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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.
From How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis, published by Harcourt Houghton Mifflin
Early in April a few years ago I got a call from a client who was preparing his income tax. This author wrote erotic fiction and wanted to know whether he could legitimately claim as a deduction his pharmacological treatment for a little affliction he had contracted in the course of “researching” one of his novels.
I told him I imagined the treatment would probably fall under medical deductions rather than research expenses, but the story does illustrate that even the most untrammeled literary spirits have to pay their obeisance to Uncle Sam sooner or later. With more and more authors incorporating, purchasing expensive computer equipment, seeking shelters for their taxable income, and in general being more businesslike in their approaches to the art and craft of literature, the accountant is becoming as important as the literary agent in guiding the destinies of writers.
The chances of a writer being audited by the Internal Revenue Service are a little better than those of the average working stiff because most writers are freelancers, and taxes on their income are not usually withheld as they are from persons on company payrolls. Thus, even though the odds that anybody will be audited are going down because of staff cutbacks at the IRS, a free-lancer’s tax return may be more provocative than that of someone who works for Boeing or IBM. Your best defense, should the fickle finger of the IRS single you out, is a well-kept set of records, primarily your canceled checks, your receipts, and a journal or ledger recording details of every transaction for which you are claiming a deduction, particularly those for which receipts are not ordinarily given, such as public transportation, certain tips, and the like.
Most publishing people can relate to the following scenario: You are attending a party and are introduced to another guest. “So, what line of business are you in?” the guest asks, a respected opening social gambit.
“I’m in the publishing business,” you reply. “I work with authors.”
“Hey, that’s great. You must lead a really interesting life.”
He then goes on to explain that he is a postal clerk, a fabric salesman, a dishwasher repairman, a sanitation worker. Your companion suddenly brightens. “Hey, you may be just the guy I’ve been looking for!” He then takes you by the arm and furtively escorts you to an isolated corner of the room. Your stomach begins to sink, because you know what’s coming.
His eyes dart suspiciously from guest to guest as he takes you by the lapels and puts his mouth close to your ear. “You got any writers looking for a great idea? Because I’ve got one! I would write it myself, but I don’t have the time or the talent. But if you got somebody, I’ll go in with him, fifty-fifty.”
You look past him, seeking your host to rescue you, but it is hopeless. The fellow has an iron grip on your lapels. “Okay, I’ll tell you the idea if you swear not to tell another soul.”
“Stack of Bibles,” you say, raising your palm to the sky.
He leans even closer. “Okay. What it is, is . . .”
What it is, is usually awful. But even if it isn’t, the truth is that I cannot help him. For how can I explain to him that the last thing that professional writers need is ideas, that most of the writers I know have enough ideas to last a lifetime? They may need time, yes. They may need money. They may need peace and quiet. They certainly need love. But the one thing they have more than enough of is ideas.
Most people who have never seriously attempted to write books subscribe to what might be termed the Big Bang theory of inspiration. They perceive artistic ideas to be stupendous epiphanies that are visited once in a lifetime on a chosen few, like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God.
There is no denying that many sublime works of art, music, and literature are born that way. Most of us take ideas for granted, and why shouldn’t we? We have dozens of them every day, and seldom do they seem to be of such moment that we pause in wonder to contemplate their splendor. Only when we examine books, pictures, and other artistic endeavors closely do we think about the intellectual processes that gave birth to them, and if these works are truly great, we may well be reminded that the generation of ideas is a phenomenon worthy of genuine reverence. By what occult mechanism they originate is surely as unknowable as how life itself was first created. Indeed, as the word “inspiration” literally means the entering of spirit into that which was hitherto lifeless, it could well be said that at no time are humans closer to divine than when they are inspired with noble ideas.
But ask a professional writer about his ideas and he may well respond as inarticulately as my friend at the party. In all likelihood, he’ll ask, “Which ideas?” because he’s got a million of them, and his biggest problem is choosing one. His next biggest problem is finding the time and money to develop it. For this kind of writer, the real inspiration comes when he is writing. It magically flows from a remote region of his unconscious into his fingertips and seems almost unfailingly to illuminate every character description, every plot twist, every metaphor, perhaps every sentence.
Big Bang? No, the image of a water tap is probably more apposite. Turn it on for an hour or two and out comes a daily ration of good, maybe great work. I hesitate to say “inspired” because most professional writers are too modest and self-critical to call it that. But the creative process by which literature—even popular literature—is produced may legitimately be described as miraculous.
At first glance, most people would say that literary agents operate far from this ethereal realm of ideas. After all, we make our livings appraising the value of the commodities known as books, and helping the producers of those commodities turn them into hard cash. But look again. Unlike rug dealers, car salesmen, or bond brokers, the merchandise we traffic in is intellectual. Our stock in trade is ideas, ideas that have been smelted and fashioned by authors into the precious metal called literature. A manuscript may be no more than a pound or two of paper, but when an agent pitches that book to an editor, it isn’t the value of the paper he’s describing. It’s the value of the idea.
As I talk with an author about ideas, I ask myself some very pragmatic questions. How do those ideas fit in with the author’s career goals and financial circumstances? He may have a magnificent vision that takes my breath away, but where is he going to find the forty thousand dollars he needs to write that book under the tranquil conditions he requires, particularly since he is currently getting five thousand dollars a book!
When fans ask award-winning fantasist Harlan Ellison where he gets his ideas, he tell them “Poughkeepsie. There’s a guy there, you mail him $25.00 and he send me ideas.” And he confidentially writes down the Idea Guy’s address.
Another thing I look and listen for is energy. An author may well have dozens of ideas for books, but he does not hold them all equally dear. When writers relate their ideas to me, do their eyes kindle with fire and their voices resonate with passion? Do they gesture frenetically with their hands or seem to lapse into a sort of trance? Do they speak in a singsong tone, as if it’s all the same to them which book they write and which one they abandon?
The agent who encourages an author to develop the wrong idea, or who doesn’t help him realize an idea fully, or who doesn’t take into account that idea’s appropriateness for its intended market, or doesn’t consider an idea in the context of an author’s talent and skill, or doesn’t calculate the time and money that the author will require to fulfill his idea—that agent may inflict serious harm on his client’s career.
It’s a very big responsibility, and my fellow agents and I worry about it a lot.
Once we are satisfied that we have the right idea, and that we have it where we want it, we must help the author develop it into an outline form that is useful both as a scenario for the writer to follow and as a sales instrument we can pitch to publishers. The two functions can differ vastly, however. The key difference is that in the latter, the idea is presented with as much intensity as author and agent can possibly endow it with. We try to boil a book’s complexity down to its very essence, and to articulate that essence with words that stimulate associations in editors’ minds with such abstractions as beauty, as well as with less abstract values like profit. We strive (and sometimes slave) to make every word of description pique an editor’s imagination.
Obviously, many and perhaps most books are more complex than any one-line summary can possibly convey. And many of them are not half as good. One agent friend of mine is fond of saying that his idea of a book is usually a lot better than the book itself. “I don’t sell the book, I sell my idea of the book,” he says.
The process doesn’t stop with the agent’s pitch to the editor. It continues down the line as the editor tries to conceptualize the book for his or her colleagues. The publisher’s sales force must in turn transmit the idea to the bookstore buyer, and the store’s sales staff must get the message across to its customers. And because no one in this chain of people has a great deal of time (including the customer), the idea must be expressed in the pithiest possible way, otherwise attention may wander and the sale will be lost. So we all practice refining our descriptions of books into concepts that are so concentrated and potent they are practically radioactive. And we use a wide variety of audio and visual aids to get the idea across: good titles and subtitles, eye-catching covers, arresting dust jacket blurbs, intriguing advertising copy, plugs by celebrities.
What concerns me is that the publishing business is becoming entirely too idea-driven. In our frenzy to encapsulate concepts so that we can sell them to each other effectively, we may well be forgetting that it is not the idea that excites us when we read a book, not the idea that makes us laugh or cry or stay up to the small hours turning pages raptly while our hearts thunder with the thrill and suspense and tragedy and comedy of it. It’s the way the author realizes that idea and evokes it in our own imaginations. To put it succinctly, it’s good writing. But there is a tendency today to presell great ideas—we call them “high concepts” in the trade—then develop them in predictably formulaic plots and package them for an audience that has been conditioned for formulas by television.
But remember, if you’re really stuck for a good idea, there’s always that guy in Poughkeepsie…
– Richard Curtis
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
I’m not sure that authors understand the structures of literary agencies much better than they understand those of publishing companies. For those of you who are shopping for an agent or thinking of switching agencies, or who are simply interested in organizational dynamics, it might be interesting to compare agencies of different sizes and structures and to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type.
First, but not least, is the one-man or one-woman agency. And when I say one man or woman I don’t mean one man or woman plus a secretary, for, as we shall soon see, the presence of a second person can radically alter an agent’s style, service, and clout. Most such agents start out either as editors of publishing companies or as staff members of large agencies; a few join our profession from the legal and other related fields. To agenting they bring their special knowledge and experience, and those are always big plusses for prospective clients. They can also be handicaps, however. The lawyer who becomes a literary agent will soon discover that publishing law is so vastly different in theory and practice from any other kind of law as to render his training and experience virtually useless. Agents who leave big agencies to set up their own don’t always make good agents, as they may be unused to operating outside the context of a supporting organization. Editors who become agents may know a great deal about publishing procedures, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make them good deal-makers.
Whenever authors gather to discuss the merits of their agents (it may legitimately be wondered whether they ever discuss anything else), the word “clout” inevitably enters the conversation. Clout is the measure of an agent’s influence over publishers, and though it is by no means the sole criterion by which agents are judged, it is certainly the ultimate one. What is clout? How do agents wield it? And is it everything we crack it up to be?
The definition of clout has two important components. The first is access: the enclouted agent is intimate with the most powerful men and women in the publishing industry. “They put me through to the head of the company whenever I call,” an agent might boast. Or, “I can have your manuscript on the editor-in-chief’s desk tomorrow morning.” The second component is power, the capability to effect, yea to coerce, positive decisions. The agent with clout does not merely have access to the honchos (and honchas) of certain publishing companies, he has the ability to make them say yes, and to say yes when they would have said no to some other agent.
Unquestionably, clout exists in our business as it does in any other, and there are indeed agents who can make publishers jump every time they call them on the phone, or render a positive verdict when they were originally inclined to render a negative one. At the same time, there are many erroneous impressions about clout stemming from the widely held belief that power in publishing is concentrated in the hands of an elite circle of men and women, a belief promoted by the press, which tends to quote the same people every time it does a story on industry trends. Let’s look a little closer at these impressions.
“As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and feces mix in birds’ rectums to form a unified, homogeneous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eying Greta’s face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows.” Though it did not win first prize in the Bulwer-Lytton Contest for Wretched Writing, the above passage copped something called the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award. For a complete list of winners and contributions, visit the Bulwer-Lytton Contest website. Removing your tongue from your cheek will immediately disqualify you from enjoying it. And check out our coverage of a prior B-L Award, Comparing Lover’s Kiss to a Sucking Gerbil, Molly Ringle Cops Bulwer-Lytton Crappo Writing Prize.
This blog post was previously published in Digital Book World as New Hope for Bad Writers: Prizes Awarded for Lousy Writing
You can say God is dead. You can say books are over. You can say bomb Iran. But when you say romance is the lowest form of literature, watch out.
Perhaps Maria Bustillos, writing in The Awl, doesn’t share the “widely reckoned” opinion that romance writing is “just a notch above the writing on Splenda packets”, but she doesn’t seem to be straining to rebut it, either.
Her critique, posted (intentionally we suspect) on Valentine’s Day, trivializes romance writers – and readers – in the guise of a serious analysis of the popularity of the genre. Though she purports to seriously delve into the psychology, philosophy and sociology of the phenomenon, she reveals her true hand when she writes “Everybody knows that they are written and read just for kicks.” The writers of romances “are in no way trying to win a Booker Prize,” Bustillos says. As for the readers, “One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.”
“I have often wondered whether romance novels mightn’t generally serve the same purpose for women that pornography does for so many men,” she reflects. Fighting words for writers and readers.
The canard that popular literature is written by hacks for low-minded readers goes back as far as Greek and Roman times, and wherever it turns up, including its latest propagation in the hands of Ms. Bustillos, writers and readers need to speak out.
Several years ago we did. “The belletristic establishment regards the world of popular literature as a subculture,” we wrote, “but one could seriously argue that it is really the other way around. Very few ‘serious’ writers make enough money from their writing to support themselves without having to moonlight. Their audiences are often modest in size and elitist in taste. Their work is frequently inaccessible, intellectual, experimental, and sometimes incomprehensible.
“The lives of professional genre writers differ in many significant ways from those of their more literary brothers and sisters,” we argued, citing that among many virtues they are businesslike, disciplined, and sensitively attuned to their readership.
“It is vital for the writing establishment,”to realize that literature is far more than a ladder with junk at the bottom and art at the top. Rather, it is an ecosystem in which the esoteric and the popular commingle, fertilize one another, and interdepend. Principally, if it were not for the immense revenues generated by science fiction, romance, male action-adventure, and other types of popular fiction at which so many literary authors and critics look down their noses, there would be no money for publishers to risk on first novels, experimental fiction, and other types of serious but commercially marginal literary enterprises. Furthermore, from the aspect of the writing craft itself, there are many extremely important lessons for literati to learn from their genre comrades in arms, if only the former would take the trouble to study them.” (See The Two World of Literature: What Serious Writers Can Learn from Genre Comrades in Arms.)
Huffington Post blogger Pauline Millard has another view of chick lit. It has evolved into a more thoughtful and better written form of mainstream women’s literature. “In the past year,” Millard writes, “a different breed of chick lit has appeared with smarter writing and characters. It’s notable not just for the content, but also for what it says about women, and what they are willing to read in their leisure time.” (See Chick Lit Grows Up)
Join the debate. Read Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing by Maria Bustillos.
Note to readers: Digital Book World has invited me to post my blogs initially on its website before releasing them on E-Reads, and this content is re-published with DBW’s permission. Click here to view the original posting.
Among the few special interest groups not petitioning the government for a bailout these days are writers. Paul Greenberg, in the New York Sunday Times Book Review, speculates on what such a rescue package would look like. The bulge of his tongue in cheek is apparent, but underlying his geniality is an important reminder that although the official (according to National Endowment for the Arts) ranks of professional writers are modest at 185,000, their combined voice represents a significant influence on American culture and needs to be heard.
Unlike the crybabies in the financial sectors of our economy pleading with Congress to compensate them for their own greed and stupidity, writers are a proud and independent lot, and though they’re not above pocketing the occasional windfall – an unexpected movie option or foreign sale – I don’t know of many who would go hat in hand to their legislature to lobby for a bailout just because their agent can’t find a publisher for their latest novel.
No, writers don’t want a bailout. What writers want is work, and Greenberg reminds us that in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged the value of their profession by creating the Federal Writers’ Project. Over 6,500 writers were put to work writing guidebooks, local and regional histories, photographic essays, oral memoirs and the like. (A film about this era, Soul of a People, is currently in development.) “The most well-known of these publications,” Wikipedia tells us, “were the 48 state guides to America (plus Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.) known as the American Guide Series.”
President Elect Obama has established, at the heart of his economic recovery program, a plan to rebuild our nation’s long-neglected infrastructure of rutted roads, crumbling dams, rusting bridges and leaking sewers. A student of American history and in particular of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Obama sees parallels between Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and Obama’s own determination to put Americans back to work on meaningful projects that will restore pride to its wounded citizens.
I’m relatively certain that the crumbling infrastructure of the publishing business will not be found on the list of federal projects requiring urgent attention. But as our community of writers, journalists and poets surveys the landscape, we see newspaper, magazine and book publishers on a precipitously downward slope. Some of their decline is self-inflicted, through failure to envision, understand, and take advantage of the revolutionary power of digital delivery of information. And some of it is their unavoidable blindsiding by market and technological forces. But whether writers are witting or unwitting victims of upheaval, we find our profession upheaved, and we lift our eyes to our leader for help.
Luckily for us, our leader is a writer (and a damned good one, too). He’s one of us. So, perhaps, as he and his cultured and literate brain-trust set out to repair America’s physical plant, they will recognize that there’s a lot of writing to be done to support and celebrate our nation’s reconstruction and to give it a voice and intellectual underpinning. We’ll need artists, too, and musicians, just as we did when President Roosevelt launched his program to haul his country’s citizens up by their own bootstraps.
President Obama, when you open up those envelopes from your publishers and shake out the handsome royalty checks rewarding you for your inspiring words, remember your fellow writers. They are a priceless resource. Put them to work. They will cost a fraction of what the government is paying to bail out banks and insurance companies and automobile manufacturers (the secret is out – writers will do it for love), and they will reward you and the American people a thousandfold.
Those of us who came of age professionally in the era of genre paperbacks think nothing of writers who can produce three or four books a year. I know of many capable of turning out more than that, and I myself wrote some in twenty days when I was indentured to the muse at the outset of my career. It was no big deal: 2500 words a day for twenty days and I had a book for which I was paid $1500.
I hear you asking “How good could the books have been?” They were good books, and they paid for a lot of good things. (See The Two Worlds of Literature: What Serious Writers Can Learn from Genre Comrades in Arms)
These observations were prompted by an article by Dwight Garner in the New York Times‘s “Riff” feature talking about authors who write infrequently. Perhaps not as infrequently as the comets in Garner’s simile, but infrequently enough to measure the distance between published works in decades.
Academic writers are not the only subspecies of the literary profession who worry about perishing if they don’t publish. The book industry has inculcated a rhythm in the minds of successful authors that calls for at least one book a year else they fall out of the public’s consciousness and plunge into the slough of obscurity. Yet there is something to be said for the writer who toils for years and years, tears up and revises and reconceives and rejiggers and will not release his manuscript until he is damned good and ready. And because publication of such epic and epochal works is an event, nobody carps on the fact that the last book was published five or ten years ago or longer.
The interesting thing about Garner’s article is his contention that the trend in publication periodicity seems to be longer and, unlike those writers of the previous generation who went into paroxysms of terror if they didn’t have a book out at least annually, the new generation seems to be quite okay with a casual if not glacial pace.
When I went into the publishing business after graduating from college, I discovered a literary culture so lastly different from the ones I had studied that I could scarcely find any common ground between them. This world was populated by romance, science fiction and fantasy, and male action-adventure writers, by pulpsters, pornographers, and countless others who earn their living producing genre books.
Since then, I have become a citizen of that world, both as a writer and as a literary agent representing other writers of category fiction. I have come to know and respect, to admire and even love this world and its denizens and have had the privilege of attending the birth of some works that have come to be regarded as masterpieces of their genres. But I have also become increasingly concerned about how little is known about this world by the writers and critics who dominate the world of serious literature. And I’ve concluded that we are all a little poorer for these gaps in awareness, appreciation, and communication.
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