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The (Un)Romantic Path of Literary Fiction: Alfred A. Knopf (Part IV)

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In Hollywood, when you're hired to write, or rewrite, a screenplay, be it for film or TV, you are protected by the Writers Guild of America (WGA). It's a powerful union. In 2008 they shut down the film and television business for eight months. No matter what you turn in, no matter how terrible -- in whomever's eyes -- it doesn't matter. They have to pay you.

When you're contracted to write a novel for a traditional publisher you are not covered by any union. None, to my knowledge, exists. There is a standard clause in every contract with a publisher that terrifyingly says, "Upon acceptance of manuscript." You are typically paid half of the agreed-upon deal that your agent negotiated in what's known as an "advance." "Upon acceptance of manuscript," you are paid the second half. If they subjectively elect not to accept your manuscript, not only are you not paid the second half, you must repay them the advance!

In essence, every writer who signs a deal to write a book for a traditional publisher is writing on speculation -- or "on spec," as it's customarily, and pejoratively, known in the film business. If you bring this clause up to your agent, as I did with mine when I signed on to write a book for senior editor Jordan Pavlin of Alfred A. Knopf, they will reflexively tell you that the clause is almost never exercised, that you would have to either not fulfill the word count (in my case, a minimum of 60,000) or turn in such drivel as to embarrass everybody. Ah, therein lies the rub: the subjective component, and the bane of every writer's existence. And, yes, the clause has been exercised many times in the past.

In the summer of 2005, coming off the tsunamic success of Sideways, I was reluctant to sign a contract with Alfred A. Knopf, for a book based on a screenplay The Road Back I had written, for two reasons I blogged about at length here: 1) St. Martin's had done an abysmal job promoting Sideways after the movie had exploded; and (2) I had reservations about novelizing a 12-year-old screenplay. My agent Dan Strone of Trident Media Group was persistent that Knopf would be different than St. Martin's, that Jordan Pavlin, the senior editor who was making the paltry offer of $75,000 (half up front), would be different, that the whole experience would be life-transforming for me as a writer. Life-transforming, indeed! And that my unproduced screenplay would make a great novel. And, thus, I was hornswoggled. I looked askance at lucrative six-figure film and TV writing assignments to hurtle headlong down the romantic path of literary fiction.

As I've been blogging, I struggled with The Road Back and was granted two extensions. I finally turned in a 175,000 word first draft. Jordan Pavlin took nearly half a year to get to it. Half a year! Do you know what that feels like, dear reader? Her notes, when they finally did come, were unhelpful, dashed off in a hurry as though she couldn't be bothered. After half a year! This was clearly not going to be the experience that Dan Strone had presented to me. However, no stranger to revision and being abused like this, I dug in my heels and wrote a second draft, cutting the novel down to 135,000 words. I was four months (!) into waiting for a response on that version when, in frustration and -- I admit -- suicidal despair, I told my agent I wanted to scrap The Road Back and write the Sideways sequel. He said do it. I never saw a revised contract. I went on faith that the decision had been communicated to Ms. Pavlin at Knopf, that they would be relieved to have a Sideways sequel, given the huge built-in fan base of that book/movie. And given the fact that she obviously loathed The Road Back, but didn't have the guts to come out and tell me.

But I felt that something nefarious was happening behind my back. Unbeknownst to me, Jordan Pavlin, now co-president at Knopf, had drafted a letter saying that Knopf was choosing to exercise the "upon acceptance of manuscript" clause and was canceling the contract -- apparently without having even read my second draft of The Road Back. Strone had to know that not only was this unethical, not only was this a gross mistreatment of his client, but, in my opinion, it possibly constituted fraud. He withheld that letter from me for five months while I wrote my Sideways sequel, now known as Vertical. He was playing a high-stakes game. He implored an otiose, and obviously unhappy, Jordan Pavlin -- who clearly hated my novel -- to at least write a letter explaining why, after reading the second draft -- which she apparently hadn't bothered to do -- she was canceling the contract. As it was with everything with Pavlin, that letter took her nearly five months to draft.

In February of 2009, nearly four years after I had signed my life away to Knopf, I got a call from Dan Strone. He officially informed me that Knopf was canceling the contract and that I would be receiving a letter the next day indicating the reasons why. I didn't understand. I was flummoxed. I thought we had all agreed I was morphing The Road Back into the Sideways sequel. He hemmed and hawed. She had no intention of reading the Sideways sequel. In fact, she had never been informed about that. Dan had known for five months that the contract was to be canceled and he was hoping that I would take the news in stride and that he would be able to find "another home" for my Sideways sequel manuscript.

The letter came and, to this day, I've never opened it. The same day it came I got an e-mail from Dan with the five-month old official letter to cancel my contract from Knopf, the one he had kept from me. He couldn't hide, nor would he be so foolish as to doctor, the date. Jordan Pavlin had unilaterally decided to cancel the contract, apparently without even bothering to read my second draft of The Road Back, let alone entertain the idea that I was now working on the Sideways sequel and that the first draft was coming any day. Dan knew, after everything I had been through with this woman, the way she had treated me, that I wouldn't have been able to handle it and might have stopped writing the Sideways sequel, which he was gambling he could peddle to another publisher. That it took Jordan nearly five months to write the lengthier letter explaining why she was canceling the contract (i.e., she had to subject herself to reading the second draft in order to come up with a real reason) instead of getting off the hook with just a cancellation of contract letter is the single most unethical thing that has ever happened to me in my writing "career."

While Dan Strone tried to console me, and was unable to explain why he had held a cancellation of contract letter from me for nearly five months, and babbled on about trying to find another publisher, I took to the world of Sideways fans, found a private investor in Atlanta businessman and restaurateur Tim Moore, and went the self-imprint route. I called an attorney and debated suing both Alfred A. Knopf/Jordan Pavlin and Dan Strone of Trident Media for fraud: failure to disclose a cancellation of contract letter on Strone's end, and Pavlin's/Knopf's canceling the contract, apparently without even bothering to have read the manuscript. I decided not to go up against the deep pockets of Random House and Bertelsmann's. My romantic dream was now officially over.

My Sideways sequel Vertical came out in the fall of 2011. Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter wrote: "It's deeper and richer than Sideways." That sentiment has been echoed by many. A script has been written and the project is sitting now with Fox Searchlight, who are waiting on Alexander Payne. Everyone knows there is a lot of money on the table for a Sideways sequel. What no one knew until now is that, like Sideways before it, there might never have been a Vertical had I not been so abused by Jordan Pavlin of Alfred A. Knopf. I fear for any writer who signs a deal with a traditional publisher, especially first-time writers. I was an established writer with a track record and I ended up getting treated more execrably than in Hollywood, where writers are notoriously abused.

Jordan Pavlin of Alfred A. Knopf nearly destroyed my life. She bought a proposal for a novel based on a one-page synopsis, then, as far as I can tell, never believed in it from the get-go, then appeared to do everything in her power to distance herself from it. Instead of having the courage to come right out and tell me, so that we both could have moved on for sanity's sake, she delayed and delayed until there was nothing left of me, physically, psychologically, and creatively. And even then I tried to turn it around by morphing The Road Back into the Sideways sequel. And even then she screwed me. And my agent, who twisted my arm into the deal, let her do it, instead of imploring her, on my behalf, to roll up her sleeves and work with me on this book and let it become what it ultimately has.

In my twenties, as an avid book reader of great, enduring fiction, I once dreamed of being a published novelist whose books would be read and admired. I knew it was going to be hard to get an agent, even more difficult to land a publishing deal. After years of perseverance, suffering indignities I never thought I'd suffer, I did, finally -- twice! And both times I was shafted; both times I suffered even worse indignities than before I was a published author. I cheer every announcement of the Internet destroying traditional publishing. I laugh with glee when I read articles about big bad Amazon deracinating agents and superannuating them from the process of getting one's book to market. I long for the day when it's just pure writing and nothing else. I dreamed of one day working with my Max Perkins, being guided by the best in the business and having him elicit the best from me. Those days, with few exceptions -- and there are some -- are over, aspiring writers. And I lived -- barely -- to tell the real truth of traditional publishing. Never again.