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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

More than Bookman

"The average book group is a melting pot of different views, with members often furiously debating the merits of the book under discussion.

"Now publishing company Hookline Books has decided to harness those opinions—by using book clubs to help them judge which of their manuscripts they should put into print.

"The publisher invites book groups from around the UK to read and then discuss the first two chapters of new works from students or MA writing course graduates, before the top five writers are chosen to submit their complete manuscripts."
—Rachel Curtis, "The Book Clubs that Try to Find the Next Bestsellers," BBC News Magazine


EVERY BLIND date is frightening. But the one I was about to embark on was particularly so.

Not only was this single blind date most likely going to determine the course of my nascent writing career, but it also involved meeting a literal superhuman.

Whatever could I possibly have to angst about?

I had tried to arrange the meeting to occur in a local bookstore with coffee bar, but there were none left, chain nor independent, within a hundred-mile radius of me. So, as the barely-next-best substitute, I picked a local café where a lot of creative types liked to hang out, The Sad Burlesque.

I got there early, commandeered a table large enough to hold my date, and then settled nervously down with a hazelnut frappuccino. I didn't have long to wait, for my date showed up precisely at three P.M., as we had specified.

I knew it was my date when six people walked in, bunched closely together. The group consisted of an elderly white woman in a cardigan; a burly young male simpleton, also Anglo and wearing bib overalls over bare chest; two fashionably dressed young African-American females; an Asian male nerd clad in the manner of his tribe; and a middle-aged professorial male, mustached, tweedy, and possibly Latino.

The elderly white woman led the pack and approached me first. "Mr. Palermo, we greet you. We are the Piscataway and Greater Raritan Valley Book Club. I am Mrs. Hachette, the Speaker for the Club."

She introduced the others to me. The simpleton was Mac von Holtzbrinck; the two women of color were Penny Gwenn and Colleen Harper; the geeky guy was Rand O'Mouse; and the academic type was Simon Schuster. Their roles in the Club's group mind were not immediately apparent to me.

My voice quavered as I said, "Please, won't you all have a seat?"

Simon Schuster waggled his fingers through an intricate dance, and instantly six chairs materialized. A couple of the chairs had apparently been whisked out from under seated patrons, who thumped unceremoniously to the floor. But no one dared complain, for fear, perhaps, of being sent "under the cornfield."

Without any need for verbal communication, the Book Club decided on choice of drinks. The two black women then popped back and forth, from table to counter, like teleporting waitresses. Once everyone was settled with their beverage, Mrs. Hachette spoke.

"We have read the first two chapters of your manuscript, Mr. Palermo, and reached a verdict as to its suitability for publication. But before we render our decision, we would just like to remind you, as we do with all candidates, of how and why this process came to dominate the publishing model. Many writers, we have found, still imagine that the olden days offered better alternatives than the current system. We would like to set your mind at ease as to the fairness and efficiency of the Book Club paradigm."

I nodded dumbly and Mrs. Hachette continued.

"In the very early days of publishing, of course, selection of works to be honored with instantiation as printed books relied on individual gatekeepers known as editors, who, weighing input from their publishers and the company's sales force, would make a judgment as to the worth and profitability of a text. Such a model of course relied on expert knowledge and years of cultivated experience. It was innately elite, exclusive, and undemocratic. Then, with the self-publishing revolution, the balance shifted to the opposite extreme. All filters were dismantled, and the world was swamped with tons of trash that amply illustrated, ahem, Sturgeon's Law.

"But the creation and perfection of the new species of mankind known as the gestalt mind—we Book Clubs, born from the genetic engineering laboratories of Big Six Publishing—solved both problems handily, creating the perfect middle-of-the-road solution. Among us, we six readers possess a huge body of heterogenous literary knowledge and taste—and yet no single perspective holds dictatorial sway."

I blurted out a question rather rudely, without thinking. "Don't you ever have a tie vote?"

Luckily, Mrs. Hachette and the others seemed not to mind my query. "All of us are equal, but Rand is the most equal of all. When he casts his vote, it counts twice."

The Asian guy smiled proudly and fingered the duct-tape hinge on the bridge of his eyeglasses.

"But in truth," Mrs. Hachette continued, "the interior decision-making process is much more organic, fluid, and non-discrete than mere words can convey. We reach a consensus non-verbally, and often in an instant, once we have all read a selection."

"Well, I guess it all sounds fair and equitable and efficient," I offered weakly. Really, what else could I have said?

Approval by the Book Clubs was now the only route to publication. No retail outlet, virtual or brick-and-mortar, would handle any product that had not been vetted by the Book Clubs. Nor would the major corporate-owned social media outlets allow you to advertise a self-published work. If a writer wanted to peddle any such homemade book, he or she was reduced more or less to hawking copies from a street corner, and no one wanted to submit to such pointless, small-scale indignities.

Bracing myself, with hands and feet cold as ice, I said, "And so I can assume you've reached a decision about my book?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Hachette, neither her expression nor the faces of her comrades giving away anything. "We have decided that your manuscript, titled The Universal Ecstatic Tautology, is a work of literary mainstream fiction in the mode of Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace, and is worthy of publication."

I blanked out for a few seconds, not sure I had heard correctly. When consciousness returned, I found myself at the center of a round of applause from all the customers and staff at The Sad Burlesque. With my face flushed and burning, I stood and bowed. Then I turned to the Book Club.

"I offer my sincerest thanks to the Piscataway and Greater Raritan Valley Book Club. May you continue to promote the success of worthy books for years to come."

The Book Club stood en masse to leave, and then I felt safe in asking one last question. "I know the special talent of each one of you—except for Mac von Holtzbrinck." I indicated the lumbering country bumpkin with his bulging muscles. "What does he do?"

"Oh," said Mrs. Hachette with a very disturbing smile. "When we need to employ him, he's in charge of the rejection process."

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