edited: Friday, May 22, 2009
By Marsha Cook
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009
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Marsha Casper Cook, the North Shore's Independent Publishing Guru
by Lou Mattei and Chris Djonlich
Anyone who's attempted to have their writing published – nonfiction, fiction, poetry or otherwise – knows how brutal the industry can be. Traditionally, even the most successful writers boast stacks of dozens, even hundreds of rejection letters. Only those with thick skin need apply.
Then factor in some grim reports last December out of New York, widely considered the capital of the American publishing industry. Not only have book sales – tracked by the Association of American Publishers – dropped 2.4 percent in 2008, but publishing titans like Random House and Simon & Schuster have either announced massive restructuring plans aimed at cutting costs or brought down the axe on their workforces; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a temporary freeze on acquiring new manuscripts.
But the North Shore has at least one voice of hope. Meet Marsha Casper Cook, author and founder of Marcus Bryan & Associates, a literary agency in Northbrook. She's written 11 feature-length screenplays, two of which have been optioned to movie studios, and published four books and three children’s books, in addition to representing well over 100 clients in 13 years as a literary agent. More recently, she founded Michigan Avenue Media to handle public relations for her clients.
In an industry some see as hurting, Cook remains undaunted. The key to success in such a tough business, according to Cook, is independent publishing.
"Traditional publishers aren't publishing as many books as independent publishers are," Cook said over lunch in The Glen Town Center. "I handle 200 to 300 inquiries every month."
Many of Cook's inquiries come from writers – both local and as far away as Utah – who have sent manuscripts to traditional publishers and been rejected. "It's about just getting the stories out there," Cook says. "If you give up, you'll never know if you can make it."
The difference a literary agent can make, Cook says, is twofold. For one, the agent gives a writer's work a definitive professional validation, all but necessary in today's market. And personally, writers get someone in their corner, someone to motivate them to finish a full-length manuscript, someone connected to editors, illustrators and publishing houses big and small that can help them achieve that all-important final product, a bound and tangible book.
Cook described just how significant such connections can be using one of her recent children's books as an example. Originally, the cost of producing such a book might fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000, giving each slim volume a list-price of about $11. Cook decided that's too much to pay, especially during a recession. She's since worked out a deal with an independent publisher to reduce the price of a similar run to $500.
“If you are doing it just because of the money, then it doesn’t come from the heart,” says Cook, who later admits, "I've worked with writers who didn't sell their first script, who were in it just to make money, and they fizzle out."
As proof of this belief, Cook has donated proceeds from her book sales to various charitable causes ranging from the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Research Foundation to the American Red Cross. On March 22 at the Sheraton Northbrook Hotel, she's holding a book sale to benefit charities like these, as well as Skokie's soon-to-open Holocaust Museum.
Fueling Cook's tireless advocacy of both her and her client’s work is a deep personal connection to the craft of writing. After an early career as a lab technician, Cook was driven to the page, especially that of screenwriting. She devoured books by Syd Field and attended writing workshops in order to develop her craft.
She followed (and continues to follow) the same advice she now gives her clients and anyone else who writes: "Keep writing and write more." Eventually, she tried out other modes of writing, from fiction to oral history, and reached a point where she began to "feel good at the end of a page."
A similar sense of fulfillment informed Cook's embrace of the independent and self-publishing modes, which she sees flourishing in uncertain economic times. "If [writers] aren't working, they're writing," says Cook. "With independent publishing, at least they know their work's going to get out there, get an audience, and you have a shot."
Such goal-oriented thinking brings to mind a host of venerable writers. I mentioned Shakespeare, the old Bard himself, who was pretty blunt about the fact that he wrote, at least in part, to achieve immortality.
"Right," says Cook. "When it's bound together, in a book, your writing can go on and on for generations. Papers just get thrown out."
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