Category Archives: Publishing Industry
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
Dear Authors, Agents, Publishers and Friends of E-Reads:
As you know, E-Reads, the e-book publisher I founded in 1999, was recently acquired by Open Road, the largest independent e-book publisher in the English language. As of April 1, 2014 publication of our books will be taken over by Open Road, and the E-Reads website will be closed down. We have recently spent a great deal of time with the management and staff of Open Road and have every confidence that their superb publication and marketing machine will create a warm home for our books and greatly enhance their value.
I am very proud of the list that our superb team of artists and technicians has built in the fifteen years since I started the company, inspired by a vision of a digital publishing future that seemed remote at the end of the 90’s but has become the dominant force in books today. Though we created brilliant covers and a wonderfully robust website, our focus was always on the content itself. We loved books, we loved our books, and it gave us intense pleasure to bring them back to print and share their delights with old fans and a new generation of readers.
Although I’ve posted hundreds of blogs promoting E-Reads’ books, I’m somewhat at a loss for words as I convey my baby to its new home. So I’m going to let one of our most successful authors express what is in my heart.
“E-Reads was a unique, precious, important thing in my life, and, I suspect, in the lives of many others. It was a joy to bring up the site and see what might be cooking on one day or another. I muchly enjoyed your blogs, or whatever they might be called. Too, it was nice to see the write-ups on one book or another. Too, your team was professional, effective, gifted, superb. The site was ample, well-organized, and well managed. It was also very attractive. The scroll arrangement, for example, was a marvelous device for pointing up and calling attention to offering after offering. Too, so many of your covers were marvelous. Of course, it was a pioneer project, too. It was original, and historical. What an amazing, and wonderful, fifteen years…
“E-Reads was an individual island, with its own trees, beasts, and scenery. It was a place where one could locate, and conveniently access, many books by many wonderful authors which were no longer generally available. Your rescue mission saved much that otherwise might have perished. It was a place where one could find such things. It designed for itself a needed role, and it played it splendidly.”
I will serve in a consultancy role with Open Road to assist in the transition. And of course my commitment to the clients of my literary agency, Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., remains as absolute as ever.
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.
In our previous posting we pointed out that today’s “speculative” publishing model, based on the returnability of unsold books, is no longer viable. It has served us well for the better part of a century. But the digital revolution has created a highly successful, efficient new model relying on pre-ordered and prepaid books printed on demand.
The publishing industry has had decades to deal with its addiction to returns. I have been beating this drum in vain for decades including an editorial in Publishers Weekly in 1992 (see Behind Publishing’s Wednesday of the Long Knives). Now it is too late. The old way can no longer be sustained. The good news, however, is that it no longer has to be. Amazon has demonstrated that the prepaid model is mature and ready to replace the old speculative one.
Publishing oracle Mike Shatzkin would seem to support this vision of things to come. In a recent article he projected “about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon). Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!”
“Every publisher,” he adds, “should be preparing for the disruptive effects” of this paradigm shift. Among his recommendations are:
- Publishers are going to really have to rethink the development process for their ebooks.
- It will be eminently sensible to launch books with a no-inventory strategy and move to press runs with returns allowable when reviews or sales have proven that it makes sense…The idea of printing and distributing speculatively will make less and less sense as the potential market to be reached by that tactic diminishes as a share of the whole.
- By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner.
- Because books or ebooks will be purchased by half of their customers electronically, the potential exists to know exactly who those are and to establish interaction with them…This opportunity presents a new battleground for competitive advantage that publishers will have to pursue both for marketing and for author relations.
- Publishers will have to start devoting the bandwidth and resources to direct sales that they devote to intermediary sales today. (See Direct Sales: Publishing’s Last Stand.)
- There’s an inevitable concurrent downward spiral of brick-and-mortar retail inherent in this forecast that sales are moving online. The nearly-limitless online selection has been an increasingly powerful magnet since the day Amazon opened and in the new paradigm there will be a growing body of talked-about content not visible on store shelves.
“On-demand printing is very much in demand in 2009,” says David Taylor, president of Lightning Source, the biggest POD supplier in the business. “The business model, quality and cost structure have matured considerably in recent years. With POD, publishers can better match supply to demand, thus eliminating the risks and costs associated with the book market….A globally distributed print model, where publishers use the same file to print at multiple locations that are closest to the origins of the orders, has given the book industry a platform to publish smarter. POD is no longer an optional novelty; it is an integral and essential part of the future of publishing.”
By now it must be clear to all but a handful of diehards that the business model based on returnability of books for credit, a practice instituted by the trade book industry some 75 years ago, is no longer viable. In fact it has proven to be a bargain with the Devil.
The original principle on which it was instituted – to encourage bookshops to invest in otherwise risky literary forms like first novels and poetry – was an admirable one, and publishers can look back with pride that their good will made possible the launch of countless great works and authors. But soaring returns have rendered this practice utterly dysfunctional. Return rates approaching or even exceeding 50% have slashed profit margins of trade book publishers to single digits, no digits or negative digits.
Though the industry managed to keep a lid on returns until the latter part of the 20th century, in the post-World War II era the system deteriorated as return rates escalated, triggering cash shortages. The consequences were catastrophic: countless underfinanced houses were driven into the arms of larger ones. These big fish in turn succumbed to even bigger fish until we ended up where we are today – with a handful of bloated leviathans. But even they have discovered that immense scale offers no immunity from the same toxic business model that forced smaller houses to give up the ghost. Huge publishers may have more blood to hemorrhage than small ones but eventually they succumb too.
Yet, despite decades of proof that returnability is a sucker’s game, the publishing industry is incapable of curing its addiction to the practice.
The time has come for publishers to accept the fact, now glaringly apparent to all but those in total denial, that no business enterprise can afford to sell just half or even two-thirds of what it manufactures – and to foot the bill for the return and disposal of the unsold other half.
Some pundits ascribe the woes of our business to printed books themselves, saying that the medium is no longer appropriate for our times. In truth nothing is wrong with printed books. Everything is wrong with the way they are distributed.
And the way they are distributed is appallingly profligate, taking a dreadful toll on the environment in terms of paper waste and carbon footprints. The tortuous methods by which bookstores account to publishers and publishers to authors are imbecilic and arguably fraudulent. An alien visitor tracking the journey of a printed book today from editorial office to printer to warehouse to bookstore, back to warehouse and then to remainder jobbers or pulpers would have genuine reason to wonder whether there is intelligent life on this planet.
For over a decade we have had before us a technique for publishing books called print on demand. Those who witnessed its introduction at a book expo in 1998 declared the process revolutionary. Though it’s taken a decade or so to refine the technology, they were absolutely correct. The delivery system has matured and begun to make serious inroads on the traditional one. Though representing only 2.5% of all book production in 2009, it is expected to grow at 16% per annum according to David Taylor, president of Lightning Source, the nation’s biggest POD firm. The first generation of Espresso POD machines, now being installed in libraries and bookstores, promises to expand the technology’s popularity even further. As anyone who has seen a demonstration of the Espresso can testify, the process itself is a technological miracle and will most certainly be miniaturized. It is easy to imagine a day when POD kiosks – in bookstore or non-bookstore venues – will issue books from an infinite inventory of digitally stored titles.
But it is not just the technology that is so exciting to contemplate. It’s the business principle underlying the process that promises the invigoration and perhaps even the salvation of printed books.
The Speculative Model
In today’s traditional model, which might be termed “speculative,” publishers relying on information gathered from booksellers make educated guesses about how many copies to print and distribute. The sale of a book occurs only after it has been published, placing the burden of financing its publication squarely on the shoulders of the publisher. To the degree that the publisher’s forecasts are incorrect, unsold copies will be returned. Settlement of retailer accounts are delayed or adjusted while returns are processed, delaying desperately needed cash flow to publishers. Publishers in turn must delay settlement of royalties to authors for months and even years until returns calculations are finalized.
In short, the entire system is founded on a negative principle: it’s not how many copies of a book are sold, but rather how many are not returned. Everybody in the chain suffers, from bookseller to publisher to author. Even readers suffer because the cost of all this inefficiency is passed along to them in the form of higher book prices.
The Prepaid Model
Now consider the business model created by print on demand, which we’ll call “Prepaid”. When a book is ready for sale it is displayed on the website of a publisher, author, retailer, or all three. Customers may browse or sample it online. When they decide to buy it they purchase it on the website, charging it to their credit card. Until that moment the physical book does not exist: it is simply a digital file on the server of a printing press. Unless the book shipped to the customer is defective, it is seldom returned. By adopting the print on demand model, the returns problem disappears. Settlement of bills is prompt. Whereas traditional publisher issue royalty statements semi-annually, print on demand makes quarterly or even monthly settlements possible – without reserves against returns!
Do the math: 30, 40 or 50% returns for the speculative model vs. 0% for the prepaid. Case closed. Or so you would think. Yet traditional publishers cling to the topsy-turvy model of paying a lot of money upfront for books they believe will be hits, then making educated guesses on the size of the audience, then overprinting, then recovering unsold stock and remaindering it or sending it to a pulp mill.
These practices can no longer be sustained, and the good news is that they don’t have to be. Amazon has demonstrated that the prepaid model is mature and ready to replace the old speculative one like a creature that has outgrown its carapace.
In the second installment of this posting we’ll hear what a well known publishing industry oracle thinks the industry must do to prepare for paradigm shift.
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.
FROM TIME TO TIME a writer bursts upon the literary scene with a first novel of astonishing accomplishment, and the world gasps as if witnessing the genesis of a supernova out of a hitherto undetected star. Critics poring over the author’s pedigree for clues to his development usually find only such banal biographical facts as that he was a reporter for his high school yearbook or a bridge columnist for some obscure midwestern newspaper. But this author had apparently been struck to his knees by a sublime inspiration and spewed the work out of his soul in one volcanic eruption. One thinks of Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Gone with the Wind, or Raintree County. In some cases the author never again rises to the height of his first book, and in not a few the author never writes another book at all. But that first book is enough to make the author’s name a household one forever after.
Professional writers often greet such events with mixed emotions.
The following piece was published ten or fifteen years ago. If I didn’t think it still had validity I wouldn’t reprint it here…
A literary agent’s life involves far more than reading, lunching, and deal-making. His or her services embrace the literary, legal, financial, social, political, psychological, and even the spiritual; and the jobs we are obliged to tackle run the gamut from computer troubleshooting to espionage. But because our business is a day-to-day, book-to-book affair, we tend to lose perspective. With our preoccupation with advances and royalties, payout schedules and discounts, with movie rights and foreign rights and serial rights and merchandise rights, with option clauses and agency clauses and acceptability clauses and termination clauses, it is all too easy for us to forget that our primary goal is to build careers, to take writers of raw talents, modest accomplishments, and unimpressive incomes and render them prosperous, successful, and emotionally fulfilled.
This endeavor demands the application of all the skill and experience we command, plus something else: vision. Vision in this context may be defined as an agent’s ideal of the best work an author is capable of achieving, matched to the best job his publishers can perform. An agent’s vision should illuminate the author’s path, oftentimes far into his future, if not for his entire career.
In order for our vision to be fulfilled, three conditions must be met.
Having alienated the legal profession in my previous blog (see Lawyers (Groan), I hope to return to grace with some high praise for one branch of the species.
It may be hyperbolic to refer to the legal counsels of publishing companies as “gray eminences,” a term one usually assigns to the shadowy power brokers who manipulate the controls of vast corporate or political networks. But it would be no exaggeration to state that tremendous influence resides in the hands of the attorneys who counsel publishing executives on the legal aspects of their companies’ operations. Few significant corporate decisions are made without clearance by a publisher’s lawyers, and no book is published that has not somehow been affected by procedures originating in the firm’s legal department. To the degree that the men and women of those departments are seldom colorful, their eminence may indeed be depicted as gray. But it must never be underestimated, because the power they wield over the fate of your book is both total and final. However headstrong the chief operating officer of a publishing company may be, he or she will almost never override a house counsel’s advice.
Owing to the enormous number of legal affairs confronting every publisher, attorneys must be engaged to advise the firms’ executives. Small houses with little money to spare for lawyers may hire a small firm or sole practitioner on an hourly or flat-fee basis to perform specific tasks such as drawing up incorporation papers, writing a lawyer-letter, or rendering an opinion about a specific situation. Larger publishers may engage an outside law firm for an annual retainer, which is adjusted if the time spent by the lawyers exceeds a prearranged ceiling. Fees and expenses of litigation are always a matter of separate arrangement, as they absorb extraordinary amounts of billable time.