Literary Agent Roundtable: 'Even the Bad Movies Sell Editions'

New York's top book agents on Schwarzenegger's flop, the Lena Dunham-Gawker spat and why Hollywood loves "The Fault in Our Stars."

THR: Have you walked away from film deals where the studio refused to include the author in casting decisions?

REAMER: They don't usually have that kind of control.

SIMONOFF: Most authors are thrilled that studios are going to make a movie adapted from the book. I hate to say it, even the bad movies sell editions, which is what the authors are counting on. There are some authors like our client Stephen Chbosky -- who wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- who really didn't want anyone to adapt it or direct it other than himself. It slows the process down, enormously. The book came out in the late '90s, and the movie came out in 2012. But he got it exactly the way he wanted it. [Chbosky directed and wrote the screenplay.]

HARRIS: I have a debut spy novel publishing this spring. We had a couple of offers for it, but neither one of them has been just the right thing. I have a guy who spent 33 years of his career taking risks, so he has been happy to say no. A lot of authors aren't willing to take that risk.

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THR: Are publishers more interested now in owning a piece of film rights?

WITHERSPOON: Publishers want to see the properties that they have out there made into film. It's a big ad, no matter which screen we're talking about. I haven't had [any publisher] try to participate in the exploitation of film rights on any of my projects in a very long time.

FLETCHER: They try to come around the back way once the deal is done. (Laughs.)

THR: These days, are you steering your authors more toward television than film?

FLETCHER: For authors who are used to getting big option fees upfront, TV doesn't even come close. TV is like holding a lottery ticket. If it works, it really works. There's a much more active marketplace for books in television now.

REAMER: What's the impact of TV on sales of books?

FLETCHER: It's fast.

SIMONOFF: We have a movie coming out that's 10 years in the making [Robert Redford's The Company You Keep]. Then you have pilot season where it either happens [fast] or it doesn't happen. It's amazing.

GOTTLIEB: In TV, there's not a lot of money for source material. I like to tell my clients, "Think of it as a big TV commercial for your publishing."

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THR: Two of the biggest trends of the past five years have been YA and Fifty Shades-style erotica. Has either peaked yet?

SIMONOFF: In YA, the publishers are constantly chasing yesterday's trend. They tend to overbuy depending on what's working. Twilight obviously sparked a huge buying craze in the paranormal romance area.

REAMER: But publishers, in some ways, feel like studios. Each of them had their dystopias, so they didn't need another one.

GOTTLIEB: The key is really coming in at the early part of the trend, as opposed to coming in at the tail end. We have Wonder, about bullying: The agent had a hard time selling it because publishers didn't think that middle-grade students would read this subject. Now because of the book's success, publishers are buying books in that category.

FLETCHER: Some of the hardest books to sell, for me, are the ones that have ended up selling the best. The Nanny Diaries -- they couldn't give it away.

REAMER: I haven't had that case. Twilight, certainly, was not hard to sell. [Ally Condie's hit YA novel] Matched also was the one that really captured the world.

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THR: Is there a particular book you regret you passed on that became a huge hit?

SIMONOFF: I tell the younger agents that the list of authors I represent is matched in prestige and sales with a list of authors I passed on.

FLETCHER: [To Witherspoon] You took on a book that I passed on by Lionel Shriver [We Need to Talk About Kevin].


FLETCHER: That haunted me everywhere. I didn't get on a plane, I didn't go on vacation without someone sitting right next to me reading that book.

WITHERSPOON: When I read that book, I was 39 weeks pregnant. It's a book about a woman who gives birth to a boy who, ultimately, becomes incredibly violent. I found it to be the most relaxing thing I could possibly read. (Laughs.) I didn't know anything about Lionel Shriver. Thank God, there was somebody in my office who took a look at the manuscript and who also didn't know who Lionel Shriver was but who was absolutely captivated. Their only hesitation was: "Is this a book you really send to your boss a week before her first child is delivered?" When I called Lionel, [who is a woman but] has a fierce, strong voice, to say, "Hey, I can't stop thinking about this book," it took me like two seconds to realize, "I'm not talking to a man." (Laughs.)

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THR: Who are the "big gets" in celebrity memoirs?

GOTTLIEB: Mick Jagger.

WITHERSPOON: I'll never get it, but I really want to do Bill Murray's memoir.

SIMONOFF: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

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