Luca Brasi Bought Me Lunch

Here’s some more from THE STORY GRID.

Many years ago I had to do the one thing an editor hates to do above all others. I had to cancel a book.


Don't believe it

For fiction, publishers often buy multiple books from a single author. They buy one that is just about ready for publication. And then they buy one or two additional titles that are not yet written in order to lock in a reasonable price for someone they think has a future.

I did this with Steve Pressfield back when I worked at Doubleday. Steve had no idea what to write after GATES OF FIRE and as a guy who believes wholeheartedly in “spec work,” he was hesitant to sign a two book deal. Thank God he did or he may have never written TIDES OF WAR.

Cancellation happens when a book under contract comes in and does not meet the standards of the publishing house. That is, the author delivers the next book in the contract and it’s—in the opinion of that publisher—unacceptable. What really sucks is that the author has to pay back any money that the publisher advanced him to write the thing in the first place.

So imagine being staked one or two years’ worth of cash to write a novel. You turn it in and the company who pledged to support you—and paid your living expenses to prove it—doesn’t like it. After they crush your spirit telling you that the book isn’t good enough, they then point to a clause in the contract that says you have to pay them back all of the money that you already spent to write the thing in the first place.

It’s like getting a job in America and passage out of Ireland during the potato famine only to find yourself rejected by the rich guy who paid for your voyage. He sends you straight back to the ould sod with a double debt and no way to pay it back. Talk about the luck of the Irish!

Now imagine being the face of the publisher. The grim reaper that has to deliver the news. This is the most heinous job an editor has. If there is one of their tasks that all editors would encourage publishers to outsource, it’s this one.

In the case that still haunts me, the author had worked extraordinarily hard, diligently responded to all of the editorial challenges that I raised, and did everything he could to save the book from cancellation. But alas, in the final analysis, the book just didn’t work. By the publisher’s standards, which I stood by and still do, it was unpublishable.

The author was heartbroken. And as we all want to do when things fall apart for us, he wanted to blame someone else. He decided to blame the publishing company for the decision, which meant in reality ME. He sued the company claiming that we had not lived up to our editorial responsibilities. That meant really, as the final arbiter of his work, that I had not lived up to my responsibilities.

I disagreed.

I had spent countless hours analyzing the book, providing feedback, offering specific ideas and suggestions to address fundamental problems with his novel etc. But at the end of the process, the writer unfortunately was unable to execute the plans I’d suggested for revision. So I made the difficult decision to cancel the book.

That’s no small thing for an editor to do. At the time, I was responsible for bringing in (acquiring from agents) and editing a large chunk of the company’s commercial fiction list. I was not alone in my task. The publisher, head of marketing, head of publicity, editor in chief and a number of others had to sign off on every one of my acquisitions. I wasn’t some all-powerful gatekeeper/tastemaker. I was an editorial funnel of sorts with limited power but maximum exposure to blame. If my books worked, it was a team effort. If they bombed, I was the idiot who pushed the book through. A favorite phrase among editors is “You’re in a crowd with success, but alone in failure.”

To throw in the towel on one of only six or seven titles I edited that year was certainly not going to advance my career. It involved writing off hundreds of thousands of dollars on the company’s ledgers. And it would be one of the first things discussed at my annual review.

Ugh, my heart still pounds thinking about it.

I was the featured witness in the legal proceeding. And the publisher spent quite a bit of money preparing me to testify. When I met with the company’s head legal counsel, she simply told me that all I had to do was explain what I could and could not do as an editor.

I came back with, “Well, it’s really complicated.”

She smiled and said that being the head counsel for a multinational, multibillion dollar corporation was pretty complicated too, and that perhaps I might think of a way of simplifying my job so that people with zero experience with book publishing could understand it. She told me that if she were asked to do the same for her job, she might compare herself to the Luca Brasi character in Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. When the company is threatened by third parties, they call her to take care of it.

“See how simple it can be?”

I nodded and tried to think of a character in The Godfather who would be equivalent of an editor. But all I could think of was the foot soldier in Tessio’s crew who had to go to “Louis’ restaurant in the Bronx.” The guy who had to duct tape a snub-nosed Smith and Wesson .38 to the back of the old fashioned toilet with the pull chain. The loud revolver that Michael Corleone would use to shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey.

And that guy never came on camera.

She also made it clear that what I said would deeply impact—not only the writer and the publishing company at loggerheads over this one cancellation—but the entire industry. If I did not defend the publishing company’s right to independently evaluate a work according to its own standards of quality, the “delivery and acceptance” clause in every single book publishing contract from that point forward (and backward) would be in play. That is, the crucial clause that allows a publisher to commission a work without committing to publish it would be contested over and over again.

A huge can of worms.

If I blew it and failed to simply explain what an editor could and could not do…

Now I’m not a company kind of guy. I come from blue collar stock, union members who have a deep distrust of corporate overseers, especially anyone referred to as your “boss.” I still think “The Man” is out to get all of us. If there’s an underdog out there defending some righteous fundamental rule of professional decency, count me in to join up.

But if a publishing company was denied the right to determine whether or not a book met its standards, the business (as it was back then in the late 90s) would implode. What right thinking businessman would back a publishing house if it didn’t have complete control over what it published? And with no financial backing, there would be no houses. And with no houses, there would be no advance checks to fund writers’ work. Again, this was almost twenty years ago before writers could effectively publish themselves. Knowing that then would have saved me a lot of agita.

So there was a lot riding on my testimony. And as is the case in any legal proceeding, the lawyers involved were tasked in buttressing or punching holes in my reasoning. This made the ability to make a clear and watertight explanation of what it is an Editor (employed by a publisher) can and cannot do for a writer all the more challenging…

Everything boiled down to the author’s contention that the Editor was required to

1. Find the problems in his book and

2. Show him how to fix them.

If the author listened to the editor and addressed and “fixed” the problems that were presented to him, then the author and the author’s lawyers believed that the publisher must accept the work as publishable. Because editorial content is subjective (one person’s work of genius is another’s piece of trash) if the author diligently works to respond to the problems, they must publish the book.

That kind of makes sense in a strict “reasonable” argument way.

But practically, it’s ridiculous.

I said as much in my deposition, but too little effect. The opposing counsel kept coming back with the same litany of questions, trying to back me into a corner and admit that the publisher and I were the ones who failed to live up to the terms of the contract and not his client. But I answered in the same way every time.

Until he finally lost his composure and asked, “Okay, Mr. Coyne, so if writing a book requires more than diligently responding to a quote expert unquote—like yourself (he coughed  dramatically)—what exactly does it require?”

Now, I was given the gift [and in far too many instances the curse] of being born with what some call the Black Irish temperament. Being Black Irish essentially means that there is a critical mass of irritation one can withstand before one tips over into a state of verbal exuberance. Screaming and so forth.

The plus of being Black Irish, despite the reactions one receives to the vociferous volume by which one’s thoughts are expressed, is that such a threshold often releases innovative thought. While I didn’t come up with a perfect pop culture analogy to convey just what it is an Editor does, I did come up with a damn good metaphor.

“Sir, let me make this easy for you. The writer is a contractor. The editor works for the building department.

“I can analyze his structure from top to bottom and point out the problems with the plumbing, the wiring, the cabinets, the floors, the light fixtures, the staircases, etc. until I’m blue in the face. And the writer can address each of those problems and bring them up to what he perceives as code. But if the foundation of the building is faulty, all of my nudges to fix the minutiae of smaller structural elements will come to naught.

“The foundation for this book is not sturdy enough to support the artifice. I’ve explained that to your client. To his credit, he’s tried to excavate and patch the holes and shore up the instability, but that work is not enough to make the building sound.

“What I do is inspect and offer possible solutions to fixing the problems. I cannot fix the problems myself. If I did, I should receive the appropriate credit and be compensated as such. But that is not my role. Designing and constructing a Story building so that it can withstand a hurricane while it also brings joy to its beholder is the work of a Writer. Inspecting the building to make it stand for as long a period of time as possible is the work of an Editor.”

A few months after that deposition, in Summary Judgment, the court ruled in favor of the Publisher.

Luca Brasi bought me lunch.

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  1. Ivan Chase on January 10, 2014 at 4:06 am

    Great story!

  2. Mary on January 10, 2014 at 4:34 am

    Thanks for sharing this painful story Shawn. I would hope that if I was ever in this situation I would have the strength to suck it up and redirect my anger and energy into a new project. Unfortunately, when ego and money get factored in, these disputes too often end up in court and no matter which side prevails, everyone loses except the lawyers. Love the metaphor of the contractor and the building department, and that you were able to successfully defend your position.

    Speaking of court, I’m off to jury duty this morning…

  3. Julian Summerhayes on January 10, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Hi Shawn. A very happy new year to you.

    A great story, but, I’m sure, at the time, it was a hellish experience, and not one to repeat. As a former trial lawyer, I empathize with your/the company’s position, and the construction analogy was a perfect response to the claimant’s counsel.

    Having left law in 2010, I no longer have to advise on these sort of thorny issues, but I think it serves as a timely reminded to all authors to make sure that the foundation of the work is solid.

    One other point, it would be great to see a few more lawyers writing like this to bring their experiences to life beyond a case report (subject to issues of client confidentiality, of course). Too often, in my experience, lawyers write with so little passion that it’s a wonder anyone reads their (online) material!

    All the best for 2014.

    I can’t wait to see what you and Steve publish.

    I loved the Authentic Swing, and bought the audio of The War of Art and Turning Pro recently. Both are such excellent books.

    Best wishes

  4. Garrett Scanlon on January 10, 2014 at 6:23 am


    I am wondering if it is standard practice among writers who have established themselves as ‘bankable’ authors, to have that particular contingency from their contracts.


    • Shawn Coyne on January 10, 2014 at 7:23 am

      Hi Garrett,
      Everyone signs this clause. It’s the bedrock of the business for fiction. Again, nonfiction is usually book by book and there are lengthy proposals that are laid out before a contract is offered. Even those have the d&a clause, but often they can be saved by mercenary ghost writers and freelance editors if they get in trouble. I’ve paid a lot of bills doing this on the side doing that kind of work. It ain’t all roses and sunshine keeping the household on an even keel.

      Fiction is so idiosyncratic, though, that its not so easy for a ghost to come in and fix someone else’s imaginary world.

      Obviously, if a writer is knocking out 1,000,000 sellers book after book, the editorial standards have been established by their track record and the chances that they will be cancelled if their book isn’t seen as good as their last are slim. At that point in the equation, hate to say this, the writer is a brand. And if you’ve paid the right amount for the brand as a publisher, all is well in publishing-land.

      But, everyone signs this clause or they don’t get published by the big boys.

      There’s no way around it.

      Except to do what Steve does now. He writes his fiction ON SPEC (finances it himself) and sells each book separately after he’s happy with it, not when someone else is.


  5. Erik Dolson on January 10, 2014 at 6:23 am

    An ode to great gatekeepers.

  6. Joy on January 10, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Regarding the home building analogy…

    The contractors still get paid. The foreman sees problems, addresses them to the contractors, the contractors revise their work according to the foreman’s instruction and in the end, whether the foreman/inspector likes it or not, the contractors still get paid for the hours delivered, their labor.

    I realize cancelling a book may be difficult for an editor/publisher, but doesn’t the writer deserve to be compensated for the hours of labor expended on a project the editor/publisher requested in the first place?

    This is why writers/authors turn to self-publishing or indie houses–and I would absolutely not sign a contract with that clause in it.

    • Christine G on January 14, 2014 at 6:36 am

      It’s true that the building contractors should all get paid–if they can collect–by the owner. In this case the writer is actually the owner. He’s the fellow who owns the property, has laid the foundation, and is building the house. The “building trades” might be like his illustrator, typist, beta reader or private editor.

      You might rather see it as the writer building his own house, but as this editor pointed out, if the house isn’t on a solid foundation (that he himself laid down)it won’t stand no matter how well the electricians & plumbers do their job.

      • Joy on January 15, 2014 at 6:43 am

        I understand what you’re saying, but if he’s building his own house then someone else isn’t asking him to build the house. In the story’s scenario, the publisher/editor asked/requested the second book. The author spent, let’s say one year, writing said book. The editor asked for revisions/additions, and let’s say the author spent another 2-3 months providing the editor with the requested revisions. He then hands the book over to the editor/publisher — providing them with the product they requested, a book. Granted the publisher/editor decides they don’t want it, but if someone builds a house that has been “requested” and then the person requesting decides “you know, after everything you built and revised for me per my requests and conditions, I just still don’t think I like it, so you can just keep it…” That won’t fly anywhere.

        All I am saying is, the author deserves to be compensated for his/her time and labor. They could have been doing something different with the past 14-months but they wrote a book based on the request of a publisher and provided the product. Lesson learned: do not sign a contract with that clause in it — or at the very least, revise the clause to get paid for time/labor spent.

  7. Diana Schneidman on January 10, 2014 at 7:14 am


    Your story shows just how messed up the traditional publishing industry is.

    The cancelation concept is fine. Why should any company have to proceed with a product that does not meet its standards?

    However, the contractual provision to take back the author’s advance is so wrong. Your article demonstrates how the publisher eats hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, including in-house labor and legal. Only the writer—the most valuable single individual in the chain—has to pay back money.

    The writer was screwed. His character flaw was not that he made excuses. It’s that he signed a poor contract without adequately considering its downside.

    I’d guess he couldn’t afford to write full-time without the advance and since he lived on the advance, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. How did your company actually collect the money? Collection agency? Or did you end up eating it anyway?


    • Christine W. on January 10, 2014 at 7:22 am

      This post disturbed me too. Is there anything in a standard contract to prevent a publishing house from canceling a book for other reasons and blaming it on the quality of the product? And is there any safeguard to protect the writer from an editor who simply doesn’t “get” the book, or thinks the ending is a downer, or wants to set the whole thing on the moon, or whatever? advances for fiction are usually so small I assumed the publishing house would just absorb the cost.

  8. David Y.B. Kaufmann on January 10, 2014 at 7:18 am

    What a powerful story, Shawn. (I’m still awaiting details about publication of The Story Grid, which I will buy instantly.)

    As a lover of analogies, I adore yours. I think I’ll use it on some stubborn students – it fits the educational enterprise.

    If the foundation of the story wasn’t sound, I suspect that the author may have yielded to resistance early. A book that is rewritten to that extent, and still doesn’t work – there had to be a fundamental fault line. It maybe have been as simple as the POV character. There had to be at least one ‘critical moment’ suggestion that didn’t take – and there went the book.

    Heartbreaking, indeed.

    I take several insights or lessons from the above. (Aside from the obvious that the Black Irish temperament seems a lot like a Jewish one (at least this Jew’s).:)

    First, regardless of how a book gets published, an editor is vital. An editor cannot guarantee or predict success or failure, but what an editor can do is make sure the foundation is sound, the structure functions as intended, and the details are in place and work – the toilet flushes and the lights go on.

    Second, the creative must go through the crucible of conflict.

    Third, the corporate and the commercial are not the same; both, however, have demands on, and expectations of, the creative.

    Fourth, Working for “The Boss” is at best a conflict-of-interest.

    Fifth, Contracts are binding, even when they’re weighted. Read the fine print.

    Sixth, never sign a book contract with a “delivery and acceptance” clause – even if you self-publish.

    Seventh, you are a man of admirable integrity and stunning insight. (But we knew that already.)

    Eighth, get the metaphor (analogy, tagline) right, because that’s the key.

    Thank you for sharing this educational, poignant, inspiring and thought-provoking story. Wow.

  9. David Y.B. Kaufmann on January 10, 2014 at 7:24 am

    One other thought (after reading some of the other responses): In the movie industry, screenwriters get paid for a work ‘on spec.’ Even if the movie is never produced, as I understand it, the writer is paid for the script and gets to keep the money. Even if the studio then does not like the script, the studio hires someone else to rewrite it – the writer still keeps the money he or she was paid.

    If this is correct, then why the difference between the two industries (at least in the 90s, when your story takes place)? Indeed, perhaps publishing was (is) too much like the music industry.

    • Shawn Coyne on January 10, 2014 at 7:53 am

      Hi David,

      As much as I’d love to dump all over corporate publishing and I’ve got a big trunk full of complaints, I gotta tell you that when it comes to the d&a clause I’m of two minds.

      It’s easy to blame the publishers. They get all hot and bothered about the next big thing and put a lot of money in front of a writer when then want them (before the public has any idea of their work). Some of that money will be guaranteed (the advance guarantee for the title ready to go to press).

      Some of it won’t.

      I believe the writer and his agent are responsible for their own decisions. The d&a clause is like taxes in publishing. Everyone knows it’s there and they live with it, but no one wants to actually find a solution to it, because that would mean that less money would be on the table if they did.

      Here’s the solution.

      Writer writes great novel. Every publisher wants to buy it. All of them offer multiple book deals worth millions. The writer looks at the terms.

      What does d&a mean? He asks his agent.

      That means that the publisher gets to make you make changes to the book until they’re satisfied with it. If you don’t satisfy them, you have to give them their money back.

      Huh? Okay then why don’t we go back to all of the publishers and tell them I only want a one book deal and they have to accept the book right now as it is? If they want changes they can all write down right now what they want changed and I’ll consider each editorial approach independently. If I don’t like any of their ideas, I won’t take any of the offers and I’ll just publish it myself. How does that sound?

      The agent (even though he gets back on the income of the writer) agrees and proposes that to all of the publishers.

      Here’s what would happen.

      All of the publishers will withdraw their offers. Maybe two out of six will do as suggested (really none of them would) and they would slash their offer from a million to say $100,000 guaranteed for one book if the writer did everything they asked.

      But then the next big thing comes along while the writer is deliberating these two offers. The writer and his novel are forgotten quickly as the machine moves forward to find the next big thing. The two that offered editorial suggestions buy someone elses book and then withdraw their offers from the writer deliberating about changes to his work.

      This isn’t really complicated. And it’s a two sided problem. Irrational Exuberance on one side (publishers who only want what everyone else wants) and (no other way to slice it) greed and lust for third party validation on the other (the writer who has been toiling in their garage with no one to tell them they’re worth a shit).

      When the d&a clause is solved, we will have world peace.

      Hey, I’ve signed that contract myself. It’s a calculated risk. Did I want to? No. Did I need the money and did I have confidence in my ability to deliver a great book? Yes.

      I’ve gone on too long. It’s just human nature.

      And thanks for your kind words.

  10. Erik Jacobsen on January 10, 2014 at 7:34 am

    The publishing house made an investment in the writer. The investment did not pan out. The publisher has failed. The editor tries to build a house on a bad foundation. The editor has failed.
    The contract is unscrupulous because it only protects the publishing house’s interests. It guarantees that the “house” will always win.

    • Rob McCleary on January 10, 2014 at 11:50 am

      I agree. Is there another business that gets to invest money and then ask for it all back if it simply doesn’t pan out (based solely on aesthetics, passing trends and personal opinion)? I see it as just one more example of everybody getting paid except the writer (who is supposed to exist on good will and artistic approval?). In film and television the author gets paid for each draft. The producers might decide not to use the final script, but they don’t ask for the money they paid you to write the drafts BACK! The publishing industry might want to consider a move to this model, rather than mopey hand wringing.
      Pity the poor publishing industry? They had it their way for the past fifty years and still managed to screw the pooch. I think there’s also something inherently flawed in the publishers not “putting their money where their mouth is”: how can they not take your work less seriously if they don’t have any real “skin in the game”.
      I call bullshit.

  11. Erik Jacobsen on January 10, 2014 at 8:00 am

    …and by the way: Saying “Luca Brasi Bought Me Lunch” is saying, “The Devil is my benefactor.”

  12. John Hoban on January 10, 2014 at 8:01 am

    I understand that was your role and I probably would’ve felt and done the same.
    That being said, another way to look at it is – O.K., so you’ll sponsor my project and sue me if you don’t like it? Seems like there should be some ‘minimum wage – cost of living’ clause. Damn, I hope my parents don’t want everything back. They might think I didn’t turn out well.
    I understand business is business and Shawn’s investor based house of cards is well taken.
    If that is indeed the way they still operate, I think the publishing houses should collapse. The sooner, the better. Writers and readers will get together and the readers will make the book ‘viral’ or not. The investors will smell money to be made and go to it, where ever the aroma comes from. It’s the Internet baby!

    That’s already happening, right?

    We’re all Irish, at least one day a year.
    Food for thought that adrenaline not only boosts physical strength but frees the creative process. Probably biological true, like when a cornered animal has to draw on all resources.
 I imagine the brain counts as a resource, self deprecation aside, and gins-up all kinds of short term chemicals. Nature makes the best drugs.

    That turning point. I wonder if it’s self-inducible, like a benign Hulk. I know! Maybe just take a deep breath, brace yourself and look around. I’m turning green already. Maybe I’ll just setup on a street corner and read my story aloud, with a stack of my books and tin cup beside.
    Wait, better still, get a sexy 20 year old to read it aloud. Sales go up, I get a pin-stripped suit and a cigar. What a hypocrite. lol.

  13. David Tindell on January 10, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Is it any wonder that more and more authors are turning away from traditional publishing methods?

  14. John Hoban on January 10, 2014 at 9:12 am

    What about a contract that says I’ll just get royalties?
    And make that a higher royally than the Advance plus royalty usually is.
    or is it too easy to get screwed by ‘publisher expenses’ being exaggerated.
    I know that I know nothing about this, thats why I ask.

  15. Dora Sislian Themelis on January 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Great post about upholding your end in the making of great art. I particularly enjoyed the Godfather analogy.. As I read the words “Luca Brasi..” I was hooked. Thank you.

  16. Kire Nesbocaj on January 10, 2014 at 10:14 am

    The Godfather (The publisher) discovers a horse (The author) with winning potential, purchases it and sends Fredo (the editor) to keep an eye on things . After a while Fredo realizes the horse is not going to win so the Godfather sends Luca Brosi (The lawyer) to get his money back.

    • Kire Nesbocaj on January 10, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      If Michael was keeping an eye on things he would have made sure the horse was a winner or convinced the Godfather to give him another shot next season. Life is all about learning lessons. Those who are humble enough to admit when they fail and when they are wrong learn quicker.

  17. Caron Harris on January 10, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Great story!

  18. Ode Andersson on January 10, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Loved it!

  19. elizabethe on January 10, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Ah yes. I’ve had this same conversation with dozens of solidly B students as I try to explain why their solidly B and B+ papers did not become A papers even though they addressed all of my comments.

    There is some semi-objective point at which a written work of any kind moves from Good to EXCELLENT and you can’t really edit your way from one level to the next. You can only write.

  20. Kathy Ostman-Magnusen on January 10, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Eee-gads! The “inner workings” and plights thereof. I was totally mesmerized by this post. As a visual artist I so get it. Many artists enter juried shows and get turned down. It took me a long time to get why. A lot of the whys include how you fit into the total exhibit, but it is also in consideration of how good the immediate work is. Some artists get sloppy.

  21. Anshu on January 10, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    A thriller of a story 🙂

  22. Linda McLean on January 10, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Shiver me timbers.

  23. John Sonmez on January 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Amazing. Amazing that a large publishing company would make a lone author shore up all the risk for the venture.
    If you believe in an author and want to “lock him up” for a multiple book deal, it is quite underhanded and cowardly to not take on the full risk of that investment and to thrust that risk instead upon the author.
    I don’t disagree with your building inspector analogy in the least, but I completely disagree putting clauses in contracts in which the creator of the work bears all the downside and very little of the upside.
    What would happen if the tables were turned and the author decided that the publisher no longer met his standards of reputation for publishing his book and realized he could get a better deal on the book being published elsewhere?
    Maybe I am wrong, maybe I am just naive. Perhaps the blame does lie on the author for accepting such an absurd agreement and misjudging who he trusted.

  24. Christine G on January 14, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Note to self:
    If any publisher offers me a generous advance to come up with Volume II of anything, put the advance in the bank and don’t spend a penny until the book is delivered. Or else commit myself to starting all over and doing a complete new version if the first one is rejected.

  25. Pilar Arsenec on January 15, 2014 at 4:00 am

    Wow, this is great. I learned a great deal. Thank you.

  26. Robetlee on January 16, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Many writers have betrayed to the point that the interests of his own

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