THE SPY NOVELIST IMPOSTER WHO RESCUED OUR PUBLISHING CONFERENCE

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May 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 


Fourth Codex Steve  & Harold

Book jacket of “Fourth Codex” with inset photos of imposter spy novelist and publishing exec victim

By Bob Vickrey

It was late on a Thursday afternoon when I looked around the large rectangular table in the Charles Hotel ballroom and noticed several of my co-workers’ drowsily nodding off as our company’s marketing director addressed plans for our lead book title that season.

The long week had begun to take its toll on those of us who had gathered for our publishing company’s tri-annual sales conference which was being held in Cambridge, Massachusetts that year. Sales representatives had assembled there from across the country, along with our editors and publicity, marketing, and production members, who would attempt to gather and disseminate pertinent information for our forthcoming seasonal catalog.

After sitting at the same table for five straight days, fresh ideas seemed very much at a premium at this point in the week. The approximately sixty people on hand appeared as if they were present in body only—and whose minds had departed the building hours earlier.

From the back of the room, someone asked “How many are we printing?” Everyone erupted in laughter as the sales manager repeated the number he had just announced ten seconds earlier. The red-faced rep put her head down on the table, and in resignation, threw out a white hotel lunch napkin toward the middle of the room.

Thus was our plight as sales reps in the publishing world, where we were expected to dress up and act like mature grownups three times a year for several consecutive days. I always thought the company was pushing its luck with these high expectations. We reps lived quite a different lifestyle than our in-house peers who worked in an office atmosphere. Although the week was equally stressful for everyone, our office counterparts seemed more at home with obligatory meetings compared to those who worked in the field from our home offices.

One year, we left the environs of Boston for a conference at Amelia Island, Florida. We stayed in condos located on the grounds of a plush golf resort where this novel routine gave us a break from the company’s usual tradition of wearing coats and ties. I live in Southern California where a dress-up affair means you wear socks and tie your shoe laces, so this conference was more in keeping with my usual workplace attire. Despite finding this fresh informal setting, the endless meetings continued, as we peered out the window at tantalizing sunny afternoons and the hotel’s elaborate swimming and golf facilities.

Just as we had begun to despair and give in to our captive situation, we heard that one of our ingenious peers had brought back a dozen brown bags from lunch and had carefully cut out two small eye-shaped holes in each of them. He handed several of us a bag under the table, and in synchronized orchestration, we placed them over our heads and then held up signs that had been made during lunchtime. The message read: “Day Five of the Hostage Crisis—Please Set Us Free!” Our silent vigil continued for a few seconds until it finally elicited several chuckles from the front table.

Not everyone in our management group seemed amused with our creative form of protest, but the shenanigan certainly broke the tension for all for us, and our leaders finally called a halt to the day’s meeting, and we were set free to explore the spacious grounds of the beautiful compound.

Escape from Amelia Island!

Conference attendees attempted escape from grounds of Amelia Island in “getaway” golf cart

Despite our mild protestations about what we had categorized as our thrice-yearly “indentured servitude,” there was considerably more mutual respect than one might image between us and our mildly annoyed company vice-presidents at the front table. We had been at this juncture before, and had always managed to discover accommodations that established common ground.

Many of us worked together for decades, and found that we had come to our business with a fondness for books as our common denominator. We dined with our bosses in the evenings, not out of obligation, but because we had grown comfortable with our uniquely different roles in the book publishing process.

I will admit that publishers’ representatives possess unique personalities. Other members of our staff might have offered a less ambiguous term than “unique.” A Southern California bookseller once described publisher’s reps as “mavericks.” I did not protest.

Sales conferences were marathons of sorts, and we did what we deemed necessary to maintain our sanity throughout the week. During the evening hours, we were often paired with visiting authors that had been invited to the conference to pitch their books at the mid-day luncheon. After dinner, many of us returned to the hotel suite, sans author, where there was often late-night revelry, as we relaxed from the intensive meetings earlier that day. Rarely were authors invited to the suite, as this refuge represented our only escape from the formality of the meetings.

One late-night evening back at the Charles Hotel, an obviously confused and tipsy stranger wandered into our crowded suite with drink in hand. My friend Michael asked me good-naturedly if he was one of our wayward authors who had become separated from other members of his dinner party.

The man approached us and said “My name is Harold. I’m from the tractor convention down the hall. Sounds like you guys are having more fun than we are down there.” We informed Harold that we were attending our seasonal sales conference for our Boston-based book publisher. He informed us that he had always wanted to write a book, and asked how he should proceed. Michael and I winked at one another and immediately thought of a streamlined way he could quickly further his career as an author.

Two of our company vice-presidents (and good friends) had not yet returned from their dinner together and Michael and I knew just how thrilled they would be to meet one of our authors this late in the evening. Knowing full well, the worst thing that could possibly happen in the suite after-hours was for any of us to be forced to return to any sense of formality and put on the company face for a late-night interloping author. It was now almost midnight. We asked Harold if he’d like to pose as one of our authors for the night. He said through slightly slurred speech, “Sure I’d love to be your author!”

The next step was to peruse our catalog and find an unfamiliar author’s name whose face would not be recognizable to our two friends. We discovered him quickly. We found a novel entitled, “The Fourth Codex,” written by a somewhat obscure writer named Robert Houston. We prepped Harold about the book’s premise and informed him of our plan.

Sure enough, our two dapper vice-presidents entered the suite on cue, and after pouring themselves a nightcap, continued their dinner conversation near the fireplace.

I cornered our sales manager Bob, and told him of our scheme. He could barely contain his excitement. He then instructed me on when I should approach the group.

He quickly met Harold, and after a short private conversation, Bob escorted him across the room to meet our unsuspecting friends. Bob acted tentatively in his abrupt introduction of the author to the astonished twosome who suddenly looked mortified in the heat of the moment. Each of them turned their drink up and emptied it in one quick swallow.

Those of us who were standing nearby couldn’t hear the entire conversation, but noticed the sudden animated gestures of our friends who were doing their best to pull themselves together and appear businesslike. The buzz about the scheme had spread quickly throughout the suite as more people began to surreptitiously turn toward the phony fireplace meeting. Bob glanced at me from across the room and nodded.

I crossed the suite to join the group and Bob nervously introduced me to our stand-in author and I cordially shook his hand. Harold didn’t flinch when he asked me, “Have you read my book?” I realized for a guy who had been slightly intoxicated, he was catching on to our scheme very quickly. I responded slowly and deliberately by saying, “Lord knows I tried. I attempted to slog through your contrived plot and pretentious characters, but simply couldn’t finish the book.”

I looked over at our company executives whose faces had suddenly turned ashen, as each simultaneously turned back toward the fireplace mantel to retrieve their now-empty wine glasses. I made it worse. I asked him, “Have you ever thought about attending a basic writing workshop?” After asking my impertinent question, I noticed that both men had begun to look around the room as they quickly realized that all eyes were trained in their direction. They caught on at the same moment when everyone in the room began to applaud. Bob gestured to Harold, who took a deep bow toward the cheering spectators in the room.

Harold had won our company’s version of the academy award, and Michael, Bob, and I, had likely won ourselves a place in either company lore, or infamy, depending upon whom you talked to in later years.

We believed our little escapade was a fitting conclusion to the week’s meetings. After having been held as friendly captives at conferences throughout the years, we were finally allowed to exact our playful revenge as we held our bosses “hostages” for one brief glorious evening.

As for old Harold, he had the time of his life. He had gotten his wish to become an author—even if it was only for one night. He posed for pictures with the two victims of our caper, as editors and staff members surrounded him that evening. He seemed to bask in his new-found role of celebrity.

 

Bob Vickrey’s columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

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