The Payoff Will Be in Good Karma
An email exchange in which a super special literary agent reveals the depth of his integrity

By Steve Almond


Every once in a great while in the life of a writer, one is afforded the opportunity to correspond with one of the ethical giants of the publishing world. For me, this chance came a few years ago, when I received a query from a gentleman named Mark Reiter. The email exchange that followed was, simply put, awe-inspiring.

Bon appétit!

 
Dear Steve,

Your publishers at Workman suggested I contact you about contributing to a book project. Here’s the pitch:

Richard Sandomir (of The New York Times) and I are editing a book titled “The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.” It will be published by Bloomsbury in Spring 2007. It’s a small, fun reference book that takes off from the “bracket” format made famous by the NCAA basketball tournament pairings each March-and applies that “knockout” format to determining the good, better, best in categories where taste, judgment, and hard-earned wisdom matter.

The appeal of the book is not only that it will include intriguing brackets involving history, sports, pop culture, food and drink, and people, but WHO is rendering the verdict. It’s not us. Rather, we are approaching experts and celebrated authorities to contribute their 32 competitors and final champion. For example, we have Stefan Fatsis on Scrabble Words, Arnold Palmer on Golf Swing Thoughts, Nick Hornby on Best First Records, Phil Dusenberry on Ad Slogans, Renee Fleming on Opera Arias, Michael Wex on Yiddish Phrases, Henry Petroski on Everyday Simple Things, and so on. It’s a mix of serious and less-serious, high and low brow, but the hope is that each page will make the reader a little smarter about a topic and inspire a little debate.

As a fan of Candyfreak, I’m writing to see if you would like to contribute a bracket on Best Chocolate Bars. (That’s our first, but we’re open to suggestions.) You isolate 32 of your favorite chocolate treats for Round One, and whittle the list down to 16, 8, 4, 2, and a final champion - with occasional call-out commentary on why one item wins over another…

If this catches your fancy (and that’s the only reason to do it), we would be delighted if you contributed.

Regards,

Mark Reiter

Managing Director

PFD New York

373 Park Avenue South, 5th Flr.

New York, NY  10016

 

 

Mark -

This does sound like a lot of fun.

The issue for me is time, and money. (My first daughter is due any day, I’m the sole breadwinner, and I’m in debt.)

So please send along deadline/payment/word count info.

Thanks,

sa

 

Dear Steve,

You’re right, it is fun. Alas, there’s no money in it for contributors. Our fact-checker Matt is the only one making a net profit on this project.  The best we can do is a plug for your book and promising you the (admittedly disputable) pleasure you get in putting your life’s passion to good use for a new cohort of readers. I’ll understand that, given the oncoming baby and everything else, you seek to use your time more profitably. But if you play along you’ll be in excellent company. Nick Hornby is doing Best First Record. Keith Olbermann is doing something on Bill O’Reilly. Chris Matthews is doing Great Speeches. Ken Jennings (yes, the Jeopardy champ) is doing something on Game Show Catchphrases. Paul Slansky on Political Blunders.

I’d wager this would take you three hours tops, and I’ll do all the cleanup required. Deadline would be Oct. 10.

Please don’t make a major fan of Candyfreak grovel (although I’m willing to do that, so willing my assistant says I’m acquiring “grovitas”).

Hope everything works out for you in the coming weeks.

Regards,

Mark Reiter

 

Mark -

I may be willing to do this, but I’d really like to know: who IS getting paid, if not the contributors? I contribute to a lot of anthologies, and almost without exception, they offer to pay contributors based on the advance, or a small percentage of the royalties. The idea is a great one, and the contributors are top-notch, so this book could make real money. Why wouldn’t the people who provided the material for the book get some of that money?

Not trying to give you a hard time. These feel like reasonable questions.

Thanks,

Steve

 

Steve,

You ask uncomfortable but eminently reasonable questions. We’re basically relying on the kindness of friends (and like you, the occasional stranger). But we’ve got a pretty good network going on here, and people seem to be engaged by the idea. It is, after all, kinda simple and larkish to do a bracket if you’ve got the expertise in your bones. I think that’s why we’re not getting too much resistance.

Now, the good news. Assuming that you don’t do anything with your contribution too far before our March ‘07 pub date, you have all the rights to the material. There’s no reason you can’t “sell” your bracket to the appropriate publication as a kind of first serial. It could be a local paper, a trade magazine, a cooking magazine, the Weekend Section of The Wall Street Journal. Pretty wide track to follow on this. John Byrne, the exec editor of Business Week, is running his CEOs bracket in BW next March as a fun spread. Good publicity for our book, of course, but he gets to repurpose his work and save some editorial budget for something else. I suggested to the woman who just handed in her American Beer bracket that she should “license” it for a small fee to the winning brewery so they can reprint the bracket as is on t-shirts and posters. (You could do that too, maybe.)

I realize that time is money for you. Does any of the above put you a little more at ease? If and when you contribute, I will be happy to add my connections to yours in the post-bracket phase and get some dough in your pocket. There’s no reason a Saveur or Gourmet or Bon Appétit might not take a little fling with something like your bracket. I can help.

Still hoping, I remain,

Mark Reiter

 

Mark -

I certainly realize that I might be able to resell such a piece, and appreciate your offer of help.

But I’m asking straightforward questions: Did you receive an advance for the book? Who got this money? Who will get the royalties?

I get what you’re trying to do-make a cool book, have some fun-but I’d feel more comfortable participating if you just answered.

Thanks,

Steve

 

Steve,

            To answer your question.

Yes, Richard Sandomir and I are sharing an advance of $50,000. That’s $25,000 each. Take away the 15% agency commission, it’s down to $21,250 each. I’m paying my assistant Emily Sklar an extra $5000 out of my pocket to handle the logistics (tracking down folks like you, for example). We’re delivering to Bloomsbury 100 brackets. We can’t pay some people and not others, but if we did offer payment-less than $500 would be pointless-to everyone, the math says we’d be in the red. Royalties in excess of the advance (should they materialize) go to Richard and me. That’s the economics of this project.

Hope that allays any potential discomfort. We’re not doing this to make contributors feel used or abused. You got it the first time: we’re trying to do something cool and fun-and asking people to be a part of it. If you’re uncomfortable about this, I understand. But I’m hoping you’ve already dashed off your bracket in between our emails.

Regards,

Mark

 

Mark -

After some thought, I’m of two minds about this.

Mind one is that I’d have a fabulous time putting together the brackets … I even know right now which #13 would make it to the Final Four.

Alas, mind two is that it doesn’t sit right with me for your contributors to get nothing when you stand to earn 50K, plus royalties. I’ve done plenty of free work in my career, for smaller publications, with no real profit at stake. But this is something else. You’re asking people to sign on in the spirit of the thing, when you obviously can afford to pay one or two hundred bucks and still make a nifty profit; my moral compass says you should do that.

But it’s your book, and it’s a book to which-despite all this-I’d like to contribute.

The only compromise I can live with is to ask that you pay me a small fee for “first-serial rights” to my bracket, which you’re then free to publish elsewhere. Or agree to pay me a tiny percentage of the royalties. This has no bearing on your other contributors. It would be an agreement written into my contract.

If you’re amenable, let’s come to terms and proceed to the fun stuff.

Otherwise, let me offer my thanks for your kind words about my work.

Steve

 

Steve,

I’m not gonna argue with you, and this is my last attempt to get you to change your mind.  But you’d be better off sticking to Mind One, and jettisoning Mind Two. It’s not greed on our part; it’s just common sense and economics. We can’t pay you and not pay others; if not paying you is morally dubious, what’s paying you and no one else? Also, would $100 or $200 really put your mind at ease or, frankly, make a difference? The weird thing is, you’re the only one out of about 100 people we’ve contacted who’s made an issue out of this. Not the first to ask about money, but the first to make an issue out of it. I suspect people play along with us because they’re of Mind One, and as for Mind Two, they think the payoff will be in good karma. Honestly, if this thing somehow miraculously takes off and starts spitting out royalties, Sandomir and I would certainly be sending out little checks to everyone. It’s the right thing to do, but we aren’t making a contractual promise out of it. We’re not even issuing contracts.

Believe me, I collaborate once or twice a year on books with celebrated people where my minimum fee is $250k, so devoting six months to this project for $16k pretax is costing me plenty. I just like the idea of the book.

Wish you’d come aboard.

Mark

 

Mark* -

I can’t say I’m surprised that you’ve again refused to respond directly to my note. What does surprise me-honestly, it sort of impresses me-is that you’ve made a rather shoddy attempt to guilt trip me for wanting to get paid. It’s a fantastically transparent dollop of projection. (”Projection” is the Freudian construct whereby you accuse someone of something you know to be true of yourself. Freud was a famous Jewish … oh nevermind.)

Sadly, your effort is so poorly reasoned, so exuberantly childish, that I’m left with no recourse but to break things down.

 
…it’s just common sense and economics.

No, “common sense and economics” would be to offer your contributors a small share of the riches. That’s standard practice in the industry, and you know it.

 

Also, would $100 or $200 really put your mind at ease or, frankly, make a difference?

The question should be put to you, since you’re the one collecting fifty thousand dollars. Would $100 or $200 really make a difference. Would it, Mark? No, really: would it?

 

They think the payoff will be in good karma.

If asking contributors to write for free then collecting 50K is good karma, what’s bad karma, Mark?

 

We can’t pay you and not pay others; if not paying you is morally dubious, what’s paying you and no one else?

I asked that you pay me for first-serial rights, because you seemed to feel they’d be worth something. I was trying to find a compromise that would work, given that you’re dead-set on stiffing your writers. Still, I love how you’re projecting your greed onto me here. It’s so subtle.

 

If this thing somehow miraculously takes off and starts spitting out royalties, Sandomir and I would certainly be sending out little checks to everyone.

If you intend to pay royalties, why not write this into the contracts? Why make it a matter of your princely discretion? (Is this a faith-based charity thing?)

 

Believe me, I collaborate once or twice a year on books with celebrated people where my minimum fee is $250k, so devoting six months to this project for $16k pretax is costing me plenty.

This is my favorite part of your letter, Mark. It’s where your logic descends into entitlement psychosis. Let me see if I’ve got this right: because you usually make so much money, editing a book for a paltry 21K is basically charity work. So we little people (who are writing the book) should be happy to do this charity work for you even though … you’re so incredibly rich.

Can you ever begin to see how self-involved your reasoning is here?

I guess not.

You should have done the right thing and offered to share. Instead, when confronted by your own parasitic greed, you’ve evaded my questions, lied, made absurd excuses, and tried to attack me.

Is it possible, Mark, that you’re selling yourself short as a literary agent? Honestly, dude, you should take your act to Fox News. They need minds like yours now more than ever.

Yours in Karma,

Steve Almond

 

            *Alas, on the advice of my analyst, this final email was never sent. Hopefully, Mark is reading it for the first time—right now!


Steve Almond is the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the non-fiction book Candyfreak, and the novel Which Brings Me to You, co-written with Julianna Baggott. He lives outside Boston with his wife and baby daughter Josephine, who can and will kick your ass with cuteness.

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