Monday, October 29, 2007

Jane Dystel explains the option clause

So many of my first-time clients ask why they have to have an option clause in their contracts that I thought I would write about it.

First, what is an option? An “option” is the author’s promise to show the publisher his or her next book before showing it to any other publisher. That’s it.

I actually don’t mind options. With this “promise” from the author that s/he will show the publisher his/her “next” book, the publisher is, therefore, more committed to investing in that author’s future. And, as we will see here, the author isn’t giving up anything other than a bit of time.

The important thing about options is that they must be very well defined. What to I mean by this?

First, if the author is a novelist, then the option should only be for his or her next novel. Even narrower, if the author is writing a mystery series, for example, the publisher should only have the option on the next book in that series. All other books that an author might write – non fiction, cookbooks, or novels in another series do not fall under the option and the author should be free to sell those at any time. This should apply to all book categories. If the author’s next book is in another category, she should not be obligated to show it first to her current publisher (although there is no reason why that publisher shouldn’t see it at the same time everyone else does).

Second, the timing of the option is critical. The option should kick in after the publisher accepts the current manuscript NOT after the current manuscript is published. There should be no time defined after acceptance. For example, there are publishers who try to say that the option shouldn’t take effect until 60 or 90 days after acceptance. This is unfair to the author and should not be permitted. (The reason the publisher does this is to get as close to the publication date of the current book as possible in order to ascertain how it will do. They then base whether they will bid on the next book and how much they will offer based on the indicators of the first book’s success.)

Finally, there should be a time limit for negotiating the option. The publisher should have X days in order to consider the next project (I think no more than 30 days is appropriate) and if necessary Y days to negotiate in the event they make an offer. After that time limit, the author should be free to approach any other publisher.

There should be no “topping” or “matching” privileges. If the author has given the publisher adequate time to make an offer and negotiate and they cannot come to an agreement, the author should not be obligated to come back to the original publisher for any reason if he gets another offer.

So there is no real reason to object to having an option in your contract IF it is negotiated properly. Of course, in practice, you cannot always get the ideal option clause; much depends on what kind of leverage you have and how many precedents your agent has with that publisher. But, these simple qualifications make it fair for all involved.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stacey Glick on why, "Sometimes it Pays to Not Give Up."

Several years ago, I received material from a mother and daughter who wanted to write a joint memoir about their harrowing experiences involving the daughter’s dramatic emotional breakdown and subsequent recovery at a boot camp-style school in Montana. The mom was a screenwriter; the daughter then a college student at a top university. Their proposal was one of the best I’d ever read. Well-written, commercial, unputdownable. I couldn’t wait to get it out to publishers.

With high hopes, I did a wide submission and received a tremendously positive response from editors whose opinions I valued. They, too, felt it was among the best proposals they’d seen. And yet, no offers came in. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. I was getting a ton of positive feedback. Editors told me over and over how much they loved the project…and how they couldn’t buy it. There were a variety of reasons cited, including lackluster sales on competitive titles and no guarantee of publicity. Publishers are looking for bestsellers, and this wasn’t a guaranteed big seller, despite the quality of the material.

But I refused to give up. I worried that if I couldn’t sell this book, I might not be able to sell anything. I just believed so strongly in the project and that it deserved to be published. So the submissions continued. Fifty-four of them, to be exact. I started to think about throwing in the towel because I just couldn’t come up with anywhere else to go. Then I met the daughter in person for the first time when she was visiting New York. It turned out she was going to be in the city that summer and wanted an internship at our agency. How could I have her working here after all she’d been through when I couldn’t sell her book? She was lovely and it broke my heart.

Then it happened – just a few days after I met this charming young woman, an offer came in. That offer was suddenly followed by two more, all that time after we started the process. Before much longer, we had sold the book to ReganBooks, a then-prominent and commercial division of HarperCollins. Meanwhile, the daughter did work with us that summer, and became one of our favorite interns. She was (and is) smart, articulate, mature, and a very hard worker, and we were all sad to see her go at the end of the summer.

When the book, COME BACK by Claire and Mia Fontaine (you can visit their website at to learn more about it), was published in hardcover in April 2006, sales were modest, though the authors worked tirelessly to spread the word. Then, the publisher scheduled the paperback release for February, 2007, and we soon learned that the book had been chosen by Target’s book club and that they were taking 40,000 copies. It’s since gone back to press several times, and the book has now sold over 100,000 copies! Claire and Mia and their publisher are working hard to continue promoting the book. We’re hopeful that the Target sales will help get it into other outlets and word of mouth will continue to work its magic to get it into the hands of parents and teens everywhere who will benefit not only from a good read, but from the positive messages the narrative has to offer.

I reflect on this when I get frustrated that a great project isn’t working -- which unfortunately happens more and more in this market -- and it gives me hope. Sometimes, it pays for a publisher to take a chance and for an author and her agent to never, ever give up.

Endnote: One person integral to Mia’s recovery, Mike Linderman, has his own book just out (referred to me by the Fontaines, of course, for which I am grateful) this fall entitled THE TEEN WHISPERER, intended to help parents and teens in need. The authors are very much looking forward to cross-promoting and spreading the word about both titles. Oprah, here they come!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lauren Abramo explains subrights

With the Frankfurt Book Fair just passing, now seems the perfect time to bring you into the weird world of subsidiary and ancillary rights.

Why me, you ask? In July I had the pleasure of taking over the agency’s sub rights “department” to fill the formidable, but fashionable shoes of Michael Bourret, who is now focusing entirely on his personal client list. Said department had consisted only of Michael and me, with some much appreciated help from the interns who suffer hand cramps filling out customs declarations, brain damage from trying to figure out the best postage options to get books halfway around the world quickly without spending our entire commission, and sneeze attacks scouring the shelves for copies of books to send uptown, across the country, and to far off lands. Fortunately for me, and for Michael before me, we have a fantastic network of co-agents scattered across the globe who know the ins and outs of the markets, publishing houses and production companies, so that we don’t have to do all the legwork ourselves.

So what exactly are subrights? Basically they’re rights derived from the book itself, including foreign editions—both in translation and in English in the UK and Commonwealth—as well as audio books, film adaptations, and serial rights—book excerpts printed in magazines and newspapers.

When you sign that book contract with a publisher, you’ll see something called the Grant of Rights, which essentially spells out which of those rights you’re giving to the publisher and which you’re not. For example, nearly all publishers buy the e-book and book club rights in a standard contract. Others, like multimedia and film, are often reserved by the author—though those following the news about partnerships between publishers and film producers will know that the publisher trying to buy film rights is increasingly common.

Being the subrights director at DGLM mostly involves foreign and audio rights, with some film and serial in there for good measure. As an agency, we do some of our film business with co-agents—many of them in LA, some in New York—and some ourselves directly with production companies. While I’m often the first point of contact on film rights, every deal is a bit different, and submissions and negotiations are handled by some combination of a co-agent, the agent who sold the book rights, and me.

Other rights, like foreign, audio and serial, are handled by me regardless of the agent who sold the book rights. Serial rights come in two varieties—first and second. For first serial the excerpt runs before the book is published, and for second, which is almost always controlled by the publisher, it runs after. Like many facets of the business, serial is undergoing a transformation. Fewer and fewer magazines and newspapers are buying serial rights, the conventional wisdom being that they don’t want to pay for an excerpt when they can just have a staff writer whose salary they’re already paying review or write about the book for free. Those of you who caught the PW article linked above may also have seen this one on the changing face of serial rights. And when an excerpt from Alan Greenspan’s book reportedly sold for only $1—ouch. These days serial is much more a publicity opportunity—and not terribly easy to come by with so many publications reducing their book coverage—rather than a real moneymaker.

Audio’s a whole different ballgame, though that doesn’t necessarily make easy. Have any of you bought or contemplated buying an audio book recently? If you have, you know just how expensive they can be, which means they’re not going to sell as many copies as the same book that’s a fraction of the price; if you haven’t, well, now you know why so many books don’t actually get to be published in audio editions. With the cost of production, low demand and the high price point needed to have a shot at paying back those costs, audio books are a tough market. In order to compete, a book really needs one of two things—to be a very big deal in its book release or to be the sort of book that would do well in the library market. Bearing in mind that most audio books are published simultaneous with the first release of the book, and that they need to be sold, recorded, produced and packaged before that time, but after the manuscript is available for the audio editors’ review, that’s not a terribly large window for selling audio. When that window happens to line up with the timeframe in which good information is available on the publisher’s plans for publication, publicity and marketing—and when that information indicates the likelihood of success in audio—authors can find a happy home in a different medium.

Last but by no means least, foreign rights. Fortunately for sub rights as a whole, while foreign rights are by no means simple to sell, in most categories things are not quite so bleak as they can be with something like serial. A book that “travels,” meaning it appeals to a foreign audience, can find itself republished in different translations and editions around the world. The tricky thing is that the book has to be perceived to be of interest to enough people in a particular territory that the cost of buying the rights, translating and producing the book will be offset by the number of people interested enough to buy the book and not interested in reading it in the original edition, which will often be available, whether through distribution in the territory or from the U.S. itself.

Though I’ve done my fair share of laying out the reasons that sub rights are tough, I must say what a great part of my job that it is. I love getting to speak to and email with people who are outside of the typical New York book publishing world—either in foreign countries, Los Angeles production companies, big magazine offices in midtown, or audio publishers wherever they happen to be—and hear different perspectives on whether or not a book “works.” It’s absolutely fascinating to be able to really look at the big picture and evaluate a project not just for how it’s going to work on the bookshelf at the Barnes and Noble on the north side of Union Square, but in the multiplex, the car CD player, the newsstand and the whole wide world.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adina Kahn talks about nonfiction platforms

When discussing nonfiction proposals with editors, the question that I am asked most commonly is: What is the author’s platform? Editors want to know if the authors have written for any publications, whether they have an established website or blog, and if they have recently done any media appearances or speaking engagements.

It isn’t always enough to simply be an expert on the subject you are writing about. In order to catch an agent’s or editor’s attention, you want to already have a built-in readership. The best proposal not only proves that you are the perfect person to tackle the topic at hand, but also shows that people already look to you for the answers.

Obviously, being a recognized name helps matters when selling a book. Stephen Colbert, Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton did not need to do much to persuade their publisher that they could sell books. Sometimes a celebrity can help build buzz around your name without you having to do a thing. Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s SKINNY BITCH was selling nicely, but Victoria Beckham ensured that they hit the bestseller lists when she was spotted carrying a copy of their book.

Of course, not every author is this lucky. Very often it is the authors’ responsibility to get their own name out in the public eye. There are some simple and inexpensive ways to do this. Pitch articles to publications. Get endorsements from recognized names in your field. Start a website or a blog (of course, you also have to make sure people are actually reading them.) In AUTHOR 101: BESTSELLING BOOK PUBLICITY Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman emphasize the importance of platforms and discuss in detail how to create your own promotional campaign for a book.

Of course, there are still many cases where an author’s stellar credentials or inspiring memoir will ensure that a book gets sold, regardless of whether or not anyone has ever heard of the writer. The strength of the material will always be the number one reason a book ends up getting sold.

It may seem logical that a platform can only be established after a book is published, but when trying to get an agent or editor’s attention it is not a bad idea to come to them with a built-in audience. Perhaps Victoria Beckham will eventually pick up another book, and perhaps that book will be yours, but until then it never hurts to work on building your platform.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Jim McCarthy offers books to make you question humanity

To rip off Miriam, I’ve compiled a little list of my own. Below are a few books that, for whatever reason, may make you question your faith in humanity. More publishing advice to come soon!

WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES by Philip Gourevitch: The title gives a pretty strong indication that all is not well in these pages. Emotionally devastating but entirely necessary, this work, subtitled “Stories from Rwanda” is an impeccable look at contemporary genocide, brilliantly written and depressingly relevant.

IF I DID IT by O.J. Simpson: What does it say about us that we’re snatching this book up in large numbers? Who is reading it? And why? To me, the only thing more upsetting than the book was the number of people who tried to silence it. Would I buy it? No. Would I have represented it? Probably.

The collected works of Ann Coulter: About as smart as O.J. and about as reprehensible. This woman is a mouthpiece for hatred and contributes nothing legitimate to political discourse. Also, I think she eats babies.

TRY by Dennis Cooper: The adopted teenage son of two sexually abusive fathers begins a journal about his own mistreatment and exploitation entitled “I Apologize.” The adults in Cooper’s vicious world are violent and degraded. The children seek solace in drugs and sex. The book is legitimately shocking, and you might have to numb yourself to get through it. But the biggest surprise is that if you can stomach it, you come out on the other end realizing that Cooper is actually a humanist, and that this is a novel about love. You just have to survive the attack to realize it.

THE MYSTERY METHOD: HOW TO GET BEAUTIFUL WOMEN INTO BED by Mystery: Now, if anyone has seen the VH1 series The Pick-Up Artist, they know that Mystery is a guy named Erik who wears big furry hats, silly eye makeup, and entirely too much animal print. He looks like the love child of Dennis Rodman and Tammy Faye Bakker. He’s a misogynist, a moron, and a self-professed “expert” on landing beautiful women. Now, I watch bad reality TV. I watch a lot of bad reality TV. Rarely, if ever, have I come across someone who is as big a tool as this guy. That enough people seem to believe he might have the secrets to becoming a ladies’ man to propel his book to the bestseller lists makes me want to vomit in my mouth a little bit.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Sometimes I get on thematic reading kicks. I’ll go all Southern Gothic for a little while then find myself reading lots of books set in and around zoos for a few weeks. Earlier this year, I found myself reading back to back books about civil wars in Africa. I followed the aforementioned Gourevitch with this novel about the impact of the Nigerian-Biafran war a few decades back. Is there hope and redemption in this astonishing novel? Absolutely. Would I recommend you read it immediately after a book about the Rwandan genocide? Not unless you want to feel like you got sucker punched in your soul.