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September 2011

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads


Breakout Books

FROM TIME TO TIME a writer bursts upon the literary scene with a first novel of astonishing accomplishment, and the world gasps as if witnessing the genesis of a supernova out of a hitherto undetected star. Critics poring over the author's pedigree for clues to his development usually find only such banal biographical facts as that he was a reporter for his high school yearbook or a bridge columnist for some obscure midwestern newspaper. But this author had apparently been struck to his knees by a sublime inspiration and spewed the work out of his soul in one volcanic eruption. One thinks of Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Gone with the Wind, or Raintree County. In some cases the author never again rises to the height of his first book, and in not a few the author never writes another book at all. But that first book is enough to make the author's name a household one forever after.

Professional writers often greet such events with mixed emotions. On the one hand they cannot help but join in the outpouring of adulation. On the other, if they are honest with themselves they will probably confess to intense envy. For, this . . . this amateur has somehow hit a grand slam home run on his very first time at bat, has achieved in one stroke something that most writers may never achieve in their lifetime, or may achieve only after decades of struggle and sacrifice: a breakout novel.

It is always instructive to examine a society's underlying assumptions, and it seems to me that the big breakout has become an article of faith for everybody involved in the world of books, from publisher to critic to consumer. What disturbs me is that it has also become an article of faith for writers. But before I elaborate on that statement, let's see if we can define a breakout book.

Implicit in the term is that there is something to break out from. In many cases it is a body of work in a genre, such as romance, science fiction, mystery, or western. Or it may simply be what is opprobriously termed the "midlist," that purgatorial place between success and failure occupied by books that are good but not good enough, bad but not that bad, promising, interesting, nice, pleasant, okay, and a lot of other less-than-hyperbolic adjectives, books that are profitable enough to tantalize or not unprofitable enough to discourage.

The world of genre and midlist books is populated by writers whose fates are still being fashioned by the gods. Some of them will remain in their comfortable niches forever, content with nonhyperbolic work and relieved that there is always a buyer for their books. Others will hang in long enough to see their books hailed as venerable classics, probably after it is too late for them to appreciate it. Still others will drop (or be driven) out. And others still will break (or be broken) out.

The breakout process occurs in a number of ways. An influential critic "discovers" an author and proclaims his greatness to the world. This happened with William Kennedy (Ironweed) and John Irving (The World According to Garp). Thriller writer John D. MacDonald awoke one Sunday morning after toiling for decades to find his latest Travis McGee detective novel hailed on the front page of the influential New York Times Book Review. Or perhaps an army of loyal readers will storm the bookstores and cast a favorite into the pantheon by popular acclaim, as happened to Alice Walker and The Color Purple. Sometimes reading tastes veer unpredictably, exalting a cult figure into the mainstream, such as John Barth whose The Sotweed Factor wasa college classic for a generation but until recently a well-kept secret from mass audiences. And finally there is the author who, by dint of Herculean effort, catapults himself (with the help of a substantial capital investment by his publisher) into the front rank with a work that shatters the mold of his former creations. It is this type that most publishing people mean when they talk about breaking out. So let's look at it a little more closely.

The breakout book marks a departure in quantity and quality. Often it is actually, physically, larger than previous works. Genre paperbacks range from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand words, generally speaking, and midlist hardcover fiction is seldom longer than, say, eighty-five thousand words. In order to justify the higher price that publishers charge for lead fiction, they look for works of at least one hundred thousand words, and in many cases the books run far longer. Recent best-sellers by some famous denizens of best-seller list summits are over one thousand printed hardcover pages long, extending to as much as half a million words between covers. Although these works can't be defined as breakout books, since the authors have long and successful track records, they do illustrate the difference between best-selling authors, who are encouraged to write thick books, and midlist authors who are importuned to keep the length down. Although you may be able to break out with a gemlike Slim Little Volume, the tendency among star authors is definitely toward heft, for heft is equated, for better or worse, with importance.

Naturally, I don't mean merely padding a hundred-thousand-word novel with fifty or a hundred thousand more words. The plot must be proportionately more complex, the time span longer, the characters more numerous and treated in greater depth, the mise-en-scène more elaborate, the details of time and place portrayed with greater attention. And even with all these elements, unless the author has breathed life into the work, it will not fly.

It's hard to say just what it is that makes the difference. It's not necessarily the writing, for horribly written books are exalted onto the best-seller lists all the time, and if you've been a bad writer all your life, it's not likely your breakout book will be better written than anything else you've ever done. But there is certainly a departure in quality that marks the breakout book. Publishing people sometimes refer to it as the author "finding his voice," meaning that he has fused a large, original, worthy subject and well-honed skills with the flame of inspiration and love.

And so, while the book may belong in a superficial sense to a category, it will amalgamate traditional category elements and formulas with that unique viewpoint, theme, style, passion—with that "voice"—to create something entirely new and grand and wonderful. The whole will be larger than its parts, so that it is not merely a super-romance or a super-mystery, a super-western or a super-science fiction novel. In a sense it will be a new genre. For example, occult and horror fiction were here long before Stephen King, but he transmuted the genre and stamped his name on it, as did Louis L'Amour with westerns, Georgette Heyer with period romances, Danielle Steele with contemporary romances, and Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein with science fiction.

Implicit in the breakout event is the sense that the author's metamorphosis is permanent, and that henceforth he or she may be counted on to produce a consistent body of work in the same vein as the book that broke out. Reading the work of today's best-selling authors, you get a strong impression that they're not merely striving to repeat a winning combination, but rather have discovered their true identities in their books. James Michener with his geographical sagas, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford with their sex-and-power fantasies of the super-rich, John Jakes with his American historicals mingling fictional and factual characters, Sidney Sheldon with his tales of lust and vengeance—you might well wonder if in these instances soul, style, and story have not been blended into one entity.

As I'm drifting treacherously close to the metaphysical, let me bring you back to earth with a simple definition: you know an author has broken out when publishers start commissioning imitations, referring to the authors as if they were registered brand names. "I want a western family saga a la Louis UAmour's Sacketts, or maybe a little sexier like Janet Dailey's Calders," one might hear at the luncheon table. Or, "I'mlooking for a writer to do England the way John Jakes has done America." Or, "Do you have a client who can portray Madison Avenue the way Judith Krantz did Rodeo Drive?"

The big breakout requires, of course, the complete commitment of the publisher. But though you might think publishers are dying to push a ton of chips behind anything faintly resembling a breakout book, in truth they feel rather ambivalent about the process. For one thing, obviously, it costs an awful lot of money, and the premature launch of an unripened author, or a misjudgment about the "breakoutability" of a book, can create catastrophic losses and profound embarrassment followed by the sound of rolling heads. Publishers often therefore err on the side of caution, preferring to launch their breakout campaign only after the "numbers" on previous books by that author are immense, rather than hype somebody who has not built a broad audience. But by the time the publisher reaches the conclusion that the author's moment has come, the author may be gone: his agent will have found a publisher that wasn't so ambivalent.

From time to time, readers will actually be ahead of a publisher in the creation of a breakout. Publishers sometimes underestimate an author's popularity and the demand for his work. In due time, the groundswell of demand for an author will be felt in a publisher's office, thanks to reports by the salesmen out in the field, and if the publisher is smart he'll ship as many copies of the next book as the traffic will bear. But if he is not alert, he'll lose the author to a house that is. This happened when thriller writer Dick Francis switched from Harper and Row to Putnam, where he now enjoys best-selling hardcover sales of every new book. Putnam knew the potential was there and detected the clamor that Francis's previous publisher failed to hear.

I sometimes wonder whether writers shouldn't step back and question whether breaking out is all it's cracked up to be. While success has been a goal in all ages, I don't think I am romanticizing the past in stating that the pressure to succeed has never been more intense for writers than it is now. Thirty-five years ago when I came into this business, there was among writers some sense that a life of quiet literary accomplishment book after book, the appreciation of a small but discriminating audience, and an income sufficient to support a middle-class lifestyle were worthy ideals. It was joy enough to be read; the heart swelled to see somebody reading one's book on the subway or to come across it in a library (remember libraries?).

Today such goals seem not merely unattainable to most writers, but inconceivable. Although the shift in thinking has been evolutionary, for many writers the realization impacted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a series of blockbusters starting with The Godfather altered our thinking. No longer was it enough for a book to be read: it had to be experienced by the Global Village, had to become an international mass market multimedia event, in order for the author to feel fulfilled. Such feelings are promulgated and perpetuated by publishers and the press in the form of the "blockbuster mentality," adding to the conviction most writers today have that they are faced with but two options: go for the jackpot or become a janitor. The anxiety generated by these forces is enormous. Authors no longer feel that they have time to patiently develop craftsmanship, to build an audience, to attract the attention of critics—in short, to become professional writers. Instead they feel they must come roaring off the blocks with a spectacular work.

Section Four


Publishing Spoken Here

I'VE OFTEN THOUGHT that one of the critical roles literary agents play is that of translator. We perform the task on several levels. The most obvious and fundamental is explaining the nomenclature of publishing to the uninitiated author. The writer who sells his first book to a publisher and reads his first contract is plunged into a sea of words that may be totally unfamiliar to him, or that are used in a totally unfamiliar way. "Force majeure," "net proceeds," "matching option," "warranty," "discount"—these need to be defined for the novice author. There are many difficult concepts to be grasped, such as "advance sale," "midlist," "fair use," "reserve against returns," "pass-through," and "hard-soft deals." The language has its own slang, too, and our initiate hears bewildering references to who handles the "sub-rights," what is the tentative "pub date," and what happens when the book is "o.p.'d."

Agents patiently try to demystify these terms, but it may take many years of experience before our clients are completely at ease with them. It may well be true that what distinguishes professional authors from their amateur brothers and sisters is that the pros have undergone this linguistic rite of passage, and are now able to sling around "pre-empts," "first proceeds," and "escalators" with the best of 'em.

But there is another, and profoundly more important, job for the agent-translator to perform beyond explaining to his clients the terminology of the book industry. I'm talking about using language to forge and strengthen the bonds between authors and publishers. For, while the goals of both may ultimately be identical, they are usually achievable only after many conflicting viewpoints and interests have been reconciled. Sometimes those conflicts become intense, and if allowed to go unresolved can cause serious if not fatal breakdowns in the relationship. An agent, standing between these potential adversaries, must find common ground for them to stand on, else all—including his commission—is lost. And though their differences may be genuine, sometimes they are semantic, and if an agent can pinpoint and settle the linguistic problems, perhaps the more substantive ones will not seem quite so insuperable. Although it's a stimulating challenge, not all of us enjoy sticking our heads up in this no-man's land.

You must not think, however, that editors cannot be seriously wounded. And it is important to know that fact, because a hurt editor (or art director or royalty bookkeeper) may not want to work as hard for an author who has irked him or her as for one who has been supportive, tolerant, and forgiving. This is not to say that editors are so thin-skinned they fold the first time someone criticizes them. But I do know that if an author or agent injures an editor's feelings seriously enough, it can undercut his or her initiative, and that may eventually redound to an author's detriment. Some years ago I phoned a bookkeeper who had been verbally abused by an author a few months earlier. This author was owed another check, and I wanted to know where it was. "Funny thing about that check," she said, deadpan, "it keeps falling to the bottom of my pile."

It is therefore vital that editors and their colleagues in other departments of publishing companies be handled with a certain degree of diplomacy, and it is in the language of that diplomacy that most agents are adept. We have learned that "a soft answer turneth away wrath." And most of the time, we are able to rephrase or paraphrase the blunt demands, the raw needs, the hard feelings, the hostile remarks, of our clients into gracious packages of civility that convey everything the author intended without damaging the fragile sensibilities of the person at whom they were directed.

I've been keeping some notes about discussions recently conducted with editors and am happy to offer herewith a few examples of this process in action. Some of them are tongue in cheek, others are deliberately exaggerated. Still others will sound stilted, and that is because, unfortunately, that is the way I speak.

Let's take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions. Editors are burdened with a great many tasks that curtail their reading time. They may be inundated with manuscripts to read. They may be on the fence about a submission and wish to postpone a decision for a while. They may be soliciting opinions or sales estimates from colleagues in their company. They have many legitimate reasons for taking a long time to read submissions.

At the same time, some editors seem to have a considerably dimmer sense of the passage of time than people in other fields, such as airline management or television programming. So, one of the first lessons one learns in the agenting profession is how to translate an editor's promises about time. "I'll read it overnight" too often means, "I'll get around to it in a week." "I'll read it in a week" means, "I'll be back to you in a month." And "I'll read it in a month" may well mean that the manuscript is lost.

In order to reasonably hold editors to their promised schedules, agents use the elegant phraseology of coercion. "As I'm loath to keep manuscripts out of circulation," I might say or write, "may I trouble you for a decision?" If this fails to yield a reply, I might escalate to something more pointed, like, "My client is getting restless," or, "I'm under some pressure to determine where we stand."

Sometimes a humorous approach is in order. I'm a great believer in the power of teasing to accomplish that which solemnity cannot, and I'm not above a little sarcasm under the appropriate circumstances: "When I submitted that manuscript to you, the oceans were two inches lower."

If an editor has sat on a submission for an unconscionably long time, I will invariably get a phone call from my client saying, "You tell that sonofabitch that if we don't have a decision by Friday, I'm personally gonna come down there and rearrange his prefrontal lobes with an ax haft!"

Justified though that ultimatum may be, it is couched in language this is terminally infelicitous. By the time I'm through modifying it, it may sound something closer to this: "As you don't seem able to make up your mind, suppose we say that if I haven't heard from you by Friday, I'll put another copy of the manuscript into play elsewhere, and you may take as much time thereafter as you wish." And sometimes I'll put a finer point on my message with this veiled warning: "Do let me know when your work load is down to a more reasonable size so that I can resume submitting books to you."

I'm certain that you must be saying to yourself, "How is an editor going to get these messages if the agent pussyfoots around that way?" The answer is, editors get these messages loudly and clearly, for unless one is incredibly dense, he will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against his throat.

Another common problem for agents is, of course, overdue checks. Authors are remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing the discomforts of financial deprivation and to depicting the character and ancestry of those who conspire to keep them in that condition. Unfortunately, most editors would go through the roof if exposed to the authors' invective. Enter the honey-tongued agent, and though that agent might love nothing better than to say, "Pay up or we'll vaporize you," it's more likely he or she will say something a bit more subdued. Perhaps a subtle form of extortion: "It would be to your advantage to remit payment promptly so as to avoid scheduling delays," In plain English, this informs the editor that unless his company ponies up the dough, the agent isn't going to deliver certain manuscripts that the publisher desperately needs to put into production. Because a late manuscript can wreck a production schedule at fearful cost to a publisher, the wise editor will undoubtedly give the check-processing machinery an extra-hard spin when he gets a message like that from an agent.

I can think of lots of other ways that agents refine the harsh language of their clients without sacrificing effectiveness. For instance, though we may be thinking, "My client just turned in a real turkey," what we are telling an editor is that, "My client thought you might like to see a first draft of his book before he starts polishing it."

Or, "My client is going to sue you into Rice Krispie-sized pieces" becomes, "My client is contemplating contacting his attorney, at which point the matter will be outside of my control."

Or, "My client thinks your editor is so incompetent, he couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the C and the T!" becomes, "I'm not certain that the author's and editor's views about the book are entirely compatible."

"My client is so upset he's taking big bites out of his living room sofa" translates into, "My client is finding it hard to understand why . . ."

"You'll use that cover on my client's book over his dead body!" may be altered to, "My client is pretty determined."

Here's a brief glossary of other agently euphemisms commonly employed when tempers start to overheat:

  • You: "I'm thoroughly disgusted with those people."

Agent: "Myclient is somewhat disenchanted."

  • You: "If I had that editor's throat in my hands . . ."

Agent: "I'm not sure my client is completely comfortable working with you."

  • You: "They're lying and cheating."

Agent: "Myclient feels he may have detected some discrepancies.

  • "You: "What a crummy deal?"

Agent: "Some of the terms leave something to be desired."

  • You: "I wouldn't sell another book to that butcher if he were the last editor on earth."

Agent: "Let's have lunch."

The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, "It didn't live up to their expectations," or, "They found it lacking in certain respects." Or an editor's remark to the effect that a certain author couldn't write his way out of a trash can liner becomes, "They don't feel you've reached your potential quite yet."

Here are a few others.

  • Editor: "This material is simply lousy."

Agent: "Your editor is disappointed."

  • Editor: "What language is your client writing in, anyway?"

Agent: "Your editor pointed out some obscure passages."

  • Editor: "Your client is the rudest person I've ever had the misfortune to work with."

Agent: "Your editor seems to have overreacted to what he perceives as a slight."

  • Editor: "Is your client crazy, or what?"

Agent: "I'm not sure your editor appreciates your sense of humor."

Of course, not all agents approach matters as delicately as this. Some of us are in fact quite plainspoken, and even the most tactful among us realizes that there are unavoidable occasions when we must unsheath a steel fist from the velvet glove. Still, it is gratifying to know that at least when it comes to the language one may still find reminders of the time when publishing was a profession for civilized ladies and gentlemen.

All the best,

Richard Curtis


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