Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red Lines

I've spoken often of my growing affection for the indie publishing movement.  However, I've also said that if the right offer came around, I wouldn't rule out going traditional.  Even so, the freedom afforded in the indie movement would be hard to give up, and there are several things that I would consider red lines that I wouldn't ever cross.  Ever.

What might these be?  Well, I've done a lot of thinking and reading(Kristine Kathryn Rusch has done some great blogging on this).  Although this list might morph as time goes along, here are the general points that would force me to walk away:

1.  A Non-Compete Clause.  This is an agreement that publishers force onto newbies that means you can't publish another work in the same genre unless it goes through that particular publisher.  The idea is that you shouldn't compete with your publisher for the same audience - it's your publisher's job to market your work, and if you put out a similar book anytime in the near future, you're likely to pump that one up more than your publisher, who will lose business.  Unfortunately, publishers use this to crowd out the market and push other work they think will make more money.  It stifles writers who want to self-publish since they can't bring out any new work in a series, or anything remotely similar(it's amazing what publishers consider "similar") if they're tied into a contract with that clause.  So how then are you supposed to bring out new work if your publisher won't buy the next in your series or stops pushing what they've already bought?

Additionally, non-compete clauses are used to limit writers to the number of books they can put out in a given year.  The outdated theory behind this is that if a writer oversaturates the market, the public will grow annoyed and not buy more of the work.  That would mean that all the work of publishing will have been for naught.  Of course, this is stupid - when I find a writer I like, I immediately look for everything they've ever written, and I look forward to their next work.  Most writers don't have a New York Times Bestseller that nets enough to put food on the table all year long.  Bringing out multiple books in a year is the only way to eat and have this funny thing called shelter.  Nope, anything that limits what I can bring out would be a big no-no.

2.  Exclusivity/The Right of First Refusal.  On the surface, it sounds great - a publisher wants to look at more of your work, and they'll make the first offer.  However, what if they make no offer?  It's not a no - it's just silence.  Can you publish?  Can you work with another company?  If I go traditional, I would want to establish a relationship with the publisher and have them eager to buy my next novel, but the only way this works is if there is a time limit.  I will offer the right of first refusal for six months after the work is submitted.  At that point, the ability to shop around or self-publish would have to return to me.  This is another turd by which publishers keep newbies from getting more into the market - they may not believe in the work, but God forbid they pass and that book goes onto success with another publisher.

Sorry, but if you want first dibs, you make a choice within a reasonable timeframe or I get it all back.

3.  Final Say Over Edits.  This one is a toughie.  Most publishers want some say.  However, too many change so much of the book that it's no longer what the author originally envisioned.  I've ranted before that many agents and editors seem to want to be writers without having to actually do most of the work of writing.  I have no problem with suggestions, but I want final say over whether or not to include them.  There's a reason I wrote what I did, and it might not be the same thing the publishing house sees.  Some big-time authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and JK Rowling have this agreement, but they're big enough to enforce it.  Too many smaller writers give in because they're afraid the big, bad publisher might not publish them.  If you want to sell out, that's your business, but I'm fine with just not publishing through someone if they want to hack up my stuff without my consent.

4.  Warranties.  Warranties basically say that you're not plagiarizing or libeling anyone.  Sounds great until you remember we live in America and you can sue people for anything.  Publishers often settle claims just to get the headache off their back, even if the suit has no merit.  Then, the writer is usually on the hook for any and all financial damages.  That sucks, doesn't it?

Any warranty must include things like limiting author liability, either in terms of what the author says, or in terms of monetary damage(preferably both).  I would want to have say over any settlement, as well as a specific figure on any financial liability(the rest being absorbed by the publisher).

4.  Rights Reversion.  This is a biggie when the publisher decides to no longer push your work.  Most clauses will say something loopy like "if the book sells less than 100 copies in a year" or "if the book goes out of print," then the rights for publication revert to the writer.  However, there are a pair of problems in this day and age.  The first is that many publishers will snatch up 100 books at the end of the year - a minor business expense they can write off at tax time - and claim the book is still selling, so the writer must stay with them.  The second is that in the digital age, many publishers are claiming a book is never out of print.  Never mind they're not in any bookstores and the publisher isn't pushing them and has no plans to - they're still in print and you're shit out of luck.

The way to mitigate this is to demand something substantial, like making the 1000 or 2000 mark of sales, possibly after a certain time period, before rights reversion occurs.  This will both make a publisher wonder if the price is worth it and give the writer some green to live off of.  The typical copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years.  That's a loooooong time if your stuff isn't selling.

5.  Pay Periods.  Here's the stickiest wicket of all.  In the arcane system that is traditional publishing, royalties only go out every six months.  That's a helluva long time to wait before seeing any money from your work.  And since most royalty agreements are very convoluted, knowing you got what you deserve is tough.

In the age of Amazon and indie publishing, most self-published writers get paid each month.  That's kind of what we need to stay sane.  I would insist on every three months at the absolute worst.  Can't get my money through your bureaucracy in that amount of time?  Then you won't get my work.

I'm sure other red lines will come up, but this is the basic list for now.  Publishers use their superior bargaining position with newbie writers who are desperate to be published to force through contracts that are one-sided.  The indie movement is starting to level the field, but it requires writers to stand their ground and be willing to give up that "look at me!" contract and fawning attention they'll first.

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