Friday, February 24, 2006

Getting a little help -- or, Two heads are better than one

Galleycat reports a most intriguing story from the USA. Seems there was a very young (about 17) woman who had some demonstrable talent as a writer -- enough to impress agent Jennifer Rudolph-Walsh at William Morris -- but who didn't have what the agent refers to as a 'commercially viable' work. What she had was 'too dark'.

So, the agent put the young writer -- name of Kaavya Viswanathan -- in touch with an outfit called 17th Street Productions (aka, apparently, Alloy Entertainment), which is, according to Galleycat, a 'so-called book packager that specializes in developing projects in young-adult and middle-grade fiction.'

Result: Little Brown have offered the author, now aged 19, a sizable contract, rumoured at $500,000. Film rights are also sold. You can read an interview with the author in the Boston Globe. Oh, and it turns out that our heroine wrote the book in her spare time while taking a normal degree course at Harvard.

Now, although Galleycat seems a wee bit sniffy about all this, I have to say that this process seems to me to be one of the rare instances of writer, agent, and publisher acting rationally.

Here we have a young writer with enough sense to take some advice -- an unusual event in itself. Next we have an agent who recognises that her own main task is to sell stuff, not try to write it. And third we have a bunch of professional book packagers with a proven track record in creating material which actually sells.

The question that occurs to me is this. And it occurs because I live and work in the UK. Suppose you were a UK agent and you were in a similar position, having found a young writer with obvious talent but not yet in possession of a commercial manuscript. Where, I ask, is the UK equivalent of 17th Street Productions, or whatever they're called? I don't know, and I would genuinely like to know. Not because I have anyone to send to them, but as a matter of interest.

I rather suspect that the UK equivalent of 17th Street does not exist here. Yes, there are book packagers, certainly. But the UK market, I suspect, is too small to support the kind of mass-market paperback material which lends itself to production-line fiction.

And where in UK publishing, I wonder, are the super bright book doctors of the calibre of, say, Al Zuckerman in New York? I don't say they don't exist; I simply say that I've been keeping my eyes and ears open for a good long time now, and I don't know of any. Information gratefully received.

4 comments:

John Barlow said...

I collaborated with 17th Street over a period of 2 years and on two novels. In our case it didn't lead to a published book, although they did pay me money to write the MS. If anyone is interested in writing for a packager, do get in touch (through www site); I'm happy to share my experiences.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy Snippet here:

I agree with you that part of the role of publishers and agents is to develop and encourage talent. But to use outside consultants to create a "commerically viable" plot for someone who could not do it herself is deception ordering on fraud.

Publishers these days routinely turn down and denigrate aspirant authors. Most of those whom they do deign to publish are paid trivial amounts. Yet, when the face and figure fit, they will invest massively. Thus it is that a tiny number of privileged first-timers are transformed into millionaires, while others, often as good or better, continue to bang their heads against a brick wall.

It used to be that a publisher might be intrigued by a proposal or a manuscript, even when it was obviously flawed. Editors in such cases would work with the author to iron out flaws and bring the book to the market in the best possible condition. Today, if a novel is felt to have defects, interest vanishes. It is as if modern publishers are in fact no more than printers and promoters. They leave it to agents to sort out the dross and to present them with a selection of pre-prepared titles from which they will compile the next season's list.

But that is not the end of it. It is not enough for them to play safe. They also crave the exctiement of the Lottery. In the increasingly insane search for the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, publishers from time to time take leave of their senses and throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at a chosen author – who is usually young and presentable but who in any case has taken their fancy. On these lucky few everything is bestowed that is withheld from the rest. Publishers know that the trick does not always work, but it adds excitement and "fun" to their days.

Will we ever again have an industry in which publishers "work" with their writers as a normal part of what they do? Will there be relationships that last for decades? I doubt it. The days when editor and author would have lunch four times a year and call each other up once a month are gone and will never return – except, of course, for the Chosen.

This is the tragedy of publishing. It is just a business now, with bottom lines, loss-leaders and Big Name celebrities. Nurturing is a thing of the past, hardly even remembered by anyone under 50.

We all wish to be successful. We all want to pay our bills and store cash away for our old age. But publishing today is rotting from the inside out. Manners have disappeared. There is no more conversation. It is an all or nothing world. Those at the top are richer than ever. But for those on the outside, looking in, their noses pressed against the glass, prospects have never been bleaker.

landjimk said...

Today's Harvard Crimson article charging plagiarism shows Grumpy Old Bookman and Anonymous to be remarkably prescient. Congratulations on your powers of observation and analysis. Looks like Ms. Viswanathan's work was a bit too cookie-cutter.

tomas justicia said...

rational? giving a 17 year old a contract for a half mil?!? Based on what? collegebound literacy?? and now that she's been turned out as a plagiarist, maybe we should sign authors up at age 13, before they become so sneaky, ya know...cause godknows there's no one over the age of 30 who has a clue...no, wait, make that over the age of 20...