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."
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
More than ever, the road to Hollywood begins with a book. Five of the top 10 movies so far this year started as books, and TV has seen a boom in adaptations (witness the success of Game of Thrones). Consumer publishing is a $14 billion-a-year business.
But like other media, the transition to digital has unsettled the industry, with the rise of e-books and self-publishing offering opportunities and challenges. Six of New York's top literary agents -- WME's Eric Simonoff, 45, who co-heads the book department and counts TV and lit powerhouse Bill O'Reilly among his clients; ICM Partners' Sloan Harris, 50, who co-heads his agency's lit department and whose clients range from journalist Ken Auletta to The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger; InkWell's Kimberly Witherspoon, 49, who scored Lena Dunham a $3.7 million advance in October; Trident's Robert Gottlieb, 58, who serves as the chairman of the agency he founded in 2000; Fletcher & Co.'s Christy Fletcher, 40, who reps A-list journalists and public figures such as Argo subject Tony Mendez and CNN's Jake Tapper; and Writers House's Jodi Reamer, 46, who handles Twilight's Stephenie Meyer, The Fault in Our Stars' John Green and a host of other YA authors -- gathered for THR's first roundtable on publishing.
The panelists revealed their biggest frustrations in dealing with Hollywood, whether the Fifty Shades of Grey boom has peaked and whose celebrity memoir they would most like to snag (hint: Mick Jagger and Bill Murray top the list).
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What's the most memorable opening line from a book proposal you've read?
RIC SIMONOFF: I got an over-the-transom query -- I shouldn't even say this publicly for fear I'll get more -- the first line of which was: "Dear Mr. Simonoff, it would be an egregious lapse of judgment for you to represent me."
KIMBERLY WITHERSPOON: "Anthony Bourdain says that we should work together." It turned out that it was Gabrielle Hamilton [Blood, Bones & Butter], and he was right.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB: An author named Gordon Seagrave, who grew up in Asia, wrote: "China had three daughters: one loved money; one loved power; one loved China; and they were Sun Yat-sen's daughters." He went on to become a New York Times best-selling author.
CHRISTY FLETCHER: I remember the really bad ones. There is one [proposed book title] that is so vulgar that I'm not even sure that I can bring myself to say it. If you can bleep it, it was called F--- That, Bitch Tits. (Laughter.)
SLOAN HARRIS: Mine is in the form of an opening line of a complaint letter to American Airlines. It's in a novel by Johnny Miles, and it opened, "Dear American Airlines, my name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund of 392 some-odd dollars." And it then goes on to be this blistering complaint about the modern condition. I didn't think it could sustain this for a full novel. It is completely brilliant.
THR: What's your biggest frustration with how Hollywood handles books?
HARRIS: How much time do we have? (Laughs.) Studios feel very driven by tentpole materials and franchises, and it makes it extraordinarily difficult to take a book that is distinctive and literary and get it the kind of attention it deserves. We're all going to have some kind of story about a major novel that has been in development for five, six years. The idea that something can remain stuck with no sense of momentum whatsoever and very little chance of getting it back is obviously the biggest frustration.
JODI REAMER: When they buy the book because they love it and the fan base loves it, and then they want changes that have nothing to do with the book. You're thinking: "Why did they buy it? You could have just written that script yourself."
GOTTLIEB: It's a different medium. Take The Godfather. You have a handful of scenes being taken out of the book -- probably 75 or 85 percent of the book is gone. That's what Coppola used to make a movie.
REAMER: Young adults have this rabid fan base. The smart studios are the ones that know you have to be true to them. They're the ones you want to get into that theater … who are going to spread the good word about the film.
WITHERSPOON: It's probably the healthiest path for an author not to want to control how their movie comes out. I can remember [author] Pat Conroy calling [Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood author] Rebecca Wells and saying that trying to supervise the making of -- I think it was Prince of Tides -- pretty much cost him his health.
FLETCHER: With Argo, [former CIA operative] Tony Mendez was very, very involved with screenwriter Chris Terrio, more than even the producers knew. Journalists really want to engage. It's not so much about contractual negotiation.
THR: Who do you consider the top movie producer to adapt books?
HARRIS: Scott Rudin remains the king.
SIMONOFF: Yeah, for a certain kind of place and a certain kind of book.
REAMER: I don't have one person. I get my authors on the phone with the producer and studio exec because you want to always tell when they're sincere. Or not.
WITHERSPOON: That's all you can hope for.
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.
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."
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.
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.)
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.
THR: Do rock stars write better memoirs than actors?
HARRIS: Great collaborations make for great rock memoirs. Look at Keith Richards' Life and how much that book reads like his voice and the amazing recall for detail out of a guy who spent his whole life having a good time.
WITHERSPOON: It's a much safer bet if you can work with the celebrity or the subject who can truly write their own memoir.
HARRIS: But those are extraordinarily few and far between.
WITHERSPOON: They are, but they're the ones to keep your eye out for.
GOTTLIEB: Right now, it's very hard to get big sales numbers for a celebrity memoir because Arnold Schwarzenegger's book is not doing well.
THR: Kim, Lena Dunham recently sent a legal letter to Gawker after it posted her book proposal. Has that been resolved?
WITHERSPOON: Well, Gawker has it out for Lena, but I was definitely surprised by that decision.
THR: Has the dispute been resolved?
WITHERSPOON: Gawker took it down; that was the resolution.
THR: Do you think the upcoming Amanda Knox book will sell?
GOTTLIEB: I hope so, for HarperCollins' sake.
REAMER: It's a great story, right?
HARRIS: Will the Amanda Knox book sell? Absolutely.
THR: Would you represent someone like Casey Anthony?
WITHERSPOON: There are lines I'm not interested in crossing.
GOTTLIEB: It's not something that we would want to take on.
FLETCHER: So much really comes down to what are you personally interested in. The [book process] is like a three-year commitment at minimum, and you really need to make sure your interest is high enough to sustain it.
WITHERSPOON: You should be enjoying this. You only have 24 hours in a day.
THR: What do you consider the best media outlets for promoting and selling books?
WITHERSPOON: NPR is still excellent. Kate Atkinson got Terry Gross for her forthcoming novel Life After Life, and I stopped worrying.
SIMONOFF: There's still just enough old media left to really move the needle: the cover of The New York Times book review for a certain kind of book.
WITHERSPOON: Although sometimes not.
HARRIS: There are four or five daily Times reviews every year that really move the needle.
FLETCHER: 60 Minutes.
REAMER: In YA, it's definitely about the blogosphere, but it's also about the innate ability of the author to connect with their audience. You can't re-create what John Green [The Fault in Our Stars] does. His video blogs have connected to this fan base on YouTube. That's something that he created himself that feels natural and doesn't feel that the publisher decided he should do.
SIMONOFF: We get a lot of questions from clients, "Do I have to tweet?" If you have to ask the question, the answer is, "Don't."
THR: Is it now necessary for an author to have a relationship with his or her fans online?
REAMER: When it's real, it's effective.
WITHERSPOON: The most exciting thing about the way the business has evolved since we started is the ability of writers to interact directly with fans.
FLETCHER: They know who their readers are. Publishers by and large do not know who actually buys their books.
THR: Do you feel that the social-media activity helped get a bigger movie deal for The Fault in Our Stars?
REAMER: It's so intertwined with who John is and how he connects with his audience. People loved that book, and so Hollywood loved that book.
THR: Where are you looking to find talent these days?
HARRIS: I grew up scouring magazines and literary journals, but that has largely dried up. Most magazines have their writers already under contract, and there's very little space there. Our younger colleagues are reading blogs, are watching Amazon best-seller lists for books that may be unrepresented but are starting to pop. It's encouraging to see the business learning how to create new places where writers can actually develop their voice and make money while they're growing enough of a fan base to potentially jump over and join the commercial trade publishing side.
GOTTLIEB: Amazon has created an opportunity for authors to be published who under normal circumstances would never be published because of the bottleneck of traditional publishing. We represent a book called The Abbey, a story of a Midwest homicide detective who's a Muslim American. If I went out with that book to a traditional publisher, I would have a very hard time selling it. The book sold 1 million copies on Amazon, 350,000 copies on Barnes & Noble, and suddenly publishers start to notice.
SIMONOFF: It's interesting in the push and pull between bloggers and online providers of free content that people will still pay in book form for that which they can have in many cases for free. There's Awkward Family Photos, Stuff White People Like, The Book of Awesome.
WITHERSPOON: We're seeing the influence of self-published romance on commercially published romance. Which is to say that there is a lot more sex in it now.
THR: Obviously, that's Fifty Shades.
WITHERSPOON: Most traditional houses would not have thought that Fifty Shades was a book that they could do real business with their core romance audience. It was [Random House's] Vintage ultimately who triumphed.
THR: Was it because it was too sexually graphic?
WITHERSPOON: Yeah, and the quality of the writing, quite frankly.
THR: Is there a lesson to be learned from that about what can cross over?
HARRIS: There is an enormous amount of opportunity in chasing what's going on in self-publishing and chasing blogs, but at the end of the day, as Christy said, you have to believe in it on a sustainable level. Following trends is a really, really tricky way to build a client list in our business.
GOTTLIEB: I think it's important to be open-minded today and not characterize an original e-book necessarily as a down-market book because it was published in that format first but to look at it from a new perspective.
SIMONOFF: We're in an age of experimentation. Publishers are experimenting, we're experimenting, and authors are experimenting. There are many more outlets than there used to be. There's apparently a hunger, at least among a number of companies, for midlength material -- longer than a short story or essay article but shorter than an actual book. There's Byliner, there's Atavist, there's Kindle Singles that in a certain sense takes the magazine [or book publisher] out of the equation and plugs something else in there. The results so far have been somewhat mixed but interesting.
HARRIS: It literally is this very old-fashioned, very dysfunctional business sort of shape-shifting before our eyes, which is incredibly exciting.
WITHERSPOON: It's kind of perfect timing isn't it? We would all be so bored otherwise.
THR: Do recommendations from existing clients help?
WITHERSPOON: It does go a long way. You're getting a recommendation from somebody whom you trust pretty completely not to be wasting your time.
SIMONOFF: Because we do get queries from people who say, "So-and-so recommended us." Then you call [the client] and they have no idea what you're talking about.
REAMER: That happens more often than not.
WITHERSPOON: The imposters. (Laughs.)
THR: Is there a James Patterson effect on publishing? He released 13 books in 2012.
SIMONOFF: There used to be a sense that an author couldn't publish more than two books a year. Then James Patterson just smashed down the wall.
THR: What's the secret for media people crossing over into becoming successful authors? Take Bill O'Reilly, for instance.
FLETCHER: Bill has such a strong point of view, and I think there's a real advantage in the space he's in to have a very strong voice.
SIMONOFF: It goes back to Keith Richards -- wanting to do it and do it well. He wants to make history interesting. He wants people to read them essentially as if they're thrillers. He's also on TV every day. That helps.
THR: Sloan, your client Lauren Weisberger has The Devil Wears Prada sequel, Revenge Wears Prada, coming out this summer. Has Anna Wintour attempted to influence the book?
HARRIS: To her credit, not in the least.