Bad Agents

A friend of mine told me an agent horror story today. A few years ago, his publisher accidentally sent him, instead of his agent, royalty statements on his book. The royalties showed that he’d earned $350,000… but his agent had sent him a false statement that said he’d earned only $11,000. My friend sued his agent, the case dragged on for years, and (for reasons I don’t understand) the parties involved ended up settling for about ten percent of what he was owed.

This story reminded me of a couple of other recent agent scandals. This one was covered by the Sacramento Business-Journal:

Celebrated local chef Biba Caggiano writes cookbooks, yet her
relationship with her literary agent has turned into the stuff of
detective novels.Caggiano is seeking more than $400,000 and alleges that Los
Angeles-based Maureen Lasher Agency kept two advances that were
supposed to go to her.  The suit says the agent
even attempted to pass off an incomplete Italian recipe book, written
by someone else, as Caggiano’s work.

Caggiano — who owns Biba restaurant
in midtown Sacramento and once had a cooking show on cable’s The
Learning Channel — learned of the advances only when her publisher
contacted her in July about two books for which it had paid advances of
$106,250 and $143,750, the suit says. It was, Caggiano alleges, the
first she heard about the advances or the negotiations for two new

Advances and book royalties go to the agent and are then disbursed,
along with financial records, to the author. Caggiano says she hasn’t
received any checks or any accounting from her agent. The suit says the
amount owed Caggiano exceeds $400,000.

A spokeswoman for publishing house Harper Collins said that the
company couldn’t comment about the issue and that it is a matter
between Caggiano and her literary agent. In addition to Caggiano, New
York-based Harper Collins has a stable of best-selling cookbook
authors, including Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse and Marcella Hazan.

In October of 2000, unbeknown to Caggiano, Harper Collins delivered
$106,250 as an advance for a cookbook; Caggiano was not paid any part
of the advance nor was she made aware of its existence, according to
the suit. A second advance of $143,750 was paid by the publishing house
for a second book, and again, Caggiano says, she was not paid any of
the advance or made aware of it.

Then, the suit states, Lasher "attempted to deliver to Harper
Collins an incomplete and unauthorized manuscript" without Caggiano’s
knowledge or consent.

The agent hasn’t responded to calls or letters about the incidents,
the suit states. The suit seeks an accounting of Lasher’s books,
records, receipts and disbursements.

This was no fly-by-night agent, either.
Lasher’s clients included Barry Manilow.  Another well-known case of agent fraud involved Marcie Wright who, at one time, represented DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES creator Marc Cherry as well as many other top screenwriters and writer/producers.

According to Variety, she told screenwriter Robert Kuhn that Castle Rock never paid him for a rewrite he did on a script, and that DreamWorks wasn’t going to pay him for a  "quick  polish" on another screenplay he’d written.  The truth was that Castle Rock paid him $150,000  for the rewrite and DreamWorks  kicked in $87,000 for the polish.

Kuhn wasn’t the only client she was robbing. Her client Marc Cherry made a $100,000 pilot script deal with Paramount Network Television in 2001 that was later tabled.

Wright allegedly went to studio and said Cherry wanted to
settle out of the deal and walk away rather than pick it up at a later
date. The studio agreed and cut a check for $25,000, made out to "Marc
Cherry, c/o the Wright Concept," that never made it to Cherry.

Wright was arrested on grand theft and fraud charges and  ultimately pled no contest to embezzlement,  agreed to pay some $270,000 in restitution to her clients,
and serve 12 months in county jail.  The amount ballooned to nearly $500,000 with interest and legal fees. She paid the restitution and was released in September after serving 160 days in prison. She is on three years probation.
According to media reports, Wright  is forbidden
from holding a personal checking account,  may not act in any fiduciary
capacity, and is currently  "undergoing psychological treatment."

A Big Thumbs Up

Sarah Weinman is asking writers over on her excellent blog to share how they felt after getting their first bad review.  Here’s the story I shared:

Maybe it’s because I come from TV…so I’m used to getting unwanted "notes" (ie criticsm) on my writing from everyone (actors, agents, managers, directors, psychic colorists, craft services etc.) and everywhere (studio, network, talent agency, viewers, the press, my pool man, my mother, etc.). I don’t ever take it personally. When it comes to reviews, I read them with a smile, whether they like my book or not. Everyone is allowed their opinion…I’m certainly not shy about expressing mine.

My favorite review ever was from Rolling Stone, calling an episode of BAYWATCH that I wrote the worst hour of television in the history of the medium. And they were being gentle. I loved the review… probably because they were right.

But reviewers…well, at least the publications they work for… can be truly schizo. For instance, Publishers Weekly gave MY GUN HAS BULLETS a bad review… and then, a year later, praised that same book as "riotously funny" in the midst of a rave review for the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND. Go figure.

In TV, you develop a very thick skin. I had a star tell me a script Bill Rabkin & I wrote was a "complete piece of shit." I just smiled and said cheerfully, "Gee, I guess you didn’t like it much. What troubled you?" Turns out what troubled him was a great scene one of his co-stars had  that The Star wasn’t in. His idea of fixing the script was a) deleting the scene or b) deleting all the fun and character from the scene or c) making the scene all about his character and what his character might be doing, thinking and feeling.

I had another executive tell me another one of our scripts would be  a hell of a lot better with a teen suicide in it.  And she wasn’t joking.  She just felt a teen suicide somewhere in the story would add drama.

Another exec once told me his only note on a script we wrote was that he’d like me to swap Act One with Act Three.  He wasn’t joking, either.

Now these aren’t exactly reviews, per se, but they are still comments on my writing. Severe, ulcer-inducing comments. 

What I’ve learned the hard way is that you can’t take these notes, or reviews of any kind, personally or you won’t survive in this business… whether you’re toiling in TV or publishing… or, as in my case, both.

I’ve found some negative reviews, especially of our TV shows, helpful in refining the franchise or spotting weaknesses in our story-telling.

But it also cuts both ways…if you start believing all your positive reviews, you are just as screwed as if you take all the negative ones to heart.   The good reviews feel better, but they can be just as destructive if you start believing your writing is perfect and you’re God’s gift to TV or literature…

The Wild West

If you think Spongebob Squarepants promotes a gay agenda, James Wolcott reports you’ll be positively terrified by the old western series on the GoodLife TV Network.

Bronco, starring Ty Hardin. Bronco. Ty. You tell me those aren’t gay-sounding names. Then there’s Sugarfoot,
starring Will Hutchins. Sugarfoot–another name that sounds awfully fey
to me. In the title song, he’s described as "easy lopin’" (the
sagebrush version of crusing), and joggin’ along "with a heart full of
song." Show tunes, no doubt. Cheyenne,
starring Clint Walker, whose title tune asks the haunting musical
question, "Cheyenne, Cheyenne where will you be camping tonight?"
Camping, indeed! The song has him dreaming "of a girl you may never
love," and I think I know why he may never love her, and why he needs
to go "camping."

TV Stars Nab Oscars Noms

Who could  ever have imagined that Thomas Haden Church would be nominated for an Academy Award… a man whose last major film role was in "George of the Jungle II?"

In his LA Times interview, Church says:

Though he definitely considers "Sideways" a career comeback [Note: That’s an understatement], Church is getting a
little tired of the mythology that seems to have grown up around his casting —
that he was as big a has-been as his character [Note:  He was].

"I’m very flattered by
all the attention," he says, "but there is this tone among some journalists that
Alexander had to pry the lid from my coffin. It wasn’t quite like that. I hadn’t
done anything high-profile in a few years, but … I had 11 years starring in

Church came to the public’s attention in 1990 as oblivious
Lowell Mather during the five-year run of "Wings." Then he starred for two years
with Debra Messing in "Ned and Stacey." His switch to film could be described as
"challenging." He worked steadily — starring as Jane’s sleazy fiancé in "George
of the Jungle" and its sequel — but often in films that never found a

Crystal Bernard should start shopping for an Oscar dress… it could be her turn in a few years. Joking and astonishment aside,  Church was truly wonderful in "Sideways" and I’m glad to see him getting the nomination…

Actually, the entire Best Supporting Actor category was filled with TV Actors … Alan Alda (M*A*S*H), Jamie Foxx ("Roc," "The Jamie Foxx Show," etc.), Clive Owen ("Second Sight," "Sharman,"  "Chancer") and Morgan Freeman ("The Electric Company").

Granted, Morgan Freeman is stretching it… he has been a movie star for many years now but still, it’s pretty incredible how many of those actors spent years in the series television grind. 

This Oscar nom could do for Church what it did for James Cromwell and Martin Landau, two other actors who were slogging around in TV before their surprise nominations. Cromwell’s immediate credits before  "Babe" included guest-shots on "Matlock" and "Diagnosis Murder" and a short run as a regular on "The Last Precinct." Martin Landau joined "Tucker" after his Emmy-ignored performances in "Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island" and "Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman." After that, Cromwell and Landau because movie stars… it would have been inconceivable to imagine Landau starring in a Woody Allen film before "Tucker" revived his career.

On a different topic, I was disappointed by the Best Original Score nominations… do we really need to nominate John Williams again…and for the third rehash of a score (Harry Potter) that he’s been nominated for (and perhaps won, I can’t recall) before? I would like to have seen Edward Shearmur’s wonderful "Sky Captain" score nominated… along with Michael Giacchino’s wildly inventive and invigorating "Incredibles" score (which may have been snubbed because it emulated so many of John Barry’s Bond cues).

Ed Gorman’s Blog…

…has moved to a new address. He kicks things off with his take on all the Robert B. Parker bashing in the blogosphere lately.

The consensus judgment seems to be that he wrote brilliantly early on,
that in fact he rescued the entire private eye genre from malaise and
cliche, and that he brought tens of thousands of new readers to the

I agree with all of that.

Where I have trouble is the funeral pyre so many of his critics seem to be building.

Ed thinks the Jesse Stone novels prove Parker is still at the top of his game.  I don’t disasgree.  I wish Parker would rest Spenser for awhile, abandon the Sunny Randall books, and ride with Jesse for awhile.  Maybe if he took a break from the Spensers for a couple years he would rediscover the character…and maybe find a fresh take on a hero who is anything but fresh these days.

PublishAmerica is too much fun

I just love writing about the PublishAmerica scam, especially now that the swindle’s president,Larry Clopper, has decided to start talking to reporters.  The latest news,  as reported by the Associated Press, is that one of the company’s disgruntled authors decided to test Clopper’s claim that they are a "traditional publisher" that is selective about the books they "acquire" (for the astonishing advance of $1).

Clopper said PublishAmerica is selective — only 30 percent of
submitted manuscripts make it to print. Some authors believe otherwise.

Dee Power, unhappy with how PublishAmerica had handled her novel,
"Overtime," submitted a "new" book that consisted of the first 50 pages
of "Overtime" and the last 10 pages, repeated over and over. The
manuscript was accepted. (Power declined to have it published).
PublishAmerica also accepted a novel by Kevin Yarbrough, even though
the first 30 pages were repeated six times. (Yarbrough revealed his
trick on an Internet site.)

Clopper said those "flaws" would have been discovered before
publication, but acknowledged the works had initially been accepted.
"People make mistakes," he said. "When somebody views a manuscript,
they may not read the whole thing line by line."

While I sympathize with the authors who were ripped off by PublishAmerica,  I’m stunned anybody who visited their website, and read the terms of the contract, could have fallen for their scam. It’s not like Cloppers and Co. went to much effort to hide the true nature of their enterprise, a vanity press making a laughably half-assed attempt to masquerade as a traditioanl publishing company.  But aspiring authors, naturally frustrated by their inability to sell their books, are too blinded by their desperation to read the small print… or to recognize the obvious. It makes them easy prey for swindles like PublishAmerica, WritersUniverse, and their ilk…

The PublishAmerica Scam

PublishAmerica is back in the news. The Washington Post wrote about the company, and this is author Lynn Viehl’s take on it (she says it so much better than I can):

PublishAmerica is also an "advance-paying book publisher" with a company banner motto that reads We treat our authors the old-fashioned way — we pay them.
Except that the old-fashioned way it pays authors an advance is — hold
onto your hat — a whopping total of $1. Now, I made twenty-five
thousand times that as the advance for the last book I wrote, but hey,
maybe I’m just ridiculously overpaid.

PublishAmerica states on its web site
that its titles "are available through most major bookstores." Except
for this one little thing: "Availability is not necessarily the same as
bookstore shelf display." Translation: you can’t get them in the store,
but you can order them through the store’s computer. Assuming you have
psychic power and can envision the titles, because they’re not on the
shelf. Have I got this right?

The Post managed to get Larry Clopper, president and co-founder of  PublishAmerica to speak on the record about his company’s approach to publishing. He should have kept his mouth shut.

To Larry Clopper, the
company, in relying on its authors to largely sell their own books, is
"revolutionizing" an elitist industry. It has, he says, "always
operated on the highest principles of honor and integrity."
PublishAmerica’s authors often knew "decades of failure, dozens of
rejections and life-changing disappointment," adds Clopper, who twice
failed to find publishers for his own books. "Now they hold their books
in their hands, and they are sneering down at the publishing industry
that shunned them."

It’s not the industry they’re sneering at Larry, it’s you.  The Post article goes on to discuss the pitfalls of Print-on-Demand publishing, the latest evolution of vanity press.

Because there have always been more would-be authors than mainstream
publishers are willing to sign up, writers can turn to a variety of
do-it-yourself alternatives. The major difference is that, one way or
another, those writers wind up paying, instead of being paid, to be

POD companies like iUniverse and vanity presses in general
don’t appear to generate much public rancor, however, because they make
it quite clear that the author bears the expense. Besides, such
publishers do serve a purpose. The Authors Guild, for example, has an
arrangement with iUniverse to keep its members’ out-of-print books
available. For a PTA planning to sell a cookbook, or a family elder
passing her memoirs around to the grandchildren, a vanity or POD press
makes sense.
     But it’s very unlikely to lead to a career. Once in a great while, a highly entrepreneurial author gets lucky.

A few POD books have sold well enough to lead to a deal with a mainstream publisher. But if your  book comes out through PublishAmerica, that’s not going to happen to you. You sign over your publishing rights for seven years. So if Random House comes knocking,  PublishAmerica negotiates your deal  and keeps
half the proceeds.  Not a bad trade off for your $1 advance, is it?  Larry Clopper says that his detractors represent a "miniscule faction" of the authors published by his company.

But the fact remains that his authors
can’t join the Authors Guild. Having heard complaints about
PublishAmerica for years, the guild doesn’t recognize its titles as
membership criteria. "There’s a long history of vanity presses and
others taking advantage of the hopes of would-be authors," says
executive director Aiken. "This might fall in that noble tradition."
True, too, many major book review sections (including Book World) won’t
review POD books. "Some of our proudest moments come when authors are
not allowed into certain exclusive clubs," Clopper retorts.

Those who petitioned the Maryland
attorney general seeking "an investigation into this massive scam" had
a different understanding, however. They weren’t interested in sneering
at the exclusive club; they thought that, at last, they were being
invited into it.

Now that the mainstream press — like Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post — are picking up on the PublishAmerica scam, maybe people will finally stop falling for Cloppers clumsy con.



The War for my Soul

I may have mentioned here that I was offered another series of TV tie-ins to write (in addition to my current gig writing DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels). It was a three-book deal for a show I love and I was eager to accept…

But I had to pass on the offer. And boy, did it hurt.

The TV geek in me desperately wanted to write the books, regardless of what I was getting paid.  The sensible  business man in me, the one with some self-respect, knew the deal was bad on every level and that to take it would be a big mistake. ..and set a bad precendent for the future.

The publisher was offering me a ridiculously low flat fee — a work-for-hire payment that included no royalties. Typically writers of  tie-ins, which are original novels based on a TV series, get an advance plus a 2-3% royalty. Novelization writers often get a flat, work-for-hire fee, which makes sense since the story, characters and dialogue are being handed to them. This deal required me to write an original novel and not share in any of the proceeds it might generate.

The TV geek in me didn’t care.  The TV geek was just glad to be offered the opportunity. The sensible businessman was considering my other committments to work and family and doing the math.

My wife was doing the math, too. It would take me three to four months to write the book.  By Valerie’s calculations,  I would make more on unemployment than I would writing those books. It made no financial sense…but she left the decision to me.

I passed.

The showrunner called to tell me how excited he was to learn I was offered the books…and how disappointed he was to learn later that I had rejected the offer. He didn’t blame me, though. He knew it was a rotten deal, too… 

And yet, I still feel pangs of regret. The TV geek in me didn’t care about money.  The TV geek wanted to do it to spend time with those characters.

But the sensible businessman in me won out. For so much of my life, the TV geek side of my personality has been in control. I wonder when the sensible businessman took over…


Sorry there have been so few postings here over the last couple of days… somehow I managed to throw out my back and am hobbling around like a guy who’s testicles have been crushed in a vice.  Feels kind of like that, too. Strange thing is, I have no idea how I hurt myself.  A visit to the chiropractor today hasn’t improved my condition.  And I’m still in physical therapy three mornings a week for my arm… and wearing a new splint/torture device that basically makes it impossible for me to type with my right arm for three hours each day.

In the midst of all this, I’m also working hard to finish my sixth Diagnosis Murder novel to meet a March deadline…knowing that, between now and then, I’m attending/speaking at the San Francisco Writers Conference and Left Coast Crime in El Paso.

Maybe that’s what hurt my back… sitting at my desk writing.

Who knew writing could be so strenuous?

2 + 2 = DEAD

I got this email today:

Hey Lee,

I just discovered your site and look forward to visiting it more often. I’m new to writing mysteries and wondered if you, by chance, are aware of any books that are a study of the mystery genre that utilize equations or diagrams when it comes to analyzing how mysteries work…I know
this is probably an esoteric request but I just thought I’d ask because when I study mysteries I tend to see the orchestration & plotting of the  suspects and clues in an almost mathematical equation…is that a common  approach to the structural part of mysteries?

Anyway I know you’re a  busy guy but I just thought I’d pick your brain with this question…all the  best, Matthew

Um, I dunno, Matthew. But there’s a new series called NUMBERS premiering on CBS Sunday about a guy who uses math to solve crimes. Does that count?