By Richard Curtis

Agents don't like to admit that there are events beyond their control, and I suspect that is why it's hard to write about such contractual matters as forces majeures—acts of God—and bankruptcy. Such events serve only to reaffirm our human frailty and fallibility, our total helplessness before the awful natural and business convulsions that occasionally devastate the microcosmic world of book publishing. How easy it is to deny that they could ever happen or that there is anything we could do about them anyway. I am able to rationalize my omission of these subjects by telling myself that in the course of my career in the book business, I have never seen a publisher invoke fire, flood, strike, hurricane, insurrection, or war as an excuse for delaying or screwing up a book.

Yet, anybody who works in this business long enough knows that sooner or later Murphy's law will clutch us by the throat, and whatever terrible things can happen will, perforce, happen. These tired old eyes have seen booming markets dry up overnight, seemingly omnipotent chief executive officers of great publishing houses fired ignominiously, and corporate acquisitions, mergers, and divestitures undertaken as casually as cards tossed in a low-stakes poker game.

For instance, some years ago, at the very apogee of the gothic novel boom, Avon, the leading publisher of the genre, announced that it was terminating its gothics program. Snap! Just like that. Writers, agents, and Avon's competitors were floored. It was not as if the market had begun to decline. Anybody who wanted to make a small fortune in those days had but to take anything vaguely resembling a gothic formula story and slap on it a cover of a filmily clad girl looking apprehensively over her shoulder at a fog-shrouded mansion with a light burning in one window. We were all the more baffled because it was said that the head of Avon at that time killed the program simply because gothics bored him, which was like the secretary of the treasury announcing that he is bored with the presses that mint money. But that's what happened, and it left the paperback market in chaos and countless writers and agents floundering around on the wilder shores wondering where their livings were going to come from.

Or, take what happened after Harcourt Brace, the trade and textbook publishing giant, acquired Pyramid Books, an independent and minor paperback house that had suddenly found itself on the map with the huge success of John Jakes's Kent Family Chronicles. Harcourt changed Pyramid's name to Jove, replaced most of its staff, and poured millions and millions of dollars into acquisitions and self-promotion in a bid to make it the number one paperback company in the industry. Then, one Monday, the editor in chief and a number of other key editors were given until the end of the day to collect their personal effects and leave the building, and not long afterward Jove was unloaded on what was then MCA's Putnam-Berkley entertainment complex.

The upheavals created by these transactions were so immense that few of us had the experience of dealing with anything remotely like it, and the toll on writers, agents, and the industry at large was incalculable. A lot of authors cried Do something! to their agents, but I can think of scarcely anything an agent might have done to predict or control the situation so that he or she and his or hers would not be adversely affected.

In the modern history of publishing we have witnessed similarly seismic events. In the space of six or seven months during the mid-eighties, for example, the publisher of Bantam replaced the publisher of Pocket Books, then hired the publisher of Berkley, who quit a couple of months later and presently replaced the publisher of Avon, whereupon the editor in chief of Avon left and was replaced by the editor in chief of Pinnacle. The turmoil caused by these churnings cannot be described. Nor can the harm done to authors be mitigated by the efforts of even the most powerful agents in the business. You just stand there, mouth agape, and watch the majestic unfolding of events. Then you come in when the dust has settled and do what you can to pick up the pieces.

And then, also in the mid-eighties, we witnessed the collapse of a paperback publisher. For many years, Pinnacle Books was a marginal paperback house publishing routine genre books. It was then acquired by an investment group and the old management and editorial staff were replaced by a smart and enthusiastic team that expanded the firm's editorial vision, spent money to acquire better authors and properties, and marketed its books shrewdly and aggressively. Within a year or so the results were dramatic. Sales began to soar and Pinnacle was the hot shop in the industry, a genuine major-league contender. But there were serious problems underlying the successes. The company had expanded so explosively that its cash flow couldn't keep up with demand. Furthermore, as was alleged to me by people close to the situation, Pinnacle's parent company had to "borrow" some of Pinnacle's working capital to cover deficits or corporate acquisitions elsewhere in the conglomerate.

For many of us, the first crack in the structure appeared when a number of Pinnacle's checks bounced. As restitution was made shortly thereafter and cash started to flow again, most of us who'd been touched by that chilly wind accepted Pinnacle's reassurances that the situation was temporary and order would soon be restored. In midsummer, however, agents and authors demanding overdue payments were told that there just wasn't any money. By August the crisis had deepened. Key employees quit or were let go. Inquiries yielded a sketchy but frightening picture of Pinnacle's parent company allegedly using the publisher's accounts receivable to pay off corporate obligations that had nothing to do with Pinnacle. By the end of August the disaster was all but complete: Matters were turned over to the firm's attorneys and the last of Pinnacle's staff was forced to abandon ship.

This was a tragic event. When a paperback publisher goes out of business, there is none to replace it. Mass-market publishers are simply too expensive to create easily from scratch. The loss of a competitor is bad for publishing and worse for authors. The fewer publishers there are, the less flexibility there is in prices and terms available to writers. As if they didn't have it bad enough.

The possibility of an actual bankruptcy sent agents and authors scurrying to their contract files to examine the pertinent provisions of their agreements with Pinnacle. Almost all book contracts contain language to the effect that if a publisher goes or is forced into bankruptcy, takes advantage of any bankruptcy statutes, or assigns its assets for the benefit of creditors, the author is entitled to get his rights back automatically. Examination of the boilerplate of Pinnacle's contract confirmed the existence of such a provision. Specifically, Pinnacle's contract stated that:

If (i) a petition in bankruptcy is filed by Publisher or (ii) a petition is filed against Publisher and is finally sustained or (iii) a petition for Arrangement or Reorganization is filed by or against Publisher and an order is entered directing the liquidation of Publisher in bankruptcy, or (iv) if Publisher shall make an assignment for the benefit of creditors, then Author may, at Author's option, terminate this Agreement by written notice and, thereupon, all rights granted herein shall revert to Author.
Well, that was a relief. Although we still weren't sure what would become of any royalties Pinnacle might owe, at least there was no question about the procedure for getting our rights back. All we had to do was wait for an announcement that Pinnacle had filed for bankruptcy (or find out for ourselves by sending a lawyer to federal bankruptcy court, where bankruptcy petitions must be filed). Then we send a notice terminating the contract. Right?

Imagine our shock when we learned that the bankruptcy provision of the Pinnacle contract was unenforceable. And if you can imagine it, try imagining that the bankruptcy provisions of all publishing contracts are unenforceable.

When Pinnacle tanked I consulted with a lawyer friend of mine, Michael A. Gerber, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and now Associate Dean there. He had published a book about bankruptcy, and he cited provisions in the federal Bankruptcy Code that invalidate the bankruptcy termination clauses of contracts.

It turns out that book contracts are regarded by Congress as assets comparable to the furniture, typewriters, and light fixtures of a publisher. Section 365(e) (1) of the Code stipulates that an executory contract (that's what you have) may not be terminated just because your publisher goes into bankruptcy. And it doesn't matter whether or not your book has yet been published - it's the contract that counts as an asset.

The reason the law takes this position is that if a company is trying to reorganize in order to work things out with its creditors, as it may do in some bankruptcy cases, its rehabilitation may be hampered if you yank your contracts away. Those contracts are, after all, a key source of potential revenue for a company trying to get back on its feet. Even if a company is not attempting merely to reorganize but is completely liquidating, the law still regards the earning potential of your contracts as an asset to which all creditors have some claim. Thus, you may not get your rights back if the company elects to assume the benefits and obligations called for in your contract. There is some saving grace in all this in that the company cannot keep you dangling interminably. In a Chapter 7 (liquidation) case, the company must decide whether to assume or abandon the contract within sixty days of filing. In a Chapter 11 (reorganization) case, there is no hard-and-fast deadline, but the bankruptcy court may impose one at your request.

So, contrary to the black-and-white language of your publishing contract, if your publisher chooses to take advantage of this provision of the Bankruptcy Code, you're up the creek, at least for a while. Fortunately, few publishers who get into financial trouble go bankrupt because there is usually another publisher waiting in the wings to take it over. A publisher's backlist may continue generating income for anybody who takes it over, and because most creditors of publishing companies (such as a banks, printers, distributors, and the landlord) are incapable of generating income from the publishing of books, sooner or later they will conclude that it makes good financial sense to turn over to a publisher the contracts the creditors control.

That is precisely what happened in Pinnacle's case. Electing not to file for bankruptcy, Pinnacle sent a notice to all interested parties stating that it had signed an agreement in principle with the parent company of Zebra Books (now a division of Kensington Books) to take over the imprint. This meant that Zebra would be able to publish certain Pinnacle books under contract or on the Pinnacle backlist.

Back to their contract files scurried the authors and agents, where they confirmed that Pinnacle, like every other publisher, has provisions in its contract permitting it to assign that contract to anyone of its choosing without the author's permission. Some agents and authors are able to modify that clause in negotiations so that a publisher cannot assign the rights without the author's express permission, but most publishers resist that modification, for the freedom to assign is an extremely important one to them, more important at least than it is to authors, for whom it is seldom a deal-breaker. However, even if your contract prohibits your publisher from assigning your rights without your permission, that prohibition would be invalid in a bankruptcy situation under the Bankruptcy Code, according to Professor Gerber.

Actually, the assignment of your contract to another publisher might be the best thing that can happen to you if you are worried that your books may be tied up for years in bankruptcy litigation or seized by some creditor who doesn't know a copyright from a coffin nail. For one thing, before a publisher can assume or assign a contract, it must pay you any royalties it owes you or at least provide you with assurances that they will be paid. Moreover, if your contract is assigned, at least there is someone you can talk to, someone who will keep your book in print and generate some income for you.

That, however, might not necessarily have been the case if Zebra's original plan for taking Pinnacle over had gone through, for the notice Pinnacle sent out stated that the money Zebra generated for Pinnacle would not be paid directly to authors, but would rather go into an escrow account controlled by Pinnacle and its "secured creditor." A secured creditor is someone who has extended credit that is secured by some kind of collateral. In this case, that secured creditor appears to be the bank to which Pinnacle's owners allegedly pledged the publisher's accounts receivable.

Authors are not secured creditors. If a secured creditor intercepts revenue that otherwise would have flowed to the company and eventually to you the author, then that secured creditor is under no obligation to satisfy the claims of the unsecured ones. Of course, a judge might be most sympathetic to your plea for return of your rights and royalties, for it is clear that an author is a lot more helpless in situations like this than is a bank or a printer. But a judge is under no legal compulsion to grant an author's plea.

At length, no longer capable of fending off its creditors, Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy under the Chapter 11 provisions of the federal bankruptcy law, meaning it was seeking protection by the federal government while it reorganized and formulated a plan to repay its debts and restore business. It took almost two years, from autumn of 1985 through summer of 1987, for the company to get its act together. It did make a deal with Zebra, which proceeded to review the entire Pinnacle list to decide which unpublished manuscripts it would bring out, which backlist books it would reissue, and which properties it would release to the original copyright owners and under what terms it would do so.

As I said at the outset, agents don't like to admit that there are things they are powerless to control, but I must tell you that bankruptcy appears to be one area where little an agent does by way of negotiating contractual language is going to help if your publisher goes belly-up; and once it does, little that an author, agent, or lawyer does will help if the bankrupt firm and its creditors don't want to cooperate with you. My best advice is, first, to move like lightning once you or your agent get the feeling your publisher is in serious trouble, demanding a reversion of your rights and/or settlement of whatever financial obligations the publisher has to you. Put short deadlines on your demands and send official letters stating that owing to failure of your publisher to comply with the terms of his contract with you, you consider that contract canceled. Second, make a horrid pest of yourself in the hope that your publisher will decide life is too short to do combat tooth and nail with a crazy author.

One author did just that in the Pinnacle case and did win his rights back, but at a terrible cost because of the onerous terms of his settlement and the cost of hiring a lawyer - and you will need a lawyer. But if there isn't that much value in your books to begin with, the cost of hiring a lawyer to rescue them may not be justifiable. It's frustrating as hell, maddening in fact, but there you are. And that's just bankruptcy. I haven't even mentioned how helpless we are before acts of God. But I think I'll wait until a tidal wave demolishes Hachette, Random House, or Simon & Schuster before attempting to write about that. Given Murphy's law, you may be reading my remarks about that sooner than you think.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics Copyright © 1998 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

What's in a (Big) Name?

By Richard Curtis

Behold the two books I place before you. Both are thrillers by authors whose names are unfamiliar to you. But attached to the one on your left is an endorsement by one of today's bestselling thriller writers. The other has no such recommendation. Which will you be inclined to purchase and read?

The obvious answer to that question formed the eye of a tempest that swept through the publishing industry some years ago, leaving in its path a shattered deal, damaged credibility, and a dazed author and his agent wandering through the rubble seeking something to salvage. The only good to come out of this event is the possibility that the rest of us may learn something from it.

We take for granted that a plug from a star can give an enormous boost to an obscure author or an undistinguished (or even distinguished) book. That is why publishers go to considerable lengths to solicit quotes - commonly called "blurbs" in the publishing industry - by big-name authors for books they are soon to publish. "When 55,000 books are published each year, you are desperate for ways to distinguish your books from everybody else's," a publisher told the New York Times's media reporter. "The right person writing a blurb for the right audience can sometimes make a tremendous difference in sales."

What it was that inspired Peter Lampack, a leading literary agent, to put blurbs on an unsold manuscript, I do not know. But when I read in the newspaper that he had used the ploy to garner over $900,000 in an auction for a first novel, I could have kicked myself for not having thought of it first.

Lampack's strategy was simple but inspired. If he used the blurbs to sell the book to publishers, he would certainly arouse far more interest in the book than in a book supported only by his own enthusiasm. Because enthusiasm is as commonplace among agents as it is among mothers, it is subject to heavy discounting by skeptical publishers. If, however, an author of world-class reputation offers an enthusiastic quote, it all but guarantees that publishers will highly prize the work to which it's attached.

There are two important reasons why a plug from a star would give a big boost to an unsold book by an unknown author. The first is that it validates, for editors, the book's quality. Given the cost of publishing and promoting first novels, editors today are extremely nervous about committing their companies to investing hundreds of thousands or even millions or dollars for them. Not a few would rather pass up a good first book than overpay for it, for many an editorial head has been impaled on the pikestaff of poor judgment. If an author who is a proven moneymaker raves about that book, however - particularly an author seldom given to promoting the work of others - much of the uncertainty about its quality is taken out of the editor's hands. And so is the responsibility, thus freeing the editor to spend the company's money with confidence.

The other reason why an enthusiastic blurb by a star author is of such inestimable value is that it validates the book for the consumer. As the average list price of a hardcover novel is well into the $20.00 range and mass market paperbacks closing in on $10.00, bookstore customers have become more discriminating than ever about what they plunk their money down for. It is likely that they will be inclined to pay that kind of money only for a proven commodity - a book by a brand-name author. If, however, a brand-name author declares adoration for an unheard-of book, and permits a publisher to feature his statement on cover and advertising copy, the publicity value of that plug will overcome consumer reluctance. After all, the next best thing to a book by your favorite bestselling author is a book that your favorite bestselling author loves and recommends. The late publisher Donald Fine stated in that same article that "there's a presumption among marketing people that blurbs are especially important for the sales reps and booksellers." Fine cited the time when he asked bestselling author John D. MacDonald to read galleys of a book by Elmore Leonard, who was at that time considered a midlist mystery writer. MacDonald called Fine and exclaimed, "Who is that guy? He's terrific." Fine asked MacDonald if he could use those very words in advertising for Elmore's books, and the rest is history.

Understanding these psychological principles so well, agent Lampack must have jumped for joy when Derek V. Goodwin, pseudonymous author of a first novel entitled Just Killing Time, furnished him with blurbs by two leading thriller authors, John Le Carré and Joseph Wambaugh. Lampack loved Goodwin's novel, and successfully solicited a quote from a famous client of his own, Clive Cussler. Thus armed with three dynamite blurbs, Lampack put Just Killing Time up for auction, and when the dust settled, Simon & Schuster walked off with the book with a high bid of $920,000.

I had scarcely had time to compose a congratulatory letter to Lampack when the newspapers announced that both Le Carré and Wambaugh had repudiated the blurbs attributed to them, Le Carré characterizing the one written over his name as "straight fraud." After an agonizing week, Simon & Schuster withdrew its offer. "We must be able to rely on the validity of what is submitted to us," stated the president of Simon & Schuster's trade division. The author claimed that he was "completely duped" by whoever it was that had issued the phony blurbs.

My heart went out to my colleague, a first-class agent and a gentleman of the highest character, and I waited breathlessly to see who, if anyone, would come forward to claim the orphaned book. During the month or so that it took for that question to be answered, the debacle set off a fascinating debate: How much was Goodwin's book worth without the quotes?

As I listened to the arguments, I thought of the ancient dispute as to whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one is present to hear it. Goodwin's book after the deal fell through was the same one that existed before. The only difference was, two of the three star blurbs had been dropped. So had the price. Simon & Schuster's winning bid had been withdrawn, and it didn't seem likely that the runner-up in the auction, Bantam with $850,000, would stand by its offer. How much was Goodwin's book worth stripped of its glamorous advocates? Even more interesting to me was: How much were the big-name author blurbs worth? I said above that they were of inestimable value, but if you look at it in a certain way, you will realize they can indeed be estimated.

As it turned out, Lampack was able to resell Goodwin's book for approximately a $500,000 advance to Dutton Press/New American Library, a division of Penguin and an underbidder in the original auction. Can it not be argued, then, that the blurbs by Le Carré and Wambaugh were therefore worth $420,000, the difference between what Simon & Schuster would have paid for the book with blurbs and what the new publisher was willing to pay without them? That would mean that Le Carré's and Wambaugh's blurbs could each be valued at $210,000.

It would not surprise me to learn that it had crossed the minds of these distinguished authors, or the minds of their distinguished agents, that there is big money to be earned in selling their endorsements. Movie stars and other celebrities get big bucks for endorsing all sorts of products. Why shouldn't star authors get them for plugging books? Requests for blurbs are an imposition on an author's time, and for a big-name author, time is not just money - it's a lot of money. On those grounds alone, then, it can be argued that an author ought to be compensated for writing a blurb. But more importantly, there is the obvious fact that the author's name helps to sell the merchandise. Robert Ludlum and Stephen King were paid handsomely to star in American Express card commercials; would they have been out of line demanding money to do a "commercial" for someone else's book?

Our instincts rebel against the notion because it seems dishonest—-and our instincts are correct. Unlike commercials undertaken for pay, the author who writes a blurb is assumed to genuinely like the product he or she is promoting. There is thus an aura of sincerity about blurbs that would be fatally tarnished if they were written for pay. Of course, one could be cynical about that sincerity, for it often appears that the blurbing industry operates under the motto, "One hand washes the other." The now-defunct Spy magazine carried a feature called "Logrolling in Our Time," which cited the suspicious frequency with which an author who plugs another's book finds his or her own book praised in return by the pluggee of the first part. In one issue, for instance, after George F. Will called Henry Kissinger's The White House Years "an elegant literary achievement," Kissinger called Will's The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions "a delight." Similarly, Barbara Ehrenreich and John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Johnson and Francine Prose were shown to be mutual admirers of each other's books.

Such possible abuses notwithstanding, the point is that blurbs are traditionally undertaken as favors, and are therefore a form of barter. And though publishers and agents who request them from their authors don't usually offer specific inducements, the good will generated by a cooperative author inevitably pays off down the road in one tangible way or another. As an editor once said to me, "It's good business to caress the hand that feeds you."

But good will is a fragile value, and the lofty tradition of exchanging favors cannot always be counted on to prevail over the temptations of hard cash. A day may well come when a famous writer will demand a big fee for endorsing someone's book, and a publisher will pay it. Anyone naïve enough to think it can't happen has never attended a baseball card convention, where star ballplayers who used to autograph memorabilia out of the goodness of their hearts now charge hefty fees for their appearances and signatures.

The fact is that just as light is bent by the gravitational pull of celestial stars, our ethics seem to get a little bent by the attraction of human stars. Take for instance what might be termed the "Dead Author's Society," wherein publishers go on issuing works by authors long in their graves. The bylines of such illustrious writers as V. C. Andrews and Cynthia Freeman continued to appear on books long after the passage of their namesakes to the Great Book Expo in the sky. You would be surprised how many fans were under the impression that the authors were still alive, an impression the publishers did not go out of their way to correct. Is this ethical?

I don't particularly deplore the practice, as I'm not sure I see that much difference between books packaged by dead authors and those packaged by living ones - and living ones do it all the time. Whether the spurious books are as good as those created by the original authors is another question, but if most fans never notice the difference, the issue of quality is pretty much beside the point.

In England, it's considered not just unethical but downright illegal for a publisher to issue a book with the byline of a deceased author. Of course, the British have always been a bit dotty about their dead big-name authors. Would you believe they actually enshrine some of them in their cathedrals?

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics Copyright © 1998 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Let's Have Lunch!

In republishing some of my older articles I've been struck by how little has changed in the decade or two since they first saw the light of day. In some cases I've scarcely had to change a word. However, I'm afraid that the following piece will not stand the test of time. When you come to the end you'll see why the sacred ritual known as the publishing lunch date may be doomed.

By Richard Curtis

When the time comes for me to lay down my sword and armor and cross into the Great Beyond after a lifetime of combat with venal publishers, crooked movie producers, treacherous lawyers, and kvetchy authors, it is my fondest hope that the gods will reward me with perpetual publishing luncheons. What fardels would I not bear knowing that such a treat awaited me on the other side! Some agents and editors feel lunches are tedious obligations at best and duck out of them whenever they can. I find them incredibly exciting, frequently dramatic, and always enlightening: I have never come away from one without having learned something useful. And, if everything comes together perfectly, the occasion can be a transcendental experience both culinarily and literarily, a sublime blend of art, commerce, and hedonism.

Most outsiders (such as authors) have a dim or distorted idea of what is involved in publishing lunches. To them, these affairs are as mysterious as royalty statements and discount schedules. So come perch on the right lobe of my brain, which in agents is the segment devoted to luncheon dates, and observe the process from the ringing of the phone (which automatically makes me salivate) to the final, discreet burp.

First, you should know that it is usually the editor who extends the invitation, selects the restaurant, and pays the check. Exactly why that is, I’m not sure, for it is clear that both parties stand to benefit equally from the occasion. (Mind you, I’m not complaining!)

Because it’s the editor who proposes and disposes, any agent who reverses roles and offers to take an editor to lunch is apt to earn many bonus points on the editor’s scorecard. When I worked for my first boss, literary agent Scott Meredith, he never permitted his staff to allow editors to treat them to lunch, I think because it implied a dependency that tarnished the agency’s image. I thought that was great, and I still do, but few agents can afford a steady diet (pardon the pun) of paying for editors, and if letting an editor pick up the tab suggests that the agent is dependent on him – well, in truth he is.

Editorial calendars tend to be filled for weeks and even months ahead with other lunches, editorial meetings, business trips, vacations, conferences, and conventions. So it is by no means unusual for lunch dates to be made far in advance, with the parties exploring dates for fifteen minutes before finding an open one. This practice makes one keenly and often disconcertingly aware of the rapid passage of time. A flip of your calendar, as you and your would-be luncheon partner seek an agreeable date, and you realize that another season has passed, another year. Here it is August, blazingly hot and swelteringly humid, and you are contemplating warm, heavy food, sweaters and furs, and talk of ski trips and Christmas books; in February, as bitter winds whistle past your windowpanes, you set a lunch date for a day when cherry and magnolia blossoms will strew the selfsame streets now carpeted with yard-high snowdrifts. It’s a strange feeling. Red-letter days in the publishing calendar signal another year fled from our lives: “I can’t make it in October, that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair”; “November’s no good, we have sales conference”; “Forget the last week in May – I have to get ready for the BEA convention.” The seasons cycle inexorably and you wax philosophical about the rolling years. Have I achieved anything important? Have I fulfilled my youthful goals? God grant me just one DaVinci Code before He takes me away!

Although your luncheon may be on some absurdly far-off day, the restaurant and precise hour are seldom selected until that very morning. Then, sometime around ten-thirty or eleven, your host or hostess calls you with the traditional phrase, “Are we on for today?” The time and place are then agreed upon. But not always easily. To wit:
“How does Italian sound to you?”
“Had it last night. Mexican?”
“I’m on a diet. There’s a great fish place around the corner from my office.”
“But that’s all the way on the other side of town from me. Well, okay, but can we make it twelve-thirty? I have an author coming up to my office at two.”
“That’s bad for me. I’ll be in a meeting all morning.”
And so it goes.

Sometimes there is more to these negotiations than two busy people trying to find common ground. Nothing serious, just a subtle game of chicken, like waiting till twelve-fifteen before phoning to confirm the lunch date, or jockeying for who is going to come to whose side of town: I am more powerful than you because I made you come to my side of town at an inconvenient hour and eat a cuisine that gives you heartburn.

Occasionally lunch dates are canceled, and canceled at the last minute. The reasons range from “I forgot to mark it in my calendar” to “I have pneumonia.” One morning, after waiting till noon, I phoned an editor to see if we were still on for lunch. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “I was just fired.” I told her I thought that was a very poor excuse for canceling a date and I took her to lunch myself.

As the cancelee of today may be the canceler of tomorrow, we all accept cancellations with a certain degree of equanimity. They can, however, prove frustrating. I can all but guarantee that on the day I don my best suit and most expensive silk tie in anticipation of a Lucullan orgy at a four-star restaurant with an editorial kingpin I’ve been wooing for months, the date will be canceled and I’ll end up glomming a ham and Swiss on rye at my desk – and getting mustard on my tie to boot. Conversely, the days one wears jeans and tee-shirt to the office are inevitably the days one gets an impromptu invitation to Grenouille or Le Cirque.

Your luncheon companions range from the most eminent and powerful editor to the callow rookie who has just been given a title and expense account and told to go meet agents. Some agents, particularly the more prominent ones, disdain invitations from freshman editors. Why waste time with subalterns without clout when you can pick up the phone anytime and get the head of the company? I personally find that attitude shortsighted. New editors are often the most enthusiastic, ambitious, and industrious, best attuned to trends to which the older guard may be oblivious – new music, hot electronic games, rising young film stars, embryonic fads, and so forth. There’s another reason for cultivating young editors: In this turbulent age of musical chairs and sudden upward mobility, the green kid I dine with in March may be a department head in April.

Where you eat is a function of many factors: the age, seniority, and expense account of the editor; location; the amount of time available; dietary considerations; the importance of the host; the importance of the guest; the importance of the business at hand. Obviously, for example, young editors must entertain more modestly than senior ones. Yet many senior editors, having seen the inside of every restaurant in New York City after decades on the luncheon circuit, are just as happy to grab a burger at a coffee shop or munch a sandwich in the park. One of the most memorable lunches I ever had was with Robert Gottlieb, then editor in chief of the distinguished house of Alfred Knopf. It consisted of vanilla yogurt, nuts and raisins, and an orange, eaten in his office – eaten, indeed, on the floor of his office, for every horizontal surface including the couch was covered with manuscripts. Gottlieb had courageously taken himself out of the luncheon game, professing it to be too time-consuming, expensive, and fattening. All of which is true, agents and editors remind each other as they study their menus and debate trading off the appetizer for dessert.

When a senior editor is courting an agent in the hopes of capturing a big-name author, you can expect a Drop Dead, Pull Out All the Stops, No Prisoners Taken luncheon, the kind most authors think occurs every day but which in fact happens quite rarely. Such affairs reverberate in memory till the end of time. I remember one laid on for a major client and myself at the Four Seasons. Every course from the quail egg appetizer to the ethereal flan dessert had been prearranged by our publisher-host. Captains and waiters, obviously tipped off to the preeminence of the guests, attended us with obsequies usually reserved for caliphs and maharajahs. Our host had but to nod and the staff was galvanized into action. And, as the presentation of a check would have been a base intrusion of crass mercantilism into so elevated an occasion, it was never brought out. I assume it was simply forwarded to the publisher’s accounting department for review at some later date.

While sumptuous repasts are certainly incomparably exciting, and the author unaccustomed to “the treatment” may well feed off the memories till he’s old and gray, I am far from convinced that they make much difference in influencing authors and agents. Such feasts seem much more appropriate for celebrating the closing of a major deal than for softening up reluctant objects of a publisher’s affections. Which is not to say they should stop trying.

Authors have a misconception that lunches are the time when deals are made. In my experience most deals are made on the phone; the lunches are devoted more to getting acquainted with editors and their companies. Although I used to feel that some kind of business should be accomplished during lunch or a short time afterward, I’ve come to realize that friendships struck at lunch may not pay off for years. Nevertheless, there is something theatrical about presenting an editor with a manuscript at the luncheon table. I remember one occasion when I brought a bulky manila envelope with me to a restaurant. Throughout lunch, the editor cast intrigued glances at it, and at last, toward dessert, she ran a covetous hand over it. “Is this something for me?”
“Oh Lord, no,” I said with a gulp, realizing I had inadvertently led her on. “These are shirts going back to Bloomingdale’s!”

Another common belief is that publishing lunches are rather boozy affairs. In truth, the dominant beverages for the last ten years or so have been wine, juice and sparkling soda water, and even the hallowed Marys are as apt to be Virgin as Bloody. On occasion, hard liquor is ordered, but sipped in moderation. As for the fabled two-martini lunch, I can truthfully say that in the last decade I can recall only one luncheon companion who ordered martinis, but since he was a confirmed alcoholic, the more he drank the more coherent he became. Because drunkenness is, among other things, a breach of manners (and manners are largely what publishing lunches are all about), editors and agents are extremely careful not to drink too much. I have seldom seen an editor become so much as tipsy at lunch. I wish I could say as much about authors, though in mitigation it must be said that they are usually a little nervous, unaccustomed to banquets on so lavish a scale.

Just what is ordered depends on the circumstances. Almost every editor in town has a diet book on his or her list and is experimenting with its advice. So there has been a distinct trend toward simple, highly nutritious cuisine, even in the elegant watering places where high-rolling publishing potentates hang out – all those places beginning with La and Le and Il. Exotic cuisines are usually avoided unless the editor and agent are old lunching companions and are willing to drop their guards a bit. With them I hit the Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, and Indian joints, drink beer (straight from the bottle) instead of wine, relax protocol and manners, and exchange confidences seldom heard at high table.

Although the agent-guest is encouraged to order anything he wants, if the editor is decidedly junior it is an act of cruelty to order the most expensive items on the menu, but I do know some agents who, if they are mad at a publisher, will take their petty revenge by hitting the company up for a five-course extravaganza with champagne, brandy, and cigars elaborate desserts.

Not all foods are suitable for business luncheons. Though I adore sloppy items like lobster and ribs, it is usually inappropriate to order them, for there is no way one can be cool and nonchalant while sucking the liquid out of a lobster claw or picking a spare rib clean with fingernails and incisors.

Like those in other industries, publishing luncheons have a rhythm and flow that follow Aristotelian dramaturgical principles, from the quiet exposition through the developmental passages and on to the stirring climax. While the talk at the outset is small – the weather, the latest Big Apple catastrophe, your life story, “How I Got into Publishing” – it is seldom unrevealing to one alert for clues to one’s companion’s literary interests, status in the company, industry clout, negotiating skill, and other traits that may prove useful in future intercourse. Above all, there is gossip.

New York trade publishing is a very small town. Although Literary Market Place, the industry’s directory, contains thousands of names, my own short list of key contacts contain no more than three hundred names or so, and anything that happens to one of them is bound to affect my clients’ interests. Promotions, firings, resignations, romances, divorces – all are grist for the agent’s information mill in the perpetual process of assessing who’s got the power, who’s spending money, which way the market’s going, what the next hot trend is.

Thus, in due time talk drifts toward serious business. What good authors and projects is the agent handling? What’s the editor looking for? There is scarcely anything you can say that doesn’t serve as a springboard. The birth of my son inspired luncheon discussions leading to at least three books my agency subsequently developed; let that be a lesson to anyone asking me to produce wallet photos of my family.

Here, then, is what I love best of all about luncheons, for within seconds the conversation can shift from idle chatter to immense profundities, only moments later to shift again to money talk as the parties try to place a dollar value on the ideas under discussion.


Agent: Whew! Have you ever seen weather like this?
Editor: This is the third mild winter in a row. Do you think the climate is permanently moderating or something?
Agent: Possibly. This meteorologist I’ve been corresponding with thinks the pollutants in the air are seriously affecting world climate. The planet is overheating. The ice caps are melting.
Editor: Really? This meteorologist – um, is he writing a book perchance?
Agent: Funny you should ask. He’s halfway through one. He’s got great credentials and he’s promotable as hell. Looks a little like Brad Pitt.
Editor: I’d be interested in a book like that.
Agent: Would you be interested one hundred thousand worth?
Editor: Fifty thousand worth, maybe.
Agent: Fifty! The guy’s been on Oprah twice, for crying out loud!

Lunch is over. The editor pantomimes a scribble toward the captain, the time-honored gesture of summoning the check. There is no quarreling. The inviter pays, the invitee says thank you, and that’s usually that.

Goodness, it’s five minutes before three! Got to get back to the office. Loved every minute of it. Let’s do business. Let’s stay in touch. Let’s have lunch again soon!

- Richard Curtis

PS: For a bitter post script to the above article, read Publishing Bigshots Told to Open Canned Tuna, Eat at Desk by Leon Neyfakh

Let's Have Lunch! was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in How to be Your Own Literary Agent, published by Houghton Mifflin, Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Of Taxes and the Writer

By Richard Curtis

Early in April a few years ago I got a call from a client who was preparing his income tax. This author wrote erotic fiction and wanted to know whether he could legitimately claim as a deduction his pharmacological treatment for a little affliction he had contracted in the course of “researching” one of his novels.

I told him I imagined the treatment would probably fall under medical deductions rather than research expenses, but the story does illustrate that even the most untrammeled literary spirits have to pay their obeisance to Uncle Sam sooner or later. With more and more authors incorporating, purchasing expensive computer equipment, seeking shelters for their taxable income, and in general being more businesslike in their approaches to the art and craft of literature, the accountant is becoming as important as the literary agent in guiding the destinies of writers.

The chances of a writer being audited by the Internal Revenue Service are a little better than those of the average working stiff because most writers are freelancers, and taxes on their income are not usually withheld as they are from persons on company payrolls. Thus, even though the odds that anybody will be audited are going down because of staff cutbacks at the IRS, a free-lancer’s tax return may be more provocative than that of someone who works for Boeing or IBM. Your best defense, should the fickle finger of the IRS single you out, is a well-kept set of records, primarily your canceled checks, your receipts, and a journal or ledger recording details of every transaction for which you are claiming a deduction, particularly those for which receipts are not ordinarily given, such as public transportation, certain tips, and the like.

In general, authors are entitled to “write off,” or deduct from taxable income earned from their writing, certain costs incurred in pursuit of that income. Among those costs are agent’s commissions; rental of office space; editorial and secretarial assistance; purchase or lease of computers and other office equipment; office supplies, such as toner cartridges and paper; travel; the cost of entertaining editors, agents, producers, collaborators, and others related to their professional endeavors; and books and other research material.

Naturally, not all expenses are deductible; other expenses may be deducted over a period of years; others are only partially deductible; and still others are deductible only at your peril.
Because of the feast-or-famine nature of the freelance life, you don’t necessarily have to earn money in any given year in order to write off expenses. You may be working on a long-term project and a whole year or more may go by without income. Yet you may still claim the costs incurred that year and deduct them from whatever other income you received, such as interest or stock dividends, your spouse’s income if you’re married and file jointly, and the like. Even if you’re not a professional writer at all but simply a would-be writer who has yet to realize a dime from his work, you may nevertheless write off your expenses for a period of years before these activities come under the definition of hobby, the costs of which are not deductible.

So much for famine. But there’s also tax relief for those who feast. One form of it is the government-sponsored IRA's and other tax shelter plans, which are designed for freelancers and other independent breadwinners who do not earn regular wages. By putting some of your income into such a shelter, you in effect lower the amount of income you claim for that year and pay taxes on it only when you draw that income later in your life, at retirement age, when you will presumably be in a lower tax bracket. Meanwhile, your tax shelter account will be appreciating through interest or dividends or (if you invest the money wisely) through capital gains on investments.

When it comes to taxes, the name of the game is deductions. Let’s talk about some.

Capital purchases. Capital purchases are major items such as machinery and furniture. These might include your personal computer and printer, a desk, photocopier, file cabinets, a fax. The government considers such purchases investments, and because investments are subject to depreciation, you are usually not permitted to deduct their purchase price in full the year you purchased them. Rather, you have to spread the cost out over several years for tax accounting purposes. Thus, if you buy a PC and a printer, you may only be able to “depreciate” them over five years; that is, deduct a portion of the price from your income each year for five years. On the other hand, you may be entitled to an “investment credit,” a direct credit against your tax liability. Investment credits are a form of reward the government gives businesses for buying capital equipment. The principle is that such investments pump money back into our economy and keep it healthy, so investment credits encourage you to buy furniture and equipment.

Straight deductions. Most day-to-day necessities of the writing profession come under this category. Assuming you can furnish receipts, these are fully deductible, and deductible wholly in the year in which you pay them. They include paper and other stationery; pens and pencils, paper clips, rubber bands, and other office supplies; postage; messenger bills; photocopy bills; legal, bookkeeping, and accounting fees; dues and professional organization fees; editorial and secretarial assistance; agent’s commissions and expenses; phone bills; interest on loans; and certain state and local taxes, such as unincorporated business taxes, city rent or occupancy taxes, and the like.

Although many of these costs are indisputably business expenses and are seldom questioned by the IRS as long as you furnish solid documentation, some of them do fall into a gray area where eyebrows might be raised or IRS computers, programmed to seek variations from certain norms, might “flag” the questionable item. Writer’s Digest is a pretty safe magazine subscription to deduct, but Vogue? Sports Illustrated? Well, if you can demonstrate that you wish to write for those markets or that the information they provide applies to a writing project you’re developing, those subscriptions will be arguably legitimate. The same might be said of a television set. If you hope to write for television or consider TV a good source of information for your books, stories, or articles, you may be able to get away with writing off all or some of the cost of the television set.

The gray area gets even grayer with such deductions as travel and entertainment. At what point, if any, a dinner stops being social and starts being professional is often impossible to say, as is the point at which a vacation becomes a business trip. In order to legitimize these deductions, solid documentation is desirable in the form of receipts and canceled checks, a diary or journal, or other written evidence demonstrating intent and purpose. The IRS requires receipts for any claimed business meals of more than $25; for meals costing less (is there such a creature?), no receipt is necessary but a detailed journal entry or other memo is desirable. It should stipulate the date, place, persons involved, business purpose, and price. Home entertainment may be harder to document, since food and drink for business entertainment are often purchased with provisions earmarked for personal use, or food and drink already stocked at home may be used to entertain business guests. But here again, a combination of receipts and memoranda may at least convey to potential auditors the sincerity of your attempts to furnish good documentation. The IRS does assume that a certain percentage of a professional writer’s or freelancer’s income is going to be claimed for entertainment, and within that range it may not raise any questions. But because entertainment deductions are usually among the most inflated found in the average return, any inordinate claims will usually trigger intense curiosity.

The same is true of travel. Business travelers are obliged to document the purpose of their trip and expenses, and even though such trips may in fact be 95 percent play and 5 percent work, orderly records will allow the benefit of the doubt to be given to the claimant. Indeed, no connection between the place visited and the place written about need manifest itself, for who is to say that you did not write a story about Acapulco that was rejected and never published, or that after spending a week in London researching a novel you did not decide to set the book in Paris instead? But there are limits to the government’s credulity. The writer who flies with his family to Miami Beach during Christmas week may have a hard time convincing a gimlet-eyed IRS auditor that it was a research trip.

Probably the most common tax headache for a writer is what to deduct for the office in his home. If you have an office outside your home, you may claim the rent, utility, insurance, and related bills in their entirety. But what if your bedroom doubles as an office or you do your writing on the kitchen table? Until a few years ago, the IRS was liberal in its definition of office space in the home, but it has since become stricter, insisting that a room be set aside specifically and exclusively for professional use. If you have an eight-room home and use one room as an office, you may claim one-eighth of all your house expenses as deductible business expenses.

The telephone is another ambiguous item insofar as personal and professional uses are mingled on the same bill. In such cases you can assign a percentage of the bill to business use and note the long-distance charges for business calls. Perhaps the best way around the problem is to maintain a separate phone for business purposes.

A growing number of writers have become so businesslike about their profession that they have incorporated themselves. What benefits do they hope to derive? Is this something that every writer can or should do?

There are many financial, legal, and other good reasons for individuals to form corporations, but these are not always as clear for writers as they might be for manufacturing or service companies. One major benefit, for instance, is limited liability. With the threat of legal claims perpetually hanging over every writer’s head, what author would not breathe easier knowing that the only assets he’s in jeopardy of losing in a lawsuit are the rather meager ones retained by his corporation?

Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near that simple. The law recognizes how easy it is for wrongdoers to hide behind the cloak of corporate immunity, and thus in the “discovery” process of a trial it may be ruled that the personal assets of the head of a closely held corporation (meaning that only you, or perhaps you and your spouse, hold all the stock) may be vulnerable to a claim.

Furthermore, most publishers signing contracts with incorporated authors require them to furnish written “performance guarantees” that they will honor their contractual obligations and be responsible for the warranty and indemnification clauses of their contracts. After all, a corporation can’t write a book – or, what is more pertinent in this case, it can’t write a libelous, defamatory, obscene, scandalous, or privacy-invading book. Only individuals can do that, so authors must sign a document guaranteeing the contractual obligations of the corporations they own, and vice versa. This so vitiates the limited liability aspect of incorporating as to render it virtually impotent.

There are definite financial advantages for an author to incorporate, but these generally come into play only if that author is making a good deal of money, and making it consistently. Medical insurance can be paid out of before-tax income. A pension plan can be established, enabling you to shelter until retirement far more money than the government currently permits under IRA plans it sponsors. These pension plans usually have life insurance options, meaning that life insurance premiums may be paid out of before-tax income, a distinct advantage over the situation of unincorporated individuals.

There are other benefits, too, but there are also disadvantages. The costs of starting and maintaining a corporation are not inconsiderable, and after you have paid legal and accounting costs, or spent so much time filling out and filing federal, state, and local withholding income tax, corporation tax, unemployment, Social Security, disability, pension, and other papers, you may find that you might have done just as well conducting your business as a plain old unincorporated human being. Besides, if the government feels you’ve established a corporation just to dodge taxes, you could get into trouble and end up paying heavy penalties and interest on back taxes. So before you start thinking about vying with Mobil for a place on the Fortune 500 list, consult your accountant.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in How to be Your Own Literary Agent, published by Houghton Mifflin, Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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The Ten Best Books on Writing

by Michael Neff

We know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists. These are ours, in reverse order, and even though a few of the authors are indeed irritating, they're still worthwhile.

10) Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
The value of this work is debatable. Sol rather drips with narcissism, but if you can sidestep the puddles he forms in your neocortex, you'll get a few gems from this. Buy it for plot points, then leap the mire of his ego as every other sentence seems to focus on something brilliant Sol Stein has published or written himself, or what an f'n genius his students believed him to be. Can you imagine the grade you'd get if you weren't kissing his butt? But again, this is a worthwhile read, easy to understand and utilize. Just say to yourself, I will not be nauseated by Stein's massive, unbearable ego, I will persevere, and I will grow as a writer!

9) Plot Perfect by Paula Munier
One of the best books on structuring plot, regardless of genre. Packed with examples, checklists, and exercises, this book explains in plain English how to outline your novel to ensure your plot zings, you've built in layers of subplot, and your theme is expertly woven. Plot Perfect covers all aspects of writing fiction, albeit at a high level. It contains the building blocks necessary to create a plot that works with developed characters that reflect your story's theme.

8) Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Love this book! Jack is practical and effective. For example, he describes a classic structure of "scenes" with external action, followed by a "sequel" composed of character interior monologue (e.g., conflicting thought, emotional reactions and decisions) that leads to more external action in turn. How the writer manages the order affects the pace. A series of action scenes wherein your character responds to new complications quickens pace, while back-to-back internalizations slow it down. While some of his story tactics can be overused, they don't hurt serious literary work. If there's a theme that transcends mere entertainment, why not get utilize intensity and dramatic action to push the reader there?

7) The Writing Life by Ann Dillard
If you're a genre writer, you could be offended by what you perceive to be Ann's snobbery. And quite frankly, you would be right. Ann talks about the value of the reader realizing the labor an author must endure. She questions the relevance of that knowledge and prefers a place without distraction. Well, what of it? A room without a view is preferable. She does not have basic heat or cooling requirements. She will endure (as long as no one mentions the author of a famous commercial bestseller in her presence). Ann finds a room over someone's garage or a wooden shed without windows just perfect. No distractions. And perhaps there is too much of this? Too much rambling from shed to shed, too much distracting prose that makes the book stumble now and then like an old academic coot spitting on successful commercial writers. Still, for literary writers, it is a worthwhile read.

6) How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz 
Koontz takes a practical, detailed approach to the art, craft, and business of novel writing. You'll learn how to structure a story for greatest reader appeal, how to provide depth of characterization without slowing the pace, and how to recognize and use the sort of theme that is timely and appealing. Plus you'll receive thorough instruction on other writing techniques as they apply to today's novel, including background, viewpoint, scene setting, transitions, and dialogue. On the business side, Koontz gives an insider's view of how to deal profitably with editors and agents, advice on contracts, and tips on paperback and book club sales, foreign rights, and film rights. Critics note, however, that "pretty much all of his actual advice here has been said better and more entertainingly by others in the years since this book came out."

5) Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King
Renni Browne and Dave King are two of the country's best-known independent editors. In their years as president and senior editor of The Editorial Department, they have edited the work of many writers - including bestselling authors - before the manuscripts went out to agents or publishers. Over half the manuscripts worked on to completion eventually got published, and over half that number were first novels. In this book Browne and King teach you, the writer, how to apply the editing techniques they have developed to your own manuscript, in order to bring your manuscript to its fullest potential.

4) Story by Robert Mckee
When you read McKee's in-depth analysis of story structure, you feel as though every other fiction writing author has cribbed from it. Most of his ideas are applicable to novels, not just screenplays. It will help you craft a much better novel if you pay attention, as well as write a compelling character-driven story. The book will often surprise you with clarity and insight. The importance of the inciting incident, for example, the early point in the story where the protagonist is first steered towards the second act of the film. Read it all. Read it twice. And though McKee is an ego, you won't drown in a puddle of bubbling hot narcissism like you will with Sol Stein.

3) Art of Fiction Writing by John Gardner
John Gardner was perhaps as well known (if not more so) for his instruction on writing as for his own fictional works, and his Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers compiles the fullness of his teachings on what makes a great writer great. There is, on the whole, a lot to take away from Gardner’s book, but there’s also a lot to work through. The attitude of Gardner’s narrative often tends toward the stereotypical elitism of the highly-educated “serious writer” (to use his term, at other times referred to as a “true writer”), and as a result readers might be at risk of missing some of Gardner’s most crucial lessons under the weight of all his posturing. Nevertheless, it is vital!

2) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This one made the list because its short and simple chapters, aimed mostly at beginning writers, speak truth. From "Beginner’s Mind" to "Rereading and Rewriting," each pithy and instructive section reminds us what we already know. We read Natalie Goldberg and, no matter where we are on our respective writing journeys, we learn.

And, drum roll please…..

1) From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
In Mr. Butler's own words: "In the nearly two decades I’ve been teaching this subject, I have read many thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers, and virtually all of them—virtually all of them—fail to show an intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art. Because of the creative writing pedagogy in this country, and because of the nature of this art form, and because of the medium you work with, and because of the rigors of artistic vision, and because of youth, and because no one has ever told you these things clearly, the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process."

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