Package Goods | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Package Goods 

One writer's foray into the not-so-sordid world of writing to spec.

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Like most e-mail solicitations, the offer I received in February 2005 from Alloy Entertainment was unambiguously sexual: "We're looking for a writer to write a young-adult book called 'The Sex Drive.'" Unlike most e-mail solicitations, however, Alloy's offer did not reek of fraud.

"We're a media production company/book packager," continued the letter. "We come up with ideas for books and sell these concepts to publishers, and then find writers to write the books." Through such arrangements, Alloy has achieved significant success in the young-adult marketplace, both in its previous corporate incarnation as 17th Street Productions, which fashioned the "Sweet Valley High" franchise, and in recent years with titles like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The ninth installment in Alloy's racy and mildly controversial "Gossip Girl" series, Only in Your Dreams, is currently number three on the New York Times children's paperback best-seller list.

Before I was contacted by Alloy, I had no idea such intermediaries existed. The news didn't trouble me, though. I'd been writing primarily sports-related features as a freelancer for various local publications (including this one) and Web sites. An editor friend recommended me to Alloy assistant editor Lynn Weingarten, who asked if I'd be interested in writing a sample chapter of the aforementioned YA novel. No one else was soliciting novels--or even pieces of novels--from me, so, being an agentless aspiring novelist, I reflexively said yes.

Fifteen months later--after Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan partnered with Alloy, accepted a reported $500,000 two-book deal from Little, Brown, and was subsequently revealed to have cribbed heavily from the published work of several other YA authors--the role of book packagers in contemporary children's literature has been widely examined. The normative position has been cynicism and mistrust. The severance of the author from subject and plot strikes many as an almost diabolical corporate ploy, one that's perpetrated against children hundreds of times each year by packagers and publishers. Said the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten in an April 29 column, "Packaging operations dovetail so neatly with the values of the sprawling corporations that now control the publication of most books in America. It can come as no shock to anyone that they believe in marketing and the bottom line over and above everything else. When it comes to books for young readers, the result--in the overwhelming majority of cases--is a focus-group-driven literature of solipsism." Bloggers have been far less generous. Cinematical.com referred to Alloy's "pernicious inner workings." Bookninja.com wrote that they were "preying on kiddies."

It'd make good copy if I could confirm any kiddy preying, clandestine focus groups, or sinister editors grafting long passages of Freckle Juice onto my work. No such luck. Writing on contract for a corporate fiction think tank is clearly out of step with the romantic ideal of how a novel should be created--by a solitary writer toiling away until inspiration strikes and then hurling the finished manuscript into the publishing vortex--but it was pleasant and instructive, and it paid the bills. After weeks of outlines, drafts, and revisions (a process not radically different from the way most fiction is produced) I'd written a book. That book, now called All the Way after a muckety-muck somewhere balked at "The Sex Drive," was released May 18 by Dutton.

All the Way still bears some resemblance to the quasi-titillating comic road story Alloy had first pitched me, though the narrative voice is mine. The project was modestly remunerative, though Viswanathan's deal was more than ten times larger than mine. All the Way is just one of a hard-to-pin-down number of packaged titles that will be released this year and marketed to kids and young adults. (The number is difficult to know both because it's large and because book packaging tends to happen quietly, in unadvertised ways.) Alloy alone will produce about 40 such titles.

"Within that 40 we have a number of successful series that have two or more new titles a year," says the company's president, Leslie Morgenstein. "So it's not as if we're developing 40 new books. I would say of those 40, a third to a half are renewals." The "A-List" and "Gossip Girl" are two such series, both of which produce best sellers at regular intervals. The development of these 40-odd titles doesn't require a particularly large staff--there are nine in Alloy's New York office and another two in LA. "We're all involved in creating ideas," says Morgenstein. "It is, at its core, brainstorming, and the better ideas rise to the top of the pile and get developed."

Increasingly, he says, "Agents come to us and say, 'We represent writer so-and-so. Writer so-and-so could use some help, or some support, coming up with or structuring a more commercial piece of fiction.' That's a smaller percent of our business, probably 20 percent.

"Prior to the last three or four years, agents had not been terribly excited about doing business with us. They had an attitude that we were just taking part in the pie and they would prefer their writers to be directly contracted and selling their books to publishers and keeping the whole pie. [The children's book pie is worth nearly $2 billion a year according to a 2003 Publisher's Weekly estimate.] I think what happened is (a) we've increasingly gone to agents to represent our deals, and (b) our success in the past four years has become so visible--not from a branding perspective, but from a books on the best-seller list perspective--and agents have started to say, 'Oh, those guys probably know something that could be helpful either to my young clients who may not have sold a book yet, or my mid-list clients who maybe aren't getting as much exposure or coming up with big ideas on their own.'"

Viswanathan was such a client, steered to Alloy by an agent at William Morris. Alloy worked with her to plot her since-recalled YA novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and the collaboration led to her notorious book deal. Opal Mehta was released in March. By late April, the Harvard Crimson was reporting that several passages appeared to have been taken almost verbatim from two young-adult novels written by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The New York Times later reported that other sections of Opal Mehta seemed to be lifted from Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? Soon the business of young-adult book packaging in general--and the operations of Alloy specifically--were being scrutinized and commented upon by, among others, the Times, the Boston Globe, and the New York Observer. But Morgenstein maintains the shop has gotten a bad rap.

"The coverage has been semiaccurate to a business that existed in the 90s," he says. "But we've had a couple evolutions since the days when we were primarily the 'Sweet Valley High' packaging shop. That was a fulfillment business where we had 60 'Sweet Valley' titles a year for different ages, and we were churning them out and we were set up to develop outlines in-house and farm them out to freelance writers for a flat fee. That's nothing like our business today. It's a reflection of the marketplace, which is a savvy, sophisticated marketplace that wants a real writer behind their book. You know, we'd be happy to have the 'Sweet Valley High' business today if it still existed."

That business didn't begin so much with Sweet Valley's Wakefield sisters as with Frank and Joe Hardy in the 1920s. The Stratemeyer Syndicate produced the "Hardy Boys" series--and the Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Tom Swift books--by sketching story outlines and then hiring writers to finish the books. The stories were released under pseudonyms that became inextricably linked with each franchise. "It's definitely been around since whenever Edward Stratemeyer started doing it," Morgenstein says of his industry. "We're different in that we really are an idea shop--well, he kind of was too--but we're different from a lot of packagers that existed when I started in the business, late 80s, early 90s, that were kind of fulfillment businesses, producing a book-a-month series and farming them out to anonymous writer-for-hires. We are much more about developing concepts with voicey writers and partnering with those writers."

This isn't to say that the anonymous write-for-hire gigs don't still exist. In fact they're plentiful. Barbara Mitchell, of Delaware-based Mitchell Lane Publishers, says her six-person company publishes 85 nonfiction titles a year. "What we like to publish for is what we call the not-so-enthusiastic reader. It's not the children who cannot read, but those who don't want to."

For such ambivalent readers, Mitchell Lane produces titles like Clay Aiken: From Second Place to the Top of the Charts and Latinos in Baseball: Bernie Williams. Their books, often biographies, are usually conceived of by the Mitchell Lane staff, then assigned to a writer who receives a flat fee. The arrangement isn't unusual. Mitchell Lane pays its writers, who range from professors and PhD candidates to stay-at-home moms and retirees, as much as $25,000 a year--excellent supplemental income, if not enough to live on for long.

Kathie Bergquist, a Reader contributor and coauthor of the soon-to-be-released A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago, has written four celebrity biographies for Billboard Books, a subsidiary of Watson-Guptill Publications. She landed the first gig through a retired publishing guy she met while working as a bookseller at Unabridged. "He came into the store and told me that Watson-Guptill was looking for someone to write a quick Ricky Martin book," she told me in an e-mail. "I stewed it over a bit, and then called him. He hooked me up with an editor at Watson. I sent them my writing resume and an outline. They sent me a contract."

A year later, while living in Paris, she turned out similar books on the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and Mandy Moore. She doesn't want to be specific about how much she was paid, but, she says, "the money helped finance my life in France for a year.

"Here's a funny thing to do," she adds. "Google my name. All these books will come up, especially Ricky, in Web sites from all over the world. Kind of an unanticipated legacy as Ricky Martin chronicler--especially as I was barely familiar with him when I first got the contract."

James Norton, a producer with Air America and author of the recently released Saving General Washington: The Right-Wing Assault on America's Founding Principles, has also completed a few write-for-hire books, including biographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph Haydn, Russell Simmons, and Beyonce. "I was given a fair bit of freedom in terms of the sources I used and the way the work was actually organized," he says, "although the subject matter was fairly rigidly defined."

But semieducational nonfiction for middle schoolers just doesn't infuriate writers and critics in quite the way that packaged fiction for teens seems to. As one unnamed writer told the New York Observer at the height of the Viswanathan scandal, "There's no one-to-one alignment between anything that gets produced and the producer. There's no literary accountability."

However, Viswanathan's quick ascent and quicker fall attest to the marketplace's ability to hold any writer mercilessly accountable.

Partnering with a packager clearly positions one near the bottom of the authors' social hierarchy. While I was working on All the Way several writers--including a friend who writes almost exclusively about fantasy sports-- asked me some version of this question: "Don't you want to write for grown-ups?" And at a recent promotional event, more than one children's writer asked, "Don't you have any original ideas?"

Executing someone else's concept on contract and under deadline isn't anyone's dream of literary fulfillment. Still, it's ludicrous to suggest that compelling kids books can't emerge from the process--many of us were raised on, and riveted by, ghostwritten fiction, and I am fully prepared to defend the greatness of Hardy Boys #37: Ghost at Skeleton Rock. When the alternative to writing packaged fiction was to go unpaid and unpublished, I opted for the income and the experience.

Andy Behrens

When: Sat 6/3, 3:30 PM

Where: Printers Row Book Fair, Nelson Algren Stage, Harrison and Dearborn

Info: See complete schedule in Section 2

More: With Brian Costello

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.

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