Shane Salerno was an established screenwriter and documentary filmmaker when a conversation with novelist Don Winslow several years ago first spawned a now-substantial business, brokering book and movie deals for authors.
“Don and I had been friends for years,” Salerno says, “and one day he told me, ‘I’ve had it, I’m tired of writing these books that get all this acclaim, and no sales, no marketing, no promotion, no support from my publisher. So, I quit.’ I said, ‘Really? What are you going to do?’ ‘I’m going back to being a safari guide,’ he said.”
Winslow, who’d written well-respected books including The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Power of the Dog, and A Cool Breeze On The Underground, met Salerno when they were writing for a TV show years back, and in between such side gigs as private detective, he’d been a guide in Kenya, and also in China, where he led expeditions to spot pandas.
“I said, ‘Don, we can get a lot of people to be safari guides, but only you can write the books you do.’” Winslow was clearly frustrated, and Salerno finally told him, “I’ll do it, I’ll represent you.” Two minutes later Salerno was copied on an email Winslow sent, discharging his agent immediately. “I said, ‘Ok, I guess I am really doing this.’”
That birthed The Story Factory, a business Salerno has kept on the down low and which has grown mostly from referrals. It now has a stable of authors, including Steve Hamilton, Blake Bailey, Lou Berney, Bill Beverly, Reed Farrel Coleman, Meg Gardiner, John Katzenbach, Marcus Sakey, Adrian McKinty, Greg Harden and Michael Mann, whom Salerno set into a multi-million dollar book imprint deal.
Simultaneously, Salerno has remained a busy screenwriter, adapting Winslow’s The Cartel for a film that Ridley Scott will direct next year, helping James Cameron write four Avatar sequels, and turning the Microsoft game Gears of War into a live action tent pole.
Is there is a comparable example of a successful screenwriter who brokers book and movie deals for authors on the side? I’ve never heard of one. Winslow has become a multimillionaire since joining Salerno and is coming off the biggest success of his career with The Cartel—the continuation of the 2005 drug war thriller The Power of the Dog. That sequel was Salerno’s idea, one which Winslow says he resisted so hard that he would hang up whenever Salerno mentioned it. Bestseller The Cartel was sold in a $6 million movie deal to Fox and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free. Studio and producer then paid seven figures for The Force, Winslow’s new epic tale of a crooked top New York cop that reads like a Sidney Lumet film. James Mangold will direct it.
“I can’t possibly overstate the effect Shane has had on my life, since we started this on a handshake years ago,” Winslow says. “My career had flat-lined, I was barely making it and working as a consultant to a law firm. I’d get great reviews, then watch the books fall off the edge of the earth. When Shane got involved, it was like, ‘boom!’ I wrote 14 pages of this out-of the-box book Savages, sent it to him and said, ‘Either I’m crazy, or onto something.’ He said, ‘Drop everything and do this.’ A year and-a-half later, Oliver Stone was directing the movie.”
Why would a publishing industry newcomer be able to make such a difference? “He’s ferocious about getting the book out there, with the right cover and marketing,” Winslow says. “And great ideas, like writing an editorial on the drug war in the Washington Post as an ad, which got a lot of attention. I think he’s revolutionizing the way authors can be represented.” As for himself, Winslow said his leverage has improved immensely. “A writer who doesn’t need the money gains power, and is dangerous in a negotiation,” he said.
“The only thing I can think of to liken it to is United Artists, where those actors got tired of being screwed, and banded together to form a studio to get paid fairly and be taken seriously.”
Salerno says he learned how to negotiate when he made his first documentary at age 19. He’s also put up his own money to back his authors. When Salerno took on author Steve Hamilton, he confronted St. Martin’s Press on its lack of advertising/marketing plans for Hamilton’s book The Second Life of Nick Mason. “Steve had a four-book deal for a significant amount of money from St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and 100 days out, I was asking, ‘Where are the ads? What’s the marketing plan?’”
When the publisher announced they had no plans to give the book any additional push, Salerno got on the phone with the head of the company, who said if they wanted out of the contract they’d have to pay a quarter of a million dollars cash. Salerno told him, “Fine, I’ll wire you the money today,” then sent over his own cash, ending Hamilton’s 17-year run at St. Martin’s Press. Within days, Publishers Weekly had picked it as one of the year’s most anticipated books, and the publisher claimed it had dropped Hamilton. Salerno said every publisher read it that night, and the author had 10 offers and a Putnam deal shortly after.
The book became Hamilton’s first bestseller, and Lionsgate bought the film rights. “Steve was pretty terrified for about 24 hours,” Salerno recalls. “He had two kids going into college and had been with the publisher his entire career. That was a sleepless night, but we were fortunate the book was as well-received at it was, and it became less daunting when we had 10 offers the next day.”
The lessons came quickly for Salerno. He has a lawyer paper the deals, and makes many of the films subsequent book-to-movie deals with a CAA co-agent. The Story Factory negotiates all deals for its small author stable, including foreign publishers. Salerno also insists on cover approval. “It’s extremely rare that someone’s a great writer and a great businessman,” he says. “The unfortunate result of that is they get into dramatically underpaying deals because they’re just happy to have a deal. I couldn’t reach one author in the evening and he finally leveled with me. He said, ‘Mate, I drive an Uber at night, making airport runs.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ When we broke down what he was being paid, it was literally below minimum wage, and he had won all these awards. The first thing I did when he signed was to tell his publisher, ‘We’re not publishing with you anymore.’ They said, ‘Wait, we’ll pay more,’ but I said, ‘You knew this guy’s situation, that he has kids and that he’s driving an Uber at night.’”
The alternative to battling publishers is watching books disappear from shelves. “If Barnes & Noble buys 2000 books and sells 1000 because there is no promotion, the next time they order 600,” he says. “And that keeps going down. The Second Life of Nick Mason sold eight times in a few months what Steve Hamilton’s previous books sold in three years. You hustle, promote and make The New York Times bestseller lists and there is more awareness, attention, better placement in the book stores.” And that hustling has made massive change in the authors’ lives. “We’ve been fortunate to have the first five books brokered by The Story Factory make the NYT bestseller list,” Salerno says, “and we have been able to help those authors break out.”
How does such a hands-on approach leave time for Salerno’s day job of screenwriting? He’s hiring staff to share the load, but is disciplined about his schedule. “I have a business day for The Story Factory that generally ends at seven in the evening,” he says. “I take a short break and write most of the night. It works out because there are no phones or e-mails at night.”
To Salerno it makes sense to be a writer representing writers. “I love books, and have enormous respect for authors, and some of the greatest movies started with a book.”
He’s also a creative partner, in a way few execs can be. “I talk to the authors as a writer, and if they have a story problem, they can call me,” he says. “But I can also talk to them as a representative. Every one of these negotiations is a fight, and real hand-to-hand combat is involved to change the way authors are perceived, handled, and paid. Most agents talk to author clients every few weeks, but I talk to the majority of them every day.”
Those authors certainly seem appreciative. Meg Gardiner dedicated her new book Unsub—which just sold to CBS for series—to Salerno, while Winslow dedicated The Kings of Cool to him. Hamilton did the same on The Second Life of Nick Mason, writing, “To Shane, who saw a better life, even when I couldn’t.”