The Case of the Bookless Book Party: A Cautionary Tale

At the 1989 convention of the American Booksellers Assn. in Washington, proud officials of Henry Holt & Co. paraded Edwin Meese around like a prize . . well, like a prize author--or at least future author.

The former White House chief of staff and attorney general from the Reagan Administration had just signed with Holt to write his memoirs. Meese's book promised to be the latest in a seemingly nonstop series of tell-all tomes by top-ranking members of Ronald Reagan's White House. The prospect of an insider's view from Meese, whose association with Reagan dated back to the statehouse in Sacramento, had editors from Holt grinning over cocktails and canapes at a party they threw to announce the Meese mission.

But a year later, instead of circulating advance copies of Meese's book at the 1990 ABA convention, Holt was sadly confirming that the project had been scrapped. The six-figure Meese deal had crashed, officials said, and his contract had been canceled.

"Nothing was ever delivered," Holt editor-in-chief William Strachan said in an interview. "The deadline for the manuscript came and went. We had received nothing, and further, had no prospect of receiving anything."

"It was clear we were not going to get the behind-the-scenes book we were after," Greg Hamlin, Holt's vice president for sales and marketing, said. "When we didn't get what we wanted, instead of going back and forth for years, we decided to stop."

With so much publicity and anticipation attached to the initial signing of the Meese book, its cancellation was bound to receive equal attention.

"Usually," Hamlin said, "it's much quieter."

But the decision to abandon the project was by no means unusual. Even as the dust was dying down from the Meese cancellation, for example, Houghton Mifflin was bowing out of a $315,000-advance deal for another Washington book, this one about the Securities and Exchange Commission. Far from a rarity in publishing, it turns out, cancellation is in fact a growing trend--and, editors say, an increasingly disturbing one.

Publishers say that the increase in cancellations can be traced to a kind of buying fever that has swept through publishing in recent years. Everyone is looking for the "hot" book, they say. Auctions often take on a frenzied pace where the substance of a potential book may be lost to the topicality of its subject. Agents are also more and more likely to attach time limits to projects they submit, creating a sense of urgency that may not be entirely warranted.

Worse, say editors who have themselves succumbed to this kind of pressure, many of those same books will have only the scantiest of proposals--perhaps as little as a few paragraphs. With no sample chapters, no outline and no partially completed manuscript, the author and publisher may have only a slender thread of agreement about what kind of book is about to be undertaken. As publishers point out, the potential for misunderstanding under these circumstances is enormous.

"We buy books in the heat of excitement from proposals, and sometimes not even from proposals, sometimes from conversations, or snippets of conversations, or just a vague idea," an editor in New York who did not want to be identified said.

Another editor, also asking for anonymity because she had recently been associated with a canceled book, echoed the idea that a mood of pressure and a tendency toward abbreviated proposals was making cancellations more common.

"The shorter the proposal, the less formed the book, the more potential there is for problems," this editor said.

"What do you have? You have a little wisp of smoke of a book. It's just really a gleam in the eye of the writer, the publisher and the agent. What happens is that books take a while to write, and then they take a while to publish. The less you have on paper, the easier it is for things to go wrong."

But many writers and agents offer their own views of what happens when a book is canceled. "I think more books are being canceled because publishers are tightening their belts," one agent said. She said that while books with big advances were subject to cancellation as economy moves, so were moderate-advance books--books in the $15,000 to $40,000 range--that publishers might see as "marginal," and thus expendable.

Authors also can find themselves and their books in trouble if the editor who has been working with the author leaves the house, leaving no one there to champion it. Some editors do "take their authors with them" when they move to other houses. But just as often, an editor leaves his books behind when he leaves a house.

A novelist who had this experience found herself working with a new editor assigned to her project.

"This woman had no interest in my book. She didn't understand my book," the novelist said. After several rewrites were rejected, the novelist bought back her own contract and is attempting to sell the book elsewhere.

Finally, authors and agents alike do concede that a book might be canceled when the publisher considers the manuscripts unsatisfactory--and not worth the work it might take to make it satisfactory.

"That's a fairly unpleasant situation," an agent said. "No one likes to think about that one."

A further complication that sometimes contributes to cancellations is a laissez-faire attitude among some editors. Many writers do their work in isolation and even bristle when asked for evidence of their work. An editor may go a year, or more, without having seen a word of an author's project. When the book does come in, if it does, it may bear no resemblance to what was originally discussed or contracted.

"You need checkpoints," the editor who was still smarting from a cancellation said. "Especially with nonfiction, there has to be close communication with an author along the way."

But with writers pressured to produce their works quickly, those checkpoints are sometimes overlooked. Or, an author may convince an editor that the book will make no sense in chunks or installments. The emphasis on coming out with a whole book, and quickly, may lead to the sloppiness that results in cancellations, some editors say.

Even when the proposed contents of a book are carefully spelled out in a contract, "what you signed up for versus what you get on delivery" may be two very different things, Doubleday publisher Stephen Rubin said.

"It comes down to a subjective editorial decision," Rubin said.

Time limits can also figure in the cancellation equation. Most publishers readily extend a time limit for an author, but if a topic is highly time-sensitive, this may not be possible. If the book is two years late, long after a particular subject has passed from the public interest, the book may have to be shelved.

But as one agent noted, time elements are sometimes only a partial reason for cancellation.

"I recently had a book canceled because it was very, very late, and because it was not what the editor wanted," this agent said. "Very, very late and very, very excellent has never stopped a publisher from publishing."

Most authors receive a payment upon signing a contract to write a book. Subsequent payments vary according to the contract. Unless not one single word has been delivered, it may be difficult for a publisher to recover an initial payment when a book is canceled.

One publisher said that although cancellation is not a happy event for anyone, most agents and authors are reasonable about working out the financial arrangements.

In the case of the Meese book, "the way we had structured the contract, there was not a lot of money that went out to begin with," Greg Hamlin said.

Meese, like any other canceled author, is free to try to sell his idea elsewhere. Canceled books often make the rounds, and frequently show up with the imprint of a rival house. In fact cancellations are such a common occurrence that unless there is some major scandal or a huge amount of money involved, no one really blinks.

"If you go around pointing your fingers and smirking, it will probably be you the next time," Strachan said.

At Holt, "we would have loved to have gotten a behind-the-scenes look at the Reagan White House," Greg Hamlin said. "We would have loved to have known what really happened in those meetings Meese had with William Casey. But we knew it was a long shot."

Nevertheless, he said, "In retrospect, if we had known what was going to happen, we would have thrown a cocktail party for another author."

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