It was the nineteenth or was it the twenty-third rejection slip? Wilber Wilco had lost count. He used to file them away, kind of like Purple Heart medals in his mind, each one representing a wound to his ego. But today, he just crumpled the postcard and tossed it into the rubbish can under his desk with a sigh. C’mon there’s a market for this. I just know there is. Why can’t these agents see that?
He’d gone away to writer’s conferences, when there were such physically held. And more recently, attended virtual ones. He reread and reedited his opus after each rejection, hoping that each repolishing would be the one that would catch the next agent’s or publisher’s eye. But as time passed, it became harder and harder to continue feeling hopeful.
“Why don’t you go with self-publishing if it bugs you so much?” his friend Laurel suggested. “You’ll at least have the satisfaction of holding it in your hands as a real book, with a Library of Congress number and everything. Remember that guy who had a best seller about an astronaut stranded on Mars? He started his story on the web for fun.”
But Wilber had too much pride for that. “No, I want it to make it the legit way, to have my novel picked up and marketed by a regular press.”
“Well, you’re lucky that you have to work from home now,’ Laurel said. “You’ve got more time to spend on your writing.” Maybe too much time, she thought.
Wilber found a writing group online. He participated irregularly, submitting some of his rewrites for feedback. Much of the time he disagreed with the comments that he received. Some members revel in being caustic he thought. Pearls cast before swine. A few, who were always there when he attended, were more encouraging and sympathetic when he told of his most recent agent or publisher rejection. He thought Nicholas especially was more helpful than hurtful, more encouraging than critical. If the times were normal, he thought, Nicholas is a guy I would enjoy meeting in a bar, to talk about writing over a few beers. He seems to really know his stuff. Nicholas came across on Zoom as a rather dashing, tall, slim figure, with a well trimmed black goatee, perhaps fortyish. Although almost everyone else favored wearing tee shirts or sweats at the meetings, he was always impeccably dressed in unwrinkled long-sleeved shirts. Are they silk? wondered Wilber. He must be doing well, whatever he does outside of writing.
And so one day as the meeting was breaking up, he commiserated with Nicholas about how discouraged he was feeling, how perhaps he should just give up the whole idea of being an author. “Maybe my friend Laurel is right,” he said glumly. “Maybe the only way I’ll see my book in print is to self-publish it.”
“Try not to be so hard on yourself,” Nicholas said. “I think it shows real promise. Perhaps just a little editing, that’s all. Someone will pick it up.”
“The way I feel now, I’d sell my soul to have it published and become a best seller,” Wilber said.
“Really? You feel that strongly? Well, that just shows that you’re a real author. A mere dabbler wouldn’t feel that committed,” Nicholas said. “But would you really do it if given the chance?”
“You mean to sell my soul? Well, I mean it’s just a figure of speech,” Wilbur said. “I mean, who really believes in stuff like that today? Souls and heaven and hell?”
“Just suppose you actually were given the choice. Hypothetically of course. Would you?”
“Yeah, the way I feel now, I would. Hypothetically of course”
“You would?” Nicholas paused. “Well, I do know some people in the industry. And as I said earlier, I think your novel shows real promise. Maybe I can help. Here’s a name and number to call, and when they answer and ask what your call is all about, just say Nicholas referred you because he thinks you have a manuscript that is very promising.”
Wilbur looked at the name and number that Nicholas was holding to the screen. “Wait a minute. I know that name. They rejected my manuscript once before without even a comment.”
“Well, that was before,” said Nicholas. “And this is now. Are you willing to give success a try? Shall we Zoom-shake on the hypothetical? Deal?”
Nicholas extended his right hand towards the screen. Wilber, after the slightest hesitation, also extended his right hand, saying, “Why not? Deal.” And they Zoom-shook hands up and down.
“Well that was sort of weird. And we shook on a deal? What deal?” said Wilber as he stared at the now-dark screen. “Should I even bother to call this number tomorrow? But I really don’t know what Nicholas does. Maybe he does have an in with the publisher.”
The next day, feeling that he had nothing to lose, Wilber dialed the number and followed Nicholas’ instructions about what to say when his call was answered by a secretary. To his surprise, he was immediately transferred to a senior editor.
“Well, if Nicholas thinks your manuscript has merit that’s high praise. Please send it to me immediately and I will be happy to take a look. You haven’t recently shown it to anyone else, have you? No? Good. Now here’s what you do to get it to me.”
Wilber couldn’t quite believe that this was really happening. Wow, at last, he thought. I’m actually getting a serious look by a publisher. I guess Nicholas really does have clout. And we haven’t even met in person. He sent off his manuscript as directed. Within a few days, a contract arrived from the publisher that he promptly signed and returned, feeling giddy about how rapidly things were developing.
Wilber shared the good news with Laurel. “Did Nicholas mention what his agent’s fee was?” she asked.
“He never did say he was acting as my agent Just gave me a referral. And I really don’t know if that’s his business.”
“Well it must be. How else could he get you a look and a contract? You definitely should ask him what his fee is and get it in writing. If your novel really takes off, you’ll want to know if he takes a percentage.”
“I’m not sure what he does,” said Wilber. “I’ve Googled him and there’s almost no information available.”
And Wilber’s novel, after a slow start, did take off, arriving on the Times best seller list at number twenty-five, and then rapidly ascending the chart. His book was reviewed. He carefully clipped or printed out each review and filed it away. Many were laudatory, expressing surprise that a first-time author had written the must-read book of the season. Some were more like the less generous members of his writing group: “I cannot recall reading a more disjointed novel. It harkens back to Naked Came the Manatee. The author is either a superb and clever satirist, or else he has foisted a huge literary con job on the reading public. I am inclined to the latter view.” You know where to stick your view, Wilber thought. How’s that saying go? Them’s that can, write, and them’s that can’t become critics.
He was besieged for virtual interviews and consulted Nicholas. “I wouldn’t know what to say,” he said.
“Just be mysterious,” Nicholas said. “Tell them that you want each reader to make up his or her own mind and you don’t want to say anything that would color their personal interpretation of your writing. And if you use your apartment garage as the site of the interview, it will add to your mystique.”
After four weeks at number one, Nicholas said, “I think a celebration is in order. Let’s have a small get-together with some other well known writers.”
“An in-person party? Will that be safe?” asked Wilber.
“I can guarantee you that no one will have the virus, so you’ll be safe,” Nicholas said. “It’ll be fun. Are you game?”
“I guess so,” said Wilber. “But when and where?” With other famous writers, he thought with a thrill. I’ve really made it. And all thanks to Nicholas.
“Just take Uber to the front entrance of Frumpy Towers. I’ll meet you there next Sunday at 11:00 PM,” Nicholas instructed.
“Eleven PM? Won’t it be closed then? And isn’t that day Halloween?”
“I have an arrangement with the owners,” Nicholas said. “And I enjoy parties on Halloween, don’t you?”
On Sunday night, Wilber arrived at the front entrance to Frumpy Tower as instructed, got out of the car and looked around as the car drove off. The entrance was dark as were all of the windows. Just as he was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake about the date and time, Nicholas stepped out of the shadows, dressed all in black. “Well, we meet in person at last, Nicholas,” he said, smiling in relief and extending his right hand which Nicholas took and shook vigorously.
“Yes, we meet at last in person,” he replied with a broad smile.
“I’ve told you this before, but I owe everything to you. I can’t thank…”
“Don’t worry about that,” Nicholas interrupted. “It’s really all my pleasure. Now shall we join the party?”
The tall bronze doors to the lobby slid open at his gesture, their foot steps echoing in the vast empty darkness, as they crossed to the far bank of elevators where one was waiting with door open. “After you,” Nicholas said with a sweeping gesture of his right arm. The door slid shut, and the car began its descent.
“We’re going down?” asked Wilber in surprise. “I thought we might be going up.”
“Did I mention I have a deal with the owners?” Nicholas replied.
At last the car stopped, the door silently opened, and they stepped out into a dimly lit room of indeterminate size.
Nicholas snapped his fingers and the room quieted as everyone looked their way. “I want to introduce our newest arrival, Wilber Wilco, the best selling author.” There was polite applause.
“You didn’t tell me it was going to be a costume party, Nicholas,” said Wilber. “There’s a Hitler, and there’s a Mao, and a Mussolini too.* The costumes are so good. This will be such fun.”
“Oh, they’re not in costume,” said Nicholas with an even broader smile. “I kept my end of the deal, and now you are keeping yours.”
This morning the body of the bestselling author, Wilber Wilco was found in an elevator at Frumpy Towers. Foul play is not suspected, and the cause of death is under investigation.
*Publications: Hitler: Mein Kempf; Mao: The Little Red Book; Mussolini: The Fascist Manifesto