Saturday, November 12, 2005


MC Etcher left a very interesting comment on my last post, about how in order to become a successful published author, you need to be part salesman, part marketer, part PR guru…basically, you have to be much more than a good writer to become a published author.

Unfortunately, this is all true, and this is also why my old writing tutor pointed out that the first thing you need a really good agent… to ensure you don’t get screwed over.

One of the horror stories she told me was this:

(I may have forgotten a few details, but all this is true.)

An author completed his first screenplay, and was doing his best to hawk it around Hollywood. His screenplay was a sci-fi adventure story about a future where knives had been made illegal, and the protagonist was a knife smuggler.

Fortunately, or so he thought, he managed to sell his screenplay. The price (I think) was $10,000. His screenplay was bought from him in a very literal sense. He sold the copyright, meaning they actually bought it from him. Basically, the studio owned his work, and it wasn’t his anymore.

Now the author of the screenplay didn’t think this was so bad. $10,000 was a lot of money, and rather than depending on royalties (if the film bombed he’d make almost nothing), he had guaranteed himself a big fat paycheck. Also, he figured, if the movie did really well, he’d become a hot property, and could negotiate a fantastic contract with his next screenplay.

However, and this is the bad bit, the studio had no intention of ever making or releasing his movie.

They simply wanted the title.

The movie studio was making a movie based Phillip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”… obviously not a very catchy movie title.

The title of the guy’s screenplay? Blade Runner.

The studio had bought this guy’s screenplay because they wanted the title. If they’d released the movie without buying this guy’s screenplay, they’d have breached his copyright, and owed him big money.

So now, this guy’s screenplay is in a dusty old drawer, somewhere in the film studio’s archives. The author can never get his movie released, because, quite simply, it doesn’t belong to him anymore.

Publishing is an absolute minefield for new authors. Here’s why:

Getting something published is a huge negotiation and all comes down to who owns the rights to what.

Usually, you get an advance on your first book, on what the publisher thinks it will sell, and if you negotiate right, a small percentage of the sales.

After the hardback printing, if you’ve negotiated properly, you get to negotiate a new agreement over the paperback rights. This is absolutely crucial. For example, Stephen King only made a few thousand off the hardback run of ‘Carrie’. However, it did so well, and because he had a good agent, he received millions for the paperback.

It can be incredibly confusing for a first time author. Do you sell the copyright, or just the publishing rights? What about secondary rights and ancillary rights?

For example, the following could easily happen:

You write your first book, send a copy to a publisher, and they want to publish it.

You’re so excited about being a published author, you just can’t wait. You’re picturing book signings, your book gracing the shelves of your local library and Barnes and Noble.

Imagine, though, that you’ve done no research. You know nothing about your rights and how to negotiate them. You want your book published so badly, that you’ll sign anything put in front of you.

So your book does amazingly well, but despite this, you’ve received nothing but your advance check, usually around $2000. However, your book has been at the top of the best seller list for eight weeks. What’s going on?

Your book does so well, they make a movie of it. For some reason, you’re not even consulted. Even worse, you go to see the movie, and find that they’ve butchered your story.

Next thing you know, the toy stores are full of action figures and other merchandise. Your book is now at the centre of a multi-million dollar phenomenon, and you’re not seeing a penny!

What the hell is going on? You wrote the damn thing! They can’t do this! Can they?

Yes, they bloody well can…and you don’t have a legal leg to stand on. Why?

Well basically, there’s a huge difference between selling your copyright and selling publishing rights. If you sell your copyright, your publisher literally owns your work, and can do anything with it that they damn well please. They’re free to change anything in it, and do anything with it, without needing your permission. Any money made from your work is theirs, because they now own your work.

If you sell the copyright, it would be like selling your car, and expecting to still have a say in how and where it’s driven, what type of gas it gets, and what the new owner is allowed to do with it… Basically, it’s just not going to happen.

It’s a much better idea to just sell the publishing rights.

Selling the publishing rights means that your publisher has bought the right to publish your book and make money off it, but you still own your work. Meaning they can’t do anything with it, without your say so.

This way, you haven’t sold your car, you’ve just sold a license that allows someone else to drive it… but you still get the final say on what they actually do with it.

Then we come to the other rights. Does the publisher automatically get to publish the paperback run? Or have you reserved that right, meaning you can re-negotiate later. Have you reserved any potential movie rights?

The best way to illustrate this is to do the above story the right way.

You finish your book, and the first thing you do is find a good, reputable agent. You hand off your manuscript to him, and let him do the legwork of trying to find a publisher.

Your agent finds a publisher, and you sell the publishing rights to tem, and get the standard first book advance of around $2000. During this, you agent negotiates all your other rights to get you a fair deal.

The unthinkable happens. Your book goes to the top of the best seller lists.

Your agent has reserved your rights on the paperback run. Your publisher doesn’t get to automatically publish it, so the publisher calls you and your agent in for a negotiation.

This time around, the publisher knows they’re sitting on a cash-cow due to the hardback sales. Also, because you still own the copyright, they know that if they don’t offer you a satisfactory cut of the profits, you can up and leave and find another publisher.

In other words, you wield the power now. Rather than being an unpublished author, where the publisher can give you the ‘my way or the highway’ treatment, they positively want to publish the paperback, because they know it’ll make them a ton of money.

So the paperback is released, with a generous advance and a decent cut of the sales (Royalties, in other words) and the cash keeps rolling in.

Then there’s talk of a movie. Again, you get a call from your agent, and you get to negotiate. Because you still own the copyright, you get to have a say it what goes on. Do you want to write the screenplay? How big a cut of the box office takings are you going to get? Do you want a cut of the merchandising? This is a big thing to note. Star Wars made billions more from merchandising than they ever got from the actual movie.

Basically, the key is not to go looking for a publisher, but to go looking for an agent.

A good agent has contacts in the industry, and knows how to negotiate. Most agents take a cut of what you earn, so the more you earn, the more they earn. In other words, the last thing they want is for you to get screwed over.

Also, if you go directly to a publisher, you’re one of millions of hopefuls. If your agent has a reputation for bringing quality work to a publisher, they’re much more likely to get your work published.

In the end, writing is a business. When you look for a publisher, you’re essentially looking for an investor, someone to pony up the cash to get your manuscript into print. They want to make as much money as possible, and if that means screwing you over, they’ll do it.

The biggest thing to avoid is First Time Writer Syndrome. It may be the hardest thing in the world to say no to someone who wants to publish your book, but that’s something you may have to do. Every writer wants to have their work published, and to see their name on the shelves…but in the end, do you want to be paid for your work, or let someone else get paid for your work?

Thus endeth the lesson.

1 comment:

MC Etcher said...

Sadly, even a careful author is likely to get screwed on the first contract, just because their power is (usually) so limited.

Publishers have hundreds of thousands of manuscripts submitted to them every year - if a newbie gets too picky, they might well decide to pass on that newbie. They're in the business to make money, not to share it.

You'd probably have to allow the first popular book to get your name out there, and then use your new name-recognition to get you a decent contract at a new company.