8.15.2012

The Business of Writing Is...

Publishing life can give you lemons. The trick is to always have plenty of sugar on hand... 
You got yourself a writing contract! Hooraaaay! Break out the champagne and the confetti and take yourself down to Funkytown on the Kool & the Gang Celebration Good Times Express, because you should be dancin', yeah! 

Right? 

Well... sort of. But before you glitterbomb yourself and put on your boogie shoes, I want to say a few things to help put this whole next level in your writing career into perspective.

Writing is a creative and often romantic process. Writing for money, however, is first and foremost a business. Not just for you, but for the people investing in you. This is a truth that, as authors, we really don't want to face, because it involves a lot of surrender and compromise and other businessy things that are boring, annoying and/or difficult to understand. We'd rather create stuff and let the money flow in, but it just doesn't work that way. Even in self-publishing, you have to deal with the business ins and outs of all your books' carriers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Apple, etc, all have their fine print, and if you take the time to read it all, you will discover that you are risking a lot, and in the worst case scenario, you could wind up with your account suspended or outright banned for not complying with their Terms of Use, which would put a serious hurting in your earnings potential.

Then you get your contract in the mail from your publisher. It's all unicorns and rainbows for your ego, but the same careful reading of the fine print applies. This is especially true if you don't have an agent (btw, getting an agent also requires a contract, which you also need to pick apart with a fine-toothed comb before you sign). You will find that any contract you receive, whether from an agent or a publisher, has probably been written by lawyers and that legalese barely qualifies as English. In this instance, it is IMPERATIVE that you get a lawyer. And if your publisher or agent is worth a damn, they will also recommend the same. 

I am lucky to know several lawyers, and one of them (a very smart lady whom I trust without question in these matters) graciously offered her services to me pro bono. But it's worth a couple hundred bucks to sit down with one to have them explain the language of your deal with you. They will help you understand what it all means. They will underline and circle things that might need clarification. They will give you a much broader sense of what the purpose of a publishing contract actually is. The chief one: the contract is designed to cover their asses as much, if not more, than it covers yours. 

However, the contract is designed to be somewhat balanced. It should give you protection if THEY don't fulfill their end of the deal, and it should give THEM protection if you don't fulfill your end. If there are parts of the contract that you don't like, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad contract. It just makes it a contract. That's all part of the risk of signing one. That being said, there are red flags that should tell you if a contract is bad. I won't list them here, but this site is a good start to get a feel for some things you should be aware of and ask about if you encounter them. 

But what if your contract is good? You had your lawyer go over everything and your agent (if you have one) assures you that your contract is a great piece of paper that will be dipped in gold and used as a shining example of what all publishing contracts should aspire to be. 

Well first, congratulations! Second, don't hold your breath. Okay, I know I know, I'm such a damn cynical killjoy. But bear with me here. I've seen a lot of authors sign a lot of great contracts and still get boned in the end, all in very different ways. One of these authors is a good friend of mine. And though I will not name names to protect the innocent and not so innocent, I can say that this person is pretty good at doing due diligence and it all came crumbling down because the publisher did not live up to their end of the bargain (i.e. pay royalties). And because the publisher is now leaning on another clause in their now breached contract to try to essentially hold my friend's work for ransom, this once "good" contract has been rendered into something not even fit for the wiping of an ass. 

All this is to say you should enter into any agreement with a sober and sound mind. You might want that fame and success and feel a shoddy deal that benefits them more than you is the only way to do it, but I implore you to think things through and actually understand what you're signing. Chances are, if your contract is good and the company you're signing with is reputable, things will work out for you. But shit happens. In the worst case, you could owe them money or wind up with an orphaned book, and while this might not seem like such a terrible thing when you're still gung-ho intent on getting a book deal, it becomes something very sad and very frustrating when things don't go as expected. 

I'm very grateful that I wound up with my current publisher. They're good people and I feel they will do right by me (if you don't feel that way when you sign the paper, then you really shouldn't be signing it). However, this IS a business, and and it's important to keep yourself in a business frame of mind and recognize that there are risks and that things could all fall apart at any moment for any number of reasons, and you could wind up in a lawsuit for unpaid monies or fighting to get your rights back before it's all said and done.

So sure, go out and celebrate your new success and treasure the accomplishment that someone found your work worthy of putting their name and money on the line to publish. But realize that this is not the time to shrug off all the responsibilities that go along with that. You're in a whole new arena now. Things just got a lot more complicated. After you sign a contract, it's more important than ever to look out for yourself.