Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book and Audio Tie-In To Liberace Film Now On Sale

Liberace (file from the Wikimedia Commons)

In connection with the blockbuster HBO Film scheduled for release May 26th, Tantor Media has reissued Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, the memoir of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s “Boy Toy” played in the film by Matt Damon opposite Michael Douglas as Liberace. The book was co-written with Alex Thorleifson.

Tantor is going out with the largest first printing since it launched its book unit last fall.

Ron Formica, Tantor’s director of rights and acquisitions, snapped the long-out-of-print book up from agent Richard Curtis. Thorson wrote a new afterword bringing readers up to date on the rather dismal and sometimes sordid life he led after Liberace dropped him. The audio is narrated by Peter Berkrot; an interview with Thorson is available on


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.
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.

First, you should know that it is usually the editor who extends the invitation, selects the restaurant, and pays the check. Exactly why that is, I’m not sure, for it is clear that both parties stand to benefit equally from the occasion. (Mind you, I’m not complaining!) *

Because it’s the editor who proposes and disposes, any agent who reverses roles and offers to take an editor to lunch is apt to earn many bonus points on the editor’s scorecard. When I worked for my first boss, literary agent Scott Meredith, he never permitted his staff to allow editors to treat them to lunch, I think because it implied a dependency that tarnished the agency’s image. I thought that was great, and I still do, but few agents can afford a steady diet (pardon the pun) of paying for editors, and if letting an editor pick up the tab suggests that the agent is dependent on him – well, in truth he is.

Editorial calendars tend to be filled for weeks and even months ahead with other lunches, editorial meetings, business trips, vacations, conferences, and conventions. So it is by no means unusual for lunch dates to be made far in advance, with the parties exploring dates for fifteen minutes before finding an open one. This practice makes one keenly and often disconcertingly aware of the rapid passage of time. A flip of your calendar, as you and your would-be luncheon partner seek an agreeable date, and you realize that another season has passed, another year. Here it is August, blazingly hot and swelteringly humid, and you are contemplating warm, heavy food, sweaters and furs, and talk of ski trips and Christmas books; in February, as bitter winds whistle past your windowpanes, you set a lunch date for a day when cherry and magnolia blossoms will strew the selfsame streets now carpeted with yard-high snowdrifts. It’s a strange feeling. Red-letter days in the publishing calendar signal another year fled from our lives: “I can’t make it in October, that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair”; “November’s no good, we have sales conference”; “Forget the last week in May – I have to get ready for the BEA convention.” The seasons cycle inexorably and you wax philosophical about the rolling years. Have I achieved anything important? Have I fulfilled my youthful goals? God grant me just one DaVinci Code before He takes me away!

Although your luncheon may be on some absurdly far-off day, the restaurant and precise hour are seldom selected until that very morning. Then, sometime around ten-thirty or eleven, your host or hostess calls you with the traditional phrase, “Are we on for today?” The time and place are then agreed upon. But not always easily. To wit:
“How does Italian sound to you?”
“Had it last night. Mexican?”
“I’m on a diet. There’s a great fish place around the corner from my office.”
“But that’s all the way on the other side of town from me. Well, okay, but can we make it twelve-thirty? I have an author coming up to my office at two.”
“That’s bad for me. I’ll be in a meeting all morning.”
And so it goes.

Sometimes there is more to these negotiations than two busy people trying to find common ground. Nothing serious, just a subtle game of chicken, like waiting till twelve-fifteen before phoning to confirm the lunch date, or jockeying for who is going to come to whose side of town: I am more powerful than you because I made you come to my side of town at an inconvenient hour and eat a cuisine that gives you heartburn.

Occasionally lunch dates are canceled, and canceled at the last minute. The reasons range from “I forgot to mark it in my calendar” to “I have pneumonia.” One morning, after waiting till noon, I phoned an editor to see if we were still on for lunch. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “I was just fired.” I told her I thought that was a very poor excuse for canceling a date and I took her to lunch myself.

As the cancelee of today may be the canceler of tomorrow, we all accept cancellations with a certain degree of equanimity. They can, however, prove frustrating. I can all but guarantee that on the day I don my best suit and most expensive silk tie in anticipation of a Lucullan orgy at a four-star restaurant with an editorial kingpin I’ve been wooing for months, the date will be canceled and I’ll end up glomming a ham and Swiss on rye at my desk – and getting mustard on my tie to boot. Conversely, the days one wears jeans and tee-shirt to the office are inevitably the days one gets an impromptu invitation to Grenouille or Le Cirque.

Your luncheon companions range from the most eminent and powerful editor to the callow rookie who has just been given a title and expense account and told to go meet agents. Some agents, particularly the more prominent ones, disdain invitations from freshman editors. Why waste time with subalterns without clout when you can pick up the phone anytime and get the head of the company? I personally find that attitude shortsighted. New editors are often the most enthusiastic, ambitious, and industrious, best attuned to trends to which the older guard may be oblivious – new music, hot electronic games, rising young film stars, embryonic fads, and so forth. There’s another reason for cultivating young editors: In this turbulent age of musical chairs and sudden upward mobility, the green kid I dine with in March may be a department head in April.

Where you eat is a function of many factors: the age, seniority, and expense account of the editor; location; the amount of time available; dietary considerations; the importance of the host; the importance of the guest; the importance of the business at hand. Obviously, for example, young editors must entertain more modestly than senior ones. Yet many senior editors, having seen the inside of every restaurant in New York City after decades on the luncheon circuit, are just as happy to grab a burger at a coffee shop or munch a sandwich in the park. One of the most memorable lunches I ever had was with Robert Gottlieb, then editor in chief of the distinguished house of Alfred Knopf. It consisted of vanilla yogurt, nuts and raisins, and an orange, eaten in his office – eaten, indeed, on the floor of his office, for every horizontal surface including the couch was covered with manuscripts. Gottlieb had courageously taken himself out of the luncheon game, professing it to be too time-consuming, expensive, and fattening. All of which is true, agents and editors remind each other as they study their menus and debate trading off the appetizer for dessert.

When a senior editor is courting an agent in the hopes of capturing a big-name author, you can expect a Drop Dead, Pull Out All the Stops, No Prisoners Taken luncheon, the kind most authors think occurs every day but which in fact happens quite rarely. Such affairs reverberate in memory till the end of time. I remember one laid on for a major client and myself at the Four Seasons. Every course from the quail egg appetizer to the ethereal flan dessert had been prearranged by our publisher-host. Captains and waiters, obviously tipped off to the preeminence of the guests, attended us with obsequies usually reserved for caliphs and maharajahs. Our host had but to nod and the staff was galvanized into action. And, as the presentation of a check would have been a base intrusion of crass mercantilism into so elevated an occasion, it was never brought out. I assume it was simply forwarded to the publisher’s accounting department for review at some later date.

While sumptuous repasts are certainly incomparably exciting, and the author unaccustomed to “the treatment” may well feed off the memories till he’s old and gray, I am far from convinced that they make much difference in influencing authors and agents. Such feasts seem much more appropriate for celebrating the closing of a major deal than for softening up reluctant objects of a publisher’s affections. Which is not to say they should stop trying.

Authors have a misconception that lunches are the time when deals are made. In my experience most deals are made on the phone; the lunches are devoted more to getting acquainted with editors and their companies. Although I used to feel that some kind of business should be accomplished during lunch or a short time afterward, I’ve come to realize that friendships struck at lunch may not pay off for years. Nevertheless, there is something theatrical about presenting an editor with a manuscript at the luncheon table. I remember one occasion when I brought a bulky manila envelope with me to a restaurant. Throughout lunch, the editor cast intrigued glances at it, and at last, toward dessert, she ran a covetous hand over it. “Is this something for me?”
“Oh Lord, no,” I said with a gulp, realizing I had inadvertently led her on. “These are shirts going back to Bloomingdale’s!”

Another common belief is that publishing lunches are rather boozy affairs. In truth, the dominant beverages for the last ten years or so have been wine, juice and sparkling soda water, and even the hallowed Marys are as apt to be Virgin as Bloody. On occasion, hard liquor is ordered, but sipped in moderation. As for the fabled two-martini lunch, I can truthfully say that in the last decade I can recall only one luncheon companion who ordered martinis, but since he was a confirmed alcoholic, the more he drank the more coherent he became. Because drunkenness is, among other things, a breach of manners (and manners are largely what publishing lunches are all about), editors and agents are extremely careful not to drink too much. I have seldom seen an editor become so much as tipsy at lunch. I wish I could say as much about authors, though in mitigation it must be said that they are usually a little nervous, unaccustomed to banquets on so lavish a scale.

Just what is ordered depends on the circumstances. Almost every editor in town has a diet book on his or her list and is experimenting with its advice. So there has been a distinct trend toward simple, highly nutritious cuisine, even in the elegant watering places where high-rolling publishing potentates hang out – all those places beginning with La and Le and Il. Exotic cuisines are usually avoided unless the editor and agent are old lunching companions and are willing to drop their guards a bit. With them I hit the Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, and Indian joints, drink beer (straight from the bottle) instead of wine, relax protocol and manners, and exchange confidences seldom heard at high table.

Although the agent-guest is encouraged to order anything he wants, if the editor is decidedly junior it is an act of cruelty to order the most expensive items on the menu, but I do know some agents who, if they are mad at a publisher, will take their petty revenge by hitting the company up for a five-course extravaganza with champagne, brandy, and cigars elaborate desserts.

Not all foods are suitable for business luncheons. Though I adore sloppy items like lobster and ribs, it is usually inappropriate to order them, for there is no way one can be cool and nonchalant while sucking the liquid out of a lobster claw or picking a spare rib clean with fingernails and incisors.

Like those in other industries, publishing luncheons have a rhythm and flow that follow Aristotelian dramaturgical principles, from the quiet exposition through the developmental passages and on to the stirring climax. While the talk at the outset is small – the weather, the latest Big Apple catastrophe, your life story, “How I Got into Publishing” – it is seldom unrevealing to one alert for clues to one’s companion’s literary interests, status in the company, industry clout, negotiating skill, and other traits that may prove useful in future intercourse. Above all, there is gossip.

New York trade publishing is a very small town. Although Literary Market Place, the industry’s directory, contains thousands of names, my own short list of key contacts contain no more than three hundred names or so, and anything that happens to one of them is bound to affect my clients’ interests. Promotions, firings, resignations, romances, divorces – all are grist for the agent’s information mill in the perpetual process of assessing who’s got the power, who’s spending money, which way the market’s going, what the next hot trend is.

Thus, in due time talk drifts toward serious business. What good authors and projects is the agent handling? What’s the editor looking for? There is scarcely anything you can say that doesn’t serve as a springboard. The birth of my son inspired luncheon discussions leading to at least three books my agency subsequently developed; let that be a lesson to anyone asking me to produce wallet photos of my family.

Here, then, is what I love best of all about luncheons, for within seconds the conversation can shift from idle chatter to immense profundities, only moments later to shift again to money talk as the parties try to place a dollar value on the ideas under discussion.


Agent: Whew! Have you ever seen weather like this?
Editor: This is the third mild winter in a row. Do you think the climate is permanently moderating or something?
Agent: Possibly. This meteorologist I’ve been corresponding with thinks the pollutants in the air are seriously affecting world climate. The planet is overheating. The ice caps are melting.
Editor: Really? This meteorologist – um, is he writing a book perchance?
Agent: Funny you should ask. He’s halfway through one. He’s got great credentials and he’s promotable as hell. Looks a little like Brad Pitt.
Editor: I’d be interested in a book like that.
Agent: Would you be interested one hundred thousand worth?
Editor: Fifty thousand worth, maybe.
Agent: Fifty! The guy’s been on Oprah twice, for crying out loud!

Lunch is over. The editor pantomimes a scribble toward the captain, the time-honored gesture of summoning the check. There is no quarreling. The inviter pays, the invitee says thank you, and that’s usually that.

Goodness, it’s five minutes before three! Got to get back to the office. Loved every minute of it. Let’s do business. Let’s stay in touch. Let’s have lunch again soon!

– Richard Curtis

*PS:  For a bitter post script to the above article, read End of World is at Hand! Agents Buying Lunch for Editors.

Let’s Have Lunch! was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in How to be Your Own Literary Agent, published by Houghton Mifflin, Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.


Star Fantasy and Science Fiction Author Dave Duncan Receives Career Honor

The first novel in a popular Duncan fantasy quartet. Thirty-one Duncan works are offered by E-Reads.

Curtis Agency client Dave Duncan, a fantasy and science fiction star, has been elected a lifetime member of SFCanada, an association of writers, editors, and academics.

The Association’s election recognizes a lifetime of consistently brilliant work, of which more than thirty backlist titles are published by E-Reads. Duncan is not resting on his laurels, however. Look for a new duet by fantasies coming from Amazon’s 47North science fiction line, building on his prior 47North bestseller Against the Light.

“Recognition by one’s peers is the highest form of praise there is, and I am both honored and very grateful,” says Duncan.

We send Duncan our most heartfelt congratulations for a lifetime of distinguished achievement,


Manhattanhenge 2013

Manhattanhenge 2010

Manhattanhenge 2009

This evening is that magical moment that occurs in New York City but twice a year – and then only if it is not cloudy – known as Manhattanhenge. The setting sun bisects the midtown cross-streets, descending precisely on the western horizon in such a way as to simultaneously illuminate the north and south facades of the buildings.

These are priceless magical moments when New Yorkers stop in their tracks to risk damage to their vision by gazing directly into the sun, and hazard life and limb to stand in traffic with cell phones held aloft to capture the thrilling image.  The emotion upon beholding this phenomenon is a primitive one, akin perhaps to what our ancient ancestors might have felt, and it makes instantly clear the reason why primitive people believed the sun was a god.

I offer here a couple of photos I took from previous ones.

Happy Manhattanhenge, fellow Manhattanites! May your dusk be cloudless. If it isn’t, you have another shot at it on July 28th as the sun transits south.

Richard Curtis



“Dark even by dystopian standards, Flashback chronicles the dark days of a dead superpower.”
Christian Science Monitor

For Americans and their lawmakers a financial and government crisis is terra incognita. But not for Dan Simmons, whose  Flashback, now in paperback, projects a dystopian future launched by world financial collapse identical to the recent one from which we are still recovering.

In the author’s words, “Flashback posits the possibility that the United States of America, if it continues accruing debt without rethinking its spending and social welfare programs, could implode in sudden and total bankruptcy, losing not only its position in the world but its own sense of self for hundreds of millions of its citizens. In Flashback, this canary also imagines a cheap and available drug called flashback; a drug that allows hundreds of millions of Americans to find an escape hatch from life in such a damned and dismal future simply by reliving the good parts of their former lives. Over and over. And over.”

Simmons’s dark view of the world around the corner from today is controversial and has raised some hackles among fans and critics who like their futures to be politically correct. They obviously have confused dystopian and utopian. Simmons hasn’t.

But, taken for what it also is, a futuristic thriller packed with beautifully limned characters and a mystery that can only be solved by drug-induced time-travel, it is another triumph by the author of The Terror, Hyperion, Carrion Comfort and Summer of Night.

In a starred review Publishers Weekly says “Simmons makes some logical if depressing extrapolations from current political and economic developments in this outstanding mystery thriller set in a near-future dystopic United States.” Booklist calls it “Another winner from Simmons, whose imagination seems to know no bounds.”

“Simmons is…a master at cinematic pacing, and the best parts of his book are summer-blockbuster fun.”

“A nifty thriller, and the murder mystery will hook the reader hard and early.”
Winnipeg Free Press

Simmons has addressed a long letter to his fans detailing the thinking processes behind a book that will be debated for a long time to come. You can read his message here.



Looking for Tedium? E-Books Are Your Medium

In his wrap-up remarks at the 2010 Tools of Change conference, host Tim O’Reilly urged attendees to focus on “the boring stuff” that needs to be done to realize their vision of the future of the e-book industry.

I found this statement puzzling. Despite the widespread impression that e-book people are the jet-setters of the publishing business, the truth is that just about every step in the creation and publication of e-books is excruciatingly boring. In fact, e-book publishing may be described as long stretches of stupefying tedium punctuated by moments of numbing monotony.

Let me take you through a book’s conversion so you will understand what I mean. I urge you to have a strong cup of coffee to stay awake. Bear in mind that though this abstract will take but a minute for you to read, the actual operation requires dozens of man-hours per title. I say “man-hours” but “troll-hours” is more apposite, as the people who do it work in Stygian gloom, eat living things and snarl when poked with a stick.

A brief explanation is in order. Most books published by E-Reads are previously published works that went out of print and reverted to the author. In order to reissue them we scan the original printed volumes rather than use text documents furnished by the author, because the former have been copy-edited.

Scanning. The first task in the production of an e-book is scanning. The book’s cover and binding are stripped to facilitate the feeding of pages into the optical reader, and headers and page numbers sliced off to reduce garbage in the scanned document. Even if high-speed scanners are used the process must be overseen by a human. Monitoring a scanner has the allure of watching someone rake seaweed.

Proofreading. However state-of-the-art the scanner may be, a digitized document will invariably have errors due to misreading by the camera. The word “in” for instance may be interpreted by the scanner as “m”. Thus a proofreader must view and clean up the obvious glitches in the first-pass RTF (Rich Text Format) file created by the scanner. That process is called OCR – Optical Character Recognition. The RTF is then closely read and corrected by a proofreader who compares it word by word and line by line to the original published copy of the book. If you are ever given a choice between proofreading a text file and spending six months in a sensory deprivation chamber, take the chamber.

Final Review. The RTF – the basic building block of e-books – must then be reviewed page by page by a designer to make sure it reads seamlessly. “Once a book gets scanned,” explains Nathan Fernald, E-Reads’ production manager, “it tends to lose all of its formatting with the exception of single line breaks. And line breaks must be clearly delineated to prevent scene shifts within a chapter from running into each other. When we get a file back from scanning, I have to flip through the physical book page-by-page, comparing it with the file to see if there was any formatting lost such as centered text, indented text, extra line breaks, etc.”

The staggering monotony of this process will explain why I granted Nathan one day off every week. He was beginning to exhibit classic symptoms of going postal.

Formatting. Once we have a clean, error-free RTF we format it for various e-book platforms plus print on demand. For print editions, cover art must be sized precisely to the trim of the book using charts comparable to those used to navigate the waters off the Cape of Good Hope.

As if these labors were not excruciatingly demanding enough, we must then create…

Metadata. Metadata is vital book-related information required by retailers. It includes cover image, ISBN number, BISAC code, language, territorial rights, suggested retail price, publication date, brief description and other details and data. Retailers provide pages and pages of metadata definitions, specs and tolerances, all in fine print. And each retailer has different requirements or a different order of the same requirements. You can read about it in detail in Mastering the Mysteries of Metadata, but – long story short – it is comparable in complexity to the instructions for applying for a Fulbright grant, except that you can get away with lying on a Fulbright application.

ISBN Management. ISBNs are unique identifying numbers used in the book industry. They identify not just a book but every edition of a book. Publishing companies purchase a block of ISBNs and, after assigning them to each edition of each book, register them with R.R. Bowker, the official ISBN agency in the United States. (You can read more in Learning to Love your ISBN Number.) Of all the lassitude-inducing tasks performed by our staff, none compares to selecting, assigning, maintaining and registering ISBN numbers. It is like sorting jelly beans by color, except that when you are finished you are obliged to ship the jelly beans to a facility where someone else will eat them. Tales of woe abound. For instance, just when we had become resigned to the Sisyphean labors of managing 10-digit ISBNs the gods imposed 13-digit ones on us. Then Amazon informed us that none of our ISBN’s were suitable for the Kindle, and required us to produce unique Amazon identifier codes.

Royalty Management. Retailers furnish sales information in spreadsheets. In an ideal world the formats and information fields would be uniform. In reality royalty reporting is the Second Coming of the Tower of Babel. We have to reformat each and every retailer’s report so that our accounting system can read and process it. Though it is universally agreed that ISBN numbers are the key to successful royalty report generation, our filters constantly catch busted numbers requiring hours of sleuthing to set right. We find rogue data in other columns, too. All it takes is one misplaced article – “The” at the beginning of a title instead of at the end, for instance – to send our royalty tracker into paroxysms of indignation followed by stern instructions to mercilessly hunt and correct the offensive mistake.

There is much more that I haven’t reported, but I’m afraid it would make you suicidally depressed. I asked John Douglas, who manages our database, to tell us what is boring about his job. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to tell you,” he replied. “I’m too busy doing a boring job.”

In conclusion, be careful what you wish for when you wish for boring stuff.

The most exciting thing about being in the e-book space is telling people that we are in the e-book space. Showing off a cool e-book to a civilian? That’s exciting. But making the e-book you’re showing off? I think I’d rather watch paint dry.

Richard Curtis


Collaborations, Part 2

In this second part of our discussion of collaborations (click here to read the first part), we’ll examine a collaboration agreement and discuss the salient terms. What are the financial arrangements and the split between co-authors? How are the credits and bylines accorded? Who’s liable for any claims arising out of the collaboration? There are countless considerations and just as many pitfalls.

What are the contractual arrangements in a collaboration? Well, when you talk about contracts, bear in mind that there are two kinds in a collaboration. One is the publishing contract; the other is the collaboration agreement. Depending on the nature of the project, sometimes the former comes first, sometimes the latter. If the book is already sold – a celebrity autobiography, say – the first contract drawn up would be the one with the publisher. Thereafter, when a co-author is found, a collaboration agreement would be drafted. But if the book requires the celebrity and the writer to spend several weeks together to work up a presentation for publishers, then the collaboration agreement would be the first document drawn up, the publishing agreement coming later, when the book is sold.

Sometimes the terms of the collaboration can be worked into the publishing agreement, but I recommend a separate collaboration agreement because things often need to be worked out between collaborators that aren’t covered in publishing agreements. Publishing agreements define the collaborators’ joint obligation to their publisher, but they don’t define their obligations to each other.
Let’s examine a collaboration agreement and discuss the principal terms.

The first thing is how the money is to be divided when the book is sold. There are countless ways to do this, depending on the project, the amount of money involved, the relative importance of the celebrity and co-author, and many other factors. Let me outline a few scenarios.

• A famous actress is offered a lot of money by a publisher to write her memoirs. Though her story, like any other, requires a certain degree of skill to tell, she and her publisher agree that just about any competent writer will get the job done. They go to a young journalist eager to get his name on a book and offer him a flat fee of $10,000, which to him is a lot of money. They also offer him a “with” or “and” byline on the book, but no participation in royalties, magazine rights, or foreign translation or any other subsidiary rights. He accepts the offer because it’s a good opportunity to break into books, earn some money, and bask in the presence of a legend of stage and screen.
• A young dairymaid is walking through the woods, minding her own business, when there is a tremendous roar and a blinding flash, and next thing she knows she’s in a spaceship being interrogated by little green aliens. They take her to their world for a year, then return her to earth and drop her off in the woods where they picked her up. She immediately runs to a literary agent’s office babbling about what happened to her. Persuaded that her tale is true (agents are suckers for a good story) but realizing she’s going to have a tough time making anybody else believe her, he convinces her to team up with his client the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose identification with the project will legitimize it in the eyes of his publisher and his public. For that privilege, however, the journalist wants 75 percent of all revenues earned by the book. He also wants the first $25,000 of the publisher’s advance; if his agent is unable to line up a deal for an advance greater than $25,000, the dairymaid will receive nothing until the book earns more. The principle here is that professional writers depend entirely on their writing for a living, whereas their collaborators usually earn a living from some other source (acting, running a business, playing ball, milking cows). Thus the writer’s financial needs must be served first. In no position to argue, the dairymaid agrees to these terms.
• A tycoon who built Fingfang Enterprises from scratch into a multibillion-dollar multinational octopus decides his life would make fascinating reading and goes to an agent, asking him to package his life story. Since the agent is by no means as sure as the industrialist that publishers will fall all over themselves to bid for such a book, he tells the man he’ll have to pay a writer $5000 to spend a month interviewing him, examining news clippings and other documents, and writing an outline. The man will recover his $5000 if and when the book is sold, but if the book isn’t sold he loses his investment. After recouping his $5000, he and the writer will split all income 50-50. The man balks at 50-50: After all, it was his life, and all this writer is doing is putting down what he tells him, right? Wrong, says the agent; there is far more involved in collaborating on a book than merely taking dictation. The man still balks. After all, once the book is out the writer’s contribution ends, but he’s got to go on all those talk shows the publisher is going to send him to. Seeing his point, and realizing that this is the kind of man who isn’t happy unless he thinks he’s gotten a better deal than the other guy, the agent suggests that after the book earns $100,000, the split will go from 50-50 to 75-25 in the mogul’s favor. “Done,” says the man, switching his cigar to his left hand so he can shake the agent’s hand with his right.

As you can see, there is no one way to slice the pie, but there is a kind of guiding principle. In theory, all collaborations should be 50-50 propositions because the subject can’t get his book written without the writer, and the writer doesn’t have a story without the subject. But on many occasions one member of the team turns out to be more important than the other, or feels he’s more important, and an accommodation must be negotiated. When that happens, some tradeoffs may be made on the other terms of the collaboration.
After the question of dividing the proceeds, the thing that concerns writers most is the byline: Will their name appear on the cover of the book, and if so, in what form? With a “with”? With an “and”? In the same-size typeface or smaller? For many writers, the byline is almost as important as the money; for some, it is more so. For that reason, the byline is the commodity most frequently used as barter in negotiating with the subject-author: “I’ll keep my name off the book if I can have one-third of the proceeds instead of the one-quarter you’ve offered me.”

The byline may be worked out in all sorts of ways. Prominent figures often feel that the appearance of a co-author’s name on their books implies that they are not entirely literate. That may be a reasonable assumption for, say, some athletic stars or ex-convicts (though I can think of exceptions), but if it’s the chairman of a conglomerate’s board or a former President of the United States, the appearance of a co-writer on the byline of his book may cause potential buyers to question just how candid or interesting the book will be. Therefore, the subject-author may insist that the book be done as a straight ghost job, and recognition of the writer’s contribution restricted to an acknowledgment inside the book. Even here the writer might be able to negotiate a separate acknowledgment on its own page, as opposed to citation in a long list of contributors to the preparation of the manuscript, which reduces the writer’s involvement to the same level as that of the copy editor, typist, and secretary.

For other principals, the issue of the byline is a matter of complete indifference, and indeed, they can be most gracious in according credit to their partners. In still other cases, the co-author’s byline is the more recognizable of the two, almost the raison d’être for the book, and the publisher insists that it appear prominently on the cover and in all advertising.

Related to the byline is the question of whose name the copyright will be taken out in, and this should be stipulated in the collaboration agreement. But generally speaking, if both the subject-author and the collaborator are signatories to the publishing contract, then the book will be copyrighted in both their names, for both are defined as “Author” in that contract even if the co-author’s name does not go on the cover of the book.

Liability is the next matter to be considered. If someone brings a lawsuit against the publisher and authors claiming libel, invasion of privacy, defamation of character, infringement of copyrighted material, or some other grounds, which of the authors is liable? It’s easy to imagine the responsibility going either way. On the one hand, the subject-author might tell his collaborator a story whose veracity the collaborator cannot check and that subsequently triggers a lawsuit. Is the collaborator to blame? On the other hand, suppose the co-author embellishes on something the subject-author told him, or goes to the library and plagiarizes a quotation, or is lazy about checking the accuracy of the principal’s assertions, and a lawsuit ensues. Is the subject-author to blame?

If both of them signed the publishing contract, the publisher is not going to try to sort out who is responsible, or more responsible, for the actionable material in the book. Both agreed to the warranty and indemnity clauses in the contract, and both are therefore equally liable for any breaches of those clauses. If, however, the two made some provision in their collaboration agreement about who was responsible for what in the book, then one may be able to recover his legal expenses or damages from the other. If, say, the subject-author guaranteed that he would be liable for the truth of any anecdotes, assertions, or opinions and the co-author guaranteed that he’d be liable for the veracity of his research and of his interviews, there’s a chance that the blame for a lawsuit could be clearly assigned to one or the other of the authors. This procedure is known as cross-indemnification: I indemnify you, you indemnify me.
In actuality, it’s extremely difficult to keep sharp the dividing line between the authors’ responsibilities. The co-author is responsible for checking the things the subject-author tells him; the subject- author is responsible for reviewing the research and writing of his collaborator. For safety’s sake, the manuscript should be reviewed by both the authors’ lawyers and the publisher’s.

Another important matter is expenses: How are they defined, and who pays for them?

Among the more common expenses in a collaboration are research assistance, the transcription of tape-recorded interviews, picture permissions, legal expenses, and typing. If the collaborators don’t live in the same place, there may be expenses for travel and accommodations and for long-distance phone calls.

The collaborators should agree at the very outset which expenses are legitimate and perhaps fix a ceiling on them. It might, for example, be inappropriate for the co-author to charge for the cost of paper, cassettes, or public transportation to the library for research, as these are usually part of a writer’s costs of doing business. It can work the other way, too. Suppose a famous Hollywood movie director is collaborating with a New York writer and has to come to New York on business. While in New York, he intends to sit down with his collaborator and work on the book, but that’s not the sole purpose of his visit. It would be patently unfair for him to charge his first-class airfare and one week’s lodging at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel to the collaboration.

The expenses are usually laid out by the party incurring them, who then recovers them from the publisher’s advance on acceptance of the manuscript. The burden of expenses is usually divided in proportion to each collaborator’s participation in the proceeds from the book. Thus, if the collaborators are splitting all revenue from the book 50-50, they should split the expenses 50-50, too; if 75-25 in favor of the subject-author, then he should pick up 75 percent of the costs while the co-author assumes 25 percent.

Like the expenses, the duties of the collaborators should be spelled out, though they are usually harder to quantify. The subject-author should agree to make himself available for interviews by the collaborator; to furnish newspaper clippings, diaries and journals, and other written material; and to cooperate with the coauthor in arranging interviews with his friends, family, and business colleagues. The co-author pledges to supplement the principal’s interviews with his own research, which includes checking the veracity of statements and assertions made by the subject-author. The co-author may also stipulate delivery dates of the manuscript to the subject-author; he may also have to clear permissions for quotations or pictures and to deliver signed permissions or other releases to the subject-author. Other duties and obligations may be specified here: The co-author might have to promise to phone the subject-author every two weeks with a progress report or send him each chapter of the book as it is finished.

It is very important to stipulate approval of the manuscript when you prepare a collaboration agreement. In most cases, the subject-author is granted sole approval, or sole approval subject to the editorial judgment of the publisher. This seems only fair, for after all it’s his or her book, not the collaborator’s. Yet the collaborator may have some strong objections to the subject-author’s inclusion or exclusion of certain material. So there is sometimes built into the agreement machinery for settling disputes, with the agent or editor or a lawyer being appointed arbiter.

If an agent is involved, there should be language in the collaboration agreement mutually authorizing that agent to act on behalf of both parties in the submission of the manuscript, the negotiation of the book contract, the collection and disbursement of proceeds, and in the exploitation of subsidiary rights, including serial, British and foreign translation, and movie and television. The agent’s commission schedule must be detailed, along with any special provisions concerning him: authorization for him to deduct certain expenses, a time limit on his handling of the project or of subsidiary rights, appointment of him as final arbiter of disputes between collaborators, etc. If there are two agents, as sometimes happens when the principal is represented by one firm and the collaborator by another, the questions of which one will handle the marketing of the manuscript, negotiation, collection of proceeds, and the exploitation of subsidiary rights must be answered.

Finally, there ought to be some provision for the termination of the collaboration in the event of the death or disability of one of the parties, because of failure to perform contractual obligations, or because the collaborators simply don’t get along. If the collaboration does collapse, both authors may owe the publisher a refund or one member of the team may owe the other some money advanced toward the development of the project. Precisely how the accounts are to be settled should be made clear in the agreement between the writing partners. No document can blend two conflicting personalities, which is why I repeat my advice that if you and your collaborator don’t hit it off, break off the relationship before it mires the project in grief if not in a lawsuit. But if the two parties enter the relationship in a spirit of good faith, a well-constructed collaboration agreement will go far toward insuring the success both of the friendship and the book.

Richard Curtis

From How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis,  published by Harcourt Houghton Mifflin