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June 2012

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads



OKAY, HOTSHOT, WE all know you're smarter than your agent. At least, that's what you're always telling your friends. So let's see how well you can do at second-guessing him or her in a few hypothetical situations. For every correct answer, you get a free power lunch in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons with any publisher of your choice; for every one you get wrong, same prize but you treat.

  • Your client has had twelve genre novels published in paperback. They've sold about fifty thousand copies each. She thinks the time has come to be published in hardcover. You tell her:
     a) She's absolutely right and you're getting on the phone at once.
     b) She should write another dozen paperbacks that sell fifty thousand copies each, then you'll move her.
     c) Wait till her paperbacks start selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies each.
     d) She's crazy to want to be published in hardcover.
  • Your client has just turned in the manuscript of a book that has good film possibilities. The time to start contacting producers is:
     a) When the book is in bound proofs.
     b) When finished copies come off the presses.
     c) When the book starts getting good reviews.
     d) Yesterday.
  • You recently sold a client's first novel to a publisher for $5,000. The client has an idea for a new novel that he thinks has big money potential, and he wants a much bigger advance. The best time to ask for it is:
     a) Now.
     b) Six months from now.
     c) Around the time the first novel is published.
     d) A year after the first novel has been published.

In case you haven't noticed, all the questions in this quiz have to do with timing. Few authors realize it, but one of the most important reasons for hiring agents is that they have a superior sense of timing. "Timing is everything" might almost be called the agent's motto ("Patience is everything else" might be considered the agent's second motto). The most successful agents are those who understand that there is a season to push and a season to ease up, a season to fight and a season to turn the back, a season to watch and wait and a season to strike. Sometimes the moment presents itself on a platter; sometimes it has to be worked with brute force like steel on a smithy's anvil. And there are times when, for all an agent's scheming, for all his exertions, for all his manipulations, he simply cannot make the thing happen. (That's usually a signal for me to go shopping.)

Most authors are impatient. It's a forgivable character trait, for it often goes hand in hand with ambition. But because authors cannot possibly be as objective about the progress of their careers as their agents are, their impatience can make them their own worst enemies. A goodly part of an agent's day is spent restraining authors.

Although we usually associate timing with the moment when an agent pulls off some million-dollar coup, many of its applications are far more prosaic. A couple of years ago a literary agent wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly complaining about rude editors who do not return agents' phone calls. Her broadside elicited a chorus of cheers from fellow agents, and from writers who'd had similarly unpleasant experiences.

I had a different reaction, though. Her article made me wonder whether the telephone is not greatly overused by agents, and whether there are many occasions when a note would do instead of a call. This is particularly true in the conduct of routine business such as inquiries about submissions, contracts, and checks. Editors are usually harried with paperwork, urgent business, and other phone calls, and so there is an odds-on probability that a scribbled note taken down during a phone call will presently be buried beneath the day's alluvial deposit of letters, internal memos, manuscripts, catalogues, contracts, and junk mail. I've noticed, however, that editors seem to place more significance upon written inquiries, and they move on them more promptly. More importantly, underuse of the phone by an agent may motivate editors to take his calls when he really needs to get through. If an editor doesn't want to talk to an agent because the editor thinks the agent is calling about that overdue check, when actually the agent is calling to pitch a hot new property, a vital opportunity will have been missed for both of them.

The preceding is not a particularly glamorous example of timing, but in the last analysis it's the daily employment of wise timing that makes a good agent effective.

But then there is that dramatic application that makes an agent feel he's been waiting all his life to yank the ripcord, and the decisive moment has come. Not long ago a fellow agent called me for consultation on a particularly delicate timing problem involving a star author. This author had a very big book scheduled for publication about nine months from that time, but because he was very unhappy with his publisher, he had asked his agent to seek another one. His agent had done so and lined up a terrific deal. In order to get out of his option with his current publisher, the author merely had to submit an outline and reject whatever was offered. When to do that—that was the problem.

The new publisher was pressing the agent to finalize their deal. Publishers get very nervous about leaving big offers open for too long, since agents have been known to use those offers to solicit even higher ones. Despite the possibility that the offer would be withdrawn, the agent was dragging his heels. By breaking with the current publisher too early, the agent could demoralize the sales people and cause the company to pull some of its advertising and promotional money from the upcoming book; a publisher that is losing an author may not work as hard for him as one that looks forward to a long association.

What did I advise my colleague to do? I'll let you brood about it for a minute or two in the security of your armchair, but remember that in this real-life situation, millions of dollars, the agent's relationship with his client, the agent's relationship with two publishers, the fate of a book on which the author had spent a year, the fate of many books to come, and a lot of egos and reputations were on the line. Perhaps you would understand it better if you got out of your armchair and read the rest of this chapter while standing on a rickety stool with a hangman's noose around your neck.

Although I have tried to demystify the publishing business for you, I have to confess that the instincts governing the sense of timing, including my own, are wonderfully and impenetrably mysterious to me. I am fairly certain that they are of a piece with artistic inspiration. Most of the time, if you ask me to articulate the reasons why I chose a certain moment to demand a dramatic raise in an author's pay, or to go from a book-by-book arrangement to a multibook package deal, or to move a client out of paperback originals and into hardcover, I can express them fairly coherently. But then there are those inexplicable revelations, blazing across the mind when one least expects it, that illuminate a situation with dazzling clarity and put one in touch with some very profound impulses.

I take pride in handling most business matters expeditiously, but occasionally something will come along that I frankly don't know what to do about. It will sit on my desk glowering at me, mocking me, demanding attention but eluding solution. I gaze back at it, mutter an oath, but am paralyzed with uncertainty. You might call the condition "agent's block." The client and the publisher are pressing for a decision. I offer feeble excuses that sound very much like procrastination or, worse, timidity. In truth, I'm simply waiting for the green light to go on in my brain. Inevitably it switches on, but when I least anticipate it, such as awaking from a nap or glomming a midnight snack. The answer is suddenly printed in bright headlines before me, and what was so difficult suddenly becomes ridiculously easy. The time, at last, has come.

Lest I start to sound as if agenting is a variety of religious experience, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Some of the things agents do that authors think are brilliantly timed are in truth matters of dumb luck. An author writes a book and I sell it to precisely the right editor and it goes on to become a best-seller. I would love for you to think that I selected that editor the way a handicapper selects a winning horse. And perhaps I did. But sometimes, finding the perfect editor for a book is a matter of who is not out to lunch, in a meeting, or in the bathroom when an agent starts making phone calls.

Now, about that quiz.

Situation Number 1: The paperback author who wants to be published in hardcover. Despite the evidence that you can make a much better living writing original paperbacks than you can hardcover books, most authors feel an uneasy sense of illegitimacy about paperbacks. And it is true that hardcover books have a better chance of being reviewed (negatively as well as favorably, don't forget) and selling to the movies. But if an author's paperbacks are selling in routine numbers, as in this example, the time may not be propitious for the leap into hardcover, for the author hasn't built an audience prepared to follow her into the more prestigious and expensive format. On many occasions a premature debut in hardcover can be catastrophic and the author may forever lose the opportunity to be published in boards again.

Situation Number 2: What is the best time to start soliciting movie rights to a book with promising film potential? The answer is, immediately if not sooner. Movie and television people need to feel they are getting in on something hot. By the time a book is published it will have been circulated among all the key studios, networks, and producers owing to Hollywood's highly efficient system for obtaining early looks at anything that sounds interesting. "A published book," the late producer David Susskind once said to me, "isvery dead meat." There are of course exceptions to this rule, and examples of books made into successful movies decades after publication. But if you have a hot movie property, there's not a moment to lose. And remember, it's a good idea to prepare a brief synopsis of the book, highlighting its cinematic qualities, to accompany the submission for those in Hollywood who don't have the time (or the ability) to read.

Situation Number 3: Whenis it appropriate to ask for a higher advance? The answer is, it's always appropriate to ask, but not always appropriate to expect. For new authors, the period of time between the sale of the first novel and publication is an extremely perilous one. Assuming an author is of average productivity, he will have ideas, outlines, or even completed manuscripts of new works long before that first book has been published. Until that first book has been published, however, the publisher will have no basis for calculating the value of the author's work and will therefore resist offering him more than a token raise in price. Indeed, because publishers don't formulate a clear picture of a book's sales for about a year after publication, owing to the time it takes for unsold copies to be returned, it may be two or three years from the time you sell your first book before you are justified in requesting prices bigger than starting pay. So if you answered (d) on the quiz you may have been closest to the truth.

You can't, of course, afford to sit around for several years waiting for the results on your first book, so there are several strategies for bridging the gap. One is to become more prolific (including writing books under pseudonyms for other publishers if your first publisher can't absorb your entire output). Another is to write your second, third, and even fourth novel on speculation rather than trying to line up contracts for them on the basis of outlines or portions-and-outlines. As I've said before, publishers are able to make much faster judgments about finished books than partial ones, and usually pay higher prices.

Finally, we return to the quandary of the agent torn between responsibility for his client's forthcoming book and eagerness to nail down a deal with another publisher before the first publisher backs out. The situation was, as I pointed out, quite treacherous, but I advised the agent to wait until the very last moment, a few weeks before publication of the book, before informing the current publishers that they weren't going to get the author's next book. By that time the advertising was set, the author's tour locked in, the books were in the stores, and the publishers were committed to doing everything possible to make it a success and recover their investment.

As for the publishers threatening to withdraw their offer if the agent delayed, the agent visited the head of the company and persuaded him to leave his offer on the table. "Look," said my friend, "you have my word of honor that I will not use your offer to seek other bids. I cannot afford to offend a rich and powerful publisher like you. Please bear in mind that if we announce the author's decision too soon, the other publisher may pull its advertising and promotion and their book will flop. And that will make it much harder for you to sell the author's next book." Happily, the publisher saw the wisdom of this argument and held his offer open. It all worked out happily, even for the publisher who lost the big-name author. Oh, the publisher was sore for a few weeks, but then the agent phoned him and told him that another client was unhappy with her publisher and wanted to move to another house. "Interested?" he asked. Of course he was interested!

Now, that's what I call an agent with an exquisite sense of timing.


Is Life Too Short?

IN THE LAST chapter we discussed one of the most important qualities a literary agent can bring to his job: good timing. I've been thinking about another virtue that most good agents possess, and that's patience. If timing is the art of "when to," patience might be said to be the art of "when not to." In many cases, that means when not to knock your head against a wall, when not to wring a client's throat, or when not to hop in a taxi, race over to a publisher's office, and trash his desk.

Although some people are born patient, for most of us it's an acquired quality. We attain it only with experience, and it may be the only significant benefit of aging.

If you are constitutionally incapable of practicing patience, you are definitely not cut out to become a literary agent. Despite the appearance of furious activity, and notwithstanding such timesaving innovations as multiple submissions, word processors, laser printers, electronic mail, high-speed presses, overnight mail, instant books, and quickie releases, the truth is that just about anything of importance that happens in our industry happens slowly. Good books are written at a snail's pace, submissions take ages, negotiations drag on, money flows like cold lard, and the building of an author's career from first sale to best-selling masterpiece is about as dramatic as watching a lake evaporate. Difficult publishers test our patience, as do difficult authors. If agents seem to have a higher per capita ratio of weekend homes than other professionals, have pity on them: they must have a place to go to chop wood, bay at the moon, and otherwise relieve the strain of holding their natural impulses in check during the other five days a week.

I do not own a weekend home, but I do have a set of molars that have been ground down close to the nerve endings from restraining the desire to commit a variety of felonies in order to make things move faster. Behind a demeanor that one of my clients once described as "judicious," seethes a cauldron of emotions, energy, grievances, and heroic fantasies. I smile, I speak moderately, I behave politely, I move deliberately. I polish my buckler and hone my sword, my ear cocked for the call to arms. It may come in the form of a letter, a phone call, an offer, an opportunity, an insult. But I am ready for action (see "Timing"). Meanwhile, I wait.

I wait, for instance, for you to finish your book. Because my agency does a lot of business in paperback original series, I have to wait only a month or two for many books. For most mainstream ones, however, I have to wait nine months, a year, or longer. The potential in these books presses heavily upon my consciousness; I'm dying to wheel and deal. But with few exceptions there is little to be done to convert that potential until the manuscript has been turned in. However much I am dying to go into action with that book, I cannot advance the calendar by one day, the clock by one minute. I grind my teeth and wait.

I wait for publishers to make up their minds about my submissions. Decisions on manuscripts can be forced by means of the auction, and when agents have to move fast they can elicit decisions virtually overnight. But most material does not command that kind of attention. The more conventional approach of one submission at a time, or at best two or three simultaneously, is what is usually called for. Like most agencies, we have a reminder calendar and regularly write or phone publishers prodding them to keep the property in question at the top of the pile.

Despite every measure taken to make editors respond to submissions promptly, it is unrealistic to expect decisions in less than six weeks, and quite realistic to expect none in less than three months. If a work isn't placed on the first or second round of submissions, therefore, a year or more can pass with relatively few submissions to show for all the investment of time. So we wait.

We wait to make deals. Deals can be struck in a matter of minutes, but many negotiations take days, weeks, or even months to unfold. With the evolution of publishing from an individual entrepreneurial enterprise to a bureaucratized corporate one, seldom do agents end up negotiating with the principals of a publishing company. Instead we take up terms with editors, who refer them to superior officers or editorial boards. Several weeks may pass if the appropriate executives are not available to formulate offers or counteroffers. Often, figures have to be worked up by a variety of departments to help the company determine its negotiating strategy. During which time we wait.

We wait for contracts. The people who work in the contract departments of most publishing houses are among the most professional in our industry. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible for them to produce contracts for signature in less than six or eight weeks. After the editor reaches agreement with the author or agent, he prepares a deal memo summarizing the terms of the contract, for approval by the head of the company. After approval has been rendered, the deal memo goes to the contract department where it serves as the basis for the formal agreement. This agreement is reviewed by the acquiring editor and an officer of the company, then returned to the contract department for issuance to the author or agent. After signed contracts are returned to the publisher, they are circulated for signature and a voucher is issued directing the accounts payable department to prepare the check. We now wait for the check.

We wait a long time for the check because in many cases the accounts payable department is not in the same building or even the same state as the contracts department. After receiving the voucher from the contracts department, accounts payable prepares a check that must be reviewed and signed by the controller or other officer of the company. It is then forwarded to the contracts department to be issued with the contracts, or sent to the payee directly from the accounts payable office.

If form follows function, publishers could not conceive of a better structure for attenuating the time it takes to release money. Even with all hands working at maximum efficiency—not a very desirable state, you must realize, when there is interest to be earned—I figure two to three months is now the industry average for payout from the time check vouchers are issued. Agents who have managed to map and penetrate the system can keep things moving with phone calls to various departments along the paperwork routes goading delinquent clerks to press on with their tasks. Nevertheless, we wait. We wait for books to be published.

Well, you get the idea; just about everything concerning publishing is a test of an agent's patience. And that includes authors.

One of my colleagues has created, with tongue somewhat in cheek I suspect, an index for rating his clients; he calls it the PITA factor. PITA stands for "Pain In The Ass." He assigns his client a rating from one to ten, depending on such factors as how often they ask him for advances, how many times they call him at home at six o'clock on Sunday mornings, how many editors they insult, and in general how much maintenance they require beyond routine care and feeding. Their PITA factor is then divided into the commissions realized on their sales. Applying his criteria, an author who earns only $1,000 annually in commissions but who is a model client is as valuable to his agent as one who earns $10,000 in commissions but is a raving lunatic. "Life," says my friend, "is too short to have to deal with pains in the ass."

Well, I don't know. As I said at the beginning of this chapter, if you do feel that way, the literary agent's trade is not for you and you should go into something less aggravating, like commodity trading or hospital emergency room administration. When it comes to dealing with artists, irritating behavior comes with the territory. And, far more important, think of what they have to put up with. With the rare exception of the author whose first book stuns the critics, sweeps the public off its feet, and soars to the top of the best-seller list, success for most writers is won only after decades of economic struggle, mental anguish, crushing obscurity, and the consumption of murderous doses of pride. They spend a lifetime practicing patience, and if they do not always practice it very well, if they are difficult when they're starting out, difficult when they begin to make it, and difficult when they finally arrive, a larger degree of tolerance is called for on the part of those who serve them, particularly if they've never tried that life themselves.

A PITA scale that does not factor in the emotional satisfactions of midwifing an author's first book, of nurturing his career as he gains in skill and confidence and stretches to grasp his vision, and of attending his graduation ceremony featuring smashing reviews and sales by the trainload, requires some serious rethinking.

Life is not too short if an agent's patience is rewarded with such satisfactions as these.

All the best,

Richard Curtis


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