Contractual fluidity

Hello, readers —

Yes, I know, I promised you an entry today on how to write an author bio, and I assure you that I will give you one soon. Today, however, I feel a very strong compulsion to discuss a severe disadvantage under which writers, particularly first-time ones, suffer: contract fluidity.

There are a lot of truisms in the publishing industry, so I don’t feel that I will be telling tales out of school if I mention that on average, publishing contracts hugely favor the publishing company. The publisher gets to set how much the author is paid per copy, when the deadlines are, when and how the book is published, how it will (or won’t) be promoted, and, to a very great extent, the content. It’s like that old joke:

Q: Where does a 300-pound gorilla sit?

A: Anywhere he wants.

From the author’s point of view, until she is well-established, any publisher is a 300-pound gorilla looking for festival seating at her concert. Few of the salient contract points are truly negotiable, unless the author is already well established or a celebrity in her own right. You could not, for instance, decide unilaterally that since the contract specifies that the author will receive a 12.5% share of the cover price for hardback and a 7% share for trade paper, that your book was going to come out in hardback. The publisher makes all of these decisions, with few exceptions; the contract just codifies them. And we writers, by and large, accept that.

What comes as a shock to most writers — myself included, I’ll admit — is that while the parts of the contract that specify what the author must perform tend to be adhered to with praiseworthy rigidity by all parties, the parts that specify what the publisher will do in return and when tend to be treated as mere guidelines.

An author could not, for instance, refuse to deliver a manuscript by the date specified in the contract, or neglect to perform requested revisions, or back out of touring to promote the book, without being in breach of contract and sued accordingly. A publisher can, by contrast, change or ignore contracted deadlines, not honor agreements set forth in the contract about presentation specifics, and/or not pay the advance and royalties in a timely manner.

Yes, you read that correctly; one of the best reasons to work through an agent is to have an enforcer for the money part of the contract. A standard publishing contract specifies that 1/3 of the advance will be paid on signing, 1/3 upon delivery of the manuscript, and 1/3 when the book is released. However, it is far from uncommon for the advance check not to show up for months after the contract is signed, or for six months or a year to pass between royalty checks.

Let me ground this in practical terms. In my own case, my publisher bought my book just under eleven months ago. Nine months ago, I delivered the manuscript — two weeks ahead of schedule, as a matter of fact. The first installment of the advance arrived three weeks after that, roughly two and a half months after signing. And not a kopeck since.

Shocked? Don’t be. This is a relatively normal state of affairs.

While that’s sinking in, let me hasten to inform you that the contract also specified that the publisher would furnish me with editorial feedback on the book by August 15, two months after receiving the manuscript. I would then have two months, until October 15, to formulate a new draft, after which my publisher could accept or submit new revision requests by December 15.

Tell me, what is today’s date?

The dates I had set my watch by simply haven’t applied. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, except to declare the contract broken and cancel publication.

There’s the rub, you see: how many writers would actually cancel a book contract? Would you stop publication on a book you have been slaving over for years, just because of a technicality? Or even something major?

Exactly. Think the inmates of publishing houses aren’t aware of that? Good answer; you’re starting to get a feel for the logic of the industry.

Nor is timing the only common bone of contention. Contractually, as I mentioned back in the fall, I had consultation rights over the cover design and title approval.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

I was simply presented with a new title by the marketing department — which, in case you don’t know, is the norm for first books — and although I kicked and screamed about it, it stuck. I did not even know that a final decision had been made until my book appeared for presale on Amazon under that title, with a book cover that I’d never seen before. And, of course, the release date — which I also have historically learned first from Amazon — has changed so many times that even my relatives have stopped boasting about when my book will hit the shelves.

And this, incidentally, is for a book that everyone at the publishing house purportedly LIKES. They keep telling me what a good writer I am, how compelling the story I’m telling is, and how little revision it needed. I have every indication that they even like me personally, in fact. But that hasn’t necessarily made them stick to the contract, or stopped them from adding conditions to it after the fact.

And how trained are writers to tiptoe around the 300-pound gorilla? You will note, please, that I am still referring to these people as my publishers. Which means that I have not put my wee foot down and said ENOUGH.

Why? Because none of this is particularly unusual, although having all of it happen on one book is. As I said, contractual fluidity is proverbial, at least insofar as it applies to the publishing house’s end of the deal. Because authors do get sued when they don’t live up to their end of the contract; publishing houses, by and large, do not.

You probably already know why. It’s all about reputation. A writer who insists upon the letter of the contract is “difficult,” a surprisingly hard moniker to shake. Difficult behavior runs the gamut from not turning in manuscripts when promised (which particularly annoys agents) to fighting with editors over piddling changes to not answering e-mails. A difficult writer flies into a fury when telephoned a request. Things like that.

Basically, if you’ve ever heard of Norman Mailer doing it, it’s probably what the industry would consider difficult behavior in a writer. If you want to talk proverbial.

They are not nearly so easy to offend as writers’ conference-circuit gossip would have us believe, though; after all, most of the people making the judgment are New Yorkers, who are used to people getting in their faces. Contrary to popular opinion, no one is going to hold a grudge against a writer who picks up the phone and calls an agent who’s had her requested manuscript for two months, for instance. A difficult writer would have called in a week, and every day thereafter, using language generally debarred from PG films.

(In case you’re curious, the reason you have always been told at conferences NEVER to call is that the agents who say it are speaking to a crowd. They want EVERYBODY not to call; in other words, their lives are hell when every writer who sends a submission follows up with a phone call, as if they were selling aluminum siding. They don’t like the hard sell, so it seldom works. But individual writers who have a legitimate concern that the three-week exclusive the agent asked for on the manuscript elapsed two weeks ago certainly should call.)

What will get you dismissed immediately is being unprofessional, not difficult. You generally have to push someone’s buttons mightily to be labeled difficult, like screaming into a telephone, whereas being labeled unprofessional can be as simple as handing someone a manuscript printed in the wrong typeface.

Having a reputation for being difficult can make editors reluctant to pick up your work, certainly. Since writers know that, we tend to be afraid to rock the boat at all. Still, even with all of us holding stock-still in rowboats all over the nation, every so often, a soft-spoken writer will find that she has inadvertently offended someone, simply by innocently asserting that since the contract exists, perhaps it ought to be honored.

Welcome to my day.

Today, I had a vivid flashback to a college production of Peter Pan. I played Nana, the nursemaid dog, in a costume that makes me blush to think of now; because it was one of those highly experimental productions that youthful exuberance makes seem plausible, I also played a pirate on Cap’n Hook’s ship (I was known for my hornpipe), the Never-Never Bird (defies explanation), and a mythical sea sprite who capered in the waves.

You kind of had to be there.

As Nana, as you may perhaps imagine, I spent a whole lot of rehearsal time scuffling about on my unpadded hands, knees, and elbows. Painful, even for a 19-year-old, especially when we moved into our performance space, which for reasons best known to the architect had concrete floors. Naturally, I asked for gloves and knee pads, but somehow, they never materialized. Oh, by dress rehearsal I had some mittens tarted up as paws, but they had no padding.

(Actual quote from the knee specialist who regularly treats Seahawks, gazing intently at MRI pictures of my knees a decade and a half later: “No kidding? I’m amazed you were able to walk after that.”)

The director told me that my requests were unreasonable, that padding was expensive and bulk would spoil the line of my costume. I stood it as long as I could, but eventually, the pain would become too great, and I’d ask again. And thus, my friends, did I attain the reputation of being a “difficult” actress: because I pointed out that permanent damage was being done to my knees.

Not that this has anything to do with my book or anything.

I wish I had some words of wisdom about how to handle contractual fluidity, but today, I honestly don’t. All I can do in this instance is to let you know about it as a phenomenon, so you don’t feel singled out if it happens to you. Which I hope and pray that it doesn’t.

As nearly as I can tell — and this is the voice of experience gleaned over a decade of marketing my own writing and observing the progress of my friends and clients — most people in the publishing industry simply don’t understand that heaping stress upon writers is counterproductive. As any artist could tell them, stress interferes with the creative process. We’re not copy-generating machines; we’re living, breathing people who would like to be treated with respect, not sat upon by gorillas.

This is definitely a business where it behooves you to bring your own knee and elbow pads from home.

My, I’m gloomy today, amn’t I? I’ll try to snap back into cheerful mode again by next week. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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