried-and-true author publicity tricks seemed reliable either. And I needed this book to sell, and sell big! I had persistent debts, and also a sense from my agent that Bookscan figures wouldn't allow me to coast along at the same modest level of success forever.

The damn thing was, I had great confidence in the novel itself. It might even constitute my breakout book. Concerned with political shenanigans, it was to be called Tracker and the Money Bomb. Elevator pitch: young videographer assigned to document the campaign of a charismatic politico uncovers international illegalities involving America's enemies. The plot had everything: sexy women, timely themes, roman à clef villain…. A guaranteed winner!

But how could I be sure? I needed that little extra something that would raise the book above the herd when an editor saw the manuscript, and gain it notoriety and sales later on.

But no brainstorm presented itself to me.

I was lamenting about all this to my friend Travis Shoecraft one day. Travis had just gotten a royalty statement in the low six figures for his latest, The Morula Exfoliation, a thriller about telepathic terrorist embryos.

After lending a sympathetic ear, Shoecraft said, "Charlie, I'm going to let you in on the service that makes my books into bestsellers. It's WikiLeaks."

"The organization that spills various kinds of secrets to the media?"

"None other. They've opened up a literary agency of a peculiar kind. The income helps pay Julian Assange's legal bills. Ironically, this branch of their business is not well-publicized. Strictly word-of-mouth. But I trust you, and feel great sympathy for your plight, Charlie. So I'm going to recommend you to them as a client."

"But what exactly can they do for me?"

"I think I should let the experts themselves explain that to you."

So the very next day, following the directions to the offices displayed on my new iPhone (only after I had fumblingly dismissed the book-reading app that stubbornly insisted on showing me the latest paranormal romance from Brenda Bedford,Kiss Me, Dudley: An Authorized Sequel to "The Bishop's Wife"), I arrived at the place I hoped would help ensure my future success.

A receptionist ushered me into the modest office of one Shanshan Shapiro. The young, be-suited woman behind the desk, whose features were an attractive mix of Asian and Caucasian, rose to shake my hand.

"Welcome, Mr. Carter. You come endorsed highly by Mr. Shoecraft, and I hope we will be able to help you today."

"Could you please explain first precisely what service you offer to authors?"

"Of course. We sell secrets, secrets we do not reveal through our other, more public arm. Secrets of all kinds and magnitudes, carefully tailored to the kind of book you plan to write."

"I see…. And purchasing secrets will help me how?"

"Easy to illustrate. You simply insert them into your book, employing all your writerly skill and craft to make them seem natural extensions of your material."

"And then?"

"Then we at WikiLeaks Literary Agency very subtly and quietly impart rumors about the contents of your forthcoming book to certain interested parties. Upon publication, these individuals or organizations immediately swoop into assorted online and brick-and-mortar retail outlets and buy up any number of copies of your book, for immediate destruction. These quantities can vary from ten percent of the print run up to one hundred percent. And of course, subsequent reprintings would reflect similar purchase figures."

"I see.…"

Shanshan Shapiro was plainly warming to her spiel. "Now, we offer many secrets on a broad scale. Some affect only individuals, while others pertain to whole families, towns, companies, agencies, or even entire governments. Likewise, the secrets vary in magnitude and complexity. Some are small, some are very large. Of course, your payments to us will reflect the size and range of the secrets you intend to purchase."

"For instance?"

"Well, suppose we sell you the original embarrassing birth name and/or ethnicity of a B-list Hollywood star, deliberately deleted from the public records. That's a smallish secret pertaining to just one not-so-big person. You might expect the actor concerned to purchase about a quarter of your print run to help suppress the dissemination of his past. That boost on top of your normal sales will be instrumental in lifting your bottom line."

"But suppose I want even more sales?"

Shanshan Shapiro smiled in a fetchingly evil manner. "Ah, then, we bring out the big guns, so to speak. Secrets that will cause the Pentagon, say, to scoop up every copy of your book."

"But wouldn't I risk suppression of the book prior to publication?"

"There is always a slim chance of pre-publication legal action. But you may rely on our expertise to walk the fine line between freedom of speech and proprietary information. And don't forget: sometimes a lot of free publicity results, if the offended parties get too rough or demanding. I am proud to say that we have never yet had a single case of author assassination. Although I am legally obligated to mention that President Obama might very well authorize drone strikes against domestic security threats in the near future."

I contemplated everything I had been told, while Shanshan Shapiro watched me with the calm certainty that I was hooked. Bestsellerdom, just for inserting a few tidbits of gossip or grapevine whisperings into my book? How deplorable was that? After all, it was nothing that hadn't been happening since at least the days of Jacqueline Susann and Truman Capote….

But then a picture of all my brainchildren being trucked direct from bookstores to the pulping plants swelled up in my vision. I recalled the infamous story of how the first edition of Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition had never made it out of Doubleday's printer's shop. My ire and pride bloomed into a righteous flame, and I leaped to my feet.

"Ms. Shapiro, I refuse to play your sleazy little game! Better to have my name forgotten, than to engineer unread oblivion for my own books."

She remained composed. "I am sorry this is your reaction, Mr. Carter. Especially since we have a juicy, ripe secret perfectly fitted for Tracker and the Money Bomb, insofar as your friend Mr. Shoemaker has outlined the premise of your book to us. Did you know that a certain Southern Senator has a transvestite Gypsy mistress whose Chechen cousin is a CIA double agent?"

I sat back down, taking out my checkbook, and said, "Please, Ms. Shapiro, tell me more."

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