The Fine Print
Johannes Gutenberg sipped his tea with the utmost grace, but his hand never left the pistol. Marty was in no mood to drink. He was going to be late for the board meeting.
“All right,” he said as pleasantly as he could, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think I can do thirty percent. The way things stand with the publishers right now, we’d be deep in the red if we went much over five percent.”
The translator wasn’t even finished the first sentence before Gutenberg laughed, shaking his head and sloshing some tea onto his lap.
“Raise your prices, then,” said the translator as the German wound up.
“Is that a joke?” Marty asked both of them.
“I don’t think so,” answered the translator.
Marty reached over to his iPhone and flipped to the calculator. He entered some numbers and his face dropped. He spun it around and showed Gutenberg.
“There’s no way I can sell an e-book for $14.99. No way. The market won’t bear it. The print version would be cheaper.”
Gutenberg said nothing.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marty said, running his hand through his hair and trying the calculator some more. The translator sipped some of his own tea quietly, he and his master ominously patient.
“You know what?” Marty said turning off the iPhone. “This makes no sense. What makes you think you can just come in here and demand a cut of an entire industry? The digital marketplace didn’t even exist when you were in business!”
Gutenberg didn’t reply, even after the translation was done. He gently stroked the pistol with his index finger.
“Fine,” grumbled Marty. “Fine. I can maybe squeeze you in for five percent. But that’s it.”
“Five percent will not suffice,” reported the translator as Gutenberg spoke. “The standard rate is thirty. It is non-negotiable.”
“Standard? You mean you’ve done this before?”
“You will make payments on the fifteenth of each month at a rate of approximately five euros to the guilder—”
“Now hold on—”
“And Mr Gutenberg reserves the right to audit your books up to four times a year to check for discrepancies.”
Marty inhaled deeply. In most conversations, this would be the part where he slammed his fist on the table to take charge. The gun in the room changed the dynamic somewhat.
“Listen,” he said, switching gears, “we’re just a start-up here. Sure, these are nice offices, but they’re not earned yet. If you want real money, you need to hit up the New York publishers. That’s where your thirty percent will pay off.”
Gutenberg finished his tea in one gulp and stood up suddenly, handing the gun to the translator and wandering out of Marty’s office.
“He’s using the facilities,” the translator explained.
“He’s a damn fool,” Marty grumbled, leaning back in his chair. “Where the hell does he get off demanding this from me? I don’t owe him anything.”
“He is the founder of the printing press,” said the translator. “I think we all owe him a little something.”
“Bullshit,” said Marty. “He should be dead. He shouldn’t need money anymore.”
“He is dead,” said the translator. “In the past, at any rate. The man with us today has time-travelled from 1454, from what I understand.”
“How the hell did he manage that?”
“Oh, he’ll never say. He’s quite paranoid someone will try and stop him.”
Marty just nodded. The absurd had given way to the surreal, and the Jack Daniels was on the other side of the room.
“I’m not clear on the details,” continued the translator, “but it appears he owes a man named Fust a large sum of money.”
“He can’t possibly owe that much.”
“He’s also developed a pachinko habit,” said the translator. “Just not the luck to go with it. And unfortunately, he spends most of his time in 22nd-century Tokyo, trying to beat the system.”
“Not my problem,” Marty grumbled.
“Oh but it is, you see.”
“So what, I’m supposed to pay a third of my income to support his gambling addiction?”
“In a word, yes.”
“Bullshit. Fifteen bucks and we’ll go out of business. The industry is moving to digital, and he wants to handicap it out of the gate? Absolute bullshit.”
“I think he sees it as preserving his legacy.”
“Legacies die all the time.”
“So do people.”
The door opened again and Gutenberg strode in, throwing himself into his chair and taking the gun from the translator. He checked his tea cup, saw it was empty, and reached over to take Marty’s. He sipped, then spoke.
“Do we have a deal?” said the translator.
“No,” said Marty. “I’m calling your bluff. I’m not paying you a cent. You want money? Do something useful with your life. No freebies to freeloaders.”
Gutenberg sat forward as the translation finished. He looked down at the gun, then back at Marty.
“You… you ignorant swine,” said the translator, his voice growing shaky. “I will… I’m sorry, the German he uses is hard to follow sometimes… he’s saying… something about your mother… and…”
Gutenberg slammed his fist down on the table, and everyone jumped. He took the gun, swung it around towards Marty, and then, very deliberately, pressed it to his own temple.
“I gave Luther his voice,” said the translator, backing away. “I brought freedom to the world, revolution to the weak, riches to the poor. I changed the world like no man has ever done, and I swear to the Almighty that if you do not give me the compensation I rightly deserve, I will take it all away from you.”
“W-what’s he mean?” Marty asked the translator.
“I think he means to say that he’ll kill himself, and the change in history will throw humanity back into the Dark Ages. As if the Renaissance never happened.”
“Is that possible?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Tell him to stop it.”
“I don’t think it will do any good. He’s quite serious.”
“Just wait!” Marty said, this time to Gutenberg. “If I give you what you want, you’ll stop this? You won’t shoot yourself?”
Gutenberg stared at him, then shrugged slightly.
“He would consider it,” said the translator.
Marty glanced at the iPhone, thought of the red in the balance sheet, the falling numbers, the investors rushing for the door. But then he thought: if I don’t do this, there would be no balance sheet, no numbers, no investors and no door to run out of.
“It’s the fate of humanity for thirty percent?” he asked.
The translator asked Gutenberg, and Gutenberg said: “Ja.”
Marty sighed, then nodded solemnly. The translator exhaled, smiling. Gutenberg took the gun from his head and handed it over to the translator, then reached out a hand to his new licensee. It took a lot of willpower to shake it.
As they were leaving, Marty caught the translator by the arm and held him back.
“This is going to put me out of business, you know.”
“I think he knows that, yes.”
“Then why is he doing it? If he works with me, we could make some serious money at this game. It could be great.”
The translator shrugged.
“Truthfully, this is not the first time he’s pulled this stunt. The New York publishing houses have been paying him fifty percent a month for close to ninety years, and in return, he is obliged to keep their competitors at bay.”
“Wait, so he’s sacrificing the future for a quick buck?”
“Goodness no,” smiled the translator. “He’s seen the future. Digital wins. He’s just squeezing the ripest fruit of the day. And you, sir, are not yet ripe.”
This story, about the future of books, is all Piers' fault. You may send him hate mail.