Inquest - Index   |  chapter 15   |  chapter 17

Chapter 16

A publishing bash is attended - but other dreams of and by Sinclair & Sinclair preferred.


       Soraya would leave before us; maybe that is why she always appeared to be so far ahead of us. In the final pre-flight weeks even the kids felt they were a few more steps than usual behind their mother. Ruthlessly tying up the last loose ends, Soraya narrowed her focus evermore tightly on what lay ahead. She did it well: everything seemed to be falling in place.
       Tancred and Annabelle complained some that they were not able to follow her lead entirely, as they were still forced to deal with school obligations and the like. I thought it was preferable -- an entire household, similarly singularly driven, would have been entirely too much. A bit of distraction was always welcome (though Soraya says my open-armed approach to distraction is among the worst of my many personality flaws ...).
       The final work function Soraya and I attended together was the Hammerschmitt bash launching the big (and small) summer books. Most of the legwork of promoting these titles had long been done, and the pre-reviews (and booksellers' orders) were already in, but this was to officially introduce the beach-bestsellers-to-be to the New York publishing scene and the influential reviewers -- and to fête the authors. In other words: an excuse for everyone to get hammered on Hammerschmitt's dime.
       I was just as glad that we'd be out of the country when most of these titles hit the bookstores. They weren't exactly our pride and joy: the summer picks were, as usual, on the lower literary end -- more popularly termed "popular" (though often they unfortunately weren't even that). The thinking apparently was that readers are less discerning in summertime, and could be fed simplest fare -- the schlock that couldn't be unloaded if readers actually thought about what they were buying (which -- so the guess ? -- they didn't during the summer rush and crush, when a little bit of publicity was good enough to get them to pay for a book).
       Soraya made sure OE & E maintained some sort of standards, but even she couldn't avoid going with the flow. Besides: it gave her an excuse to unload the dogs -- except that she couldn't release them all at the same time because bad books do flop, more often than not, and even she couldn't afford a whole summer of failures.
       Soraya was good in this overcrowded party scene, moving right along with the shifting tides of this sweaty, ugly, and increasingly inebriated mass, managing to whisper and/or yell (depending on what was called for) the right words about her most promising titles to the right people. Meanwhile, I hung back and only occasionally moved about between my authors, making sure they shook some of the right hands and said a few words to the people they had to (before, that is, the general (and the author-specific) level of intoxication was too high). I tired quickly of the exercises and, not feeling near as duty-bound as Soraya, retreated to a corner to sip my mineral water and observe.

       The fun naturally degenerated as the night wore on and out. With Soraya scheduled soon to be long-absent a few of our more foolish colleagues thought it might be a good opportunity to let her know how they felt. As Soraya of course reminded them: she couldn't care less, but her indifference wasn't enough to get them to even slow down, much less reconsider laying into her in the first place.
       I didn't pay close attention -- Soraya doesn't need me to come to her defence, and my getting involved rarely does much to improve the in-(publishing)-house dynamics. My only contribution was to distract a gossip columnist zeroing in on Soraya just as she was in the middle of explaining to a recently poorly performing author (both success and quality-wise, with a trifecta of flops the last three years and little hope of redemption with the forthcoming near-unreadable tome) and his editor why the marketing support for their new book was going to be as limited as it was -- leading to pips and yelps of protest and whiny complaints that could be heard, even over all the din and music, twenty feet away. I offered the gossip columnist stale gossip that I'd probably read in his own column, and speculated (rather wildly) on why bestselling author X had suddenly moved from publisher Y to Z. (I was glad to find that neither my admittedly unlikely speculations nor, more importantly, any of Soraya's disagreements made the industry-tabloids (or the popular ones).)

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       If the evening was worth it it was because afterwards Soraya lost any last vestiges of guilt she might have harboured about abandoning her OE & E ship for the summer. Her sleepy, slurred (as she still tried to string words along faster than her tongue allowed), and slightly inebriated thoughts as we made our way home were along the lines of: let it drift waywardly on its own, let it sink even. She didn't mean it -- she has an almost proprietary pride and considerable affection for OE & E. She also knew that it couldn't be sunk so fast (unless Hammerschmitt did something radical -- but that could happen anytime, even when Soraya was around). Most of what OE & E could and would do for the next year and more had been planned out. The only fear and danger were that an overeager editor would bid too many figures on a book, blowing the company budget. Soraya gave each underling a limit, and even any six-digit advances had to be approved by a resident Hammerschmitt exec, but Soraya still hoped few or no opportunities arose where anyone might entertain the idea of spending more than they should.
       "I enjoy the activity," she said when we were in bed. "There's some sense of accomplishment, even in just seeing these third-rate summer blockbusters (or block-busts) printed and bound and ready for sale. But otherwise -- no, I don't mind leaving this, not one bit."
       "And you think there'll be anywhere near enough activity to keep you busy and content the next few months ?" I asked.
       She smiled, eyes closed, head sunk comfortably in her pillow, looking for a rare moment contentedly serene. "Inactivity will do just as well," she said, nearly convincingly. But even she didn't believe that, not for more than a moment: Soraya wasn't much for vacations in sand and sun, or even a weekend at some poolside resort -- unless it was surrounded by a pile of manuscripts and books, pen in hand, pencil behind her ear. She needed to be busy.
       Almost immediately she raised her head and looked back at me with the excited twinkle in her eyes. Giving me a playful push she said: "I trust Morgenstern. He wouldn't waste our time. He wouldn't think of wasting it. We might not be in for the sort of excitement we're used to from here -- waiting for authors and agents to return calls ! editorial meetings ! the wining and dining and whining ! the thrills and disappointments found weekly on bestseller lists and in the book review sections ! But I know he has something in mind -- and coming from that mind ..... I trust him completely."
       As, I suppose, do I. But Soraya was more emphatically convinced, and showed a lack of concern regarding the details that I couldn't quite manage. Hers was, given the circumstances, probably the right approach to take.
       "But," she said to me "I'm thinking of taking along, as a sort of pet project, my ... our classics publishing plan. Maybe more as a Gedankenexperiment, but it seems a worthy thing to work on, should time present itself."

       Every editor has their own grand publishing plans, visions of what they would do if they were in charge. Soraya is, pretty much, in charge but a commercial organization of the sort that Hammerschmitt and subsidiaries is also imposes a great many limitations on what can be bought and published. Soraya does what she can, and by and large does shape the OE & E list, but even so more than half the titles published under that name aren't ones she in any way approves of, and many others are the sort of compromises necessary to keep editors and agents happy.
       We occasionally fantasized about what we'd do if we had complete and utter control of a publishing house. The list would look little like OE & E's, or that of most commercial American houses. It was all fantasy, of course: one of the reasons it bore no resemblance to any commercial lists was because it wouldn't be very commercial in any sense of the word, and thus probably couldn't survive as a commercial entity. We even had a joke between us, for those few marvelous books that we had to turn down because they simply would never sell enough to satisfy the Hammerschmitt masters: we called them Sinclair & Sinclair titles (so the name we had lazily settled on for our air castle publishing house).
       Our aspirations regarding publishing contemporary fiction and the like were completely unrealistic, but Soraya did harbour hopes of one day establishing a classics list of her own and this idea was, potentially, a viable one. There was always a market for classics, and since there were no copyright-holders (annoying authors and their heirs) to pay if one went back far enough (which isn't all that far) it was a proposition that was economically more viable. The trick, of course, was finding (or creating) an identity -- a niche, even in this classic world. Yet another set of Dickens or Austen novels or Shakespeare plays wouldn't be of much interest, but Soraya had some fairly clear ideas of what (and who) she might want to do. One was to piggy-back on lines that have had success -- from the original Everyman's Library to the faded Tauchnitz editions to discontinued series like the Harper Torchbooks, basing a new list on the volumes from those lists that were no longer accessibly in print. (I wondered about the wisdom of re-publishing books that the marketplace had pushed out of print (which, to me suggested, an absence of demand), but Soraya reminded me that books went out of print for all sorts of strange reasons, and that, properly marketed, anything -- a masterpiece or a thousand-page tome of drivel -- could manage decent sales.)
       Another angle was to consider re-publishing a few second-tier authors she liked, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Jules Verne. And then there were the tempting untranslated classics, from Amir Arsalan to Balthasar Gracián's El criticón -- though these meant investing in (and relying on) translations. And there was also always the temptation to include a few neglected foreign and fairly modern authors (including some whose work was still -- potentially expensively -- copyright-protected) -- from Stanislaw Lec to Ernst Weiss to Augusto Monterroso. Enough, all told, to keep Soraya as busy as she wanted to be kept in just playing with the possible names and titles to include. But perhaps she would find time in Rystwycz to map out a publishing plan in some detail.
       She also enjoyed toying with how the line and the individual volumes might look. No 6 by 9 inch trade-paperback size for her -- or unwieldy hardcovers: 4 by 7 inch, give or take some eighths, for both cloth and paperback, she insisted. There were any number of questions: paper quality, the type of type, dust jackets and cover design standards. A lot to fuss over, if that's what she was inclined to do. As, perhaps, Rystwycz would allow her to.

       "I wonder, whether we'll manage," Soraya eventually said. As usual, hers wasn't a simple shrugged, doubting wondering, allowing for nothing more than a 'Yes' or 'No', but rather an elaborate dream of all the ways in which our futures might be realised and would unfold -- still uncertain, but steeped in possibility.
       "I feel positively giddy," she said, giggling at the word. It was unlike her, but then this was as unlikely a situation as we could expect to find ourselves in.

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