Sunday, November 13, 2005

Are you the weakest link?

I was chatting with my dad the other day about a contract negotiation I’m in and it reminded me of something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: the weakest link. No, not the television show (is that even still on?), but authors.

Yes, authors. In contract negotiations, the weakest link is always the author, because no matter how hard I negotiate, if the publisher plays hardball, I’ve only seen one case where the author refused to cave. So ask yourself, how desperate are you to have your book published? How needy? Because I often wonder what it is that makes authors so weak in their contract negotiations. They agree to clauses that clearly are not in their best interest and, like any business where supply outweighs demand, this weakness empowers publishers to try for even more.

For example, one big science fiction and fantasy publisher’s contract states that the publisher has the right to change the author’s manuscript, without the author’s permission. Granted, the language is more complex and there’s something in there about not changing the meaning in a “material” way, but the end result is that the publisher can substantially edit the author’s work and the author will have no say.

Now, this publisher is not completely alone in this attempt to give itself free reign with authors’ words, but the language is among the worst I’ve seen. And it’s clauses like this that lead me to ask in every deal for the following language: “Author shall have approval over the copyedited manuscript. Publisher shall provide Author with a copy of the copyedited manuscript and Author shall have not less than ten (10) business days from Author’s receipt to review and approve the manuscript. Following Author’s approval, no changes shall be made to the text of the manuscript, other than to correct spelling or grammatical errors, or to make the work conform to house style, without Author’s written approval.”

It is my feeling that no author should sign a contract that does not provide this approval. In fact, what I do not understand is why this language is not a part of every publisher’s starting contract. Why do I, as an agent, have to ask for it? There was a time when publishers treated authors with respect and a gratitude for having them on their list. This is now only reserved for ubersellers. For all others, publishers seem to feel that they are doing the author a favor in publishing their book. You’d be surprised how often I meet significant resistance to the language I’ve quoted above.

What often amuses me, though, is that publishers don’t realize that they are encouraging authors and agents to leave them. After all, if the book does work, the author can easily say, “You didn’t believe in me. You made me feel like you were doing me a favor in publishing this book. Now it’s a success. Why shouldn’t I go somewhere where they clearly want me and don’t think they are doing me a favor?” And, after they bullied the agent and author into taking a deal the first time around that wasn’t very favorable to the author, why should they be surprised that the agent and author want to stick it to them? Every time a publisher tries to bully me, I think to myself, “Wow, they must be awfully sure I will never get one of their big authors as a client. That I will never have a best-selling author they want me to sell to them.” Otherwise, isn’t such a tactic painfully shortsighted? An editor once asked me why I didn’t show him a book I’d just sold. I said, “Oh, I just didn’t think it was your kind of thing.” But what I was thinking was “You’ve turned down most of what I’ve sent you and the one you did buy you didn’t publish well, after your contracts department made my life a living hell during negotiations. I’ll only come to you when I’ve explored every other option out there.”

I started out this post by saying the weakest link in any contract negotiation is the author, but I could go on and say that’s true of the entire process. Every time the author buys into the idea that the publisher is doing the author a favor in publishing his or her book, the author reduces the chances of success. You have to be willing to stand up and be a part of the process.

Yet being the squeaky wheel doesn’t always work either. I had an author once who would write his editor and me long letters that ranted and raved about what an incredible writer he was, that he was so much better than Stephen King and Dean Koontz and if only the publisher would wake up and realize that and do something to promote and market his books, he’d be a best-seller. Not surprising to me, once his contract was completed, the publisher cut him loose. After all, you can be a huge, screaming pain in the ass if you are making a publisher a ton of money, but if you aren’t, then being a huge screaming pain in the ass asking, “Why aren’t you making me a ton of money?!!!!!” is unlikely to be a successful approach.

You really have to be a smooth operator. You can’t just rant and rave at your editor. You need to recruit them to your side, to be your champion in-house. Here’s a story I heard from a friend in the business about Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Apparently, long before he was a success, he came to town and went to meetings with the editors he knew. He met this one woman who worked for a company that had acquired rights in one of his books. He so charmed her and was so friendly that when he left, she felt motivated to work harder to make his book a success, which actually became a reality for this particular edition.

It is so easy to get angry and frustrated when you know someone is doing something half-assed but the truth is that you need to expect that and work to ensure that it doesn’t matter. Plan ahead. In fact, plan far ahead, and try to anticipate that someone in the system isn’t going to do what you want him or her to do. Attempt to negotiate intermediate deadlines, even with your editor, e.g., “If I deliver five chapters, can you read them next week?” But keep in mind that publishers and editors are overly pessimistic when it comes to managing expectations. They pretty much want you to expect the worst, which will make their lives somewhat easier when the book doesn’t sell, and all the more easier if it does. But this can be self-fulfilling prophecy. They expect the worst and convince you to expect the worst. In that condition, why should anyone expect a book to sell? And why should anyone sell a book to an editor who has such low expectations of the book?

I have often said, “You are worse off being published poorly, than not being published at all.” The publisher who acts as though it is doing you a favor in publishing your book is not, in fact, doing you a favor at all. You might want to consider authors like Dan Brown or John Grisham, who took one or even four books to become successful. Maybe you should politely thank that publisher for its $5,000 offer, but say that you are not comfortable with the terms of the contract, but you will be happy to speak with them again, perhaps on your next book, or the one after that, or at the point where you have achieved a level of success that makes them more willing to negotiate an author-friendly contract. As an agent, I might not be happy to lose that commission, but I’ll respect you a hell of a lot for having the self-respect and confidence to walk away.

So, having read this, ask yourself, are you the weakest link?



Greg said...

For someone who is close to receiving a contract from a major house, this is excellent stuff. I'll make sure I'm not the weakest link.

jason evans said...

Bargaining power.

You have it, or you don't.

If the author is new, his/her bargaining power is slim. Only finesse can overcome that situation. Somewhat. And you can push. But don't push too far. I'd imagine your client is hoping for your ongoing relationship with the publishers to garner some fair treatment, but at the end of the day, a lost commission for you may be a devastating blow to a new writer who scaled a vertical climb just to get in front of an editor.

To publishers: just because you may have the bargaining power doesn't mean you should savagely weild it. Those pigeons will come back to roost someday too.

Mac said...

Wow. Thought-provoking post, Andy, thank you.

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