Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's Not ALL Fun and Games

Any assistant or former assistant to an agent will tell you that the most aggravating job is to review a contract. This comes up from time to time, especially when there's considerable negotiations between a bestselling author and the publishing house. The job I'm given is to make sure that the version we have lines up with the version we want, which is usually the standard boilerplate with some revisions. There are multiple reasons why we do this. We could have forgotten something to add or ask to be deleted, there could have been an honest miscommunication, or (very occasionally) the company deleted a key line here or there and hoped we wouldn't notice. This is why you should get an agent. We have all of the standard company boilerplates around in the office for each major company, and we can line them up.

It's more difficult than it sounds. A publishing contract is anywhere from 10-18 pages long, in legal-sized paper with lots of small print. Often for some ridiculous reason the font size or alignment has changed between revisions and it makes it hard to "line up" the lines with a ruler. Sometimes entire paragraphs are just realigned and I have to flip through and find them on the old version. Sometimes words are just rearranged, which is technically a change but not a significant one - it just throws you off. It's a very tiring mental activity; I'm glad I only have to do it once in a while.

The reason the contract is so long is because it covers every eventuality for anything ever, including (1b) "acts of [G-d]." The contract is meant to protect both the author and the publisher and make sure the money goes to the right people by the right time. More recently paragraphs have had to be added not just about audio books, but e-Books, "electronic media," and "media that may be invented in the future."

Standard topics include:

- The author's responsibility to get the manuscript in on time and the publishing company's deadline to ask approval for changes

- Who pays for what legal fees if the author and company are sued for content in the book (called "the Work")

- What happens if the publishing company goes bankrupt or the author expires in terms of rights to the material

- What percentage of royalties are given to the author for bargain book contracts and bulk orders.

The good news is that the language is pretty plain, and if you happen to be an author negotiating a contract without an agent's help, you just need to read it very carefully and make sure it doesn't sound like you're going to get ripped off at some point or abandoned if you get sued.

Sound exciting? The publishing world is for you!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Copyright Law

I was emailed with a clarification about copyright issues based on earlier posts. This person is far more knowledgable than me on the laws of copyright and therefore I am posting their email (with their permission) so that we all can learn a bit more. If you are a lawyer, you can respond with various other points, but I can't answer questions about this, as it is not my material.

1. The California Supreme Court has never held that everything posted on the internet is fair use. Furthermore, the California Supreme Court can only bind California courts, and because copyright is a federal statute, anyone who wanted to get around such a ridiculous decision would simply sue in federal court. If this really happened, I'd like to see a citation.

2. Everything posted on the internet is copyrighted by the author. Now, if the original author posted the material, the author's posting on the internet usually implies a pretty broad license for what other people can do with it: read it, download it to cache, maybe even save copies. But the fact that it's posted on the internet doesn't mean it can be subjected to wholesale redistribution. And in many cases, things are posted to the internet without the imprimatur of the original author. Do you really think that if I retype Harry Potter on my blog, that there's a fair use right for you to then copy what I've written? Of course not.

3. What you posted, from what I gathered, was a hunk of material and a criticism. That is fair use, plain and simple. You're allowed to quote material to ridicule it, or to prove a point, or any number of things. This country is founded on the idea that we can ridicule others' words, and copyright doesn't prevent you from doing that. See 17 U.S.C. 107 (noting that criticism and comment are fair use).

4. You can be sued for copyright infringement if you don't make money off of the infringement.
First, the person can seek an injunction forcing you to take the material off your site. You won't have to pay up, but you'll have to deal with lawyers, and lawyers suck. See 17 U.S.C. 503.
Second, the person can claim that your posting caused them to LOSE money (e.g., they were selling their story for cash on their website, but now nobody will buy it because they're downloading it for free). See 17 USC 504(b) (allowing suit for damages in addition to profits).
Third, the person can claim statutory damages in some instances. Statutory damages for willful infringement can get as high as $150,000 per infringing copy. Ouch! See 17 U.S.C. 504(c).

5. Copyright law does not prohibit you from claiming a story belongs to someone else. For instance, if I send you a link to a story and I say "I wrote it" but actually, it's Harlan Ellison's story, I am just a liar and a cheat. I haven't infringed copyright. Copyright grants certain exclusive rights. Copyright law gives no right of attribution, at least not to authors of written works. See 17 U.S.C. 106 (listing exclusive rights granted under copyright statute); 107 (granting rights of attribution to visual works only).

6. If your post is saved on a server in another country, you are still liable for copyright infringement if you committed the infringing act while in the United States.

Thank you, reader.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Query Advice: Doing Your Research

I do wonder about linking up your book with something the agent represents. Perhaps the agent represents a book that is similar in some ways to yours--and because you researched them and know this, you are querying them. I've read this is a good thing to do--is it?

Yes, this is generally a good thing to do. It definitely won't hurt and it might help. However, we still only care about your writing, so you could say you personally know every single author on our list and it wouldn't help if you don't know where commas go.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More Bad Query Advice: You Are Not Dan Brown

The third is a slightly different set of advice given out to writers: compare your work to that of established authors in your genre. I've heard a lot of reasons for this, from "it proves you know the market" to it giving the agent an idea of your book's tone. I've also heard a great many agents say it's a horrible idea. Do you have an opinion on this?

Oh G-d, yes. We see this all the time, and while I suppose there might be a way to make it not harm your query, I've yet to see that. To me it's just a technique for spotting what I call an "overedited query." While it's not necessarily a bad thing that writers do research on what a query letter is supposed to be (in fact, it's a very good thing), it becomes obvious after a while that they're pulling out every trick they read on every website to sell me their manuscript, when in fact, all I really care about is if the hook is well-written and makes the book sound interesting. The only thing we care about is your writing. Listing writing credentials is only a plus because it proves to us that other people have seen your writing and assessed that it is quality.

Do not compare yourself to a bestselling author and/or literary genius. You are not currently a bestselling author and time has yet to determine whether you are a literary genius. Also, the other reason for comparing your work to the writing of other authors is bogus when you think about it. Someone will say, "I've written a legal thriller like the works of John Grisham." Look, if you've written a legal thriller and it's good, it will be read by people who like legal thrillers, so chances are it will be read by people who like John Grisham. That doesn't mean you're him. It doesn't sell your book to us; it just makes you seem presumptous about your writing. If your hook invokes in us the feeling that, "Wow, this is just like a John Grisham novel - it'll sell a million copies!" then you've done your Grisham-related job. His name didn't have to be mentioned.

Don't waste space, don't waste words, and don't waste our time. That's all we ask. Oh, and include an SASE if you actually want a response.

Bad Query Advice: Discussing Your Audience

It's almost impossible to trace how rumors get started. There are agents with differing opinions, agents who publish books to make money, people who are NOT agents publishing books about query letters to make money, and the like. The more generous side of me thinks that at the beginning of this game of telephone, some agent or assistant was attempting to give out good advice about a specific situation, and too many people took it the wrong way.

Bad Advice #1 - "Discuss your potential audience."

This only applies to full non-fiction proposals (the ones that are formatted to go on for pages). It does not apply to query letters for both fiction and non-fiction. We know who your potential audience is: people interested in the genre/topic you are writing about. Books have built-in audiences. That's basically the reason that books are seperated into genres - so people can find what type of book they're looking for more easily in the bookstore than if every single author was just listed alphabetically.

I've seen this taken to stupidly hilarious levels, implying that either most of or all of the population is going to buy and read their book. Three examples, in order of stupidity, of things I've actually seen in query letters:

3. "My detective protagonist lives in an RV home. 4.2 million Americans own RVs, and I think this book will appeal to them." [Yeah, I'm more likely to buy a novel that has a main character living in the same type of home as me. That's a definite sell right there.]

2. "The man who must stop the terrorists is an airline pilot and the novel takes place on an airplane, so it will interest people who have seen or ridden on airplanes." [I've been on an airplane! I can immediately relate to this guy! Sold!]

1. "The protagonist is a woman, and I think that will appeal to the female population. However there is also a male love interest, so the book will cross gender barriers and also appeal to men." [What about transgendered people! Huh?!? That's a big market!]

The only thing you're telling us when you talk about your potential market is that you did some bad research on the internet that told you to do that. It doesn't mean it's an auto-reject, but it doesn't help your case.