May 10, 2010
Life is all about taking chances: meeting the right person, landing the right job, etc. For Brendan Deneen, a series of strategic maneuvers and a few lucky moves have paid off. He’s now an editor at Thomas Dunne Books and is in the enviable position of not only acquiring fantastic books, but also developing book ideas that are destined for the big screen (as well as a bookshelf near you)!
WordHustler had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Deneen in his offices in New York’s famous Flatiron Building. How did this talented, savvy Hollywood-turned-publishing industry insider get so lucky? Read on to find out!
WordHustler: Thanks for sitting down with us, Brendan! How did you get your start in the industry?
Brendan Deneen: I moved to New York to be a writer and an actor circa 1997. I did that for 3 years while working a day job at an investment bank. Then I produced a couple of short films that I wrote and directed. Eventually, I started temping. The temp agency was looking to place people in permanent jobs and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing to work at a literary agency. I thought maybe I could get an agent out of it. They didn’t tell me the name of the company but gave me an address and said I’d be interviewing to be the assistant of a literary agent. It turned out to be the William Morris Agency. I got hired and was older than your average assistant since I was 28. I worked there for a year but then the department changed after WMA bought another agency out and I eventually left.
I went on Mediabistro.com in 2001 and saw an ad for a film company hiring in NY and again, no specific company was named but they wanted someone who was interested in books. I faxed my resume over and was Number 19 of 20 people who was interviewed at Scott Rudin Productions for a Story Editor position. I had to write coverage overnight. It was interesting because it was a manuscript that two executives at Rudin’s liked but Scott himself didn’t like it. I didn’t like the book either and said that. They liked the fact that I had an opinion so they hired me.
I worked there for 2 years as a Story Editor. It was an awesome job. I was a book-to-film guy, which meant I was tracking the book world, doing notes on books and scripts, etc.
WH: And this was the beginning of the book-to-film craze, or at least when it started to really blossom, right?
BD: Well, I don’t know, I think it comes in phases. Money will run out and Hollywood will shut down all the New York literary offices and then money will come back and they’ll be like: “Why don’t we have a book scout?!”
So after a couple years at Rudin’s, I outgrew the position and they sensed that, so they recommended me over to Dimension Films. They were looking for a book scout, so I was hired.
Dimension does a lot of horror, which I like, and genre stuff. It was an amazing 2 years working under Andrew Rona. Then the Disney divorce happened and I started working for both Bob and Harvey Weinstein, at both Dimension Films and the Weinstein Company, for another 2 years.
WH: What was your favorite thing you worked on when you were there?
BD: I did a lot of work on 1408. I brought in a book for Harvey called PANIC, which is in development now. I also did a lot of work on OUTLANDER, but they kind of buried it. It came out in like 2 theaters. I worked on FANBOYS, too, which I really liked.
At the time, I was the only creative exec working for both Bob and Harvey, which I thought would protect me if there was a falling out. But of course there was. This was 2007 and I was looking for a film job in NYC and couldn’t find one. I had some amazing offers in LA but I didn’t want to uproot my family. So, I became a literary and film manager. I put together a client list and represented writers for both publishing and film. I did that for two and a half years and and was also producing TV and films. Then the economy, being what it was, made it very tough to make a living as a manager since the spec market dried up and book advances were getting smaller and smaller.
Then in December, I got the opportunity to come work as an editor at St. Martin’s Press. I started in January.
WH: What position have you filled here and why is it a great fit for you?
BD: It’s a great fit here at Thomas Dunne Books (a division of St. Martin’s). I get to work with authors and they’re okay with the fact that I have movies and television shows in development. I’m also also interested in creating an sort of in-house packaging company here.
I’m a writer and I’m constantly coming up with ideas. But I’m never going to be able to write them all, so what I’d like to do is write short synopses of ideas and then take them to agents and say, “Let’s attach a writer. They work for hire, we pay them an advance like normal and a royalty rate.”
WH: That’s what Alloy (a media conglomerate that produces the Gossip Girl series, among others) is doing.
BD: Exactly. So, I come up with the idea, pay a writer to write it and they keep their name on it but we (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press) keep the commercial property so we can turn around and sell it to film, sell the merchandising, etc.
WH: So, all of the book projects are hopefully going to be films as well?
BD: That’s the plan.
WH: What kind of projects are you creating?
BD: Everything. I’m developing a YA series called PARADIGM SHIFTERS that’s a scavenger hunt-type story.
WH: Are you more drawn to the YA stuff?
BD: I like everything. I’m developing a horror novel called THE CHRYSALIS, which is THE SHINING meets ALIEN. The third one is called IMPASSE, which is a thriller based on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. It’s inspired by a true story that one of my best friends heard over a campfire. It’s a crazy story about a guy who’s left to die in the wilderness. I’m setting it in Alaska.
WH: So, you are basically in a position here at Thomas Dunne that doesn’t really exist many places, especially in established publishing houses, right?
BD: Penguin has a guy who’s doing the same type of job and he was in many ways the inspiration for me to do this.
Random House Films also exists, but I have a bit of a different take on how to do it. Here at Thomas Dunne I’m also doing the normal editorial stuff, i.e. receiving books from agents, reading them and buying some. I just bought a book, actually. But what’s different from normal protocol is that I’m also reverse-engineering.
WH: That’s how the Hollywood studios work too- they’re buying from agents AND creating in-house content and then hiring writers.
BD: Exactly. And that reminds me a story from when I was an executive at Dimension. I was submitted a book of horror short stories. My assistant, Vince Mitchell, read it first and flagged a story called “Vacation” by Matthew Costello. I read it and said, “You’re right, this is a movie.” I brought it to the heads of the company and they passed. I was really disappointed because I really believed in my heart that there was a movie there.
I couldn’t let it go so I got in touch with the author and said to him, “My assistant and I love this. We’re both writers — will you let us option this and we’ll adapt it for you.” He agreed, so Vince and I adapted it. We were very close to making it happen – we had an A-list horror director attached, we had a major agent repping us, but as often happens in Hollywood, it never came together.
So five years later, when I got here to St. Martin’s, I called Matt and said, “Now I’m an editor – would you consider writing a novel based on our screenplay, which of course is based on your short story?” And he said yes.
WH: Did you expand the story a lot in the screenplay?
BD: Yes. Now he’s writing and it’s all come full circle.
WH: What draws you to a fiction book?
BD: Everyone thinks of me as a genre guy — horror, sci-fi, and I do love that stuff but it’s not only what I want. I want to do literary stuff, noir and thrillers.
WH: What’s NOT your thing?
BD: I don’t like stuff that is typical. I don’t like old school horror or stereotypical slasher stuff. I’m just not interested. I like super high concept, elevated genre. Smart like Michael Chabon-type literary genre material. I want literary stuff, I don’t just want monsters and zombies, even though I love that stuff. I want the next CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and whoever the next Charlie Huston is.
WH: Do you think the vampire craze is done?
BD: I think the romance vampire stuff is still going strong but I think YA vampires are getting really old. That’s why PARADIGM SHIFTERS, that YA project I’m working on, has vampires but sort of makes fun of them.
WH: What draws you to a non-fiction book?
BD: I like narrative non-fiction, like DEVIL IN WHITE CITY. I like stories that could almost be fiction. I don’t like celebrity tell-alls, I want real stories.
WH: Why do you think Hollywood and the publishing world are converging?
BD: I think it’s always been that way. Look at the best movies: WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — they’re all based on books. If you look at Best Picture winners in general, I bet more than 50% are books.
WH: You want to place a specific bet?
BD: Sure. I’ll vote 64%.
WH: Very optimistic. The answer is actually almost 26%. Turns out 21 of the 81 Best Picture winners have been based on books.
BD: D’oh! I should stick to poker.
WH: So, what type of books are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?
BD: Because the first book I bought here was a sci-fi and the second one was a horror book, I’m going to start getting a lot of those submissions and I don’t want to be just that guy. I’d like more thrillers, more Hitchcockian thrillers- an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Like that movie CHANGING LANES — it’s a story about a chance encounter that doesn’t get too ridiculous but is tense and taut.
WH: What is your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straights or blooming?
BD: I think it’s doing pretty well – I’ve heard that St. Martin’s had its best year ever last year. I do definitely see more e-readers around — maybe because I work in New York City. I think the price battles over the books will work themselves out. People like books in their room and bookcases. People are collectors.
WH: So you do read unsolicited submissions? What catches your eye?
BD: Yes, I look at them although I think we have a policy against accepting them. The thing that catches my eye is just a great idea. If the cover letter isn’t good, the idea will have less of a chance. But I received one with a lackluster cover letter but the author referenced Philip K. Dick, so I wanted to read it. There are some keywords that make me pay attention, Philip K. Dick being one of them.
WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?
BD: Learn how to write a cover letter. Not only how to format it, but how to catch an agent’s attention. Don’t over-write, don’t make the subject line of the email a million words long. I get physical submissions too. I wrote my first novel when I was 18. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to get a publisher with the whole query letter thing but the book was pretty bad. I wallpapered my bathroom in college with rejection letters. I wrote my second novel when I was 21. I get it. It’s hard. I’m a writer and still haven’t had a novel published, so I understand how frustrating it is.
But you still have to get out there and get an agent. You need to know your agents. It’s not just about creating a cover letter and changing the “Dear ____” line. Personalize your letter: “I know that you like ________ and I saw that you just sold this book by _____ and I read it.” If they are educated without being stalker-ish, that helps. It also really helps to know what genres the agents represent. Oh, and DON’T query via Facebook. Please.
You heard the man! Now log out of Facebook and into your WordHustler account so you can do some serious homework before querying. Look at each agency’s web page, read up on their latest deals, and really target the agent whose interests and sales match your project. Taking the time to research your potential representation makes you look prepared and makes them want to read your manuscripts!
We recommend having 10 queries out and in play at all times, so feel free to check out WordHustler’s Digital Submission Service to help manage your e-submissions. With your query letter perfected and your agents targeted, now’s the perfect time to take a gamble on yourself and WIN!