Monday, 9 January 2012

Y is for Yippedee-doo-dah

Hooray!  You've had the call from an agent wanting to represent you.  Or you've had an offer from a publisher.  Or you've won first prize in a short story competition.  Time to break out the champagne!

And why not?  So long as after the bubbly's been drunk you stop and put a more cautious hat on.  Most of the time the offer will be entirely genuine and no need to read the small print, but that's no reason to trust them.  This is a business arrangement and you need to stop feeling grateful that someone wants you - which is how we all feel, of course - and get real.  

Take a friend of mine.  A multi-published author, her agent presented her with some contracts to sign selling her e-book rights to her publisher.  She did so without thinking - she assumed her agent would have checked that it was all OK.  And it was, up to a point.  Except, she sees her extensive backlist up on the publisher's website all at the same price as her paperbacks, with no additional marketing by the publisher and no advance up front and 25% of the non-existent royalties doesn't seem such a good deal. Especially as she's just been dropped by that publisher.

Take another author.  First prize in short story competition - hooray!  Publication in an anthology - whoopee!  But copyright was handed over in the small print - which was a pity, given the anthology has been sold to the US with a vast print run (which the author wasn't notified of and only discovered accidently) so no royalties will be forthcoming.  I've recently seen several short story comps which demand assignment of copyright as a condition of entry, which is outrageous - read the small print.

And then there are agents.  I'm not talking about the obvious scammers - anyone can set themselves up as an agent so you have to be careful - but what about the legit agent who offers to represent your novel on the basis of, say, a win in a short story competition? I've heard of agents who seem to trawl the MAs and comps offering representation - a bit like talent spotters I suppose. There's no doubt that they're bona fide agents and get good deals for some of their clients, but an author should think before they commit themselves.  Would they have chosen to approach this agent regardless?  If yes, then fine.  But if they would have been second or third (fourth, fifth etc) choice, why sign early, especially if you haven't yet started approaching other agents?

Finally, publishers.  Publishing has changed dramatically over the last few years and continues to change so find out a bit about the publisher's background before you say yes. There are lots of small independent publishers around, but not all of them are as successful as others.  Some are set up by well-meaning people who believe in good writing but have little idea of how to run a business.  They may cope financially only because of grants (eg from the Arts Council), which might be removed.  If a publisher goes bust, or only sells a few copies of your novel, then it will be unlikely you'll be able to get another deal for that book (though once you've got the rights back, you could always self/e-publish).

So, enjoy your moment of glory, but always read the small print and don't get carried away just because somebody wants you.  


Philip C James said...

Ensuring rights revert to you if the publisher goes into liquidation or administration is another reason to check the small print of any contract. In the one case you may wish to avoid the directing mind reincarnating the publisher as a so-called 'Phoenix Company' and buying up your rights cheaply. Or the administrator may see you as a valuable asset the sale of which will return value to creditors. Especially important during a recession.

A good, sobering, post, Sarah. Especially necessary after all that champagne.

And it's not flattery if it's a) true, and b) sincerely intended ;)

Giles Diggle said...

Sobering advice, Sarah! I was published in in the 20th century by a true gentleman and scholar (No irony). I was given a very honest bomb-proof deal. No complaints. All rights properly reverted. The past indeed is another country.

Euphoria is always good, but the best hit comes from an honest day's writing.

Meanwhile, everyone should read Harry Bingham's "Writers' and Artists' Yearbook: Getting Published" - Bloomsbury Pub .

Liz Harris said...

A very interesting post, Sarah, and all very true.

I'm sure that there's an element of fear in the situation of a would-be-published writer being approached by an agent/publisher, who makes on offer which leaves a little to be desired. The fear is that, in these days of so many people trying to get on the publishing ladder, if you make demands - as you suspect they would be seen - the publisher/agent would simply go elsewhere.

Liz X

Lynne Connolly said...

Great post, Sarah.
Having been through the process, I'd advise that if you sign a contract under US state law, as all book contracts in the US are, you might as well cross out the liquidation clause. It means absolutely nothing.
That's because bankruptcy is federal and they can override the contract conditions if they want to. When the company is given up to the liquidators, they will freeze all assets, and author contracts are included in those assets. That means the clock ticking on your contract expiration date stops. They can then sell your contract in the liquidation sale. You have no say where your contract goes, unless you buy it back yourself, or you get a publisher interested enough to buy it.
Happened to me when a publisher I wrote for went bust. I had 12 contracts tied up in that mess, and maybe more, since I'd obtained reversion rights on a few more a couple of months before the company filed for bankruptcy, and the courts have the right to pull back assets if they feel the company has deliberately dispersed assets.
My argument was that an author contract isn't an asset if the author is unwilling to cooperate with the publisher on edits, promotion etc, but we didn't have to go that far because another publisher bought our rights at auction and immediately gave us release letters. Phew.

Sarah Duncan said...

Phil - I'd not heard of the expression "Phoenix company" before, so one to clock.

Giles - I think there are good guys still around (but you can't assume there are any gents).

Liz - I know, I've been there. But I think they expect to negotiate a bit and the SoA will help you if you have a contract.

Lynne - thank you so much for commenting, you're so knowledgeable in this area and with a wealth of experience.

Everyone - read what Lynne has to say, she knows her stuff backwards!