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The 'Sideways' Publishing Saga -- The St. Martin's Press Nightmare (Part I)

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In my last blog I left you with the following: my Sideways novel had been turned down by the publishing industry through my indefatigable Curtis Brown, LTD agent, on a second round of submissions -- even, shockingly, after Alexander Payne had optioned it and it was major entertainment daily news that Artisan Ent. had greenlit it as a $10 million film. Shortly thereafter, Payne called to tell me in March of 2000 to sadly inform me that he was going to do another film (About Schmidt) before Sideways, leaving me jackknifed over in total dismay after a decade of a life of destitution and suicidal despair.

Fast-forward to early 2003. In the interim I wrote a spec script (Repairman) that I was able to option that helped me stay afloat; Payne continued to re-up the option on the film rights every year, rekindling my hopes that the bloom wouldn't be off the rose on his 2000 vow to make Sideways when he had finished About Schmidt; About Schmidt is released in the fall of '03 to critical acclaim. Good news and nervous news: that meant Payne had even more power to get a film greenlit. Because he had more power, however, he now had more options, making me even more uneasy about him doing a novel he had read in the fall of '99 and ostensibly fallen in love with.

In early '03, after winning a raft of awards for eventual box-office success About Schmidt, Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, began the adaptation of Sideways. Three years from the date when he phoned to tell me that he'd decided to put it on hold and do another film before it, his interest and full attention had been drawn back to my orphaned, still unpublished, Sideways. The elation of hope -- which is tantamount to Hell in Hollywood -- suffused me once again. At about the same time I got a strange call from my former Endeavor book-to-film agent, Brian Lipson (I had moved on to Marti Blumenthal at Writers & Artists, and usually agents who have been left don't call you again, ever). Dan Strone of Trident Media Group had phoned him. He'd read a lengthy interview with Payne in New York Times Magazine where the latter, when queried about his future plans, said his next movie was going to be "from an unpublished novel" called Sideways. In disbelief, and smelling blood, he went into action.

I've had a lot of agents in my career. Some dumped me, some I left, one had a nervous breakdown, and one died of AIDS. I hated to change agents, but Lipson disparaged Curtis Brown in no uncertain terms and, after a few phone calls, I had left the wonderful Mitchell Waters and signed with Dan Strone and Trident Media, a powerful, eclectic, not particularly literary, publishing agency.

I have written at length about the process of the screenplay adaptation by Payne and Taylor, but I want to keep this HuffPost Books blog relevant to the book. Strone submitted Sideways to 20 top tier publishers -- which now put the count at over 100 -- armed with the Payne interview, certain that there'd be a bidding war. Artisan Ent., mired in financial troubles, was beginning to look more and more like they weren't going to be the funding entity. But, I wasn't worried: if Payne wanted to do it, he'd get the funding. But, given that there was no firm film deal, I could see where the publishing world might be circumspect. In truth, I started to believe I had written a dreadful book, that Payne had lost his mind, and that Sideways was unpublishable. It didn't help to remind myself that the publishing industry was pumping out vampire books and Y/A crap and chick lit, not to mention mass market stalwarts, some of whom didn't even write their own books anymore.

April of '03, first draft of Payne/Taylor's script adaptation done -- and thrilling to read (see above link) -- Dan called and told me he wasn't having any luck selling the book. Unlike Mitchell he didn't send me the rejection letters, but from the tone of his voice it sounded like they were once again eye-poppingly splenetic. Undaunted, Dan went out to more publishers. A few weeks later, I got a call from him informing me that St. Martin's Press -- which he referred to as the bottom level of the top tier of publishers -- had offered $5,000. My elation over my first publishing deal was quickly poleaxed when he added that they didn't want to come out with Sideways as a hardcover, only a trade paperback. Dan tried to mollify me when I expressed disappointment, arguing that it would be better to have a book in print when the film came out, in no matter what format. At first I said forget it -- and I would rue the day that I didn't stick to my guns -- but, after much cajoling from Dan about how embarrassing it would be for there to be a movie from an unpublished novel, I caved.

Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Beier, the senior editor at St. Martin's Press, who had been the lucky (only!) bidder at $5,000 called. She was very animated. Having grown up reading the greats and knowing how hard it was to even get published, I was excited to be talking to my first real senior editor at a publishing house. I had visions of the distaff Max Perkins rolling up her sleeves and alchemizing my prose into Fitzgeraldian gold. My vision quickly morphed into a fata morgana when she changed the mutual congratulatory tone of the call with: "So, the first thing you're going to need to do is to hire a line editor." I was flummoxed. Huh? Isn't that what a senior editor at a publishing house does? I didn't question her. I hung up, feeling less like someone who had reason to celebrate his first book deal and more like someone who had been run over by a car after winning the lottery. However, knowing now that there was a movie in the works and a big payday ahead, getting a traditional publisher on board, however stingily they were acting, would be better than no published book at all, I tried to rationalize. Convinced that the movie would redeem me, I swallowed Elizabeth's mandate and dutifully investigated free-lance line editors online. I quickly learned that they weren't cheap, that it was going to cost me at least all of my $5,000 advance. With 15% commission to Trident I'd be out of pocket to get my first book published! One line editor, who had worked in publishing for years, told me in an outraged, rising tone, that I was being shafted, that I shouldn't stand for that kind of treatment. Ragingly pissed now, I called Dan and told him to rescind the deal. If Elizabeth at St. Martin's Press can't be bothered to line edit my novel, tell her to screw herself. A week later he called back. Evidently he'd talked her into it and she'd come around and agreed to do it. Grudgingly, as it turned out.

July 3, 2003, I was housesitting in San Diego. With a Payne/Taylor third draft of a script in hand, and a tour of the top studios underway, I was alerted that something big was in the works. You know something exciting is happening when your agent calls you at 6:00 a.m. and leaves a breathless message: "Look in the trades, Rex!" I went online. Front page Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter: "Searchlight high-beams helmers: Payne will head 'Sideways' at Fox." It had been the first time in three years since my ex-wife had won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short from a script I'd written that I fell to the floor weeping.

I packed up my belongings and steered onto I-5 in my rattletrap '91 Honda Accord to return to L.A. to celebrate. Somewhere around La Jolla I had a blowout and limped over to the side of the road. If I hadn't gotten that news, had it been '98 when life seemed bleak beyond bleak, I would have hurtled myself into the oncoming traffic. Instead, I cackled like a mad man. Then, not being a AAA member, I changed my tire, lumbered off to the nearest Sears Tire Center, confidently slapped down my girlfriend's credit card and bought four brand new Michelin's! The Sears guy couldn't believe I'd gone that long on tires so alarmingly threadbare. He didn't know the half of it! But, my life was about to change: my novel was going to be published, and now made into a film by the great Alexander Payne.

Next installment: The beginning of my nightmare with St. Martin's Press.