Shot@Dawn

Shot@​Dawn opens on a focus group in Kansas City, Mo., where our protagonist, an editor named Randall, and colleagues from Dawn Books have come to test a new series called Conspiracy! The series is Randall’s creation, and his to develop and lead—unless he falls victim to the editorial whims of Dawn’s capricious overlords.

I. KANSAS CITY

This would be how God watches us, thought Randall, peering through the one-way glass separating him and his colleagues from an empty, illuminated conference room. God would hide behind the mirrors in our lives, secretly observing our self-conscious march past cherished reflections, our hope for a glimpse of the beloved self that only we can know. A look into a mirror was always a query, a plea. We're always asking for something—for the adult in the unfinished visage of adolescence, the remnant youth in the swollen face of middle age, the residue of beauty in what has lost its ability to please. We're always looking for something. But then, so is God—at least that's his reputation.

On the other side of the mirror, ten women entered the room and took their seats around a broad, blonde oval of oak veneer. They were herded along by Leslie the moderator, aristocratic in purple woolen suit and white silk blouse, and superior in the way horses seem to be when driving cattle—well, the horses know what's going on, more or less. But, Randall wondered now, why wouldn't the cattle know too?

These women certainly did. As they entered, they glanced with shy wariness at the mirror on their side of the glass barrier, vaguely comprehending its secret, gamely ignoring their knowledge, in the way of animals climbing the ramp to execution. Randall watched them, like God.

Wrapped in sweaters and faded lumberjack shirts, in anoraks and overcoats, the women were of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, but they shared the dulled finish that speaks of idleness in machines and ennui in humans. Who would come out on this window-rattling monster of a winter night in Kansas City who had anything else to do? Hugged against their breasts like schoolgirls’ texts were scrolls of paper—sample layouts, spreads, chapters, picture essays, covers, the cuttings of a new series offered anonymously by Dawn Books.

As the flock finally settled around the table, Randall felt a bubble of pity burst within. They knew he watched, but did not want to know. Indeed, their knowledge shamed him, as ours must now and then shame the clandestinely attentive deity.

Not that Randall and his comrades were in any sense unique. At this very moment, all over the American heartland, men and women waited in this same kind of ambush, as citizens possessed of the right demographics—the middling income, education, age, gender, life that Osahi in Marketing called the Right Metrics—took their places around tables much like this one. The peripheral office clusters of every midwestern city contained warrens of conference rooms with walls of one-way glass and space for secret watchers. Whether you were testing editorial ideas, or cheese dips, or government—whatever your experiment, the chosen laboratory for doing it was here, among the good people of the Middle West, focus groups of men and women with the Right Metrics of averageness. They had become the arbiters of American taste.

In Randall’s view, focus groups were a substitute for smarts, for hunches, for new ideas, for those great editors, now vanished, whose instincts had propelled Dawn Books to greatness. The marketeers possessed no aristocratic skills. Their appetite for the meretricious and ordinary was frightening, in that it revealed the human future. While scary and perhaps dangerous, they hadn’t a hope of reinventing the book as Dawn's extinguished race of editors had done, or of slowing their company's steady slide toward self-parody. Yes, that, and extinction.

With focus groups, you could let people with the Right Metrics do your thinking for you. Marketing could troll the product, as they liked to call the books Randall and his coworkers toiled to publish, past people whose metrics said they'd gone for such lures in the past. If the focus group liked the product, the whores in Marketing went up an octave and ran a wet test, in which one or two volumes were produced and offered for sale. If that went well, they put the series into full production. But if the focus group didn't like what you showed, you were fucked.

Selected Works

Fiction
A former RAF squadron leader and Russian nuclear safeguards inspector try to thwart a decades-old Iraqi scheme to re-infect the world with smallpox.
An editor named Randall strives to succeed at Dawn Books, part of Dawn magazine’s media empire.
An international thriller, a moving tale of love and deception, beautifully told.
A mysterious rain of radioactive material poisons Bolivia’s coca crop. “Outstanding thriller.”
Publishers Weekly
American operatives stalk the world’s first molecular microchip in communist Bulgaria. “Extraordinary on every level.”
London Daily Telegraph

Quick Links

Find Authors