An Interview With Author Burt Kearns
Burt Kearns is an author and writer who produces and directs nonfiction television and documentary films. A veteran print and broadcast journalist, he wrote the exposé memoir about his life in television, Tabloid Baby. He also cowrote the book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage.
Find out more about him at http://www.burtkearns.com
A Note From Literary Agent Lee Sobel: I've sold two books for Burt Kearns since becoming his agent a year ago and as of right now that I am writing this on 6/3/22 I am in the middle of negotiating a deal for him to do another book (he'd already had two books published before I connected with him). Burt and I seemed to click into place very easily. One of the books I sold for him and the one I am negotiating now both came from ideas of my own. When I had the ideas I immediately thought that Burt would be the right author to write these books. I picked up the phone and called him, told him the ideas, and before you knew it I was making the rounds with proposals he'd written. Burt is one of the reasons I love being an agent -- we just fit perfectly. Every agent should be so lucky to have clients like that. 'Nuff said.
How many books have you written that were published and how did you become a published author?
I've written three books that have been published and have signed a deal for a fourth book that I’m now researching and writing. My goal since I was a kid was to be a published author. But it took some time. I started out in print journalism, as a reporter and then editor of suburban weekly newspapers, moved to New York City and after a brief period working for local newspapers, got into television news as a writer and producer. I later moved over to “tabloid television,” which was closer to show business, and brought me to Los Angeles. I finally became a published author in 1999. I had by that point a 21 year “career” as a writer and producer, had been working in Hollywood for ten of those years – and finally had something worthwhile to write about! Tabloid Baby
was based on my experiences working in tabloid television as managing editor of the syndicated television series A Current Affair, Hard Copy and Premier Story. It was an adventure with larger-than-life colorful characters that took me from the top of the Berlin Wall to backstage at the Jerry Lewis Telethon to OJ Simpson’s mansion the morning after the murders. We broke many rules and some laws in these shows, and I felt that I had told the story from the inside, naming names, fessing up to crimes and calling it as I saw it. The book got immediate attention in the New York tabloid press and I was able to get a big shot, big time New York City book agent to represent it. There was interest, it was hot. Then it suddenly went cold. As it turned out one of the executives who took over my job in New York and who was a character in the book, was now running a giant New York City publishing house (owned by Rupert Murdoch -- look it up), and the book was dead in the water. My big shot, big time agent had bigger fish to fry. I did however have an attorney, Paul Sherman, a veteran show business lawyer and Friars Club member who at his advanced age believed in the book! He wound up hooking me up with a publisher in Nashville. The publisher had originally done children's and religious books but was starting a “celebrity” imprint. So three years after I’d finished my first draft, the book was published. Backed by the publisher and with a good publicist, I went out there to sell it. I had launch parties on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and at Elaine’s in New York City. Joaquin Phoenix showed up in LA (well, actually, he just happened to walk into the hotel bar) and Michael Caine was at Elaine's (well, actually he had a reservation for dinner that night). I was booked on network shows that week and then was heading to Philadelphia, Nashville, Atlanta, and Chicago, among other cities (including bringing a gospel choir and bagpiper to a Barnes & Noble signing at the shopping mall in Trumbull, Connecticut where I hung out as a kid). Then, networks canceled my interviews (Fox and CNN did not). It seems that the young bookers thought I'd be a great guest, but their bosses didn't like what I had to say (like mentioning Dan Rather’s missteps and Tom Brokaw’s speech impediment). But I soldiered on.
Without burning any bridges, what are some of the best and worst experiences you've had with the book publishing business?
Burning bridges? I did that very well with Tabloid Baby! And the promotion of Tabloid Baby was the best of times and the worst of times. The unexpected media blackout stopped a lot of the publicity, and I found that the people in tabloid television who made their livings making other people's lives miserable didn't like it when the spotlight was turned on them. Most everyone said to me, “Everything in your book was true --except what you wrote about me.” I went on my own promotion tour to cities like
Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, and Las Vegas to diminishing returns. I received physical threats and went underground for a year or so. It’s a cliché to say it – bad for writers— but I did find out who my friends were: the ones who gave me work during that time. And I carried on producing television and documentaries -- and even wrote and produced a Burt Reynolds movie. I’d written Tabloid Baby at a time when Howard Stern's books were very popular, and Stern was a figure in Tabloid Baby. I’d assumed that either the book would make millions and I'd become a national media figure or I’d be condemned as that little rat who told all the secrets and no one would ever hire again I never figured that it would be somewhere in the middle. Tabloid Baby became an underground success – I don’t think I ever got a royalty check out of our “co-publishing deal” and the movie rights money went to my attorney. It sells the number of copies every year I get emails and letters and have made friends with journalists around the country who were inspired by its candor. But I guess it says something that it was another twenty years before I wrote another book.
What makes a good literary agent and what do you expect them to do for you?
Cool. This question fits in well with my second book, The Show Won't Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage. I wrote this book with Jeff Abraham. I’d met Jeff twenty years earlier when he took over as publicist for Tabloid Baby. We’d remained friends ever since. Jeff Abraham is one of the top publicists in Hollywood. He specializes in comedians, from Seinfeld to Dice to George Carlin. It was Jeff’s idea to write a book about performers who dropped dead onstage. I liked the idea. I had the time, so we began the research and write the book. A mutual friend led me to an agent who said he loved the book and wanted to represent it. We signed a deal and… crickets. We realized he’d never given us any notes on our proposal or commented on the content of the book. When we asked where he’d submitted the book, he gave us a list of major publishers who’d turned it down. Months passed. We asked. He volunteered to end the contract. It was obvious he had a few contacts, gave it to them and when they turned him down, he had nowhere else to go. Through a reference from another mutual friend, we sold the book on our own, to a great independent publisher, Chicago Review Press. They gave us a nice advance, assigned editors who were really into the subject and The Show Won't Go On was published in 2019. So a good literary agent understands the product, likes it, knows how to craft the proposal to specific publishers and takes a personal interest in the author, as well. A great literary agent makes it his duty to get this work published because he believes it should be published. And then once the book is published, he works with the author to get him or her to the next step – even, most outrageously, giving the author ideas for topics that would sell. This agent is not merely a shark, but someone who is more clued in than the author, is a partner with his client, has relationships within the publishing industry, and probably should have a book imprint of his own. I was lucky enough to find that great agent when I had written what turned out to be my third book about the actor Lawrence Tierney. This was my pandemic project. I had a lot of time to do research and write.
Where do you see the book publishing business going in the future? Will there still be bookstores? Will people buy less and less physical books?
I think the book business will live on. It will change in format and form and distribution. I admit, I buy a lot of digital books and read them on my iPhone (same with movies). I know many people who buy audio books -- and there there's no reason with the way technology is changing that there won't be illustrated virtual books or instant movies made from books – or books delivered directly into our heads. And the way to promote books is changing. I think
bookstore appearances are important – get the name out there, meet the readers. But thanks to the pandemic lockdown, Zoom has taken over. Jeff and I did – and continue to do dozens of Zoom interviews and podcasts, reaching individual cities and countries without leaving the house. Working in Hollywood, it's sometimes funny to think that I'm writing books instead of movies but I always see these books as the basis for documentaries, series, films and fictional takes. As for bookstores? The classic little bookshop in our town closed, beaten down by Amazon (even after Tom Hanks came in for a fundraising night – though he was there to sign DVDs and Blu-rays). Then, in a real insult, Amazon opened a “bookstore” down the block. That, too, has closed. But just as Randy Travis sang, “There’ll always be a honky tonk,” I believe there’ll always be a bookstore somewhere. They’re as important to communities as local newspapers -- oh, right, the newspapers are folding, too – but stores like Book Soup, Skylight Books, Barbara’s, Powell’s, and the Strand are necessary.
If you could change anything about the book business, what would it be?
Well, it's probably a selfish reason because of the subjects I find interesting and important, but as more and more young people get into the business, I find that they're very well-versed in what's going on today, the hottest political topic and what’s on the best seller lists -- but there's often little sense of history. And there is of course a snobbishness about what kind of books should be published. It’s often like working in an alternative pop
culture world. I write a book about Lawrence Tierney. The majority of publishing editors, and even agents say, “Who’s Lawrence Tierney?” They don’t realize that a book about Lawrence Tierney is a book about Quentin Tarantino, and Bruce Willis and Oliver Stone and Seinfeld, Star Trek and The Simpsons! Among other things. When I talk about the book to people who work in the industry, or appreciate film, they respond, and know it’s a fascinating subject. Luckily, I found an agent who got it immediately. And he knew a publisher who jumped at it – and are supporting the book in a terrific away.
If you could impart any wisdom to would-be authors about getting their first book published, what would you tell them to try to help them?
I'm not big on wisdom, but I can say that I’d tell and I keep telling every would-be writer that I know who says., “Oh, I have a great idea for a book” or “Ooh, I wrote the first fifty pages,” is “Write it! Keep writing it! Finish the book! Get to the end!” Everybody can write fifty pages, but it takes a lot to get through and write an entire book. Once you do write the book, do what you can to get it out there again. There are a lot of resources on the Internet for
reaching out to publishers. Some publishers will take unsolicited proposals, but I think the key is to find an agent who sees that you have something different and worthwhile. In this Internet age, everybody can be a critic, everybody can have an opinion, and of course everybody can have a book published, but I have to be honest. I never considered a self-published book to be a “real book.” It's one thing to pay money to someone to slap on a cover and print up your book or sell it on Amazon on a copy-by-copy basis. It's quite another to have a book that an agent looks at and says, “Wow ,this has to get out there,” and for a publisher to say, “Yes, we will invest time, personnel and money on this, to edit, promote, package and ultimately sell it because we believe in this author and this book.” Getting a book published isn’t a right. It’s really an honor. The last few years, I've been writing on a pretty regular basis for a number of online sites. That's great. The stories get out there, people dig them, but then when I take one of those stories and realize that it's a book and package it into a proposal, it's out of my hands. The book business is unique. And the other advice I can give a would-be author is that the job isn’t over when you hand in the final manuscript. In many ways that’s when it
begins. You’ve got to lead the way in selling your book and yourself. I remember when I moved to New York City in 1981, there was a book fair on Fifth Ave on a Sunday afternoon. There were lots of stalls and all the authors had their tables lined up, eager to sign their books. And there was one guy who was a lunatic. He was standing, holding up his book, yelling to each person strolling by to buy it because he was a great author. He was selling it, this nerdy, balding guy with a mustache and glasses! He was almost comical. But he stood out. I remember that more than forty years later. Turns out I remember his name, too. It was James Ellroy, hawking his first novel, Brown’s Requiem.