Over many years of practicing law at a very retail level (unlike what he does today), PG developed a couple of aphorisms for his own law business and has since concluded they apply on a broader scale:
- Don’t do business with crazy people.
- Don’t do business with crooks (unless you practice criminal law and get paid in full up front).
In a small-town law practice, all sorts of people walk in through the door. PG always hired the smartest secretaries/paralegals he could find and paid the good ones more than they could earn anywhere else in the local economy so they would stick around. These wonderful women spared PG a great many encounters with crazy people. (PG wasn’t biased against men, but none ever applied.)
Once in awhile, a crazy person would slip by PG’s sharp watchdogs, however. (A lawyer friend once told him, “The problem with fools is that they can be so ingenious.” Ditto for crazy people.)
On a couple of occasions, a crazy person who slipped by the support staff also eluded PG’s crazy person screen. On a couple of other occasions, the Legal Aid office asked PG to help a poor unfortunate crazy person and PG agreed, sight unseen.
(Legal Aid is a generic name for a variety of organizations in the United States that help provide legal assistance for those who need it and can’t afford an attorney. In many cases, Legal Aid staff attorneys are able to provide the needed help. For other cases, staff attorneys don’t have the necessary expertise or aren’t able to solve the problem for other reasons and practicing attorneys are asked to help, either for no fee or for a fee that Legal Aid pays that is much lower than the attorney would ordinarily charge. Legal Aid organizations generally limit their services to civil matters while Public Defenders, paid by the local, state or federal government, represent criminal defendants who are indigent and unable to afford private counsel.)
While crazy clients make for some colorful war stories that lawyers swap at bar association dinners, they are apt to consume an enormous amount of time and effort on the part of counsel and staff and generally disrupt what is already a very busy business environment. (One crazy client of PG decided she would occupy PG’s waiting room until he agreed to speak with her at length for the thousandth time about what a terrible person her estranged husband was, a topic that wasn’t relevant to the division of marital property under state law. After efforts to persuade her to depart failed, the local police were called and the client screamed, “Rape!” over and over again as she was forcibly removed from PG’s office.)
This long, long prelude to PG’s equivalent advice to authors is over.
- Don’t do business with a crooked publisher.
- Don’t sign long-term publishing agreements with a small-time publisher, regardless of how pleasant he or she is, that will tie up your books for a long, long time unless you don’t really care much about your book or receiving many royalties from its sales.
- Don’t do business with an incompetent publisher, regardless of how well-meaning the publisher may seem.
PG will speak briefly [correction – not very briefly at all] about incompetent publishers, based upon a recent encounter about which he cannot divulge details because of obligations of confidentiality to a client.
To the best of PG’s knowledge, there is no law or regulation in the United States that places any limitation on whoever can call themselves a publisher. An individual who has spent her entire adult life as a plumber can retire from plumbing one day and open Plumber’s Publishing the next morning.
There are a surprising number of people who do something like PG’s plumbing hypothetical in the United States. Sometimes a printer or someone who has been in the printing business will decide to become a publisher. Sometimes, the owner of a successful bookstore expands into publishing. Both these people know may be an expert on an aspect of the book business, but that doesn’t make them knowledgeable enough to become a reliable publisher.
While PG takes religion in general and his personal religious beliefs in particular seriously, he doesn’t hesitate to say that more than a few religious publishers fall into this don’t-know-much-about-publishing basket.
One of the common practices of incompetent publishers is to take a copy of a publishing agreement from another incompetent publisher, change the name of the publisher to Plumber’s Publishing, and call it their own.
Then, just like the incompetent publisher before them, Plumber’s Publishing starts rewriting this and adding that.
In the end, an unwitting author is presented with the 15th generation of a publishing agreement that may not have been particularly well-written by the original creator, lawyer or not, and certainly has not been improved by the tweaks and the tweaks-of-tweaks that it has undergone since then.
An unwitting author may believe that a legal document with Plumber’s Publishing Publishing Contract at the top is an official and reliable publishing agreement, especially when Jane Plumber says, “This is our standard publishing contract.”
What reasonable person would question a “Standard Contract” fresh off a cheap inkjet printer?
If an author is smart enough to organize and write a decent book, that author likely possesses a higher level of general intelligence than Jane Plumber does.
PG has seen enough publishing contracts to assure one and all that there is no “Standard Publishing Contract.”
A Random House imprint has a Standard Contract that is regularly modified by savvy lawyers or agents working with an author.
A Simon & Schuster imprint has a Standard Contract that is not the same as a Random House Standard Contract. Simon & Schuster’s Standard Contracts are regularly modified by savvy lawyers or agents working with an author.
As PG has said on more than one previous occasion, if you sign a bad rental contract for an apartment, it may cost you some money, but it won’t last forever. If you sign a bad purchase agreement to buy an automobile, it may cost you some money, but it won’t last forever.
Most unfortunately, a bad publishing contract and 99% of “Standard Publishing Contracts” will last forever, absent expensive legal interventions after the contract is signed.
This is because, in dull legalese, most book publishing contracts give the publisher the exclusive right to publish the book “for the full term of the copyright” or something similar.
Under current US copyright law, “the full term of the copyright” is the rest of the author’s life plus 70 additional years. Copyrights last for similar periods of time in other major Western nations.
Everyone currently working for the publisher will almost certainly be dead long before the “Standard Publishing Contract” expires. The current owners of the publisher will almost certainly be dead before the contract expires.
Anyone working for the publisher can quit and go to work somewhere else, taking their accumulated talents and abilities with them.
But the author can’t “quit” the “Standard Publishing Contract”.
The best book the author has ever written or will ever write will always be published by Plumbers Publishing unless someone persuades whoever owns Plumbers Publishing to give up its rights to the author or the author’s heirs. This persuasion will almost certainly involve money paid to Plumbers Publishing or to expensive lawyers who sue Plumbers Publishing on behalf of the author or the author’s heirs.