Agents reacted with equal parts relief and concern to the new New York Times guidelines for its reporters who want to write books for publishers other than Henry Holt's Times Books imprint, a policy first espoused by Times executive editor Howell Raines earlier this month (News, June 10). At the heart of the new policy is that the paper wants staff members to notify the company when they are preparing to write a nonfiction work so that the Times can make a bid for the book. Reporters, however, are not obligated to accept the Times's offer.
"I'm grateful that they're willing to allow competition," said agent Stuart Krichevsky, "but sometimes books emerge from a conversation with the publisher without taking the book to market, and this would prevent such a deal." Book editors, he said, might be reluctant to even initiate a discussion knowing they'd have to pull a competitor into the game. One agent who asked not to be identified had stronger feelings about the guidelines. "They're trying to make the writers a profit source, and I think that should come from advertisers," the agent said. "It's not horrendous, but it is restrictive."
Editors at competing houses were less concerned, pointing out that first-look wasn't uncommon if one wanted to sign an author affiliated with a media conglomerate such as Disney or AOL-TW. One well-known editor said it wouldn't discourage him from signing up Times staffers and hoped it wouldn't dissuade writers from coming to him. "There are hundreds of Times reporters," he said. "Holtzbrinck can't publish all of them."
The guidelines are among the more elaborate the newspaper has laid out in a long time. From the document, it seems the newspaper is upset that too many leaves are being granted to write books—leaves that derive from reporting first done for the Times and leaves that derive from reporting that is still ongoing. In addition to mandating that the proposal be made available to Holt for a bid, the newspaper prohibits writers from discussing a possible project as long as the story has legs. The paper also reserves the right to deny a writer leave, although in the past this has almost never happened.