by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 14, 2001
MANUSCRIPT CONSULTANTS: SOME UPDATES
"Names, NAMES, give us NAMES," came the emails from publishers, agents and writers who read the mention in #256 of the many editors who have left publishing to become manuscript consultants.
No wonder. These days, the advice one hears at writers' conferences is that authors should NEVER depend on agents or editors to help them get a manuscript in shape or even to learn how to write better.
The pressure on agents to sell, and on editors to acquire, is so fierce that it's no wonder many manuscripts are not read all the way through until they get to the copyediting stage.
Meanwhile writers need somebody they can trust to tell them if they've fulfilled their intention - if their manuscript represents the best they have in them. Only then can they make the kind of decisions today's publishers ask, decisions that range from the practical to the insane, such as (I'm paraphrasing): "Move Uncle Henry's announcement of terminal cancer from Chapter One to Chapter Seven so readers won't be depressed"; "Take out the critical description of the Catholic priest so the church won't sue us"; "Make the protagonist sorry that she had an abortion". You know, literary decisions like that.
Some Names To Start Off
Thanks to publishing consultant Alice Acheson who remembered John Baker's 1999 article in Publishers Weekly, "The Book Doctor is In." There he listed two groups of former book publishing editors-turned-manuscript consultants who now work independently from New York.
Alice has created an at-a-glance pair of lists that I've updated as a beginning list of seasoned professionals; below that are 2 manuscript consultants from the San Francisco Bay Area.
INDEPENDENT EDITORS GROUP (IEG - this was the first group of former publishing house editors; membership limited to no more than a dozen):
CONSULTING EDITORS ALLIANCE: 2nd group to form after IEG became oversubscribed; 12 members usually (I've cut several from this list due to wrong numbers, retirement or other work as literary agents or authors in their own right):
Two manuscript consultants I recommend highly in the Bay Area are Caroline Pincus in San Francisco (415/665-3200), formerly at HarperSanFrancisco, clients include Larry Dossey, Rodger Kamenetz); and Doris Ober in Bolinas (415/ 868-1299), who's edited everyone from Randy Shilts before his death to my partner Terry Ryan and is beloved by all.
Another guide to and about manuscript consultants (also called "Book Doctors") with many helpful links (to the Editorial Freelancers Associations, for example) comes from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America at http://www.sfwa.org/beware/bookdoctors.html .
NORTHTOWN BOOKS TAKES ON ATLANTIC MONTHLY - AND OPRAH
I've run a number of responses to Brooke Allen's inane tribute to chain bookstores in the Atlantic Monthly (#247), but none have been more bold and articulate than the statement by Dante in the latest newsletter of Northtown Books in Arcata, California.
Writing about the "unabashedly myopic" praise that Allen gives to the chains, this talented writer illuminates a number of issues about bookstore practices, and while he's at it, about Oprah Winfrey,that are worth reprinting almost in full (and with thanks for permission from Northtown), as follows:
"Ms. Allen made a point of the fact that the chains carry a wide range of books that independents don't carry, supposedly undermining the claims that independents have made for years about the loss of diversity brought on by the chains.
"Buying up thousands of copies of thousands of titles is not a strategy meant to increase availability of titles; it is a tool to leverage higher discounts from publishers. This in turn forces publishers to do unrealistically high print runs to fill a demand that in the majority of cases does not exist. Too many books are later returned to the publishers who pass their losses on to the consumer with ever increasing prices.
"Until the chains lose their stranglehold on publishers, the situation will only get worse and publishers will inevitably cut back on chancier titles that could potentially lose money.
"We would love to have the room to carry more than we do, but we also like a well chosen selection in a manageable space, and we prefer the vagaries of an independent buyer over the profit-driven speculation of a conglomerate. Ms. Allen admits that the bookstore business is competitive and that the chains play rough, yet fails to see the uneven playing field that is inherently detrimental to all bookstores, publishers and customers."
About Oprah Winfrey's power as a maker of bestsellers: "We have nothing (concrete) against her. It's just the merchandising ploys behind the Oprah picks that we object to. Publishers call us to let us know they have the latest Oprah book, the drawback being they only give us a price and an ISBN number and expect us to make a buying decision based only on the fact that Oprah has given it her imprimatur.
"It could be something we already carry (this is usually the case), but as independents, we just don't like to buy blind based solely on what a publicity machine can do. We admit it, Oprah picks perfectly fine, interesting titles for her book club; we also admit that nobody who works here watches her show so we don't always know what the latest Oprah pick is. We swear to you, it's not elitism [a Brooke Allen term for those who dislike chain bookstores], just ignorance."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Randall Platt here. Argh! I'm so steamed, I had to write to see what your information/take on this is. I just got an email from someone who was vaguely familiar to me, so I went ahead and opened it. Note the email was NOT from Amazon.com. Turns out, it was an email from Amazon alerting me that I am now a recipient of a - get the barf bucket out - 'Share the Love' program. Apparently, every time this acquaintance buys a book from Amazon, I GET AN EMAIL offering me 10 percent discount on all her purchases! Can you imagine if even a handful of people on my email list started doing this? (As an author, I have over 1000) If that ain't disguised spam, I would like to know what is. Oh sure, Amazon offers an opt out link, but if you go to it, I defy you to find a way to opt out without an account number. And since I ain't no customer, I ain't got no account number! I have emailed Amazon to get my email address off their mailing list. We'll see. Double argh! Now I have to think of a delicate way to email my acquaintance and let her know that I have no intention of shopping Amazon and, more importantly, remind her of the terrific bookstore right there in her small home town - which is, ironically, where she first met me when I was promoting my last book, *The Likes of Me*. And that would make it a Triple Argh!
Dear Holt Uncensored;
Regarding the new contracts that Ski and Skiing are sending out [asking contributors to sign away their rights of ownership], Sunset Magazine (where I used to work on staff; I freelance for them occasionally now) has similar language in its standard contract:
"The parties expressly agree that SUNSET shall own all rights in the Work, including but not limited to copyrights (including for original terms and renewal and extended terms, if any) in the Work throughout the world. The parties also expressly agree that the Work is a contribution to a collective work and/or is a supplementary work and shall be considered a Work Made for Hire for SUNSET as that term is defined in Paragraph 2 of the Work Made for Hire definition in Sec. 101 of the 1976 Copyright Act. However, to ensure SUNSET's ownership of all rights in the event that the Work for any purpose is deemed not to be a Work Made for Hire, you agree to assign ownership of all rights described above to SUNSET upon submission of the Work to SUNSET. You also agree to execute and deliver any and all other documentation deemed necessary or appropriate by SUNSET to effect such transfer without further consideration. All rights granted by this agreement are applicable in any and all media, including, but not limited to print, electronic and digital media, whether no known or hereafter created."
And because Peter Kray mentions that Sports Illustrated and TIME are staff-written, it should be noted that Sunset used to be entirely staff-written (a point of pride for the Lanes, the former owners) but that has changed since Time Warner bought it some ten years ago.
No real news here, just corroboration.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a point of information, the agent and the editor are both named Robert Gottlieb. The editor is often referred to as Bob; the agent is always referred to as Robert.
Holt responds: As soon as the Washington Post described him as "dress[ing] like the biggest shlumpf in the world," I KNEW the Gottlieb editing Clinton was the same Gottlieb who headed up Knopf. My apologies to the Robert Gottlieb who left William Morris and started his own company.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It will be a crying shame if writers win the battle (in the Supreme Court, no less) but lose the war due to publishers simply rewriting the rules. Thanks for highlighting the issue. It's very important, and not just for writers.
Another class of writers - scholars - provide an object lesson. Almost without exception, authors of scholarly articles are not paid for their work. Why should they be? It's part of their job and they naively think the more knowledge is shared, the better for society. Scholars measure the success of their writing by how often their work is read (and cited), not by how many copies are sold, so they don't object when the journals they publish in claim all rights to the material (though they're often surprised to have to pay a hefty copyright fee to use an article they wrote). Heck, in the sciences, they even pony up page charges without a whimper. They just build the cost into their grants -- it's your tax dollars at work, folks!
The publishers of these journals often have extremely high profit margins--and why not? It's a great business plan to get all your content for free, most of your editorial work for free or nearly, and even your most effective marketing for free--as when accreditation teams insist that academic libraries ransom the scholars' content back for them at sometimes mind-boggling prices. Enough people have wised up to this boondoggle that it has publishers scared. A lot of the intellectual property legislation that is shrinking fair use is being advanced on their behalf.
The constitution addresses the balance that has to be struck in intellectual property law - between the owner of the property and the greater good. Now publishers (who in these cases own, but don't create the property) are tilting that balance in the wrong direction. We'd better keep an eye on these guys.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm thrilled that you're taking on the magazine publishing world as well as the book congloms. As a writer "servicing" both industries (which is exactly how it feels), I am privileged to be in the process of being screwed royally by them both. (Don't get me started about the "special sales/deep discount" clause in the contract with my book publisher, which reduced my hard-earned royalties for my most recent title by just about half.)
At the moment I have three articles outstanding with two prominent national magazines. All three were verbally accepted by the assigning editor. Two of the three have been rewritten by me to the editor's satisfaction. And none has been scheduled, nor paid for--despite the fact that I submitted them up to four months ago.
The excuse offered by the editor, in all cases, is that his boss hasn't yet given final approval, and therefore payment cannot be authorized. The "boss," of course, has no motivation to read the stories, let alone approve them, until (and if) they are scheduled. So these magazines are now collectively holding $12,000 of my precious freelancer's dollars - plus the expenses I fronted to travel for the stories, which of course take months to recover.
In the old days, magazine contracts specified "payment on acceptance" or at least, the dread "payment on publication." In reviewing the 6 magazine contracts I've signed in the past 6 months, all with major national publications, not one specifies a time frame for payment to the writer.
Put THAT in your lawsuit and chew it, NWU! And I hope all freelance magazine writers will contribute their grisly stories. Gee, perhaps someone can write a magazine story about this phenomenon. Say, for a major national publication?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In light of all of the talk [#255] about headless cover photos, I thought that you might find the article at this address interesting.† http://aolsvc.bookreporter.aol.com/features/perspectives/edit010810.asp You may have seen it already but I thought that it was a great tie-in.
Holt responds: Even I am agog! This funny and instructive article by Rob Cline for BookReporter.com discusses human models in jacket illustrations who defy us to see them - they walk away, turn their backs, avert their gaze or wind up with their heads/eyes/faces lopped off/erased/softened beyond recognition. About figures who seem to be "sauntering away," Cline asks: "Are they inviting the reader to play Follow the Leader? Are they demonstrating a quiet disinterest in those who might be interested in them? Do they have another appointment?" Why is this "faceless phase in cover design so prevalent," these days? Cline has no answer, but I think the inbred nature of mainstream publishing, even when adopted by independent houses (the bit-lip expression of a young woman on the cover of "Pretty Is As Pretty Does" might be less irritating if the illustrator hadn't cut her off at the eyeballs), is the culprit. It's scary when jackets, themes, ideas, stories, memoirs, bios, narratives, and titles seem to run in cycles or fashions all the time.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
My objection to Oprah Winfrey has less to do with Oprah herself than with what her power does to publishing. With the greater and greater emphasis on the bottom line, larger publishers and their editors look to Oprah rather than to a wider, more diverse readership, as their market. Oprah has become the reader they choose books for; every acquisitions editor is looking for Oprah books.
So Oprah becomes like the Queen Mother with her list of must-reads, and given what her seal of approval can do for book sales, she's become every publishers' obsession. I can't deny that she has encouraged reading in the U.S. But the combination of her media power and the corporatization of publishing has resulted in a warped picture of readers' tastes in this country. Going into any of the chains we have the impression of being offered a wide range of choices. But the choices of books displayed on the front tables at the chains are increasingly homogenous.
No, I can't fault just Oprah or the chains. There are other factors involved. Aren't there always? But this homogenization of American tastes is something we all need to watch. And that's a good argument for supporting independent readers, independent booksellers, independent publishers and, by the way, independent authors. But that's a whole other story--related, certainly, but another story.
Hal Zina Bennett
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What is up with Barnes & Noble cutting the Community Relations Manager positions from 100 stores with no advance warning and preferably without the employees even being able to clean out their desks? It just makes no sense. Even if B&N were canning the program in some stores, wouldn't it be logical to keep these CRMs on a couple of weeks to ease the transition with authors, publishers, and contacts?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote in #257:
"It's hard to believe the arrogance of the New York Times in thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court and forcing freelance writers to buckle under. Heaven knows that individual writers, faced with signing the contract or never writing for the Times again, have no power. As a result, the NWU and Authors Guild have responded with lawsuits of their own, stating that the Times' contract is "illegal and unenforceable," as the NWU puts it.
"Enter AOL/Time Warner
"But now word comes that at least two magazines in the America Online/Time Warner conglomerate are bringing the same pressures to bear on freelance writers. If AOL/Time Warner's other magazines follow suit and succeed, critics believe, independent writers will end up with very few rights left at all."
This is, of course, outrageous - yet it is a marketplace response to power, profit and available paths of least resistance.
But first, a small digression. Ever since I can remember, photographers organized themselves to control the ownership of their rights almost as tightly as music publishers control lyrics. Writers - not to speak of artists and illustrators - have never been able to effectively create a mechanism for controlling rights to their work in the same way. I still don't completely know why, other than that the mechanical and logistical requirements of photography by definition limit the size of the qualified pool of outsources.
The traditional "first serial and the rest is mine" formula worked in the days before computers, data bases and the internet made content management economically feasible. Of course, it is also true that very few free lance articles found an aftermarket life before content management.
Now that publishers find value in being able to manage their aggregate holdings opportunistically - setting up formulas to compensate for an aftermarket looms as both too much trouble as well as not competitively required. It also offends corporate ego. After all, there seem to be enough hungry journeyman(woman) writers - and illustrators - able to deliver useful words and pictures in most realms so that publishers will not be without supply.
A work for hire agreement is a legitimate deal between two parties - even if one holds most of the cards - and I would be surprised if the Times and AOL/Warner et al would not be able to keep a step ahead regardless of the lawsuit outcomes, although I applaud the Guild and union in their effort. Without knowing their legal premise - but from many years publishing experience, I would be surprised if this route yielded a useful result.
On the other hand, there has to be a useful marketplace strategy that would provide sufficient leverage so that doing business this way would be costly, embarrassing or both. Or, conversely, doing business another way would be more rewarding. If our cohort of freelancers remain too weak and dispersed, then perhaps alliances with organizations or pressure groups with more muscle would be worth exploring. Or, finding ways to make it easier for competitive media to offer alternatives to good writers and chip away at the pool available to the biggies. I do believe that there are professional writers who expertise, writing skill and ability to deliver does make a difference. Ways need to be found so that this cannot so easily be taken for granted.
I donít have an answer or a proposal to make - but until and unless we can come up with one, trying to create a legal barrier will not work, since publishers will continue to be able to find open and above board arrangements whose net outcome will be to reduce the future value of most free lance articles in the absence of a competitive reason not to.
Eugene G. Schwartz
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: