Wednesday, February 03, 2010

To Kill a Vampire

Time: Somewhere in January 2010. Scene: Editorial offices of a New York book publisher. A young lady wearing a modest dress has entered the door and is standing there in the lobby looking around uncertainly. An older woman walks into the lobby.

E: Ms. Lee?
L (looking uncertain): Yes?
E: I'm Emmy Edwards, your editor. We love your book! We think it has a lot of potential! Only a few minor changes, and it can be a New York Times best seller, we think!
L: That's... good. I guess?
E: Come, come! Let's go to my office, okay?

Cut to: Editor's office. The office consists of an L-shaped desk along a cubicle wall covered with printouts of manuscripts, with an obsolete CRT monitor showing another manuscript. The sound of other people talking or typing on computers wafts over the cubicle walls.

E: Okay, Ms. Lee. Can I call you Harper? You can call me Emmy.
L(looks uncertain): I guess that's fine... Emmy.
E: So first thing, I love your book, love it love it love it! Except we need to have at least two sex scenes in the book, one with the villain, and one with the hero.
L: But... Scout is only six years old!
E: You'll have to fix that, won't you? Make her 18.
L: But then the scene where Scout faces down the lynch mob doesn't work, it's all about the lynch mob running up against her young innocence...
E: So make her a very young-looking 18, okay? Make her gripe that she looks like a 12 year old or something. But she has to have sex, or we'll never be able to auction the book off for a movie!
L: Oh... okay... uhm...
E: The good guy, I guess, would be the neighbor's kid, the one she hangs out with all the time. Except she doesn't know she loves him until the end of the book, when she bones him big-time. Make him 18 too.
L: But... Dill is gay!
E: Whatever. Make him bisexual or something.
L: I guess it's not that important...
E: Also, you need to change the setting. It should be something exotic, like New York City or New Orleans or something like that, not some sleepy town in Alabama. Our market research shows that our books are read mostly by bored housewives in dull suburban tract houses who want a taste of something more... exotic.
L: I guess... maybe New Orleans? I guess there's neighborhoods in New Orleans that could work. But no, the courthouse scene still doesn't work, because Scout won't be able to call out the members of the lynch mob by name then.
E: If it doesn't work, just replace it with a sex scene or something. Okay, next thing, we need some vampires.
L: Vampires?
E: Yes, vampires! Guaranteed to double the sales of the book. Vampires are sexy! The bad guys, the Ewells, make them vampires. And make that Tom Robinson a werewolf who gets wrongly accused of rape after that girl vampire tries to suck his blood and has to spit it out because vampires can't drink werewolf blood. It's all about discrimination against werewolves, that's always a big hit with our focus groups.
L: Werewolves. Vampires. What does that have to do with real life?
E: Look, kid, do you want a best seller or not? We do these edits, and I guarantee you a first pressing of 120,000 books! That's how hot I think this book is. These aren't big changes, just little things. Look, you want to be rich or not?
L: Well... except the book is about prejudice and discrimination in the South. How can I make it about vampires and werewolves?
E: Make the vampires be the bigots and the werewolves the ones discriminated against. And hey, that next door neighbor, Boo? Make him a zombie.
L: A... zombie.
E: Hey, your explanation for why he never comes out of the house sucks! I'm doing you a favor, okay?
L(looking stunned and dazed): A... zombie...
E: Now, your vampires need a special twist to make them interesting compared to all the other vampire novels on the market. Vampires with sun allergies are old school. Maybe make them sparkle in the sun? Wait, no, that other series of vampire novels already did that. Maybe they glow. Yeah, glow, like light bulbs! That explains why they mostly only come out at night.
L: Vampires... glowing... no. No no no no no no no. No glowing vampires. I have a nice little period piece novel set in the South that talks about prejudice and innocence, not a trashy vampire novel!
E: Oh you idealistic kids. Look. Here's the reality. Vampires are hot. There's no market for innocent little period piece novels, it would never sell. And by the way, you have to move it to the present, it'd be too expensive to shoot the movie as a period piece. Won't sell. Never.
L: Well I guess that's how it has to be then. You won't publish it the way it is?
E(stony stare): No. It has to have vampires.
L: Sorry to waste your time then, I'll be going.

Cut away: Harper Lee in a small New York City flat, sitting at her dining room table staring at a fistful of rejection slips who've rejected her novel for various reasons -- "too episodic", "we don't publish period pieces", "too rural", "too much a downer", "no sex." She sighs, wipes them off the table, puts her head down on table and silently sobs. A minute later she sits back up straight and picks up the manuscript for her book, and stares at the title for a second. Then she carries it to the telephone in the kitchen, and picks up the phone.

L: Hello, Manhattan Temps? Hi, Cheryl. This is Harper. Time to go back to work for you guys again, yeah, I wrote the novel, but nobody wants it and my money's run out now. Yeah, sucks. Oh well. So, how's it going with Doug? Great! Maybe we can all do lunch ...

Voice fades away as camera moves in on a trashcan below the telephone. In the trashcan is a manuscript. The title page says, "To Kill A Mockingbird".

* The End *

-- Badtux the Literary Penguin

Bonus video:


  1. Very clever, and sad commentary.

  2. This in more an indictment of the American public than it is of book publishers (and editors). But I guess you already know that.

  3. Phil, the tastes of the majority of Americans have always trended more towards trashy best-sellers than towards high-browe literature. In the 1950's, for example, when Harper Lee was writing To Kill A Mockingbird, walking into any bookstore would have shown any number of lurid detective novels and scantily-clad buxom ladies writhing in the tentacles of Monsters from Mars. But major book publishers in days past took chances that they simply won't take today. It all has to tie in to some current trend or they simply won't publish it.

    Harper Lee probably would have managed to publish To Kill A Mockingbird today, actually. Except it would have probably been published by the University of Mississippi Press, had a first printing of 2,000 volumes, of which 750 would be sold to regional libraries, another 500 sold from the "regional interest" shelves of regional bookstores, and the remaining 750 volumes remaindered. And there would have never been a second printing, and nobody would have ever heard of the book afterwards. Even in today's world it takes a major book publisher to push a book into every brick-and-mortar bookstore in the country and arrange the advertising and review copies needed to get significant numbers of libraries to buy it, I see no way that To Kill A Mockingbird could have been published today given that no major book publisher would have bought it.

    - Badtux the Literary Penguin

  4. "It's all about discrimination against werewolves, that's always a big hit with our focus groups."

    Good stuff. Getting anything meaningfull out to the general public is tricky if it's not Going Rogue, Hairy Potter, Lady Doo Doo or Pretty-People-Doing-Ugly-Things related - as you've outlined the obstacles.

    I agree with Phil's comment. The world is populated with a 99 to 1 bonehead ratio that believe Saddam Hussein started 9/11 and Panic is the national pastime.

    Also, why are these comments dated two months from now? Are you from the future?

  5. Yes, I am from the future where Google uses the international Day/Month/Year format :-).

    My only objection to Phil's description of the American buying public was his assertion that it was a new thing. As I pointed out, the majority of the American buying public has always had a bigger taste for trash than for literary greatness. That's just how things work, alas.

    - Badtux the Literary Penguin

  6. Here's a true story. A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT was rejected by some ungodly number of publishing houses - I'm remembering the number as 27, but that might not be right.

    It was finally published by the University of Chicago Press - who don't publish novels, just academic stuff, only because the guy who wrote was an emeritus Prof there.

    They never spent a dime on promotion, 'cuz that's not what they do. It's been in print constantly since the first edition - just enough sales to keep it going, I suppose.

    There are many stories of highly successful, quality novels getting dozens of rejections before somebody took a flyer on one of them.

    I'm not going to let the American people off the hook, but the publishing houses deserve the majority of the blame. It's one more aspect of corporatocracy in action.



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