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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
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
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
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
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
• 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
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
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
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
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
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,