Carl Sagan admired books. Flat objects, he said, “made from a tree.” A book has bendable parts stamped with funny dark squiggles. Open it and you’re inside the mind of another woman or man, “maybe somebody dead for thousands of years,” such as Homer. Across time, authors speak to readers, silently, mind to mind. Books, said Sagan, confirm humans make magic.
Harrison Demchick, above, is a magician of the sort Sagan imagines. A developmental editor, at Bancroft Press, Demchick works on many books. He edits for A-list authors, such Ron Cooper, Elizabeth Leiknes and Eden Unger Bowditch.
Demchick is also an author. His first book, “The Listeners,” is a post-apocalyptic story of loss, rescue and persistence; the story causes a chill to run the length of your spine. In “The Listeners,” Demchick sets a discomforting tone, a sense of deep despair: “The traffic light flips from green to yellow to red. The world does not react.”
The literary world is enigmatic. It surprised him, he says. Writers of sci-fi fantasy accept me as their editor. They see me as a colleague, even as I have my own book.
Developmental editors have the most harrowing job in publishing. “I work on a manuscript, with the author,” says Demchick, “from first draft to published book. Layout, cover design and such aren’t part of my job, although I help with marketing.
“My focus is on deeper parts of a novel, such as character and plot development. After I read a manuscript, once, I write the author, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of her or his submission draft. The first letter can be daunting.”
Last October, Jeffery Schilling received a first letter from Harrison Demchick, his editor at Bancroft Press. Despite good-wind warnings, Schilling dreaded opening that e-mail. “I discovered Demchick is a talented, versatile and fastidious editor. He was genuinely invested in my work,” says Schilling. “His passion for words became a passion for my words. He added the right amount of encouragement, criticism and motivation to elicit my best work.”
Demchick knows what it takes to edit a great novel. Not to toot his own horn, he says that “you can always tell when a book doesn’t have a developmental editor.” The cord, pulling together characters and plot, isn’t tight enough. The reader knows something is missing, but can’t put his or her finger on it; they may stop reading.
Proactive book marketing is essential, says Demchick. Social media are especially important, today. I’m a reluctant promoter of my own book as well as those written by others.
If a book is to create news and reviews, find readers and sell, the author must go out behind his or her book. Nothing sells a book as well as seeing the author, in person. Some authors are gung ho marketers, others aren’t. “The key is to discover what you can do and do it.”
In this interview, Harrison Demchick talks of editing books, adapting books to film and writing his first novel, “The Listeners.”
Harrison Demchick has a new novel, his first, “The Listeners.” It’s a coming-of-age story in a horror or thriller context. A flesh-eating plague ravages the world, supposedly. Survivors are quarantined, in their homes, to avoid a lingering airborne illness that causes deformity, insanity and death.
A fourteen-year-old boy, Daniel Raymond, is alone. His mother failed to return from her search to find toilet paper. He falls in with a one-eared gang qua cult, the Listeners, led by a prophet, Adam.
Adam is the only member of the Listeners with two ears, which is a fine touch. “All Daniel wants to do,” Demchick says, “is to find his best friend, Katie, trapped elsewhere in quarantine.”
Some of the promotional material refers to “The Listeners” as literary horror. It’s a dark, terrifying fall into loneliness. “The Listeners” is a story of survival in a world gone mad, which, these days, thanks to John Hughes and Steven Spielberg, we want to believe best left to children.
Do Katie and Daniel reunite? “Yes, how and why are for the reader to discover,” says Demchick.
Quarantine is a fitting allegory for the invisible chains of politics or religion. Pandemics, such as SARS, Hendra or Ebola, are the future. How will humans survive pandemics, is a leitmotif of “The Listeners.” What changes are necessary for survival? Can a society survive, intact? These are among the questions asked and answered in “The Listeners.”
Some reviewers describe “The Listeners” as a zombie book. “The book owes a debt to zombie fiction,” says Demchick, “but the infected people, the sickos, are not zombies. Sickos are not dead. They don't eat people and they talk." Nor are the Listeners zombies. The Listeners are a zombie-like cult, but they aren’t dead.
Surviving a plague is living, although in a dark, relentlessly forbidding world. Zombies are not survivors. Zombies are the re-animated dead.
Demchick says, “I’m fine with the comparison. Readers who enjoy zombie fiction will surely enjoy ‘The Listeners,’ too.” That’s the point, an enjoyable read.
The Baltimore “Sun” reported Demchick thought “The Listeners” ended in some despair. “The ending is not that gloomy,” says Demchick. There’s a glimmer of hope. “The Listeners” is a survival story, one-eared men help humans persist. “Readers like to image how they’d cope in such circumstances,” says Demchick.
An anonymous reviewer, on the website, “Indie Book Blog,” gave “The Listeners” four stars. He or she said, “This book had me guessing throughout.” Is this what Demchick hoped? “Yes, I think so. Keep the reader actively involved, thinking, guessing; offer her or him a twist, at the end.” This seems a recipe for readership, once the word gets around.
A reviewer, on another website, “Lit Nerd around the World,” decided “The Listeners” needed a follow up, a continuation; else, it loses its appeal. “At the moment,” says Demchick. I don’t imagine a follow up novel.
Demchick, according to the Baltimore “Sun” is working on a zombie musical. “Yes,” he says, “it’s about a brainy, nerdy girl, desperate for high school popularity. To dumb herself down, she exposes herself to nuclear waste. Instead, she turns into a zombie and the results are not attractive.”
He and his co-author pitched the musical to the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.” For now,” says Demchick, “the Rock Opera decided to go in another direction. I think it's just a matter of stylistic difference. We written is more of a pop opera than a rock opera. Our opera will be produced at some point somewhere.” His optimism is admirable.
Demchick works at Bancroft Press, in Baltimore, Maryland, which published “The Listeners.” Bruce Bortz started Bancroft Press, in 1992, and manages it, today, publishing up to six books a year. The limited number of titles is mostly because Bortz and Demchick are the only employees.
Publishing a book takes much work. These days Demchick is half-time at Bancroft. “Sometimes we have an intern,” says Demchick.
“I’m a Developmental Editor,” says Demchick, “but I do a little of everything. The full-title I like to use is Deputy Publisher, Editor, Screenwriter, Marketing Associate and doer of odd jobs. Whatever it takes to run a small press falls under my reach, at one time or another.
“My primary job is developing and editing manuscripts. I’m usually working with one or two authors, ensuring their books are as strong as possible. Editing is what I enjoy most.”
Demchick works on marketing Bancroft books, too; a task he doesn’t enjoy. “I handle the Twitter and Facebook accounts,” he says. “I pitch our properties, our books, to film producers, such as Imagine Entertainment. This usually means drafting a screenplay. I do whatever needs doing at Bancroft Press.
A development editor, Demchick deals with the deeper ingredients of a manuscript, such as characters, settings and plot. Usually, his focus is shaping or re-shaping a publishable manuscript. He handles most related tasks other than copyediting.
At one point, Demchick worked as a copy editor for three years and took no pay. “Yes,” he says, “that was at Oberlin College. I copy edited the Oberlin ‘Review,’ a weekly newspaper of record for the College.
“It wasn’t that I thought my work wasn’t good enough to warrant a pay cheque. I couldn’t find my Social Security card. I don’t recall looking for it. No documentation meant I didn't get a paid.”
As far as he knows, “My card it was in a safety deposit box, somewhere. A salary wasn’t important to me. I liked copyediting. I love editing.”
Demchick claims copyediting is not his strength. “I think I’m a good copyeditor," he say. He know he's the best developmental editor. Demchick agrees that probably sounds egotistical, but he's confident in his abilities as a developmental editor.
When he copyedits, he catches most, but not every, flaw. “There are copy flaws I miss,” Demchick says. There’s always something. Later, almost at publication, I catch it and sigh with relief.” As a developmental editor, he misses much little.
“Even if I believe I’m the best developmental editor,” says Demchick, “it doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are good or, perhaps, better for a particular manuscript.” He doesn’t feel “The Listeners” is lacking, developmentally. “Another mind and set of eyes might view the manuscript, the story, characters and plot arc, a little bit different from me,” he says. “If they tell me, it makes my work better."
In the summer of 2005, Demchick found his way to Bancroft. “As my junior year of college was finishing,” he says, “I looked for an internship in publishing. I limited my search to the Baltimore, Maryland, area, where I grew up.
“I found Bancroft Press. I met with Bruce Bortz, the owner and publisher. After the interview, I realized I’d have the chance for direct experience in publishing. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I was fortunate.”
While interning at Bancroft Press, Demchick edited his first manuscript and wrote several screenplays. “I did it all well enough that when I graduated, Bortz hired me, full-time.”
Bancroft prefers repeat authors. “Most Bancroft authors,” says Demchick, “are publishing second or third titles with us.” This is the goal of Bancroft, stick with what works.
“New authors usually arrive at Bancroft through recommendations,” says Demchick. Few authors are over-the-transom. That is, through a direct query or submission of a manuscript.
Bortz makes the final decision about whom we publish. “I offer my opinion, especially on fiction titles, which is my strength,” says Demchick. Then they tackle the manuscript.
There’s no fixed rule, at Bancroft, about dealing with a new manuscript. “A first read through the manuscript may lead to a contract,” says Demchick. Bortz handles contracts. As he does the first read, he does the first edit. Then, Demchick reads and edits the manuscript and sends a first letter or e-mail to the author.
Jeffrey Schilling, author of “Changing Michael,” which Bancroft plans to publish in 2014, began working with Harrison in October 2012. “In September,” he says, “I learned Demchick would work on my novel. Never having worked with a real editor before, I eagerly awaited first contact.”
A few weeks later, Schilling sat down to work. He found what he hoped to find in his e-mail. There were two messages, both from Bancroft, waiting for him.
“I glanced back and forth,” says Schilling, “unsure which to open first. The more recent of the two contained the title of my book and several attachments. My attention went to the other for many reasons.”
The other e-mail was from Bruce Bortz, Publisher at Bancroft Press. “It arrived only minutes before a second e-mail from Demchick. Finally, the subject line, of the e-mail from Bortz, advised ‘Please Read First.’” More anxious than excited, he did as told.
The e-mail was brief. “Bortz assured me Harrison, in fact, did like my writing.” Although the need for such qualification alarmed him, Schilling kept reading.
Bortz explained. “A first letter or e-mail from Demchick was typically thirty pages or more. The first I would receive was fifteen or so pages. I should take the brief first letter as a compliment. Those few lines kept me from imploding.
“This was my introduction to Demchick,” says Schilling. “He’s a tremendously talented, astonishingly versatile and fastidious editor. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to his work.”
“Once I’m involved,” says Demchick, “I edit the manuscript and contact the author. We, the author and I, talk about the manuscript, my edits and so forth. A publishable book grows from our contact and exchanges.
“Currently, I’m working on the second book in the ‘Young Inventors Guild’ series, by Eden Unger Bowditch,” says Demchick. In 2009, he began working, with Unger Bowditch, on her first book, for Bancroft, “The Atomic Weight of Secrets or the Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black,” which published in March 2011. Bancroft hopes her new book, in the series, is ready for release in fall 2013.
Demchick also works with Elizabeth Leiknes, who wrote “The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns” and “The Understory.” Ron Cooper, who wrote “Purple Jesus” and “Hume’s Fork,” is another author with whom he works, closely.
Spending so much time, with one author, reviewing draft after draft, developing and fulfilling a marketing plan and, maybe, a screenplay, Demchick and his authors learn to work as a unit. In a sense, close relations, of author and editor, segue into a partnership that positively affects the skills of both. “I don’t believe,” he says, “other media offer the setting to develop such strong, efficient working relations.”
How do authors respond to his lengthy comments? “The first letter can be daunting,” says Demchick. Yet, it’s always about something fixable, weaknesses the author can address. Wonderful drafts and, eventually, books can flow from that first letter.
Commenting on a manuscript is an art. “I came from a workshop background,” says Demchick, “a literary background, where critiques were always precise. My approach could be scathing.
“I didn’t sugar coat anything. This was great for a literary workshop and some authors, but not for authors you want to publish. I had to learn to encourage, first, and discuss changes, second.”
Good editing coats honesty with reassurance. “It’s a great idea and manuscript,” he tells new authors in the first letter. “Now, let’s make it better.”
“Occasionally,” says author Jeffrey Schilling, “his attention to detail was militant. His genuine investment in my material set him apart. His passion for words became a heartfelt passion for my words.” This passion coupled with his ability to apply just the right amount encouragement, criticism and motivation allows Demchick to elicit the best, from his authors, repeatedly.
Most changes Demchick suggests don’t alter the story, only the presentation. “I assure the author,” he says, “I’ll help him or her make the changes. We both want the best possible book.”
Tone is everything, in the first letter. “Usually, there are many changes to make,” says Demchick. “At first, the volume of changes overwhelms the author. I try to keep my tone calming.”
A great many changes often involves much work for the author. Still, in making the changes, the author learns much. “Second and later drafts are much better, as a result,” says Demchick.
Elizabeth Leiknes is a case on point. Demchick worked on two books with her before he sent her the first letter for her third novel, "The Understory." The last third of her newest manuscript didn’t work, he says. "Her characters had resolved all their issues prematurely, with an entire third of the narrative left to go. I laid out the reasons, suggesting she think about re-working the last act.”
Leiknes had her moment of despair. She worried, thinking there was no way she was going to make this work. She made the revisions work.
Leiknes wrote a new third act. “It was something much different than I imagined or suggested,” says Demchick. The novel, “The Understory,” is brilliant, among the best books he edited.
Having the author address and respond to his comments produces a great feeling, he says, “for both of us.” He knows his authors can handle his comments. “All are good writers,” says Demchick, “driven to do their best, always coming through when challenged.”
Some authors are more resistant than are others to that first letter. “Once, a few years ago, an author, whose book we intended to publish, had her lawyer respond to my letter,” says Demchick. The lawyer bluntly said the author would not publish with Bancroft.
The comment she disagreed with, mostly fervently, was a compliment. The book was about a popular singer, Josephine Baker, long dead, at the time, with whom Demchick was not familiar. He said that although he didn’t know the singer, the manuscript helped him understand the importance of the singer.
Demchick thought his comment flattering. It was. That he wasn’t familiar with the singer horrified the author. She pulled the book from Bancroft. She didn’t care for a few of his other suggests, either. “She would not make any changes,” he says. This was his only bad ending.
Authors work months or years on a manuscript, think it is perfect and then receive your letter. Demchick says, “An author views his or her manuscript almost as a child. He or she, carefully and cautiously, sends the manuscript into the world. Although the author wants the manuscript to be as great as it can be, he or she knows, sometimes deep inside, improvements are possible.”
Dr. Charles Laughlin, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, at Carleton University, tells a relevant story. In 1973, he and two co-authors sent what they believed a perfect draft of an important book, “Biogenetic Structuralism,” to Columbia University Press (CPU). Accepting the manuscript, CPU attached the first batch of editorial comments. The pages of comments matched the number of pages of the manuscript, as filed.
Submission-draft perfection is never the case. “An author hopes my letter says his or her manuscript is perfect,” says Demchick, “every sentence right on the mark, every character well developed, every plot twist sublime.” Making needed changes usually means painstaking work for the author. “It's always admirable when an author moves forward, makes needed changes and creates a much better next draft,” says Demchick.
Do Bortz and Demchick ever disagree, much? “My vision, for a manuscript, rarely traps me,” says Demchick. “More often, I skim over concerns because I read the manuscript too many times. Sometimes, at some point, I’m no longer able to be as precise and as critical as I was before and should be now.
“It takes several drafts for that to happen. After I’ve read a manuscript five or six times, I need a hand. At this point, it’s important for someone else to read the manuscript and that’s Bortz.
“When another set of eyes reads the manuscript, we usually find smaller issues, mostly related to copy editing, say. Big issues resolve much earlier. When Bortz is the primary editor, I’m his second set of eyes.”
Much time elapses from the decision to contract for a manuscript to the moment it publishes.” One practice setting small presses, such as Bancroft, apart from larger presses, such as Random House,” says Demchick, “is a willingness to take on a promising, if incomplete, manuscript. Bringing a manuscript up to publishing standard can thus take two years or more.”
Publishing is not only manuscript preparation. Bancroft sends a completed manuscript to reviewers, way before publication. There’s layout, printing and marketing, too.
It takes an average of two years, from accepting a manuscript to it appearing in bookstores. “Mostly,” says Demchick, “the time involved hinges on the state of the manuscript when we receive it and author willingness to make changes.” As well, circumstances may call for holding back a book, say, for seasonal or competitive reasons.
During editing, does story logic change, much, or is it mostly small tweaking? “As with all editing, it depends,” says Demchick. Sometimes the core logic, of a story, is firmly in place, but with poorly developed characters. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Most manuscripts fall between the extremes.
Authors have strengths and weaknesses. “My job,” says Demchick, “is to balance, say, story logic and character development. As I mentioned, a manuscript, by Elizabeth Leiknes, called for her to re-do the last third of her book. She made the changes. The book was great.”
Changing a third or more of a manuscript, which Bancroft accepts for publication, is common. One part of the plot changes, say, leading to changes in sub-plots or characters and so forth. The changes move toward a stronger story, characters and book.
“Merely tweaking a manuscript is rare,” says Demchick. “Usually, a manuscript needs significance changes.” Readers expect a polished novel.
Does Demchick suggest specific themes to authors? “Revising a manuscript is not my job. I try to stick with how the author should re-write scenes. Sometimes, if I feel strongly about a need to change a scene, I may write a sample sentence for the author as an informal template. The author must revise his or her text.”
“I will always be grateful to Bruce Bortz for the opportunity to work with Harrison Demchick,” says Jeffrey Schilling. “I’ll also blame him when no one can live up to the high standards Demchick sets.” So far, every author has met the test and survived to excel again.
Demchick has written several screenplays, adaptations of books published by Bancroft. “Before I interned at Bancroft, in 2005, I hadn’t written an original screenplay. Yet, I had a basic introduction to the field from high school.
“I attended a magnet school, the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, in Baltimore. I focused on literary arts and writing. Writing for film was part of the Carver curriculum.
“At Bancroft, Bortz had an idea about how to pitch books to film producers. Pitch a draft of a full script, not an idea, summary or outline. I agreed with his idea: a draft of a full script is a format familiar to producers,” says Demchick.
For some time, adapting Bancroft properties into screenplays has been a major effort. It’s something Bancroft does that no other small press or any press does. “The screenplay eventually became my favourite form of writing,” says Demchick.
During the summer of 2005, Demchick wrote seven terrible screenplays. “I think I needed to write seven to ten bad screenplays,” says Demchick, “before I figured out how to do it, right.” It was an important learning experience.
Before Bancroft pitched completed scripts, Bortz pitched ideas. A typical response was, “We like the idea, but can’t see it as a film,” says Demchick. Pitching a full screenplay, in draft form, confirms the book idea translates to film. “I think,” says Demchick, “that less than a full draft provides little evidence the completed screenplay works, as a film.”
A draft screenplay signals belief in this story. Over the past eight years, Demchick authored more than twenty screenplays. “This was a great opportunity for me,” he says.
Bancroft Press tries to involve the author of the book in the screenplay. “I like to get response from the author,” says Demchick. No Bancroft author rejected a draft screenplay of his or her book.
“Eventually,” says Demchick, “the screenplay is mine. My goals are to be true to the core of the story. Yet, I must make changes necessary for adapting the printed-page to film.”
“A film is a film,” says Brian Linse, of Linsefilms, in Los Angeles. “There’s no need to remain one-hundred percent true to a novel or history. Each medium has its own format. Strictly adhering to historical fact may make a film impossible to make or enjoy. A film may not make a good novel. A good novel may not make a good film.”
“Adaptation, from book to film, only works if reconceived for film,” says Demchick. This applies to any adaptation, involving any medium. For film, “I usually need three, clear acts, with turning points on pages 30, 60 and 90,” he says. Filmmakers like romance, too, and a happy or uplifting ending.
Is this a formula? “Maybe, but it works,” says Demchick. Screenplays can remain faithful to the original idea and comply with the needs of film, such as acts, romance or an uplifting ending.
”If the author can write the screenplay,” says Demchick, “it’s better for Bancroft. If not, I try to work with the author, get his or her response and so forth. Usually, everyone is good to go with the draft screenplay we pitch.” That’s a sign he’s doing something right.
Demchick read other screenplays to get a sense of the art. “I thought,” he says, “the scripts I read weren’t right." After he wrote a couple of dreadful screens, of his own, he saw the problems.
“As my screen writing skills improved,” says Demchick, “I recognized what was right and what was wrong in a script.” This looped back to books, making his skills and his work better. “Adapting material,” says Demchick, “say, a book, for film, exposes interlacing among media.”
He read books. He read more screenplays. He learned the form.
“The film industry has a specific language,” says Demchick, “such as three clear acts or a plot twist turn on pages 30, 60 and 90.” A screenwriter needs to internalize filmmaking language for the screenplay to come out right. As learning any language, it takes time and patience.
Demchick doesn’t believe he’s read enough screenplays to be able to say, for sure, what makes a novel a good screenplay. Many times, available screenplays, say, on the web, are not shooting scripts. Alternatively, someone may watch the movie and create a script.
Either way, the film and script are similar. As well, it’s often difficult to parse the influence of the director from that of the writer or transcriber. Nor is the indirect influence of studio or producer necessarily obvious in an available script.
“Wonder Boys,” the 2001 movie, starring Michael Douglas and Toby McGuire, had differences all around: book, pitch and scripts. Each form is almost unrecognizably different from the other. The movie was best, with an Oscar© nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but found only a small audience.
Still, Demchick doesn’t believe he’s read a great script made into a bad movie or the other way around. Has he seen “Heaven’s Gate,” written and directed by Michael Cimino? “No,” he says, “not yet, but film is a collaborative medium. Anything can happen after giving the script to a director.” That is, after the screenwriter gets his or her 2.5% of the budget, in full payment, and is off the film.
“Shawshank Redemption” is a case where a novella, spec and shooting script coincide, well,” says Demchick. He used “Shawshank Redemption,” as the exemplar in a lecture he gave, last year, at the Maryland Writer’s Association Conference (MWAC), in Baltimore. The topic was adapting books and stories to film. “Lecturing is not my specialty,” he says, “but they liked my talk.”
Book to film adaptation interests many, if not most, writers and authors. There’s a high-level of curiosity about adapting across media. Most authors imagine their novels as films, if only for the money. “My experience affords me an unusual understanding of adaptation,” says Demchick, “especially to film.”
Who provides his second set of eyes for screenplays? “Bruce Bortz reviews much of my writing,” says Demchick. He also seeks out friends for a response, whoever is willing to help. “I would be a hypocrite not to seek and accept response,” he says.
Almost any response makes any writing and story stronger. Honest response is most important for good writing, in any medium. No one can be her or his own second or third set of eyes.
Demchick won awards for his screenplays. “I won the Baltimore Screenwriters Competition, in 2011, for “The Pursuit of Samuel Drake,” an original screenplay,” he says. A few years earlier, he placed second, in the same competition, for an adaptation of “The Reappearance of Sam Webber,” a Bancroft book by Jonathan Scott Fuqua.
When Bruce Bortz suggested writing drafts of full screenplays, as a ploy for pitching ideas to film producers, Demchick was on the path to “The Listeners,” his first novel. “The idea grew from a series of inter-connected short story into a full-length script, ‘Ashes,Ashes’, says Demchick. Dal Walton optioned "Ashes, Ashes" for Second Wind, a film production company; a director, Dario Piana, attached to the film. “Nothing came of it though,” he says.
The lead to Demchick to try developing film scripts in cooperation with Mpower, a now defunct production company in Los Angeles. One of its executives, Dall Walton, liked his work. “At the time,” says Demchick, “Walton sensed my screenplays weren’t right for Mpower.”
Demchick Josh Rader worked on a project for Mpower, "The Pursuit of Samuel Drake," which didn’t pan out. I decided to resurrect “Ashes,Ashes,” he says, “as a novel, ‘The Listeners.’”
Is Demchick a movie buff? “I like movies,” he says. He was skeptical about the reboots of “Spiderman,” so close on the heels of “Spiderman Three.” “There are many reasons that movie shouldn’t have worked,” he says. “It turned out well, though.”
The most recent “Spiderman” is not a good comic book movie, for him. “It’s okay,” says Demchick, “but not the best. In an ideal world, the character would go back to complete control by Marvel comics. Then, something similar to the spectacular ‘Avengers’ would be possible.
“The first thrill of seeing ‘Spiderman’ on the screen is not coming back. Still, it’s wonderful to see these characters and stories, which I’ve been reading about my entire life, come to life on the screen.”
“Usually, I don’t like Denis Leary, but he did a good job in ‘Spiderman.’ He was not as much as an obstacle as I would have expected. In the end, Leary wasn’t trying to be funny.”
Although a small press, Bancroft is not a niche publisher. “‘No niche’ is our informal slogan,” says Demchick. All publishers seek the widest possible readership. Niche publishers, such as those that only publish aviation or family history titles, still want to increase sales, if only among their niche readers. Bancroft wants to publish and sell as many books as it can. It publishes books
Bruce Bortz, the founder and publisher of Bancroft, believes in and wants to support. Still, Bancroft competes with large publishers.
Mostly, though, the competition is about getting attention for a book. Reviews develop interest and attention. “This leads to sales,” says Demchick.
Books from larger publishers win the battle for reviews. “A larger press,” Demchick says, “can afford the bells and whistles to which reviewers respond. I suspect reviewers also believe a book from a large press has a better chance to find a huge readership. They want to be on the bandwagon.”
Readers want a good to read. If readers hear about a small press book, read it and like it, “her or his experience is the same as for a good book from a large press,” says Demchick. It’s a matter of trying to maximize the number of potential readers; making sure as many readers as is possible, are aware of books from Bancroft or any publisher.
It’s essential for a small press to publish the best possible books, to find ways to stand out among millions of voices. This ensures readers have the chance to read books from small presses. “This is the challenge,” says Demchick.
Alternative newspapers show little interest in their supposed ally, the small press, which is surprising. “Media, of any sort,” says Demchick, “are not as open as you might think. Small or alternative media, which you think might align with smaller presses, don’t.” Most reviews, in any medium, are for large press books.
The major media reviewers, such as Thomas Djay, at the New York “Times,” or Gail Godwin, at the Washington “Post,” hold sway. They set the agenda. Demchick suspects there’s much sensed prestige for those on the large-press bandwagon.
As well, alternative media often have a small pool of writers paid only with a free book. This influences reviewers. They imagine more free books from large publishers when they give a good review.
“Blog reviewers are wonderful,” says Demchick. He doesn’t know how they have time to review so many books. “They seem happy to take on small press books,” he says. Still, there’s limited exposure for blog reviews.
His biggest marketing success was with the Washington “Post.” For ten months, Demchick sent the same person, at the “Post,” e-mails asking for a review of “Purple Jesus.” Eventually, the “Post” reviewed the book.
“It wasn’t Godwin,” says Demchick, “that he e-mailed. Of all the major newspapers he contacted, the people at Washington “Post” were the nicest and friendliest toward Bancroft. “My sense is the “Post” gives everyone fair treatment,” he says. “More than do some other newspapers.”
Demchick made no calls to promote “Purple Jesus.” “This is one reason I’m a terrible marketer,” he says. “I don’t pick up the phone. I’m uncomfortable with a phone, that’s not my strength.
“I included previous e-mails and responses in each new e-mail to the “Post.” I usually referenced something new about ‘Purple Jesus,’ such as sales figures or a good review, elsewhere.” Every e-mail to the ‘Post” he individually addressed, making sure the content was new and specific.
Demchick was persistent. “I knew it was a great book. I didn’t want ‘Purple Jesus’ to fall by the wayside.”
The contact, at the Washington “Post,” remains a mystery. He doesn’t want everybody, with a book to hock to e-mail his contact. “This journalist is busy enough,” says Demchick.
The Washington “Post” review transformed “Purple Jesus.” It was the best possible review. “Purple Jesus,” by Ron Cooper, was a brilliant, but almost unread book of southern gothic literary fiction; now it’s a success, on a cult level. “Purple Jesus” now shows up on reading lists for English courses in colleges and universities across the country.
The effort, directed at the “Post,” paid off handsomely, but it was too much to do for every book published by Bancroft, without a much larger marketing staff. In a way, that effort drained his reserve of marketing energy. “The victory doesn’t seem long term,” says Demchick, “but it is; even so, I don’t enjoy marketing.”
There are times when marketing takes more away from editing than Demchick likes. “When I’m trying to finish an edit or making progress on a manuscript,” he says, “having to work at marketing a different book, which is out or about to come out, is a major distraction.” The demands of developmental editing and marketer are contrary.
“Still,” says Demchick, “a new book needs promotion. I need to post information, such as book title, author information, an ISBN and a blurb, maybe, on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I need to contact the media or perform the many tasks crucial to marketing. I write press releases, too. I spend up to an hour, each morning, managing various marketing tasks”
Marketing is a crucial part of publishing. This is especially true for a small press. Bancroft has no more than two people filling all the roles. It takes much time.
Authors vary, a great deal, in practical understanding of book marketing. “We don’t say, up front, we’re going to do it all for them,” says Demchick. “The author must go out with the book.”
Some authors are better at marketing than are others. “These skills vary, a great deal,” he says. There are authors who don’t or won’t actively market their book, which affects sales.
Marketing is collaborative effort. It helps if Bancroft or the author brings in a publicist to promote a book. This removes much pressure from the author and Bancroft. The book the promotion is more effective, too. This doesn’t happen often enough.
Who pays for the publicist? “It depends who wants the publicist,” says Demchick. If Bancroft decides a book needs a publicist, it pays. If the author wants the publicist, she or he pays. “For my own book, ‘The Listeners,’ I wanted a publicist, Julia Drake, so I paid.
“Bancroft would have split the cost, if asked. I wanted to handle the publicist on my own. When I pay, I call the publicity shots.”
“Drake did a great job,” he says. Bancroft decided to hire her for a few more months, on its own dime. Keeping a publicist, inheriting part of publishing a book, happens, but not often.
First time authors are usually unaware of what’s involved and expected when it comes to marketing. “I don’t know if it’s shell shock,” says Demchick. He says, “The idea authors must start building a Twitter following, a year before a book comes out, is often a surprise.”
The running start took him by surprise, too. “I tried to do that for my own book, “The Listeners.” I failed, miserably.” He claims a limited practical understanding of social media.
Tweets fall into a bottomless abyss, read by almost no one. “Most authors are willing to do what they can,” says Demchick. An author wants to know their publisher is behind them, doing as much as possible, even if budget and marketing ability limit the possibilities.
Do Bancroft authors get much attention using Twitter? “No Bancroft author, I can think of, has found a huge following using Twitter or another social media." Other aulthors have solid followings on Twitter, though.
"I can’t advise," says Demchick. He hardly understands what’s involved. "I do a decent job managing the Bancroft Twitter account," he says, "but I have a lot help.” He uses marketing software and Bancroft Press has an acceptable following, on social media.
“I know people who were naturals at using social media,” says Demchick. “He or she understands how to use Twitter, say. You can, if you know how, network around the planet to build a huge following that leads to repeated success. Social media expertise calls for a certain personality. Some Bancroft authors have that personality; I don’t. Still, I urge authors, new or not, to try social media.”
Nancy Nichols, a nationally known motivational speaker, ran into trouble when trying to self-publish her first book, “Secrets of the Ultimate Husband Hunter: how to attract Men, enjoy dating and recognize the love of your life.” I had three editors along my ten-year writing journey: one good, one who tried to co-own my book, and one who was incapable.”
Her experience with book designers and a manufacturer are most telling. Both over-sold what they could do for me, she says, “taking my money and not delivering. My book manufacturer, a long-standing firm, took my money. Two weeks before my book was to go to press, the IRS seized the company for non-tax payment and froze their bank accounts.
“It took me four years to get my book written, edited and to the brink of self-publishing. It was almost more than this girl could handle. What you don't know about the self-publishing industry might not kill you, but it will wreck you enthusiasm and bank account. Today, she teaches a class on the “Pitfalls of Self-Publishing.”
Self-publishing has grown into a huge industry, mostly due to the Internet. “That form of publishing is emerging in an interesting way,” says Demchick. He came up in traditional publishing. “Self-publishing,” he says, “despite what many believe, is more than downloading an e-book.”
“An advantage of self-publishing,” says Demchick, “is the author keeps all the benefits of his or her published work.” She or he also preserves control over their work. “There’s something ideal about that,” he says, "if you have the money to publish a book."
Samuel Clemens self-published many memorable books. “Yes, exactly, there are benefits,” says Demchick. “At the same time, especially today, competition among self-publishers is heavy.” Supposedly, a million e-books publish each year through vanity presses.
“The self-published author,” says Demchick, “must become a great marketer, even more than if he or she publishes through the traditional route.” If the self-publishing author doesn’t actively market her or his book, no one will notice or read it. He says, “Before self-publishing, recognize what you can and cannot do, when it comes to marketing.
“I do not begrudge self-publishing,” says Demchick. It’s a fine approach. It has its pluses and minuses.
David Mamet will self-publish his next book. “Even A-list authors see the advantages,” says Demchick. It might be much easier for someone, with the stature of Mamet, to self-publish than for Joe Blow to do it. Successful publishing, in large part, is a matter of drawing attention to your book.
Mamet has built in name recognition. Who knows Joe Blow? There lies a reason for success and failure in self-publishing.
“One reason I freelance,” says Demchick, “is Ambitious Enterprises agrees traditional publishing is not always the way to go. Yet, writers need editors no matter what route they take.” The traditional mold is shifting, drastically, to mega publishers, such as Pearson, that are taking command of the industry. “Still, writers always need editors,” says Demchick.
If Bancroft Press didn’t exist, would he self-publish “The Listeners”? “I would remain with traditional publishing,” says Demchick. “I feel traditional publishing implies what I think is a more polished and legitimate book.”
This isn’t always the case. Other authors view their choices differently. He would be happy with small or large traditional publisher, as long as the publisher takes his book seriously.
Many horrible books publish from high-end traditional publishers. Many great books publish from small presses. “Many books publish for cynical reasons,” he says.
What’s a cynical reason for publishing a book? “Let’s say the marketing department, of a publisher, has data showing there’s a strong market for pre-pubescent girls that want to read about hot pop music stars doing battle with vampires. The publisher hires someone to write such a book. This is not an act of individual creative self-expression, but a job for someone that can write, using a spell-checker.”
Does Demchick have any advice for an author considering self-publishing? “If an author decides to self-publish, he or she needs to make sure their book is editorially as good and solid as possible. Don’t forget layout, cover design and so forth. Do whatever it takes to have a polished, sophisticated and attractive book.”
When a self-publishing author tries to skimp on any part of the book, it shows, as does dirty linen. “This is a trap for self-publishers,” says Demchick. “Traditional publishers can usually avoid this potential flaw. Every extra step adds to readership.
Demchick attended Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. He majored in English, with a creative writing concentration. When he graduated, Bruce Bortz hired him, at Bancroft Press. “I honestly use my education,” he says. “Using an English degree I think is rare.
“I gained a great deal from creative writing classes,” says Demchick, “from studying and knowing books for that long. For my on-the-job experience, working with authors and other areas of publishing, my education enabled me to hone my particular craft.” He learned most by doing, but arrived with a strong foundation.
Demchick says, “The workshop environment, in a creative writing class, is a great primer to commenting on work, learning to give as well as take useful criticism and helping a writer improve his or her work.” His education provided a great foundation and opportunities to get his feet wet. Working at Bancroft Press allowed him to put his education into play and grow, a great deal, with experience.
Yet, there’s nothing like getting out there and doing the job. “There isn’t,” says Demchick. “In high school and college, I was managing editor, by one title or another, on literary magazines. I was always a copy editor for the ‘Oberlin Review.’”
Demchick wrote a column, for the “Review,” called “Copy Editors Have Opinions Too.” He was copy editor of the “Review.” The column was semi-regular, running when he thought he had something to say. “I’m especially proud of a few of those columns,” he says.
What mattered enough to make him sound off? There was, he says, an item about ghosts with the headline, “Superstitious.” He doesn’t think ghosts have anything to do with superstition. Ghosts are a spectacle people report, supported by evidence of a sort. The idea deserved serious consideration; he took the comingling of terms to heart.
In a more serious way, Demchick wrote an editorial that followed up on a hard-news report about the cultural diversity of students accepted into the first-year class, at Oberlin College. “I was happy with this column,” he says.
“The news report,” says Demchick, “focused on numbers and percentages. How many students were from outside Western European Culture, say, from Asia or Eastern Europe? Oberlin has a history of student diversity. It was the first college to admit women and Blacks, routinely.
Demchick thought the style and tone of news item was absurd. “I wrote,” he says, “purposing, that to be honestly diverse, Oberlin College must cripple ten percent of its students. That ten percent should be ethnically diverse, too. Doing that, I argued, the College would have a handicapped population that was representative of the USA. Such a move, I argued, would cause full diversity on campus.” Only then could Oberlin College validly claim to be a wonderful, diverse seat of learning.
The response was not what he expected. He says, “I expected students, faculty and administration to get po’d off about my comment. No one did. No one was upset about my column, except me, for the lack of reaction.”
Demchick enjoys developing a book-length story, most. He says, “It’s akin to solving a mystery.” Each manuscript is a new adventure. Trying to crack the code, finding where the story is going, wondering if, how, when and where it arrives.
“Discovering what works and what doesn’t work,” he says, “is gratifying.” He likes to find those issues that hold back effectively telling the story. What are the causes? How can he and the author conspire to make a novel as strong as possible?
“Creative problem solving is my favourite part of the job,” says Demchick. “I work a problem; figure it out. I help authors be creative. Together, we develop a make-believe world.”
The moment the mystery solves is wonderful. He says he’s a weird combination of creative and logical, both sides of his brain mesh. It’s the same reason he gravitates to film scripts, that precise format. Contrary to naysayers, creativity, at least for Demchick, is analytical, logical and creative.
He hates saying good-bye to manuscript. After several weeks or months of intimate contact, with the author and attachment to the manuscript, letting go to publishing is similar to the end of an affair. There’s some relief, of course. A new adventure, a new manuscript, awaits; he eagerly jumps into a new world.
“I love editing,” says Demchick. If he happens to make it big, as a novelist or as a screenwriter, he wants to keep editing. “I love the job. There’s little about my job that I don't enjoy.”
Demchick prefers a few types of fiction. “I love working with literary fiction,” he says, “such as ‘Purple Jesus,’ by Ron Cooper. This is wonderful novel. Cooper created characters are unlike any I read. Purvis Drigger is a low life, as few others, which Cooper renders as an exceptional man, in his own right; likeable and sympathetic. Cooper juggles as well as he write. Martha Umphlett, the lead female character, is no sweetheart either.”
Cooper helps the reader develop sympathy, of a sort, for his characters. “That’s how well Cooper thinks and writes,” says Demchick. An anonymous blogger decided “Purple Jesus” was a “web of murder and dismemberment, a twisted love triangle” that includes a Hairy Man, reminiscent of a Carl Hiaasen character.
Demchick says he’s always thrilled to work with on an exceptional book, such as “Purple Jesus.” Generations of students, he assures, will read “Purple Jesus.” Working on such a book is especially exciting and rewarding.
Demchick thinks Ron Cooper is among the top unknown writers, in America. After reading the first chapter of “Purple Jesus,” in an early draft, he says, it was plain this was a great book. It’s a book for the reading list of his favourite English class, “Contemporary American Fiction.”
Cooper, for Demchick, fits well alongside Michael Chabon, author of “Wonder Boys” and George Saunders, author of “Tenth of December,” among others. “Hume’s Fork” was the first book by Cooper. Demchick says, “It is great, too. I wish more readers would discover Ron Cooper.
“Elizabeth Leiknes, author of ‘The Understory,’ also deserves a much wider readership,” he says. “I couldn’t put that book down.”
Recently, Demchick is working on sci-fi, fantasy. “As it turns out,” says Demchick, “when you have your own fantasy-thriller novel published, some authors still want to work with you.” He loves working with those authors.
One would think authors of sci-fi would view Demchick as competition, now that “The Listeners” published. They don’t. It seems they’re more comrades in arms, than they are competitors.
Demchick also enjoys fiction for young adults. The naiveté of fiction for younger readers is distinct from what he edits at Bancroft, which is older, middle grade. “I love that style, too,” he says.
One of the great benefits of working at a publisher as diverse as Bancroft is he work with books of such various topics. “I’ve had the opportunity to grow as an editor,” he says. “I am fortunate.”
Demchick likes the work of Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” Demchick prefers his second book, in the Dirk Gently series, “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul,” the most. Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses” and “Midnight’s Children,” among other books, is also a favourite of Demchick. Kurt Vonnegut, author of “Cat’s Cradle,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Breakfast of Champions,” is another favourite.
“Lately,” says Demchick, “after I wrote a horror novel, ‘The Listeners,’ I discovered horror fiction.” Supposedly, it works the other way around. “I know, says Demchick, “but it’s the way it happened for me.”
Demchick is also exploring Richard Matheson, author of “The Shrinking Man,” “A Stir of Echoes” and “I am Legend,” among other books and screenplays. “I thoroughly enjoy his writing,” he says.
Demchick likes comic books. His favourite comic-book writer is John Marc DeMatteis. He writes “Spider-Man.” With Jon J Muth, he created “Moonshadow.” “DeMatteis is one of my favourite writers, period,” says Demchick. “Not only for comic books, but for ‘Fearful Symmetry’ and ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt,’ which, I once wrote, were on par with ‘Hamlet.’”
Demchick has a comic book collection worthy of Kevin Smith. “More than four thousand “Spider-Man” comic books,” he says. He’s been an obsessive “Spide-Man” fan since he was four-years-old. His grandparents got him his first large packet of comics, which was fortunate. “Many grandparents discourage kids from reading comics,” he says, “This was not the case with mine. I’m better for it.”
His love for “Spider-Man” is life-long; it led his career as an editor and writer. “The letters, on a page of a ‘Spider-Man’ comic,” says Demchick, “first made me realize people wrote for a living.” That someone earned a living writing ‘Spiderman’ comics surprised him. “Immediately, I realized what I wanted to do for a living: write ‘Spider-Man’ comics. Every day, I enjoy the benefits of that gift and early realization.”
A couple of years ago, Demchick decided to freelance. “I wanted to focus on editing,” he says. “I started working half time at Bancroft and half time at my own editorial freelance firm, Really Good Editing.”
Really Good Editing, which, in fact, was the name of his company, no jocularity or irony intended, did well. Then he met Ally Machate, of Ambitious Enterprises. “I shared her ideas for the eventual growth of Ambitious Enterprises,” says Demchick. These ideas focused on how the publishing industry could be more effective, today. Now, Demchick works half time at Ambitious, editing fiction and memoir, and half time at Bancroft.
“The Listeners” involved long, straight-ahead write. The novel started as a series of short stories, in the summer of 2005. Demchick was preparing for an independent study course, in fiction, during his last semester at Oberlin College. “I wrote six stories,” he says.
Once he joined Bancroft Press, it was time to adapt the short stories into a screenplay, “Ashes-to-Ashes.” He had to figure out how to make the transition from short story to screenplay and, most recently, to a novel. “It was a happy grind,” he says.
For the screenplay, Demchick focused on one of the six short stores. This story, “Listeners,” had the most potential. As well, it had strongest central character, Daniel Raymond.
With the screenplay, the story of Daniel Raymond flushed out, well. The story and character developed through edit and response. Eventually, Second Wind, optioned the script, but it floundered in development.
Someone suggested “Ashes-to-Ashes” might make a good novel. “I had the story in place,” says Demchick. “I knew how and where the story went, as I wrote the screenplay, first. I went for the novel.”
Short story is his writing strength. “I hadn’t written a novel before,” he says, “nothing of that length. The challenge was daunting, but welcome.”
Demchick set out to write the screenplay as a novel. Finding his voice, for the novel, took time. He says, “Novels are much more expansive and less focused than are screenplays or short stories.” He spent months on the first thirty or forty pages, trying to get the beginning right before moving forward. “This was hard work,” he says.
Many writers and editors, such as Elmo Leonard, prefer speed surfing through the first draft. Then he or she develops and revises through editing. “There’s nothing wrong with this approach,” says Demchick, “but it’s not me.
“I prefer to ensure the strength of my writing, of a chapter, say, before I move forward. This is a longer route to the first draft. When finished, the draft is better for the time spent in development.”
This is how he wrote “The Listeners.” The form of the novel changed a few times, until he arrived at the published version. “The screenplay had a different form. So, too did the short story,” he says.
He asked for comments, as final confirmation of the manuscript. Bruce Bortz read the next-to-last draft of the novel. Demchick enlisted anyone he thought might offer valid insight to read it. “Many did,” he says, “thankfully, with positive affect.”
The greatest change to the story came earlier, during the screenplay phase. That came from Dall Walton; he now manages Demchick. Walton pointed out how the arc of the Daniel Raymond character stalled in the last third of the screenplay. The last third wasn’t working.
“Yes,” Demchick says, “there’s some irony here. What Walton said about my third act is reminiscent of what I told Elizabeth Leikens about the last third of ‘The Understory.’” As was she, he says, I had doubts about the suggested changes.
“Still,” he says, “it only took me a moment to realize changes to the arc made good sense.” Then I faced the problem of deciding how to fix the arc. This is where the skills, which help me as an editor, were handy for me as a writer.”
He first disagreed. He thought about it. He realized, ‘That’s right.’”
He broke down the problem. Understood what was going on with story line and characters. Then shuffled through various solutions to discover which was best.
As did Leiknes, Demchick changed the last act of “The Listeners.” “The changes,” he says, “made for a stronger finish, in both instances.” His response was no different from any other good author: doubt then action.
Demchick decided not to publish “The Listeners.” His decision based solely on marketing. “I didn’t want that fight,” he says. He fought the marketing wars too many times, for others. Promoting his book had no appeal. “I was cynical,” he says, “after years in publishing. The thrill of publishing my own book didn’t drive me forward.
“The fact of having to market a book, for it to be a success, was heavy in my mind. Eventually, people convinced me that was an unwise mind-set. I wrote a manuscript readers thought good.” He should publish it and did on 27 December 2012.
When he began writing what became “The Listeners,” in 2005, zombies weren’t as huge as are zombies today. “The zombie comparison doesn’t hurt,” says Demchick. “The Listeners” is not a zombie book, though.
As we talked, he was promoting “The Listeners.” It’s not as terrifying as I thought, he says. “This is fortunate. I did a few interviews. All is good with marketing and me, at least for now.”
Demchick did a couple of bookstore events. “One went well,” he says. “The other event did not go so well.” That’s part of the game.
He promotes “The Listeners” as he can. It’s not taking over his life, as he thought it might. Admittedly, he’s not a gifted self-promoter. “Now, I think, I now know what I can do and when I’ve done too much,” he says. Wisdom comes with experience for the well prepared.
* * * * *
Every publisher wants its books made into movies. So, too, does every author. Publishers pitch the ideas in a novel to movie studios or producers. The goal is to elicit a film development deal that includes a script as well as some payment when the deal signs.
Each day, many pitches, tries to sell a movie idea or script, occur; a tiny few end as a movie, shown in local theatres, on television or DVDs. Harrison Demchick talked about writing full speculative or spec draft scripts, as a way to interest film producers in novels published by Bancroft Press. It seems much work for a small chance at any return. So far, no draft spec script has led to a fruitful development deal for Demchick or Bancroft Press.
Ken Levine wrote for “M*A*S*H” and “Cheers,” among other shows. “If you’re pitching a movie,” he says, “the rules have changed. Studios now want the movie worked out, not only the idea.
“You have to walk [a producer] through the entire picture. Pitching a draft of a full script seems a fair idea. It’s a step closer to going into production.
“A spec script for an adaptation is a good idea,” says screenwriter Neal Gumpel. “I think it’s better than a standard pitch.” Nowadays, many movie deals are for a book. “Often,” says Gumpel, “there’s no ready script attached to the sale of the book rights.” A producer buys the book rights and then finds a scriptwriter.
“Gum-chewing Valley girls run most studios, today,” says Gumpel, writer of “Tiny Dancer” and “Nebraska Fish and Game.” Those that head studios, he says, “seemingly don't want to work and can't think. Having a book and a script, already written, moves you to the top of the list.”
“It likely best is to write the script and offer to sell it as part of the deal,” says Gumpel. “It’s much work, though.” This is what he does for a living. “For me,” he says, “writing on spec means the book I’m adapting must be exceptional.”
“Pitching a full draft can be lengthy,” says movie producer and author, AJ Benza. “You pitch the idea and the treatment. In the script, you must show three acts, clearly. That can take time, maybe more than half an hour.” Studio heads seldom have this much time for a pitch.
“If a producer loves the pitch, she or he wants a script,” says Benza. He’s currently pitching film rights for a best-selling book for children. “Having a draft script may be an advantage. As well, I think pitching an adaptation is a little easier than pitching an original screenplay, which is daunting.”
“Not so fast,” says Brian Linse, of Linsefilms. He’s a movie producer. Among his productions is “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Linse also manages screenwriters and their work.
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” says Linse, “to pitching or writing a script on spec.” This is what Demchick has been doing at Bancroft Press. “When selling a pitch,” says Linse, “there is usually no underlying material, such as a novel.” Demchick offers spec scripts that are an adaptation of a novel.
“There’s a limited market for adapting published fiction for film. This market includes studios, such as Warner or Paramount, and up-scale producers, such as Imagine Entertainment or DreamWorks. These companies have budgets for development. A smaller producer does not have much development money; adaptations call for a large investment.
“A studio or producer might option screenplay rights and hire a screenwriter.” The property doesn’t move, often for a long time. “Optioning,” Linse says, “does not guarantee a film will follow. Optioning has the advantage of bringing in some money, the option fee, for the writer or publisher.” If the option expires, the script can go on the option market, again.
“For a high profile novel, a studio may buy all rights to the book.” This involves payouts to author and publisher. “The studio then owns the book, outright,” says Linse.
“This usually results in a frustrated writer, waiting years for the film to produce.” She or he is also waiting for arrival of the production bonus cheque. “The studio or producer may decide to pass on making the film,” says Linse. “The shelves of studio storerooms hold a great many unmade projects, which the studios own, outright.”
“As a producer,” says Linse, “if someone approached me with a spec script, based on a novel, I would have to love the screenplay a great deal.” He would have to option the novel to get the screenplay, a double dip.
“If someone writes specs, with the hope of helping sell the underlying rights, not hoping for only a screenplay option, I'd say he or she is doing much work for little likely return.” Chain of Title is a tricky part of film production. “The mere existence of a previously written screenplay adaptation,” Linse says, “could make potential buyers and investors nervous.” Two or more screenplay adaptations are likely to have a great many likenesses, which may involve extra payments, to previous scriptwriters, to satisfy copyright issues.
“Writing a screenplay is a specific skill,” says Lines. “Most producers have read so many scripts that she or he can tell, within ten pages or less, whether the architect of any particular film story is an experienced screenwriter or not. The story worlds of film and novel are so different that few of the best novelists fail to adapt material into screenplays, successfully. Studios and producers have lists of solid screenwriters that specialize in adaptations; there’s a strong inclination to go with what they know to be a writer, with a solid record of accomplishment.
“A good summary and outline, with an insider's view to what producers and studios seek, that is, topic, character and storyline, likely does the best to sell the novel. Probably, more so than a spec script. Sell the novel, first, and offer to write the screenplay,” says Linse.
* * * * *
The worth of writing spec scripts, for films based on novels, varies. Writers like words and writing. More writing is better. Writers say to write the draft script and sell it as part of the deal.
Producers deal with finances and copyright issues. Is it reasonable to option rights to a novel and adaptation script? Maybe the book is filmable, but the spec script is poor or the other way around. Maybe an alternative adaptation, of the book, is floating around. Risks, for the producer, are hefty.
Harrison Demchick, of Bancroft Press, is about words. Editing and writing is his life. A draft script is a vessel to fill with words. As Demchick says, “Know what you do, well, and do it.”
AJ Benza, personal conversation, June 2013.
Neal Gumpel, personal conversation, June 2013.
Dr. Charles Laughlin, personal conversation, June 2013.
Brian Linse, personal conversation, March and June 2013.
Mary Carole McCauley (2012), “Owings Mills Author Makes Dystopian Debut with “The Listeners,” published in the Baltimore “Sun” for 22 December. http://baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-ae-book-demchick-20121222,0,7867836.story
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interviewed edited and condensed for publication.
Thanks to Corina Kellam for assistance on an earlier version of this interview.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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