In 2012 and 2013, I published a series of blogs on contract deal breakers for traditionally published writers. I’ve been promising to update it for years now, but I’ll be honest: The very topic discourages me.
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I mentioned above that the topic of contracts discourages me. That’s one reason I’ve put the revision of deal breakers off for so very long.
I had hoped that contracts would improve. They haven’t. They’ve gotten worse. What has happened is that predictions long-time writers, like my husband Dean Wesley Smith, made have come true: Writers are starting to split into camps. Dean predicted two camps—those who published their books traditionally, and those who published indie.
Unfortunately, we’ve divided into three camps: those who publish traditionally, those who publish indie, and those who publish through their agents.
That last clause “through their agents” is so wrong, I have trouble typing it. The agents who still represent the writer as an agent are breaking the law when they publish a writer’s books. The agents are then becoming publishers, which makes them violate all kinds of agency law. Not literary agency law, which, anyone will tell you, does not exist in most states. Agency law, which governs anyone who calls themselves an agent—from real estate agents to insurance agents to literary agents.
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Most literary agents have no idea agency law even exists—at least, I hope they have no idea, because if they do, then they are flagrantly violating the law, instead of ignorantly violating the law. Me, I prefer the ignorant to the flagrant.
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Since huge conglomerates have taken over the big traditional publishers, no one even pretends at gentility any more. Smaller publishers which were often a dice-roll (some were great for writers; some were horrible for writers) are now as bad, or worse, than the Big Five. Much of this is economic—the economics of traditional publishing, done the old-fashioned way, isn’t working as well as it once did, so traditional publishers (large and small alike) are squeezing their writers like never before.
Most writers who publish traditionally can no longer make a living at writing. If those writers only write one novel per year, they definitely can no longer make a living at writing.
Most midlist writers are lucky to get an advance of $5000. Those advances are paid in three installments—signing, acceptance, and publication. Even being charitable and assuming that the advance is paid in the traditional two installments ($2500 each) or let’s be even more charitable, all at once, a writer can’t live on that kind of money.
The writer has to be able to write something else.
But most traditional publishing contracts —negotiated by agents —have some version of this clause:
The Work [the novel] shall be the Author’s next book-length work. The Author represents that there is no outstanding commitment for publication for the first time of another book-length work written or co-written by the Author to a third party and the Author will not offer rights to another book-length work written or co-written by the Author, or accept an offer for such a work, until acceptance of the Work by the Publishers and until the Author has complied with the option in Clause 3(a)
The option clause in most contracts is another problem, which options the author’s next work, and allows the publisher to take their own sweet time in deciding if they’ll buy the next work.
But note how pernicious this clause is. I took it from an existing contract that a writer sent me over a year ago. The only thing I changed was adding [the novel] for the sake of clarity. The rest is from the contract verbatim.
The contract is for a novel, yet this clause restricts book-length works. That includes nonfiction, short story collections, novellas, anything at book-length, which is not defined at all in the contract. So that means book-length could be anything the publishing company deems it to be.
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Usually, though, there is another clause, buried in the warranty, that says the author warrants he will not publish any other book-length work that will compete with this book. And who determines that competition? The publisher, of course. Certainly not the author.
So…for a measly $5000 (minus agent fees, which actually will make this $4250), the author signed away his right to make a living. In the early 1990s, I sold eight novels before my first one was published. I also sold an anthology that I edited, and I was editing a series of hardcover anthologies that we chose to call magazines.
If my first novel contract had had that clause, I could not have done any of those things. So, instead of earning tens of thousands of dollars in those early years, I would have been left with a check for $2125—and some crappy day job.
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For years now, Publishers Marketplace has tracked publishing deals on its website. Agents, in particular, love to report their really big coups to Publishers Marketplace. Publishers Marketplace divides the deals it reports into five categories, all by the amount of the advance.
PM defines “major deal” category—the largest advance category—as $500,000 and up. In the not-so-distant past, the major deal category was often for one book. If the agent secured a three-book deal that was $500,000 per book, the agent didn’t call that a major deal, because that wasn’t impressive. Someone might misinterpret and believe the agent got “only” $500,000 for all three books.
Instead, the agents would report a 3-book deal for $500,000 per book as a 1.5 million dollar deal.
I searched major deals this afternoon, and found quite a few. But when I looked at them, they were all for mid-six figures for a lot of books—usually a three-book deal, although I did see quite a few for five books, and one “major deal” for 11 books.
Believe me, if that 11-book deal had gone to seven figures, the agent on the deal would have said “In a deal worth one million dollars…” Didn’t happen.
In the past year, searching for fiction only, I found three deals listed as million-dollar deals. They include John Scalzi’s 10-year, 13-book, $3.4 million dollar deal (which comes to roughly $225,000 per book when you subtract agent fees). Only one of the three deals was for a single book, which sold for 1.25 million. The remaining deal was for over a million per book, and that was a $7 million 5-book deal (which comes to $1.4 million per book before agent) for a self-published writer whose books sold 1.2 million all on their own.
Three million-dollar fiction deals in 2015. Only three. And none yet in 2016. There were nine in 2014, and at least one per month in 2013. In 2012, there were at least two per month.
Why is this important? Because that home-run is less possible for everyone in traditional publishing, and they’re looking for other ways to make money. One of the ways they make money is squeezing writers. Another way is to own the copyright—or at least, control the copyright.
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And here’s the really scary part: Old contract terms, some written in the 20th century before ebooks existed, are being redefined and employed as a justification for publisher behavior. These traditional publishers—particularly those that have been subsumed into a major conglomerate—are not asking permission to change the definition of the terms. They’re just doing it.
Things that were pretty innocuous in 1985 are now weapons that are being used against authors.
You’d think that agents, who are supposed to work for the writers who hire them, would prevent this whole-sale change of meaning of old contracts. But a handful of agents are complicit in this, preferring to maintain their working relationship with a big publisher than rocking the boat for a small client.
Even more agents are just plain ignorant of what the changes in the clauses mean.
Those who run the agencies, though, do understand that their income is going down, so literary agencies have become pretty draconian in their own contracts. Those agencies make agreements with their authors, usually requiring the author to give them 15% of the earnings of a particular book if the agent sold the book. That’s bad enough, especially if the agent has been fired—as two of mine have (the two who still are entitled to 15% of certain projects).
But the agency agreements are moving into a whole new, and even uglier, place in relation to their writers. Agents are demanding a piece of their writers’ copyrights as well. Some agents are blatant about it, stating in the agency agreement that they make writers sign before the writer becomes a client, that the agent will own 15% of the copyright of any book the agent sells for the writer—or in the case of one agency, 15% of the copyright of any book the agent markets for the writer.
Other agency agreements are less blatant. You have to read them in conjunction with the contracts the agent has negotiated for the writer, to see that the agent has actually slipped his hand into the writer’s pocket and legally stolen copyright. Most writers trust their agents blindly, and never believe it would happen to them—until it happens to them.
The problems Kris mentions are, unfortunately, not new and will be familiar to longtime visitors to TPV.
Some authors (or their lawyers) have had those clauses removed or defanged, but authors still sign “standard contracts” in the naive belief that if a contract is “standard” most other authors must have signed the same thing. Unfortunately, they can find the writing career they envisioned substantially constrained.
PG says if you want to be a professional author, act like a professional and make certain you understand the contracts you sign.