Business Week had an article about a new book packaging venture that seems to have slipped somewhat under the YA blogging radar, but is worth a conversation. The article highlights the new company founded by Laura Schechter (a.k.a. Lauren Oliver, the author of Before I Fall, Delirium, Liesl & Po, and Pandemonium) and Lexa Hillyer (a former Harper Collins editor), who have teamed up to form Paper Lantern Lit.
The "About" section on the Paper Lantern site says this:
Paper Lantern Lit is a boutique literary development company committed to quality fiction and fresh voices. Each of our projects provides a marketable premise, powerful prose, and a fresh angle.
We believe that all stories should have spark. They should be captivating, voice-driven, and unique. By fostering talented young authors and collaborating with editorial colleagues, we aim to create books that surprise and stimulate readers, books that spark the imagination.Paper Lantern Lit has already sold 20 novels, and has made a deal with Fox 2000 Pictures that gives the film company first dibs on movie rights to the books. In the Business Week article, Schechter says that Paper Lantern aims to "build distinct voices" and be a "literary incubator" for promoting new talent. They advertise that their emphasis is on the quality of the writing combined with marketability (as distinguished, I suppose, from the Alloy Media and Marketing emphasis on marketability combined with marketability).
The production process is still book packaging, though. Schechter and Hillyer think up the novel ideas (the "spark"), and assign the writing to promising unknown authors who are referred to them through writing friends or whom they find online. The book deal is signed between the publishing house and Paper Lantern Lit, while the author of the book gets a flat fee and bonuses for good sales. This means, if I'm not mistaken, that Elizabeth Miles got a flat fee even for her three-book Fury deal. So perhaps authors who think of this as a "jumping off" point for their careers may discover that they're actually crawling out from under this obligation for several years, no matter how enthusiastically their writing is received by critics and readers.
As an author, the book packaging idea makes me nervous. Didn't we learn from the whole Silver Age of Comics that paying "the talent" a flat fee is not just a moral gray area, but also potentially bad business? Wouldn't it have been so much better for Marvel to have given Jack Kirby a percentage of the profits and the rights to his own characters rather than lose him and all his future creations to D.C.? I understand that in Schechter and Hillyer's model, they do a lot of work: they brainstorm the story idea and nurse the project along, editing the proposal sent to publishers, and guiding the plot and the prose; they take responsibility for the product being good and on time. But why not take a percentage of the royalties, rather than all of them?
How much more literary would a "boutique literary development" company be if it nurtured new talent, found "the most exciting [new] writers," mother-henned them through "versatile, passionate" projects, and shared the royalties with them? How much more literary would the company seem if it called its work a partnership with new authors, or a mentorship, and gave them a baby version of the contract they would have with a real publisher? I sort of wish Paper Lantern Lit had chosen that model, which seems like something truly innovative in a changing industry.
The project does seem like a savvy business move: it cashes in on the considerable expertise of the two main players, and makes use of the apparently overflowing story ideas from Schechter/Oliver's brain (which is impressive in itself). It's a fact that even for successful authors (Jo Rowling aside), paychecks are somewhat capped by the amount of time it takes to write new novels. If you write a good book every few years, you're a player; if you write one a year, you're a madman. Similarly, even for successful editors in traditional houses, a publishing salary is usually disproportionately low relative to the man-hours and skills the job requires. Simply put, even in successful publishing, authors and editors don't get rich. This Paper Lantern venture is designed to farm money from the fields. It will require a lot of hard work on Shechter's and Hillyer's part to till those fields, don't get me wrong. But it also seems to require a little indentured servitude on the part of the farm hands.