SCHNOOKIE DEAL UPDATE: Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News 2010. Congratulations, guys!
What I like most about being a literary agent is the serendipitous way in which my projects seem to find me. Take, for instance, The Schnookie Deal by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin. North American rights were acquired last December by Saint Martin’s Press.
On July 23 of last year, I read a front page article in The New York Times about a New Jersey corruption scandal. Stories about New Jersey corruption don’t usually warrant front page NYT. They are a little like stories about the price of corn in The Des Moines Register. What grabbed my attention was a remarkable photograph of two Hasidic rabbis in handcuffs, a photograph that, it seems, drew the attention of everyone – at least everyone I know.
It was a bizarre story about the largest corruption scandal in New Jersey history, the state whose largest industry is corruption. It is unbelievable but the story contains: sleazy pols, corrupt high rolling Orthodox Rabbis, code words out from the Talmud for money, FBI wires, real estate Ponzi schemes, kited checks, laundered cash in paper bags and cereal boxes and in trunks of cars, even the brokering of human kidneys for $160,000.
After a nearly three-year investigation, the authorities swooped down on July 23 and arrested 44 men and women. The list was impressive, even by New Jersey standards: three mayors including the 32 year old reform mayor of Hoboken; the 74 year old deputy mayor of Jersey City who was once a stripper going under the stage name of “Hope Diamond”; five Orthodox rabbis; two legislators; and various political operatives, real estate moguls and Hasidic businessmen. The website, Gawker, said it all in their headline: “EVERYONE IN NEW JERSEY WAS ARRESTED TODAY.”
I loved this story from the moment that I read it. I kept telling everyone I knew what an amazing book this would be. I kept thinking of it as a sort of true version of a Carl Hiaasen novel, filled with colorful scoundrels. Only instead of Good Ole Boys in South Florida, it would be about Orthodox rabbis and sleaze bags in New Jersey and Brooklyn. I really, really wished I had a project like this to work on.
On September 15, I received an email from Bill Gannon, an executive at Lucas Films, referring me to Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin, reporters for The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper. Bill was a friend of theirs. He told me that they had been covering a great corruption story, and would I please, maybe, as a personal favor, if I wasn’t too busy, and if I found it in my heart to work on a true crime story — talk to the guys and see if I could help. I really flipped… These were the guys on the ground who had been covering the story that had been preoccupying me for weeks.
After doing a little web surfing, I found out that Sherman and Margolin were journalistic super-stars. Both were on the team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, following the resignation of Gov. James E. McGreevey (another titillating and salacious story). The two also received the National Journalism Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation this year for their work uncovering secret deals, hidden spending and other abuses within the Rutgers University football program.
Ted called me up and asked if I might possibly be interested in helping them get a book published. I told him I had been sitting by the phone for two months waiting for him to call. I gave him my usual pitch about the importance of making a good book proposal and that I would help them out if they sent me a rough draft. I also gave Ted a lot of advice about how he needed to put humor into the book in order to make it commercial.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to give him much advice at all. A week later they delivered a book proposal in almost perfect condition. And a sample chapter that was laugh-out-loud funny.
The one thing they sent me that I didn’t think was so good was a suggested title: “Rogues and Cronies of Thieves.” I told them that it just lacked je ne sais quoi. So they came up with a title that none of us were very sure about. But in hindsight, it was a masterpiece: “The Schnookie Deal.” (For the few readers unfamiliar with Yiddish, “schnookie” means adorable, sweet, cuddly, and endearing. As in: “You’re my little schnookie.”) Apparently the word in the context of this story came from the wiretaps. Soloman Dwek, the inept crook and FBI informer, kept calling his illegal transactions “schnookie deals.”
I started doing some research on which imprints and which editors to send it to. Usually I try to figure out the genre of the story. Then I go to the Deal section of Publisher’s Marketplace and start looking at what kinds of deals various editors are making. The obvious genre on this book was true crime. But that wasn’t exactly it. True crime tended to be about grizzly murders. This had a more political angle. And a lot more pizzazz.
Anyway, I amassed about 20 possible submissions. I emailed it out and waited for the multiple offers that were sure to be coming in 48 hours. Disappointingly, I got a number of rejections. This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. It has long been my operating principle that publishers don’t really want anything. Most of the rejections were not particularly thoughtful. A number of them felt that it was a “local story.” (As if sleazy behavior was unique to New Jersey. Hmm….Now that I think about it, …Nah!) For more thoughts about publisher rejection letters, I refer you to a previous blog entry entitled: “Deconstructing Publisher Rejection Letters.”
One of the editors I sent it to was at St. Martin’s Press. He got back to me very quickly and said that it was a great story, but I needed to send it to another editor, Phil Revzin. It turns out that Phil was the editor of a book about New Jersey corruption called, Soprano State. It was a best seller. He was familiar with Ted and Josh, because a lot of the material from that book came from news stories written by my clients. Their names heavily populated the footnotes. I could tell the first time I spoke with him that he was really excited about the project. I told him if he made us an offer, I’d buy him a kidney pie for lunch.
Phil wanted to have a meeting with Ted and Josh. So they went over to the St. Martin’s offices. They walked into a meeting with three or four big machers, another indicator that the publisher was serious. Phil kept asking me if we were going to have an auction. It would have been nice, but at that time I had no other offers. So I told him, “we were thinking about it.”
By the end of the week, Phil had sent us an offer of deal points. This usually includes the advance, royalty rate, and territory rights (see previous blog entry entitled: “The Book Deal“). We dickered around a little. Nudged up the numbers which made the boys happy. Then Phil sent us the St. Martin’s boiler plate contract. We did a little more wrangling. I did some table thumping over some (how shall we say?) not extremely author-friendly language. And then the deal was done.
I posted the deal in the deal data base at Publishers Marketplace. The next day I got an email from a guy at Twentieth Century Fox who wanted to look at the book proposal. This really impressed the guys. I could see that the siren song of Hollywood had started playing in their heads. I’m sure they are still dreaming about which big-time star is going to play Ted, and which will play Josh.
And a schnookie deal it was! The book is scheduled to be published spring 2011. It will be a lead title.
Tags: andy ross, andy ross agency, book publishing, hassidic rabbis, jersey sting, josh margolin, New Jersey Corruption, new jersey star ledger, phil revzin, publishers marketplace, pulitzer prize, rutgers university, saint martins press, Schnookie Deal, soloman dwek, soprano state, ted sherman