Reading Notebook #29: When the Author Became More Important Than the Publisher

From “Talent Grab” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker (October 11, 2010)

… a parallel revolution was taking place in the publishing world, as authors and their agents began to rewrite the terms of their relationship with publishers. One of the instigators of that revolution was Mort Janklow, a corporate lawyer who, in 1972, did a favor for his college friend William Safire, and sold Safire’s memoir … to William Morrow & Company. Here is how Janklow describes the earliest days of the uprising:

“So Bill delivers the book on September 1, 1973 … Larry Hughes, his editor at Morrow, calls me and says, ‘This doesn’t really work for us. … We feel bad about it, because we love Bill. But we’re going to return the book to you, and we want you to give back the advance.'”

… Janklow knew nothing about the publishing world when he agreed to help his friend, and remembers looking at that contract for the first time and being aghast. “My first thought was, Jesus, does anyone sign this?” he said. … “There were no parameters on what acceptability meant. So all the publisher had to say was ‘It’s unacceptable,’ and he was out of the contract.”

Janklow decided to fight. … Hughes referred Janklow to the publisher’s lawyer, Maurice Greenbaum, of Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst. … “So I went to see [Greenbaum], and he said, ‘Let me tell you about how publishing works,’ and off he went in the most sanctimonious manner. I was a serious corporate lawyer, and he was lecturing me like I was a freshman in law school. He said, ‘You’re in a standards business. You can’t force a publisher to publish a book. If the publisher doesn’t want the book, you give the money back and you take back the book. That’s the way the business has worked for hundreds of years.’ When he was finished, I said, ‘Mr. Greenbaum, I’m not trying to force the publisher to publish the book. I’m just trying to froce the publisher to pay for it. This acceptability clause was being fraudulently excercised, and I’m going to sue you.'”

What happened? The case went to arbitration, and Morrow settled.

Then, one author after another called Janklow asking him to present them, and he began extracting concessions from publishers. Janklow said, “The point I was making was that the author was more important than the publisher.”

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Posted in Getting Published, Reading.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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