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June 2006

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads


Building Careers

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 a living.

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 Notion

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 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 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!

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 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.

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,

Richard Curtis


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