Monthly Archives: April 2013

Collaborations, Part 1

One of the liabilities of being a professional writer is that you attract people who want to collaborate with you. What author has not been collared at a party by a drunk who wants him to write his life story or has this fantastic idea for a novel?

Few such propositions have any commercial value. But from time to time you may meet someone whose story is compelling enough to entice you into collaboration with him. Or your agent may offer you an opportunity to team up with a famous movie or sports star, doctor or astronaut, beauty expert or political figure. If that happens, do you know how collaborations work? How the proceeds are to be divided? Whose byline goes on the cover of the book? Who pays the expenses of flying to Washington or Los Angeles or Hawaii to interview this person or to do research? Whose name goes on the copyright?

As a writer who has collaborated on seven or eight works of fiction and nonfiction and as an agent who has welded together scores of collaborations for clients, I can testify that teaming up with someone on a book can be richly rewarding, elevating, and great fun. It can also turn out to be a nightmare if the parties are ill matched, have unrealistic expectations of each other’s contributions, or fail to spell out their contractual arrangements before getting down to work. Collaborations are complex undertakings because the authors have to please themselves, each other, and their publishers at one and the same time, the literary equivalent of three-dimensional chess. In this two-part post, perhaps I can show you how to enter into a collaboration with your eyes wide open.

For openers one might ask, Why collaborate at all? Collaborations often sound like twice the headaches for half the money, and sometimes that turns out to be the case. But the opposite may also be true: You can end up making more money than you can writing solo, doing less work and turning out a better book.

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Green-Eyed Monsters: Envious Authors

OVER THE YEARS THAT I’VE BEEN writing about the publishing scene, I’ve discussed many disturbing by-products of the consolidation of the industry. There is one, however, that I’ve been very reluctant to talk about because it cuts so very close to the anxieties that lurk in the darkest recesses of every author’s heart. And that is the emotion of envy. It is as nasty and corrosive a passion as can be found among the seven deadly sins, and although it’s impossible to demonstrate statistically, many editors and agents to whom I have spoken believe that it has been intensifying over the past few years. “Writers have always been a nervous lot,” one editor said to me, “but lately it seems as if the pot is always seething.” “They’re angry all the time,” another told me. “It’s beginning to interfere with my effectiveness,” an agent confided in me. He was referring to what he termed “mass hysteria among authors.”

Authors are no different from anybody else in aspiring to fame, fortune, and status, and in suffering feelings of resentment, depression, and anger when their aspirations are frustrated. Are those feelings stronger and deeper today than before? I have the sense that they are. In fact, there are signs that author rage is becoming institutionalized in the form of unprecedented pressure on agents and publishers to match or exceed each record-breaking deal. In this sense, authors are contributing to the ever-accelerating cyclone that has already blown scores of publishers out of existence in the last decade or two, and that has driven a thousand writers out of the game for each one it has enriched.

I don’t pretend to be exempt from this or the other deadly sins (I’m particularly big on gluttony), and as I’m right in the thick of things trying to secure those record-breaking deals for my own authors, I realize that I’m part of the problem. Still, I think the phenomenon of author envy is very much worth exploring, because it is so devastating to the peace of mind that authors must have in order to produce their best work, and because it creates unrealistic expectations that must, of necessity, lead to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment.

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Outrageous Fortune: Authors With Bad Luck

I OFTEN PONDER THE ROLE PLAYED by luck in the fates of books and authors. Are some authors luckier than others? Are there lucky breaks for writers, the literary equivalent of the understudy who replaces a lead actor in a show and becomes a star overnight? Do we make our own luck? Can good luck be bought or manipulated? Can bad luck be avoided? Are some of us simply, to use the poignant Yiddish word, schlemazels, those hapless folks who always seem to be standing under the flowerpot when it falls from a windowsill?

Our natural egotism rejects the notion that our successes or failures are the products of random and indiscriminate accidents. This may be particularly true for writers, not (just) because they possess an excessive supply of egotism, but because as intellectuals it is their task to rationalize their world, and the only way to do that is to start with some assumptions about human beings’ control over their destinies. What, after all, is fiction but the depiction of human heroes and heroines employing their wit, skill, strength, and other resources to defeat antagonists and overcome adversity? What would become of our fiction if the protagonists’ achievements were portrayed as nothing more than lucky?

As we know, the road to publication is mined with perils. It takes intelligence, determination, and fortitude to avoid or conquer them. Yet, in my experience, there is no guarantee that these virtues will prevail in the writing game. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that the most important asset of all, talent, will emerge victorious, at least not without a little assistance from good fortune. For while writing is certainly a solitary occupation, publishing is a social enterprise involving scores of critical processes performed by numerous individuals, many of whom possess considerably less enthusiasm for the product than the author does. And beyond the mechanics of publication and distribution are processes of a magnitude and complexity impossible to reckon, including trends and fads that are no more predictable than the course of a cyclone.

Any attempt to grasp this leaves us wondering how any books at all ever manage to succeed with so many hostile factors militating against them. Indeed, though I have handled many successful books in my career, I can recall only a handful that behaved in a way that might be described as an agent’s dream, that is, were textbook case histories of books that performed precisely the way they were supposed to if everybody did his or her job. For me, the perfect publishing experience is a unicorn, glimpsed in my fantasies but never captured.

There was the Vietnam War novel that I sold to the perfect editor at the perfect publisher, which went on to do a great job of publication, eliciting dream reviews and sensational sales. At every step of the way I rubbed my eyes with astonishment and kept wondering when something would go wrong. Fortunately, it never did. The book went on to become not just a bestseller, but a backlist staple that continued to earn solid royalties year after year.

I am, of course, happy to take my share of the credit for the success of this book, and I’m sure that that success was created in some measure by my enthusiasm, commitment, and effort. But, looking back, I realize that Lady Luck influenced that book’s destiny far more than I did, for there were numerous moments when disaster could have struck but was averted, as if the book were defended by an invisible shield.

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Overprescription for Attention Deficit Disorder May Create Teen Psychoses

“Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” reports the New York Times.  “These rates reflect a marked rise over the last decade and could fuel growing concern among many doctors that the A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its medication are overused in American children.”

The Times drew its information from new data issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but warnings had been made years earlier in a book represented by Richard Curtis Associates  called Medication Madness written by Peter Breggin, a renowned psychiatrist and outspoken opponent of overmedication for a variety of vague conditions experienced by children that are lumped under the diagnosis Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – ADHD.

Here is Publishers Weekly‘s review:

“Following his landmark book Talking Back to Prozac, psychiatrist Breggin follows up by arguing against what he calls the ‘spellbinding’ effects of psychiatric medications, and he doesn’t mean ‘spellbinding’ as praise. His point is that all psychiatric drugs are dangerous; he describes how these medications can compromise brain function, resulting in bizarre, even violent behavior. Breggin, a former staffer at the National Institute of Mental Health who has testified in liability suits against pharmaceutical companies, cautions that consumers should thoroughly examine the drug labels for side effects as a precaution for such drugs as stimulants, antidepressants, tranquilizers, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers. The tragic cases of beleaguered patients detailed here are troubling. Breggin joins the growing group of experts who argue that the FDA is ‘more dedicated to serving the drug companies than consumers,’ relying on doctored or incomplete evidence and botched tests. Breggin’s assertion that psychotropic drugs induce rather than treat brain imbalances is controversial, but this book is a reasoned look at these drugs, which have come under increasing scrutiny in the media as well as medical world.”

It has been speculated that overmedication may be tied to a variety of violent behavior including school shootings.

The landmark book referred to in the review, Talking Back to Prozac, is published in print and e-book editions by E-Reads.

Richard Curtis

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