Industry Insiders Tip Students Off to Book Publishing

BY ERIN ARCHERD

Ropes Gray was a tight squeeze Monday night as students perched on the windowsills to learn about “Careers in Book Publishing,” from a panel sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Law and the Arts Initiative. HLS alum and book agent Teresa Park moderated the diverse group of lawyers and encouraged students to tap into the network of alums in the art and entertainment industry.

University of Virginia Law School graduate Jon Fine, now Associate General Counsel at Amazon.com, had a catchphrase for his employment philosophy, “love, luck, and an open mind.” He began his legal career at Debevoise & Plimpton working with the publishing industry, but although he thought his work was “some of the coolest stuff you can do in a large law firm,” he was still dissatisfied.

He leveraged a contact into an interview at NBC, and was referred to Inside Edition where he worked “for a couple years in the height of OJ mania.” After working on Dateline, he found himself in what he had always imagined would be the ultimate in cool: he was the lawyer for Saturday Night Live.

“It wasn’t so cool. Comedy writers hate lawyers,” he quipped. “At the end of the day, I did not find it all that challenging…[A]ll you do is first amendment law. Not rocket science. It gets old pretty quickly.”

Another chance encounter at a speaking engagement in London landed him an offer at Knopf, where he had the chance to expand his range of practice. He saw his path from job to job before working at a publishing house as typical and valuable in building his instincts.

“I know one guy who went straight from law school to publishing, but that’s rare… A lot is shaped on experience and your gut. Part of being in-house counsel is taking educated guesses. Doing as little as I can to muck with [people’s work,] helping realize creative vision.”

Fine felt that as a publishing house lawyer he had to put a lot of trust in the authors, but that it was a job in which he could love what he did, very different from other media lawyering.

“I would not say music law is great if you really like music, but publishing is if you love books.”

Robert Levine, HLS ’63, decided after a summer at a law firm that he would never work for a firm again. After a Knox Fellowship at the London School of Economics, he graduated and took a position at an advertising agency in New York. The lawyers who represented artists kept giving him offers to work for their firm, and after some reluctance, he joined a firm.

“I told them it would be too much for me,” Levine said. “But they told me I could work how I wanted. It was great. We represented Bob Dylan, National Lampoon…but I was miserable and so was everyone else. I would go into my office, close the door, and not talk to anyone.”

His experience led him to set up his own entertainment law firm in the 1970s, Levine, Plotkin & Menin, based on humanistic principles. It was important that the lawyers had a life, comparable values, especially about money and fees.

“In my other firm, all anyone thought of was how much money they would be making in everything they did.”

Control over his life was important too, which meant the firm had to stay small. He gave the example of a worker at a typical, huge New York law firm.

“They might as well be working for Microsoft. In a 1500 person law firm, there is no way that anybody is going to have control over their lives.”

He also counsels his younger attorneys to know when to tell artists no, and to avoid being “tyrannized by unreasonable and abusive clients.”

Levine advised the audience to explore the various forms of entertainment law.

“Working in multiple industries is helpful. [People become] locked into the model they’re working in. One should remember that it’s easy to transfer skills from working in one medium to another.”

Yet he felt that specialization was critical to continue as a small firm lawyer.

“You can no longer compete as a general lawyer with Dewey. You have to be absolutely clear and precise about what it is you do. We have a mission statement and we stick with it.”

Nancy Geary, HLS ’90, had a client during her time in the Harvard Defenders teach her about the value of breaking away. He had set up a tent in his Section 8 housing because all he wanted to do was go camping. After failing to show up for his eviction hearing, he sent Geary a postcard. He’d bought a used postal truck and was roughing it in New Hampshire, perfectly content.

Geary was an Assistant Attorney General in Massachusetts and then went to work at Choate, Hall & Stewart. She quit shortly after being asked to write a brief over a weekend she was planning to visit her dying father. They offered her a laptop to use at his bedside.

“If I slept at home one day a week that was lucky. At review my bonus was more money than I had ever imagined. When would I spend it?”

She began taking creative writing courses in the area, stressing to the audience the excellent opportunities available in Boston. Joyce Carol Oates, one of her workshop instructors, told her that writing a novel was like “swimming the English Channel. You have to jump in.”

A friend put Geary in touch with an agent in New York, and Warner Books published her novels Misfortune (2001), Redemption (2003), Regrets Only (2004), and Being Mrs. Alcott (2005). Still, she remembers the humbling experience of her first book signing. Nobody came.

“They sent over all the shop workers. They asked if I wanted my poster, but I was too embarrassed to walk across the lot with it.”

She ended on a note similar to Fine’s approach to life and work.

“There’s hardly a morning I don’t wake up and want to write,” she said. “You have to do something you love, and care about and feels real to you.”

Debra Dickerson, HLS ’95, discovered she had a lot of free time once she accepted Harvard’s infamous grade inflation.

“I could get all those Bs with a lot less effort,” she said.

She began her writing career as a columnist for The Record.

“When I was here [The Record] was this thick,” she said, measuring a thick wad with her fingers, “Now it’s like the Penny Saver. The Record sucked then, too… I started writing these things, and they were all takedowns of Harvard.”

She was surprised by how many people read her columns, and sent her letters, which, she reminded the audience, were handwritten back in the day.

“I started getting notes from frickin’ Scalia.”

Many people were expressing interest by the time she graduated, but she couldn’t come up with an article until the day after she took the bar exam, when she found herself sitting with her 16-year-old nephew in the ICU after he’d been shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down.

“I pulled out my laptop and wrote, ‘Who Shot Johnny?’ in three hours. I remember thinking, ‘I bet that bitch calls me now.’ I nailed it because it came from a horrible place. It was published in the New Republic in 1996 and I haven’t looked for a job since.”

Although her career has been successful, she wished she had been given more guidance early on, and thought more about how to manage her writing and her finances.

“One of the major pitfalls can be agents, but it’s just about impossible to represent yourself,” Dickerson said. “Both of my books [An American Story and The End of Blackness] have done well, but between books, how do you make a living?”

Like the lawyers earlier, Dickerson advised developing a specialty, like writing about the law or science.

“Take some statistics classes and learn how to use numbers,” she said “If you have an area of specialization, look for an advantage.”

She also cautioned writers to learn when to tell publishers no.

“Learn when and how to say no. They cancel your contract and demand your advance back. If you want to be a writer be one, but get an MBA first,” she concluded.

After the panelists concluded, they answered questions from the audience. They emphasized the importance of finding an agent and having a f
inished novel before going to publishers. Dickerson advised offering smaller pieces to local newspapers and online sites in order to build clips and a reputation.

Neither of the lawyers were overly concerned with plagiarism, saying that most publishing houses carry insurance to cover it. Fine noted that plagiarism causes the worst damage to literary careers.

Despite their less than favorable accounts of law firm life, most of the panelists appreciated having some money in the bank.

“I think its smart to work for three or four years and pay your debts off,” said Dickerson. “I knew a few people working around the clock who socked money away for two or three years. It’s so hard to support yourself…Writing books takes a long time.”

They also painted a somewhat rosier picture of writing nonfiction rather than fiction, presenting it as offering more time to think and reflect about one’s writing, as well as the possibility of lecture circuits.

“With fiction, you have to keep a book out all the time,” said Geary. “When the first book is sold, it will be part of a multiple book deal. You’re constantly trying to get multiple contracts and stay ahead of them.”

“Non-fiction is a whole different world,” Levine said. “Nobody wants to see a fiction writer lecture. There’s nothing for them to say. The way publishers deal with fiction is totally different from nonfiction. Few writers do both fiction and nonfiction.”

“If you are a fiction writer, God forbid you change what you write,” sighed Geary.

The Law and the Arts Initiative tries to broadly connect law and the arts, and hopes to offer additional panels on topics like journalism and creative nonfiction. The Initiative also runs a creative writing workshop in the spring led by Rose Moss. Those interested in receiving a copy of short stories from last year’s workshop should contact Janet Haley.

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