Richard Curtis: eBook Folly Leads to Innovation
By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
Not many people in publishing would start a business based on a hunch and a sci-fi novel, but then Richard Curtis is not your average agent.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s,” he remembers, “I saw my first CD-ROM and I immediately envisioned a day when you would be able to put a disc or something into a light box to read a book. That was the primitive way I imagined that digital technology would work. There had been a novel published by a science fiction author by the name Ben Bova called CYBERBOOKS in which he had imagined exactly such a world. Because my agency handles a lot of science fiction I just knew that this was going to happen in time.”
That initial hunch gave way to close observation of the embryonic ebook market. “During the 1990s I began tracking digital technology, waiting for something to happen that would enable me to take action based on my belief that we were headed for a revolution. During that time I knew that out-of-print books would become a very valuable component of a digital future, so my agency – which handled a lot of genre books like romance, thrillers, science fiction – we very aggressively began recovering the rights to out of print books. When the revolution first hit, which was in 1998, my agency had already recovered the rights to hundreds of out-of-print books which were now owned once again by the authors.”
Having positioned his agency clients for the move to digital, Curtis waited for the right moment to try his hand at the new-fangled medium. “In 1998 two very important things happened. One was the introduction of the first ebook device, the Rocketbook, which confirmed everything I had believed was going to happen. The second thing was the introduction of print-on-demand; the first successful demonstration was given at the Book Expo in Chicago. Those two things galvanized me into taking action and I established a digital publishing company, a separate corporation from my agency, that would be dedicated to putting first my clients’ books back into print, and then books by anybody else who wanted to put their books back into print.”
It was important for Curtis that the new publisher adhere to the same standards he pushed for as an agent. “We started E-Reads in 1999 and it was founded on principles that I had thought about for many years: to split everything 50/50. I’ve always felt it’s the right number.”
With the terms set, he approached his agency clients about publishing electronic editions of their out of print books. Not an obvious move at the time, but the value proposition was simple: “You’ve got all those books, they’re not doing anything, they’re sitting on a shelf, let me put them into this program and see if they work.”
The Rising Tide
Adding publisher to his job description raised concerns about conflict of interest, which Curtis says he has resolved to his and his clients’ satisfaction. “Any agent who does it is going to have to look his authors in the eye and tell them, five minutes ago I represented you as a seller and now I’m buying something from you as a buyer, and how do I square that away?”
Curtis sees the greatest potential conflict with books that don’t sell on submission and are then published by the agent himself, raising doubts about whether that was the outcome he preferred all along. Curtis has published a few such projects, but says, “It’s easiest for the E-Reads business model simply to publish out of print books.” It’s also easier since E-Reads authors expanded beyond the Richard Curtis Agency’s client base.
“We have built not only on the books by my agency but books by other agencies and books by other publishers like Kensington. We acquire directly from authors who are not represented. We have about 1,200 books in the program now and we’ve got hundreds in the pipeline. More and more agents now are beginning to come to us because we’ve proven that we’re able to put revenue in their hands. They’re getting a better deal from us than they get from a traditional publisher, and we’re beginning to pay advances.”
E-Reads’ prosperity still has the sheen of novelty for Curtis. “Everyone is telling me I’m a genius. It’s very nice to hear, because when I started this company ten or eleven years ago they didn’t know what I was talking about, they called it Curtis’s folly and a lot of other things. We had many struggles over the seven or eight years we were in start-up; that’s how long I consider us to have been in start-up. All sorts of business models changed, technology changed, companies disappeared. We were just one of those boats lying in shallow water waiting for that tide to come in. When Kindle came along that’s just what happened, and now we’re riding on top of the tide like everybody else is and our revenues have quadrupled in two years. We’re beginning to make a profit and pay substantial royalties.”
Digital vs. Paper
True to its dual inspiration, E-Reads offers its titles in POD paperback as well as the reigning digital formats. “We have always put all of our books not only into downloadable format but into print-on-demand. Until very recently print-on-demand contributed about 50% of our revenues because there wasn’t a device that anybody really loved, so the device they turned to was the traditional book.”
When it comes to submissions on the agency side, however, for Curtis paper is a thing of the past. “It hasn’t been that long since the [publishers and editors] got it,” he says, remembering a lunch three years ago with an editor who told him her house had distributed Sony readers to the whole department and strongly encouraged employees to stop printing out manuscripts. “From that point on I realized that the camel was inside of the tent, as they say. That whole generation of young people were very comfortable with this new technology, and even the older generation had lost its terror. Everybody in publishing now speaks a common language. A lot of them understand XML, the editorial processes are now done digitally. It’s not a mystery anymore, it’s just become very natural to integrate the two worlds, and I think that’s really an important step from the old days when you distinguished between your world and my world.”
In response, Curtis overhauled his approach as an agent to submitting books. “The ebook part of my business and the agent part have cross-pollinated each other,” he explains. “Tricks we learned from the IT guys down the hall are helping me to create submission packages that are really quite amazing. By clicking on a page of our website you can all but see the entire book that I’m offering. It’s so much easier for you to envision what the author is like, who the author is, what he or she sounds like, looks like, how they act on television, what the content will be, what the interactive elements are going to be.”
Curtis is keen to create an experience for the editors considering a manuscript that will translate to the faster-moving, multimedia marketplace for books today. “The most important change is that in the old days the submission process was paper, you read on paper, you held a manuscript in your hand, that was how you read a book. When I realized that the submission process had shifted to email, I said to myself, if an editor’s first exposure to a manuscript is going to be reading it on a screen, that’s a different experience from opening a box and taking out a paper manuscript, it’s a different medium. So we began designing our submissions for this new medium.”
Going online has a few practical benefits as well for time-crunched editors at big publishers: “You’ll see a fully realized package that you’ll instantly be able to forward to your colleagues down the hall and read it together and confer on it. We don’t have to bring the author in, book a conference room and go through all that procedure, we can just make a decision.”
No 5-Year “Death of Print” Predictions
For an ebook publisher, Curtis shows surprising equanimity when it comes to the future of print, even predicting a reaction among some readers to return to paper when some of the detrimental effects of reading on a screen become more apparent. Regardless of the medium, he sees a bright future for books and reading.
“More people are buying books than ever before, more people are reading them. Whatever format people read in, they are going to be reading. I think we will see more interactivity in the book experience – vooks, multimedia books, all these interesting hybrids. But the fundamental reading of text on paper will remain with us for as long as I can foresee.”
As for the industry, Curtis believes we’re likely in for some big shifts, driven especially by the waste in a print distribution system hobbled by returns. “The prediction that I made last new year, I believe we will see an ebook retailer like Amazon buy a major publishing company and create a new retailing model that will make books non-returnable in the physical bookstore marketplace.”
Many possibilities, many changes…but perhaps not so quickly as some of the digerati are predicting. “It will be interesting to see it,” Curtis concludes, “and I look forward to being around 200 years from now when it all plays out!”
Richard Curtis, president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., is a leading New York literary agent; founder of E-Reads, an electronic book publisher; and a well-known author advocate. He is also the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry and is a former president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.