NICK TAYLOR: I want to start by asking each panel member how they became involved with collaboration as opposed to writing solo. Larry?
LAWRENCE MALKIN: My first collaboration was with Paul Volcker on his memoir of the postwar international monetary system, which doesn’t sound like a bestseller, but it did sell about 25,000 copies. I knew him from the Nixon administration, when he was the point man for devaluing the dollar and I was the national economics correspondent for Time magazine in Washington. Later I also knew him as chairman of the Federal Reserve. He was giving a rather rambling seminar at the Woodrow Wilson School in Princeton, his alma mater, and he called me up and said he needed help to turn it into a book because he was not good at editing his own copy—which turned out to be excessive modesty, because he’s very good at it. But his self-awareness was both admirable and rare for such people. I attended the seminars and I made sure that everything was taped, typed and transcribed onto a computer disk, which is very important for productivity. You couldn’t do this kind of collaboration quite as easily if you had to do it all by hand. The economics might make it prohibitive.
Earlier, we were all talking about how to persuade people to say things they don’t want to, especially public men. I noticed that when I’d ask Paul to include this or that subject, he would often wave me away. But he would answer any question posed by a student, no matter how irrelevant, with great clarity and grace. It was just his nature. So I planted my questions with the students.
My job was to organize all this into coherent chapters and—this is harder than it sounds—put it into straightforward language. I think it takes some of the techniques of poetry to catch sentence rhythms, because we don’t really speak prose, we speak dialogue. Paul took what I drafted, then redid it, with great skill. It was as if I had constructed a fine wooden chest and then watched a master craftsman carve the design on the face of it. When those people at the Fed doubletalk Congress—or talk what they call “Fedspeak”—it’s on purpose, believe me.
TAYLOR: Laura, how about you? You’ve had an extremely active career and gone from one celebrity to the next. I think a lot of writers would envy you for that . . . or maybe not.
LAURA MORTON: It all depends on your perspective. I’ve always worked with celebrities. I’m the girl that brought you Richard Simmons. I pioneered the celebrity exercise video market. So I’ve always worked in the entertainment business around celebrities, creating niche product for the marketplace. That’s how I met Joan Lunden. I had produced her exercise video, called “Work Out America,” and we became friends. Like any project, when you work with someone, you forge very interesting relationships. Post-production, Joan and I had dinner one night. She had just gone through her divorce, she had just lost 50 pounds, she looked amazing. She was starting to date again, and I thought that she spoke to a very large percentage of the population. And she had 20 million viewers a week. I thought it would be a great idea to write a book. I came up with the idea of writing a cookbook because it complemented the exercise video. My mind works very much from a marketing standpoint. And when we told her lawyer that Joan wanted to write a cookbook, he started laughing because Joan doesn’t cook. But I convinced him that America believed she cooked because every morning she was with Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen of Good Morning America. Whether Joan cooks at home or not didn’t really matter. I felt that there was a market for it.
It was a tough sell to the lawyer. It was an even tougher sell to her agent at William Morris. I ended up shopping the book proposal myself, without representation. When I ended up getting a $350,000 offer from one of the publishing houses, that’s when everyone started taking it seriously. At that point, her lawyer stepped up and said, You know, I’ve got an agent. He just sold Diana Ross’s book. I think maybe we should talk to this agent. We ended up selling that first book for about $750,000. Having never written a book before, it was a quick learning experience. And Joan taught me one thing: You always say yes and figure out how to do it later. That book was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for, I think, 11 or 12 weeks.
TAYLOR: Had you done any writing in your television production career before you started?
MORTON: I was a frustrated producer who would pay writers for scripts and end up reworking them. They were never exactly what I wanted. At the eleventh hour, I was reworking everything. People ask me all the time if I’ve always had an interest in writing. I guess I did have some interest in it but I always say to my clients, I’m an OK writer, but what I do better than most is capture the voice of the person I’m working with. As Lawrence said, we write in dialogue, we don’t write in prose. I think capturing the voice is the essence of a true collaboration.
TAYLOR: Peter, what about you? Of course, you’ll want to tell us at some point how you went from Tom Watson and the miracle of IBM to General Schwarzkopf and the Gulf War.
PETER PETRE: It seemed like the thing to do at the time. The obvious point about collaboration is that it’s very different from what most writers do, and it takes a certain kind of writer to do it and a certain kind of writer to love it. The way collaboration came into my life was over a plate of sushi. I was eating lunch with the then executive editor of Fortune and I was the person on the computer beat. He mentioned in passing that Tom Watson, Jr. had been by a year before to see the managing editor of the magazine. And I said, Oh, what’s he want? He said, Well, he wanted to work on a book. And I said, Oh.
Tom Watson was the man who took IBM, which was a punch card company, and put it into the computer business. If you remember when computers took over the national imagination, in the ’60s and ’70s, that was Tom Watson’s work. So I said, Gee, what did you say to him? He said, I think the editor told him that we were in the magazine business and not in the book business and to come back when he was finished with this book. And I said, If he ever does come back could you please let me know. Sure enough, about a month later he did come back. He had been terribly crushed the first time around, but we had changed managing editors since then. And the new managing editor, Marshall Loeb, had a real sense of marketing. So I found myself in a room with Marshall and Tom Watson. I had a terrible case of the flu, and I kept my distance. So Marshall said, Well, we’re in the magazine business and not in the book business, but if you would agree to write a magazine article for us, I will give you a writer to work with. And there I was. So that was how I made my connection with Tom. And he and I clicked. We did an article together which was a cover story in the magazine. There was never any question that there would be a book there.
TAYLOR: So serendipity had a lot to do with it.
PETRE: A lot.
MORTON: How did you snag Schwarzkopf?
PETRE: The same publisher bought Schwarzkopf’s book as had published Watson’s. So I was one of a number of writers who auditioned with the general for that job. Auditioning meant flying on very, very short notice from a dude ranch in Montana, where my wife Ann was assigned to do a travel story. I was along as a dutiful spouse. I had to fly from Bose, Montana to Tampa, Florida, which was the headquarters of Central Command. The general was in his winding down phase just before retirement. This was right after the Gulf War, so they were in a very high state of mobilization. One of the general’s aides met me at the airport wearing desert fatigues. I was wearing the only clothes I had with me in Montana, which were blue jeans and cowboy boots that I had bought just for that trip. As I got off the plane, this guy took one look at me and burst out laughing. He said, Did you see City Slickers? So that was how I met the general. The reason that book came together was that he did not want a military writer. He said, Look, I know the military, you know how to write, so let’s divvy up the labor that way. That was fine with me. We never touched on the fact that I’m of the Vietnam generation. What I was doing during those years never came up.
TAYLOR: Sarah, you seem to specialize more than the other panelists. I wonder how you carved out this area, and how you decided to seek out the people you collaborated with in the beginning.
SARAH WERNICK: I’ll be blunt: I do it for the money. You mentioned that there weren’t quotes about collaboration, but my favorite, from George S. Kaufman, is that collaboration is “gelt by association.” [Gelt is the Yiddish word for money.]
In the late ’80s I had been doing magazine freelancing, mainly for women’s magazines, for about 10 years. At the same time, my children were getting to the age where their friends’ older siblings were graduating from college and their first job offers were for more money than I was making. There was a certain itch of dissatisfaction. So I started propositioning experts I was interviewing for articles. I propositioned two academics, for example, who had written on decision-making, because I had interviewed them for a Parents magazine article on the subject, and we almost came together on a collaboration. Then I propositioned a prominent pediatrician. The major award in adolescent medicine had just been named for her. We tried to do an article together and had trouble finding a market for it. The third person I propositioned seriously was Stanley Turecki, who was a child psychiatrist. He had written a book called The Difficult Child, and was interested in writing another one. We wound up writing The Emotional Problems of Normal Children together. After we finished I vowed I would never collaborate again.
Then, several years later, I read an absolutely fascinating article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Miriam Nelson, who had found that a very simple strength-training program, which took only 20 minutes twice a week, had remarkable health benefits. My first thought was, Well, I could do that program. Then I thought, If I could do it anyone would do it. So I wrote to her and she was interested in writing a book. Basically, that’s how I found most of my collaborations—by finding experts and propositioning them. It’s kind of like dating in junior high, where the person you want doesn’t necessarily want you. And meanwhile, you’re getting offers from other people who don’t interest you.
TAYLOR: Before we start talking about some of the difficulties in dealing with celebrities who are used to being catered to, and politicians, and generals who are used to having their orders followed, I want to ask for some anecdotes. What are some of the brightest and most surprising moments you’ve had with the people you have collaborated with? When perhaps something was revealed that you didn’t expect, that you recognized as a jewel that was going to make the book different and better.
MALKIN: I have a really good story about that, and it still gives me great pleasure. The memoirs of public men usually are based on written records. Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to Washington for 25 years and a delightful man, was allowed by his foreign ministry to look through the files of his own dispatches. They were always very frank because that was the way Gromyko [the Soviet Foreign Minister] wanted them. I got from him about a thousand pages translated into rough English, on a disk. I rewrote, cut, organized, inserted background. When I do that, my technique is to put my insertions into square brackets, and the author can accept them, reject them, or rewrite them. Usually they accept or rewrite. One day we were talking and he said, “So, when I went to the Politburo. . .” Really? “All the time—whenever I was in Moscow and my subject would come up”—and since his subject was America it would always come up.
He reacted to my question as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world to attend the Politburo and tell people about it. Wait a minute. I don’t think I had ever seen any description of the Politburo from the inside—how they reacted to each other as politicians and as individuals. And he said, “Oh, I’ll tell you.” And he told me everything—about what kind of herring they ate for lunch, the relationships among various ministers, and especially how each would almost always accept the other’s proposals because, in exchange, they did not want any of the others on their own turf. I got four or five fascinating pages about how the Politburo worked, at least during the time of Brezhnev. To my knowledge, there’s never been a clear and objective account in print anywhere in the West, of how these people actually sat down and met in the Kremlin and worked out policy. It was very satisfying to do, like a good piece of reporting. The book eventually was chosen one of the 10 best of the year on The New York Times list.
TAYLOR: Laura, what about your better surprises?
MORTON: I had a book last year that was one of the 10 worst books of the year. Does that count?
TAYLOR: Which one was that?
MORTON: That was the Elizabeth Smart book. But we were in good company. Hillary’s book was on the list, Mitch Albom’s book was on the list. It was USA Today, so I didn’t put a lot of credit in it.
Every book I’ve written has had a moment that I can look back on and know it changed the project. I know it changed the focus of the book.
I’ll give you four very quick examples. With the Joan Lunden book, I was sitting in the back of a car with her driving to her home in Connecticut. I took out a piece of paper. We were trying to document her weight gain and weight loss. When she had babies and was trying to lose the weight but was now 20 pounds heavier, then the second child, and then the third child. It was interesting to see that timeline because I knew that the reader would identify. I knew the reader could make that timeline for her own life. That timeline ultimately ended up getting us a little extra money for the book, which was great. It was very open. It was a very honest and open moment and I knew that it changed the approach to the book.
When Melissa Etheridge had the courage to tell me that she had been sexually abused by her sister, a book that was supposed to be about her music ended up being about her life. Of course if you’re familiar with her music at all, it is her life. This was, I think, at our second meeting, and she knew I would do the right thing with it. She handed me her diaries from when she was 15 years old, and said, I never want to talk about it, just do the right thing. Those to me are golden moments.
Also Jerry Springer, who was the biggest surprise of anybody I’ve worked with—a very likable man. It was like hanging around with my favorite uncle. He has never spoken publicly about his private life, about his family, and his wife and his daughter. He was about to do his first love scene for his movie Jerry Springer, the Movie, and he called me up five minutes before he was going out onto the set and he said, “Get your tape recorder because I want to talk about my family.” I thought the timing of him wanting to do that was incredible. I opted not to send that tape to the transcriber.
There were many moments working with the Smarts, but I think it was a moment that had nothing to do with writing. It was meeting Lois Smart, Elizabeth’s mother, who wanted nothing to do with me, who wanted nothing to do with writing a book, but knew that they were faced with having to write a book because somebody else was about to. It was preemptive on her part: to protect their daughter and to protect the integrity of the story and what happened to her. But I made the fatal error of insulting Lois the first time I met her. It was very unintentional. Ed, the husband, is very emotional and cries very easily, and everything was still very, very raw when I met them. He was weeping at the dinner table. I just looked at him and said, This must have been so hard for you. And Lois slammed her hands on the table and said, Hard for him? What about me? I’m the mother. I just wanted to sink under the table. I think my greatest accomplishment in that was turning this woman around and having her trust me with words and with a story that was so hard for her to tell. That experience was life-changing.
PETRE: Collaborating with someone was kind of unknown territory for me when I started working with Tom Watson. There were two great moments that involved our spouses, which taught me a lot about the process of collaboration and the relationship with a collaborator. The first was very, very early on. Watson had a place up in Maine where he liked to go in the summertime. We’d gotten a little way into the book project and he asked me on rather short notice to come up to Maine to meet with his wife. I later learned that Mrs. Watson had gotten a little concerned about how intimate the details were that he was starting to go into about their life together, their family, his relationship with his parents, etc. I don’t know what the conversations were, but Tom decided I had to go up there and meet with Olive. I didn’t know any of this going up there. I learned after he picked me up from a small airport in New England in his airplane. He flew me up to his place in Maine and then disappeared. I had to find my way with Olive Watson, who is a dear woman, but I had to pass muster. He was so nervous about it that he couldn’t stand the idea of being around when we met.
The second spousal experience also took place in Maine and Ann [my wife] remembers this very vividly. Tom invited Ann and our daughter Kate to come up because we were basically handcuffed to each other. As you know, when you’re collaborating, you spend an awful lot of time together and your spouse wonders what the hell is going on. Tom was a very gracious guy, and he said, You know, your wife and daughter must be curious about me and about what we’re doing, so why don’t you have them come up and spend a couple days? It was beautiful summertime. We went up and the first morning we were there, we all got up for breakfast and Tom said, Why don’t you come outside and sit by the pool? So Ann and I went out by the pool, and Tom disappeared. About 15 minutes later this little stunt biplane comes zooming over the pool and starts doing these amazing loops and barrel rolls and that was Tom. He was up in his stunt plane. And he put on an amazing display of aerial acrobatics. About 45 minutes later he came back to the house. When he came back he said to Ann—he was a guy of about 75 years old at this point—I just wanted you to know that I can go the distance.
There was a second lesson in that story. I don’t think Ann or I understood how central aviation was to Tom’s life and his identity, although there were airplanes all over the place. But that turned out to be one of the central narrative strands in the book, that this is a story of a person who is not only a business giant but also someone who had loved aviation from the time he was a little kid and learned to fly in college and flew during World War II. You could just see that he was giving us something very, very personal about himself. He was enacting it rather than saying it, but it really helped structure the book.
TAYLOR: All this is really, really interesting. Sarah, what about you? Do you have any stories?
WERNICK: I’m in a panic at the idea of this elderly guy in a plane doing acrobatics when you know that your book contract depends on his being alive.
PETRE: It did. Absolutely. I begged him to take me up there with him. But he never would do it, which really made me nervous.
MORTON: With your tape recorder?
PETRE: Yes—with or without liability insurance. If he had said yes, I don’t know what I would have done.
WERNICK: For my lung cancer book I had some interesting conversations with Claudia Henschke about her family. She was the doctor whose research on using CT scans to find early lung cancer was front page news in the New York Times. It turned out that her father was a pioneer in researching lung cancer as well. She described how as a child she would earn money from her father by reading radiation badges. She also described how he invented a technique of embedding radioactive pellets in plastic rods, which were used in treatment. In order to develop the rods, he would boil them up with pellets that weren’t radioactive, like spaghetti in a big pot. Her childhood memories were so interesting that I decided to include a biographical box with some of these anecdotes in the lung cancer book. I did a biographical box for the other coauthor as well, in which she described being in a sorority and being pressured to smoke and how her children made her give up smoking by flushing all her cigarettes down the toilet. I think that it added something to this prescriptive medical book to have such personal statements from both of the expert authors.
TAYLOR: Let’s talk about butting heads a little bit. When I was working with John Glenn I was trying to get him to say something that he didn’t want to say. Finally, in frustration I went arrggghhh. He said, “Don’t ball your fist up at me! I’ll ball my fist up at you!” That was not a typical response of his, but it did show where he had drawn the line. Has anyone on the panel experienced that kind of frustration, when you’ve tried to lead the person to say something that you know would make the book better that they absolutely refused to say?
WERNICK: I have a different kind of example, again, because of the kind of books that I do. My most recent book is called Quick Fit. It’s about a 15-minute exercise program that was developed by Rick Bradley, who ran the fitness center at the U.S. Department of Trans¬portation. The program he used at his fitness center started with 10 minutes of walking on a treadmill. When we were writing the chapter with exercise instructions, I said, “Not everybody has a treadmill.” Rick said, “Well, they can go find a treadmill.“ I said, “Not everyone has access to a treadmill. We need an alternative.” He said, “They can go out and take a walk.” I said, “That’s going to be a deal breaker on a rainy day. They need something that they can do standing in their living room in front of the television.” I just pestered and pestered and finally he agreed that we would have something like that.
TAYLOR: What was it?
WERNICK: Just a simple step-kick routine that gets your heart rate up. It doesn’t require equipment and you can do it if it’s raining outside. Our target audience was people who don’t exercise, so the book needed something of this nature.
MALKIN: I use a technique that works most of the time if you’re working on a typed draft. When I send it back to the author, I put my questions in capital letters: But what did you tell Kissinger then? Or, didn’t you think he was lying? What did you think the President really meant at that point? More often than not, you will receive an illuminating reply.
There’s a quote from George Orwell that all of us should remember. When he reviewed the autobiography of Salvador Dali, a great self-promoter, he panned it so thoroughly that the review was suppressed at first. Orwell wrote: “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, because all life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” There’s a certain truth to that. I usually follow up by asking: Do you want people to read this as a serious story of your life or do you want them just to throw it out?
MORTON: I have many good examples—many of which I can’t share. One that stands out is the client who spoke about herself in the third person for six months. How does one speak of oneself when one is speaking of oneself? I said one starts by calling oneself me or I. Most of the people I work with are so guarded—they are used to speaking to the media, to the press. They are used to giving snippets, sound bites. I try to get them to understand that I’m not a journalist, I’m not out to write an article about them, they have editorial control. Once they get past that, it works. And if that doesn’t work I break out tequila.
TAYLOR: That’s the best suggestion I’ve heard yet. Peter?
PETRE: What I’ve found helpful is to have a simple rule that there’s no law that says that someone has to tell everything in a book. What is important is that a reader who’s going to plunk down $27 for a book feel that for the two or three or four hours they’re going to be reading this book, they are actually going to hear something authentic from the person. So the rule I try to get people to follow is, It’s okay not to talk about things, but it’s usually a strength to tell people what you are going to talk about and not talk about. Just lay it out honestly.
MORTON: I disagree somewhat. I essentially tell my clients that if they feel comfortable enough—and ultimately they do, surprisingly quickly—they can tell me everything. I don’t have to put everything in the book. But it gives me the full story and I can figure out how to share that story without sharing all the intimate details.
I set ground rules when I work with someone. I tell them that if I think they’re lying that I’m going to tell them. I have called numerous people out on it, because I think a lot of times when a celebrity decides to write a book it’s usually a spin piece or they need the money. Sometimes their publicist has more to say about them than they do, or the reality of what they seem to be saying just isn’t there. I think the public is very smart, and I think they understand when they’re being lied to. I don’t want to put my name on a book that gets panned because it’s not rooted in reality. A lot of these people don’t live rooted in reality.
TAYLOR: Along those same lines, I’m wondering if any of you have had trouble convincing people that when they embark upon a book, their obligation is to the reader. And that obligation has to do with telling the truth. I collaborated with a helicopter pilot who told me, Well, I’m a military guy and you’re a writer. And I said, You’re a writer too. You signed a contract that says you are going to write this book under your name. And your obligation now is to tell readers the truth. How difficult have any of you found it to get a coauthor to recognize that new role—that they’re not just the politician they were, or the general, or the corporate head, but author?
MALKIN: I have found that the grander the person—Dobrynin and Volcker for example—the easier it is. Because they get the point very quickly that if they’re going to write a book with their name on it, it has to have human texture and a sense of things as they really saw them. I had a slightly different experience with somebody I won’t name, another financial whiz in Washington whose manuscript I was asked to do a lot of work on. I started putting in various things I knew to be true and asked him, “Is that all right?” Finally, he said, “No, I’ve got to stay in good with my [Republican] friends. I can’t have this left-wing propaganda.” So I left the project and was paid off in full. I got my revenge when the book came out and vanished without a trace—but I had written a chapter based on things he had said with considerable pride about organizing economic policy in the White House, even bringing in Democrats to speak. It was quite a good chapter. I was still working as a correspondent, and I happened to attend a talk by Robert Rubin [then chairman of President Clinton’s National Economic Council]. I identified myself and my connection with this particular book because Rubin had mentioned it. He said, “I probably broke all the copyright laws because I xeroxed that chapter and passed it out to my staff as an example of how to run an economic council in the White House.”
TAYLOR: I’m wondering how you anticipate some of the difficulties of working with named authors. How do you head off potential problems? What do you do contractually to make sure that you end up out of court?
WERNICK: Handshakes are very nice, but a handshake is really not an adequate basis for a collaboration—unless you’re collaborating with a spouse, perhaps, where there’s another whole contract in place. The people I know who’ve had the most hideous collaboration experiences are the ones who have not had collaboration agreements. You have to realize that usually you’re collaborating with this other person because you bring very different skills and experience to the table. And because of these differences, you are likely to make different assumptions. You need to come to agreement on some of the basics at the outset. It’s extremely important to have a written agreement. But having said that, I also must add that no written agreement can every cover every single kind of possibility, just as it can’t in a marriage. But the collaboration agreement is the best protection you can have.
MALKIN: Sometimes, as with Stu Eizenstat, a very honorable man and a lawyer, an exchange of letters is fine. But probably the worst experience I’ve ever had involved an extremely complex collaboration agreement, which I made the great error of not showing to my own lawyer. It was negotiated through an agency known for handling people in the entertainment world. Stay away from all such people, because all they care about is production values; it’s not about facts or even trying to tell the truth. The handcuffs on that agreement caused me more trouble than any other arrangement I’ve ever had.
PETRE: What sort of handcuffs?
MALKIN: Cross-ownership of the material; no copyright in my name; the possibility that I might be responsible for returning even the coauthor’s share of the advance if the project didn’t work out—which it didn’t. I could go on. It turned out that the coauthor was—I hesitate to use this word except that other people have used it—really a pathological liar. He was so entertaining and credible at first that it took me a while to realize that. I think it even took the agent a while to realize that he was being taken for a ride. This was something I never dreamed would happen. It’s been the one really unpleasant experience I’ve ever had—and it was all covered by contract! The rule on this is really that your reputation is the most valuable thing you’ve got. And even if you’ve got to walk out, return the advance and drop a few thousand in lawyers’ fees, it’s worth it.
MORTON: I think the best advice I can give when it comes to collaboration agreements, particularly if there is an agent involved or an agency that’s representing both parties, is to remember that there is no possibility that they can play Solomon. They will always, always cater to the celebrity, to the “author,” not to the collaborator.
MORTON: It is essential to have outside counsel, somebody who is there to represent your interests in this deal, because your agent is not going to do it. It is of the utmost importance that you learn from every experience as well. I now have my own boilerplate contract that really just doesn’t get moved around that much anymore, because I can command that. No contract can cover every weird thing, but mine comes darn close. Every time you go through a collaboration you will learn good things, you will learn things you never want to do again, you will make mistakes that you won’t repeat. I think anybody here who has representation will agree: You must control the agent, your interest, your reputation. Every contract I have now gives me an out. When I first started I had no out, I was stuck. That is a terrible place to be, particularly if you’re working with someone who’s not being truthful, or with someone who is just not going to put a product out that you want your name on. I have pulled my name off numerous books. That for a while was my out, because I had done the work and I wanted to get paid, but I didn’t need my name on it. I don’t care if my royalty checks come, if the book sells. I just didn’t want my name on the cover of that book. I cannot stress to you enough the importance of having your own outside counsel when it comes to contract negotiations.
MALKIN: Let me second that by saying we’re actually both talking about the same agent, who said to me, “I can represent you.” In fact, it ended up in a huge conflict of interest. As you said, it’s not you he’s going to favor, it’s the big name.
MORTON: At the end of the day if you’re with a large agency, and particularly one that deals in entertainment, they’re about annuity income, and about getting a three-picture deal for this person, a two-book deal, a reality show, a this, a that. It’s all about packaging. And they are not going to throw up that relationship that means millions of dollars to the agency for the 10 or 15 or 20 percent that you’re paying them on your collaboration fee.
MALKIN: As far as they’re concerned, you and I are dispensable.
MORTON: From that point of view, yes. But at the end of the day, these people are not authors. They are actors and actresses or politicians or pilots, or business geniuses, whatever, health experts, and they need you. If you don’t make your deal, somebody else will make a crappy deal and learn from it. One hopes we’re all a little bit ahead of that curve. We are replaceable to some degree, but also to some degree each of us here is an expert in our own fields, which is the reason that we can get the fees that we get, the splits that we can get, and that we can negotiate the contracts we negotiate now. I know that when my clients, particularly bigger name clients, want to write a book, it’s like going in and cutting an album, they want to work with whoever the hot music producer is right now. If they’re doing a film, they want Steven Spielberg. And if they’re writing a book, I’d like them to call me. So there’s a lot to be said about carrying yourself that way too. Audition meetings are a huge part of the collaborative process, because you’re both sizing each other up.
I’ve always likened the collaborative process to dating. I’ve likened it to going to summer camp. These people are your best friends for eight weeks and at the end of eight weeks you go home. They say, Well, I’ll write you. And then you don’t hear from them until next summer. You really have to have thick skin to be a collaborator. You know the work that you put into it, you know the time that you put into it, you’re proud of these projects. To some degree it’s thankless, and to some degree there’s nothing better—to me, anyway—than going on Amazon and reading those reviews that people write, to know that something I wrote changed their life. To me there’s no greater reward than that.
TAYLOR: And knowing what a good writer you made Melissa Etheridge.
MORTON: She’s a beautiful writer. I mean she really is. Most of my clients, interestingly, do take an interest in their book. I’ve never had a client not read their manuscript. I’ve had a client read parts of their manuscript. They’re all laughing because you know what I’m talking about.
PETRE: When they claim they were misquoted in the end.
MALKIN: And then there was the baseball player who was asked about his own autobiography—ghosted—and said something like: “I don’t know. I didn’t read that part.”
MORTON: Most of my clients, if they’ve made the commitment, they’re in it. It’s hard to see your words on the page. It is hard to see your raw emotions on the page. I often find that I make connections in their life that they’ve never made. I tell everyone I’m the cheapest therapist they’ve ever had. As difficult as it is for them to go through it and relive all of these memories, it’s really cathartic for them and they come out on the other side in a place they never expected.
MALKIN: I think you’re dealing with different kinds of people than Peter and I.
TAYLOR: I’ll tell a story here. I collaborated with a doctor who was the chief of gastroenterology at Sloan Kettering, and his wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer, the very kind of cancer that he treated. Being unable to treat her because of the ethical problems of that kind of relationship, he became her helpmate. She led him into complementary or alternative therapies and it expanded his medical horizons. But when we first began to meet and I was interviewing him, he asked me, “Have you been in therapy?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.” And he said, “You sound like you’ve been in therapy.” Because of the questions I was asking to get his story. And in a sense it was a therapy session. He was describing this extremely emotional time when he was confronting his wife’s illness and becoming not the doctor in control but the helpmate that he was. So it can certainly happen.
Laura, you said you have no problem telling your clients when you think they’re lying. Larry and I have both worked with someone who was not acquainted with the truth except peripherally.
MALKIN: He literally could not tell the difference between fact and fiction.
TAYLOR: Exactly. He was always at the center of very dramatic stories, but what he was doing was placing himself at the center of stories that you could read in any newspaper. What do you do when the person you’re working with tells a story that you know is not true yet he insists on wanting to use it?
MORTON: I weigh several different factors. First of all, who gets hurt by using this story? If it’s a story I think their children won’t want to read when they’re old enough to read the book, I approach it from that point of view. I always look for tabloid headlines. So if it’s a story that is front-page fodder for the tabloids, I bring that up and ask, Can you live through the storm? Because they will find out everything you are not telling me. Or they will find out that everything you’re telling me is not true. I’ve used that device to get them to either back down or fill in the blanks. As much of a problem as telling a story that isn’t true is not being given all the details, which also puts a spin on the story. It’s a judgment call. I think you have to weigh who gets hurt by it, what the fallout is.
TAYLOR: Sarah, you mentioned the importance of having an indemnification agreement earlier when we were in the green room. Can you go into that further?
WERNICK: I work with experts, and our books reflect their expertise. But I don’t want to be responsible for their errors. So part of my collaboration agreement is that they have the final say on content and they indemnify me against their mistakes. I think this provision is very important in the kind of collaborations that I do, which involve fitness and health.
MORTON: I think the collaborative process is a process that’s based on trust. There is a great deal of trust that’s established very early on—especially for the kind of books that I do—when someone chooses to open up their life. I go into these people’s homes. I see their dirty laundry, literally and figuratively. There’s a great deal of trust based on either track record or the rapport that we’ve established. The quick establishment of that rapport is what I need—to know that they’re giving me what I need and to have them know that I will do the right thing with it.
I often find that things change over the course of the project. The book that you end up writing is not necessarily the book that you planned on writing. Sometimes it’s a much better book and sometimes it’s a pulled-back version of the book. That’s when you really have to deal with the publisher because what you sold is not what you deliver. I have a knack for finding celebrities who go through breakdowns in the middle of working things out. Every process is different.
MALKIN: Do you usually put together your own project, rather than a publisher coming to you?
MORTON: It works both ways. Doubleday came to me with the Smarts’ book. An agent who did not represent me came to me with the Melissa Etheridge book, Mort Janklow. Sometimes there is a need to have the right writer involved— knowing that the subject matter is going to be sensitive, or that there’s a particular kind of personality to work with this person. They say, Well if I do this, I need to know that I can work with this person. You spend a lot of time with these people. They’re intimate relationships, any way you look at it. I tell people that I get to live a lot of life experiences without actually having to go through them.
Questions were invited from the audience.
Q: How much do you fact check what you’re told?
PETRE: It’s one of those ground rules questions. I try to get agreement on what the standard is going to be right at the beginning of a project. It’s one thing to represent something as a memoir, where the rules are somewhat looser, than to say this is going to be a full-blown autobiography that will stand as an historical document and therefore has to meet the rules of history. I’ve found that as long you’re clear about that going in, then you can estimate what kind of research has to be done. One of the two books I’ve worked on took two-and-a-half years; one took eight months. Obviously there was a lot more leeway for research in the longer project. But in both cases, we did try to document everything.
MALKIN: It depends on who you’re dealing with. I was brought in, I later discovered, as the third writer on the memoirs of Markus Wolf, the retired chief of foreign intelligence for the Stasi [the secret police] in East Germany. He was called “The Man Without a Face”—I made that the title of the book—because for many years not a single person in Western intelligence knew what he looked like. Anyway, it’s no surprise and no disgrace to anyone that he wore out the first two collaborators. Peter Osnos, the publisher, who is a master at managing these things, and Geoff Shandler, who is now the editor-in-chief of Little Brown, and I took a plane to Berlin, because the CIA wouldn’t let Wolf into this country. I think they still won’t. We spent four or five fascinating days with this elegant snake in his riverside apartment overlooking the Spree trying to find out whether he was lying to us. The most difficult part had to do with the Stasi’s relationship with Middle East terrorists, Carlos the Jackal, and others. I put everything together and by pure coincidence, when I returned to New York, a man I knew of was visiting town; he was the former head of operations for the Mossad. I asked him to look at the chapter. A few days later he came back to me and said: “Everything he [Wolf] tells you is coherent and correct, but he is not telling you the full story. “ Surprise. That’s as far as we could get. You just have to live with that.
Q: Why do you use the word client for the person you’re collaborating with? How do you develop a relationship of trust?
MORTON: I view anybody I work with as a business partner, but my contract usually tells me that they’re not. You’d think they’d love that, right. Calling them clients is a habit that I developed working as a producer in Hollywood. I view my coauthors as clients. And I cater to them as if they are clients. I take their phone calls at four in the morning as I would a client’s. You try to set boundaries, but when somebody is ready to talk you want to be ready. The second half of your question is developing trust. I think all relationships need trust, whether they’re clients, business partners, coauthors, collaborators, whatever it is. But I think relationships in which you’re divulging intimate details of your life, particularly for public figures, requires a great deal of trust. In any client situation, I’d still want trust from the person selling me that product. I am to some degree selling. I’m selling the person I’m working with, and I’m taking their material and selling the reader on the idea that what we’re writing is worth reading.
PETRE: There is no good word for the person you’re working with, and in a way it gets back to the fact that we’re talking about a relatively new kind of literary work. If you look at the process we all go through, it’s an outgrowth of two things: the tape recorder and the word processor, which make it physically possible to capture somebody’s voice with the kind of fidelity that we try to evoke in these books. It’s sort of like “name that puppy,” right? What’s a good name for it? There’s no good name for a half-marathon. There’s a 10K race and a marathon, but a half-marathon is kind of in between. In a way, we’re all sort of pioneering a kind of literary expression that’s still taking shape.
MORTON: I think “client” also connotes a business relationship. Because of the intimacy there’s a lot of confusion. And there really is a lot of confusion in these relationships. For me, it’s a safe way for the relationship to have a definition. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, because these people are not my friends, I’m not their friend. I am there to work with them on this project. It’s just business, it’s just a job. Everything that I do is no different than the guy who brings my groceries every day. That’s his job. It is very, very easy to be tempted to blur that line, because it is very sexy to be working with some of these people, but if you blur that line, you make a colossal mistake. I am as good as the last book I’ve written.
MALKIN: I’d like to say I think Peter was absolutely correct that we can do these books now because of technical capabilities, but also, more and more publishers want known brand names to sell books. Rather than a biography, they would rather have that person write under his or her own name.
MALKIN: That’s all part of the game. Where I part company with you, is that I would say that not only do I regard Paul Volcker as a friend, but he actually said so in the book’s acknowledgment: that he had known me as a good journalist and now regarded me as a friend. I was very pleased and quite proud of that. I see him from time to time and have asked him to help me, and I’m very grateful. I think it’s a different world that you live in and work in, which is not to denigrate it, but it just is.
MORTON: Yes. These are people that are used to being on a movie set, and they go onto their next project. That’s really where it’s at.
Q: What kind of understanding do collaborators need to have about a book’s content before they begin?
PETRE: You get at a really important point, which is if you don’t agree at the beginning, it’s very, very unlikely this project is going to work. Laura made an equally important point that you may not end up with the book that you thought you were going to be writing, but it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish from the beginning. You talk about kissing a lot of frogs. We all look at a lot of projects, and one of the key things that I’ve always listened for in that first meeting is whether this person has something they want to tell. It can have something or nothing to do with the book they think they want to write, but you have to have a feeling that they have something in them that they want to express, and it’s not just a matter of their friends getting together and saying, You know, you’ve had a really interesting life and you should write a book, you could do a book. They have a slightly stricken deer-in-the-headlights look if that’s why they’re there in that meeting.
WERNICK: I’m less interested in the question of, “Does he have a book that he wants to write?” and more in “Is this a book that will sell and make money for us?” I had a call from a prominent cardiologist in Boston a couple of years ago. She wanted to write a book in which she was going to make the startling point that people need to eat right and exercise. She seemed to feel that this hadn’t been done before. So I asked her what was new and different about the book. She was annoyed that I was asking such a presumptuous question. I said, “Well, you’re not going to be able to sell the book unless it offers something new and different.” And then she went off on some incomprehensible speech about enzymes. I told her I didn’t think I was the right writer for this project. That was the end of that.
I think that it’s important, as Peter said, to be very selective. I don’t expect that every blind date is going to produce the match of my dreams. In fact, I kind of expect the opposite. I go in looking to see if this is a person who has an idea that will appeal to a sufficiently large book-buying public to get us a big advance. If not, I’m not the right writer for the book. I’m interested in authors who are going to promote a book, because that’s part of what goes into determining whether or not the advance is going to be big. I’m looking at it in a cold-blooded way. I’m auditioning that person just as they’re auditioning me.
MALKIN: There’s a whole subset of books for which John Skow coined a special name years ago in Time. He called them “non-books.” My connection with them is there’s a woman up in Boston named Donna Carpenter, who I think is called the Queen of the Ghosts. Basically she deals with businessmen, or people like them, or consultants, who want to write a book because they will make the real money, not on the book, but on the lectures that they will get by having written a book. I prefer to stay away from that, but it is a way of making money.
Q: What’s the difference between collaboration and ghostwriting?
TAYLOR: I would describe a ghostwriting job as one that is done for a person who doesn’t really participate to a great degree in the process of writing. There are best-selling novelists about whom it is rumored that they don’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard at all—that the work is done by others and just marketed under a more prominent name.
Q: Are you able to get a feel for the project and the person you’ll be working with before you sign the contract?
WERNICK: I think of the proposal as an engagement period. All of the interaction that takes place between you as you work on the collaboration agreement before you begin work is data. If you see that somebody doesn’t have time, that’s information. Last year I met briefly with a doctor and he told me he was very eager to work with me; I was eager to work with him. Then I wasn’t hearing from him, and the agent who had brought us together said, “I’m going to call him and really pester him.” I said, “Don’t do that. This is information that I need. If this guy can’t get back to me now, he’s not going to be good to work with.” I think you need to pay attention to the signals that you’re getting, and to have an exit strategy built into your collaboration agreement, so that if you feel that the proposal process has been intolerable you can get out of it and be paid appropriately for what you’ve done.
TAYLOR: If you’ve been approached by an agent who has an arrangement with a publisher, as I was in the case of John Glenn, sometimes you have to work it out as you go along. Glenn went back into space in 1998. The book needed to come out before the following Christmas to take advantage of the Christmas sales, and that’s one of the things, obviously, that publishers are interested in doing. But after the space shuttle completed its mission, because there were members of the crew from Japan and Spain, the crew embarked on a worldwide tour. At the same time Glenn was winding up his Senate career and trying to organize a lifetime of mementos and it was deep into the spring of 1999 before he was prepared to sit down and work. Finally I had to go to Bethesda, Maryland, where he lives, and say, I’m not going away until we make a substantial inroad on this book. Of course, there were a lot of 12-hour days before we finally finished in August, and the book came out in November. You don’t want to have to do it, but you want to make your publisher happy too, and you do want those Christmas sales.
MALKIN: Sometimes you can’t control it.
Q: What’s the typical percentage split in a collaboration?
WERNICK: The American Society of Journalists and Authors tallies paycheck reports from its members. The single most common split is fifty-fifty. However, the arrangements range from the writer getting practically the whole advance or even the entire advance and more from the expert, to the writer getting a very small percentage. It’s all up for negotiation. It depends very much on the project. Let’s say it’s some obscure disease and you’re working with a doctor who’s eager to do a book for professional reasons, but it’s not going to be a big advance book, the writer might get just about all of it. If it’s a celebrity who has their choice of many different writers, then the collaboration split may be less favorable to the writer because of that.
MALKIN: It also depends on whether it’s a book in which the “author” just babbles into a microphone or a book in which you get some shaped or half-shaped material and your job is to edit it into good, publishable shape. It also depends partly on the size of the advance.
I actually start negotiating from this point: I say that if I were doing this sort of work for the Times, the Washington Post or whatever, I would probably be making about $100,000 a year. So that means, let’s start from $2,000 a week. Now actually I reached an agreement with an author that earned me $25,000 for what was essentially 12 weeks’ work. It was spread out over a period of time and I felt myself quite well compensated. It was more or less what he was prepared to pay, which was slightly more than a third of his advance. But he had already done a great deal of the work himself. I’m also willing to put in one week’s work for no money at all, to help prepare the proposal, because it’s part of the game.
WERNICK: Most of the time people are paid for writing the proposal. When I’m dealing with an expert I’m eager to work with who may not have a lot of money, but I’m absolutely positive that the book is going to sell, I may have an exit fee rather than an entrance fee. In other words, they don’t have to pay me up front, but if the collaboration dissolves or the book doesn’t sell, I will be compensated. The lowest fee I’ve heard of for writing a proposal is $3,000, but experienced writers with a track record can charge 10 times that.
MORTON: In the celebrity market, if you are doing a collaboration as opposed to being a ghostwriter where there is a fee, you’re working on the sale of the book. So there is no money paid unless that book sells. One thing that I’ve done to protect myself is set a minimum. In order for me to continue beyond the proposal phase, the minimum has to be met. Which means that if the book sells for half of what my minimum is, they have the option of making up the deficit, or I have the option of bowing out, or I have the option of doing it for half the money, which is rare.
MALKIN: I think that’ll tell you that there can be any number of business arrangements. I’ve just learned of some that I haven’t heard before.
PETRE: May I jump in here with a message from the Authors Guild? The Guild has very sophisticated legal resources and can often give you advice and also point you in the right direction if you need more sustained help from lawyers.
MALKIN: I would like to say that I did not know that until after I got myself into, and out of, a mess, and I wish I had known. I think anybody who does this work can’t do better than starting at the Authors Guild.
TAYLOR: Thank you and good night.
Panelists (l to r): Peter Petre, Lawrence Malkin, Sarah Wernick, Nick Taylor, Laura Morton Photos by John Halpern Photography