Friday, April 24, 2009

Death of a Contract II: The Hypothetical's Revenge

Dear Rejecter:

How about this scenario: Agent sells author's first novel to a well-known house and a well-regarded editor. Agent then leaves agency for another line of work, and is succeeded by another agent from same agency, who is not nearly as committed and energetic. Editor who bought book jumps to another house without taking the book with her. New editor clearly doesn't understand the manuscript, dislikes it and sends a lengthy letter essentially demanding a stem-to-stern rewrite with major changes to key characters that will destroy intent of said novel. Agent is useless and apparently has not even read the manuscript. After some more dicking around, editor cancels contract.

Heard that one often?

Usually when I'm answering questions, they're not so much theoretical as situations the author is in or heard about. Here we have a situation that's pretty far gone in the theoretical area, but I'll look at it anyway. The situation is: author gets book contract via agent, and then both agent and editor abandon her.

(1) The agent. You can fire your agent if you don't like them. Most agents work only off a verbal agreement with their clients anyway (though a contract is not unusual) so all you have to do is say, "I don't want you to be my agent anymore." The tricky thing here is that the agency's name is undoubtedly on the contract. The agent represents the author, so though the author's name appears on the contract and it requires the author's signature, somewhere in the first few paragraphs of a typical contract is a notation making it clear the author is represented by the agency, and all monies will go to the agency address and not the author's address. If you have a legitimate reason to fire your agent, but their name is on a contract, they may fight to keep it there and collect their 15% on future royalties. I'm not actually sure how you would go about solving this situation if you felt the 15% wasn't deserved, as I've never had this come up before. In this case, though, the 15% is deserved, as the agency did make the deal, even if it wasn't that particular agent at the agency who made the deal.

There's some issues between agents that go on for years, usually not involving the author. For example, my boss used to be a subagent at another agency when she was starting out. Her boss got a cut off her earnings. When the contracts were signed, they had the agency name on them. Now it's been a few years, but there are still some royalties being earned by authors who have followed my boss when she formed her own agency, but as her old boss had a part in the original contract, the money still goes through her old boss and has to be passed on to her. We get a lot of mail with that agency's letterhead on it. You would think agents wouldn't fight over pennies (in this case it's not a fight; it's a completely mutual agreement that does not subtract from the author's cut in any way) but sometimes they're not pennies. You never really know if a book is going to succeed wildly or get a second wind (especially if it's a political book) and royalties are going to be rolling in; the agent and their old boss have it worked out as to who gets what and where before the check is cut to the author, still at the rate of 15% for the agent(s).

(2) The editor. This may be a problem and it may not be. If the book was fairly far along in the process, it might not be a big deal. Editors work on things they don't care for all the time, either because they got handed someone else's workload or because they're an assistant to a bigger editor or a long list of other reasons. Editors are editors; their responsibility is to edit, which can be as minimal as "let's see if there's any huge inconsistencies before it goes to the copyeditor." If the deal is done, and the advance has been paid, and the publisher has already invested money in publicity for the book and hours of editorial, then the publisher has a good reason to go forward with the book and the editor has a good reason to just do their job and push the book to the copyeditor's and be done with it. If the editor decided to kill the book, there would need to be a really legitimate reason to justify all the time/money already spent on it. If the editor doesn't care for working on the book, they'll probably rush it to the copyeditor, who usually has no emotional investment in the book and is simply doing their job, which is to copyedit the hell out of the manuscript before it goes to layout. Once it's in the copyeditor's hands, it's pretty much going to be published unless something unusual happens, like the company goes bankrupt.

EDIT: So I'm now told this was not a theoretical; it happened long ago. Says the person who emailed me:

It wasn't a theoretical situation -- all of it happened several years ago. The book had already been scheduled (as a paperback original) and the cover design was being discussed. The author in question did drop the agency. A portion of the advance had been paid, and the author was never dunned for it. I've had writers and agents tell me this is the worst publishing story they've ever heard.

I'm not going to change whole post around, but yeah, that is a pretty bad situation. It also is very rare, I'm assuming.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Death of a Contract

I was expecting to make this post under more depressing circumstances, but I reached an agreement with my editor. I decide to make the post anyway, because it's informative.

Let's say you've got a book deal with a publisher, agent or no agent. You get the long contract in the mail - easily 10-17 pages - and it feels like you're signing away your work. While you are signing a binding legal agreement, you're not actually selling your soul, nor is your publication really guaranteed, though it's mostly guaranteed. Once the contract is signed by both parties, there are three essential ways a contract can be severed:

(1) The author fails to live up to the obligations stated in the contract. The author doesn't deliver the manuscript by the agreed-upon date, the author refuses to revise, the author dies (the company is not obligated to publish the book if the author dies before delivering the contract, though the estate of the author can push for publication if the manuscript has been delivered), etc.

(2) The publisher fails to live up to the obligations stated in the contract. The publisher does not pay the advance money by the agreed-upon dates or in the agreed-upon amount(s). The publisher does not publish the book within the agreed-upon time (usually a year after signing, sometimes two years). The publisher goes under and stops publishing books. Etc.

(3) The author and the publisher do not reach an agreement on the final version of the manuscript. Either party can sever the contract over this, though it tends to be mutual because there's been a ton of fighting leading up to it. Generally editors buy manuscripts that they like, then ask for some revisions to clean up the manuscript. Sometimes the author will deliver a manuscript radically different from the one that was bought (the version that is "delivered" is a version delivered AFTER signing the contract, not necessarily the version the editor read when deciding whether to buy the book). Sometimes the author will refuse to do revisions because they're too radical (in the author's opinion). Sometimes the real life situation the book is based on, especially if it's a political book, will change dramatically and the author will feel that the book is no longer relevant or needs so much altering that it's not worth publishing.

Either way it's a painful process, feeling a tiny bit like a divorce. If the book is not published, any advance money paid must be returned, though if the author decides to just keep it, the publisher has to then sue to the author to try and get it, and if the advance is small enough the legal fees won't be worth it. The author, if they have other books at the same company, may say, "Take it out of my future royalties for book X" so that the author doesn't have to write a check and the publisher doesn't have to process it. Any money not involving the advance spent by the publisher - in editorial hours, promotion, sales, design, etc - is considered lost and the author is not responsible for publisher's expenses.

Publishers try not to let this happen, but it does. Authors die, or disappear, or don't deliver manuscripts. Publishers are bought by other companies and forced to reduce their line. Publishers go under. The editor who bought the book moves to another company and takes the author with them, involving a whole new contract. It happens. It's one of the reasons the contract is so long, covering a ton of possibilities that are not likely to ever happen but occasionally do. The contract is meant to state what everyone's responsibility is in the production of the book and what happens when situation X or Y occurs, and who is responsible for resolving it. Authors and publishers only go to court when (a) huge sums of money are involved and (b) someone is wildly violating the terms of the contract.

There was a case a year or so ago where someone sued their publisher for "failing to promote the book successfully." Essentially she blamed the publisher for the failure of the book and its low sales. I don't remember who it was or how this case turned out, but it would be a difficult case for a judge in my opinion, as nowhere in the contract does it stipulate what the publisher has to do to promote the book, just that it has to do something. The money allotted to publicity and promotion is not a number the author sees at any point, and would look like monopoly money anyway, because it's impossible to tell what those numbers represent unless you work for that particular company's imprint and know precisely what they typically spend on a book in that genre in the area of publicity and what the budget was when they were deciding and how feasible it was to promote this book anyway. In other words, you would have to be the publisher.

Anyone know how that case turned out?

Monday, April 20, 2009


Dear Rejector,

my first question is : do you think that blogging can pay as well as writing novels can?

Yes, if you're the chick who thought up "i can haz cheezburger." Otherwise, probably not. The money to be made in blogs is pretty illusory. I think the ads in my blog have made me about $70 total.

My second question is: how did you become a writer?

I started writing when I was in 3rd grade. As to how or why, I don't really know. As to how I got published: practice, practice, practice, followed by rejection, rejection, rejection followed by a little bit of luck and a decent manuscript after 10 bad ones.