The story takes place in an alternate universe in which there is a "ten best sellers" list of prostitutes printed weekly in the New York Times. The New York Times is a kind of community blog where "volz" write the news. The are no "paid writers" working for the New York Times. Nobody gets paid directly for writing books or any other written works. It is illegal to sell something that you have written. In this alternate society, people are expected to "give away" their written work for free on the internet. However, writers whose work receives praise are paid a "disp" from the National Cultural Treasury, a tax-funded agency. Under this system, total payments to writers (in the forms of disps) are about ten fold greater than direct payments to writers in the system used in our universe.
A "word dealer" is someone who asks for money up front for their writing rather than use the "disp" system of compensation. Word dealers are treated like drug dealers. Other key terms:
- disp - how writers are paid for what they write. Derived from "dispensation": when people enjoy a written work they praise it or re-use it and credit the source. A disp is automatically calculated and paid to the author by the National Cultural Treasury.
- National Cultural Treasury - a mostly computerized system for supporting writers, artists, musicians and other creators of free culture who make their work available over the internet.
- word dealer - someone who illegally sells written works for cash
- volz - the most commonly used term for "writers". Derived from "volunteers": writers are expected to make everything they write available for free on the internet.
- Mary Jud (original name Saul Nabat) - Writing as Saul Nabat, was involved in publishing the works of other writers. After being approached and asked to "ghost publish" a novella called "Cleo, Queen of Queens" (a "tell all" about Michal Westin), he attempts to blackmail Mayor Tullus, but gets in trouble. Fearing for his life, he changes his identity to Mary Jud.
- Joey Jud - discovers that Mary Jud is a word dealer
- Mary Tole, Cleo Salem, Joe Gil, Sara - other members of Mary Jud's writing guild
- Rachael Uriel (also uses the name Rachael Elvish)
- Michal Westin - famous pilegesh of Mayor Tullus
- Mayor Tullus - mayor of New York City