AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and now updated for the Web. Much of this is probably out of date, particularly the stuff that assumes the use of streetmail.


Part Six: What Happens Next: The Contract

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

So you want to be a writer. You've written a novel, and you've sent it out, maybe gotten a couple of rejections--and then an editor says, "Yeah, we can use this."

What happens then?

Well, first, of course, you get ridiculously excited and call your mother in Poughkeepsie and tell all your friends and maybe throw a wild drunken party to celebrate, and you probably promise a couple of hundred copies of the book to everyone you ever met.

Or maybe you assume it's a prank and you accuse the editor of being your older sister's nasty husband who never liked you, playing a vicious practical joke, but let's hope not.

That's not what I'm talking about. I mean after that.

Well, first off, what form is the acceptance likely to take?

It depends on the editor, and whether you've ever met her/him, and whether you have an agent. Typically, it'll take the form of a letter. Sometimes there will be a phone call first, and then a letter will follow up and get it in writing to make it official.

A proper acceptance letter will tell you the following:

Yes, Gigantic House wants to publish your novel.

They will pay you an advance of X dollars against royalties. The letter may or may not specify the royalty rate; if it doesn't, the industry standard for a first novel published as a mass-market paperback original is 6%. (Regular paperbacks, the standard-size ones that line the walls at Waldenbooks, are "mass-market" or "rack size." All other paperbacks are "trade paperbacks," which includes everything from Berke Breathed's Classics of Western Literature to those little inspirational volumes. There are a few "rack-size" paperbacks that are technically trade, rather than mass market, as the actual distinction is in how they're distributed, but let's not get into that right now.)

The letter will tell you whether or not revisions will be wanted. It may or may not tell you what those revisions are; if it doesn't, you'll either get another letter when the editor gets around to it, or a phone call, or some other such communication.

The letter will probably not discuss contract terms in any detail. It's just to let you know that they want the book.

You do need to answer this letter, the sooner the better. If you don't want a word of your masterpiece changed, and they want massive revisions, this is when you tell them that (and probably lose the sale). You do not sign a contract and then say you won't do revisions; that's a good way to not just lose the sale, but get sued and blacklisted.

So, you get your acceptance letter, offering you, let's say, $2,500 advance against 6% royalties, for world rights in English, with your novel, Weed-Eaters from Mars, to be published as a paperback original under the Gigantic Books imprint. The editor wants you to change the villain's name from Susie to Ermintrude because her (the editor's) college roommate was named Susie, and the sex scene on page 193 needs to be hotted up, but cut the gore on page 221, and Joe the Butcher should get his strange powers from atomic mutation, not druid magic.

Those are minor revisions. If you get that sort of thing, you're lucky. You might well get instead, "It's a real good story, but it drags a bit and we don't like to do 500-page first novels, so we'll take it if you can cut out 25,000 words."

Did you think the editor did that sort of revision? Nope. Welcome to the real world; editors don't do that, they make writers do that.

Let us suppose that you have an agent lined up; the next step, in that case, is to call your agent and tell him/her that Sally Editor at Gigantic House has made an offer on Weed-Eaters. From then on, the negotiations are out of your hands, and the next you hear will be when the agent's settled on terms.

If you don't have an agent, you get to do your own negotiating. As Isaac Asimov has said, absolutely everything in a book contract is negotiable, including your name and the date. This is true. But it's also true that if you push, you will hit a point at which the editor will say, "I can't do that," and will mean it, and if you don't give in you'll lose the sale.

Where the point is varies wildly with the exact circumstances. If you're Stephen King, you can demand ten million dollars up front, 15% royalties, a jet to Cuba, and a dozen dancing girls, and probably get it. If you're Joe Blow off the street and the editor has half a dozen other novels lying around that are just about as good as yours--well, you aren't getting any dancing girls, that's for sure.

Now, if you're a first novelist, the editor has probably made a conservative offer. Most first novels lose money. Most first novelists work cheap, so as to break in, and they still mostly lose money. So you've probably gotten an offer somewhere between $1,500 and $5,000.

If you're offered $5,000 or more, and you're previously unpublished, grab it.

If you're offered less than $1,500 for an SF or fantasy novel, you're looking at a swindle or a really desperate, borderline publisher.

In between, you can try to negotiate for more. You may not get it, but it shouldn't hurt to try. You might manage to pry loose another $500, particularly if you're willing to give something else up.

That's the advance. The advance is important. It's what you get up front, the only thing you're guaranteed. It is not, however, the most important thing in the contract.

Among the more important things are which rights you're signing away, and for how long. Don't give up world rights if you can avoid it; limiting the publisher to North American rights will be worth far more to you in the long run (assuming your writing career goes anywhere) than a thousand bucks of advance money.

Another important thing is the royalty rate. Don't take less than 6% unless you're sharecropping (working in someone else's universe, e.g. Star Trek or Conan). Ask for 8%--you probably won't get it, but it won't hurt to ask.

(Paperback royalties always go in increments of 2%, it seems. I don't know why. Hardcover and trade paperback royalties generally go in 2.5% increments.)

If you have a choice between 4% royalties and a five grand advance, or 6% royalties and no advance, take the 6%. It'll be worth it in the long run.

Anyway. You have an acceptance. You write back saying, "Yeah, I can make those changes and I'll take those terms." Then what happens?

About a month later, you'll get the contracts--could be three weeks, could be six. If it's more than six weeks, write or phone and ask what's happened. You won't get an explanation, but it'll remind them you exist, in case they lost your name. About one call every two weeks until you get the contracts is an appropriate level of harassment, I'd say.

There probably won't be any problem, though; this is not a point at which most publishers screw up.

That comes later.

So, you get the contracts. Then you can get into serious paragraph-by-paragraph negotiation, if you want.

Most first novelists don't bother, of course; they're so pleased they'll sign anything, and in fact, most publishers are not actively trying to shaft you at this point, so you probably won't be signing away your first-born child. All the same, read the contract! Ask about anything you don't understand. Get a writer or agent to check it over for you. Don't go to a lawyer unless he/she is experienced in publishing, because publishing contracts are a highly-specialized art form with a lot of history to them that 90% of lawyers don't know at all.

Things to particularly look at:

In general, you don't need to worry about the paragraphs on libel suits, plagiarism, editions for the blind, etc. If you have any questions about anything that seems weird, ask the editor. Or your agent, if you have one, or another writer.

So--you sign the contracts, with whatever changes you've made--you initial the changes, generally--and send them back.

(By the way, typically, there will be three or four copies of the contract, and you need to sign and date all of them. That's one for you, one for the editorial department, one for the legal department, and one for your agent, if any. Some contracts have a space for a witness to your signature; they usually don't squawk if you leave that blank, but if you have a handy roommate or buddy, go ahead and have him/her sign as witness.)

And there's where we end this installment.

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All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
All rights reserved
No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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