Publishers duel in grappling with reality

THE ANNALS OF HIGH-CONCEPT filmmaking are full of studio blockbusters based on the same big ideas colliding at the box office — exploding volcanoes, meteors and colonies of animated bugs are a few recent examples. Thanks to the huge popularity of high-concept narrative nonfiction, publishers have begun following Hollywood’s lead.

Miramax has just optioned rival books on the inventor of television, Philo T. Farnsworth, and his patent infringement battle with RCA.

As with any turf war in publishing, the deal has its share of recriminations that turn on the questions of which book came first and whose book will turn out best.

The first publishing deal was struck in June by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He sold mystery novelist and Arthur Conan Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower’s “Gleaming of the Light” to Broadway Books executive editor Charlie Conrad and soon began negotiations with Miramax for a film deal.

That deal didn’t materialize before another book on the same subject was put under contract by HarperCollins adult trade veep and executive editor Marjorie Braman. That as-yet-untitled book by Evan Schwartz, who claims to have the cooperation of the Stashower estate, came as an exclusive submission from agent Elyse Cheney at Sanford Greenburger.

Conrad’s book may have come first, but he diplomatically notes that it has become increasingly commonplace for nonfiction subjects to generate multiple book projects.

Broadway is publishing “Fatal Voyage,” one of three books forthcoming on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a ship carrying components of the atom bomb; many sailors who didn’t survive were eaten by sharks. The Broadway book first appeared two decades ago, but that isn’t likely to matter, said Conrad. “There are a lot of old books lying around that are relevant to readers now as they ever were,” he said.

For her part, Braman said that she’s been “fascinated with the story of Philo T. Farnsworth for four years. It was a meeting of obsessions.” Farnsworth, she said, was ultimately disappointed by the fruits of his invention. “If he had lived to see ‘Survivor,’ it wouldn’t have made him happier about the medium he invented.”

Then again, it might have taught him a thing or two about the Machiavellian ways of the entertainment business that may one day deliver his story to the bigscreen.

Jennifer Wachtel, veep of creative affairs, brought the properties to Miramax and will shepherd the project under co-prexy of production Meryl Poster. APA’s Steve Fisher co-agented the Stashower deal.

LUKE BESSON’S SEASIDE PRODS. has optioned “In the Country of the Young,” the second book from 30-year-old novelist Lisa Carey. If the film is made, the deal could reach a healthy six figures.

The novel chronicles a group of Irish emigrants who settle on the Maine coast after their ship runs aground. Seaside bought the project for Film Four.

Carey’s agent, Liz Ziemska, was her Gotham rep at the Nick Ellison Agency but brought Carey along when she migrated West to join the motion picture lit department at UTA.

Ziemska now represents both her publishing and film interests, an arrangement that has proven beneficial. Ziemska placed Carey’s first novel, “The Mermaid Singing,” with Jennifer Hershey at William Morrow, where it launched the Bard imprint. The book was then optioned by Robin Swicord (“Practical Magic”), who plans to write and direct

Producers are already circling Carey’s third book, “Love in the Asylum,” about a love affair in a psychiatric institution.

Novelist Katherine Mosby is the latest fiction writer to emerge from near obscurity and win what amounts to publishing Lotto – a bidding war for her new novel, “The Summer of Lillian Dawes,” that sent her advance north of $500,000.

HarperCollins’s Marjorie Braman ultimately landed rights to the novel, the story of a young man kicked out of boarding school in the 1950s who falls for an elusive young woman he meets in Central Park. Finagling an invitation to a Gatsbyesque weekend party, he discovers that she’s become his brother’s lover.

Mosby has written a poetry collection and the novel “Private Alters.” Her publishing deal was handled by the Robbins Office’s Bill Clegg.

“Lillian Dawes” has also picked up steam on the West coast, where Lynn Pleshette is handling rights. It’s now into such production outfits as Laura Ziskin Prods., Wendy Finerman Prods., Seaside and Miramax.

THE PUBLISHING BUSINESS generally doesn’t produce high drama. But producers of the NBC soap “Passions” are hoping that the publishing world will be the grist for a saucy storyline — and may help blur the sometimes tenuous line between life on and off the small screen.

One series character in “Passions” is a 300-year-old witch named Tabitha Lenox. In forthcoming episodes, she will publish a book, “Hidden Passions: Secrets from the Diaries of Tabitha Lenox.” And “Passions” plans to wrest what excitement it can from the entire publication process — “from captivating the attentions of publishing moguls and negotiating a lucrative advance to winning spirited editorial discussions and meeting the rigors of a multicity book tour,” said an NBC release.

Next January, the real-life publisher HarperCollins will release the book, a collection of diary entries purportedly dating back to 1693.

“The creative process has never been more fun and collaborative,” said Harper Entertainment veep and editorial director Hope Innelli. “It was as if some magical spell had been cast over us all.”

And in an aggressive synergistic deal that may raise the hair on the nape of C-Span’s mild-mannered book guru, Brian Lamb, HarperCollins and NBC will jointly promote the book, with cast members from the show making bookstore appearances. In what may be a publishing first, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman will make a cameo appearance on the show.

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