Friday, July 17, 2020

I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours

Lately, some authors on social media are saying that it’s time authors shared details about their book contracts and income to break open the financial secrecy inherent in this business. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?

by Paul D. Marks

That’s an interesting question. And since I was just going over a contract yesterday it’s definitely timely. As I was going over the contract I was thinking, hmm, I wonder if this jibes with other people’s contracts. Do they have the same terms? Better? Worse?

Of course, if I go there, if I want to see their contracts then they would want to see mine. And do I really want them seeing mine? Whether my terms are better or worse than someone else’s, do I want them to know my personal business?

When I was a kid—and maybe it’s still a thing today—people would gauchely ask how much someone made. And the usual response was “we’re comfortable.” The reason people gave that response, I think, was to deflect from the real and specific answer to that question. People don’t like talking about their finances.

I know that Louise Penny and John Grisham make a HELL of a lot more money than I do as a writer. But I don’t know exactly how much more and I don’t really care to know. I also don’t know the other details of their contracts, but I can certainly imagine they have better terms than I do in a variety of ways.

Louise Penny
If someone has a better deal maybe I’d be envious (and isn’t envy one of the seven deadly sins?). But it’s up to me or my representatives to negotiate the best deal I can. What if we knew John Doe’s terms? Does that mean we would or should get the same as him? Maybe Doe sells better, maybe he’s been around longer, maybe he has better reviews, awards, whatever? This isn’t like working at McDonald’s where you start at minimum wage and work your way up a pretty standard set of rate increases. There’s no standard formula. Plus a small indie publishing company certainly can’t compete with Random House. So, if you’re with magazine or book publisher A, who pays X dollars, but they’re a big publisher, and I’m with small publisher B, who pays Y dollars, how can I expect the same remuneration?
John Grisham
I think one of the reasons people want this is maybe to standardize contracts. But I don’t see how we can standardize rates. In Hollywood, if one is a member of the WGA, there is a rate structure, scale. But once you reach a certain level you work above the minimums. Do you think a William Goldman (before he died) or a Robert Towne make the same as a novice or journeyman screenwriter? Should they? I’m also not sure how it could practically be applied to fiction writing. Let’s take short stories, Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock pay by the word, other magazines have a standard set fee and still others don’t pay anything at all. Or you might get a contributor’s copy and maybe royalties, assuming the book makes money, which often isn’t the case. Some small book publishers don’t give advances. Many of them are hanging on by a thread. So what good would it do to see their contracts? If you don’t like a publisher’s offer go somewhere else. And you can always hope for a better deal down the road with your current publisher or another one.

William Goldman

Would I like to make more money from my writing? Of course. That said, we all have different goals. Sometimes there’s things that are more important than actual money amounts, like being with a publisher that can get you exposure or will promote your work more (which hopefully in turn would mean more royalties). Sometimes we might be willing to sacrifice money for that extra reach. Or you might want more up-front money where another writer may not care as much about that as something else. We’re all different and want different things, so to compare contracts is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. And again will only create envy. There’s a Law & Order episode where (and I’m trying to remember the details but it’s been a while so I’m making up these numbers but you’ll get the idea) the cops are investigating a murder (so what else is new?). They’re talking to various people in a company about how much each received as a bonus. And each one thinks they maxed out. The guy who got 500K thinks he got the top deal and so does the guy who got 50 or 90K (whatever it was). But if they knew the truth that would only create tension in the company and then there’d likely be more dead bodies for the cops to investigate 😉. So nobody shares that info. The same would happen with authors. Well, maybe not more dead bodies (except hopefully on the page) but more tension.

I’ve given people general advice about certain things to look for in contracts and rights they might want to retain and things along those lines. But I never tell people about my contract specifics. And I don’t want to know theirs. There are places to find variations on standard contracts and I suggest you look them up. See what contracts look like. See what you can negotiate in or out of a publisher’s standard contract. There are some things they’ll give you and some they won’t. So you have to compromise, you have to decide which hill/s you’re willing to die on. If the terms are too onerous go to another publisher. But you need to take responsibility and do some homework and make the best deal you can. Even Brian Epstein didn’t get the Beatles the best contract in the early days and somehow they seemed to do okay in the long run.

Just negotiate the best contract you can, whether you do it yourself or have a lawyer or agent do it. And contracts are about more than just money. They’re about certain rights that you might want to retain, as well as other things. So ultimately I don’t want my personal details revealed nor do I want to know yours.


And now for the usual BSP:

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

This is a difficult question. When asked privately and directly by other writers who share a certain publisher with me, I am frank. Otherwise, I tend not to give a lot of details about the contracts I enter into. Some have been good, others not so. A lot depends on the integrity of the publisher.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. I agree, it is a difficult question and can be a little touchy. Sounds like you're handling it well.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dietrich.

Allison Brennan said...

My two cents: there are really two different questions about sharing contract information. The first is money, the second is terms. I have generally been opposed to sharing $$ amount, other than the ranges in PM, because the $$ amount is completely tied to the author's individual career and the other terms in the contract. Someone might get $100K for a book and if they told people, everyone would scream it wasn't fair or this or that ... but maybe the OTHER terms that the author gave up to get the cash are terms another author WOULDN'T give up. For example, foreign rights -- they can be very lucrative, but what if the author gave the rights to their publisher in order to get a larger advance? You wouldn't know that based on the advance. What if there's joint accounting? Generally an unfavorable practice ... but some authors might say, "You know, I have two kids about to go to college, I want the money now and if it takes me longer to earn out, that's fine." Also as you said in your article, money can make people envious ... and that is an increasing problem in our society where people think "That's not fair!"

I go back to the parable of the vineyard -- the owner hires people to work a day and they agree to wages. They are happy with the arrangement. The owner realizes at lunch that he needs more workers and hires them for the same wages, even though they only are working half the time. Those who have been there longer resent the new workers, but truly, they were happy with the arrangement UNTIL someone else came in and they perceived that they were now treated unfairly. I take this to heart -- if I'm happy with my arrangement, whether someone gets better or worse is irrelevant.

In publishing, the most important thing is to be satisfied with the deal you have based on your knowledge of the market for your book. If you are happy when you sign the contract with the terms of the contract, then why would you care what someone else makes other than 1) to make yourself feel superior ("I got paid more than Author B!") or make yourself feel angry/jealous ("Wow, why did he get paid more than me?") I've found with the deadly sin of "envy" (great analogy) that people tend to think that others shouldn't have something, that by someone else "getting" something they perceive is better than what they got, it's "unfair" -- and they generally think THAT PERSON SHOULDN'T HAVE IT. I don't raise my kids that way and I don't live that way.

Finally, I think what authors CAN do to help other authors is to fully understand the terms of their contracts and share that understanding. Put the money aside -- how is the money divided over time? What rights does the author retain? What is the option or non-compete clause and how does that practically work? What redress does the author have if the editor is a jerk? Foreign, audio, serialization, graphic novels, ebooks -- what are these terms and how do the terms affect the contract now and in the future? What is the out-of-print option and how do ebooks affect that? These are things that benefit ALL authors and I know some agents fight for certain terms because they've seen how they have been used against authors in the past.

Anyway, it's a great topic and should be discussed, but talking about money will always lead to major problems.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you for your comment, Allison. I agree with everything you say. And the vineyard example is a good one. As you say, the most important thing is to be happy with the contract/terms that you make. I think comparing ourselves to others generally doesn’t lead to anything good. And I think everything your next to last paragraph is worth talking about in ways not related to anyone’s specific contract. People need to do their homework.