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March 2007

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

From
Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads

CHAPTER 9

A Modest Wager

I HAVE A STANDING bet with many publishers, backed by one thousand dollars payable to the charity of their choice. The bet is that a professional author can write a book faster than a publisher can write a check. And I hereby reaffirm the bet publicly.
So far nobody has taken me up on this wager, and I doubt if anybody will. But if someone wants to, just make your check payable to the Special Olympics.

I don't believe my clients are unique in this respect. Many agents handle or know of authors capable of turning out genre fiction, male adventure, westerns, romances, and the like, within weeks. In fact, many writers would go under if they were not capable of producing at least a book a month.

But are the books good? What is the relationship between the quality of a book and the time it takes to produce it? I'll be exploring these questions in a moment. But I'm not quite through with publishers.

The contracts and accounting departments of most publishing companies are extremely burdened with work and, under the best of circumstances, move with maddening bureaucratic casualness. Absent, it seems (to authors and agents), is the sense that the papers being shuffled have any bearing on the basic needs, the food and clothing and rent and car payments and college tuitions, of the human beings "hereinafter referred to as Authors." One agent, in a frothing fit of frustration, likened the process to the admitting office of a hospital emergency room, where the life fluids of victims trickle out of their bodies while the admitting clerk takes down their address, Social Security number, and mother's maiden name. I don't know if I would go that far, though I do remember a case of one crazed client who informed his editor he had just had his cat destroyed because an unconscionably late contract and check had made it impossible for him to pay for the poor creature's medical treatments. But I might, if I were of a cynical turn of mind, be tempted to suggest that the torpid pace of the contracts and accounting departments of some publishing companies is yet another example of how publishers cling to money as long as possible at the expense of authors. Luckily, I am not of a cynical turn of mind.

In fact, one's heart might almost go out to the gallant minions of the contracts and accounting departments. Anyone who has actually seen them in action, or inaction, must appreciate that the choreography of procedures for drafting a contract and drawing a check is highly complex in even the most efficiently run publishing houses. Once an editor has concluded negotiations with an agent or author, he or she draws up a contract request enumerating all of the deal points plus any variations in the boilerplate language that the author or agent may have requested. This contract request joins the many others awaiting action by the contracts department. The terms in the contract request are then transferred onto contract forms.

These forms must now be reviewed, sometimes by the original editor, sometimes by department heads, sometimes by the chief executive of the company, sometimes by all of them. The contracts are then submitted to author or agent, and if, heaven forbid, there should be but one or two minor items to be negotiated or renegotiated that the editor or contracts person does not have sole authority to decide, approval of those changes must be secured from someone at the company who is in authority. I have seen a contract held up for a month because I requested upping the number of free authors' copies from ten to twenty, or extending the delivery date by one month. Some contract department heads are fanatical about initialing alterations, requiring weeks of additional back-and-forthing. Some agents have become quite masterful at forging their clients' initials on contracts, and though this is a potentially dangerous practice, it seems like the only practical tactic to counter massive delay. One of my colleagues grinningly boasts, "If I spent a day in jail for every set of initials I've forged, you'd never see me again."

Once the contracts have been signed by the author, the machinery for procuring the check begins to grind. The contracts department issues a voucher instructing the accounting department to draw the check due on signing the contracts. Such vouchers must in the normal course of things be reviewed by the comptroller or some other executive in charge of financial affairs. Once the check is drawn, it will be examined by that executive and possibly by the publisher before it is signed by one or both of these officers. Needless to say, it is not as if these folks have nothing else to do.

If, therefore, you wonder why a publishing company can't just type up a contract the way you might scribble a thank-you note, and dash off a check the way you dash one off to pay your landlord, now you know, and perhaps you'll feel a bit more compassion for the clerical staffs of publishers.

I do. But my bet still stands.

Despite this lengthy digression and a muffled tone of querulousness, this chapter is not about how slow publishers are. It's about how fast writers are.

Outsiders—by which I mean people with little firsthand experience of the creative and technical aspects of writing—have difficulty making peace with the idea that any kind of book, let alone a good one, can be turned out in thirty days or less. But I know of several professional writers who have written full-length novels over a weekend, not because they wanted to, but because they had to in order to accommodate publishers in a jam. A tightly scheduled manuscript had not been delivered on time, covers were printed, rack space reserved, the printer's time booked. "Can do," these heroes quietly said, and on Monday morning, looking like The Thing From The Crypt, they dragged into their publisher's offices with a manuscript.

Ah, you murmur, but were they good manuscripts?

This annoying question arises again and again whenever prolific writers are mentioned. It's easy to understand how the public at large would classify such feats as belonging to that end of the spectrum of human accomplishment reserved for flagpole sitting and marathon dancing. It's harder to understand why many editors feel that way too. But a large number have the attitude that the quality of literature rises in direct proportion to the time required to produce it. Publishers, even those who publish lines of genre fiction that call for short and rigid deadlines, are quite suspicious of prolific authors. They can't believe a book written that fast can be that good.

I have always felt that in order to qualify to practice their profession, editors should be required to write a novel. They would then undoubtedly discover that many of the skills they now consider dismayingly hard are actually quite easy, while many they regard as a cinch are inordinately difficult. One thing they would appreciate, I'm certain, is that an experienced professional writer working an eight-hour day and typing at average speed can produce five thousand words daily in clean first draft without pushing. That's a finished book in twelve to fifteen working days.

But one draft? How can a writer produce a first draft that is also a polished draft?

One reason is that he has no choice. The author who writes a good book in one draft will earn twice as much money as one who writes the same book in two. And when the pay scale is twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars per book, one simply cannot afford to write a second draft.

It is also a matter of training. Many professional writers reach a level of craftsmanship where whacking out clean copy is as natural as hitting balls is for a professional baseball player or dancing en pointe is for a ballerina. The amateur who writes fast usually writes sloppily; the professional who writes fast will most likely write masterfully.

And let us not forget inspiration. It is not uncommon for writers to talk about writing as if in a trance, or feeling like a channel through which a story is being poured from some mystical source. Some writers rehearse a scene or story so often in their heads that when they finally commit it to paper, it all comes in a rush, as if they're writing from memory rather than from a sense of original creation.

All this is helped by the development of computerized word processors, which enable their owners to write two drafts in the time it used to take writers working on conventional typewriters to write one. But now that the technology is at hand, will the prejudice against prolificness finally be overcome? I'm not too sure.

For, in the last analysis, it isn't the editors or public who cling most tightly to the myth that fast writing is poor writing. It's the writers themselves. Almost all the professional writers I know equate speedy writing with money and slow writing with love, to the point where their personalities actually bifurcate and the halves declare war on one another. Authors capable of knocking off a superb genre novel in one draft will agonize over every sentence of their "serious," "important," "literary" novel as if they were freshmen in a creative writing course. They seem to believe that anyone wishing to cross the line between popular entertainment and serious literature must cut his output and raise frustrating obstacles in his own path, and that legitimacy may be purchased only through writer's block. It is futile to point out that Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevski, and Henry James wrote as if possessed, in many cases with scarcely a single emendation, yet turned out a body of sublime classics. And they did it in longhand, by the way.

CHAPTER 10

Movies into Books

NOVELIZATIONS OF MOVIES and television shows are among the most intriguing subspecies of commercial fiction. I say subspecies because they obviously cannot be spoken of in the same breath as The Magic Mountain or Portrait of a Lady; indeed, even commercial novelists look down their noses at novelizations as possessing not a shred of redeeming social value, as the 0literary equivalent of painting by numbers. On the spectrum of the written word, tie-ins are as close to merchandise as they are to literature.

Tie-ins are kin to souvenirs, and in some ways are not vastly different from the dolls, toys, games, calendars, clothes, and other paraphernalia generated by successful motion pictures and television shows. Those who write them usually dismiss them with embarrassment or contempt, or brag about how much money they made for so little work. Yet, when pressed they will speak with pride about the skill and craftsmanship that went into the books and assure you that the work is deceptively easy. And if you press them yet further, many will puff out their chests and boast that tie-in writers constitute a select inner circle of artisans capable of getting an extremely demanding job done promptly, reliably, and effectively, a kind of typewriter-armed S.W.A.T. team whose motto is, "My book is better than the movie."

How are tie-ins created? Their birthplace of course is the original screenplay. The Writers Guild of America Basic Agreement entitles the screenwriter to ownership of literary rights to his screenplay. When he sells his screenplay he may retain the novelization rights or include them, at terms to be negotiated, in the screenplay deal. Most of the time the screenwriter sells his novelization rights to the buyer—the film's producer or a studio. The new owner of these rights now tries to line up a publication deal for the tie-in. He contacts paperback publishers and pitches the forthcoming film.

If the film has a big budget, terrific story, bankable actors, unique special effects, or other highly promotable features that promise a hit, publishers will bid for the publication rights, (In the case of television tie-ins, the producers almost always wait till a series is a hit before arranging for tie-ins. And one-shot movies of the week seldom trigger novelizations because of the brief period—one evening—in which they are exposed to the public.) A deal is then struck, the publisher paying an advance against royalties to the producer or studio.

The publisher then engages a writer to adapt the screenplay. It should be readily apparent that if the movie is indeed shaping up to be a hit, or the television show is already a hit, the publisher will be forced to pay such a high advance and royalty to the producer or studio that little will be left for the writer. That's why novelizations are generally low-paying affairs, with modest advances and nominal royalties of 1 or 2 percent. Flat fees are by no means unheard of. And, because the competition among writers for novelizations is intense, few writers are in any position to bargain. But if the pay scale is so miserable, why do authors seek novelization assignments so ardently? Because they think it's easy money. Sometimes it is. But it's not like falling off a log, as we shall soon see.

Publishers are nowhere near as enamored of movie tie-ins as authors are, and they weigh the profit potential of such books as critically as they do that of the thousands of other manuscripts submitted to them annually. They know that most movies do not translate well into books. There are also technical and timing problems with tie-ins that are daunting to publishers. For instance, the screenplay may undergo alterations, some of them radical, right up to or even during the shooting of the film. By the time filming is complete there is insufficient time before the release of the movie for a writer to write the novel and the publisher to publish it.

Another problem for publishers is the greed that has set in at the studios. Originally, tie-ins were regarded as free publicity for movies, and publishers regarded them as little more than list-fillers. For a modest payment to the studio a publisher would get the screenplay, stills, cover photo, and promotional material, and everybody was happy. Then the studios began to smell profit, and arranging tie-ins became a little less complex than building a space shuttle.

Anyone who thinks that tie-in writing is a mere matter of adding he-saids and she-saids to the screenplay dialogue has certainly never attempted such an adaptation. For one thing, most screenplays are too short to convert page for page into book manuscripts. Therefore, even if you are following the script scene by scene, you are required to amplify on character, action, and location descriptions. Any good novelist can translate a terse screenplay direction ("EXTERIOR, OLD MACDONALD'S FARM, A STORMY NIGHT") into a few pages of descriptive prose ("A bitter, shrieking north wind lashed the trees and hurled sheet after sheet of icy rain against the clapboard siding of Old MacDonald's farmhouse . . ." etc.). The problem is that when you analyze screenplays you realize that most of them don't lend themselves comfortably to scene-for-scene conversion. In fact, many of them present nightmarish challenges.

The reason is that movies are seen with one lobe of the brain, and books read with another. If you'll take the trouble to compare a novel with its film adaptation, you'll immediately realize that whole chapters have been cut or reduced to takes that last a few seconds on the screen; or that, conversely, a sentence or paragraph has been dramatized into a full-dress scene that consumes five or ten minutes of movie time. This is because some material in books is distinctly more cinematic than other material. (It also explains why few novelists make good screenwriters, and most screenwriters are dreadful novelists.)

By the same token, owing to the demands of the book reader's imagination, elaborate scenes in a movie may seem far too long to merit the same expansive treatment in a novelization; fast transitional scenes, flashbacks, establishing shots, short takes, and the like may require a novelizer to build them into whole chapters.

Every tie-in writer talking shop will tell you how he or she overcame such challenges, challenges complicated by the insistence of the producer on approval of the novel or a run-in with some middle-management studio exec who demanded that whatever was in the movie must go into the book, and whatever wasn't in the movie must not go into the book. The fact that novelizations may take only a few weeks does not mean that many, many hours of thought and years of writing experience did not go into them. Novelizers earn every penny, and for all but the biggest books, pennies are what they make. Leonore Fleischer, one of the genre's top authors, earned a total of some $45,000 in royalties for a labor of less than a week on the film tie-in of Annie, but that is exceptional. Joan Vinge, who wrote The Jedi Story Book, a juvenile tie-in to The Return of the Jedi, did it for a modest flat fee for Random House. The movie was a phenomenal success, and so was the book, but Vinge was not entitled to a penny of royalty. Only by the goodness of Random House's heart, tinged perhaps with a dollop of guilt plus a healthy measure of pushing by her agent, was she awarded a $10,000 bonus.

The best advice I can give prospective tie-in writers is, if possible never write one for a flat fee, no matter how dumb the movie, no matter how quick and simple the job. Years ago, Ace hired me to write a tie-in for a perfectly dreadful and quite disgusting horror movie called Squirm, which portrayed in all its graphic revoltingness what happened when a small town was invaded by millions of bloodsucking earthworms. Ace offered me a flat fee of $2,500, and, seeing the prospect of earning $250 a day, I grabbed the deal. The movie came and, blessedly, went. But my book went through numerous editions for Ace, and was sold to English and other foreign publishers where it endured for years.

My book was better than the movie. Big deal! That and a good agent would have earned me a nice profit. Unfortunately, I don't have an agent. I don't trust them.

All the best,

Richard Curtis

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