Writing, Risk and Reward

There is an interesting article today on Teleread that aggregates some of the comments flying back and forth between authors and Steven Zacharius, head of Kensingon Publishing. Among the comments from authors trying to explain the gulf between how writers and publishers view the business, was this one from Kathlena Contreras.

Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.

Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)

Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.

If I could have done so without causing the people in my immediate vicinity to give me strange looks I would have shouted “Hear! Hear!” 

When I first got a literary agent (I had sold my first books, including my best selling book to date on my own) I was initially thrilled with the work he did on my behalf. He got me a contract with a major publisher fairly quickly and after that he followed up with leads on proposals on a regular basis. These were not ideas I originated, but concepts pitched to me by the agent on behalf of an editor somewhere. I felt optimistic. I had never churned out as many proposals in my life– proposals for my own concepts, revisions of proposals to tailor them to specific editors, and proposals requested of me.  The good news was, I had constant work. The bad news was, none of it came with a salary. Few of the proposals actually panned out and became books. When I started to be a bit reluctant to keep doing full proposals, and asking how likely the lead was to have a result before I did the work, I got the sense that my agent thought I was lazy. I wasn’t. I was hungry and burnt out. I realized that if I was going to survive, I had to pace myself, monitor my energy, and make some money for the writing I did.

I have had almost as many proposals requested of me, for book ideas I did not generate, which were subsequently rejected by the very people who had come up with the idea in the first place, as I have had published books. (See also my previous article “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were You?“)

Unless you are at a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King level, publishing contracts are generally designed to mitigate the risk on the side of the publisher. Let’s face it, the publisher has the upper hand when dealing with starving writers. It is standard, for example, for a contract to get first right of refusal on the author’s next work, and for the publisher to wait until the first book is published to see how much it makes before even looking at the next proposal. This makes complete sense from the publisher’s perspective, they want to hold on to the author if they have a hit on their hands, and they don’t want to be committed to publish a second book by an author whose book goes straight to the remainder bin.

“It is your advantage,” I have been told. It would be if it meant that they were going to snap up the next thing I sent them.  “Refusal” though, usually means exactly that– refusing to buy your next proposal.  It can be as much as a year between the time an author finishes a book and the time the publisher is ready to release it. After that, they want to wait until the first royalty statement and sometimes until the second to see the results.  That means it can easily be a year and a half or more before you know that you’ve been refused, a length of time that you are unable to move forward on your next project as an author. (You can, of course, always work– writing and saving up proposals and manuscripts. What you’re not able to do during that time is try to line up the next payment for your work.)  By the time the publisher does get around to first refusal, the fact that they have refused tends to remove some of the luster from the proposal and the enthusiasm on the part of the agent. Even if your agent remains enthusiastic and sends it around, it can be months before you hear back from everyone. It is a long time to wait between jobs.

The publisher is taking a risk with your book, and gambling on whether or not they will want to keep you. The writer is gambling with her ability to have a stable career, housing, food. If the risk the writer takes is not financially greater than that of the publisher, it is certainly more personal and deeply felt.

The idea of the artist as a risk taking entrepreneur is an important one. I don’t know if acknowledging the investment of the writer and the amount of risk she brings to the table will do much to change the dynamic between writers and publishers. It seems to me that businesses trying to capitalize on labor by minimizing their risk and keeping salaries down is not something that is going to go away any time soon. Changing the dialogue and the way we value ourselves, though, is a good first step.

See also:

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises

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