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September 2006

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads



MANY EXCELLENT WORKS are available about how to write, but there is one category of writing that even topflight professionals struggle with, and that's outlines. I have seldom seen outlines covered adequately in the how-to literature I've read, probably because most writers who write about writing have never seriously examined why we need outlines. If you think we need them only to help us write books, you're probably doing something wrong.

Too many writers dismiss outlines as unworthy of serious attention, or not essential to the practice of their trade. "I'm a good writer, but a lousy outliner," I frequently hear, and the statement often sounds like a boast. "What does it matter?" goes another typical remark. "My finished books don't resemble my outlines anyway, so why bother?" Still others say, "The outline is in my head, and as long as my books turn out well, why should I have to outline them on paper?"

These scoffers have failed to understand the critical truth about outline writing: publishers are less interested in what's going into your book than they are in what's going onto your cover.
From what I know about publishing history, the use of outlines to sell books to publishers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before World War II, it was de rigueur for authors to submit completed manuscripts to their publishers. Even established authors wrote their books before seeking contracts with their regular publishers. They might consult with them in the formative stages, but it was pretty much taken for granted that the author knew what he was doing and where he was going with his book, and that editors served to help shape or tidy up the finished product. The purpose of outlines was, as you might expect, to help authors conceptualize and develop their books. It didn't matter if the outlines were long or short, well written or scribbled, highly compressed or elaborate (Henry James composed forty thousand word summaries of his later novels): an outline was a working sketch for the sole use of the author. It was not designed for display, particularly to publishers.
After World War II, the nature of publishing changed dramatically, affecting not only what kinds of books were written but how they got sold. Not the least of the transformations was that of the outline from writing tool to selling tool.
With the emergence of publishing as big business, with the acquisition of publishing companies by conglomerates or their absorption into immense entertainment complexes, a schism was created between the editorial and the business functions. Tremendous tensions were created as publishers demanded better justification for the purchasing of books. Profit-and-loss statements and market projections had to be drawn up before submissions were accepted. Editorial and publishing committees replaced the judgments of individual editors whose rationales for acquisition were often no more than intuition, enthusiasm, or personal pleasure.
In order to crack this increasingly formidable system, authors were required to produce detailed and polished presentations that answered not merely the question "What is it about?" but such questions as "How does it differ from similar books?" "What is the target market and how large is it?" and "Can a publisher make a profit on it?" It no longer mattered if an individual editor was wild about a book or a proposed book, because he was no longer the only person making the decision. Indeed, many of the people now making the decision might not have read the work at all, and not a few of them weren't particularly interested in books except in terms of their bottom line value as merchandise: how to "package" them, how to position advertising and promotion for them, how to price them, how to "move" them. Some writers realized that in order to satisfy this growing cadre of specialists, they'd have to learn a kind of writing very far from the sort of thing they'd been doing until then—not synopses but sales pitches cunningly contrived to subdue the anxieties of publishing personnel ranging from art director to head of sales to subsidiary rights director to publicity chief to vice-president in charge of marketing to editor.
If you piled all the outlines I have read in my lifetime on top of each other, they would reach the summit of Kanchenjunga. So I can say with some authority that few writers have grasped this crucial distinction between outlines designed to guide oneself through the complex terrain of plot and character and those written to turn on the staff of a publishing company. All too often I see chapter-by-chapter outlines of fifty or a hundred pages describing every twist of story and every nuance of character development, outlines that are 95 percent longer than most editors have the time or inclination to read, and that are deficient in many elements that are tempting to potential buyers. Such outlines should go back where they belong: beside the author's typewriter, helping him construct his book. But they don't belong on an editor's desk.
Let's look at the components of a solid outline. Naturally, we have to divide proposals into two categories: those for nonfiction books and those for novels.
Nonfiction books are both easier to outline and easier to sell from an outline. A nonfiction work lends itself to easy encapsulation because its subject is finite and usually defines itself. A war, a biography, a history of a period, a murder case, seventeenth-century Dutch art, Greek cooking, traveling through Japan—all are limited by the factual information available, at which point it becomes a matter of selection and arrangement of that information. It is relatively easy to convey in an outline an author's familiarity with his subject, his enthusiasm for it, his authority, the uniqueness of the proposed work, its organization, and so forth. It is even possible to convey in an outline how good a writer the author is. A good nonfiction outline is a pleasure from the viewpoint of publishers. It takes five minutes to read, requires little imagination to grasp, and enables an editor (or anyone else at a publishing company) to make his mind up quickly and decisively. It is hard for most writers to visualize the joy it gives an editor to be able to reach a clean, fast decision, and this factor may have contributed in no small measure to the increased predilection for nonfiction at most trade publishing companies over the last few years.
A solid nonfiction outline should follow these basic precepts:
• Establish your authority. At the very outset you must show the publisher your credentials. It has become extremely difficult to sell proposals by writers who do not have a Ph.D. or M.D. after their names or cannot otherwise demonstrate long and vast experience in the field in which they are writing. As you might do with any other resume, if you have great bona fides, pile them on; if you don't, then stress the next best thing, to wit: "Although I am not an M.D. I have written about medical subjects for leading national magazines for the last twenty years." And if you cannot even boast that much, I strongly advise you to write a large piece of the book so that your authority and familiarity with your subject shine through by virtue of the writing itself.
Present your thesis dramatically. The best outlines read like the best short stories, and like great stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In enunciating the subject, you should present a disturbing problem that cries out for resolution: "The teenage suicide rate has tripled in the last ten years." "As the First Continental Congress convened, the American colonies seemed very far indeed from the unification we take for granted today." "Although there are many books available on Jewish cooking, to date there is no comprehensive work on cheese blintzes."

You now have the editor worried: how did the teenage suicide rate get to be so bad, what is the profile of a potential teen suicide, what can parents do about it? Here is where you display your intimacy with your subject, for as these questions occur to the editor considering your presentation, one by one your outline answers them satisfyingly and, if possible, entertainingly.
Like a good short story, your outline should rise to a satisfying climax, and here is where your writing skills must be displayed in all their splendor, for editors know that an author's interest and energy tend to flag in the final stages of a book and they want to see whether you can sustain the same level of intensity in the finale as you did in the opening stages of the work. You should therefore describe in vivid detail the culmination of your book. Whatever it was that originally inspired you to write it must be communicated here, and whether you're writing a biography, history, medical self-help book, or even a blintz cookbook, you must demonstrate in these final passages of your synopsis your intense absorption in your material. Depict in full dress that final battle, that cure, that turning point in the life of your biographical subject. Let your editor know you're in love with this idea and will live in a constant state of torment until you have gotten it out of your system.
• Furnish a table of contents. Each chapter of your proposed book should be summarized in a short paragraph. Although a table of contents would appear to go over the same ground as your synopsis, it actually serves a different purpose. A synopsis is a narrative summarizing the topic and exhibiting the author's grasp of his material and writing skill. A table of contents demonstrates the author's organizational abilities and conveys the "feel" of the final book. It may seem redundant, but editors demand it. Don't leave home without one.
• Anticipate a publishing committee's questions. However masterfully you have synopsized your book, some important questions will probably linger in the editor's mind, and others will be raised by noneditorial staff members of the publishing committee. What competitive books exist or are in the works? What is the potential audience, and how can a publisher be sure that that audience will buy the book? Could a Big Name be induced to write an introduction or endorsement? Can you state with assurance that this organization or that society will approve the book, recommend it to members, purchase a minimum number of copies?

It is unfortunate that authors must do the sort of research that is the rightful province of publishers, but because publishing people have so little time and money to spare for market surveys, library searches, legal investigations, profit-and-loss evaluations, and the like, any author who does the publisher's homework for them will definitely raise his chances of landing a sale. So go the extra mile. You've always said you could do a better job than a publisher: here's your chance to prove it.
The outlining of fiction is an entirely different ball game. None of the criteria that enable editors to make quick and easy decisions about nonfiction book proposals applies to fiction outlines, for almost everything is subjective. Although it is even more important for a novel outline than it is for a nonfiction book outline to read like an enthralling short story, even wonderful novel outlines don't necessarily demonstrate convincingly that the writer is a good storyteller, has fine descriptive abilities, is capable of capturing subtleties of emotion, or knows how to build character and relationships. And, paradoxically, any attempt to portray such elements in an outline often results in a long and tedious one that is excruciatingly dull. Furthermore, nothing in an outline can demonstrate whether the author can go the distance or will falter or lose energy or inspiration during the writing of the novel. It is far more common for novelists to slump in the midst of a book than for nonfiction writers, whose inspiration derives from already existing material rather than from anything they have to create. And while editors who have the novelist's track record to go by can say, "See? He finished six novels, what makes you think he isn't going to finish his seventh?" a novel proposal must be judged by a lot of noneditorial people at a publishing company. Many of them are a little suspicious of, or even downright hostile to, the creative process, and therefore skeptical that a novelist will be able to stay the course. What is worse, they can relate many unfortunate experiences bearing their skepticism out. Resistance to fiction outlines runs extremely high at most publishers, and that's why one finds prodigious piles of them on so many editors' desks.
There are important exceptions, of course. The well-established novelist can land a contract on the basis of an outline, and often a brief one. And writers doing novels in a series or proposing books for a particular line, will of course have to do outlines. But authors who have no solid fiction track record are going to get nowhere in their quest to raise funds to complete their books. Or if they do, miraculously, get an offer, it will undoubtedly be a stingy one, because the publisher is being asked to invest his risk capital, and the costs of risk capital are extremely high.
I therefore advise anyone in that position to write a long, boring, detailed outline of his novel-to-be, take it to his word processor, and sit down and write the novel. Not a third; not a half; all of it. Shift the risk from the publisher to yourself—because it means shifting the rewards as well. Give an agent a finished novel that he likes and watch him do his thing: he can auction it, set a tight deadline for decisions, get a high price, break the author out.
What's that you say? You can't afford to write that novel on speculation? I'm afraid you'll have to do what the novelists of yore did: they begged, borrowed, stole, got day jobs, or married into money.


Hardcover vs. Softcover
vs. Hard-Soft

I'M AFRAID THAT the topic of this chapter is so complex and subtle that I wonder how much light I will be able to shed on it. And that's the question of what makes some novelists better suited to being published in hardcover and others to paperback.
I must confess at the outset that I'm far from certain I know the answer. My only consolation is that publishers often don't know it either. For every book they cite that must, incontrovertibly, be published in hardcover, I can name a similar one that enjoyed immense success as a paperback original. And for every piece of "trash" that, indisputably, was meant to be published originally in paperback, I can name an even trashier book that rode the crest of the best-seller list for twenty or thirty weeks.
The distinctions between what is appropriately hardcover and appropriately paperback have crumbled, and cross-pollination, as healthy in literature as it is in nature, is becoming commonplace. Literature that was once restricted to the paperback side of the street has crossed over to hardcover, is enjoyed by a more affluent and cultivated segment of our society, and appears with growing frequency on hardcover best-seller lists. It's even studied in college courses. Who would have imagined, a few decades ago, that science fiction, western, and romance novels would one day move hundreds of thousands and even millions of hardcover copies? Meanwhile, "serious" authors, literary writers who might have recoiled at the notion of initial publication in mass market or trade paperback, now appear in that format willingly and even happily, enriching both themselves and their readers in the process.
The prejudice against paperback originals still strongly persists, however, and by no means merely among elitist literati; it is extant in the minds of publishing and movie people, the reading public at large, and indeed, in the minds of many writers themselves. It is a formidable prejudice and, like most prejudices, is backed by enough truth to make me feel that it will not be dislodged for a long, long time to come.
In the dawn of the paperback revolution at the end of World War II, the distinctions between hardcover and paperback were pretty simple. Paperbacks fell roughly into three categories: the classics, reprints of hardcover best-sellers, and paperback originals aimed largely at male audiences: westerns, space operas, lusty thrillers, soft porn, and the like. But as publishing entered the 1960s, competition among paperback publishers for reprint rights to best-sellers intensified. These publishers, after spending and spending and overspending, realized they needed more money and clout to survive in this auction-dominated jungle. They therefore resorted to a number of strategies: they merged with, acquired, or were acquired by hardcover publishers to create hard-soft combines; they sold out to conglomerates and entertainment complexes in order to lay their hands on big capital for the acquisition of best-sellers; and they intensified the development of original paperback fiction, particularly the type aimed at the women's market—gothics, historicals, and contemporary romances.
Another trend in the mid-sixties was that original paperbacks became a powerful tool used by paperback companies to offset the spiraling costs of reprint acquisitions. Why, the reasoning went, should we invest half a million dollars or more to buy the reprint of a best-seller when we can hire an author for ten thousand dollars to write a book almost as good, spend fifty thousand dollars to promote and advertise it, and sell almost as many copies?
This philosophy took firmer and firmer grip in the paperback industry, and over a decade came to dominate it. The original eventually became the principal stock in trade of the paperback industry.
The yanking of the paperback rug from under the feet of the hardcover industry forced hardcover publishers to become extremely discriminating about what they acquired. The word was, if it can't make it on its own in hardcover, don't acquire it. A great many authors who'd been breezing along with midlist books now found themselves without hardcover publishers, or with hardcover publishers pressing them to accept cutbacks in terms. Not a few of these authors dropped out. Some of them tried harder and wrote blockbusters. A great many of them, however, lined up outside the doors of paperback houses and asked if there was any work for them. There was. Whatever else had happened to the paperback industry, it was still populated by folks who preferred good writing to bad. But, ironically, the entry into paperback originals of all those terrific writers depressed the prices paid for originals. The old hands, feeling themselves shouldered out of the business, accepted lower terms for their work just to hang on; the new hands, seeking reentry into publication at whatever price it took, accepted whatever price it took.
Among the many other benefits of this renaissance was the driving out of business of some schlocky paperback outfits, and the raising of quality among the survivors. Indeed, the quality, as well as the quantity, of genre books became so high that it attracted the attention of hardcover publishers, who reasoned that if five hundred thousand or a million people bought an author's paperback originals, surely a few tens of thousands of them at the very least would buy the same books in hardcover. This reasoning proved correct. Writers who were selling big in paperback were moved up into hardcover. A great many of them thrived. Today, the hardcover best-seller lists are chock-full of successful graduates of the paperback original school, with genre stuff like westerns, romances, science fiction and fantasy, and action-adventure making appearances there in unprecedented numbers.
For those of you who have not followed my drift, let me now draw you to it: The overall quality of popular literature is genuinely higher than it was twenty, ten, or even five years ago. After the Great Shakeout, the standards of acceptability among both hardcover and paperback publishers rose steeply, and because marginal publishers got driven out, the markets for marginal authors have all but disappeared. In the good old days of the sixties and seventies an agent could always find a quickie paperback assignment, a sex novel or a movie tie-in, to offer to a desperate client, or could sell something out of that author's trunk to some end-of-the-line paperback house. Those days are gone. The remaining paperback publishers are leaner, and if they also seem meaner, some of that may be attributed to authors, agents, and hardcover publishers having been spoiled by the extravagance of a decade ago, when even indifferent first novels were getting banged down for twenty or thirty thousand dollars on the reprint auction block. The rest is attributable to the fact that today's market belongs to the buyer. The message to today's professional writer is crystal clear: Be tough or be gone.
This raising of the stakes is reflected most vividly in hardcover. The principal reason is that most hardcover fiction is review-dependent. Hardcover books that get panned are, with one notable exception, going to lose money for their publishers, whereas paperback originals get scant review attention, and if that attention is negative the effect on sales is seldom fatal. We are seeing a little more attention paid by reviewers to paperback originals, and a few originals have experienced remarkable flights with the help of well-timed and well-placed favorable reviews. These, I am convinced, are only exceptions that prove the rule.
Here, then, we come to the crux: The single most important difference between hardcover and paperback publication is review coverage. But not, as most people think, because it satisfies author vanity or helps to sell books. As I see it, the true importance of reviews is that they legitimize books. A reviewed book, for most of us, is a "real" book, and that's why hardcover books are considered more "real" than paperbacks. Although we can all think of exceptions, in great measure a book brought out in hardcover is likelier to be seriously considered by magazine editors, foreign book publishers, and most particularly by movie people, than the same book published originally in paperback.
There is, as I indicated, one exception. When best-selling paperback writers advance into hardcover, their sales will usually not become much more dependent on reviews than they were when their books came out in paperback. That is because these authors bring with them a ready-made audience, one that has never been susceptible to reviews. Fans of paperback authors usually don't ask if the new book is any good, they just ask when does it go on sale, and this passionate loyalty follows the author into hardcover. If the hardcover happens to get good notices, that's great, for it will bring new fans into the fold. But that substantial hardcore audience will not be affected. Promotion, at this level, is far more effective than reviews in moving books.
If, in your efforts to figure out what's a hardcover and what's a paperback, you've also wondered what kind of book is more appropriate for hard-soft publication, it's the kind I have just described. Hard-soft combines were created to accommodate both the hardcover publisher's desire to have a guaranteed paperback reprint when it acquired a big book and the paperback publisher's desire to buy reprint rights to best-sellers for less than astronomical advances. But hard-soft deals also accommodate major authors. First, they give them the huge advances they demand, something few hardcover publishers can afford without paperback backup. And second, by allowing them to retain 100 percent of both hardcover and paperback royalties, hard-soft neutralizes the resentment best-selling authors begin to feel when they see their hardcover publishers keeping 50 percent of the money collected from licensing reprint rights to outside paperback houses.
Assembling all these factors, the answer to our original question would seem to be that very little fiction is too good to be published originally in paperback. Rather than try to force your way into hardcover before it is timely to do so, I would recommend that you think paperback for just about everything you turn out, and let the hardcover market discover you in its own time.
If I were plotting the ideal career of a talented new author, I would establish him in paperback in whatever genre he produces best, for genre books offer the most opportunities for writers to break into the business. He will develop his craftsmanship and make a living, too—earn while he learns. I would advise him not to be ashamed to be a paperback writer. It has become a respectable profession populated by many fine writers and interesting people. Don't worry about reviews; there won't be that many and you will therefore be allowed to build up your confidence without being unduly influenced by public opinion.
Stay in paperback as long as possible, establishing an audience, winning the respect of editors at your own and other publishing companies, and making money not just for yourself but for your publisher. In due time, natural processes (and, I would hope, a smart agent) will lead you into hardcover publication. You may write that long-awaited breakout novel, or you may simply be recognized for a consistent and excellent body of work. Don't try to do anything differently once the question of hardcover is raised. Hardcover publication does not mean you now have to become a better writer; more likely it means that professionals in the publishing industry think that you are a better writer. In due time, thanks to review coverage and promotion, your books will sell to movies and television, to magazines, and to foreign publishers. Book club and reprint rights to your books will start to reach spectacular proportions. That will be the time for you to switch to a hard-soft publisher if you're not there already. Then your biggest problem will be income taxes.

All the best,

Richard Curtis


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