Category Archives: Advice for Writers

With Amazon MatchBook Bundling One Big Step Closer to Reality

Publishers Weekly reports that “After years of false starts, bundling e-books with print books may have gotten the spark it needed Tuesday morning when Amazon announced an October launch date for Kindle MatchBook. Under the program, customers who buy—or have bought—print editions of titles can buy the e-book at prices ranging from $2.99 to free. At launch, Amazon expects to have over 10,000 books in the program, ranging from new books to books that Amazon began selling when it first opened in 1995.”

For background here’s a piece we published several years ago:

Bundling is an age-old merchandising technique in which customers are offered a discount if they purchase two related products. In the case of books, it’s a combo of two formats, print edition and e-book. Though the technical barriers to delivering both in one transaction are coming down, the real issue is how much to charge for the bundle. A little test we gave readers a few years ago will give you a sense of how challenging the concept is:

When you purchase a print book you should be able to get the e-book for…

a) the full combined retail prices of print and e-book editions
b) an additional 50% of the retail price of the print edition
c) an additional 25% of the retail price of the print edition
d) $1.00 more than the retail price of the print edition
e) free

The choices aren’t just economic but philosophical, reflecting just how aggressive a publisher wants to be and the various thresholds at which the publisher believes consumer resistance will melt. A good argument can be made for each, and as the bundling issue warms up you can expect to hear them all endlessly debated.

The time will soon come when publishers will have to choose one of the above strategies and put it into effect. Misjudging consumer attitudes could prove to be a big mistake and possibly a ruinous one. My own view? I strongly believe that the e-book version should be included free of charge with the purchase of the print edition. What do you think – and why?

Details in Bundling: Publishing’s Next Battleground.

Richard Curtis
This blog post was originally published on Digital Book World under the title Why Do We Have to Choose Between Print and Digital?


Take This Job and Shove It. But When?

This article was originally published in 2010.

Most writers dream of leaving their day jobs (some have night jobs as well) and launching careers as full-time freelancers. In their eagerness to realize that goal, many of them quit as soon as they’ve made a few sales. This decision invariably turns out to be ill-advised if not catastrophic after the author discovers that he did not properly reckon the cost of independence, project the size and flow of earnings, or prepare himself psychologically. Even an author lucky enough to strike it rich on his first book should use the utmost restraint before quitting his job to become a writer. By the time he realizes he doesn’t know what to write for an encore, he may have raised his lifestyle to an unsupportably high plateau.

The questions of whether and when writers should go full-time are among the most common and vexing that agents have to deal with, and if an agent ever had a notion to play God, here is his opportunity. The responsibility for this decision is awesome and demands ten times the prudence required to advise authors about such matters as selecting the right publisher for their books. The number of factors is large and their complexity intimidating. It’s the kind of decision that should be reviewed with a great many people to collect as much input as possible.

An excellent idea is to make a list of pluses and minuses, what you stand to gain and what to lose. Often the right choice will jump out at you when you review this list. The secret is to make sure you have enumerated all the factors. Then you must be brutally honest with yourself. You do not want to subject yourself and your family to needless suffering because you erred on the side of wishful thinking when you drew up your scenario.


Authorial Misdemeanors

From time to time an author will do something that causes me to scratch my head. I’ve compiled a list of these foibles and offer it here with a light heart. If you have perpetrated any of these transgressions I’ll let you off this time without a fine, but don’t let me see you in this courtroom again.

I must say right off the bat that among the things authors do that irk me, delivering manuscripts late is not one of them. Lateness is the medium in which agents live. We breathe late manuscripts and eat late checks and drink late contracts. And lateness in a creative person is certainly more understandable and forgivable than it is in a business organization. I have never known an author to be deliberately late with a book, but I have known many a publisher to be deliberately late with a check.

What kills me, however, is authors who don’t tell me they’re going to be late. Publishers schedule books many months in advance, and in most cases are able to pull one out of the schedule if given sufficient notice. In most cases, too, a publisher will grant the author a reasonable extension of delivery date. If, however, out of embarrassment or some other reason (such as a moonlighting gig the agent doesn’t know about), an author doesn’t level with his agent, he will not only get himself into trouble, but his agent as well. An agent who knows the truth can go to bat for his client, make excuses, concoct a fib. But if an agent sincerely assures an editor that a book will be turned in in June because that’s what his client told him, when the client knew all the time that there wasn’t a chance in hell that he could make the deadline, the agent’s credibility will be damaged.

I make very few inflexible rules for my clients, but this is one of them: no matter how embarrassing your reasons may be (one author’s dog actually did eat his manuscript), I insist that you tell me the truth so that I can make proper excuses for you. (I, of course, have never lied on behalf of a client. What kind of agent would I be if I lied on behalf of a client?)

Lying to your agent is a mortal sin, but authors commit many venial ones as well, and oddly enough, it is the latter variety that drives me absolutely up the wall.

Take authors who misspell “Foreword,” for instance. I strongly feel that anybody who turns in a manuscript containing a “Forward” deserves automatic shredding of his manuscript plus the first three fingers of his right hand. You would think I would not have to explain to professionals who make their livings with words that a foreword is a fore-word, a word that comes before the main text. But as the Forward-to-Foreword ratio on manuscripts submitted to my agency is about one out of three, I can see that the correct spelling cannot be stressed enough. It should be enough to remind you that “Foreword” is usually the very first word one’s eyes fall upon when opening a manuscript. (I hesitate, however, to criticize writers for not knowing the difference between a foreword, a preface, and an introduction, since I don’t understand it either.)

The Forward-Foreword offense is part of a larger conspiracy to send agents to early graves. I am referring to authors who don’t review their manuscripts before submitting them. An occasional, random typo is one thing, but when I realize that the author never bothered to reread his manuscript, have it vetted by a good speller, or run it through the spell-checker on his computer, a murderous rage comes over me and I am compelled to steal into the night to overturn garbage cans and scratch automobile fenders with my ring. Don’t authors understand (I growl at alley cats as I kick them) that today’s literary marketplace is so intensely competitive that a poorly spelled manuscript can lose somebody a sale?

A subspecies of the above-mentioned type misspells critical words and names, and misspells them consistently, focusing a glaring light on his or her own carelessness. I remember a Biblical novel in which the word “Pharaoh” was misspelled “Pharoah” throughout, and in a book that long, that’s a lot of Pharoahs. I have often wondered why, if the word is pronounced fayro, lexicographers have chosen to place the a before the o. In fact, what is an a doing in the second syllable at all? Such speculations do not mitigate one’s intense annoyance at having to correct such errors over and over again in saga-length manuscripts.

Speaking of repetitious errors, I’m reminded of those authors who print the title of their book as a header on every page of manuscript. I don’t know where this quaint custom arose. I suppose it has its origins in the paranoiac fantasy that part of a manuscript will inadvertently be separated from the rest in a publisher’s office.

Against this remote possibility must be weighed the not-so-remote one that the title you print on every page of your manuscript will be a lousy one. Like many publishing people I am a fanatical believer in the importance of titles: a good or bad one can significantly affect the fate of a book. All too often I’ll get a good book with a bad title, and after kicking alternate titles around the author and I will agree on a new one. I’ll then prepare a new title page only to discover that the discarded title appears on every page of the manuscript. Now what? I must now either go out with a badly titled book or have the entire manuscript reprinted just to knock the offending title off every page. Luckily, the advent of word processing makes it easier to run off modified manuscripts. Still, do us both a favor and leave the title off the header of every page.

Nowadays manuscripts are submitted as email attachments. But many agents still prefer to read submissions in printed form. The peeve potential here is very high. On occasion an author will send me a manuscript ring-bound like a scientist’s notebook. I ask myself what terrible thing I did to this person that he should avenge himself on me so cruelly. Am I supposed to read his manuscript standing up at a lectern, or remove the pages from the binding rings knowing that I will have to reassemble it when I am finished?

I think it’s time that writers understood something about literary agents: their standard reading posture is supine, head elevated sufficiently to glance at a baseball game or sitcom on television. Now that I’ve revealed this tightly guarded secret, perhaps you’ll be more considerate and submit your manuscript unbound. And is it too much to ask while I’m at it that it be double spaced in 12-point font and printed on one side of the page only?

And when you do post it, may I ask you not to have it bound or specially boxed or wrapped? Just a loose manuscript in a typing paper box wrapped and taped securely enough to get safely through the postal system. There seems to be a law of nature that the quality of a manuscript declines in inverse proportion to the elaborateness of its package. When I receive a manuscript bound by brass screws with a plastic embossed cover, lovingly wrapped in chamois cloth, set in a velvet-lined cedar box, shrink-wrapped, packed in turn in a fireproof strongbox secured with iron bands, I am prepared to stake my career on the likelihood that this book is one colossal dud. And in all likelihood it will be sent via Fedex or courier with the expectation of an overnight response.

There is a particularly lukewarm place in my heart for foreign authors who are obliged to use typing paper of different dimensions – approximately ½ inch too long and ¼ inch too narrow – from the standard American 8½ by 11 inches. I realize how chauvinistic it must sound to deplore the paper that was probably good enough for Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Graham Greene, but because agents usually place manuscripts in submission boxes to protect them and present them attractively, it drives us crazy to get a misshapen manuscript from the Continent requiring Procrustean measures to package the submission.

Authors who submit their only copy of a manuscript are, to say the least, an intense source of curiosity to me. They brazenly challenge the immutable law guaranteeing that that manuscript will get lost in the mails. The advent of computer document management and cheap photocopy services has stimulated a rise in lost manuscripts, for authors who used to type an original and carbon now type an original only and bring it to a photocopy shop, where another immutable law causes it to get mixed up with somebody’s master’s thesis. Again, the development of computers will eventually make the question of lost manuscripts academic, but computers can crash. So keeping a hard copy is definitely a good idea.

Then there are the authors who administer tests to their agents. Some try a cute trick of turning one page in their manuscript upside down. If the agent returns the manuscript with that one page still upside down, it proves he didn’t read the manuscript page for page. There are authors who quiz their agents about specific scenes and characters. A typical dialogue might sound like this:
AUTHOR: Did you like my book?
AGENT: Oh, yes, loved it, loved it.
AUTHOR: Great. What did you think of my character Pflonk?
AGENT: Pflonk? Terrific character. Nicely developed.
AUTHOR: Hah! Gotcha! There was no such character in my book!

I assure you that when it comes to an important book your agent reads your manuscript carefully. With so much riding on it, he has to. But most agents I know don’t have time to read their clients’ work page for page, nor do they need to in order to get a sense of its quality, organization, and pace. In fact, they don’t even need to in order to sell it. With certain kinds of material, such as books in a series, a light once-over is enough to satisfy your agent that all is in order and the work follows the original outline.

Plainly, the evil that authors do may be categorized as Class B Misdemeanors, punishable by groans, rolling eyes, sighs of frustration, and indulgent smiles. I would like to think that you are as tolerant of your agent’s foibles. Agents do have them. (I know this only from talking to authors). There is one extremely successful agent who likes to boast he’s never read anything he’s sold. And there’s another who, every time he makes a big deal for a client, gloats, “That will pay for a new set of radials for my sports car,” or, “Now I can put that new wing on my house.”
I consider myself truly fortunate in not being possessed of any personality traits that irritate others. Well, maybe one or two. All right, maybe a few more than that. Okay, okay, so I’m riddled with them. But at least I know how to spell “Foreword.”

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Auditing Your Publisher

Most book publishers’ contracts have provisions granting authors the right to examine the books and records of their publishers under certain conditions: for example, the examination must take place on the premises of the publisher during normal business hours; no more than two audits may be conducted in any given year; an audit must be commenced within a reasonable time after the issuance of the royalty statement in question; the records on any given book shall not be examined more than once; the publisher is not required to keep records on a book for more than a certain period of time, etc.

Although, I am told by one accountant, examinations of publishers’ accounts are on the rise, invariably these have been conducted by authors with lucrative contracts. I can say with certainty that the vast majority of authors has only the vaguest notion of what is involved in an audit. Perhaps we can rectify that problem here. Harder to rectify is the somewhat bovine attitude on the part of many authors that their contracts are too small to merit auditing, and the royalties to be liberated by an examination of a publisher’s books would not be worth the cost, which can run to a thousand dollars a day or more.

These assumptions are not necessarily correct. While a publisher’s profits from midlist and category books are indisputably smaller than those from best-sellers, the total profits from the former can be immense by virtue of the fact that there are so many more of them on publishers’ lists than there are best-sellers. And because most best-sellers are by established big-name authors, the huge royalties they earn are usually paid in advance, giving publishers little leeway to reserve royalties, whereas publishers commonly hold at least half the royalties collected on midlist and category books for which modest advances are paid.

If collective audits of such routine books could be undertaken, thus spreading the cost per author, they might well yield a surprisingly good return on the authors’ investment in an accounting firm. More important, such group audits would keep publishers honest by exposing questionable accounting practices. It is therefore heartening to note that some author and agent organizations are sponsoring such group audits or making funds available for them. Because your book, or books similar to yours, might be spotlighted by an audit, you might want to tag along with the C.P.A. for a visit to a publisher’s ledgers.

Before we embark, we ought to discuss just what gives us the right to audit a publisher, anyway. As I said at the outset, many publishers grant that right in the boilerplate language of their contracts. Certainly, every author or agent negotiating a book contract should insist on an audit provision. But if it is absent from a contract through oversight or design, or if a publisher refuses to grant that right to an author, does that necessarily rule out the possibility of an audit? Not according to the attorneys and accountants I have spoken to. They maintain that any licensor whose contract calls for royalties is entitled to examine the statements and supporting data of the licensee. Therefore, whether your contracts stipulate that right or not—indeed, even if you’ve been so foolish as to waive that right—your publisher cannot legally prohibit you from auditing his books. He can make it extremely difficult: he can postpone and stall, he can “misplace” and “lose” documents, he can subject your accountant to unpleasant conditions—a monastic cell with a hard chair, rickety table, and one flickering taper. But he must, ultimately, let your accountant go over the books.

Within recent memory there were some shady publishers who did that sort of thing, but happily they were driven out of business by their legitimate competitors. Today, while some publishers are frugal with their hospitality toward accountants, many shrug and say, “Come on in, we have nothing to hide.”

Assuming your publisher is cooperative, the first step is for the accounting firm to make an appointment. The accountants will have examined the author’s contract and all royalty statements from publication date to the present and will use these as the jumping-off point for their investigation. They will then request the printer’s affidavits stating how many copies of the book were run off, along with information about damaged or destroyed copies. They will, of course, expect affidavits for all printings of the book. If there has been more than one printing, the accountants will want to know if the cover price of the book was raised.

Then the accountants will examine the records pertaining to distribution of the books, either to wholesalers or directly to book chains. The number of copies distributed plus the number of copies left in the warehouse plus the number of copies damaged, destroyed, or given away for free should add up to the number of copies printed. If they don’t, suspicion will certainly be aroused that the publisher printed copies he has not reported.

The next critical source of information is copies returned. In hardcover publishing, the books themselves are returned to the publisher for credit, and counting these, while tedious, is not as stupefying a task as counting returned paperbacks, for the dimensions of hardcover printings and distributions are nowhere near those of paperback. In paperback publishing, however, returns are usually effected simply by stripping the covers off the bound books and returning the covers to the publisher’s warehouse, saving the substantial cost of shipping whole books back whence they came.

Obviously, the job of counting paperback covers, which even for a modest-sized publisher number in the hundreds of thousands each month, is impossible to do by hand. Modern paperback houses handle the problem by printing product codes, those black-and-white coded bars similar to those you see on canned and packaged goods at your grocery store, on the backs of their book covers. The stripped covers are fed through machines that read the codes and compute title, author, list price, number of copies returned, and other data.

We now have all the information we need: number of copies printed, number of copies distributed, and number of copies returned. But there is still a gap between what the author feels is owed him and the actual amount of royalties he has been paid. That gap is the royalty on the number of copies the publisher has reserved against returns. As most authors now know, publishers create such reserves in order to give credit to distributors and stores that might return copies of books in the future. The reserve is determined by the executives who run the publishing company, and while it is to be hoped that these individuals will base their judgments on experience, reasonable evaluations of market conditions, and common sense, the existence of this tempting pool of undisbursed money has a tendency to cloud executive judgment, particularly in the pressure cooker of corporate bottom-line expectations.

Here, then, is the answer to the commonly asked question, “Is it possible for print, distribution, and return figures to be falsified?” The answer is, not without enormous difficulty, for it is neither safe nor practical to do so. For that to happen, the entire publishing organization—the clerks who document the printing and distribution information and count the returned covers, the bookkeeping and accounting departments of the publishing company, and the staffs of the printer and distributor—would have to be in on the conspiracy and sworn to secrecy. That is plainly preposterous: there simply isn’t enough profit in the publishing business to make such wide-scale corruption worthwhile.

It is also completely unnecessary, because the same results are achieved by the decision of a handful of publishing officers to fix reserves against returns at an excessively high level. And it’s all perfectly up-and-up from the publisher’s viewpoint, because the establishment of reserves is a business judgment that may be argued but cannot be cited as fraudulent—unless one takes the position that the entire system is a license for publishers to earn interest at the expense of authors.

No, my observation is that print, distribution, and return information are not falsified, at least not in a way that could be described as deliberate and systematic. It would be closer to the truth to say that publishing bookkeeping is subject to the same goofs as the bookkeeping of any other industry. And though it may seem that the errors always fall in favor of publishers, the accountants I’ve spoken to state that as many fall in the authors’ favor. Thanks in good measure to the consignment method of selling books, publishing bookkeeping is far, far more complex than it has to be, and that makes it a breeding ground for error.

One of the standard provisions of every audit clause in book contracts is that if errors of more than a certain amount, usually 10 percent of the sum stipulated in the publisher’s royalty statement, are found by auditors, the publisher pays for the cost of the audit. Such a provision might make it tempting for authors who feel shortchanged by their publishers to hire an accountant, figuring the accountant will certainly be successful in detecting an excessive reserve against returns and get at least 10 percent of that reserve released. Thus the publisher would be required to pay for the audit, right?

Wrong. A high reserve against returns may not be considered an error. It’s merely—in the publisher’s eyes at least—a judgment call, a prediction or anticipation that a certain number of copies will be returned. Anybody contemplating an audit of his publisher’s records should therefore be prepared not to recoup his accountant’s fees from the publisher. Released royalties might defray or pay for the audit, but the publisher will stoutly maintain that no bookkeeping error was made.

Is there some alternative to hiring an accountant to find out whether your publisher is giving honest weight? Well, if you can prevail on your publishers to furnish you with information about the number of copies printed, distributed, and returned, you need nothing but a pencil and paper and a grade-school math education to figure out whether you have collected everything that is due you, and what the reserve against returns is. Then it’s simply a matter of arguing with your publisher over the propriety of holding so much reserve money, or holding it for such a long time. The problem is getting that information: if publishers wanted you to have it, they’d put it up front routinely in their royalty statements. With persistence, however, you or your agent or your lawyer will be able to secure the information.

After reviewing it, however, you may feel in your bones or have other reason to believe that the figures furnished to you are incorrect, that your publisher printed or distributed more copies than he’s told you, or took in fewer returns. You will then have to hire a professional accountant to examine the publisher’s books, as the job is too complex and time consuming for untrained individuals. This is especially true if there is reprint, book club, foreign translation, or other subsidiary rights revenue—another very common source of bookkeeping errors among publishers but one that space prohibits me from analyzing in detail.

Some agents are able to build into book contracts provisions requiring publishers to furnish details of printing, distribution, returns, and reserves against returns in royalty statements, or copies of contracts and statements from sublicensees, such as book clubs and reprinters. For many agents and authors, however, it is futile to attempt to make publishers comply with such demands. This can only be achieved by collective action on the part of a determined, organized, and fearless cadre of professional writers or agents.

Richard Curtis