Turbo Storytelling – Writing For Lightning Quick Books!

What used to be considered a fast turnaround has become the norm for today’s writers. Here’s how they’re coping with writing in the lightning age.

The definition for what constitutes an instant or “quickie” book has evolved with the advent of less-than-one-minute printers such as IBM’s InfoPrint 4000, services such as Ingram Book Group’s Lightning Print and e-books. As a result, what used to be considered a fast turnaround–four or five months–is now not considered “instant” at all.

To Judith Regan, editor and publisher of Regan Books at HarperCollins, an instant book is simply a book with a quick turn-around. “Instant book only means that the process of producing it goes very fast,” she says. “Instant books are things that happen in a weekend, like Ken Starr’s book.” But typically, she concedes, most books with a quick production turnaround are tied into news events.

“You have to have timeliness and you have to have quality,” Regan says. “I did [O.J. Simpson prosecution team member] Christopher Darden’s book within three months of the trial. It was one of the first books published about the trial and it was by far the most successful. It also has to be a very good book, and this was a quality book that was written quickly and published quickly and as a result, it was the most successful title.”

True Crime and Pop Stars

Last month Regan published The Summer Wind, by George Anastasia, an award-winning journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s the story of Thomas Capano, a lawyer and high-ranking politician in the elite of Wilmington, Del., society, who was found guilty of murdering Anne Marie Fahey, his mistress and the Delaware governor’s secretary.

With true crime books, both Regan and Anastasia agree timeliness is half the battle. To make sure his book released on time, Anastasia was on a tight deadline and consulted with experts. Tighter than he would have liked, he admits. “I had to have the manuscript done by July 1, and the trial didn’t end until the end of January, so we’re talking five months.” The Summer Wind does have competition. There are three other books on the topic–two hardback and one paperback–scheduled to hit bookstores this fall. “Jokingly, but I think with a lot of truth to it, Judith Regan said to me when she bought the book, ‘whoever’s first wins,”‘ says Anastasia. “And I think that applies. The paperback and hardback are different markets, but whoever is first in each genre is better off, and because there’s four books, you know, how, much can the market take?”

The flip side to tight deadlines is a fast turnaround from manuscript to book. Anastasia saw his book hit stores Sept. 16, two and a half months after he kissed the goodbye at Regan’s door. “It’s manuscript great! It’s quick ego gratification. Doing books, it’s been, you turn in the manuscript and in a year you see the book, and it’s almost in the past already when the book comes out.”

Writer Alix Strauss writes entertainment books in three weeks for St. Martin’s Press. Work with young-adult magazines such as Seventeen and Twist and a background teaching drama at Dalton High School in New York prepared her for books on teen pop stars such as Britney Spears and the musical group No Authority. But nothing could prepare her for the pace: “One week I spend researching: The next I write and go back to get information I’ve missed, and the third I’m revising and refining the manuscript.” After that, says Strauss, it’s off to the editor and onto the newsstand within a month.

Instant books fill curious readers in where magazines and newspapers have left off. They provide in-depth background at a time when a topic is hot and readers aren’t able to wade through piles of newspaper and magazine articles to get the full picture. To fill that need, writers have to be able to produce fast, quality work, and that’s hard to find these days, Regan says.

“Every book has its own life. Not everybody can write quickly and think quickly and develop quickly. Some people have to take a year or take three years to write a book,” she says.

Lawrence Schiller, author of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (HarperCollins) works on newsworthy cases, but that book, about the JonBenet Ramsey slaying, was his first on a tight deadline. He started working on the story for The New Yorker in May 1997 and began the book in the last week of April 1998. The delivery date was Dec. 28, and the book was published by its publisher on Feb. 17.

“I tell the story’ behind the headlines, behind the six o’clock news or morning newspapers,” Schiller says. “I try to put things in historical perspective and take them out of the context of sound bites and wire-service reporting. Sometimes I interview people 100 to 200 hours over four to five months.” His previous work includes American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense (Avon) and as interviewer for Simpson’s I Want to Tell You.

Schiller says he did have to sacrifice some editorial content for the tight deadline he faced with Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, and says he wouldn’t do it again. “I regret certain things,” he says. “The publisher felt the delivery date was important because -nobody knew what the grand jury was going to do. Therefore I had to end the book in a certain way which I would rather have not…. I could have used another three months on the book to edit it and end it a different way.”

Cracking the Market

How do you become an instant book author? Judith Regan gets “lots of proposals” each year. “But,” she says, “I don’t think I’ve ever published an instant book that I’ve received a proposal for.”

For Strauss, her work with young-adult magazines gave her credibility, and’ magazine articles she showed editor Joe Veltre proved she could speak to the market when a project came along. However, “Even though I had written the Spears book, I still had to do a proposal for No Authority,” she says. “You have to write a proposal that shows you know what you’re talking about. It’s short, only a page and a brief outline of how you would handle the subject.”

Anastasia had also done work in the area where he landed his first true crime book deal. “In 1980 I started writing about the mob in conjunction with Atlantic City and ultimately there were prosecutions and a mobster became a government witness. [The witness] was looking for someone to write a book about him. So the agent came to me and said ‘I’ve got this wiseguy and I’ve got a publisher who wants to publish his book. Would you be interested in writing it?’ A lot of this comes from just doing it and doing it and doing it. I mean the payoff is now, but I’ve been working at this for quite a while.”

Schiller still shops all of his projects from house to house. “I have to go out and sell my own projects,” he says. “Publishers don’t come to me and say, ‘Would you like to write a book on this?’ I have to go and sell the idea to the publisher because I do too many things. But that may be because I’m difficult to deal with, too.”

Strauss plans to do more instant entertainment books, but adds: “I couldn’t do more than four a year.” Even though the books only take her a month or so to write, “they’re exhausting, and you have to put the rest of your life on hold,” Anastasia agrees. “The writing itself has never been a struggle. It’s the time and being able to squeeze it in around everything else that I’m doing. But if I could do this full time and make a living, yeah, I’d be doing it.”

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