Packagers ease the burden of publishers

Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen are the complete package.

They’re the feuding, debauched teen protagonists of “Gossip Girl,” a series of popular young adult books set in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“Gossip Girl” is written by Cecily Von Ziegesar and published by Little, Brown. But it’s the brainchild of a book packager, 17th Street Prods.

Book packagers like 17th Street Prods. are a publishing anomaly: they’re hybrid enterprises that ease the burden of cash-strapped publishing houses outsourcing work that’s usually handled inhouse.

Packagers deliver manuscripts to publishers in varying stages of print-readiness. Their work varies from project to project: Some packagers’ ideas come from writers; some projects, like “Gossip Girl,” are homegrown, then farmed out to writers. In most cases, packagers edit and agent the books they produce. When it comes to illustrated books, packagers tend to work with designers, illustrators, photographers, and printers.

FORMER BRILL’S CONTENT editor in chief David Kuhn just opened a book packaging business, and he likens the job to that of an independent producer. Like a film producer, Kuhn plays an activist role in assembling the projects he sells, and he specializes in projects that need to be written on a tight deadline.

Kuhn is packaging a book on acting by Lillian Ross for Doubleday, and he’s working with former Wired editor in chief Katrina Heron — who runs her own book-packaging company, Heron Ventures — to package a book on “science and technology in the age of terror” for HarperCollins.

The text of the Kuhn/Heron book will be the collaborative work of three writers; Heron plans to write a foreword. Kuhn said he hopes it will the first in a series of collaborations between the packagers.

“The burden was on us to make it work and deliver it on time,” Kuhn said. “This model is interesting because we can have three really smart and talented people who know the field. There’s a richness one gets from a newsroom atmosphere that you don’t get from a single author.”

IN HOLLYWOOD, packaging is a concept with a long and checkered history.

In the TV and film biz, packaging traditionally refers to an agency’s bundling of clients and scripts into a “package” that’s sold to a studio or network for commissions and a packaging fee.

Connie Bruck, in her forthcoming book about Lew Wasserman and MCA, “When Hollywood Had a King,” recounts how MCA founder Jules Stein made a name for himself packaging the lineups of bands for 1920s Chicago nightclubs.

In his history of William Morris Agency, “The Agency,” Frank Rose recounts how the percentery packaged clients for Madison Avenue in the early days of television.

At CAA in the 1970s and ’80s, Mike Ovitz refined the art of packaging by bundling actors, directors and scripts from his stable of clients; if a network bought the package, the agency received the clients’ commissions and the packaging fee from the network, including a percentage of syndication profits.

BOOK PACKAGING is not altogether different.

“The biggest thing book packagers supply is anxiety reduction,” agent Morton Janklow said. “It makes (publishers) more confident in what they’re buying. They see the actual book and co-venture it with the packager.”

Book packagers also tend to describe their work in terms that Hollywood understands.

“We’re a development shop. We develop ideas,” said 17th Street prexy Leslie Morgenstein. The company, which is repped by Endeavor, has on staff an editorial director — novelist Ben Shrank, who ghost-writes books for the company — and a director of development. It packaged Ann Brashares’ book, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” which is in development at Warner Bros. A pilot of “Gossip Girl” was shot by Fox, but it wasn’t picked up.

Packaging fees vary from book to book. Writers may get a flat fee or the lion’s share of the rights and revenues, Morgenstein said.

A number TV and film spinoff books are put together by packagers. The “Wayne’s World” book, for instance, was a big bestseller for Cader Books, a packaging house run by Michael Cader, the man behind Web news source, Publishers Lunch.

These days, Cader is devoting more time to Publishers Lunch.

Like Hollywood packaging, which has declined as studios and networks struggled to avoid paying hefty packaging fees, the book packaging business isn’t what it once was, according to Cader.

“There was a period in which publishers saw the utility and value in outsourcing,” he said. “Then the illustrated book market declined and publishers were less willing to pay to outsource.

“If you asked the average packager, he would say things used to be better.”

But if Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, who spend their time shopping, getting spa treatments and sleeping around, have any say in the matter, the business soon may be making a comeback.

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