Publishing is murder!
“Welcome, Lisa, this is your desk. My office is through there...” My new boss, Ursula, shook my hand and then pointed through the glass partition to a small office. I hung my coat on the back of the chair and sat down. The computer was already switched on and logged into the mail program.
Ursula moved round the desk to stand next to me, and began to instruct me in the intricacies of being a publishing agent's assistant.
She clicked on the inbox. “You have access to all the submissions from new authors. Existing authors, and people who have already published are given a private, separate email address, to bypass the slush pile – your job is to work through the manuscripts from budding, unpublished first-timers – looking for the diamond in the rough – the 'one-in-a-million' – the special, unique and incredible first-timer.”
“So, what am I looking for?” I was keen to read all these unpublished masterpieces, from people like me, I imagined, fresh out of uni with an English Language degree, specialising in creative fiction and numerous diplomas related to special writing courses, taken to enhance the probability of being a successful writer.
“Your job is to get rid of the dross – most of it is dross. You're looking for reasons to reject as quickly as possible. Let me show you...” She clicked on the oldest document in the inbox, dated 6 months earlier. The email subject was “Vampire Vixens by John Woodberry 125,000 words Scifi/horror/fantasy/Adult/humour.”
“Okay – so this one is easy to reject – too many words – a maximum of 120,000, plus too many genres – if the author doesn't know which genre it is meant to be, then our readers would also be confused, so we send a standard rejection email – polite, non-committal and meaningless, but it makes them happy – we've worked on the politeness and sympathy – I like the first line - “Thank you for submitting “Vampire Vixens” but it doesn't sound like the sort of story that we could successfully market.” We use the phrase 'sounds like' – of course, it implies we haven't even read the story yet, but the submitter won't realise that...” She clicked on the auto-reject option and the email program sent the message and removed the email from the inbox.
“There you go... only 174 more to consider.” Another one arrived as we were speaking, and the total increased to 175.
“But, I thought I could read these manuscripts, after all the effort they have invested in creating their baby, surely we should, at least, read some of it?”
Ursula made a sound like she was choking her laughter. “Come on! We haven't got time to do that! We need to get rid of as many as possible, get it down to a manageable level, otherwise we would never have time for lunch with the publishers and the successful authors! When you've got rid of all the obvious failures – too many genres, word counts outside the 80-120k range, anything described as 'good for children', any spelling mistakes in the title, anything to do with wizards, anyone who doesn't follow our guidelines on submission rules – separate attachments for cover letter, synopsis and the manuscript – plus if they don't put their name, contact details and a brief bio – that should get rid of 90%. You can read the rest. But if they are not in Ariel or Times Roman 12 point double spaced and justified, with an indent and double speechmarks for text, you can reject immediately. Plus, if they have more than one typo per page – reject, understood?”
I nodded and started to look at the next item in my inbox, as Ursula left me. “Just find the best five by the end of today and we can discuss them at 4pm.” She went to her office - “A tale of three dogs by Joanna Johnson 95k words, children/YA/Adult family/romance.”
“Okay, reject – mentioned children.” I mumbled to myself. I felt sorry for all the effort Ms Johnson must have exerted to write something of 95k words, but I knew I had to develop a thick skin and not to worry about these anonymous people, if I was ever to make a success of being a publishing agent's assistant.
On to the next story entitled “Publishing is murder!” by C R L Killer, 85k words murder/ mystery/thriller/adult. Sounds interesting. So I clicked on the attachment to open it, but before I could start reading it, I paused as I could hear Ursula talking loudly on her phone, as she hadn't closed the door to her office. “...Geoff's dead?! What happened?...sudden murder?...break-in? He's the third publishing agent this week...yes, I know, the Police are contacting all the agents, I have a meeting with them shortly...Okay, stay safe...” I looked up as she put down the phone. Two policemen in uniform were approaching through the open-plan office. Ursula saw me watching and indicated for me to join her. I got up and walked round to the entrance to her office as the two policewomen arrived.
“I am Sergeant Lashkey, this is my assistant PC Brickhill.” We shook hands and I introduced them to my boss, Ursula. She waved a hand towards the seats by her desk and we all sat down.
Sgt Lashkey cleared her throat. “As you know, we are here to talk about a possible serial killer who may be targeting publishing agents who have rejected his story. We have had three agents murdered in the last six weeks...” Ursula nodded and interrupted.
“Yes, I've been talking to other people I know in the industry, they are all really worried. But we reject dozens of stories every day – it's going to be difficult to identify which one isn't it?”
“Yes, of course, so we will ask for details of all the stories you've rejected in the last four months – and compare that to the list from the victims' computers, to see if you are also at risk, but also to identify the actual manuscript that triggered the revenge killing, if that was the reason, but we are working on that presumption at the moment.”
“Do you have any idea at the moment, which story it might be?”
Sgt Lashkey referred to her notes. “One story we are actively considering, at present, is by CRL Killer, “Publishing is murder' – can you remember seeing it?”
Ursula shook her head. I haven't looked at any of the submissions for many weeks, I've been too busy. I've just taken on an assistant, Lisa...” she waved her hand in my direction. “...to take over that aspect of my job. She only started this morning, which is why I invited her to join us.”
Sgt Lashkey stood up. “Okay, we won't trouble you any longer, as you've not rejected any stories in the last few months, but please send a list to me at the end of every week, ok?” She handed over her business card and Ursula took it and nodded. We all shook hands and they left.
Ursula sat down again, looking pale and shaken by the conversation with the Police. “Okay, Lisa, keep a record of all the rejected manuscripts and send it to the Police every week. Maybe you could check through the computer to see when we last rejected submissions before you arrived, as we always use your computer for that specific purpose.” She handed me Sgt Lashkey's card. I nodded and returned to my desk.
The previous document was still open on my screen and I started reading the opening line: “Welcome, Lisa, this is your desk. My office is through there...”
The morning passed quickly, and I rapidly filtered and rejected dozens of stories. By lunchtime I had only found four that passed all of Ursula's filtering techniques.
“Time for lunch.” Ursula was standing by my desk. “I'm meeting Chris Appling, one of the publishing agents whose colleague was murdered this week. Would you like to join us?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, too much work to do. I am not even half-way through the inbox, and it keeps growing – new submissions are arriving every hour.”
Ursula looked pleased that I was working so hard. “Okay, but do take at least a fifteen minute coffee break – it'll do you good.”
I nodded and Ursula left me to my work. I continued for a while, and then decided to look back through the send log. I wondered who had been rejecting manuscripts before I started that morning, so looked for previous rejection emails. Ursula was correct. Before I started, the previous rejection email was more than six months earlier – well before the serial killer started his campaign.
I looked up as Ursula arrived back from lunch around 2:30pm, but didn't speak to me, only nodded and returned to her office. She looked even paler than when the police visited earlier.
At 4pm, she called me into her office. “Have you selected the best five yet, Lisa?”
I nodded and smiled. “I am probably not as ruthless as you, yet, I have found eight that passed your tests out of the 107 I have looked at so far.”
Ursula waved for me to sit down. “It takes practice, but you'll soon find other reasons to reject, besides the ones I gave you this morning.”
I wondered if I should comment on Ursula's nervousness. “Are you okay? You look upset about something.” She looked at me, wondering, perhaps, if she could trust me.
“Well, Chris shared some disturbing details about his colleague's murder with me over lunch. We were trying to compare what we knew about the other murder victims.” She took a drink of water and leaned back in her chair, and made eye contact with me while pondering how to summarize.
“All the victims were working late in the office on their own at the time of the murder. There didn't seem to be any evidence of a break-in, so the murderer must have simply walked in the main entrance. All the Agencies are in big office blocks, and have no more than four or five agents. They were all stabbed many times, while they sat at their desks. Very strange.”
“Anyone else in the office hear anything?”
Ursula shook her head. “Doesn't appear anyone heard or saw anything. The victims seemed to have been alone at the time.” She shook her head and shivered. “Okay, let's have a look at the eight stories you have selected.”
I had printed out the first three pages of each story and handed them to Ursula who leaned forwards to put them on her desk, and took the first one. “Alien-Nation.” She read the title. “Good title. Okay, let me read the prologue...”
I opened my notepad and wrote 'Alien-Nation' and then began doodling while she was reading. She looked up after a few minutes. “Okay. Intriguing story – a mixture of legal drama and family strife, main character is a dad of 5 – all good, but the use of 'alien' in the title is misleading, as very little about aliens.”
“I thought as a crossover genre it might appeal to a broader audience?”
“Not with Scifi. The customers are too narrow-minded. It must be pure scifi or non-scifi, any crossover will get rejected by both audiences. Okay?” She threw the print-out into the bin and picked up the next one.
I made some notes about rejecting crossovers involving Scifi and we moved onto the next one.
By the time we got to the last story, we were the only two left in the office.
Ursula picked up the last one. “Publishing is Murder! Good title. It's true, being a publisher kills your free time and is really stressful. So, why did you like this one...besides the title?”
I smiled and looked at my notes. “Well, it's about the publishing industry, so I thought that made it interesting. It's about a serial murderer preying on publishing agents who reject his story, so I thought that was a coincedence. It's well written, good mystery build up and character development. It seemed very realistic, created real tension and atmosphere, particularly when describing the interaction between the murderer and the next victim...”
“Okay, sounds intriguing. Let me read the first few pages...”
Ursula started reading. I took out an apple from my bag and started peeling it with a knife.
After a few minutes she carefully placed the papers back on her desk and looked at me, nervously.
“So, what do you think?” I was eating pieces of apple off the end of the knife.
Ursula took a drink of water before answering. “I think it's got great promise. The plot is rather simple and predictable. I think there needed to be more characters involved as possible murderers. Limiting the number of people involved makes it too simple to solve the mystery.”
“So, do you think it's worth writing to the author with suggestions, or should it be rejected?” I was slowly picking pieces of apple out of my teeth using the knife as she was speaking, and watching her face as we spoke.
Before she could answer, her phone rang, so I picked it up and answered it.
“It's Chris Appling for you...” I passed the phone to Ursula, who stopped reading and took the phone.
“Yes...Lisa is with me now...” I looked up as she mentioned my name, and was surprised to see her face grow paler as I watched. “...Really? First week?...working late...reviewing submissions... Okay, I'll be careful.” She ended the call, still looking at me nervously.
“Apparently...all the victims had just taken on a new assistant before they were killed, and...” She swallowed, “The assistant immediately disappeared after the murder.”
I realized what she was implying and stood up suddently and stabbed the knife into the remaining part of the apple, making Ursula jump even more. “You don't mean...you think I could be the killer? That's ridiculous!”
She sat back further into her seat, as if trying to hide from me. “Lisa...please...sit down. You're scaring me!”
“Sorry. It's just you got me angry, believing that I could hurt anyone.” I sat down slowly and picked up my notepad, trying to calm myself down. “Do you think it's the author of that story, that might be the killer?”
Ursula's hands were shaking as she picked up the story again and pretended to read, but she clearly couldn't concentrate. “I think this is a rejection. Send him the standard email.”
“Are you sure? “ I put down my notepad and pulled the knife out of the apple and started slowly cutting some more pieces of the apple while making eye-contact.
Ursula glanced between my face and the knife while trying to make up her mind what to do. “Maybe we should leave a decision on this one until the morning, it's getting late.”
“This is the last one. Why don't you make a decision on this one now. I am sure the author is dyingto know the outcome.” My emphasis on the word 'dying' seemed to make her flinch.
“N-n-no need.” She was stuttering now in her nervousness. “Aren't you hungry for dinner – it's d-d-dinner-time?”
“Well, I could killfor a pizza, but it will only take a few minutes to finish off these author emails. Then tomorrow we can start with a clean slate.”
“I'm really not sure whether to r-r-reject this one, so best to leave it until tomorrow.”
“Are you dead-certain? I thought you had already decided to make the author really angryby sending him a standard rejection, rather than making helpful suggestions for things to cut?” I picked up some cut apple pieces and put them slowly in my mouth, all the time watching Ursula shaking in her seat.
“M-m-aybe we ought to ask him for the whole manuscript to read. Then make a decision after reading the complete story.”
I leaned back in my seat having finished the apple and the phone rang. I picked it up.“Hi Lisa, I have a Mr Killer in reception wondering if you have read his manuscript yet?”