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Hiring Squad

On May 21, Laurel Touby e-mailed a plea to about 2000 journalists on her massive database. The problem? A competitor has challenged Touby's claim to the domain name of her Web site, hireminds.com, the only online job listing service devoted exclusively to the New York publishing industry.

Touby is a freelance journalist and minor legend, thanks to the cocktail parties she began hosting in 1994. Held at bars in downtown Manhattan, the parties attract throngs of journalists who come, as one put it, "either looking for a job or looking to get laid." In 1997, Touby parlayed her salon connections into a Web site, posting job listings for free.

Last July, after deciding to get serious about the business, she purchased the domain name hireminds.com. A few months later, she recalls, "I got a phone call from this fellow who says, 'I've bought up all the domain names around yours. I've applied for the trademark.' I felt like he was saying, 'You've got nothing.' " Her competitor, a headhunter for the Boston computer industry, owns the names hireminds.org and hireminds.net, and is now operating at hire-minds.com.

"The guy was determined to have my domain," recalls Touby, who says he never even named a price. "But it's such a fantastic name, I don't want to give it up." Besides, the business has taken off. In April, she began charging publishers $100 an ad. Current advertisers include Smart Money, Court TV, Cosmopolitan, Maxim, ARTnews, Ms., and The Nation; jobs run the gamut from editorial assistant to editorial director.

So who wins? Touby applied for the trademark to her dot.com last November, two months after her competitor applied. But according to the rules of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, the trademark goes to whoever first used the name in commerce— and that brings us back to Touby's e-mail, which sought anyone who had posted jobs on, or gotten work from, her site last summer. While her competitor claims to have begun using the name "hireminds" in commerce August 3, Touby claims to have begun using it July 16. And she must prove it.

Within days of sending out an SOS, Touby received a flood of responses from people who used her site last summer, giving her ammunition that she thinks will enable her to win the claim. The attorney for hire-minds.com did not return calls for comment. Touby encourages anyone in a similar position to apply for a trademark right away, and recommends the site patents.com as a resource.

"Do your homework before you invest a dime in your Web site, and you'll be prepared to fend off cybersquatters," concurs Andrew Miller, a lawyer at New York's Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner. In addition to applying for trademarks, he says, "make sure to buy any domain names you may want to use, and make sure they aren't trademarks of another company in your field." Domain names cost $70; trademarks can be researched and applied for at the site uspto.gov.


Blurb-O-Matic

That Kurt Andersen's new novel, Turn of the Century, is on its way to bestsellerdom will surprise no one familiar with the publicity that accompanied it. The book was edited by the editor in chief of Random House and promoted by the swank PR firm PMK. On May 10, The New Yorker, where Andersen is on staff, threw a book party that was slavishly chronicled by The New York Times— and so on.

TOC is being pitched as a "way we live now" book, and in case anyone missed the point, stock trader and financial writer James Cramer, a friend of Andersen, blurbed it in a pro bono review he posted on Amazon.com, calling TOC "the classic novel for our era." But Cramer didn't have to bother— on the day of the party, Entertainment Weekly crowned Andersen a master of the zeitgeist.

"At last, an entertaining novel that accurately captures the 1990s: [TOC] gets our computer-driven, media-obsessed era down cold," read the EW subhead, a sentence so perfectly crafted that it has cropped up in a Random House ad for the book. Never mind that the ad shortens the reviewer's phrase, "an astonishing doorstop of a debut," to "an astonishing debut"— a blurb is a blurb is a blurb.

Meanwhile, TOC has inspired mixed reviews, ranging from raves (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal) to raspberries (The New York Observer, Fortune, Newsweek, and Slate). You're either going to love this book or hate it, it seems. Even on Amazon.com, readers tend to rate it with five stars or one.

Given that Andersen knows everybody in the media world, TOC defenders may be tempted to dismiss every pan as the result of some animus on the part of the reviewer. But when the entire pool of potential reviewers has a personal opinion of the author, any single review could be tainted, not just those by "enemies," who bear a grudge because of some perceived slight, but also those by "friends," who may be predisposed to flatter him in return for some favor. Thus the most honest analysis of the book is one that attempts to consider the reviews collectively.  

The book's appeal is a given, and even TOC detractors single out the author's prodigious gifts, including his "great ear for dialogue" (Salon), "sharply observed detail" (Newsweek), "witty observations" (Slate), "extremely shrewd" conceits (Fortune), and "brilliant" riffs (Salon). And many are willing to overlook minor flaws, to wit: the book is too long, is thinly plotted, and relies too heavily on deus ex machina to resolve long-brewing crises.

However, the naysayers share a deeper concern that the book doesn't meet the standards of literary fiction. Issue one: all the characters, including protagonist George Mactier and his wife, Lizzie Zimbalist, belong to the same class, a "self-regarding, self-referential elite" (Slate) who are engaged in "interminable deal-making and oneupmanship" (a one-star Amazon.com review) and are "so pleased with themselves" they don't inspire much sympathy (Newsweek). That makes some critics skeptical of the comparisons to Tom Wolfe. "Great social satire needs the juxtaposition of classes" (Slate), but this book "sticks to rich people in the media bubble" (Fortune).

Issue two: all those brilliant riffs get in the way of character development. Even though Andersen "does his damnedest to breathe life into his main characters" (Newsweek), "after 600 pages, we've never really gotten inside George and Lizzie," except for some "dry little spurts of self-doubt and self-loathing" (Salon). The New York Observer attributes this to the fact that "Mr. Andersen is not good with emotion. . . . As to what George feels (and not what he cleverly thinks)— we haven't a clue."

While even the sharpest critics find Lizzie endearing, they don't cotton much to her husband. Corresponding in a Slate dialogue, Marjorie Williams calls him unbelievable, while Microsoft's Nathan Myrhvold decries him as a "putz" who is "jealous of everybody— including his own smart wife and his friends." Even novelist Po Bronson, who thumbs-ups the book in the Times, remarks on the "hollowness" of George and Lizzie's jobs; a five-star Amazon.com reviewer defends the two as "likable" people who "[got] rich producing junk."

Thus, TOC may be guilty of what lit crits call the imitative fallacy: just because life is filled with ambitious and insincere people, art does not have to be, too. But as one technology journalist who is hot to buy the book told Press Clips, "You have a book that's shallow and surface-oriented about people who are shallow and surface-oriented, and it's going to be a bestseller. Get over it."

Publishers must be targeting the shallow demographic, because Random House has just brought out the perfect TOC companion piece, Lapham's Rules of Influence: A Careerist's Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation, by Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. The callow neophyte will no doubt read this little book as straight advice, but cognoscenti will recognize it as darkly ironic comment on a society that confers status based not on the merits, but on one's ability to curry favor with the rich and famous and to master the "arts of deference" they have come to expect. And through a feat of prescience, Lapham's Rules offers the answer to just about any question you might have about TOC.

  • Why is Andersen being compared to Tom Wolfe? "Nothing so pleases the ambitious courtier as the chance to fawn upon. . . a novelist whom he can confuse with Tolstoy, but if he cannot tell the difference between. . . Tolstoy and Philip Roth, he must content himself with the effigies endorsed by the smiling favor of the gossip columns."

  • Why did New York's Michael Wolff use TOC to bolster his old-media-is-dead theory, but end his nonreview with the flattering suggestion that Andersen is now "the Evelyn Waugh of the media class"? Lapham: "Always write the winsome blurb; never write the angry review."

  • Why don't George and Lizzie associate with their social inferiors? "Seek out the acquaintance of people richer and more important than yourself and never take an interest in people who cannot do you any favors."

  • Why are George and Lizzie always talking about how much they get paid? "The mention of money in large enough denominations never fails to command respect."

  • Why is it that for George, the worst fate he could possibly meet is to have his TV contract canceled? "Because the careerist [hangs precariously] from the trapeze of his connections. . . . If everything is made of appearances, of images and gestures instead of blood or stone or thought, then everything can disappear at a moment's notice."  

  • Why is Andersen completely immune from critics who call him a sellout? "No matter what crimes a man may have committed . . . variations on the answer, 'Yes, but I did it for the money,' satisfy all but the most tiresome objections."

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