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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century
Mastering the Business of Publishing
by Richard Curtis
Originally published by E-Reads
AS YOU CAN see, 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. First, we have to learn and understand what the
author's own vision is. Second, we have to align his vision
with our perception of his talent: do we believe he has what
it takes to realize his dream? And finally, we have to help
the author fashion his work to suit the demands and expectations
of the marketplace.
I cannot overstate how much easier said than done the process
of building an author's career is. Human nature being what
it is, the forces militating against success are heartbreakingly
formidable. The agent's vision and the author's vision may
be at serious odds with one another, or at odds with the publisher's.
The author's talent or stamina or financial resources may
simply not be up to the task he has cut out for himself. His
publisher may not like or understand his work. His audience
may reject it. Every imaginable contingency may beset an author
along life's path: death and disability, divorce and disaster—the
same ones that beset everybody else, plus a few that are indigenous
to creative people. The attrition rate for authors and their
dreams is extremely high, and the odds against talent flourishing
under perfect conditions are prohibitive. With so much at
stake, it should come as no surprise that agents approach
the building of their clients' careers with the utmost solemnity.
When a writer becomes my client I sit down with him or her
to explore immediate and long-term goals. I ask writers how
much it costs to live comfortably, how much they earn per
book, and how long it takes them to write. It should then
be a matter of simple arithmetic to determine what I must
do to keep their careers on a steady keel: simply divide their
yearly nut by the number of books they are capable of producing
annually. This gives me the amount of money they must earn
(after commission, I hasten to remind them) per book to make
Unfortunately, life is not a matter of simple arithmetic.
Even in the unlikely event that the author lives within his
means and nothing untoward befalls him and his family, there
is no room in the above equation for profit, and visions of
greatness require an author to earn a profit.
Now, books that earn a profit for authors are not easily
come by (not, at any rate, as easily come by as books that
earn a profit for publishers). Good luck and good agenting
may sometimes make one happen, but it is unwise for an author
to depend on either. This means the author has to make it
happen on his own by writing a breakout book. But how can
he do that if he can't buy the time?
Even if you are blessed with an unexpected windfall, there
is no guarantee that you will achieve your dream, thanks to
Fehrenbach's Law. T. R. Fehrenbach, the brilliant Texas historian,
once wrote to me that, "Expenses rise to meet the cost
of every sellout." In other words, the profit that authors
make does not necessarily go into the fund marked, "This
Time I'm Really Going to Write That Book." More
likely, it will go toward something that is easier to grasp,
like a new Buick Regal, a twenty-one-inch Sony Trinitron,
or a two-week vacation on Lake George.
The truth is that writers are no better equipped to fulfill
their dreams than are other middle-class people, because compromise
is an easy habit to get into when it is rewarded with comforts
and luxuries. Austerity, integrity, sacrifice, relentless
determination, and other virtues associated with uncompromising
artistic endeavor are seldom a match for a brand-new living
room suite or wall-to-wall carpeting for the master bedroom.
So an author's dream gets postponed a bit longer, and a bit
longer after that, until perhaps that terrible day comes when
the dream deferred pops, in Langston Hughes's phrase, "like
a raisin in the sun." Death and disability, divorce and
disaster are not the only terrible things that can befall
an author, or even the worst things. Giving up his dream is
the worst thing, and that is truly tragic. I believe it is
an agent's sacred duty to keep this from happening, to keep
the flame of hope burning in the author's breast, to encourage
him in every way possible to seize the moment when an opportunity
to reach for greatness presents itself.
Just as importantly, the agent must make a judgment as to
whether the author's talents are up to his ambitious projects.
They are not always, by any means. Authors are no more objective
about their strengths and weaknesses than anyone else, and
when their self-perceptions are deficient, it is vital for
their agents to shed light on those blind spots.
Another way that agents help authors build their careers
is to match their "product"—an unpleasant
but useful word--to the demands of the marketplace. In other
words, to make it commercial. It is not enough for a writer
to fulfill his dream if his dream happens to be to write perfect
imitations of Virgil, parodies of Thackeray, or metaphysical
poetry. The agent must therefore be as intimate with publishing
and reading trends as he is with the soul of his author, and
to make sure the author's work plays into those trends.
The problem doesn't always lie with the author. Some publishers
are simply better at publishing certain types of books than
others, and an author's development may eventually reach the
point where his publisher simply can no longer accommodate
it. Then it may be time to move the author to a house that
understands his needs and his work and offers an environment
in which these can be nurtured properly. It is not always
greed that motivates agents to switch authors to new publishers.
Most of the time, yes, but not always.
If all goes well—and we have seen how seldom it does—you
will gradually, or perhaps suddenly, move on to a new and
lofty plateau, maybe even onto the very summit itself. Hand
clasped in your agent's, you will breathe the heady, rarefied
atmosphere of success. You will have fulfilled your dream,
your talent will now be a splendidly fashioned tool, and you
will be published by a publisher that knows how to realize
every dollar of commercial value from your masterpieces for
your mutual enrichment. Only one thing remains to be done
to place the capstone on your sublime triumph.
Why, fire your agent, of course.
Sometimes a Great
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
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
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 mysterious 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
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!
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. As you'll see in the next chapter, the
two functions can differ vastly. 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
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.
The next time you're struck by a great idea for a book, don't
forget to ask yourself if you know what to do with it.
All the best,