An Interview With Author Nat Segaloff
Nat Segaloff is the co-author (with Mallory Lewis, another Lee Sobel client) of the forthcoming Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop (University Press of Kentucky) and next year’s 50 Years of Fear: The Legacy of The Exorcist (Kensington Publishing). He lives in Los Angeles waiting for his phone calls to be returned.
Why did you start writing books?
I was trying to write and sell screenplays and a close friend, Gregory Mcdonald (Fletch, Flynn, etc.), told me, “They make maybe two hundred movies a year but publish a hundred thousand books. Your odds are much better writing books.” So I did.
How many books have you written that were published and how did you become a published author?
You had to go and make a distinction between published and unpublished, didn’t you? I have had twenty-three or twenty-four full books published and have written monographs, chapters, or essays for five or six others. I honesty forget. I have also written five unpublished books, two of which I do not want published and the other three of which nobody else does.
My first book was the biography of Academy Award®-winning director William Friedkin (Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin). I met him when I was a regional publicist on his 1973 film The Exorcist and we stayed in touch. In 1988 I realized that nobody had written his biography, so I asked him if I could be the one. He said yes. That immediately got me an agent (Helen Rees) and she immediately got me a deal.
Without burning any bridges, what are some of the best and worst experiences you've had with the book publishing business?
Go ahead and light up the bridge to William Morrow and Co. who
Photo by Liane Brandon
published Hurricane Billy. Everything went smoothly until the executive who had bought my book (not my editor, who remains a friend) fell into disfavor and the company killed every project he had signed, including mine. I didn’t realize this until I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York a month after its January 1,1990 publication and saw an entire pallet of my book resting atop a high shelf in the remainders room. Month-old books don’t go to remainders. I poked a copy and out fell a slip that read, “Dear reviewer.” The swine had never mailed review copies. To this day I have never seen one single review of my book, including in the Hollywood trade press which could always be counted on to cover films about directors.
I also had a tense time with a certain university press that mistakenly copyrighted my material in the name of the university regents, but we settled that without going to court and the copyrights were assigned back to me. Considering that they had posted my entire text online calling it “academic freedom,” they took it down and got off easy.
The best experiences I have had in the book business are with whomever my current editor and publisher happen to be. Perhaps I have been lucky, but I have had only clear sailing with BearManor Media, NESFA Press, the University Press of Kentucky, and so forth.
What makes a good literary agent and what do you expect them to do for you?
A good literary agent sends out your proposals to editors. A great literary agent sends out your proposals to the right editors because he, she, or they understand what you want to write about. Although it’s frustrating when a lit agent is picky and douses your fire for a project by telling you it won’t sell (“I didn’t tell you to write this”), I suppose it’s better to hear it before you write a 5,000-word proposal or, worse, a spec book.
I expect my lit agent to cover my ass. If I miss something in a contract, I want the agent to see it. I want my agent to know what publishers are buying and what they’re not buying (see above) so I don’t waste my time on dreams.
Where do you see the book publishing business going in the future? Will there still be book stores? Will people buy fewer and fewer physical books?
Like Broadway, everybody periodically pronounces printed books dead, yet they survive. Although e-books will undoubtedly continue to overtake physical book sales, they have limitations; remember picking up a volume of World Book encyclopedia intent on looking for one subject but being distracted by ten others before you got there? You can’t do that on an e-book. E-books risk joining social media in raising a generation of readers who just want one answer,
please, and will never know the joy of browsing. You can draw a line between that and the narrowmindedness that has divided our country.
I see print books migrating into print-on-demand, not only to save money but to avoid tax laws that penalize the stockpiling of printed but unsold books. This is a shame. At this stage, print-on-demand technology is unacceptable for serious books, but it is evolving.The loss of bookstores is the greatest vacuum in our culture. As with my World Book allusion, true readers don’t go into a bookstore to buy that book, they go there to buy a book. Amazon’s “people who liked this book may like this book” is not what it’s about; a confirmed bibliophile doesn’t want the next book to be like the last one, he wants it to be something else.
If you could change anything about the book business, what would it be?
More money for authors. This is not greed. Writers today do a publisher’s research, typesetting, and, often, promotion for them.
Eliminate the Amazon’s “A Look Inside” and Google Books that post large percentages of an author’s work without permission because “it’s our policy.” Oh yeah? Well my policy is to get
paid. Excerpts are valid for novels where a first chapter can seduce a reader into buying the rest, but posting from nonfiction books is giving away an author’s research for free.
Next: why should book proposals have to include, “What other books are like yours?” “None,” I want to write. “If there were others like mine, I wouldn’t need to write this one.”
“What promotional opportunities can you offer?” they always ask, and I always want to tell them, “If you want me to be your publicist, pay me.”
I also want writers to get 90 percent of e-book sales. Why not? The print book is already written and designed, so all the I.T. guy down the hall has to do is run the InDesign file through a conversion program.
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?
Write something that other people want to read. This sounds simplistic, but it isn’t. This “write to please yourself” is hooey; that’s what diaries are for. Publishing is a mass medium, so write for the masses. If you insist on writing for a small circle, great, go for it, don’t let me stop you. That’s why there are Xerox machines and subsidy presses. Mass media is for the masses.
The other wisdom is something that the great Larry Gelbart said: “the first secret of writing is taking solitaire off your computer.”
Find out more about author Nat Segaloff at his website: www.natsegaloff.com