A few days after the treatment went off to California, Elaine called again with good news: Disney wanted a one-year option before the first chapter was even written! The money wasn’t great: $5,000 for the option, $7,500 to extend the option for an additional year, $50,000 purchase price. But it wasn’t the money that was important. It was the clout of the Disney brand associated with this product: Priceless! We were on our way with a great new book. Elaine sent me an expanded Palmer & Dodge agency agreement covering all of Mt Ivy’s earlier titles and all future titles. I was thrilled.
That Christmas I was invited to the Palmer & Dodge Agency Christmas party at a private club that Ike belonged to that seemed left over from pre-Revolutionary days. The Dickensian structure was reached by traversing a gloomy, cobblestone paved alley. Within its heavy wooden door, were low ceilings, huge fireplaces and murky paneled walls decorated with gilt-framed, smoke-darkened oil paintings. Ike escorted me around the room, introducing me to Palmer & Dodge’s stable of authors and other assorted, gray-suited, bow-tied Harvard alum types whose place in the crowd was undefined. I’m sure I stood out from the gloom. I wore a bright red pants suit, very high heels and lots of sparkly silver jewelry.
“This is our client, Jane Daniel,” Ike said as we made the rounds. “Her publishing company has a marvelous new book out this spring, a Holocaust memoire. Disney has the option. We have very high hopes for it.”
With Palmer & Dodge behind us, so did I.
Have you ever wondered how a book becomes a hit around the world? How does Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone get to the little Thai boy reading by oil lamp in a bamboo hut on stilts in a rain forest? Here’s how: Literary agents — like Palmer & Dodge.
There’s a far-flung network of literary agents moving books around the world. The good agents all know their own territory well and mostly they know each other. When a literary agency “markets” a work, they reach out to all their sub-agents in countries around the globe. For instance, an American literary agency representing a publisher with a novel to sell (technically, “to license”) might contact their Italian counterpart who represents Italian publishers seeking to acquire new, hot titles from the US. The two agents converse back and forth, strategizing about likely placements for the work. The American agent sends press clippings — generally author interviews and book reviews — to the sub-agent and reports on the book’s favorable reception in other markets. The Italian agent passes along the information to Italian publishers, hoping to generate a buzz about the lucrative prospects for an Italian translation.
Unlike How to Protect, which was an exclusively American subject, Misha had the possibility of generating international interest. The story line spanned most of Europe. We needed to reach those foreign markets. Palmer & Dodge was the leading literary agency in New England with experience in the European marketplace. It seemed a perfect fit. I believed we were in very good hands.
Misha and Vera each signed publishing agreements with Mt. Ivy. As part of the body of rights that are included in a copyright (more on this later), Mt Ivy acquired, as is customary, translation rights for all foreign languages, which included the authority to license those rights to foreign publishers. The blanket coverage comprised every language — from Korean to Croatian, Swahili to Sanskrit, every language, that is, except one: French.
The reason for the French language exception: Misha Defonseca’s native tongue was French and she wanted to write her own book in French. Misha’s lawyer, Howard Zaharoff, retyped the final agreement and this change was incorporated into the contract. Brett Kates, a lawyer I had come to know when I interviewed him in connection with another project, oversaw Mt Ivy’s contracts which were based on the version recommended by The Authors’ Guild, an advocacy association for professional writers. Brett and I never realized at the time that this one, seemingly innocent, departure from the standard would be the seed of a calamity.
Misha and Vera also hastily signed a collaboration agreement that had been prepared by Misha’s lawyer for an earlier co-author who didn’t work out. Vera began visiting Misha’s home, tape recorder and notepad in hand, to collect the story that would become a book.
Elaine’s assistant, Sandy Missakian, handled the routine business of preparing contracts and interfacing with clients. She also was a liaison with foreign publishers and oversaw the mailing of manuscripts to any and all who might be interested in acquiring this title. Like Elaine, she was a lawyer. Sandy was in her mid-twenties, dark and exotic looking, of Armenian descent, with a puppy-friendly nature. She stayed late at her desk every night, promptly returned missed phone calls, and was always willing to go the extra mile. I enjoyed working with her. Sandy answered her own phone, as did I. Although separated physically, we toiled, it seemed, side by side.
To provide Sandy with marketing materials I needed to generate some press clippings, so I called The Boston Globe and pitched the story to a feature writer. The resulting article was a long, flattering interview with Misha, complete with numerous photos, featuring Misha’s account of her childhood experiences with wolves. I sent the piece, plus some short bios from small community newspapers that Misha had generated, to Sandy who tucked them into packages with the raw manuscript being sent all over the world. Day after day Sandy and I worked together, oiling and adjusting the catapult that we hoped would launch this book to bestseller status.
Misha herself showed a flair for garnering publicity. She was quick to accept invitations to speak to groups who represented those she viewed as oppressed — animal rights or rescue organizations, Jewish groups, anything to do with Native Americans. Once she asked me to accompany her on a speaking engagement she had arranged at the women’s prison in nearby Framingham.
We arrived at the facility an hour before the scheduled talk. We had been told to leave all our jewelry at home and not to wear blue jeans. We were met by a staff member who checked our IDs, took our watches and purses, and asked us to roll up our sleeves. I was surprised to see that Misha’s arms were covered with small sores that, she explained to me later, she picked at repeatedly until they became raw. The official covered each wound carefully with a Band Aid. We were patted down and then directed through a metal detector before being escorted down a long cinderblock-lined passageway into a large room with a ring of folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle at a distance from two chairs placed side by side. We took our seats in the two chairs as a guard opened a door at the far side of the room and a line of women prisoners filed in. I watched as they quietly took seats around us. Except for their prison uniforms, almost every one of them looked like young mothers you might see at a PTA meeting.
Misha spoke eloquently for about an hour about the horrors of the Holocaust and the book she was working on as the prisoners sat spellbound. During the question and answer period that followed I was struck by how thoughtful and intelligent their comments were. “What a sad place,” I remarked to Misha as we pulled out of the parking lot. “There but for the grace of God…”
The book was coming together, bit by bit. After each visit Vera would call me to discuss what she had learned. Misha’s accounts of her encounters with wolves were incredible. Alone in the forest, hiding from the Nazis, a mother wolf had adopted her and cared for her as if she were a puppy.
“Unbelievable!” “Incredible!” we all said. Yet we all believed. But sometimes Vera reported that she suspected that Misha was making up the whole story. Perhaps too conveniently, she thought, Misha reported that she never knew her real name because her parents were in hiding from the Nazis and didn’t want her to know her given name. It was a Jewish name, Misha said, and her parents worried lest the child reveal her true identity.
I worried about how we would go about fact checking the story. Without a name to go on, how could the story be authenticated? Fact or fiction? How should Mt Ivy position the book? I had been reading all the Holocaust literature I could get my hands on. There had been hundreds, maybe thousands, of first-person accounts published in the half century since the end of The War, most relatively unknown tomes, all horrifying. The ones that stood out had a message of hope, such as The Diary of Ann Frank. Our book had a powerful message of hope. Maybe it could became a classic like that, I dreamed, and sell millions of copies over decades.
One recent offering that seemed to be on the way to becoming a classic was Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, a fractured, blurred account of the nightmarish experiences of a child caught in the Holocaust. The book received excellent reviews in this country and won the National Jewish Book Award. It was translated into a score of languages and received an enthusiastic reception abroad.
I thought Misha’s story compared favorably with Fragments. Childhood memories, such as those in Fragments, are always going to be less reliable, I thought. I made a decision. Fact checking, to whatever extent was possible, would come later. At worst, where the story couldn’t be authenticated, the reader was free to decide what was true and what was not.
But when I listened to Misha herself — so intense, so coherent, so convincing — skepticism fell away. My mistake was that I really wanted her story to be true. It represented a primal struggle between innocence and evil, a child and the Nazis, and the child won. We all wanted it to be true, and that colored our judgment and allowed us too easily to suspend disbelief.
Although I worked mostly with Sandy at Palmer & Dodge, it was always Elaine who called with good news. The whole staff at Disney was excited about the book, she reported. “They love the idea that it’s a true story.” She had more good news. Disney had already assigned a screenwriter to turn the book into a movie. It was going to be aired in the fall as the kick-off to a new series of made-for-TV Disney films.
Sandy followed up with the details. “Disney needs the life story rights,” she said. “Do you have them?”
“What are life story rights? Isn’t her life story already in the book?” I asked.
“Film companies sometimes want to purchase additional rights beyond the copyright in the case of a living person,” Sandy explained.
The publishing agreement that Misha had signed with Mt Ivy had nothing in it covering life story rights. Sandy drafted an addendum to the Mt Ivy contract granting Misha’s life story rights to Mt Ivy and Misha signed it. Mt Ivy included the life story rights in the film option it granted to Disney. Palmer & Dodge handled the legal paper work. Disney paid Misha $10,000 as a consultant. She was to meet with a screenwriter almost immediately to provide whatever assistance was needed.
Now the heat was on full blast. After conducting a series of interviews Vera began drafting chapters and giving them to me to review. I was disappointed with the results. At first I made suggestions in the margins: “Add more detail” or “Show, don’t tell,” but the problems persisted. I began rewriting whole sections and giving them back to her saying, “This is what I’m looking for.” At first Vera would rework the material to accommodate my requests, but it was not long before she began to balk. On pages that I had changed she would mark in the margin, “I like MY version better.” I would write back, “I don’t care whose version it is; I just want it to be good.”
Misha, too, was proving to be high-maintenance. She would call me at all hours to unload her financial problems. “I gonna lose my house,” she’d say. “I borrow from my neighbor this month but what I gonna do next month?” In every call I could hear her husband Maurice’s breathing as he listened in on their other phone.
Since there was no manuscript written at the time the publishing agreement was signed, there had been no advance. Though I was sympathetic, I felt helpless to do anything to alleviate her problems.
“What am I supposed to do? I’m not a bank,” I said to Sandy. “Would a big publisher be expected to be so involved in an author’s personal problems?”
I had to have a cover ready for our distributor right away so that we could list the book in the PGW Spring Catalog with a pub date in April, Holocaust remembrance month. With the movie projected to air just a few months after the release of the book we expected a big initial print run. Meanwhile, Elaine was headed to Frankfurt, Germany for the huge international book fair held there annually.
Misha had taken to calling me almost every day to report on the progress of the book and to complain that Vera was more interested in dancing than in writing. She wanted more of Vera’s time. She also was worried about her worsening financial situation. Her husband had been working for a company based in Europe. They apparently owed him money that they hadn’t paid and the Defonsecas were having trouble making their mortgage payments.
Vera and Misha also were having a logistical disagreement. Misha’s version of her journey on foot from Belgium to the Warsaw Ghetto in search of her parents began in 1941 when she was seven years old. Vera insisted that her departure had to have been earlier, in 1940, in order for her to reach the Warsaw Ghetto before it burned down in 1941.
I spoke with Vera about Misha’s concerns and she assured me that Misha was wrong about the starting date of her journey. She was annoyed at my questioning her judgment. When I repeated Misha’s concerns about her not being available to meet with her, Vera complained that she would give the project no more time than she had agreed to put in, which was enough to get a manuscript ready by the deadline in the collaboration agreement.
I spent hours going over drafts with her but no matter how tactful I tried to be, Vera resented my oversight. I could see there was no way that I would have layouts ready to go to the printer in time to have books printed and ready for PGW to ship to bookstores in March. I began reworking Vera’s chapters myself to get them ready for publication. Out of loyalty to her I tried to salvage as much of her text as I could. I had learned it was fruitless to ask her to make changes. She either argued or simply refused. But somehow I hoped that Vera would become again the supportive, caring friend I had known and trusted for twenty years. I think that’s called “magical thinking.” Or just denial.
Disney assigned a Hollywood screenwriter named Shirley Pierce to the project. She flew out and met with Misha to get a sense of the character she was going to be creating. But there was no finished manuscript for her to work from. As I rewrote Vera’s chapters, one after another, I faxed them to Shirley who incorporated them into her script. I was on the phone with her every day during this period.
The Disney deal endowed the project with Man O’ War legs. Again it was Elaine Rogers who called with the news: A big German publisher, Heyne Verlag, would pay $160,000 to publish the book in German. And the manuscript wasn’t even finished! This call was followed in short order by more calls with good news: the Japanese, Dutch and Italian translation rights were sold and there were more deals in the works.
It was early afternoon on a bright summer day. I was in my kitchen upstairs from my office when a call came in on the business line. I picked up the phone. It was Elaine. More good news, she said. We have a French publisher, Laffont, interested in the book. The head of the company was, like Misha, a Holocaust survivor.
“Sounds great,” I replied “but Mt Ivy doesn’t have the French rights. Misha is planning to write a book in French.”
“They don’t want a different book in French,” Elaine explained. “They want a translation of this book.”
“Mt Ivy never acquired the French rights from Misha,” I explained. “You need to go read the publishing agreement and then speak with Misha about the French offer.”
From this point on I was pretty much out of the loop; I got all my information about what was going on between Palmer & Dodge and my author second-hand. I learned from Sandy that Misha’s reaction to the news about the French publisher had been mixed.
Misha had spoken on the phone with the head of the French publishing company, Charles Ronsac and the two had hit it off. Misha called me after their conversation and reported that she had been impressed by M. Ronsac. She badly needed money so she was relieved that he had assured her of his interest in acquiring this book.
But she was not pleased with the way the offer had come about. On the one hand she wanted the deal, but on the other she didn’t want to pay a commission to Palmer & Dodge for bringing it to her. Palmer & Dodge was Mt Ivy’s agent, not Misha’s, and had inadvertently arranged a deal for a property that was owned not by their client, but by their client’s author whom they did not represent. In fact, under the circumstances, Palmer & Dodge was not entitled to a commission, but on this point they would not budge.
Misha called me again and was furious that she was expected to pay a commission on a deal she had not authorized. I understood her position. It was as if someone sold your car without your permission and then asked you for a commission on the sale. But Mt Ivy did not own those rights and I felt I needed to remain neutral. I relied too heavily on Palmer & Dodge to get caught in the middle of this dispute.
“I’m sorry,” I told Misha. “I’m not part of the French deal. I have no say in this. You have to work it out between yourselves.”
Over the next couple of weeks things got ugly. Sandy told me that Palmer & Dodge wanted Misha to sign an agency agreement covering this one deal. Misha refused and apparently tried to go around them and make her own deal with the French publisher to avoid Palmer & Dodge’s fifteen percent commission. Laffont, protecting their business relationships with their own French agent Michele Lapautre and with Palmer & Dodge, insisted that Misha pay a commission.
Misha called me and reported that Laffont had set a deadline for her acceptance after which their offer would be withdrawn. “They know I need money to pay my house,” she complained. “They think because I am desperate, they can push me around.” Again I told her I was out of the loop on this one. This dispute had become a tar baby that I didn’t want to get caught in — a worthy goal, but one that was not to be.
Shortly thereafter Sandy called me and told me that Palmer & Dodge had reduced their fee to ten percent and the deal was going through. Misha agreed to become a client of Palmer & Dodge in order to consummate the publishing deal with Laffont but she would never trust them again, or by extension, me. Vera, who had retained the French rights with Misha, went along with the arrangement and signed on as a client of Palmer & Dodge as well. No one ever asked me how I felt about the prospect that the law firm/literary agency that had been representing Mt Ivy for three years was now representing Mt Ivy’s problematical authors. It never occurred to me that I had a say in the matter.
Within a year the Laffont edition would make the bestseller list in France and Misha’s bank account would be receiving wired French royalties in increments of ten to thirty thousand dollars. But the troubles with the French book had only just begun.
While the difficulties with my authors continued, the marketing of the book was going extraordinarily well. I had used a speakers’ bureau to arrange engagements for Harley during the How to Protect era. It was a local company, American Program Bureau, that represented some pretty big celebrities. I called Harry Sandler who worked there as a booking agent and told him about Misha. He had been part of the music scene in Boston when I was married to a rock musician. He pitched the idea to his boss and in short order APB accepted Misha as a client. Misha was a complete unknown at the time; I took this as a vote of confidence in me based on my track record with How to Protect. Her starting fee would be $3,000 to $5,000 per engagement but they expected to increase the price over time. APB would promote her heavily with the numerous Jewish organizations to whom they regularly provided speakers, such as Henry Kissinger, for special events. Misha's photo appeared in their promotional brochure under the portrait of Ed Koch, former mayor of New York and across from Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin and Dave Barry, the popular syndicated humor columnist.
I was sitting with Harry one day in his office, discussing a booking he was working on for Misha in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“Did I tell you my wife’s a publicist?” he asked suddenly. Shirley had worked for years in the music business, he said. The singer Al Green was among her former clients.
“I’ll drop you off a manuscript,“ I replied. “Take it home to her and if she likes it, tell her to call me.”
Shirley and I met in a Newton coffee shop a few days later. She loved the story, she said. It had touched her heart. She didn’t play hard-to-get; she really wanted to work on this project.
I recognized in Shirley just the qualities of enthusiasm and experience I was looking for. The book was in layouts at that point. The cover had been designed. PGW’S Spring Catalog was out and PGW reps were already selling to bookstores across the country. The final layouts would be going to the printer in a matter of days. We were looking at a publication date only a couple of months away. It was time to ramp up the publicity to give the book a powerful launch.
Despite the squabbling behind the scenes, the book had already begun to earn money. The Disney money had come in and I hand-delivered Misha’s share to her the very day we got the check (less their commission) from Palmer & Dodge, although the publishing agreement allowed us sixty days before payment was due. The German money was on the way and there was a brisk flow of advances in the pipeline from the additional pre-publication sales of foreign rights. But we still needed to spend carefully.
I had planned a big press party to launch the book. Shirley and I talked about who should be on the media list to receive invitations. The list we compiled was seven hundred names long and included every person we could think of within two hundred miles who could help the book: newspaper feature writers, book reviewers, magazine editors, TV news program directors, radio show hosts and their producers, local Jewish leaders, the Jewish press, freelance writers, people from Holocaust museums and Holocaust education programs, school curriculum developers, clergy — the list went on and on. Shirley already had begun cultivating the book editor of The Providence Journal and was working on his counterpart at The Boston Globe, David Mehegan.
I called on a designer to create a unique invitation. “These people get invitations all the time. It has to look slick and expensive,” I said to Shirley, “so they’ll want to come.” We printed up 800 two-color self-mailers with a picture of a wolf howling at the moon and a quote from the book on the inside.
Finding a location took a bit of work; function rooms were expensive. We finally settled on an art gallery that featured works by ghetto artists. The director liked the idea of getting exposure with the media through our efforts and gave us a good deal on the rental. Misha liked the “downtrodden” connection.
I chose interesting quotes from the book and had them blown up and mounted as posters that would sit on easels around the gallery. I ordered fresh spring flowers — red tulips, yellow daffodils, pink and white hyacinths, green ferns — to fill tall, wrought iron planters I had found at a flea market. These would sit atop round tables covered with red checked cloths I had found at TJ Maxx.
We planned to give every attendee a free book as part of their press kit. Cases of books arrived at my office from the printer the week before the big event and twenty cases were delivered to the gallery. More cases of red and white wine were stacked beside them. We recruited friends and relatives to tend bar.
I had had a small catering business when my kids were small and I planned to cater the event myself. I would shop and cook for a week for an estimated two hundred and fifty guests.
The one fly in the ointment was Vera. She had become increasingly and openly hostile. Misha reported to me that Vera had said to her that the direction I was taking the book was wrong. She now found the book to be “an embarrassment” to her. Misha, not being fluent in English, was unable to determine for herself whether Vera’s assessment was accurate or not and had become anxious about my guidance. When I confronted Vera she denied the remark. I was afraid to invite her lest she do something to spoil the evening for Misha.
The event was a huge success. We estimated that we had drawn well over two hundred guests. The book reviewer from the Providence Journal was there and Shirley was able to buttonhole him for a long conversation. He told her he had read the book and found it fascinating. He wondered whether the story were true. Shirly introduced him to Misha during the course of the evening and they spoke for some time. Later he told her he was hesitant to question the authenticity of the story because, “I felt as if I were in the presence of Mother Theresa.” Two weeks later a long feature article appeared under his byline that was picked up by the AP wire and republished all over the country.
David Mehegan, the Boston Globe’s book reviewer did not attend, in spite of many attempts by Shirley to contact him. Nearly three years later, after the end of the trial, I would learn that his absence was not an oversight on his part; he had his reasons.
Within a few months of the release of Mt Ivy’s book, the translated versions would be released abroad where it shot to the top of bestseller lists in France, Italy and Canada. In the US Shirley Sandler would score the ultimate coup a book could ever hope to achieve: Oprah Winfrey’s producer taped half a show with Misha at Wolf Hollow, a wolf sanctuary in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and we were given two tentative taping dates in Chicago with Oprah herself.
Somehow, I believed that the problems with my authors would be swept away on the wave of success that we had generated. That was not to be. In fact, that very success acted like blood in the water to the sharks.
A month after the book's publication, the nightmare began: On Frisoli and Frisoli letterhead, the letter stated: “Please be advised that this office represents Vera Lee… My client has been substantially damaged [and] estimates the fair market value of the damages so sustained to be the sum of $350,000. Demand is made upon you for a reasonable offer of settlement within 30 days.” This language is the opening salvo of a lawsuit.
© 2007 Jane Daniel • All rights reserved.