Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
You’ve been writing novels for years, hoping, praying, and waiting for this very moment. Now that it’s here, you’re stunned–and it occurs to you that you don’t know exactly what to do.
Your first inclination is to say, “YES!” to anything, to everything suggested because you’ve waited so very long, worked so very hard, and finally–dear God, finally–someone wants to buy your book.
In a word, don’t. Don’t agree to anything–not yet. You’ve got to take off your “finally” creative hat and put on your business hat. For your own sake–because what you agree to now, at this moment, can impact your entire career–and for the sake of other writers–because what you agree to now does impact other writers’ sales.
TO DO LIST
1. Express your appreciation of the editor’s interest in your work.
2. Learn exactly who is making an offer to buy your work and exactly what s/he is offering.
3. Write it down. You won’t remember the fine points.
4. Tell the editor you’ll weigh the matter carefully and get back with him/her.
5. Hang up the phone.
6. I repeat because your inclination is to say more and you shouldn’t–hang up the phone!
7. Read Laura Kinsale’s Contract Mantra. As an aspiring professional, you’ve probably read it many times before. But read it again now because things have changed for you.
Now, rather than a “finally” creative hat, you’re wearing your “business” hat–or you should be. And you must look at terms and protect your long-term interests, as well as your short-term ones, as a business person and not as a creative one. This advice holes true whether or not you’re agented. You are responsible for your business interests. You must be aware of the implications of those interests in order to do what is best to meet your career goals.
If you’re agented, the call, will have come from your agent. Discuss the contract offered thoroughly with her. Not only the advance and royalty rates. The terms.
If you’ve done your business homework, you know that literary contracts are no place for the innocent or the unprepared. You could end up selling your pseudonym, or giving the publisher an option on every book ever write. One “s” can make a remarkable difference in what rights you retain and what rights you grant the publisher. Know all these things have happened. And unless you’re prepared, they can happen again–to you!
It isn’t that any publisher tries to take advantage of you. It’s that this is a business, and it’s every editor’s obligation to their publishing company–their employer–to negotiate the very best possible contract s/he is capable of negotiating. You, the writer, and your agent, must take the same position and negotiate the best possible contract you can negotiate. To do that, you need to know what is typical and normal in literary contracts so that your term requests are practical and reasonable.
If your agent is a good one–and hopefully, you wouldn’t be with one that rated less than excellent–the agent will protect your interests. But agents too are human, and human beings make mistakes. Doesn’t your being an informed, knowledgeable, and aware partner who works with your agent make sense? A check-and-balance system is an asset. And it’s worth remembering that ultimately, you will live with this agreement. That means, ultimately, you should be comfortable with it.
You’re now off the phone. First, express your joy that “finally” is today.
You might cry, call your spouse, your parents, your best friend, your critique group. Enjoy this time! Creativity has worked long and hard for the privilege. It’s earned it!
Now, Creativity has had its moment. It’s time to shelve it and put Business back in the forefront.
It’s time to switch hats.
You’re going to have to put a muzzle on Creativity, too. Because it’s going to say, “Agree to anything, you fool!” Business is much more prepared to handle the transaction with less emotion and more sense. Business is not emotional.
TO DO LIST:
1. If you are not yet agented and knowledgeable of literary contracts, refresh yourself on negotiable terms.
2. Make a list of things that are important to you in their order of importance–a priority listing.
3. Know your “deal-breakers.” If, for example, writing under your legal name is not negotiable to you–meaning, if the publisher doesn’t agree, then you’ll not sell to that publisher–know it before you begin negotiations.
4. Know on what terms you must be flexible, you will be flexible, and you will not be flexible.
This is important. Unless you’ve determined and defined your career goals and your “plan of attack” for attaining them, you’re going to be in a fog seeking them. Fog can keep you drifting and wandering for a long time. Know what you want and again–very important–know what is typical and reasonable for a first contract.
A tip from the trenches and well-meaning advice from one who has been there and done that:
If you are not agented and unfamiliar with literary contracts, it is truly in your best interest not to negotiate this contract. Again, you’ll live with the terms for a long time. Someone sharp and familiar needs to be protecting your interests and, unfortunately, you’ve waited too long to do so yourself. So now you have several options.
1. Ask a reputable agent to negotiate for you. (The editor will be relieved to negotiate with someone on familiar ground, not upset.) It’s common for the agent to reduce his/her commission to ten-percent on this contract, because you’ve already sold the work.
2. Hire a literary attorney to review the contract for you. (Typical attorneys are NOT familiar with literary contracts, so make sure you hire a literary attorney.)
Note the important differences between an attorney and an agent. The attorney will review the contract, make recommendations on changes, and then his/her job is done. The agent is a party to the contract so long as it exists.
An agent steps in, phones the publisher, negotiates the contract, and then phones you with results to which you’ll agree or request modifications. The agent, having worked with the publisher or other publishers on similar novels is, in my opinion, advantageous because s/he will be a party to the contract for its duration. Should complications arise, the agent will know how to handle them and you won’t muddy up your relationship with your editor on business interests. You’ll work with your editor on creative interests. There’s a clear-cut advantage in this.
Many writers feel a category novel sale doesn’t require an agent, that the contracts are boiler-plate standard and very little is negotiable.
Once, that might have been the case. But beware of that mindset; times have changed. The problems cited earlier–sale of pseudonym, option on ALL future novels–arose on category novel sale contracts. Authors now wanting to sell other types of novels to other houses, but first must send manuscripts–many of which are totally unsuitable–to their category house to work within their option clauses.
Remember, you’re writing in a global market. Your interests extend beyond borders and into future markets that now might not even exist. Terms vary in category just as they do in other genres and types of novels. So don’t believe that you can’t get hurt or negotiate any term. You can, and you can.
In the perfect situation, you’d have studied the market, would know what’s typically standard, and be familiar enough with literary contracts that you’d be savvy enough to know what is and isn’t negotiable. If, however, you’re unenlightened at the time you get the call, the best advice I can give you is to get an agent to step in–and make a vow to yourself to get smart on the business end of your business.
If you get the call and you’re not savvy enough to negotiate, know that the publisher will not be upset at your calling in an agent. Truthfully, s/he will be relieved. It’s much faster and less troublesome to negotiate with someone accustomed to handling these matters.
If you choose to negotiate alone, then you and the publisher will agree to an advance, royalty rates, revisions required, possibly schedule a publication date, and likely little else.
In about two months, you’ll get a written contract. You’ll read it, and likely have a lot of questions. You’ll phone the editor (at some houses, someone in the contracting department) and discuss the questions.
When resolutions are reached, you’ll hand-edit the contract, initialing each change, sign, and then return it to the editor.
After the editor gets a signed copy of the contract, then you’ll get your first check.
Checks can be split in numerous ways. If not revisions are required, you’ll get the entire amount of the advance for this book. It could be disbursed in two parts: half on signing the contract. Half on acceptance (by the publisher) of the complete manuscript.
Some contracts call for splitting the advance in thirds. Part on signing, part on acceptance of the proposal, and part on accepting the complete manuscript. It’s rare that this is the case on a first sale, since full manuscripts are normally submitted.
The most vital advice I can give you is to do your homework before you get the call. Be prepared for it, just as you prepare to write by doing research. When you do get the call, don’t agree to anything until you’ve let Creativity emotionally react and Business takes over.
Lastly, if you aren’t intimately familiar with literary contracts, pay a reputable literary or agent to negotiate for you. In the long term, it will make your life less stressful and that’s always money well spent.
While this article isn’t inclusive, I hope it has covered the basics sufficiently so that your reaction will be ingrained and familiar and natural to you . . . when you get the call.