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January 2006

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads


THIS BOOK WAS born out of frustration with the fact that nobody seemed to be making sense out of the terrible upheavals taking place in the publishing industry over the last few decades, or expressing alarm over the threat they posed to everyone associated with books. In the early 1980s, as I began to grasp the immensity and the implications of these changes, I proposed to write a monthly column for Locus, the leading trade publication catering to science fiction writers, publishers, and fans. Science fiction writers have always been among the most concerned members of the writing profession, and among the most aggressive in the protection of authors' interests. I suspected that a series of articles written by an active literary agent examining and evaluating publishing practices would find a responsive audience. This turned out to be true.

The column, "Agent's Corner," first saw the light of day early in 1981, and out of the first two dozen or so pieces I developed my book, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent. Although the book contained a number of critical observations about the way things are done in the book trade, its purpose was largely instructional. I had realized that most authors were appallingly uninformed about the business side of writing. Despite many unhappy experiences they'd had in their dealings with publishers, they did not seem to realize that knowledge is the best armor, and my book set out to enlighten them about contracts, rights, royalty statements, and other fundamentals.

After publication of that book in 1983, I continued to produce my column but ventured to explore in it some provocative issues revolving around business ethics, authors' rights, and the future of the publishing and writing professions. How does the acquisition of one publisher by another ruin authors, paralyze editorial processes, and orphan books? Why is the publishing industry collapsing under the weight of an archaic merchandising system? Is unionization of authors a realistic possibility? Should publishers turn down books on moral grounds? Are editors necessary any longer?

However, not all of the matters I wrote about were of such profound moment. I've continued to instruct and, on the principle that a drop of honey makes the medicine taste better, tried where appropriate to entertain. So you will also discover in this book my thoughts about such topics as: How should writers behave when they deal with editors? What are some of the things authors do that annoy their agents? Are there better and worse publication dates for your book? And—one of my favorites—should agents lend money to their clients? Though these questions are pretty basic, I am constantly amazed to discover that most writers I meet have seldom been given any guidance on them by their agents, editors, or writer friends.

The response to these articles has been inspiring. They seem to have had an impact not only on novice writers but on successful professionals, as well as on my fellow literary agents, on publishing people at every level, and on members of other professions such as accountants and lawyers. Apparently, a great many people connected with this business are worried and disillusioned, and not a few are angry. I was particularly impressed by the supportive reactions of editors, who have begun to realize that they are becoming as alienated from the system as authors.

Having pinpointed some of the most pressing problems, I have not been content to lament the decline of our industry and let it go at that. I have instead attempted to prescribe specific and positive solutions. Some are simple and practical. Others are visionary, even revolutionary. If they stimulate a dialogue and produce some healthy changes, I shall be quite content. Some of the criticisms I leveled in my previous book, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, about the way publishers report royalties to authors, raised the consciousness of a whole generation of writers about these procedures and led to improvement at a number of houses in the rendering of statements. So, change for the good is possible once everybody has enough information to work with.

The most important discovery I made as I assembled this manuscript was how strongly I feel that publishers and literary agents, in whom tremendous power is vested, have a social responsibility. The publishing and writing professions find themselves in, perhaps, the most precarious state of all time. Stupendous economic and technological forces have radically transformed both in recent times, and the emerging interrelationships among editors, authors, and agents are almost unrecognizable from what they were even a few short years ago. Authors, editors, and even whole publishing companies are being swept out of the business, and the stability of an industry that nurtured the development of America's greatest literary figures has been shattered.

If anything stands out for me as I prepare this book for publication, it is the realization that we are in equal jeopardy from the volcanic changes that the publishing industry is undergoing. If we do not find a way to confront the perils courageously, we may all one day find ourselves victims of a tragedy that will leave everyone connected with literature—author, agent, publisher, and even you the reader—irreversibly impoverished.


VIRTUALLY ALL OF the material in this book originally appeared in Locus, the trade publication of the science fiction world. Its publisher, Charles Brown, offered me carte blanche in the selection and treatment of my subjects, a rare commitment for which I am immeasurably grateful. Without the forum provided by Charlie, there would be no book here.

I wish to thank my publisher, Tad Crawford of Allworth Press, for his astute reorganization of my material.

Above all, I thank my wife, Leslie, who among her countless other virtues is an inspiring editor and shrewd critic. Her influence is palpable on every page of this work.

And now for a word about sex.

Though I've tried wherever possible to refer to persons of both sexes as "he and she," the English language has yet to create a graceful solution to this frustrating problem. It is particularly galling for people in the publishing business, an industry as sensitive to feminist sensibilities as any in the world and one whose work and executive forces are at least 50 percent female. The best I can do is to rely, as I did in my previous book, on the publishing tradition in which, on most contracts, the masculine pronoun signifies writers of either sex. But I don't like it, and I apologize to any reader who may take offense.

Section One




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.

1. Agents with clout know the top people in the business. It is not that hard to meet and know, or at least claim to know, the top people in publishing. For one thing, ours is an extremely small industry consisting, according to my short list of key contacts, of no more than two hundred men and women with acquisition authority in the trade book field—a number sufficiently small so that in the course of a season of publishing parties, lunch and drink dates, and office visits, any agent could meet 75 percent of them.

Of course, it is one thing to be acquainted with these folks and quite another to truly know them as one knows friends or family. Among that two hundred I mentioned, I doubt if I know more than half a dozen in a way that goes beyond the superficial. More pertinent is whether an agent should be too tight with the people he does business with. If my own experience is indicative, I would say there are few true friendships between agents and publishers for the simple reason that business all too often gets in the way of consistently close friendship. A time inevitably comes when one or the other must get hard-nosed about something, and few friendships survive the test of a knock-down drag-out negotiation, for it's impossible to dig in and take a hard stand when you're afraid of hurting the other guy's feelings. Bear in mind also that as genuinely warmly as agent and publisher may feel toward each other, the former is responsible to his clients, the latter to his company, and the pressures exerted on them are immensely daunting to friendship. The most one can hope for, I think, is solid mutual respect.

As for an agent's boasts of his ability to get an author's manuscript promptly on a publisher's desk, it's hard not to laugh, for if you could see some publishers' desks you would wonder why anyone would want to add to the mountainous chaos to be found there. I know of one editor whose office is so cluttered with unread manuscripts that his staff calls it the Bermuda Triangle. A story is told that one day an agent received a manuscript that this editor had finally gotten around to reading and rejecting. The agent dropped him a line thanking him for at last returning the manuscript, but pointed out that the book had been sold to another publisher, published, gone on and off the best-seller list, and been remaindered.

The truth is that most heads of publishing companies have too much administrative work to read manuscripts or even, for that matter, read all the books their firms publish. I would guess that more than half the time, when an agent submits a manuscript to the head of the company, that person is going to turn it over to an editor or reader and ask for a report. Unless the report is a rave, this executive will take the reader's word about the merits of the work. And again one has to ask, is going to the head of the company necessarily the wise thing to do? This tactic can backfire for an agent, for if the publisher thinks the manuscript is a stinker, he may be less inclined the next time to spend a valuable evening reading that agent's submission. An agent's credibility is his stock in trade, and once lost it's extremely hard to retrieve. Best to go through channels 99 percent of the time, and to be damned sure about the one time in a hundred you attack at the top.

One more myth about accessibility. It's commonly believed that clout among agents is the power not to return phone calls. Although executives in all industries have their phone calls screened by subordinates, I know of few agents who are not available to the lowliest of editors or to any professional author desirous of speaking to them.

2. Agents with clout can make publishers buy things they wouldn't ordinarily buy. The judicious use of a close association with a publisher can make a difference in certain cases, particularly when a close decision teeters on the fulcrum of the key man's or woman's opinion. On such an occasion the agent may call in a favor, or beg one, or utilize any of his countless wiles, ranging from bluster to blarney, in order to elicit a yes decision. But because of the democratic process by which most decisions are reached by publishing companies today, few chief executives are going to make it a practice to overrule their editorial boards. The agent who tries to force positive decisions too often will eventually antagonize even his closest buddies in the business.
But I'm not sure that making the head of a company buy books is the best use for such personages, for, as I say, they are not as influential editorially as they are in other areas of the publishing process. The higher in a company an editor rises the less he is involved in editorial matters and the more in administrative ones. The editor-in-chief, publisher, and other titled executives are the principal transmitters of corporate policy. Such matters as advertising and promotional budgets, payout schedules, royalty scales, and reserves against returns are controlled by those persons, and if there is any flexibility on policies in such areas, it's to be found in their offices. And it's there that the agent is best advised to use his clout, except that clout is a terribly brutish word for a process that calls for the utmost finesse and diplomatic skill.

Because publishing in the last four decades has become highly conglomeratized and bureaucratized, decisions that used to be made by just one person who was accountable to nobody are now made by committee. Consensus is achieved by the input not merely of editors but of financial, legal, production, marketing, advertising, design, art, promotional, publicity, and advertising specialists. These individuals form a dismaying picket of decision-makers, each a potential naysayer. The agent's task thus becomes far more challenging than it used to be: it is no longer a matter of bullying, coaxing, or charming one person but of manipulating an entire system. Naturally, an agent can't approach the art director, head of subsidiary rights, in-house counsel, marketing director, vice-president in charge of publicity, and the half dozen editors who sit at a publisher's weekly convocations, whenever he tries to sell the company a book. But he might speak to one or two key board members whose reluctance to vote yes might be jeopardizing a deal or other important decision. The full measure of the agent's tact must be used here, for if he blunders the reaction may be likened to what happens when one inserts one's arm into a hornet's nest. Only at the utmost risk do you play office politics with somebody else's office.

One of the advantages a literary agent has over the unagented author is that the agent is usually familiar with the dynamics of each publishing house, and is able to adapt his methods to the style and structure and personality of each company. He knows all about their organizational structure and power hierarchy, their policies, their negotiating strategies, knows all about the friendships and rivalries that form the corporate profile. To know how a company reaches its decisions is to know how to influence those decisions.

There are other techniques for influencing decisions from without, ranging from relatively harmless ones such as cultivating and flattering secretaries (of either sex, I hasten to add) to the extremely dangerous one of going over the head of the person you're dealing with. For the agent who does not understand the company dynamic, who misjudges it, or who overplays the game, serious and possibly permanent damage may be rendered to his relations with that publisher. Some firms are so rigidly structured that any attempt to tamper with the system will create terrible turmoil.

3. Agents with clout get higher prices. There is a good deal of truth to this, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. High prices are a function of boldness; you get big money only if you ask for big money. Agents with reputations for landing huge deals earn their celebrity by seeking prices that other agents would hesitate to demand, and by risking everything by refusing to back down. But it takes two to make a deal, and if publishers accept an agent's demands, it's because the profit-and-loss statements they've drawn up before negotiations commence indicate that they can make a profit even if they meet the agent's outrageous terms. If a publisher takes a bath, the fault rests with the executives who wanted the book so badly they were willing to delude themselves about its prospects in order to acquire it. Of course, one thing that agents with clout do best is foster such delusions by reassuring publishers that they will earn back all that money. But seldom can an agent charm a publisher into overpaying again and again, for at a certain point along the chain of failures, people start getting fired.

One last myth about clout that deserves to be punctured: it is seldom exercised by means of a raised voice. The image of a cigar-chomping agent-bully browbeating an editor into submission is not one with which I'm familiar except in movies. Almost all of the agents I know speak to editors in conversational tones, even when the going gets rough. One of the most clout-laden ones I know seldom raises his voice above a whisper, but heaven help the publisher who does not detect the apocalyptic undertones in his voice when he murmurs, "Are you sure that's your final offer?"

There are hundreds of literary agents plying their trade in New York, California, and many locations between coasts, and I'd guess that you've never heard of most of them. They don't get their names and faces in the trade papers every week like some agents we all know. Yet almost all of them make a living, and some make very good livings, simply because they know that a good book is the master key to most editorial doors. So perhaps you should ask not what your agent can do for you, but what—by way of a good book—you can do for your agent.


All Agencies
Great and Small

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.

The sole practitioner must do everything by and for himself, and from an author's viewpoint there are many desirable aspects of such a setup. Chief among them is accessibility. Phone answering machines or services notwithstanding, you know that when you call your agent, you will get him or her. That means you can maximize your input, communications, and control, which is great unless your input, communications, and control happen to be lousy. Remember that you hired an agent in the first place because you need someone who understands the publishing business better than you, someone who is more experienced and skillful in negotiations, is more objective, and remains calm when push comes to shove. If you take advantage of your agent's accessibility, then all you are doing is manipulating him like a puppet, programming into him the very same emotional shortcomings that you most desperately need to be defended from.

For the sole practitioner, the credit for success belongs exclusively to him or her, and deservedly so. But so, deservedly, does the blame for mistakes. Because there is no insulation between author and agent, both positive and negative emotions tend to run stronger than they might if the author were not so intimate with everything having to do with the handling of his business. Indeed, the author represented by a sole practitioner is all too often quite intimate with the business of his agent's other clients, too, and among the emotions that run strongly in these cases, therefore, is jealousy.

In short, you cannot ask for more personalized service than you get when you engage a one-man or one-woman agency, and if the relationship is solid and harmonious it can be like owning a custom-made automobile. But custom-made automobiles tend to react oversensitively to every bump in the road. And their owners tend to tinker with them.

From the viewpoint of one who has been a sole practitioner, the biggest disadvantage is that the one-person company cannot utilize what businesspeople refer to as a "devil," someone to blame.

It is essential for the new agent to cultivate and ingratiate himself with the influential editors in the business. Needless to say, this agent will be loath to alienate those editors by being overly tough and demanding in negotiations. If an agent starting out in business gets a reputation for being unreasonable, he may lose business. He can of course blame his intransigence on his clients, but in most cases the editors will know it's not the author who's the troublemaker, but his agent. Besides, one of the things authors hire agents for is to take the fire for hard decisions in order to allow their clients to maintain pleasant working relationships with editors. If only there were someone working for your agent with whom he could play Good Guy-Bad Guy, he could have some leeway when it comes to playing hardball. His associate might sometimes serve as the devil, taking tough positions in negotiations. Then, just when it looked as if a deal were going to fall through, his boss would intervene and offer a compromise that mitigated his employee's inflexibility. In other cases the assistant could be the good guy who wishes he could be more lenient but, well, his boss is a tough bird who simply will not yield.

This may be the commonest game played by businessmen and women, but it requires two to each side, and the sole practitioner is one shy of that minimum. Exposed as he or she is, the one-man or one-woman agent must, almost by definition, be a courageous individual.

With the introduction of a second person into the agency—even a secretary with no discretionary power—the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. The agent can if he chooses make himself less accessible, a state that is often tactically desirable. He at last has somebody to blame, perhaps not for negotiating and other serious mistakes, but at least for some of the clerical screwups that bedevil all business enterprises. On the other hand, the operation of the business should become more efficient, a fair tradeoff for the agent's withdrawal from the firing line. If the employee is anything more than a warm body occupying a desk, he or she can create some important opportunities for strategic games, can serve as a reader, rendering a second viewpoint on the salability of manuscripts, or as a sounding board for marketing, negotiating, and other decisions. And if that person is interested in and good at certain specialized tasks—handling movie, television, magazine, or foreign rights, for example—or has a good grasp of certain markets that the boss has no interest in or feel for, or if he or she is good at handling certain clients, then you have the makings of a potent team and the foundation for a successful agency.

From that point on it becomes a matter of adding new staff members and deploying them according to the organization that best suits the agent's style—a style that may transmute as the agent gains experience. As a rule, the smaller the agency the less specialized are the tasks performed by its staff: in other words, everybody handles everything. As the firm grows, a structure usually emerges along lines of staff specialization. One structure might be described as vertical, with the agent at the pinnacle handling the clients, supported by a staff that services the clients' properties but does not necessarily have contact with the clients themselves. One staff member might handle foreign rights, another movie, another serial, another bookkeeping, another filing, and so on.

The advantage of a vertical system, generally, is excellent service, for every aspect of the client's needs; every facet of the property, will be taken care of by a specialist. The disadvantage is that the client list must be kept relatively small—no larger than the capacity of the head of the company to handle his clients' work and needs comfortably. Another disadvantage is the vulnerability of the agency in the event of the death or disability of its owner, for there will be no one with deep experience at handling clients to take his or her place. If the agent should go out of town for an extended trip or vacation, the agency may be reduced to a maintenance capacity and not be capable of dealing forcefully with the sorts of emergencies that always seem to attack writers the moment their agents board an airplane.

As an agent becomes successful he will be solicited by many authors seeking representation. Many are excellent writers with good track records who need the guidance and assistance of a good agency. A combination of profit motive and compassion will compel the agent to offer representation to them. But how can he fit them into his stable without curtailing the time, attention, and service he is now able to lavish on the rest of his clients?

Some agents resist this temptation, harden their hearts, and shut their doors to newcomers. Others resort to hiring employees to handle the overflow of clients. An agency engaging a roster of agents might be described as horizontal, and obviously there is no limit to the number of clients such a firm can take on, for, as soon as it reaches capacity, it can always add a new agent to take on the excess. The boss will still be the boss, and there will still be a staff of specialists to handle subsidiary rights and clerical and administrative functions. But on the middle level will be those other agents, replicating what their boss does. They may be generalists, handling the gamut of literature from genre to mainstream, or they may deal in such specialties as juveniles, nonfiction, or science fiction. I would say that most middle-sized and large agencies fit this horizontal pattern; in fact, it's hard to imagine how an agency can become large unless it does expand horizontally.

From the writer's viewpoint, an agency of this type is attractive for several reasons. First, it enables him to locate within the organization the individual agent best suited to his work and style. Second, if the organization is well run, he will enjoy the benefit of a team approach under the supervision of the principal agent. And third, if one's agent is out of town or on vacation, or is so thoughtless as to die, there is a good likelihood that he will find a replacement in the ranks of the other agents at the same firm. In other words, the bumpy ups and downs you often experience with a one-person agency will be absorbed by a larger organization, and that is a secure feeling. But there's also a catch.

Most clients of middle-sized and large agencies are content to be represented by an agent who is not the head man or woman, as long as there is a sense that the chief is at least overseeing the work of the subordinate agents and making sure that all of the agency's authors are being properly serviced. Inherent in the very nature of large organizations, however, is a degree of insulation between the head of the company and the activities of those clients he or she does not directly represent. If an author begins to feel that the agent handling his work is not doing an adequate job, he may conclude that the head of the company has more important concerns than the scribblings of a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-year midlist writer. Thus is created what might be described as the "A List-B List Syndrome," meaning that the agency has two client lists: the Grade A clients handled by the boss, and the Grade B ones handled by the secondary agents. When that sort of suspicion begins to gnaw at a client, he may eventually decide he must either move up or move out and seek an agency where he will receive more personal attention from the top agent.

It is therefore incumbent on the heads of agencies to make sure that the subordinate agents keep in very close touch with him and with each other. At many agencies, that is precisely what happens. In others, the boss has administrative and client demands that make supervision of the other agents' activities difficult. Now, it can certainly be assumed that some of those agents are ambitious, and so an atmosphere is created in which a subordinate agent, operating with little supervision, begins to wonder just what he needs a boss for anyway. He may be making a good salary and even collecting commissions, but as so much of the revenue he generates must go to paying overhead and a profit to the firm he works for, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow the idea will occur to him that he could do better on his own. For many of his clients, the notion of joining this agent when he starts his own agency is extremely appealing, for in a stroke those clients will be transformed from B Listers to A Listers. Things don't always turn out to be as satisfying as that fantasy, though, for the agent may discover that he does not, on his own, enjoy the same success he did when he was a member of a large and influential organization. It is extremely hard and perhaps impossible for the client of a larger agency to sort out just what is the true source of his agent's power and success. Does the person handling you consult with the head of the company or is he handling your account strictly on his own? Is his effectiveness due in good measure to the influence, reputation, and support of his organization, or are these incidental to his performance? Some authors discover the answers to these questions by leaving; others, by staying on.

At the summit are the giant agencies, representing many illustrious authors, extremely well-connected in the movie and television area, and moving tremendous amounts of properties, rights, and money. These firms are often broken down into departments, and you the author will be handled by someone in the literary department. These departments usually have senior and junior staff members and operate as potent fiefdoms in a great bicoastal kingdom. Because the overhead of these firms is stupendous, the clients they take on must be pretty heavy hitters and often are authors whose work is highly adaptable to film and television. The disadvantage is the intimidating vastness of such organizations.

Somewhere in all this is a place for you, and in few businesses is it more true that what's great for one person may be awful for another. I doubt if many authors retain one agent for the span of their entire career. Indeed, for the sake of an author's personal growth, having the same agent from cradle to grave may be a very poor idea.

At least, that's what I tell myself whenever I lose a client.

All the best,

Richard Curtis

Read Chapters 3 and 4 | Discuss



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