Publishing Contracts

An article came to my attention today through my social media feed. It is written by Kameron Hurley and has the title Traditional Publishing, Non-Compete Clauses and Rights Grabs.

In it, Hurley takes exception to certain standard contract terms offered in publishing contracts. In particular, she feels that non-compete clauses prevent authors from making a living wage and that they should be a violation of labor law.

“One of the big issues we’ve been dealing with the last 15 years or so as self-publishing has become more popular are the increasing rights grabs and non-compete clauses stuck into the boilerplate from big traditional publishers terrified to get cut out of the publishing equation,” she writes.

I can assure you, however, that these clauses– including the one most featured in her article– have been around much longer than easy self publishing has. The non-compete, as Hurley calls it, usually comes in the form of a right of first refusal of the author’s next book-length manuscript. In theory this is actually great for the author because it means the publisher will consider putting out another book and the hardest thing in publishing is not the writing but persuading publishers to take a chance on you and your book idea– and this is true whether you have written one or 16 books.

In practice, however, for a mid-list, non-celeb writer to make a living from book writing she must sell at least two books a year and almost no publisher is able to work at that pace. They want to see how the book performed before they commit to your next idea, which means waiting six months to a year for the book to come out, another three or four as per the contract to see how it performs and time to consider the next proposal. At that point, they’re just as likely to say no as yes. So the clause does, indeed, become a barrier to a writer being able to earn a living.

I have had success throughout my career asking to have that clause removed from my contracts. Sometimes you have to persuade agents to ask for what you want, because in my experience they will sometimes say a clause is standard and can’t be changed simply because no one has asked them to change it before.

I would like to play devil’s advocate here for a moment regarding another part of Hurley’s article:

When houses are investing in books and not authors, there’s less impetus to make congenial arrangements in contracts. They are buying widgets, not nurturing relationships, and every widget is a potential golden goose.

Is it not a bit unfair of us to complain on the one hand that we are contractors and should not be tied to a relationship with a publisher, and then to complain that the publishers are not nurturing relationships with us? When we want the freedom to go shopping around for the best deal on every title on our own timing regardless of what the publisher has done for us in the past, we too see every publisher as a “potential golden goose.” The fact of the matter is, the small and mid-size pulishers are struggling to stay in business these days too. I find in negotiations it helps to try to understand the publisher’s concerns as well. Do they really stand to make money from your title? What would need to happen with your book for it to be a gain and not a loss for them?

This old world where writers were nurtured in-house by publishing mentors is something of a myth. It has always applied to a few outliers who we imagine were typical because we so rarely hear the biographies of the mid-level struggling writers of the past.

The independent publishing revolution and ebooks have done a great deal to reduce incomes for writers. But writing has never been an easy profession.

It is understandable that publishers would like to have the one-sided option to hold on to an author who has a hit but not to have to publish another book from an author whose title flops or who has only one book in him. They will ask for what they want if they can get it, just as you would ask for a $50,000 advance if you thought you could get it regardless of whether the publisher stood to make that much on your book.

The truth is there are not a lot of writers out there actually trying to make a living from books, and the publishing industry is built on the premise that writers have day jobs or supporting spouses. Publishers are prepared for negotiations. But the playing field is tilted in their direction because few writers, when it comes down to it, are willing to walk away. We want our books in print– or a payday– more than the publishers need our particular title.

Do What You Love. The Money Won’t Follow.

There was an excellent review of the series Mozart in the Jungle in the L.A. Review of Books today. Although it is framed as a review of the series and a comparison to the book on which it is based, it is more than that a consideration of the state of arts funding in the 21st Century and that strange drive that pulls artists towards a careers that requires a vow of poverty of its practitioners and how the ethos that certain careers should be done for the love not the money can be used to exploit idealistic workers. (This is a particular pet peeve of mine as you can see by reading any of the posts tagged with “love and money.”)

It’s also very funny, because it’s built out of a hilariously unanswerable question. Why make art that no one wants to pay for?

It’s unanswerable because there is no reason; it is, literally, an irrational thing to do. And irrational people are at their funniest when they insist on continuing, and when — in order to continue — they must insist that doing so is the only reasonable thing to do. In this way, the show is a comic saga about art during our austerity, about the survival and suffering of the artistic vocation in the face of the endless and remorseless de-professionalization we are experiencing, as, year after year, it gets harder and harder to make a living doing the things you love.

David Bowie

Heroes

“We can be heroes just for one day.”-David Bowie

When I was describing the art I wanted to my book cover designer, I said I wanted a rock star, but not any rock star.  He had to embody theatricality and glamour. I wanted a figure who played with his identity, who created a persona that inspired imagination and fantasy in his audiences. Someone whose public self was as much a work of art as was his music. The early draft came back with a long-haired, Woodstock-esque figure.

“Like David Bowie.” I explained.

The designer then understood exactly what I meant.

 

Identity is the Word of the Year

Identity_Theft_Cover_for_Kindlejpg_picmonkeyedDictionary.com chose “identity” as its word of the year for 2015. Explaining why this was “the perfect word of the year” Time Magazine wrote: “appears simple but defines the complex shifts in a world that feels less fixed now than it did a year ago: identity.”

They were inspired, in part, by a New York Times article “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.”

Most of these articles talk about gender identity and racial identity. But underneath both of those is an even deeper question– do I determine who I am, or do you? In fact, it is a dance. I an influenced by the world around me in the choices I make about myself. I take cues from you as to how to express what I feel I am. If I feel that I am a serious business-minded person I will dress a certain way in order to convey this to you. But that is only half of the picture– you must also accept this self.

There is a certain malleability, a certain amount of leeway you will give me. At a certain point, however, I transcend certain bounds and I become a fraud like Rachel Dolezal. I can’t claim an American identity without a passport that matches. Even then, if I become a naturalized citizen and speak with a foreign accent there are people who will never consider me to be a “real American.”

If I were to wake up and insist that I am a movie star and that my name is now an unpronounceable symbol there is a good chance I would be sent away for mental health care.

So identity depends on context. It is a relationship. I feel as though it is me, and yet I am constantly nudged by the people and culture around me. No wonder it is such a fascinating subject.

Maybe This is Our Strategy in the War on Terror

The BBC began its report on the shooting in San Bernadino, California by saying “Just another day in America…

The Los Angeles Times described Americans reaction was “numbed acceptance, bordering on disassociation.”

And as politicians block discussion on a bill that would close the “terrorist loop hole” keeping people on the terrorism “no fly” list from buying guns, I find that there is actually a certain perverse logic to it.

Today it is people inspired by ISIS. Last week it was someone inspired by anti-abortion rhetoric. Before that it was racism, then an aggrieved young man who was tired of being rejected by women, then someone who believed aliens were speaking to him through his radio…

If we protect ourselves from people who would plow down American citizens because of one ideology, but do nothing to stop others, it won’t change much.

In the end it doesn’t matter all that much whether it is ISIS or Al Queda or someone who thinks re-enacting Columbine will make him infamous. People who were going about their daily lives are dead, we do not seem to have the power or will to address the thorny problem and have tacitly agreed to cope with these events as if they were natural disasters.

When large numbers of Americans are killed in the course of their daily lives, when they are shot in a mall or at the movies or in church, we say “Oh, it’s one of those.”

So maybe this is all part of a brilliant strategy to win the war on terror by creating a population that is no longer capable of feeling terror.  Maybe we need to rename it “numbed-acceptance-bordering-on-disassociation-ism.”

 

Because We’ve Seen The Film Before

Ollie switched on the television. There had been another one of those mass shootings. A guy went barmy and shot a dozen people in the office building where he worked. To Ollie it meant that regardless of what channels the hotel subscribed to, there would be something interesting to watch on TV. He flipped through the channels until he found CNN and then threw the remote into the center of the bed. He listened to the report as he opened his suitcase and pulled out a small bottle of vodka and the manilla envelope that held his final divorce papers. He’d been carrying them around for about a week, and hadn’t found time to look at them until now.

The television coverage of real life mass shootings were like genre fiction, a cookie cutter mystery, except that in this case you know who done it, but you keep flipping pages to find out why. This story followed the same basic formula as other mass shootings, only a few characters and details were switched. There were the politicians praying for the families, the candle light vigils, the photos of people in tears surrounded by police in bullet proof vests, there was the slow unwinding of the killer’s biography which revealed everything but his motives. There was the debate about guns and mental health, destined to go nowhere. “Heroes” who jumped in front of bullets and newsmen drawing optimism from the fact that people came together to help the victims…

On the TV screen was the last tweet of one of the victims. She was looking forward to going to a concert with a friend that weekend. She’d just bought the tickets. She didn’t know that would be her last public utterance. Her first, really, for a national audience.

“I shouldn’t know this woman’s name,” Ollie thought.

This excerpt from the novel Identity Theft came to mind this evening as I read an article in The Wrap, a Hollywood business publication  The article speculated on why mass shootings are so rare in Hollywood movies and television programs.

To me, the answer seems obvious. We already have the drama of mass shootings on television. If we’re not sufficiently engrossed in the latest permutation (I’d forgotten about the Oregon shootings entirely until a TV segment mentioned it today, and I still don’t remember the details), we can tune in in a week or so and another one will be shown.

Did you see that crazy episode earlier today when the landlord decided to let reporters into the alleged shooters’ apartment and they fought to get shots of family photos and children’s toys like the Black Friday fisticuffs they show us to fill the airways each Thanksgiving weekend?