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

7:00 AM PST 04/11/2013 by Matthew Belloni , Andy Lewis
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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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