Monthly Archives: November 2012

Apple Corners Page-Turn Technology

The ticks are at it again

I’m really confused.  On November 16, New York Times blogger Nick Bilton reported that the US Patent Office had approved Apple’s patent on the feature that enables you to virtually turn pages on your e-reader.  But over two years ago, in August 2010, we reported that Microsoft had filed a patent application for the very same touch-screen page-turn! (See Can You Be Sued for Turning a Page?) What happened to Microsoft’s application? Did the Patent Office misplace it?  Did Apple buy Microsoft out?  Did Apple do some sort of end-around on its rival?

In fact, Microsoft’s patent had some special wrinkles such as the ability to flip a lot of pages at once (y0u do it by dragging your finger down the right margin).  Another is pretty mind-blowing. “Sources other than fingers may be used to execute a page-turning gesture,” the filing stated.  Anybody got an idea what else you might use to turn an e-book page? Your nose? Your elbow? Or some other, unmentionable, body part?

Whether or not Apple’s patent provides for flipping pages with organs other than fingers, they now own the exclusive right to the page-turn, and God help you if you infringe it. But, as Bolton points out, you risk a receiving a lawyer letter from Apple for violations that border on the bizarre.  “The company has also been granted patents for an icon for music (which is a just a musical note), the glass staircase used in the company’s stores — yes, stairs, that people walk up — and for the packaging of its iPhone.”

Apple isn’t the only outfit sewing up everything but your right to breathe.  Amazon was sued  by a company claiming violation of its patent on one-click ordering online. And years before rival Barnes & Noble released the Nook, Amazon had patented the same underlying technology but conveniently didn’t reveal it until the Nook came out. (Never heard what happened to that claim.)

Back in 2010 when I reported on Microsoft’s page-turn application I said some pretty unkind things about patent lawyers. I called them “the ticks of the Digital Age. After quietly applying for a patent they set up their nest on a tree branch and patiently wait – sometimes for years – until a fat cat walks underneath their perch. Then they drop on their victim’s neck and drain its blood.”

Nothing I’ve heard since then has altered that opinion.

Richard Curtis
This blog post was originally published by Digital Book World with the title Who Owns Your Right to Turn Pages?

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Still Dotcom? That is So Twentieth Century!

Hey, webmasters, how are those loins?  Hope they’re properly girded for the explosion of domain names set to fulminate in 2013.

If you run a restaurant you can buy .eat;  If you own a store you can bid for .shop; if you run a band there’ll be .music or .song;  writers can claim .author. And even if you’re nobody in particular, just a garden variety human being, you’ll still have a special domain of your own: .you . Just want to have fun?  You can have .fun . Looking for love? You can fall in .love .

What’s going on? Well, it seems  the outfit in charge of creating and managing domain names, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN  for short), may be making many more of them available for the next great leap of the Internet.  Nicole Perlroth of the New York Times, reports 1,930 applications for new extensions. Not just predictable ones (.game, .movie, .app) but some exotic ones on the red end of the spectrum – .smile, .joy, and .bot .

“Icann is expected to approve hundreds of these extensions,” writes Perlroth. But don’t expect to pick any of these for a song.  The application fee is almost $200,000.  And don’t expect to pick up .google, .nyc  or .apple at any price. Google, Amazon, and other behemoths are reaching deep into their pockets to buy them up.

But hey, you can dream. (And by the way. dream is taken .)

Details in Google Wants Love and 100 Other Things.

Richard Curtis

This blog post was originally published by Digital Book World as Every Domain But .kitchensink Coming in 2013 .

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Thanksgiving Greetings from E-Reads

Though our mouths were full of song as the sea,
and our tongues of exultation as the multitude of its waves,
and our lips of praise as the wide-extended firmament;
though our eyes shone with light like the sun and the moon,
and our hands were spread forth like the eagles of heaven,
and our feet were swift as hinds,
we should still be unable to thank thee and bless thy name,
O Lord our God and God of our fathers,
for one thousandth or one ten thousandth part of the bounties which thou has bestowed upon our fathers and upon us.

– from the Hebrew Prayer Book

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Publishing Spoken Here

Traduttore, Traditore (“The translator is a traitor”)
Italian proverb

One of the critical roles literary agents play is that of translator. We perform the task on several levels. The most obvious and fundamental is explaining the nomenclature of publishing to the uninitiated author. The writer who sells his first book to a publisher and reads his first contract is plunged into a sea of words that may be totally unfamiliar to him, or that are used in a totally unfamiliar way.

“Force majeure,” “net proceeds,” “matching option,” “warranty,” “discount”—these need to be defined for the novice author. There are many difficult concepts to be grasped, such as “advance sale,” “midlist,” “fair use,” “reserve against returns,” “pass-through,” and “hard-soft deals.” The language has its own slang, too, and our initiate hears bewildering references to who handles the “sub rights,” what is the tentative “pub date,” and what happens when the book is “o.p.’d.”

Agents patiently try to demystify these terms, but it may take many years of experience before our clients are completely at ease with them. It may well be true that what distinguishes professional authors from their amateur brothers and sisters is that the pros have undergone this linguistic rite of passage and are now able to sling around “pre-empts,” “first proceeds,” and “escalators” with the best of ’em. But there is another, and profoundly more important, job for the agent-translator to perform beyond explaining to his clients the terminology of the book industry. I’m talking about using language to forge and strengthen the bonds between authors and publishers. For, while the goals of both may ultimately be identical, they are usually achievable only after many conflicting viewpoints and interests have been reconciled.

Sometimes those conflicts become intense, and if allowed to go unresolved can cause serious if not fatal breakdowns in the relationship. An agent, standing between these potential adversaries, must find common ground for them to stand on, else all – including his commission – is lost. And though their differences may be genuine, sometimes they are semantic, and if an agent can pinpoint and settle the linguistic problems, perhaps the more substantive ones will not seem quite so insuperable. Although it’s a stimulating challenge, not all of us enjoy sticking our heads up in this no-man’s land.

You must not think, however, that editors cannot be seriously wounded. And it is important to know that fact, because a hurt editor (or art director or royalty bookkeeper) may not want to work as hard for an author who has irked him or her as for one who has been supportive, tolerant, and forgiving. This is not to say that editors are so thin-skinned they fold the first time someone criticizes them. But I do know that if an author or agent injures an editor’s feelings seriously enough, it can undercut his or her initiative, and that may eventually redound to an author’s detriment.

Some years ago I phoned a bookkeeper who had been verbally abused by an author a few months earlier. This author was owed another check, and I wanted to know where it was. “Funny thing about that check,” she said, deadpan, “it keeps falling to the bottom of my pile. Must be gravity or something.” It is therefore vital that editors and their colleagues in other departments of publishing companies be handled with a certain degree of diplomacy, and it is in the language of that diplomacy that most agents are adept. We have learned that “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” And most of the time, we are able to rephrase or paraphrase the blunt demands, the raw needs, the hard feelings, the hostile remarks, of our clients into gracious packages of civility that convey everything the author intended without damaging the fragile sensibilities of the person at whom they were directed.

I’ve been keeping some notes about discussions recently conducted with editors and am happy to offer herewith a few examples of this process in action. Some of them are tongue in cheek, others are deliberately exaggerated. Still others will sound stilted, and that is because, unfortunately, that is the way I speak. Let’s take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions. Editors are burdened with a great many tasks that curtail their reading time. They may be inundated with manuscripts to read. They may be on the fence about a submission and wish to postpone a decision for a while. They may be soliciting opinions or sales estimates from colleagues in their company. They have many legitimate reasons for taking a long time to read submissions.

At the same time, some editors seem to have a considerably dimmer sense of the passage of time than people in other fields, such as airline management or television programming. So, one of the first lessons one learns in the agenting profession is how to translate an editor’s promises about time. “I’ll read it overnight” too often means, “I’ll get around to it in a week.” “I’ll read it in a week” means, “I’ll be back to you in a month.” And “I’ll read it in a month” may well mean that the manuscript is lost.

In order to reasonably hold editors to their promised schedules, agents use the elegant phraseology of coercion. “As I’m loath to keep manuscripts out of circulation,” I might write, “may I trouble you for a decision?” If this fails to yield a reply, I might escalate to something more pointed, like, “My client is getting restless,” or, “I’m under some pressure to determine where we stand.” Sometimes a humorous approach is in order. I’m a great believer in the power of teasing to accomplish that which solemnity cannot, and I’m not above a little sarcasm under the appropriate circumstances: “When I submitted that manuscript to you, the oceans were two inches lower.” If an editor has sat on a submission for an unconscionably long time, I will invariably get a phone call from my client saying, “You tell that sonofabitch that if we don’t have a decision by Friday, I’m personally gonna come down there and rearrange his prefrontal lobes with an ax haft! ” Justified though that ultimatum may be, it is couched in language this is terminally infelicitous. By the time I’m through modifying it, it may sound something closer to this: “As you don’t seem able to make up your mind, suppose we say that if I haven’t heard from you by Friday, I’ll put another copy of the manuscript into play elsewhere, and you may take as much time thereafter as you wish.”

And sometimes I’ll put a finer point on my message with this veiled warning: “Do let me know when your work load is down to a more reasonable size so that our agency can resume submitting books to you.” I’m certain that you must be saying to yourself, “How is an editor going to get these messages if the agent pussyfoots around that way?” The answer is, editors get these messages loudly and clearly, for unless one is incredibly dense, he pr she will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against the throat.

Another common problem for agents is, of course, overdue checks. Authors are remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing the discomforts of financial deprivation and to depicting the character and ancestry of those who conspire to keep them in that condition. Unfortunately, most editors would go through the roof if exposed to the authors’ invective. Enter the honey-tongued agent, and though that agent might love nothing better than to say, “Pay up or we’ll vaporize you,” it’s more likely he or she will say something a bit more subdued. Perhaps a subtle form of extortion: “It would be to your advantage to remit payment promptly so as to avoid scheduling delays,” In plain English, this informs the editor that unless his company ponies up the dough, the agent isn’t going to deliver certain manuscripts that the publisher desperately needs to put into production. Because a late manuscript can wreck a production schedule at fearful cost to a publisher, the wise editor will undoubtedly give the check-processing machinery an extra-hard spin when he or she gets a message like that from an agent.

I can think of lots of other ways that agents refine the harsh language of their clients without sacrificing effectiveness. For instance, though we may be thinking, “My client just turned in a real turkey,” what we are telling an editor is that, “My client thought you might like to see a first draft of his book before he starts polishing it.” Or, “My client is going to sue you into Rice Krispie-sized pieces” becomes, “My client is contemplating contacting his attorney, at which point the matter will be out of my control.” Or, “My client thinks your editor is so incompetent, he couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the C and the T!” becomes, “I’m not certain that the author’s and editor’s views about the book are entirely compatible.” * “My client is so upset he’s taking big bites out of his living room sofa” translates into, “My client is finding it hard to understand why . . .” “You’ll use that cover on my client’s book over his dead body!” may be altered to, “My client is pretty determined.”

Here’s a brief glossary of other agently euphemisms commonly employed when tempers start to overheat: * You: “I’m thoroughly disgusted with those people.” Agent: “My client is somewhat disenchanted.” * You: “If I had that editor’s throat in my hands . . .” Agent: “I’m not sure my client is completely comfortable working with you.” * You: “They’re lying and cheating.” Agent: “My client feels he may have detected some discrepancies. * “You: “What a crummy deal?” Agent: “Some of the terms leave something to be desired.” * You: “I wouldn’t sell another book to that butcher if he were the last editor on earth.” Agent: “Let’s have lunch.”

The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, “It didn’t live up to their expectations,” or, “They found it lacking in certain respects.” Or an editor’s remark to the effect that a certain author couldn’t write his way out of a trash can liner becomes, “They don’t feel you’ve reached your potential quite yet.”

Here are a few others.

*Editor: “This material is simply lousy.” Agent: “Your editor is disappointed.”

* Editor: “What language is your client writing in, anyway?” Agent: “Your editor pointed out some obscure passages.”

* Editor: “Your client is the rudest person I’ve ever had the misfortune to work with.” Agent: “Your editor seems to have overreacted to what he perceives as a slight.”

* Editor: “Is your client crazy, or what?” Agent: “I’m not sure your editor appreciates your sense of humor.”

Of course, not all agents approach matters as delicately as this. Some of us are in fact quite plainspoken, and even the most tactful among us realizes that there are unavoidable occasions when we must unsheath a steel fist from the velvet glove. Still, it is gratifying to know that at least when it comes to the language one may still find reminders of the time when publishing was a profession for civilized ladies and gentlemen.

Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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Random/Penguin Must Address Challenge of Returns

The returnability of books is a cancer that has been consuming the publishing industry for decades. Publisher after publisher has succumbed to its relentless arithmetic. Yet, book people cling to the belief that they are not vulnerable to the forces that destroyed their predecessors. In all the commentary about the merger of Random House and Penguin I have seen nothing written about the consignment model of bookselling that has doomed countless publishers over the past fifty years.

The merger offers the captains of those great companies an opportunity to change that model. If they are sincere about leveling the playing field against Amazon, the abandonment of a returns-driven business model may be the only way to do so. I have no illusions that that will happen, but I feel it incumbent on me to remind my industry colleagues of why the field is tilted against them.

The essay you are about to read was written in January, 1992. It was drawn from a guest editorial I wrote for Publishers Weekly. With few exceptions (some improvement in royalty reporting) it could have been composed today.

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The American trade book industry is undergoing the most serious recession in its history, and though it has rebounded from other down cycles in the past, anyone who thinks it will return to boom times is living in a fool’s paradise.

Trade book publishing has been in decline since the end of World War II. Industry boosters cite increased sales volume over that period to support the view that all is well, but much of the growth can be attributed to normal population increases and inflation. For the real story, one has but to look at the long roll call of publishers that have been forced to sell themselves to conglomerates, merge with larger publishing houses, or go out of business entirely. I am not speaking about mom-and-pop publishers operating on a shoestring; I’m referring to giants like Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, Bantam, Putnam, Macmillan, Scribner, Penguin, St. Martin’s Press, and Harper and Row. Today, we are left with only seven or eight major trade book combines. Presumably, in this publisher-eat-publisher jungle, these survivors are the fittest. But are they any healthier than the weaklings they acquired?

From the viewpoint of literary agents, whose jobs include monitoring the fiscal well-being of publishers, the answer is a resounding no. Most of the agents I have spoken to confirm my observation: The current economic downturn has revealed that just about every major American publisher is hurting. And what they’re hurting for is cash.

There’s not enough cash in publishing. There never has been, and there never will be. Why? Because the consignment system of selling books is bleeding the publishing industry to death. Try as they might, the smartest people in our field have failed to find a way to make money under an arrangement that makes books returnable to publishers.

Publishing is one of the few industries that sell merchandise on a fully returnable basis. The custom was initiated to overcome booksellers’ wariness toward the work of authors who were unfamiliar to them. If the customers didn’t buy those books, booksellers had the right to return the merchandise for credit. The practice was eventually extended to all books, whether by new authors or old, and it really took off with the paperback revolution. Paperback publishers discovered that the easiest way to ship their books was through magazine distributors. As most periodicals are monthly, the distributors simply collected unsold books along with unsold magazines at the end of every month.

Perhaps this setup worked a decade or two ago when returns were more modest, but with returns of 50 percent or more as the norm today, it is virtually impossible for a publisher to earn profits in trade books, or at least earn them on a sustained basis. Despite decades of ruinous experience, it still doesn’t seem to have sunk into the minds of many publishers that returns are a form of currency. Like any other kind of currency, returns can be manipulated. All bookstore people understand this concept perfectly: When times get tough, stores that don’t have cash “spend” their returns, buying new titles with credits on books that aren’t moving fast enough in order to keep cash flowing. Publishers, like anybody else, can only live so long on credit—then they start to bleed.

Large houses can afford to hemorrhage longer than small ones because they seem to have more cash. But that’s only an illusion: their losses are obscured on the balance sheets of their conglomerate owners. How long will those owners be willing to go on infusing their ailing publishing divisions with cash? As a rule, sick companies get dumped by healthy ones, and in a recession, sick companies get dumped faster. What never fails to amaze me, though, is why anyone would want to buy into an industry founded on such lousy economics. Though statistics are hard to come by because accountants for conglomerates don’t always separate the profits of their publishing divisions from those of their other divisions, the average return on investment in trade books seems to be 2 or 3 percent.

I have spent years advocating the abandonment of the consignment system. For one thing, it is a horrifying waste of paper and other resources. For another, it has forced all of us into negative, defensive, and ofttimes bizarre ways of speaking and thinking about books. Nobody talks about how many copies of a book were sold, but rather how many did not get returned. Royalty statements are designed to deceive by the omission of critical information. Returns data are buried in a column called “Cumulative Net Sales,” and the concept of holding back royalties against returns is so inflammatory to authors that publishers have built their royalty statements around hiding that information.

Worst of all, the consignment system is the principal cause of hostility between bookstore and publisher, and between publisher and author. Publishers condemn bookstores and chains for their profligate ordering. But why should bookstores restrain themselves? They have, after all, nothing to lose, as they can always invoke the privilege of sending back what they can’t sell. To meet the demand of these bloated orders, publishers have no choice but to overprint. Then, when the books fail to move out of the stores, the publishers are compelled to eat huge returns. The only people who prosper from this insane process are the remainder jobbers or the shady characters who illegally sell stripped paperbacks. In their frenzy to keep stores from returning books, publishers are compelled to offer incentives, politely referred to as “slotting allowances,” “display fees,” and “co-op contributions,” that border on institutionalized bribery.

Most of the resentment or suspicion that authors and agents feel toward publishers stems from royalty accounting based on returns. Authors, outraged that creative bookkeeping permits publishers to hold excessive royalties in the name of reserves against returns, consider the system fraudulent. Their viewpoint is easy to understand when you remember that returns are a manipulable form of currency. The temptation to manipulate them intensifies in recessionary or inflationary times when publishers seize upon royalty reserves as the most obvious source of cash to relieve their liquidity problems or earn some extra interest. Publishers cannot with impunity stop paying their printers, their landlords, their paper suppliers, or their employees. But by a stroke of the pen, raising the holdback on royalties from, say, 50 percent to 75 percent, a publisher can liberate enough cash to meet the urgent demands of all those other creditors – at the expense of authors. How, then, could authors, suffering liquidity problems of their own, not feel bitter? Nor is their mood improved to see their remaindered books, on which they receive little or no royalties, selling briskly in used-book stores.

Are there solutions to this dilemma? There are, but they all call for radical changes in the way we think about books, sell them, and account to each other for them. For any plan to succeed, it must: (1) allow publishers to print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders, (2) put distribution on a nonreturnable basis, (3) enable publishers to make a profit, (4) encourage bookshops and chain stores to make money remaindering books on their own premises, and (5) provide authors with honest, easy-to-understand accounting. That’s a tall order. Some gratifying attempts have been essayed, but they all failed because they were not radical enough, nor were they adopted on an industry-wide basis.

As a student of publishing history, I’m aware of all the “death-of-publishing” prophecies that have proven false in our time. But I don’t think I’m risking much by stating that the publishing industry cannot endure much longer the way it is being run. The need to change our ways is particularly acute in light of revolutionary developments in electronic publishing.

In the coming era of “demand” publishing, we will see direct electronic delivery of text to reader-users without dependence on distributors, or even on paper. The technology for producing portable electronic books containing or accessing whole libraries is now at hand. By the start of the twenty-first century, thanks to computers, Nintendos, and Gameboys, a generation of children completely at ease with electronically delivered literature will make handheld electronic books the device of choice for reading. The awesome memory capacity of CDs, storing scores of volumes on miniature discs, may make bookstores and libraries obsolete. Thanks to the multimedia and interactive features of the new breed of computers, tomorrow’s electronic books will entertain readers with audio and video displays that will make traditional books look as crude as cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Gone will be the disgustingly wasteful system of merchandising books, along with the creative bookkeeping that permits publishers to hold authors’ money for years. Authors will be credited a royalty for each use of their property, and the purchase of books will be transacted by electronic debiting of consumers’ charge accounts.

Until that day comes, we still have an industry to save. I have offered one option to reverse the downward spiral that has wreaked so much damage on our profession. If it is unworkable, I invite the industry to find one of its own. But find one it must, for at the rate we’re going it’s only a matter of time before we read in these pages that the remaining behemoths of the publishing industry have succumbed to the same fate as all the others.

Richard Curtis

This blog post was originally published in Digital Book World as Last Chance for Publishers to Level the Playing Field

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At a Loss for Story Ideas? There’s This Guy in Poughkeepsie…

The idea guy in Poughkeepsie

Most publishing people can relate to the following scenario: You are attending a party and are introduced to another guest. “So, what line of business are you in?” the guest asks, a respected opening social gambit.
“I’m in the publishing business,” you reply. “I work with authors.”
“Hey, that’s great. You must lead a really interesting life.”

He then goes on to explain that he is a postal clerk, a fabric salesman, a dishwasher repairman, a sanitation worker. Your companion suddenly brightens. “Hey, you may be just the guy I’ve been looking for!” He then takes you by the arm and furtively escorts you to an isolated corner of the room. Your stomach begins to sink, because you know what’s coming.

His eyes dart suspiciously from guest to guest as he takes you by the lapels and puts his mouth close to your ear. “You got any writers looking for a great idea? Because I’ve got one! I would write it myself, but I don’t have the time or the talent. But if you got somebody, I’ll go in with him, fifty-fifty.”

You look past him, seeking your host to rescue you, but it is hopeless. The fellow has an iron grip on your lapels. “Okay, I’ll tell you the idea if you swear not to tell another soul.”
“Stack of Bibles,” you say, raising your palm to the sky.
He leans even closer. “Okay. What it is, is . . .”

What it is, is usually awful. But even if it isn’t, the truth is that I cannot help him. For how can I explain to him that the last thing that professional writers need is ideas, that most of the writers I know have enough ideas to last a lifetime? They may need time, yes. They may need money. They may need peace and quiet. They certainly need love. But the one thing they have more than enough of is ideas.

Most people who have never seriously attempted to write books subscribe to what might be termed the Big Bang theory of inspiration. They perceive artistic ideas to be stupendous epiphanies that are visited once in a lifetime on a chosen few, like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God.

There is no denying that many sublime works of art, music, and literature are born that way. Most of us take ideas for granted, and why shouldn’t we? We have dozens of them every day, and seldom do they seem to be of such moment that we pause in wonder to contemplate their splendor. Only when we examine books, pictures, and other artistic endeavors closely do we think about the intellectual processes that gave birth to them, and if these works are truly great, we may well be reminded that the generation of ideas is a phenomenon worthy of genuine reverence. By what occult mechanism they originate is surely as unknowable as how life itself was first created. Indeed, as the word “inspiration” literally means the entering of spirit into that which was hitherto lifeless, it could well be said that at no time are humans closer to divine than when they are inspired with noble ideas.

But ask a professional writer about his ideas and he may well respond as inarticulately as my friend at the party. In all likelihood, he’ll ask, “Which ideas?” because he’s got a million of them, and his biggest problem is choosing one. His next biggest problem is finding the time and money to develop it. For this kind of writer, the real inspiration comes when he is writing. It magically flows from a remote region of his unconscious into his fingertips and seems almost unfailingly to illuminate every character description, every plot twist, every metaphor, perhaps every sentence.

Big Bang? No, the image of a water tap is probably more apposite. Turn it on for an hour or two and out comes a daily ration of good, maybe great work. I hesitate to say “inspired” because most professional writers are too modest and self-critical to call it that. But the creative process by which literature—even popular literature—is produced may legitimately be described as miraculous.

At first glance, most people would say that literary agents operate far from this ethereal realm of ideas. After all, we make our livings appraising the value of the commodities known as books, and helping the producers of those commodities turn them into hard cash. But look again. Unlike rug dealers, car salesmen, or bond brokers, the merchandise we traffic in is intellectual. Our stock in trade is ideas, ideas that have been smelted and fashioned by authors into the precious metal called literature. A manuscript may be no more than a pound or two of paper, but when an agent pitches that book to an editor, it isn’t the value of the paper he’s describing. It’s the value of the idea.

As I talk with an author about ideas, I ask myself some very pragmatic questions. How do those ideas fit in with the author’s career goals and financial circumstances? He may have a magnificent vision that takes my breath away, but where is he going to find the forty thousand dollars he needs to write that book under the tranquil conditions he requires, particularly since he is currently getting five thousand dollars a book!

When fans ask award-winning fantasist Harlan Ellison where he gets his ideas, he tell them “Poughkeepsie. There’s a guy there, you mail him $25.00 and he send me ideas.” And he confidentially writes down the Idea Guy’s address.

Another thing I look and listen for is energy. An author may well have dozens of ideas for books, but he does not hold them all equally dear. When writers relate their ideas to me, do their eyes kindle with fire and their voices resonate with passion? Do they gesture frenetically with their hands or seem to lapse into a sort of trance? Do they speak in a singsong tone, as if it’s all the same to them which book they write and which one they abandon?

The agent who encourages an author to develop the wrong idea, or who doesn’t help him realize an idea fully, or who doesn’t take into account that idea’s appropriateness for its intended market, or doesn’t consider an idea in the context of an author’s talent and skill, or doesn’t calculate the time and money that the author will require to fulfill his idea—that agent may inflict serious harm on his client’s career.

It’s a very big responsibility, and my fellow agents and I worry about it a lot.

Once we are satisfied that we have the right idea, and that we have it where we want it, we must help the author develop it into an outline form that is useful both as a scenario for the writer to follow and as a sales instrument we can pitch to publishers. The two functions can differ vastly, however. The key difference is that in the latter, the idea is presented with as much intensity as author and agent can possibly endow it with. We try to boil a book’s complexity down to its very essence, and to articulate that essence with words that stimulate associations in editors’ minds with such abstractions as beauty, as well as with less abstract values like profit. We strive (and sometimes slave) to make every word of description pique an editor’s imagination.

Obviously, many and perhaps most books are more complex than any one-line summary can possibly convey. And many of them are not half as good. One agent friend of mine is fond of saying that his idea of a book is usually a lot better than the book itself. “I don’t sell the book, I sell my idea of the book,” he says.

The process doesn’t stop with the agent’s pitch to the editor. It continues down the line as the editor tries to conceptualize the book for his or her colleagues. The publisher’s sales force must in turn transmit the idea to the bookstore buyer, and the store’s sales staff must get the message across to its customers. And because no one in this chain of people has a great deal of time (including the customer), the idea must be expressed in the pithiest possible way, otherwise attention may wander and the sale will be lost. So we all practice refining our descriptions of books into concepts that are so concentrated and potent they are practically radioactive. And we use a wide variety of audio and visual aids to get the idea across: good titles and subtitles, eye-catching covers, arresting dust jacket blurbs, intriguing advertising copy, plugs by celebrities.

What concerns me is that the publishing business is becoming entirely too idea-driven. In our frenzy to encapsulate concepts so that we can sell them to each other effectively, we may well be forgetting that it is not the idea that excites us when we read a book, not the idea that makes us laugh or cry or stay up to the small hours turning pages raptly while our hearts thunder with the thrill and suspense and tragedy and comedy of it. It’s the way the author realizes that idea and evokes it in our own imaginations. To put it succinctly, it’s good writing. But there is a tendency today to presell great ideas—we call them “high concepts” in the trade—then develop them in predictably formulaic plots and package them for an audience that has been conditioned for formulas by television.

But remember, if you’re really stuck for a good idea, there’s always that guy in Poughkeepsie…

– Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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All Agencies Great and Small – Part 2

With the introduction of a second person into a literary agency—even a secretary with no discretionary power—the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. The agent can if he chooses make himself less accessible, a state that is often tactically desirable. He at last has somebody to blame, perhaps not for negotiating and other serious mistakes, but at least for some of the clerical screwups that bedevil all business enterprises. On the other hand, the operation of the business should become more efficient, a fair tradeoff for the agent’s withdrawal from the firing line. If the employee is anything more than a warm body occupying a desk, he or she can create some important opportunities for strategic games, can serve as a reader, rendering a second viewpoint on the salability of manuscripts, or as a sounding board for marketing, negotiating, and other decisions. And if that person is interested in and good at certain specialized tasks—handling movie, television, magazine, or foreign rights, for example—or has a good grasp of certain markets that the boss has no interest in or feel for, or if he or she is good at handling certain clients, then you have the makings of a potent team and the foundation for a successful agency.

From that point on it becomes a matter of adding new staff members and deploying them according to the organization that best suits the agent’s style—a style that may transmute as the agent gains experience. As a rule, the smaller the agency the less specialized are the tasks performed by its staff: in other words, everybody handles everything. As the firm grows, a structure usually emerges along lines of staff specialization. One structure might be described as vertical, with the agent at the pinnacle handling the clients, supported by a staff that services the clients’ properties but does not necessarily have contact with the clients themselves. One staff member might handle foreign rights, another movie, another serial, another bookkeeping, another filing, and so on.

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Fictionwise to End Operations in December

Fictionwise, the first successful e-book retailer and the dominant one until its eclipse by Amazon, has announced it will “wind down its operation” on December 4th. Spokesman Dan Jorissen, who has been operating the company since the departure of its founders in the wake of its acquisition by Barnes & Noble in 2009, explained that “there has been a significant decrease in demand” for Fictionwise’s formats in view of the growing popularity of B&N’s platform.

The full announcement is below. To read our announcement of the acquisition of Fictionwise by B&N, click here.

A personal note: Fictionwise was founded almost simultaneously with E-Reads and served as our principal retailer for more than half a decade into the 21st century. They were brilliant marketers and bent over backwards to provide personal service to readers as well as to publishers and authors. We considered them our “sister house” and we would not have survived without them. So, though its founders departed years ago, we feel as if we have lost an old friend.

Richard Curtis

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November 15, 2012

Dear Fictionwise Publisher/Author,

As you may know, Barnes & Noble acquired Fictionwise, Inc. (Fictionwise) on March 3, 2009. Fictionwise runs several eBook websites, including Fictionwise.com, eReader.com and eBookwise.com. Over the past few years there has been a significant decrease in demand for many of the eBook formats that Fictionwise.com sells. In contrast, the new industry standard eBook format supported by Barnes & Noble–ePub–is growing in popularity.

This letter is to notify you that Fictionwise will wind down its operations on December 4, 2012. The Fictionwise sites (including Fictionwise.com, eReader.com and eBookwise.com) will end sales on December 4, 2012 and U.S. Fictionwise customers will cease to have access to their Fictionwise Bookshelf through the site after December 21, 2012. Customers outside the U.S. will cease to have access to their Fictionwise Bookshelf through the site after January 31, 2013. Fictionwise customers will be notified of this and U.S. and U.K. customers will be given an opportunity to move their customer accounts, including their eBooks purchased at the Fictionwise websites, to a Barnes & Noble NOOK Library.

Pursuant to section 2 of the agreement between Fictionwise and you, we hereby provide you with ninety (90) days notice that this agreement will terminate effective February 13th. Your final 4th quarter royalty statement and payment will be mailed February 15th.

If you are not already selling your titles at BN.com and would like to do so, please visit www.pubit.com.

We greatly appreciate your support of Fictionwise over the years. Together, we pioneered eBooks and eReading.

Thank you,
Daniel Jorissen and The Fictionwise Team

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This blog post was originally published by Digital Book World under the title Fictionwise is Over.

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All Agencies Great and Small – Part 1

I’m not sure that authors understand the structures of literary agencies much better than they understand those of publishing companies. For those of you who are shopping for an agent or thinking of switching agencies, or who are simply interested in organizational dynamics, it might be interesting to compare agencies of different sizes and structures and to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

First, but not least, is the one-man or one-woman agency. And when I say one man or woman I don’t mean one man or woman plus a secretary, for, as we shall soon see, the presence of a second person can radically alter an agent’s style, service, and clout. Most such agents start out either as editors of publishing companies or as staff members of large agencies; a few join our profession from the legal and other related fields. To agenting they bring their special knowledge and experience, and those are always big plusses for prospective clients. They can also be handicaps, however. The lawyer who becomes a literary agent will soon discover that publishing law is so vastly different in theory and practice from any other kind of law as to render his training and experience virtually useless. Agents who leave big agencies to set up their own don’t always make good agents, as they may be unused to operating outside the context of a supporting organization. Editors who become agents may know a great deal about publishing procedures, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make them good deal-makers.

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Let’s Have Lunch

In republishing some of my articles I’ve been struck by how little has changed in the decade or two since they first saw the light of day. In some cases I’ve scarcely had to change a word. However, I’m afraid that the following piece will not stand the test of time. When you come to the end you’ll see why the sacred ritual known as the publishing lunch date may be doomed.
RC
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When the time comes for me to lay down my sword and armor and cross into the Great Beyond after a lifetime of combat with venal publishers, crooked movie producers, treacherous lawyers, and kvetchy authors, it is my fondest hope that the gods will reward me with perpetual publishing luncheons. What fardels would I not bear knowing that such a treat awaited me on the other side! Some agents and editors feel lunches are tedious obligations at best and duck out of them whenever they can. I find them incredibly exciting, frequently dramatic, and always enlightening: I have never come away from one without having learned something useful. And, if everything comes together perfectly, the occasion can be a transcendental experience both culinarily and literarily, a sublime blend of art, commerce, and hedonism.

Most outsiders (such as authors) have a dim or distorted idea of what is involved in publishing lunches. To them, these affairs are as mysterious as royalty statements and discount schedules. So come perch on the right lobe of my brain, which in agents is the segment devoted to luncheon dates, and observe the process from the ringing of the phone (which automatically makes me salivate) to the final, discreet burp.

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