How to Blow a Book Contract

Author John Barlow writes for Slate about the agony of writing a book for 17th Street Productions, the book packager behind Kaavya Viswanathan’s controversial novel and a number of other hit teen novels.

However, having never lived in the United States, I had no idea about what
was permissible in terms of cussing, especially in kids’ fiction. We had agreed,
previously, that I would write the thing as naturally as I could, and the people
at 17th Street would filter out the unacceptable elements. So, I did just that,
leaving in the text a modest fistful of shits, craps, a
bastard, and several fucks. I even told them so when I mailed
the finished text. Did they filter? Did they read? No; they gave the manuscript
straight to the 8-year-old son of the company president. Little Timmy saw a
shit and a fuck. He cried. He read the word bastard
and needed counseling. It was a catastrophe.

My 80,000 words were dead words. A book that I love never got published. Or
even edited. Or read by a single kid (apart from Timmy). I blew it. My chance of
Harry Potterdom, of country homes, of cars that start every time, of book
signings where enough people come to form an actual line … all down the drain.
However, it was a great way to learn that you can’t write a book by committee,
and to be paid 10 grand to learn it. So, thank you Sweet Valley boys. It was
great fun, really.

I know I’m supposed to read this and side with the author…but, I have to say, my sympathies are with the book packager. Maybe because I’ve written so many television shows (where I get input from a thousand people) and work-for-hire tie-in novels. Maybe because I’m a complete sell-out and a talentless hack. Whatever the reason, this guy strikes me as an unprofessional, self-destructive,  whiny putz. He couldn’t bring himself to do some minimal preparation like, oh, actually read some other books from the packager…or other books in the same genre.  He was an artist. He was following his muse instead of doing the job he was hired to do.

Barlow implies in his article that the disasterous experience is all his (then) agent’s fault for getting him into a deal with a bunch of talentless suits. But the truth is that the fault is entirely his own. What killed the deal wasn’t the class between his high, artistic standards and their gutlessness and lack of taste. What killed it was Barlow’s ego, laziness  and astonishing lack of professionalism.

11 thoughts on “How to Blow a Book Contract”

  1. I am just a little confused. If the publisher said that he was going to filter it, shouldn’t they have done so?
    By not doing it, isen’t it a breach of contract?

  2. The way I read it, the guy did what he agreed to do in a series of meetings. I don’t see what’s unprofessional.
    Strategically naive, maybe. Dumb for firing the agent, possibly. But if he’s being accurate in his account, it looks to me as though he upheld the terms of his contract and the other party didn’t.

  3. Maybe because I’ve written so many television shows… Maybe because I’m a complete sell-out and a talentless hack.
    Not mutually exclusive! But I agree with you. Who would think that a book for kids could have anything stronger than “Crud!”

  4. What a jerk. He couldn’t be bothered to research the barriers of the genre he was writing for? What a loser.
    Mr. Barlow needs to build a bridge while he’s crying a river, so he can get over it.
    One lesson I have learned from the professionals out there, always try to write something that requires no editing. Clearly Mr. Barlow thought that was beneath him. He did it to himself.
    Oh, and picking on an 8-year old’s reaction to your work? Real mature.

  5. You know, I went and read the whole piece and thought that it was more of an interesting anecdote than a tale of woe. 17th Street approached him based upon his previous work, so it’s not as though they didn’t have any idea of what he would write. When he turned in something that they didn’t like, they could have ended things right then, but they came back and made him an offer to do “the kind of book you really want to write, no interfering from us!” They did interfere, of course, but he seems to have taken it in stride, calling the writing-by-committee pleasurable and fun.
    What I thought was most telling was this passage: “I started logging the literary and film references that were employed as they struggled to explain exactly what they wanted. Here is the complete list, stretching over a year: 1) Harry Potter, 2) Star Wars, 3) The Odyssey. That’s it. Whenever I mentioned other kids’ writers, such as Eoin Colfer, they shied away. They hadn’t read Eoin. They had read Lemony Snicket, but I think they considered him too ‘out there.'” True, that last point in particular should probably have been a big warning. But do you notice that there were no references to their own books or writers? At some point during this year, don’t you think that it would have been a good idea for them to point to some of their own material as examples of the kind of work they were looking for?
    In the end, Lee, I think it’s not that you’re a hack or a sell-out, but that you’ve had a lot more experience in the writing-for-hire game than this guy had. I’m sure that you learned early on that no one pays you to follow your muse, and probably after an unpleasant episode when someone told you that that was exactly what he wanted you to do. This was John Barlow’s version of that experience, and he seems to have learned his lesson. You picked yourself up and decided to keep at it. He decided not to.
    (The one point that I wll concede that he was exceedingly stupid on was the language. I don’t think children’s or young adult books on either side of the Atlantic contain many “shits,” “fucks,” or “bastards.”)

  6. This wasn’t the first time this book packager worked with an author just to have the final manuscript rejected without a chance for the author to retool the work.
    The Harvard Independent published an article yesterday on an incident where by the author claimed the packager rejected her draft and retooled it only to publish that version –with the same publishing house as is involved in this controversy:
    Instead of pitting the author of one book against the author of another, entirely separate book, the dispute involved two drafts of the same children’s novel, Blackwell’s Island, commissioned from 17th Street by Random House. Random House rejected the first draft, and the writer, Susan Daitch, claimed ownership over it, having never agreed in writing to transfer her rights to 17th Street. She alleged that the rewritten version of the book that was eventually published had a great deal in common with her spurned draft.
    In her case, Daitch’s manuscript was rejected by Random House themselves, and RH demanded a new author. Daitch alleges the eventual author of the work that was published was probably a pseudonym for a non-existent author, implying that 17th Street merely retooled the work in-house after the rejection.
    Daitch’s case was settled out of court with fewer than 3,500 copies distributed. From what I get out of the Harvard Independent’s article, it’s probably still arguable who exactly owns the copyrights to what was published.
    Sure, any author can get rejected, even after working with the editor for some length of time. Daitch’s story wouldn’t have been worth noting if it wasn’t for the curiousity about the packager.

    Side note: Today’s article in the Harvard Independent quotes a New York Times article, suggesting that Viswanathan’s Opel wasn’t started until an agent at the William Morris agency didn’t like her first attempt at writing:

    By Thursday, Viswanathan’s account became more ambiguous. The New York Times summarized the chain of events as now claimed by the author: “Ms. Cohen showed some of Ms. Viswanathan’s writing to Suzanne Gluck…Ms. Viswanathan said that she had written a piece in the vein of The Lovely Bones, the 2002 best-seller by Alice Sebold, but that Ms. Gluck thought that it was too dark.”
    Gluck, then, was not as immediately impressed as earlier articles would have one believe, and Viswanathan began work on a lighter novel, a process in which packager 17th Street/Alloy played a part. The Times continued: “The summer after graduating from high school, she wrote four chapters and a synopsis of what became Opal, and sent them in an e-mailed message to Alloy. After some minor editing, Alloy said it would get back to her. In October of her freshman year at Harvard, she received a call from Ms. Walsh, also an agent at William Morris, who told her she was going to start shopping the manuscript around. ‘Two days later, she called to say Little, Brown wants to buy the book.'”

    So, for someone that originally stated she read (the source material from which she later allegedly plagairized) so many times she “internalized it”, she wasn’t even attempting to write in that very style of literature.

  7. “(The one point that I wll concede that he was exceedingly stupid on was the language. I don’t think children’s or young adult books on either side of the Atlantic contain many “shits,” “fucks,” or “bastards.”)”
    That’s not actually true. I read a great deal of young adult books for professional reasons, and the swearing level depends on the type of book and the characters. There can be no swearing at all, or cuss words on every page. (And “bastard” is mild enough to make it into a middle-grade book.)

  8. I also respectfully disagree with your conclusion, Lee, not that I don’t think it’s right to side with publishers now and again, but in this situation it seems clear that the author erred only in taking the publishers at their word (do what you would normally do and we’ll edit it out)- that they would cut the offensive material and, had he known that they would hand it right over to an eight year old, no doubt that would have changed the situation entirely.
    Sure, he could have known that they only cater to youngsters, but it is indeed why he asked for guidance regarding the profanity, right? That he took their word and you hold him responsible for not knowing the, to you, obvious outcome seems a bit much – at least hold the publishers accountable for not holding up their end.

  9. I have to agree with some here: if the packager said they were going to edit the book for cussing and didn’t do this, then THEY dropped the ball.
    Also, material for early teen readers can contain as much cussing as adult level books. Pre-teen material much less so, but again, the packager said they’d be the ones to worry about that. They presumably knew his previous work before contacting him, so they shouldn’t have been too suprised.

  10. This is only tangential here, but it comes from my most cherished book, Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg:
    “Another favorite Perkins story concerned his confrontation with his ultraconservative publisher, Charles Scribner, over the four-letter words in Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms. Perkins was said to have jotted the troublesome words he wanted to discuss–shit, fuck, and piss–on his desk calendar, without regard to the calendar’s heading, ‘Things to Do Today.’ Old Scrbner purportedly noticed the list and remarked to Perkins that he was in great trouble if he needed to remind himself to do those things.”

  11. I think Barlow’s piece was amusing and meant to be taken as such, not as a story of cruel, unfair victimization at the hands of the unfeeling, stupid packagers.
    Based on your reaction, I think we must have read different pieces. Barlow was compliant and malleable. He cooperated fully with the packager’s work-by-committee method.
    Then they told him to write what he wished, and he did.
    I suspect that the eight-year-old reader is apocryphal, and the few too-strong words Barlow used, which could very easily have been deleted, were merely an excuse for the fact that the packagers just didn’t like the final project and were fishing for a
    “reason” for rejection.
    I’m sure you, Lee, have had assignments where producers kept wanting changes and were never happy with what you produced no matter how hard you tried to satisfy them.
    Who was at fault, you or a producer who just never knew what he wanted, only knowing he didn’t want what you wrote?
    It seems to me that that is Barlow’s situation, and is very analagous to the situation most screen and TV writers face all the time.


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