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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
A Modest Wager
I HAVE A STANDING bet with many publishers, backed by one
thousand dollars payable to the charity of their choice. The
bet is that a professional author can write a book faster
than a publisher can write a check. And I hereby reaffirm
the bet publicly.
So far nobody has taken me up on this wager, and I doubt if
anybody will. But if someone wants to, just make your check
payable to the Special Olympics.
I don't believe my clients are unique in this respect. Many
agents handle or know of authors capable of turning out genre
fiction, male adventure, westerns, romances, and the like,
within weeks. In fact, many writers would go under if they
were not capable of producing at least a book a month.
But are the books good? What is the relationship between
the quality of a book and the time it takes to produce it?
I'll be exploring these questions in a moment. But I'm not
quite through with publishers.
The contracts and accounting departments of most publishing
companies are extremely burdened with work and, under the
best of circumstances, move with maddening bureaucratic casualness.
Absent, it seems (to authors and agents), is the sense that
the papers being shuffled have any bearing on the basic needs,
the food and clothing and rent and car payments and college
tuitions, of the human beings "hereinafter referred to
as Authors." One agent, in a frothing fit of frustration,
likened the process to the admitting office of a hospital
emergency room, where the life fluids of victims trickle out
of their bodies while the admitting clerk takes down their
address, Social Security number, and mother's maiden name.
I don't know if I would go that far, though I do remember
a case of one crazed client who informed his editor he had
just had his cat destroyed because an unconscionably late
contract and check had made it impossible for him to pay for
the poor creature's medical treatments. But I might, if I
were of a cynical turn of mind, be tempted to suggest that
the torpid pace of the contracts and accounting departments
of some publishing companies is yet another example of how
publishers cling to money as long as possible at the expense
of authors. Luckily, I am not of a cynical turn of mind.
In fact, one's heart might almost go out to the gallant
minions of the contracts and accounting departments. Anyone
who has actually seen them in action, or inaction, must appreciate
that the choreography of procedures for drafting a contract
and drawing a check is highly complex in even the most efficiently
run publishing houses. Once an editor has concluded negotiations
with an agent or author, he or she draws up a contract request
enumerating all of the deal points plus any variations in
the boilerplate language that the author or agent may have
requested. This contract request joins the many others awaiting
action by the contracts department. The terms in the contract
request are then transferred onto contract forms.
These forms must now be reviewed, sometimes by the original
editor, sometimes by department heads, sometimes by the chief
executive of the company, sometimes by all of them. The contracts
are then submitted to author or agent, and if, heaven forbid,
there should be but one or two minor items to be negotiated
or renegotiated that the editor or contracts person does not
have sole authority to decide, approval of those changes must
be secured from someone at the company who is in authority.
I have seen a contract held up for a month because I requested
upping the number of free authors' copies from ten to twenty,
or extending the delivery date by one month. Some contract
department heads are fanatical about initialing alterations,
requiring weeks of additional back-and-forthing. Some agents
have become quite masterful at forging their clients' initials
on contracts, and though this is a potentially dangerous practice,
it seems like the only practical tactic to counter massive
delay. One of my colleagues grinningly boasts, "If I
spent a day in jail for every set of initials I've forged,
you'd never see me again."
Once the contracts have been signed by the author, the machinery
for procuring the check begins to grind. The contracts department
issues a voucher instructing the accounting department to
draw the check due on signing the contracts. Such vouchers
must in the normal course of things be reviewed by the comptroller
or some other executive in charge of financial affairs. Once
the check is drawn, it will be examined by that executive
and possibly by the publisher before it is signed by one or
both of these officers. Needless to say, it is not as if these
folks have nothing else to do.
If, therefore, you wonder why a publishing company can't
just type up a contract the way you might scribble a thank-you
note, and dash off a check the way you dash one off to pay
your landlord, now you know, and perhaps you'll feel a bit
more compassion for the clerical staffs of publishers.
I do. But my bet still stands.
Despite this lengthy digression and a muffled tone of querulousness,
this chapter is not about how slow publishers are. It's about
how fast writers are.
Outsiders—by which I mean people with little firsthand
experience of the creative and technical aspects of writing—have
difficulty making peace with the idea that any kind of book,
let alone a good one, can be turned out in thirty days or
less. But I know of several professional writers who have
written full-length novels over a weekend, not because they
wanted to, but because they had to in order to accommodate
publishers in a jam. A tightly scheduled manuscript had not
been delivered on time, covers were printed, rack space reserved,
the printer's time booked. "Can do," these heroes
quietly said, and on Monday morning, looking like The Thing
From The Crypt, they dragged into their publisher's offices
with a manuscript.
Ah, you murmur, but were they good manuscripts?
This annoying question arises again and again whenever prolific
writers are mentioned. It's easy to understand how the public
at large would classify such feats as belonging to that end
of the spectrum of human accomplishment reserved for flagpole
sitting and marathon dancing. It's harder to understand why
many editors feel that way too. But a large number have the
attitude that the quality of literature rises in direct proportion
to the time required to produce it. Publishers, even those
who publish lines of genre fiction that call for short and
rigid deadlines, are quite suspicious of prolific authors.
They can't believe a book written that fast can be that good.
I have always felt that in order to qualify to practice
their profession, editors should be required to write a novel.
They would then undoubtedly discover that many of the skills
they now consider dismayingly hard are actually quite easy,
while many they regard as a cinch are inordinately difficult.
One thing they would appreciate, I'm certain, is that an experienced
professional writer working an eight-hour day and typing at
average speed can produce five thousand words daily in clean
first draft without pushing. That's a finished book in twelve
to fifteen working days.
But one draft? How can a writer produce a first draft that
is also a polished draft?
One reason is that he has no choice. The author who writes
a good book in one draft will earn twice as much money as
one who writes the same book in two. And when the pay scale
is twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars per book,
one simply cannot afford to write a second draft.
It is also a matter of training. Many professional writers
reach a level of craftsmanship where whacking out clean copy
is as natural as hitting balls is for a professional baseball
player or dancing en pointe is for a ballerina. The amateur
who writes fast usually writes sloppily; the professional
who writes fast will most likely write masterfully.
And let us not forget inspiration. It is not uncommon for
writers to talk about writing as if in a trance, or feeling
like a channel through which a story is being poured from
some mystical source. Some writers rehearse a scene or story
so often in their heads that when they finally commit it to
paper, it all comes in a rush, as if they're writing from
memory rather than from a sense of original creation.
All this is helped by the development of computerized word
processors, which enable their owners to write two drafts
in the time it used to take writers working on conventional
typewriters to write one. But now that the technology is at
hand, will the prejudice against prolificness finally be overcome?
I'm not too sure.
For, in the last analysis, it isn't the editors or public
who cling most tightly to the myth that fast writing is poor
writing. It's the writers themselves. Almost all the professional
writers I know equate speedy writing with money and slow writing
with love, to the point where their personalities actually
bifurcate and the halves declare war on one another. Authors
capable of knocking off a superb genre novel in one draft
will agonize over every sentence of their "serious,"
"important," "literary" novel as if they
were freshmen in a creative writing course. They seem to believe
that anyone wishing to cross the line between popular entertainment
and serious literature must cut his output and raise frustrating
obstacles in his own path, and that legitimacy may be purchased
only through writer's block. It is futile to point out that
Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevski, and Henry James wrote as if
possessed, in many cases with scarcely a single emendation,
yet turned out a body of sublime classics. And they did it
in longhand, by the way.
Movies into Books
NOVELIZATIONS OF MOVIES and television shows are among the
most intriguing subspecies of commercial fiction. I say subspecies
because they obviously cannot be spoken of in the same breath
as The Magic Mountain or Portrait of a Lady; indeed, even
commercial novelists look down their noses at novelizations
as possessing not a shred of redeeming social value, as the
0literary equivalent of painting by numbers. On the spectrum
of the written word, tie-ins are as close to merchandise as
they are to literature.
Tie-ins are kin to souvenirs, and in some ways are not vastly
different from the dolls, toys, games, calendars, clothes,
and other paraphernalia generated by successful motion pictures
and television shows. Those who write them usually dismiss
them with embarrassment or contempt, or brag about how much
money they made for so little work. Yet, when pressed they
will speak with pride about the skill and craftsmanship that
went into the books and assure you that the work is deceptively
easy. And if you press them yet further, many will puff out
their chests and boast that tie-in writers constitute a select
inner circle of artisans capable of getting an extremely demanding
job done promptly, reliably, and effectively, a kind of typewriter-armed
S.W.A.T. team whose motto is, "My book is better than
How are tie-ins created? Their birthplace of course is the
original screenplay. The Writers Guild of America Basic Agreement
entitles the screenwriter to ownership of literary rights
to his screenplay. When he sells his screenplay he may retain
the novelization rights or include them, at terms to be negotiated,
in the screenplay deal. Most of the time the screenwriter
sells his novelization rights to the buyer—the film's
producer or a studio. The new owner of these rights now tries
to line up a publication deal for the tie-in. He contacts
paperback publishers and pitches the forthcoming film.
If the film has a big budget, terrific story, bankable actors,
unique special effects, or other highly promotable features
that promise a hit, publishers will bid for the publication
rights, (In the case of television tie-ins, the producers
almost always wait till a series is a hit before arranging
for tie-ins. And one-shot movies of the week seldom trigger
novelizations because of the brief period—one evening—in
which they are exposed to the public.) A deal is then struck,
the publisher paying an advance against royalties to the producer
The publisher then engages a writer to adapt the screenplay.
It should be readily apparent that if the movie is indeed
shaping up to be a hit, or the television show is already
a hit, the publisher will be forced to pay such a high advance
and royalty to the producer or studio that little will be
left for the writer. That's why novelizations are generally
low-paying affairs, with modest advances and nominal royalties
of 1 or 2 percent. Flat fees are by no means unheard of. And,
because the competition among writers for novelizations is
intense, few writers are in any position to bargain. But if
the pay scale is so miserable, why do authors seek novelization
assignments so ardently? Because they think it's easy money.
Sometimes it is. But it's not like falling off a log, as we
shall soon see.
Publishers are nowhere near as enamored of movie tie-ins
as authors are, and they weigh the profit potential of such
books as critically as they do that of the thousands of other
manuscripts submitted to them annually. They know that most
movies do not translate well into books. There are also technical
and timing problems with tie-ins that are daunting to publishers.
For instance, the screenplay may undergo alterations, some
of them radical, right up to or even during the shooting of
the film. By the time filming is complete there is insufficient
time before the release of the movie for a writer to write
the novel and the publisher to publish it.
Another problem for publishers is the greed that has set
in at the studios. Originally, tie-ins were regarded as free
publicity for movies, and publishers regarded them as little
more than list-fillers. For a modest payment to the studio
a publisher would get the screenplay, stills, cover photo,
and promotional material, and everybody was happy. Then the
studios began to smell profit, and arranging tie-ins became
a little less complex than building a space shuttle.
Anyone who thinks that tie-in writing is a mere matter of
adding he-saids and she-saids to the screenplay dialogue has
certainly never attempted such an adaptation. For one thing,
most screenplays are too short to convert page for page into
book manuscripts. Therefore, even if you are following the
script scene by scene, you are required to amplify on character,
action, and location descriptions. Any good novelist can translate
a terse screenplay direction ("EXTERIOR, OLD MACDONALD'S
FARM, A STORMY NIGHT") into a few pages of descriptive
prose ("A bitter, shrieking north wind lashed the trees
and hurled sheet after sheet of icy rain against the clapboard
siding of Old MacDonald's farmhouse . . ." etc.). The
problem is that when you analyze screenplays you realize that
most of them don't lend themselves comfortably to scene-for-scene
conversion. In fact, many of them present nightmarish challenges.
The reason is that movies are seen with one lobe of the
brain, and books read with another. If you'll take the trouble
to compare a novel with its film adaptation, you'll immediately
realize that whole chapters have been cut or reduced to takes
that last a few seconds on the screen; or that, conversely,
a sentence or paragraph has been dramatized into a full-dress
scene that consumes five or ten minutes of movie time. This
is because some material in books is distinctly more cinematic
than other material. (It also explains why few novelists make
good screenwriters, and most screenwriters are dreadful novelists.)
By the same token, owing to the demands of the book reader's
imagination, elaborate scenes in a movie may seem far too
long to merit the same expansive treatment in a novelization;
fast transitional scenes, flashbacks, establishing shots,
short takes, and the like may require a novelizer to build
them into whole chapters.
Every tie-in writer talking shop will tell you how he or
she overcame such challenges, challenges complicated by the
insistence of the producer on approval of the novel or a run-in
with some middle-management studio exec who demanded that
whatever was in the movie must go into the book, and whatever
wasn't in the movie must not go into the book. The fact that
novelizations may take only a few weeks does not mean that
many, many hours of thought and years of writing experience
did not go into them. Novelizers earn every penny, and for
all but the biggest books, pennies are what they make. Leonore
Fleischer, one of the genre's top authors, earned a total
of some $45,000 in royalties for a labor of less than a week
on the film tie-in of Annie, but that is exceptional. Joan
Vinge, who wrote The Jedi Story Book, a juvenile tie-in to
The Return of the Jedi, did it for a modest flat fee for Random
House. The movie was a phenomenal success, and so was the
book, but Vinge was not entitled to a penny of royalty. Only
by the goodness of Random House's heart, tinged perhaps with
a dollop of guilt plus a healthy measure of pushing by her
agent, was she awarded a $10,000 bonus.
The best advice I can give prospective tie-in writers is,
if possible never write one for a flat fee, no matter how
dumb the movie, no matter how quick and simple the job. Years
ago, Ace hired me to write a tie-in for a perfectly dreadful
and quite disgusting horror movie called Squirm, which portrayed
in all its graphic revoltingness what happened when a small
town was invaded by millions of bloodsucking earthworms. Ace
offered me a flat fee of $2,500, and, seeing the prospect
of earning $250 a day, I grabbed the deal. The movie came
and, blessedly, went. But my book went through numerous editions
for Ace, and was sold to English and other foreign publishers
where it endured for years.
My book was better than the movie. Big deal! That and a
good agent would have earned me a nice profit. Unfortunately,
I don't have an agent. I don't trust them.
All the best,