“There’s a great deal of interest in her story, from both media and literary agents,” Jay Jostyn, communications manager of The Christian Science Monitor, said on April 17. It had been just over two weeks since Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was released after 82 days of captivity in Iraq, and she was home recovering from the ordeal with her family.
But that didn’t stop the agents from calling.
Mr. Jostyn added that Ms. Carroll wasn’t doing any interviews. Her primary focus at the moment is spending time with her family; eventually, in two weeks or more, she plans to participate in a story exclusive to The Monitor about her experience, which may be written by her or another reporter at the paper and might run as a single piece or a series.
As for Ms. Carroll’s book plans, if any: “I really don’t know at this point,” Mr. Jostyn said. “But we’re definitely making a point of conveying all of these requests to her and her family.”
A “trauma” is defined as a “disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury”—a less-than-ideal condition for complex decision-making, but one that happens to yield potentially lucrative hardcover, movie or TV deals. A number of media fixers have made a side career of approaching people caught in the midst of tragedy to offer their services brokering such transactions. These literary and media “ambulance chasers” require a keen sense of timing and a strategic view of the line between insensitive opportunism and good business.
The literary agent who’s most frequently cited for his headline-making clients is David Vigliano, who runs his own firm, Vigliano Associates. (He has worked with Courtney Love, Jayson Blair, Britney Spears and Charles Moose, the investigator in the Washington sniper case, among others.)
When asked whether he was one of the agents who contacted Ms. Carroll’s representatives about shopping a book deal, Mr. Vigliano said: “Somebody else in my office has. I don’t know what he’s heard. I don’t think that he’s made any progress yet. I’m sure she’s thinking about it.” He said that sometimes people have their own agendas that influence their decisions, which might not be obvious on the surface. “You know, that Ashley Smith was a big Christian,” he said of the Atlanta woman who was held hostage last spring and read her captor The Purpose-Driven Life to calm him down. “She only wanted to work with Christian people …. All kinds of things like that happen.”
There was also the possibility that Ms. Carroll, who has a career to fall back on, might not care to write a book—at least not any time soon after her ordeal. But that didn’t seem likely to Mr. Vigliano.
“She may feel like there are things that happened that she wants to share,” Mr. Vigliano said, slipping into his pitch. “She may feel that if people understand what was going on in that situation, they might have more understanding of the conflict in the Middle East. There are all kinds of reasons that she might do it beyond money.”
Ms. Carroll’s future book project was going to be big, according to Mr. Vigliano. “She’s very sympathetic, so I think there’ll be a very positive reaction to her book,” he said. “You gotta differentiate between somebody who’s seen like a hero, like she is or [Charles] Moose is, and someone who’s notorious, like Jayson Blair or Jared Paul Stern. If a lot of people are offended by the person’s behavior, ultimately they’re not going to buy a book.”
Mr. Vigliano said the only reason he brokered Mr. Blair’s Burning Down My Master’s House was as a favor to a friend of a friend. “I wouldn’t have gone after that at all, because I didn’t think it was going to be worth that much money,” he said, “and I also felt like there was going to be some backlash for representing something that did not reflect well on The New York Times.”
Designing a strategy for approaching a subject seems to involve a combination of respectful distance and aggressiveness. The agent must convey to the traumatized individual that he is different from other pushy agents, while still being a bit pushy himself. The gravity of the potential author’s experience and suffering must be considered carefully.
In the case of Micah Garen, a documentary filmmaker and independent journalist who went to Iraq and survived a kidnapping by a Shiite group in 2004, the subtle approach was effective. Mr. Garen’s agent, Richard Abate at ICM, didn’t contact Mr. Garen directly but sent an e-mail to his girlfriend, Marie-Hélène Carlton, who had been involved in securing his release.
“I didn’t push it,” said Mr. Abate. “I said, ‘If you want to discuss the possibility of writing a book about this some time, let me know.’ I didn’t use the phone. They responded two weeks later.” The correspondence resulted in American Hostage: A Memoir of a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to Win His Release, which was bought for $100,000 by Simon & Schuster. (The book’s sales were disappointing, although Publishers Weekly described it as “moving and suspenseful” in a very positive review.)
Sometimes, cable-TV news outlets make use of freelance scouts or “fixers” who can deliver entire families of kidnapped or missing children, trial jurors or victims of other crimes for interviews, movies and book contracts. One well-known operator in this arena is Larry Garrison, described by one media figure as the guy who, “at the minute something happens, seems to have everybody’s phone snumbers.” Mr. Garrison described his work this way: “I’m not only an executive producer in film and television, but I’m a journalist. I produce news segments, true stories, and I do both sides of the story.”
He said that in most cases where he proposed a true-life story, movie, book or segment for Good Morning America, he would call his targets, let them see him in person, and encourage them to Google him and investigate his résumé. His C.V. includes many well-known tabloid cases—he was smack in the middle of the media circus surrounding Natalee Holloway, the missing teen in Aruba, and co-wrote a book with Ms. Holloway’s father called Aruba: The Tragic Untold Story of Natalee Holloway and Corruption in Paradise. The Web site for his company, SilverCreek Entertainment, lists other projects in development, including a book called Guilty as Sin, Free as a Bird, by juror No. 5 in the Michael Jackson trial.
“I explain to my people that I’m there for them, to try and help them get their message out and not just see it as a spin, for ratings. I don’t sensationalize. And I’m not tied to one outlet, so there’s longevity with their story if they’ve got a message to get out. So that helps. And sometimes, when it’s appropriate, there may be a movie or a book,” Mr. Garrison said. “I try and do it always at the appropriate time. I’m not like other people [who are] very pushy.”
However, Mr. Garrison explained, some pushiness is still required.
“There’s a tremendous amount of competition,” he said. “And when you’re up against a Katie Couric, and Katie’s going in and you’re going in—sometimes I have more time to help them and can offer other outlets to bring them to, rather than just one outlet.”
Mr. Vigliano agreed that competition was indeed a factor that had to be weighed against the demands of taste, but that often the approach should be made immediately as the story is breaking, if at all possible.
“It depends on the situation. If it’s something that’s sensitive, I would wait. You take your best guess,” Mr. Vigliano said. “Everybody who’s interested in doing something with the person is going to be out there, so it’s important to be making contact with them sooner rather than later.”
He found one of his clients, Cindy Sheehan, who protested the Iraq war after her son was killed there in 2004, somewhat by chance, at the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s birthday party.
“I said something like, ‘I’m sure you’ve been approached a lot. I’d like to talk to you about a book when it’s appropriate,’” Mr. Vigliano said. “She said sure and gave me her e-mail address, and I was in touch with her via e-mail.” She is now working on her second memoir (she published Not One More Mother’s Child in 2005), which is due out later this year.
“You have to walk them through it,” Mr. Vigliano continued. “Ultimately, this is an opportunity for them to provide for themselves in a way that they haven’t been able to. And you want to make sure that you guide them through that responsibly. You don’t want just cheap exploitation of it.”
And then there are some dramas that even the most aggressive media bounty hunters won’t go near.
“I have studiously avoided sticking my nose in there,” said one literary agent, referring to the Jared Paul Stern debacle. “Is that a book—and if so, do I want to be affiliated with it? It’s a very tricky business with that. Some agents don’t want to dirty themselves.”
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.