So, you’ve written the final line on your soon to be best-selling novel, perhaps a high octane hyper-accelerated thriller, perhaps a dense and unreadably brilliant inner dialogue-driven character study of three generations of strong-willed women. ‘Whatevs’, as they say on ‘teh interwebz’. (‘Teh interwebz’ is also something they say on the internet, when they are trying for ironic distance).
The first question I’d ask as you hurried through shining black marble foyer of the international publishing house you have personally chosen to receive your heart breaking work of staggering genius, is what the hell are you doing? Where is your agent?
While it’s not unknown for publishers to pluck a diamond from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, such happy occasions are exceedingly rare. So rare, that it seems their exceptional, almost singular nature is imbued with the power to blind would-be novelists to the brutal realities of the industry.
Publishers hate unsolicited manuscripts. They do sift through them, because they are no more inured to the magical fantasy of that one, special find than are the army of unpublished authors burying them under a mountain of largely unpublishable books.
If you really think you have something special in your bottom draw, or nowadays in your Dropbox account, do yourself the favour of running it past the jaundiced eyes of one of the industry’s foulest, most nihilistic misanthropes – an agent. With an agent in your corner, you need not even read articles such as this. You would merely concern yourself with banging out five or six hundred pages of top shelf word processing, and they would do the rest; including the all important task of making first contact with whichever publisher you plan on shaking down for an unconscionably large advance. (More on this later.)
Publishers deal with agents all the time, and although they don’t necessarily like them, they do like what do. At least insofar as agents protect them from the shower of offal which pours into the slush pile, day and night. Granted they don’t much like agents when they ratchet up the size of that unconscionably large advance, but there is a price for everything, isn’t there? One caveat. When choosing an agent, avoid any that charge you a fee for their services. The only time an agent should put a hand in your pocket is when they have made a sale and are taking a commission. Reading fees, edit fees, manuscript assessment fees, they are all recognised as the work of charlatans.
There are manuscript assessment agencies around, and some are even worth the money they charge. But they are not agents.
So, lets say you have inexplicably decided to do your own pimping and negotiating. Perhaps you don’t fancy turning over somewhere between ten and twenty per cent of your income to the misanthrope. Perhaps in your day job you eat high priced negotiators for breakfast.
There is another difficult, preliminary question you need to ask yourself. It’s difficult because you’re probably not qualified to answer it, but without an agent with whom you might chew over these things, where would you turn for advice? As you hurry through the black marble foyer, tracked by the invisible lasers and defence turrets of the Pan Macmillan in-house security system, or the slavering attack dogs of Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins, perhaps you should first ask yourself, ‘Do I even need this publisher’.
It’s not the sort of question publishers like to encourage, but increasingly authors and the misanthropes who represent them, are asking the very same. Lets illustrate the point with a little experiment. If you have web access handy, pop over to Amazon, the world’s largest online book retailer and festering sink of evil, and do a subject search under Kindle for, say, mystery and thrillers. There you’ll find some familiar names. Lee Child, Janet Evanovich and so on. But who are all these people you’ve never heard of? With titles that seem to cost .99 cents?
Well, they may not be the future of publishing, but they will be part of it. Self published authors who moved swiftly into the e-book space while the slow, lumbering engines of olde worlde publishing were still banking up the coal supplies for their steam engines. There are now any number of options for unsigned authors to say, ‘The hell with Random House, I’ll publish myself’.
Some of them have made a pile of money. Not because they’re good, but because they were fast to market, they were cheap, sometimes even free while they established their name as a micro-brand, and because they could often put half a dozen small electronic books into the channel while the publishing houses were still dunking their Tim Tams into the Earl Grey at acquisitions meetings.
Even established authors are beginning to examine the prospect of going it alone. Or perhaps not entirely alone, but certainly without the help of a publisher who’ll generously let you have a whole 10% royalty on your cover price, as opposed to the 70% you can earn freelance.
Of course, as a freelance, you’d have to organize editing, production, placement, marketing if you intend to do any, and so on. There are emerging into the market, a number of businesses providing these services. Some are reputable. Some are just retooled vanity publishers. You’ll need to do your own research as to whom you’ve fallen in with. Alternately, some agents are beginning to organise their clients as ‘stables’ where they produce copy for Amazon, or iBooks or Barnes and Noble, and the agency takes care of everything else, effectively cutting out the publisher but ensuring the production work is done professionally.
Publishers, as you’d imagine, are not happy with this. Some authors have seen existing contracts cancelled on the basis of entering into such arrangements.
Lets hand-wave all these modern confusions and tergiversations aside, however, and proceed on the assumption that you are an old school writer with an old school proposition. You have a saleable manuscript and you would like to sell it directly to a publisher. What do you need to know?
Firstly, what are you selling? It’s not just your beautiful prose. You are selling rights to commercially exploit that prose in any number of formats and markets. The publisher will want the right to everything, up to and including your DNA. When they rush you with a contract, fountain pen and a hypodermic syringe, just take a moment to say, “Whoa”. You may not want to assign a small Australian publisher the right to market your work in Romania or, possibly more importantly, in the US. You may want to withhold foreign rights, audio rights, video game rights, and so on.
There are many traps for young players in this area. For instance you may ‘invent’ a whole story universe, filled with compelling creatures and characters and worlds. Perhaps you write a series of successful novels within this universe but then move on, only returning to it years later. Suddenly, after announcing you intend to return to your roots, a lawyer’s letter arrives informing you that said roots are owned, root and branch by the original publisher. You didn’t just sell them the words in the manuscript. You sold them everything. The creatures, the characters, the world. The very fruits of your imagination.
This is why I say, you should either have an agent or an IP lawyer in your corner doing the talking. The power, unfortunately, is mostly with the publisher. Negotiations can be brutal. You’re an artist, you don’t do brutal. Unless you’re Tom Kratman. But your misanthropic agent or lawyer was born that way. Let them do their worst so you can be at your best.
They are the ones who will discuss the all-important filthy lucre. Just how much are you expecting to trouser for this deal? I hope it’s not too much. Advances are falling across the industry as it restructures to deal with the advent of electronic publishing (where the industry accepted advance for e-book only deals is one tenth of one per cent of fuck all; which is to say, zero). The virtual collapse of the US economy and subsequent contraction of its publishing industry is also feeding through to the rest of the world, undermining confidence.
There is no reasonable, generally agreed figure you can settle on for an advance. If you are a first time author, don’t be surprised at the insulting, piddlesome amount on offer. It’s an advance. If your work is that brilliant it will sell a million copies and you’ll be rolling in royalties with only the tax office goons to ruin your party. There are some authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business. Or rather, I should say there are some ex-authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business.
Having settled on who owns what, and how much dough is changing hands it’s time to think about the nuts and bolts of your agreement. You’ll want to know exactly what happens in the case of failure. Either you, failing to deliver, or the publisher failing to get to the book to market. Ideally, if they make a hash of everything you need to be in a position to recover your rights to everything. Alternately, if you make a cock up of things, how much are you going to have to pay them back? The full amount of the advance? With interest? Best to know. It used to be the case that in the days of gentleman’s agreements, advances were never recovered. Those days are over.
Will there be a marketing budget for your work? Will you tour? It’s a sad reality that the sales of books increase in direct proportion to the amount of effort that goes into pimping them. Be very careful that you’re not expected to organize and run your own publicity efforts. Unless marketing and publicity is your day job, you’ll fail. Get the publisher to spell out exactly what they intend to do in this area, in print.
There may be costs associated with your work. Will there be an index? Under no circumstances agree to pay for it. Professional indexing is hell expensive. So too with permissions for photography. As perverse as it might sound, even public institutions such as libraries will try to charge you for access and publishing rights to material they hold (paid for by the taxes extorted from your good self before you foolishly gave up merchant banking for the composing of epic poems). If there is a production cost involved in bringing your work to print – don’t be the one left holding the bill.
On a related matter, if you are planning to defame anybody, you might wish to secure an indemnity from your publisher. Best not to defame anyone in the first place, of course, but given the antediluvian nature of Australian libel laws, even the best of intentions can go pear-shaped. Ask Bob Ellis. Or better yet, don’t. Just learn from his example.
Once these tedious issue are settled you can get to the very heart of the author-publisher relationship; power. In the end, whose book is this? Do you have final say over its content and form or do they? Again, be wary of coming on as an overweening tool. While you may have very strong ideas about, say, the cover design of your precious tome, it might be the case that in matters of print aesthetics you don’t know your arse from a hole in the ground. So too, with editing. What makes you think that after three or four rewrites you have any capacity to objectively judge what needs to happen to your manuscript before it is released to the paying public, who, believe me, can very quickly morph into the baying public. By all means lobby for final control, but try not to exercise it.
There are two last issues you need to bear in mind. Publishers get very jealous of their authors. When they say they don’t want you releasing ‘competing’ titles they mean it. Sometimes, in the real world, delays and changes of allegiance can mean you have an older title with a previous publisher coming out at or near the same time as your new book. It is should be possible to deal with such instances like grown ups. But publishers are increasingly on the look-out for authors going maverick. Releasing, say, a self published e-book of short stories or magazine columns at the same time as the publisher’s title.
They hate this, in the general and in the particular. Contracts have been voided because of it.
Which brings us at last to final consideration. What happens at the end? Chances are you won’t be with this publisher unto the grave. When the link is sundered what happens to all those rights you gave when things were fresh and the very air itself was humming with mutual love and admiration?
Perhaps you really should get that lawyer and/or agent.