From Hugh Howey on The Huffington Post:
As someone who writes apocalyptic fiction, it comes quite naturally for me to announce that tomorrow should never happen. Tomorrow is an impossibility. And yet somehow, I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and find that a story I wrote while working as a bookseller–a story that blossomed into a novel one serialized piece at a time–is now being released into bookstores far and wide.
How this came about has been a story unto itself. The deal I signed with Simon & Schuster is quite unusual and made some noise when it was announced, but even stranger are the events behind the deal.
. . . .
When Kristin Nelson first contacted me about representing WOOL, I warned her that I didn’t think I’d ever sell the rights to a publisher. My series of stories were doing well enough for me to quit my day job, and I didn’t think it would be advantageous to alter course. Other agents had been in touch already, and I’d passed up their offerings of representation by explaining that a deal was unlikely, but Kristin got my attention by saying, “I’m not sure you should sell the rights.” She went on to explain that it might not be in my best interest to change what I was doing, but wouldn’t it be fun to feel publishers out? To see what they were willing to do?
. . . .
With the help of Jenny Meyer, Kristin’s fantastic co-agent, we began signing what would eventually amount to twenty-four foreign publishing deals. The film rights were shopped around and went to Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian due to an ambitious push from Kassie Evashevski, our film co-agent.
. . . .
Kristin, acting the role of proud parent and matchmaker, informed me that we now had four major publishers to meet with. I won’t name any except to say that Simon & Schuster wasn’t among them. I point this out because we did end up meeting with Simon & Schuster, but only through a strange confluence of events and coincidences, events that would lead us directly to Jon Karp’s office, the head of Simon & Schuster, where we would discuss a book he’d only sampled that morning. Joining this discussion by speakerphone would be an editor, Marysue, who had discovered WOOL quite on her own.
. . . .
I explained, just as I had to four other publishers that week, that it wasn’t about the money for me. I was making more than I needed to live on already. What I was looking for was something fair in other ways. I wanted a contract that saw this union as a business partnership rather than an acquisition. I was excited about the prospect of getting physical books into bookstores, but I didn’t relish the idea of selling my soul to achieve that. I was always thinking about how this would affect readers. The idea that my ebook prices would shoot up, possibly double, didn’t sit well with me. And would I be limited in what I wrote and how often I published? I had a lot of worries that dollar signs couldn’t salve.
. . . .
The problem was that publishers were willing to pay a lot of money to take all of my rights forever, but nobody wanted to do a print-only deal. Even major publishers (especially major publishers) could see in their balance sheets where the industry was heading. But there will always be a place for bookstores and great print editions, and I wanted to form that partnership without giving up a known living wage for an unknown jackpot. I just don’t have that ability to gamble (I never have).
It made it easy to say no, even though it was life-altering amounts of money being offered. The stability of a monthly income was more important, as was knowing that I would be miserable to sign my life away like that. I floated one final option, which gained zero traction. This was the idea of licensing the rights to the book for a finite period of time. This is how my foreign deals are structured. It seemed to me that this would eventually be the future of US publishing. But it wasn’t to be. A second round of interesting talks came and went.
. . . .
When I first Skyped with Kristin and agreed to partner up with her, we discussed the infinitesimal chances that I would ever go with a major publisher. We both understood from the beginning that it would likely be against my best interests to take the sort of deal that would be offered, but we also dreamed of a future where publishers and authors had a different sort of relationship. We discussed the fact that it would take quite a few of these conversations with various agents and prospective clients before boilerplate contracts began to bend or crack. Kristin was just as eager as I was to have these conversations, as fruitless as we imagined they would be.
And so we pursued an impossible dream hoping that the strangeness of our demands might pave the way for future demands from other authors. Kristin and I constantly rallied ourselves by saying that this was important, what we were doing. It wouldn’t happen for WOOL, but it would get everyone involved used to the fact that large advances couldn’t wash away sour terms now that self-published authors could pay the bills on their own. Yes, it was hopelessly naive and ambitious, but we both believed it. We continue to believe it. And then the third round began.
. . . .
Things kept going up and up. Most people in my situation (rightly, perhaps) had stepped off this ride long before this point. E.L. James did the correct thing by taking the millions and then making tens or hundreds of more millions on top of this. I wasn’t after the millions, though. I wanted a contract that, when read, made me feel like a human being.
. . . .
When they came at us with a 7-figure offer five months after their last major offer, I had to really think about it. We went back with our same demands of no non-compete clauses, no digital rights, terms of license, all the impossible deal breakers that we dreamt about and didn’t expect to ever get.
This time, there was progress on some of these fronts. I was nearly swayed.
. . . .
It was about the partnership. It was about fair contracts for these unusual times in which we now find ourselves. It isn’t always a manuscript that an author brings to the table. More and more often, it can be a bestseller, an established brand, a gaggle of rabid fans, a proven readership, and a mature author platform.
. . . .
In the end, it was Simon & Schuster who crafted a deal specifically to my needs, a deal for the print rights that would augment the success I was having on my own by doing what they do best: bringing out a book and getting it in the hands of booksellers.
Link to much more at HuffPo and thanks to Patrice for the tip.
PG will note that agents are bashed from time to time on TPV, often by using the agents’ own words.
Hugh’s story reminds us that judging each individual in a group by the actions of other members of that group is both irrational and foolish. His essay documents that his agent, Kristin Nelson, provided valuable services for him and avoided the flim-flam that some authors experience when dealing with agents.
PG hopes that Hugh’s situation may be a harbinger of things to come with major publishers realizing that fairer contract terms can be a competitive advantage and poor contracts can be deal-killers.