In the beginning, there was the word, and then there was the written word, and after that sufficing for a very long time, there was the internet. This is how the world has progressed. But the written word hasn’t completely been ousted by the internet and other electronic media. In fact, here’s an example of an internet site that is about to come out in print. I’m talking about the website Four Word Film Reviews. In order to understand how this came about I decided to interview the two men behind this story – Benj Clews, the man who created the website, and Michael Onesi, the man who took a site he loved and decided it could be published as a book.
Thanks Benj and Mike for doing this interview. As background for my readers, and to make a long story short, this website for writing film reviews in four words or less went live on the internet in late 1999 and over the years has attracted thousands of contributors (myself, included) and has hundreds of thousands of movie reviews. Moreover, it has been recognized by major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and Time Magazine, as well as a Webby nomination in 2005 for humor.
Davida: That’s pretty incredible Benj, and yet, you’re pretty humble about it all. When do you think this site really started to become something special?
Benj: That’d undoubtedly be when we started to attract regular reviewers. This would have been around 2002, meaning there was something like 2 years of basically me submitting reviews of highly questionable quality. Then the site got picked up by Yahoo as website of the day and almost immediately there was this flurry of new reviewers and new approaches to four word reviewing I’d never seen before.
Pretty sure it was then that I figured out what the site was. To me originally, it’d been just an attempt at summing up films quickly. But now it was becoming serious criticism, multilayered puns, digs at celebrity, askew perspectives on storylines and just plain screwed up thinking that made me wonder about the sanity of some of these people.
That’s when I knew we had something special. The site had outgrown my blinkered view of what it was in so many ways I’d never imagined and with each day the reviews were only coming thicker, faster and funnier.
Davida: Well, it has certainly taken off since then. So much so that I know you had to enlist the help of members to vet the reviews. And even that didn’t help – since the popularity of the site became so great that you had to put a cap on weekly submissions of reviews just to keep up with the volume. I’d say that’s about as fast and thick as you could have ever imagined.
Mike, it was your idea to turn the site into a book. What made you come up with this idea? I mean, it seems like most print media are going from the dead-tree version to the Internet, and you decided to try the opposite. Why?
Mike: I have to thank Jeremy Caplan, a reporter at Time Magazine. He wrote a, Aug. 21, 2008 story about ‘microwriting’ – the trend of writing shorter. For examples, he mentioned Twitter, interviewed Benj about FWFR.com and wrote about a New York Times bestselling book called Six Word Memoirs, where people write their life stories in six words. I just kept thinking “If six-word memoirs can become a best-selling book, why not Four Word Film Reviews?” The idea just stuck in my head for about a week. I didn’t know Benj very well – he just knew of me as one of the site’s top reviewers, but I had never spoken to him. I figured I’d send him an e-mail and see if he was interested in trying to turn the website into a book. I knew nothing about the publishing industry, but at the time I was a newspaper editor and had some friends of friends who published books so I thought I could figure it out.
Davida: So take us through this – how did this all come about?
Mike: When we started, I told Benj we’d spend a year or two trying to find a publisher and if nobody was interested, we’d self-publish the book. Three weeks after we started sending out query letters, we had four agents interested. I only sent our three letters to publishers and all three replied back to say they were interested, too. Two of them were major Canadian publishers (Penguin Canada and McClelland & Stewart). Both took it to their executive board to decide if they’d like to buy it but ultimately passed. But I was still thrilled. Most first-time writers never get to the executive board stage — Benj and I went to two boards within weeks of starting our search for a publisher.
We were much more successful than I could have ever imagined. The only thing that could make this story better is if there was a bidding war among publishers and we signed a six-figure advance. Unfortunately only one publisher was interested — a mid-size publisher in Boston, who gave us a tiny advance.
Davida: Despite all this, did you have any worries about the process?
Mike: We knew nothing about the publishing world and there are a lot of crooked agents, so the way to find out if a literary agency is any good is to do a Google search with the agency name and the word “clients”. If the agency has represented authors and books that have decent sales, you know they are legit.
One of the top 10 moments of my life came when I was doing research about one of the literary agencies that offered to represent Benj and me. It was at the stage where we had just started sending out query letters and got a great response from agents.
I typed in “Sanford J. Greenburger” — our agency — and clients and the first name that popped up was Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. I literally looked at the computer screen for a minute and could hardly breathe. I immediately called Benj’s house and got a hold of Lisa (Benj’s wife) and told her “Tell Benj the Da Vinci Code people want our book!!!” It turns out that Sanford J Greenburger is one of the top literary agencies in the U.S. It’s more than 80 years old and has represented Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Umberto Eco. I was on cloud nine after that.
Davida: Totally understandable – anyone would be thrilled to be represented by that caliber of agent. It all sounds very exciting. So how long did all this take you?
Mike: From the point I said “I think FWFR would make a good book. Maybe I’ll approach Benj to see if he is interested” to the time the book hits stores shelves will be two years — light speed in the publisher world. (The date of the Time Magazine article about FWFR.com that inspired me to approach Benj was August 21, 2008. The launch date of FWFR: The Book is August 18, 2010.)
Davida: That really is fast.And to make it all the more difficult,I know the two of you are on different continents – Benj is in London and Mike in Canada. What’s more, from what I understand, the two of you have never even met. Did this cause either of you any pause?
Mike: I remember when the agent offered a contract; I wanted to get a lawyer to read it over. I thought about asking Benj to pay for part of the cost but I remember thinking Benj would likely think I’m some con artist trying to get money from him. “Hi Benj, I’m the guy you meet over the internet. Let’s enter into a business together. WOW — things are going great. The Da Vinci Code people want us! All you have to do is send me $200 to help pay for the lawyer and…” So I just paid for the lawyer myself.
Benj, I’ve never asked you this before, but at any point did you think “Things just seem too good to be true, I wonder if this guy is conning me?” If I was in your shoes, I would have thought that.
Benj: I don’t think at any point I thought you might be conning me since you didn’t ask for any money, just phone chats (typically with you footing the bills for those too!). I might have felt differently had you asked me to pay for something in the early stages but by the point I actually did need to invest money into this (hiring a lawyer to write up the watertight T&Cs for the website) we’d been back and forth about the book for so long it seemed far too elaborate to be anything but genuine.
In fact, when I came to hire a lawyer I was worried I was going to come off as scamming you – sending you these wire transfer details for some firm only I’d been in contact with! And this was made all the worse by me worrying I might have gotten us both scammed by some pretend lawyer. Even though it was probably only a week, it seemed like forever for the lawyer to confirm he’d gotten payment and actually send us anything.
Davida: Sounds almost too good to be true. Were there any problems during this whole process?
Mike: The agent/publisher search all happened when fwfr.com had its biggest crash ever – it was offline for five days. So agents were calling to say “This proposal looks really good” while other agents were calling to say “This proposal looks really good but why can’t I find the website?”
I remember sending panicky e-mails over to Benj saying “Agents are calling! Fix the website before we lose them! Hurry!!!”
Benj: Meanwhile, I was making these hysterical calls to my web hosting company every five minutes. Turns out the server hosting fwfr.com was in its final death throes. Seriously, I just managed to get the data off minutes before it stopped responding completely. This is the kind of stuff web developers have nightmares about (those that don’t regularly back-up anyway) and wouldn’t you know it? It just had to happen when we absolutely needed the website up.
Davida: I guess that will teach you – and everyone – to remember to back up our on-line stuff as often as possible. But all-in-all, these seem like pretty minor setbacks and problems, and it looks like it’s now all smooth sailing from here on in. I’m truly looking forward to having my own copy, and I also wanted to thank you both for including some of my own reviews in the book. Seeing one’s words in print is always exciting, even if it’s only a few words here and there.
By the way, if I were you, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll have to revise and update it in a year or two. You two could become the minimalist version of Leonard Maltin!
Thank you both for this fascinating interview and here’s hoping Four Word Film Reviews becomes a best seller!
The book Four Word Film Reviews will be available to buy in North America from shops as of August 18, but will be available to purchase from July 19 from all major internet book sellers including Amazon (both US and UK sites), Borders, Barnes & Noble and The Book Depository.