Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
Back in 1977 I was watching the movie “Julia” with my friend (and fellow writer) Arnie Reisman. The film is drawn from Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento and, as scripted brilliantly by Alvin Sargent, combines Hellman’s (Jane Fonda) adventures behind enemy lines in Europe with her struggles to become a playwright coached by her lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). She labors over repeated drafts of what would become “The Children’s Hour,” at one point picking up her typewriter and throwing it out the window in frustration. When she finally finishes a draft that both she and Dash approve, a great sympathetic sigh of relief swept over the movie audience. All except Arnie, who said, “Well, so much for the easy part.”
He was, of course, referring to the fact that, as hard as it is writing a script, it’s even harder getting one produced. This was impressed upon me about ten years later by my friend Gregory Mcdonald, the former newspaperman who became the best-selling author of the Fletch mystery series. “Look at it this way,” he said when I told him about yet another failed script sale on my part. “There are maybe 200 movies produced in the United States every year compared with 100,000 books. Your odds are much better writing books.”
That’s what got me into the book writing racket. It was lush in those days. A first-time author (which is what I was, although I’d been writing for newspapers for over a decade) could actually get a large enough advance to pay some of the bills while he wrote the book. My first was the biography of filmmaker William Friedkin, whom I’d met just after he made “The Exorcist,” and with whom I’d kept in touch. My colleague Deac Rossell did a search of film books and realized that there wasn’t one on Friedkin, so I asked Billy (that’s what he’s called) and he gave me permission to write about him. That’s how easy it was; no lawyers, no contracts, just a handshake over the phone between two people who trusted each other. Within a week I’d put together a detailed proposal that my agent, Helen Rees (whom I’d met on another friend’s referral), sent out to publishers, and almost immediately we got William Morrow & Company to buy it.
I’ve written a lot of books since then. I honestly don’t recall the number; I’m not being coy, it’s just that they flow together. Let’s see (thinks to himself) one, two, three –- hell, they’re all on this website somewhere. Times have changed for the worse, though. Publishers don’t pay very much any more except to celebrities and best-selling novelists, and my stuff is non-fiction and specialty. Books that landed a $40,000 advance ten years ago now get maybe $1,000 even though it costs publishers less to produce them thanks to authors essentially doing their own typesetting (via computers) and the advent of limited-run printing and binding.
And that’s my point. Writing is hard enough, then comes the rest. If you make it through the editing stage, there’s the fact-checking stage when you have to prove what they hired you for in the first place. Then clearing rights to use photos and text excerpts (publishers want the author to pay for this). Then there’s copy-editing (done by the publisher), and going over the copy-editing to make sure the copy-editor got it right (done by the author). Finally the publisher sends the galleys and the author checks them all over again for formatting mistakes and to make last-minute text changes. Eventually the book is printed, bound, and released. And that’s when you start doing your own publicity because, with so little money at stake these days, publishers don’t care about your book, they just fling it at Amazon and hope for the best.
This short-sighted tactic reminds me of the way we used to deal with record industry reps when I was in rock radio. It was mind-boggling. Each label would pay to produce, I dunno, 50 albums a year and they’d toss ‘em at the radio stations hoping that enough program directors would like at least one song out of the bunch enough to give it airplay. The big groups, of course, drove the profits; they were the best-sellers. The rest, on which countless up-and-coming musicians had fixed their hopes, were abandoned to the cut-out pile if they failed to score on their own. (This also raises the issue of how many radio program directors would recognize a good song if it but them or if they just follow the hype.)
It’s the same vexing choice: with books as with records, you either release as much as you can and hope some of them succeed on their own, or you choose a handful of titles and push the hell out of them. In other words, do you give a chance to many but provide no support, or to a chosen few with support? Can you imagine Detroit doing this with new cars, or Kellogg’s with cereal? Turning the tables, how do you chose what books to buy? One you’ve heard of or one that looks interesting? Aha!
I have worked with a number of publishers who took a rational approach. Adams Media Corp., for whom I wrote several books in their Everything series, were works-for-hire and I had neither a financial nor emotional stake in how well they did. University Press of Kentucky, for whom I wrote the biography of Arthur Penn, were enormously supportive and helpful. Simon & Schuster Audio, who handled the Alien Voices audioboooks, were morons (hint: they wouldn’t allow their Star Trek line to be sold at Star Trek conventions). Bear Manor Media is friendly and exciting and we work together to push our books to a well-defined audience.
My latest gambit is with NESFA Press for A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison. NESFA is the New England Science Fiction Association. They dropped a bundle doing A Lit Fuse and it shows: the book is gorgeous, well-produced, and fact-checked better than I could have hoped. (Even so, three or four details eluded us and will be corrected in future editions.) They have wisely targeted their promotion to the science fiction community and I feel I am in good hands.
But here’s what it really boils down to. When I brought copy #1 of “A Lit Fuse” to Harlan and Susan Ellison the day it was published, Susan said, “I bet you feel a great sense of accomplishment.” I said I did, but – and I looked over at Harlan, who has something like 120 books to his credit – added, “at this point, do you know the first thing I think about? I think about where the hell am I going to put all the boxes.” Harlan understood, and Susan immediately caught on. As part of every deal, authors get free copies of their books. After a while it becomes a simple storage problem It worse for those of us who write non-fiction. In addition to the mechanicals, we have to save all the other paperwork – the research, the contracts, the releases, the photocopies, and all the other material in case there are legal issues. Once I publish, I donate my paperwork to either the UCLA Performing Arts Special Collections and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/But there are still boxes and boxes of “stuff” that I have to keep nearby.
So I offer this advice to anybody who wants to become a published author: write hard, good luck, and have a big attic.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.