Monday

To MFA or not to MFA?

A University of Oxford DPhil in full academic ...Image via Wikipedia

by Chris Stewart

There must be something in the air: this past spring and fall I mentored five of my writing workshop students through their MFA applications. So if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to find and apply for the right program for you, here are some things to think about:

MONEY: The first and most important consideration. Can you afford to quit your job, move to the city/state where the graduate program you want to join is located, and either work part time or not at all? Or, if you stay local, can you quit your job or work part time? Or can you keep your day job and ask your boss if you can leave early for an afternoon class, or just take them in the evenings?

If your portfolio is good enough, a school will pay part, or all, of your tuition either for one or both years (one year means you received a scholarship, which comes through nomination by a member of the faculty at the institution, or is decided by those faculty who choose the incoming class of graduate students. Both years means you are given an award where you are a teaching assistant the second year. And that means teaching freshman composition, my friends, after a torturous summer of training, in addition to taking your own classes and working on your thesis).

Only a handful of people receive either or both of these, so definitely apply, but plan as if you're paying yourself. That means start looking into student loans!

What I did: I was lucky enough to have my tuition at Hollins University paid for by the University (but I still borrowed money to live on as the course load was too much for me to work at the same time; it was a one year MA program), and received a scholarship and a teaching assistant award at the University of Maryland. I dropped the TA award as I couldn’t deal with the workload and keep my current day job (I went to grad school late in life, in my thirties, and had grown up bills to pay). This was all about 10 years ago, however, and programs and their funding options change all the time—Hollins has since morphed into a two-year MFA with the teaching assistance award.

THE PROGRAM: This can be as easy or as complicated as you make it. What do you want to write? Fiction? Poetry? Non-Fiction? What are your goals? Do you want a MA (Master of Arts) or a MFA (Master of Fine Arts)? The latter is considered a ‘terminal degree,’ the highest degree one needs to work (i.e. teach) in the field of creative writing at a college or university, so if you plan to teach someday, keep this in mind. (To be an English professor one would need to continue on to a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). There are Ph.D. programs in creative writing, but a MFA is as far as you need to go to get a job. I personally don't think they are of value; I see them as an extension of the MFA for those who need more time and mentoring.)

Other questions to ask: Who are your favorite writers? Do they teach anywhere? If so, where? This would be an opportunity to work with them. Again, can you relocate? If not, look at your local programs and pick the one with writers/poets who you think will inspire and challenge you. Being challenged is important.

YOUR THESIS: Have this in mind before you apply and have already made substantial progress on this project (meaning at least 50-75 pages of prose or 20 poems). You’ll be including this as your writing sample (or at least most of your writing sample), and the selection committee will be looking for your discussion of this project in the personal statement portion of your application. Do you want to write a collection of short stories? A novel? A memoir? A book of poetry? What’s the theme? The plot? Who are the characters? Why this particular project? How will you grow as a writer through writing it? What do you want to learn? What do you need to learn? Think of your strengths and weaknesses. How will joining the graduate program at the school(s) you’ve chosen make that possible? Why are you a good match for them as well?

Schools are looking at you long term. Are you good enough to make a name for yourself and engender them some recognition as a success story for their program? Will you become someone they can name on their website and in their brochures to encourage future generations of writers/poets to apply? What’s your record so far? If you have not published anything in any literary magazines, or have published only in local ones, and are not considered a wunderkind by your peers or undergraduate professors, your best bet is to apply to MA or MFA programs in your area. Having good publications, or having won a decent or well known prize, or having an amazing talent for writing, makes a big difference in your application and, therefore, the schools to which you can apply.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shoot for the stars and send your application to one or two of your dream schools, though. You never know who is or isn’t applying that year. Maybe all the wunderkinds are already in programs or working to save money this year.

Most of us are, unfortunately, not geniuses. We are either good writers or have the potential to be, so if you are thinking of getting a master’s degree in the next few years, prepare yourself NOW. Start working on the project you believe will be your thesis. Submit your work for publication and prizes. (Poets & Writers is an excellent resource.) You might also take a writing workshop offered by a reputable continuing ed/extension program, or perhaps find a mentor in your area to work with privately. Don’t assume that your critique group, however wonderful they are, will give you enough, or the proper, preparation.

BEYOND THE DEGREE: Once accepted to a program, I encourage those I mentor to take classes beyond their form and discipline. For example: a film class for the visual storytelling and symbolism. And a music class. Listening to music creates an emotional response in you, which can prompt ideas or memories associated with that feeling or the music, which can in turn prompt a piece of writing. And developing a soundtrack for that novel you’re working on helps you create the emotional tenor of the scene as well as the characters in the scene. A music class will expose you to music, people, and historical information you would not normally be exposed to.

And whether you are proficient in any of these forms, definitely take one or all of the following: a poetry workshop, a playwriting workshop, a screenwriting workshop, or at least classes where important works (classic or contemporary) are studied. You do not need to be a skilled poet or playwright to reap the benefits of working in these forms. Your prose will be all the better for the practice in imagery or dialogue. If there’s room, take a science class, as well as a class focusing on religion. All of these will stretch and inspire you with their own structure, language, and grand (and timeless) ideas. These will, in turn, feed into your work, lending it greater resonance and depth.

A TERRIFIC RESOURCE: Amy Holman’s “An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MA or MFA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship.”

I’m proud to say that all those I mentored were accepted into the program of their choice. Perhaps this time next year you’ll be celebrating as well?

Chris Stewart is a mentor and creative writing teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. Her website is www.therealwriter.com

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Thursday

Why Does So Much Bad Writing Get Published?

by Michael Neff

This is a question that comes up time and time again, and it's always difficult to answer. But the answers have implications for the entire publishing industry.

Ultimately, the publication of bad novels, i.e., novels in any genre deemed poorly written by any reasonable reader of that genre, is not the fault of the reader, but of those involved in the publication process, from agent to publisher. How can it not be? Can one blame the gods or the stars in this matter?

I've found that the majority of literary agents and acquisition editors are intelligent and savvy people, not to mention hardworking! However, there remains a number of types involved in the process who really should not be there. The culture weeds out some of them, as a matter of course, but many persist. And these types, like film biz types, will never fault themselves for the failure of their products. If the film fails, someone must be blamed (like the actor or director), not the studio execs who made the decision to enthusiastically move forward with an inferior product.

After working with scores of agents, I've met a few who really don't have a clue what makes for a good story, or what makes for good literature in general--and we're not talking James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, we're talking literary work that sells well in the marketplace--like Water for Elephants or The Hours.

In other words, these particular people really don't have any taste.

Ok, so let's just assume that only 20% of active literary agents currently pushing projects in the marketplace are a bit short on taste and knowledge. Well, what of it? That's still a lot of projects, represented by them, being pushed in the face of editors at major houses. Hopefully, editors, who are generally pretty sharp, will see through these loser manuscripts, but what if they are overworked and don't get to read the whole novel? What if they trust the agent too much because they work for a respectable agency? What if their assistant who "reads" the project is fearful of saying no to the project because he or she detects an atmosphere of optimism for it that will reflect badly on them if tell the truth? What if the novel has been written by a name author and the reader knows he or she will lose their job if they raise a red flag?

Any number of scenarios are possible.

After all, how can one possibly explain the publication of monstrosities like Fan Tan and The Emperor's Children, two of the worst novels ever written in the English language? If you get a chance, read the one and two star reviews written by real readers, not sock puppets of the publisher. It's a real eye opener. And there are many more, many more novels on the shelves not quite as bad as the two above, but horrible enough that someone, somewhere, should have said something. But they did not, and yet, they were all, all represented by literary agents who are supposed to be the gatekeepers for the industry.

So what went wrong? Badly designed autos sometimes make it to the dealer floor, but bad novels make to the superstore display far more often.

Perhaps the managers and successful agents at major agencies should keep a closer eye on employees who are doing a questionable job. Perhaps they should methodically use an independent reader critique group made up of experienced and unbiased readers, answerable only to top management and forbidden to interact with agency staff.

Perhaps a few simple changes at the source will help winnow out some of the worst loser novels, even by name authors, before they make their way to the superstore shelves.

So what is the alternative? Biz as usual?

If new methods are not introduced at the ground level, the public will rebel even further and buy even fewer books. Let's be realistic. How many times can you falsely praise a bad novel before buyers as a whole become fatigued and wary?
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NYC Pitch and Shop - Don't Go Away Mad!

Midtown Manhattan, New York City, from Rockefe...Image via WikipediaBy Michael Neff

Why do aspiring authors with the least experience often make the most problems at a writer conference? And who do we blame for this strange and persistent phenomenon? Writer's Digest? Spouses and friends? Their writer's group? Their relentless egos? All of the above?

Emotions and expectations run high at a conference where writers interact directly with decision-makers from major publishing houses. Regardless, between copy on the website and materials emailed to future attendees, the NYC Pitch and Shop makes it extremely clear that the conference does not exist for the purpose of slapping writers on the back and sending them on a flight home with a sense of false optimism about the potential of their novels to break into the mainstream market.

For some reason though, a certain type of writer makes an appearance (at least one per conference) who cannot take the least bit of criticism--and as any workshop leader or teacher will tell you, this type can quickly become a disruptive force of one, especially at such time the NYC Pitch and Shop editors and workshop leaders do not swoon over the quality of their work.

Being an experienced workshop leader, I usually spot the signs of ignorance and ego mania fairly early. First, their novels always sound confusing, cliche, and often boring (they should have been screened out in the first place!). Next, the "writers" with this condition refuse to make any changes. Under no conditions, will they compromise their great American novel by considering rewrites, edits, or any plot or premise adjustments that might make their work more competitive. Finally, once the conference reaches the twilight hour and no single editor has requested their work, the hunt for victims begins. After all, they can't possibly be responsible for their own failure.

A few examples are necessary to make the point, but the names will be changed to protect the guilty. There was Maria from Arkansas with the novel about an oversexed Kmart store clerk. She was rude to the editors, complained to everyone, bounced from group to group in an effort to find someone fool enough to accept her worldview, then later wrote the group organizers and claimed she would accuse them of abuse and sexual harassment if she didn't get her money back. No, really.

Then came Manley Milfree flipping his literary business cards at everyone, the cards ugly and splattered with horrible prose--as if by this very act he might impress seasoned editors. We asked him to stop, but of course, he would not. He knew better. No one at the NYC Pitch and Shop could convince him otherwise!

There are more, but in 90% of the cases, these types are all terrible writers. Where do they come from?

The more experienced writers are the more humble. They've taken their lumps and they understand the pain. They are willing to learn, and they are all tenacious.

A good example of this type of writer can be found on the "News" and "Commentary" pages at the NYC Pitch and Shop website.


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Wednesday

Publishing Spoken Here

By Richard Curtis

Traduttore, Traditore
("The translator is a traitor") - Italian proverb

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. Must be gravity or something."

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 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 our agency 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 pr she will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against the 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 or she 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 out 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: "My client 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: "My client 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.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Take This Job and Shove It

By Richard Curtis

Most writers dream of leaving their day jobs (some have night jobs as well) and launching careers as full-time freelancers. In their eagerness to realize that goal, many of them quit as soon as they've made a few sales. This decision invariably turns out to be ill-advised if not catastrophic after the author discovers that he did not properly reckon the cost of independence, project the size and flow of earnings, or prepare himself psychologically. Even an author lucky enough to strike it rich on his first book should use the utmost restraint before quitting his job to become a writer. By the time he realizes he doesn't know what to write for an encore, he may have raised his lifestyle to an unsupportably high plateau.

The questions of whether and when writers should go full-time are among the most common and vexing that agents have to deal with, and if an agent ever had a notion to play God, here is his opportunity. The responsibility for this decision is awesome and demands ten times the prudence required to advise authors about such matters as selecting the right publisher for their books. The number of factors is large and their complexity intimidating. It's the kind of decision that should be reviewed with a great many people to collect as much input as possible.

An excellent idea is to make a list of pluses and minuses, what you stand to gain and what to lose. Often the right choice will jump out at you when you review this list. The secret is to make sure you have enumerated all the factors. Then you must be brutally honest with yourself. You do not want to subject yourself and your family to needless suffering because you erred on the side of wishful thinking when you drew up your scenario.

My first rule of thumb is to determine whether you have enough work lined up under contract to guarantee employment for one to two years; that probably means you have reached a level of skill and reliability your publisher can count on. I seldom permit an author to include in his expectations income that is not absolutely guaranteed—royalties, foreign rights sales, movie deals, and the like—unless there is a solid history of such windfalls in his track record. If you've never sold British rights to your previous books, if you only hope your next book will earn royalties, if your father-in-law thinks your book is a natural for the movies, I toss these items out of the equation, because they are only fodder for self-delusion and disappointment.

I do, however, include in the equation the renewal of current contracts after you have fulfilled them, particularly if you are a genre writer. If you have a three-book contract in an ongoing series, I tend to consider it a likelihood that you'll be given another contract at the expiration of this one. If you're an established mainstream writer with three or four books under your belt and a potful of good ideas for new ones, I'm disposed to take for granted that you'll land a new contract when you complete your present book.

The renewal of contracts means money payable on signature of those agreements, so that when you look down the road for money to be earned after fulfillment of your present commitments, you should be able to count on income from new deals. It is also reasonable to figure that you'll get more money per book than you're getting now, because it's likely the publisher will feel you're a better writer and there'll be more of a sales record to justify raises. There is also a tendency among publishers to give raises to their regular writers if for no other reasons than inflation, longevity, loyalty, faith in the future, and humane motivations. You have to ask for these raises, but there's a good chance that if you don't push it too hard, your publisher will give you a little more the next time around just because you're a nice person.

Another important factor I weigh when discussing with authors the decision to go full-time is increased productivity.

At present, because you're only able to devote an hour or two to your writing in the evenings, and maybe twice that much on the weekends, you are not capable of turning out more than two books, say, per year. But if you launch a full-time writing career, you may be able to double or triple your annual output, meaning double or triple the revenue. There is also, I've observed, a tendency for writers to improve the quality of their work after they become full-timers, because they're exercising their skills to a greater degree, and (domestic distractions notwithstanding) their concentration increases. And if you do become a better, faster writer, the prospects for raises in pay from your publishers become even better. The process, in due time, becomes self-perpetuating.

Having painted the future in broad, and slightly rose-tinted, strokes, it's time to focus on the hard realities of budgeting your money after you make The Big Move. Get out that legal pad and set up two columns, Income and Expenditures. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that's about the only straightforward thing about setting up a budget, because when you start to analyze each item, you quickly see that simple concepts and definitions are elusive.

When you work for "the man," you most likely receive a regular paycheck from which certain mandatory deductions are withheld. Among these are federal and state income taxes, sometimes municipal ones as well. Social security contributions are also compulsory. Then there may also be deductions for disability insurance, worker's compensation, medical insurance, union dues, stock option purchases, pension contributions, and donations to the boss's pet charity. Your net take-home income has been 20, 40, even 50 percent or more of your gross salary.

When you become a full-time writer, however, you suddenly find yourself in the position of "taking home" a "paycheck" from which nothing (except commissions, if you have an agent) has been deducted. At first glance that's great. At second and third glances, you realize that the heavy burden of responsibility for many of those obligations, formerly taken care of by your boss, now rests on your own shoulders. You will have to set aside enough money to pay income taxes, social security, and other taxes such as unincorporated business taxes, occupancy taxes on your business property (your office, that is); medical and/or disability insurance premiums; pension contributions (you may now qualify for a Keogh Plan savings account); and whatever other "benefits" you wish to continue enjoying as carryovers from your erstwhile job. So, the $50,000 per annum that you project taking home when you go full-time may translate into less than $25,000 of disposable income after you set aside all the obligations your employer used to pay on your behalf.

To your projections of income from your writing, add income from your spouse's job if any, investment dividends and savings interest, and other sources of guaranteed revenue such as teaching, lecturing, or consulting income. And you must not rule out your savings as a potential source of income. Because delays are more the rule than the exception in the publishing game, it is entirely possible that you will have to tap the principal in your savings account or liquidate a long-term investment in order to tide yourself over between checks.

Because many major expenses are payable quarterly (such as estimated federal taxes), semiannually, or even annually, you might consider opening a savings account for those obligations only. You can then earn a little interest on the money you have set aside to pay those bills. Needless to say, you must never invest that money in speculative ventures.

When you try to tote up the "expenditures" side of your projections, you once again discover that nothing is as simple as it seemed to be when your boss took care of things. You will immediately see how costly medical insurance is, particularly when you are no longer participating in a group health care plan. The social security rate for self-employed people is higher than for those in "respectable" jobs (writing has not been a respectable job for twenty-five years).

And then there are those "bennies" and perks you took for granted when you worked for that company. If you had an expense account, you will now have to absorb that portion of the benefit that was formerly spent on yourself, in particular travel and entertainment. No longer can you charge the firm for your spouse's meal when you take clients or customers to dinner; no longer can you bill your boss for mileage incurred on that side visit to Disneyland during your business trip to Los Angeles. And because current tax law permits you to deduct only a percentage of legitimate entertainment expenses, you've also lost that part that your company absorbed in tax on the nondeductible part. Say good-bye to the free use of the postage machine when you mailed off your personal bills; to the telephone from which you called your publisher, your agent, your kid in college, your mother in Florida; to the photocopying machine on which you ran off copies of your manuscript after everyone had gone home; and to the office word processor, computer, coffee maker. Say good-bye to the paid vacation. You want a vacation, you now can take fifty-two weeks a year if you want, only you have to pay for them out of your own pocket. Say good-bye to sick days on salary. Say good-bye to the company car and the company jet and the company dining room. Buy your own car and jet and dining room.

I am not saying there aren't also many hidden benefits to leaving our job for a full-time writing career. But somehow, the savings on carfare or on the expensive wardrobe you're trading in for the freelancer's uniform of jeans and T-shirts don't seem to balance the hidden costs. And not everybody fervently believes that getting to see more of one's spouse or kids is a hidden benefit.

The biggest challenge to the newly independent is the large lump-sum payments due with unforgiving regularity throughout the year. Among these, as I've said, are quarterly estimated federal income and social security taxes, but there are also state and local taxes and estimates and medical insurance premiums. This is not to mention those other lump sums you have to pay whether you are self-employed or not, such as automobile and home insurance, private school or college tuition, summer camp fees, repair contracts on major appliances, and the like. And these all have a way of going up. Add to them the cost of occasional but inevitable contingencies, the kind that always seem to rear their heads hours after your warranties expire and moments after you have served notice to your boss of your intention to leave his employ; washing machines giving up the ghost, television picture tubes burning out, automobile engines seizing, wisdom teeth impacting.

Aside from being fiscally unprepared to deal with these aggravations, you may not be emotionally able to cope with them. This is by far the graver problem, for while you can often juggle your accounts or hustle up some money to cover short-term deficits, it is much, much harder to find the psychological resources for dealing with that condition of perpetual anxiety about money that is the lot of most freelance people.

The truth is that not everybody is constitutionally cut out to work for him- or herself. There are those who are incapable of preparing a budget or of staying within its rigid boundaries. There are those who cannot handle the loneliness of freelancing and the loss of the social support that comes from working with others. There are those who lack self-discipline, those who, after years of punching in and out at a time clock, reporting to a boss or supervisor, adhering to rules and regulations and work orders, are at a loss to structure their own time. There are those who cannot set short- and long-term goals or keep to them. There are those who cannot live with the distractions of full-time domesticity. There are those who go to pieces at the prospect of drawing on their savings or selling off an investment to cover an unexpected expense. There are those who indulge their newfound freedom by tackling that Great American Novel they've always dreamed of, instead of doing the commercial projects that have to be done to keep their finances on a steady course.

Having tried the freelance life for several years in my twenties, I can testify to having flunked most of the above tests. Though I did produce a goodly number of books during that period, and earned a decent living, I found the loneliness and isolation very hard to bear, and the budgeting of money impossible. I had some savings salted away, but having been raised to think of drawing money out of savings as tantamount to filing for bankruptcy, I suffered woefully. Every month, when the time came to pay my bills, I developed all sorts of neurasthenic symptoms ranging from vapors to hysterical pregnancy. So, be as candid with yourself as you can be when you contemplate making this critical career decision, and ask your spouse, your best friend, your accountant, your attorney, your shrink, and your agent to be so, too. If they vote yes, then all you'll need is a laptop, a pair of jeans, and a few T-shirts, and you're in business.

Oh yes—don't forget $100,000 worth of book contracts!

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Sunday

Behind Publishing's Wednesday of the Long Knives

As the publishing industry reels the day after announcements of layoffs by major publishers, you can expect lots of ink to be spilled about the underlying reasons. I doubt if they will drill down to what's really at the heart of these upheavals.

I'm going to ask you to read my comments twice. When you get to the end you'll understand why.

Richard Curtis
********************
The American trade book industry is undergoing the most serious recession in its history, and though it has rebounded from other down cycles in the past, anyone who thinks it will return to boom times is living in a fool's paradise.

Trade book publishing has been in decline since the end of World War II. Industry boosters cite increased sales volume over that period to support the view that all is well, but much of the growth can be attributed to normal population increases and inflation. For the real story, one has but to look at the long roll call of publishers that have been forced to sell themselves to conglomerates, merge with larger publishing houses, or go out of business entirely. I am not speaking about mom-and-pop publishers operating on a shoestring; I'm referring to giants like Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, Bantam, Putnam, Macmillan, Scribner, Penguin, St. Martin's Press, and Harper and Row. Today, we are left with only seven or eight major trade book combines. Presumably, in this publisher-eat-publisher jungle, these survivors are the fittest. But are they any healthier than the weaklings they acquired?

From the viewpoint of literary agents, whose jobs include monitoring the fiscal well-being of publishers, the answer is a resounding no. Most of the agents I have spoken to confirm my observation: The current economic downturn has revealed that just about every major American publisher is hurting. And what they're hurting for is cash.

There's not enough cash in publishing. There never has been, and there never will be. Why? Because the consignment system of selling books is bleeding the publishing industry to death. Try as they might, the smartest people in our field have failed to find a way to make money under an arrangement that makes books returnable to publishers.

Publishing is one of the few industries that sell merchandise on a fully returnable basis. The custom was initiated to overcome booksellers' wariness toward the work of authors who were unfamiliar to them. If the customers didn't buy those books, booksellers had the right to return the merchandise for credit. The practice was eventually extended to all books, whether by new authors or old, and it really took off with the paperback revolution. Paperback publishers discovered that the easiest way to ship their books was through magazine distributors. As most periodicals are monthly, the distributors simply collected unsold books along with unsold magazines at the end of every month.

Perhaps this setup worked a decade or two ago when returns were more modest, but with returns of 50 percent or more as the norm today, it is virtually impossible for a publisher to earn profits in trade books, or at least earn them on a sustained basis. Despite decades of ruinous experience, it still doesn't seem to have sunk into the minds of many publishers that returns are a form of currency. Like any other kind of currency, returns can be manipulated. All bookstore people understand this concept perfectly: When times get tough, stores that don't have cash "spend" their returns, buying new titles with credits on books that aren't moving fast enough in order to keep cash flowing. Publishers, like anybody else, can only live so long on credit—then they start to bleed.

Large houses can afford to hemorrhage longer than small ones because they seem to have more cash. But that's only an illusion: their losses are obscured on the balance sheets of their conglomerate owners. How long will those owners be willing to go on infusing their ailing publishing divisions with cash? As a rule, sick companies get dumped by healthy ones, and in a recession, sick companies get dumped faster. What never fails to amaze me, though, is why anyone would want to buy into an industry founded on such lousy economics. Though statistics are hard to come by because accountants for conglomerates don't always separate the profits of their publishing divisions from those of their other divisions, the average return on investment in trade books seems to be 2 or 3 percent.

I have spent years advocating the abandonment of the consignment system. For one thing, it is a horrifying waste of paper and other resources. For another, it has forced all of us into negative, defensive, and ofttimes bizarre ways of speaking and thinking about books. Nobody talks about how many copies of a book were sold, but rather how many did not get returned. Royalty statements are designed to deceive by the omission of critical information. Returns data are buried in a column called "Cumulative Net Sales," and the concept of holding back royalties against returns is so inflammatory to authors that publishers have built their royalty statements around hiding that information.

Worst of all, the consignment system is the principal cause of hostility between bookstore and publisher, and between publisher and author. Publishers condemn bookstores and chains for their profligate ordering. But why should bookstores restrain themselves? They have, after all, nothing to lose, as they can always invoke the privilege of sending back what they can't sell. To meet the demand of these bloated orders, publishers have no choice but to overprint. Then, when the books fail to move out of the stores, the publishers are compelled to eat huge returns. The only people who prosper from this insane process are the remainder jobbers or the shady characters who illegally sell stripped paperbacks. In their frenzy to keep stores from returning books, publishers are compelled to offer incentives, politely referred to as "slotting allowances," "display fees," and "co-op contributions,'' that border on institutionalized bribery.

Most of the resentment or suspicion that authors and agents feel toward publishers stems from royalty accounting based on returns. Authors, outraged that creative bookkeeping permits publishers to hold excessive royalties in the name of reserves against returns, consider the system fraudulent. Their viewpoint is easy to understand when you remember that returns are a manipulable form of currency. The temptation to manipulate them intensifies in recessionary or inflationary times when publishers seize upon royalty reserves as the most obvious source of cash to relieve their liquidity problems or earn some extra interest. Publishers cannot with impunity stop paying their printers, their landlords, their paper suppliers, or their employees. But by a stroke of the pen, raising the holdback on royalties from, say, 50 percent to 75 percent, a publisher can liberate enough cash to meet the urgent demands of all those other creditors - at the expense of authors. How, then, could authors, suffering liquidity problems of their own, not feel bitter? Nor is their mood improved to see their remaindered books, on which they receive little or no royalties, selling briskly in used-book stores.

Are there solutions to this dilemma? There are, but they all call for radical changes in the way we think about books, sell them, and account to each other for them. For any plan to succeed, it must: (1) allow publishers to print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders, (2) put distribution on a nonreturnable basis, (3) enable publishers to make a profit, (4) encourage bookshops and chain stores to make money remaindering books on their own premises, and (5) provide authors with honest, easy-to-understand accounting. That's a tall order. Some gratifying attempts have been essayed, but they all failed because they were not radical enough, nor were they adopted on an industry-wide basis.

As a student of publishing history, I'm aware of all the "death-of-publishing" prophecies that have proven false in our time. But I don't think I'm risking much by stating that the publishing industry cannot endure much longer the way it is being run. The need to change our ways is particularly acute in light of revolutionary developments in electronic publishing.

In the coming era of "demand" publishing, we will see direct electronic delivery of text to reader-users without dependence on distributors, or even on paper. The technology for producing portable electronic books containing or accessing whole libraries is now at hand. By the start of the twenty-first century, thanks to computers, Nintendos, and Gameboys, a generation of children completely at ease with electronically delivered literature will make handheld electronic books the device of choice for reading. The awesome memory capacity of CDs, storing scores of volumes on miniature discs, may make bookstores and libraries obsolete. Thanks to the multimedia and interactive features of the new breed of computers, tomorrow's electronic books will entertain readers with audio and video displays that will make traditional books look as crude as cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Gone will be the disgustingly wasteful system of merchandising books, along with the creative bookkeeping that permits publishers to hold authors' money for years. Authors will be credited a royalty for each use of their property, and the purchase of books will be transacted by electronic debiting of consumers' charge accounts.

Until that day comes, we still have an industry to save.

*******************************
The above essay was written around 1992, and it was drawn from a guest editorial I wrote for Publishers Weekly. If it sounds as if it could have been composed today instead of sixteen years ago, what conclusion can we draw except that publishers have not heeded the call to reform the unworkable business model that occasioned my editorial?

The difference between then and now, however, is Amazon.com, a company structured on a business model in which book purchases are prepaid and scarcely returnable at all (and when they're returned, Amazon makes money on used books as well). Amazon is the incarnation of all that I projected in 1992 and now it is crushing a system that has been cruising for a crushing for decades. Reread my essay again and ponder.

It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so.

Richard Curtis

Copyright (c) 2008 by Richard Curtis

Wednesday

Books into Movies

By Richard Curtis

It's often said that they're not making movies the way they used to. That's a matter of opinion (it happens to be mine), but if it's true, the decline can be attributed to the fact that they're not adapting books the way they used to. Since the golden age of filmmaking in the 1930s, the ratio of theatrical films based on books to those made from original screenplays has been steadily shifting to the latter. Today the odds that your novel will be made into a movie are distressingly low, even if your novel becomes a bestseller.

I can't believe there are fewer adaptable books today than there have been in the past. Why, then, aren't they making books into movies anymore?

One reason facetiously offered by book people is that nobody in Hollywood reads. Relying on my own experience, I'd have to say that's untrue. What is probably closer to the mark is that movie people don't have a lot of time to read, but then, neither do book people. Most of us are so busy reading manuscripts for business that we can't spare a moment to read for pleasure. While I, like so many of my colleagues, can read three or four book-length manuscripts in one evening, I have been plodding through a published biography, at a rate of a few pages a week for over two years; it's taking me longer to read that puppy than it took the author to write it!

At any rate, what little reading time movie people have is usually spent reading screenplays. Books are synopsized for them by readers, and only if a reader's recommendation makes the book sound as if it has strong movie potential will a producer read the book itself. And sometimes not even then.

The downward trend in film adaptations follows the decline of the studio system and the corresponding rise of one revolving around independent producers. Under the old arrangement, all-powerful studios acquired bestsellers and other literary properties and adapted them for producers, directors, and stars belonging to the studio "family." The studios were self-contained entities possessing financing, production facilities, and distribution capability - the three elements essential to making commercial films. After World War II, however, producers, writers, actors, and others challenged the studios in a bid for more artistic independence and a bigger piece of the profit pie. They succeeded to a degree in weakening the studios' absolute power and control, but at a high cost: the loss of efficiency. Today's producers cannot simply scoop up all the talent they need from one studio pool, but instead have to assemble "packages" out of a fiendishly complex and far-flung tangle of artists, agents, lawyers, unions, guilds, financiers, smaller distributors, and other elements.

This radical change has taken its toll on adaptations of books. Let's see how.

The hardest part of getting a movie made is raising the money. It is easier to raise a sunken treasure galleon than to raise money for a movie. These days a film budgeted at $20 million is considered a home movie; indeed, $20 million is now the salary of a superstar. Still, it's a lot of money, and anyone furnishing it to a filmmaker expects either an excessive participation in profits or an excessive say in the way the movie is made, both of which are abhorrent to a producer. Studios are not disposed to back films until all elements of the package are in place, or at least a "bankable" star or director has made a commitment.

In short, few independent producers have any money. Not long ago - twenty or twenty-five years - outright purchases of books for movies were commonly reported. Though an outright purchase doesn't guarantee that a movie will be made, the size of the outlay, often hundreds of thousands of dollars and occasionally seven figures, certainly guaranteed an earnest effort would be made to recoup the investment. Today, one seldom hears about outright sales. Everything is optioned. When independent producers start piecing together a movie deal, the item on which they least want to spend what little money they possess is the book; for them, the key item is the screenplay.

The screenplay opens the doors to securing financing by stimulating the interest of stars and their agents, and then to assembling the rest of the elements. Once these all come together and the money has been put up to make the film, the author can be paid. Until then the author is in effect asked to subsidize the writing of the screenplay by being moderate in his asking price for the option. In many cases authors are asked to give producers a free or nominal option against a big purchase price and share of the profits. These strangely unbalanced deals - often options of a few hundred dollars against purchase prices of hundreds of thousands - result from the fact that the option money has to come out of the producer's own pocket, whereas the purchase money comes out of someone else's.

Although there is a lot of activity in options of books for the movies, it can be argued that the option system is actually harmful to a book's chances of being made into a movie. Options are usually purchased in six-or twelve-month increments, but are renewable at the producer's option for several more six- or twelve-month periods with the payment of additional option money. The process can tie up a book for eighteen months, two years, or longer while the producer frantically tries to juggle screenplay, financing, distribution, director, and stars in the hopes of getting them to sign a contract. Nobody wants to sign a contract until he has a guarantee. The financiers may want a distribution commitment before they fork over their money; the director may want a particular star to agree to appear in the film; the star may want a terrific screenplay; the screenplay writer may want a huge fee; the studio may want the book to be on the bestseller list.

Since the odds against everyone signing are so high, it's likely that when the option or renewal lapses, your book will have been shopped all over the movie business. Though you'll then have an opportunity to market the rights again and pursue those who might have been interested in your book a year or two ago, the book will probably have the smell of death clinging to it, and you'll be unable to revive it.

Clearly, it's a lot cheaper and easier for a modestly heeled producer to option or commission an original screenplay than to get involved with books. But with the kinds of movies that are pulling in big bucks at the box office these days, it may reasonably be asked, "What do producers need books for, anyway?" So many of these films are youth-oriented, exploitive, devoid of ideas, predictably plotted, action-packed, and populated with stick-figure characters. A producer contemplating making one of these teenage fantasy films is certainly not going to seek those values in books. Indeed, he would have to search far and wide to find books dumb enough to make into today's hit movies.

Interestingly, the one area in the entertainment industry where books are still welcome, and in fact welcome as never before, is television, and the immense appetite of the networks and cable companies does not threaten to diminish in the foreseeable future. Publishers' lists are combed furiously by producers seeking movie-of-the-week or miniseries candidates, and because of network commitments to air scores of these films annually, the search has become intensely competitive. Many of the properties optioned or acquired are novels, but television producers, unlike theatrical film producers, plunder short stories, articles, and nonfiction books as well as novels in their quest for adaptable material.

Ironically, the quality of television movies now often exceeds that of many theatrical films. Once characterized as a vast wasteland, television has discovered ideas and begun to develop them into vehicles that are often intelligent, sensitive, moving, and controversial, touching on themes that the movies used to portray but seldom do any more. Out-of-wedlock children, incest, senility, spouse or child abuse, drug addiction, kidnapping, and physical disability are some of the themes that have been woven into recent original television movies, and few who have watched them can claim that they are inferior to most theatrical films made today or that they are not the equal of many made in the past.

From the viewpoint of the author with a book to sell, this change is of major importance, for it no longer is smart to disdain television deals while holding out for a theatrical one. It is likelier that an option will be exercised for a TV movie than for a theatrical one, and the price gap between the two media has begun to close. And, from the viewpoint of pride of authorship, the chances are better than ever that an author's vision will be preserved intact in a television adaptation. For all these reasons I recommend that if you or your agent are approached by producers interested in adapting your work for television, and the terms are comparable to what you might get from a movie-movie producer, don't hesitate to make that deal.

Here are some other suggestions for improving your chances of making a movie or television sale in today's market.

· Prepare an extremely brief - no more than two pages - synopsis of your book to show to interested producers. It should be a highly compressed summary of the theme, story, and characters, and should read like a jacket blurb except that the emphasis should be on the cinematic values rather than the literary ones. Potential buyers will want to see the manuscript, proof, or printed copy anyway, but if they have time to read nothing else they will read your summary, and a well-written one will enable them to visualize the film the way you yourself visualize it.

· Give no free options, even of a few weeks' duration. Inevitably you will be approached by would-be producers claiming they know exactly the right studio or network executive who will buy your book, and all they need is a couple of weeks to make a deal, and could you let them have just this one shot free of charge because by the time the papers are drawn up it will be too late, etc. Most agents who have dealt with movie and television people have heard this line before and shut the door on it; they've learned that people don't respect properties they get for nothing. An investment in an option guarantees a certain amount of commitment and responsibility. You don't have to draw up a complete movie contract for such a modest deal, but a deal memorandum synopsizing the highlights of the negotiation, such as option price, purchase price, profit percentages if any, duration of option and renewals, reserved rights, credits, and so forth, is a must.

As for that claim that the producer needs only a few weeks, don't believe it. Everything in the movie business takes six times longer than you would imagine it should. I have seldom seen a movie option exercised after six months, and indeed have seen producers dig themselves into an awful hole by paying too much money for too brief an option, necessitating their renewing the option for too much money again for yet another brief option. The author who finds himself in the position of dealing with such a producer enjoys the rare pleasure of being in the driver's seat, so if someone wants a short option, give it to him, but make him pay for it.

· Renewals of a producer's option on your work should be more expensive than the original option and should not be deductible from the purchase price of the rights. The initial option is usually applicable against the purchase price, but thereafter the producer is in effect paying rent on your property. If you allow him to deduct renewal fees from the purchase price, he is in effect not renting your property but buying it from you in installments, and relatively painless installments at that. You'll want that lump sum due upon exercise of the option to hang over the producer's head like some ominous cloud. And, by making renewals more expensive than the original option, you are telling the producer that tying your property up for such a long time is an inconvenience, and one that is not mitigated by the money he's paying you to extend your option. If you option your book before publication, try to negotiate the deal in such a way that the option expires around your publication date and is not renewable beyond that date. Your property will probably never be hotter to movie people than before it's published, when it will not have been exposed to the entire industry or shopped all over town. Thus anyone taking an option before publication is getting your work at its ripest moment. If, by the time the book is published, your producer has not been able to make a deal, his option should expire, and expire without hope of renewal. If your book then goes on to get good reviews and/or hits the bestseller list, you have a second lease on life.


This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Friday

Behind Publishing's Wednesday of the Long Knives

By Richard Curtis

As the publishing industry reels the day after announcements of layoffs by major publishers, you can expect lots of ink to be spilled about the underlying reasons. I doubt if they will drill down to what's really at the heart of these upheavals.

I'm going to ask you to read my comments twice. When you get to the end you'll understand why.

********************
The American trade book industry is undergoing the most serious recession in its history, and though it has rebounded from other down cycles in the past, anyone who thinks it will return to boom times is living in a fool's paradise.

Trade book publishing has been in decline since the end of World War II. Industry boosters cite increased sales volume over that period to support the view that all is well, but much of the growth can be attributed to normal population increases and inflation. For the real story, one has but to look at the long roll call of publishers that have been forced to sell themselves to conglomerates, merge with larger publishing houses, or go out of business entirely. I am not speaking about mom-and-pop publishers operating on a shoestring; I'm referring to giants like Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, Bantam, Putnam, Macmillan, Scribner, Penguin, St. Martin's Press, and Harper and Row. Today, we are left with only seven or eight major trade book combines. Presumably, in this publisher-eat-publisher jungle, these survivors are the fittest. But are they any healthier than the weaklings they acquired?

From the viewpoint of literary agents, whose jobs include monitoring the fiscal well-being of publishers, the answer is a resounding no. Most of the agents I have spoken to confirm my observation: The current economic downturn has revealed that just about every major American publisher is hurting. And what they're hurting for is cash.

There's not enough cash in publishing. There never has been, and there never will be. Why? Because the consignment system of selling books is bleeding the publishing industry to death. Try as they might, the smartest people in our field have failed to find a way to make money under an arrangement that makes books returnable to publishers.

Publishing is one of the few industries that sell merchandise on a fully returnable basis. The custom was initiated to overcome booksellers' wariness toward the work of authors who were unfamiliar to them. If the customers didn't buy those books, booksellers had the right to return the merchandise for credit. The practice was eventually extended to all books, whether by new authors or old, and it really took off with the paperback revolution. Paperback publishers discovered that the easiest way to ship their books was through magazine distributors. As most periodicals are monthly, the distributors simply collected unsold books along with unsold magazines at the end of every month.

Perhaps this setup worked a decade or two ago when returns were more modest, but with returns of 50 percent or more as the norm today, it is virtually impossible for a publisher to earn profits in trade books, or at least earn them on a sustained basis. Despite decades of ruinous experience, it still doesn't seem to have sunk into the minds of many publishers that returns are a form of currency. Like any other kind of currency, returns can be manipulated. All bookstore people understand this concept perfectly: When times get tough, stores that don't have cash "spend" their returns, buying new titles with credits on books that aren't moving fast enough in order to keep cash flowing. Publishers, like anybody else, can only live so long on credit—then they start to bleed.

Large houses can afford to hemorrhage longer than small ones because they seem to have more cash. But that's only an illusion: their losses are obscured on the balance sheets of their conglomerate owners. How long will those owners be willing to go on infusing their ailing publishing divisions with cash? As a rule, sick companies get dumped by healthy ones, and in a recession, sick companies get dumped faster. What never fails to amaze me, though, is why anyone would want to buy into an industry founded on such lousy economics. Though statistics are hard to come by because accountants for conglomerates don't always separate the profits of their publishing divisions from those of their other divisions, the average return on investment in trade books seems to be 2 or 3 percent.

I have spent years advocating the abandonment of the consignment system. For one thing, it is a horrifying waste of paper and other resources. For another, it has forced all of us into negative, defensive, and ofttimes bizarre ways of speaking and thinking about books. Nobody talks about how many copies of a book were sold, but rather how many did not get returned. Royalty statements are designed to deceive by the omission of critical information. Returns data are buried in a column called "Cumulative Net Sales," and the concept of holding back royalties against returns is so inflammatory to authors that publishers have built their royalty statements around hiding that information.

Worst of all, the consignment system is the principal cause of hostility between bookstore and publisher, and between publisher and author. Publishers condemn bookstores and chains for their profligate ordering. But why should bookstores restrain themselves? They have, after all, nothing to lose, as they can always invoke the privilege of sending back what they can't sell. To meet the demand of these bloated orders, publishers have no choice but to overprint. Then, when the books fail to move out of the stores, the publishers are compelled to eat huge returns. The only people who prosper from this insane process are the remainder jobbers or the shady characters who illegally sell stripped paperbacks. In their frenzy to keep stores from returning books, publishers are compelled to offer incentives, politely referred to as "slotting allowances," "display fees," and "co-op contributions,'' that border on institutionalized bribery.

Most of the resentment or suspicion that authors and agents feel toward publishers stems from royalty accounting based on returns. Authors, outraged that creative bookkeeping permits publishers to hold excessive royalties in the name of reserves against returns, consider the system fraudulent. Their viewpoint is easy to understand when you remember that returns are a manipulable form of currency. The temptation to manipulate them intensifies in recessionary or inflationary times when publishers seize upon royalty reserves as the most obvious source of cash to relieve their liquidity problems or earn some extra interest. Publishers cannot with impunity stop paying their printers, their landlords, their paper suppliers, or their employees. But by a stroke of the pen, raising the holdback on royalties from, say, 50 percent to 75 percent, a publisher can liberate enough cash to meet the urgent demands of all those other creditors - at the expense of authors. How, then, could authors, suffering liquidity problems of their own, not feel bitter? Nor is their mood improved to see their remaindered books, on which they receive little or no royalties, selling briskly in used-book stores.

Are there solutions to this dilemma? There are, but they all call for radical changes in the way we think about books, sell them, and account to each other for them. For any plan to succeed, it must: (1) allow publishers to print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders, (2) put distribution on a nonreturnable basis, (3) enable publishers to make a profit, (4) encourage bookshops and chain stores to make money remaindering books on their own premises, and (5) provide authors with honest, easy-to-understand accounting. That's a tall order. Some gratifying attempts have been essayed, but they all failed because they were not radical enough, nor were they adopted on an industry-wide basis.

As a student of publishing history, I'm aware of all the "death-of-publishing" prophecies that have proven false in our time. But I don't think I'm risking much by stating that the publishing industry cannot endure much longer the way it is being run. The need to change our ways is particularly acute in light of revolutionary developments in electronic publishing.

In the coming era of "demand" publishing, we will see direct electronic delivery of text to reader-users without dependence on distributors, or even on paper. The technology for producing portable electronic books containing or accessing whole libraries is now at hand. By the start of the twenty-first century, thanks to computers, Nintendos, and Gameboys, a generation of children completely at ease with electronically delivered literature will make handheld electronic books the device of choice for reading. The awesome memory capacity of CDs, storing scores of volumes on miniature discs, may make bookstores and libraries obsolete. Thanks to the multimedia and interactive features of the new breed of computers, tomorrow's electronic books will entertain readers with audio and video displays that will make traditional books look as crude as cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Gone will be the disgustingly wasteful system of merchandising books, along with the creative bookkeeping that permits publishers to hold authors' money for years. Authors will be credited a royalty for each use of their property, and the purchase of books will be transacted by electronic debiting of consumers' charge accounts.

Until that day comes, we still have an industry to save.

*******************************
The above essay was written around 1992, and it was drawn from a guest editorial I wrote for Publishers Weekly. If it sounds as if it could have been composed today instead of sixteen years ago, what conclusion can we draw except that publishers have not heeded the call to reform the unworkable business model that occasioned my editorial?

The difference between then and now, however, is Amazon.com, a company structured on a business model in which book purchases are prepaid and scarcely returnable at all (and when they're returned, Amazon makes money on used books as well). Amazon is the incarnation of all that I projected in 1992 and now it is crushing a system that has been cruising for a crushing for decades. Reread my essay again and ponder.

It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Richard Curtis
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Wednesday

Never the Twain

By Richard Curtis

Most authors have a simplistic notion about how books are marketed and sold to the movies. Their impression is that it their literary agent, operating alone or with a Hollywood co-agent, submits a book to producers until he finds one who likes it enough to make an offer, the same way that book agents submit manuscripts to publishers. In truth the process is maddeningly complicated and confused and can daunt many otherwise sophisticated New York literary agents. And while some agents have better movie and television track records than others, none has formulated a single and satisfying solution to the challenge of efficiently finding the right producer for movie or television adaptations of books.

The film business is by no means a monolithic industry where purchases are made by only a handful of companies. Completely to the contrary, the world we know under the umbrella term "Hollywood" is kaleidoscopically fragmented. Countless producers, bankrollers, screen-writers, actors and actresses, directors, agents, studio and network executives, and coattail riders scramble endlessly to assemble "packages" that will stay still long enough to get a property purchased, developed, produced, and released.

The New York literary agent, faced with this jumble of elements and claims, is all too often at a loss to know with any certainty what is genuine and what is dross, particularly because, as one learns after even brief exposure, the lingua franca of the movie business is insincerity. Unlike the publishing business, where if somebody says he owns the rights to a book you may be fairly certain he's telling the truth, Hollywood swarms with people selling things they do not own. I call it the Hollywood Hustle, and I can name on the knuckles of one finger the people out there who do not practice it in some form. Hey, it's not that hard. Suppose you want to make a movie, and the only things you need are a book, a screenwriter, a director, a cast, a distributor, and $20 million. You start the ball rolling by, let's say, asking the agent of a famous movie star if the star would be interested in a certain book if a deal could be put together for it. Of course, the agent is going to say maybe.

That's good enough for you. You now go to a screenwriter, show him the book, and ask him if he'd like to adapt it, and of course, the screenwriter is going to say, sure, why not, if the price is right, who have you got to star in the movie? And you say, you're negotiating with this star. And if you have just enough of a track record so that anyone bothering to check your background doesn't reveal a complete fraud, and if you talk fast and knowledgeably, you just may be able to line up enough interested parties so that one or two actually sign. You can then make the rounds clutching that contract and get the others to sign as well. Congratulations! You've just gotten full screen credit as a producer!

The reason it's hard for a New York agent, even one possessed of highly sensitive baloney detectors, to sort out the truth is that the movie and television businesses are characterized by an ever-shifting flow of power, capital, and influence, and it is labor enough to keep up with the scramble of musical chairs in the publishing field, let alone that of movies and television. New York agents respond in any of a number of ways: they employ a movie and television specialist to operate out of their New York City offices; they engage independent specialists based in New York City; or they engage West Coast movie agencies.

It would seem that the last choice is far and away the best solution. That may have been so ten or twenty years ago, but I do not believe it is necessarily so today.

When I first came into publishing, the movie industry was still something of a definable, organic entity. A handful of powerful studios controlled the assembly of movie packages, and three networks controlled television programming. And because the field was more orderly, the role of the West Coast agent was, too. West Coast agents did in fact do for movie rights what East Coast agents do for book rights: they offered novels or original screenplays to movie producers and studio story departments, negotiated deals, took a commission, and remitted payment to the author or the author's literary agent.

As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, however, and the unified studio system gave way to one based on independent producers, artists, and sources of finance, the West Coast agents' approach shifted. They began accepting "talent," such as producers, directors, and actors, for representation. These clients sought the agents' help in negotiating their fees and acquiring literary or screenplay properties that they could produce, direct, or star in. Quite clearly, these agents were sailing into uncharted and very dangerous waters, for they no longer represented sellers only; they now also represented buyers as well, and in a growing number of instances they represented both the buyer and the seller of the same property or service. This is clearly a conflict of interest, because representation of buyer and seller makes it impossible for an agency to handle a negotiation at arm's length, as the legal phrase is.

The creature emerging from this broth was the agent-packager, a breed that assembles movie and television deals out of client components within each agency's own client list. The dilemma of which client to take the commission from—the buyer or the seller—was resolved by creating a "packaging fee" that is negotiated off the top of the total money available to finance the package deal. The net money after deduction of the packaging fee is then distributed according to the formula negotiated by the agent-packager with each client.

Students of power dynamics will realize that the distribution of these net monies, including those paid to authors for the rights to their literary properties, may be manipulated if not arbitrarily assigned by a shrewd agent (and West Coast agents are nothing if not shrewd). Indeed, the function of the West Coast agent-packagers seems to be identical to that of the old-time movie studios, with the exception that the agent-packagers do not actually distribute movies or air the television programs they package. To put it succinctly, the West Coast agent no longer represents the seller vis-à-vis the buyer; he is the buyer!

The New York literary agent surveying the West Coast scene sees arrayed before him a growing number of agent-packager-producers, and in due time it may dawn on him that these outfits are in competition with each other. Each West Coast agency has its own client list out of which the components for a deal are selected, and although those agencies do work out deals with one another in order to obtain the services of each other's clients, it can safely be stated that the desirable route is to cull the package entirely out of the agency's own stable.

What this means for authors and their New York literary agents is that West Coast agents are no longer as capable of thoroughly covering the movie and television markets, as they used to be. If you or your agent engage a West Coast agent to sell movie or television rights to your book or story, you should be aware that that agent may not be accepting the mandate with clean hands, to use another legal phrase.

Another reason New York agents don't always like to turn their properties over to West Coast agencies is that it means splitting a commission with them. On the average, New York agents charge 15 percent commissions on movie and television deals. If they let a West Coast agency make a deal for them, they'll have to give that agency at least half of their commission, and maybe more than half: some West Coast agents feel that because they do most of the work on such deals, they should get a higher percentage of the commission.

While many New York agents reason that 5 percent or 7.5 percent of something is better than 15 percent of nothing, the big numbers paid for movie and television rights can make an agent excusably greedy, and many therefore try to handle those rights themselves. It is not an easy task, for they must keep up with ever-changing industry buying patterns, personnel changes, news, and gossip, and in the movie business even more than in books, timing is critically important: you have to be there with the right property at the right time, and know the right person to call. Frequent trips to California may be necessary to meet and deal with the movers and shakers out there.

The fact that the movie studios, networks, and many major producers have New York offices, story departments, and scouts makes it seem easier for a New York literary agent to conduct movie and television business in Manhattan. To a degree that is true, but not to a sufficient degree. The New York offices of West Coast firms are good for expediting the submission of literary properties (and they're great for extending screening invitations to literary agents), but almost none has the authority to purchase or negotiate. Furthermore, it is not always desirable to give early looks at upcoming hot properties to New York scouts and story departments. In fact, it is often important not to let them get their hands on those properties.

There is only a small number of studios and networks, and if they all "pass" on a property—turn it down—it will effectively be dead. A commonly held view of the people who read and screen properties for studios and networks is that they are not notable for their vision and imagination, and that they operate on the bureaucratic principle that it is safer to say no than yes.

Many New York agents therefore feel that it is much better to offer their properties to producers who can visualize a work's cinematic values and who have at their command the financing and industry connections to put together an impressive package that they can bring to studio and network brass. But which producers to offer those properties to? Aye, my friends, there's the rub, and it brings us right back to the desirability of going through West Coast agencies.

There simply doesn't seem to be a satisfactory answer, and perhaps the best that can be said for agents on the opposite coast is what is often said about people of the opposite sex: You can't live with 'em, and you can't live without 'em.

Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment, LLC
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