Tag Archives: publishing

No Contract Is Better Than a Bad Contract

Know Your Rights

People ask why I haven’t published my young adult novel although the unpublished manuscript has won awards.

The answer is simple: I haven’t received a good contract.

Sure, I’ve had offers, but they’ve all been lacking in one way or another. Because I don’t have an agent, I’ve had to review and negotiate the terms and conditions on my own. Most publishers have been reluctant to address any of my concerns. They prefer not to alter any of their broiler plate language unless agents or attorneys are involved.

Here are the top five contract deal breakers and how to avoid them:

1. No advance. Traditional publishers are willing to pay a sum of money to an author before the manuscript is published. Often they will pay half of the money upon signing the contract and the other half upon delivery of the final manuscript. After all, authors need money to fund research and writing expenses as well as pay their bills. Without an advance, authors must rely on royalty payments, which are often paid only quarterly after the book’s release. With the traditional publishing cycle taking an average of one year between acceptance and publication date, an author without an advance must find another source of income.

2. Exclusive right to everything. Most publishers will want exclusive rights to print and electronic formats of a manuscript for a certain period of time. Some publishers, however, want blanket rights to everything related to the manuscript, from movie options to merchandising rights, often without extra payment. If an author signs a contract with blanket rights, that author could be missing out on additional sources of income.

3. No promotional plan or budget. Even with the proliferation of free online marketing, a publisher unwilling or unable to offer either a promotional plan or budget is setting the author and the book up for failure. Many authors do not have the luxury of spending their advance on book tours, advertising, and a full-time publicist. Publishers need to partner with their authors to ensure the book’s success.

4. One way termination clauses. Many contracts stipulate that if an author does not deliver an “acceptable” final manuscript by a certain deadline, the publisher reserves the right to terminate the contract and demand repayment of the author’s advance. What about the publisher not delivering an “acceptable” finished product or fulfilling its obligations in the marketing plan? Unless an author stipulates in the contract the terms and conditions in which the author can cancel the contract, the one way termination clause does not prevent the fallout that can happen during mergers and acquisitions in which books get canceled before publication because they no longer “fit” on the publisher’s list.

5. First rights to purchase future manuscripts. It can be flattering to be offered a contract in which the publisher reserves first rights to accept the author’s next manuscript. Although this agreement can work well for both parties, troubles exist if the author doesn’t like working with the publisher on the first book and is now obligated to sell the second book to them. More problems arise if the first book does exceptionally well and the publisher refuses to negotiate a more equitable contract.

When I find a publisher willing to accept my deal breakers, then I will sign a contract to publish my young adult novel.

Until then…enjoy the books I’ve already published.

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Another Fight About Writing

Fight

Sometimes my husband and I fight about my writing career. We often don’t agree on what direction it should take or what the end result should be. This week my husband said, “You rush through rewriting. I don’t want you doing that with this novel. Sometimes it takes 100 times to get it right.”

How could I possibly be rushing? I wondered. After all, I wrote the first draft as a separate book, thinking it was done in 2005. I rewrote it again in 2008, knowing it was not. I wrote a second book in 2010 thinking the first book was a waste of time. I came back to the second book in 2013, finally realizing the first book provided necessary flashbacks that could fill out the second story, making it richer, fuller, deeper, and more meaningful.

“If you rush through it again, you’ll only end up with second rate offers,” he said. “I’m tired of you settling for second rate offers when you could take your time and do it right and get the best offer up front like the rest of your writing friends do.”

I sighed with frustration. Of course, there was a speck of truth in what he said, but I was determined to prove his theory about me wrong this time. I would take however long it took to get this novel right, even if it meant spending 10 years rewriting the same pages over and over again.

“You don’t have the patience,” my husband said. “That’s why you’re better known and most respected for your articles and essays. It doesn’t take much patience to polish 2,000 words.”

I shook my head, wondering if he was right. Did my reliance on writing short pieces stem from my lack of patience? Would I end up further ahead in my writing career if I devoted more time to writing longer works, even if it took a hundred times longer than it normally took for me to write something shorter? Would the payoff be better if I slowed down and reexamined the same scene three hundred times instead of three dozen times?

Often I’ve marveled over the breakout books that left the author in what appeared to be a draught of several years before a second book was published. Why did it take so long, especially when the author didn’t have a second job?

Ten years passed from Donna Tartt’s breakout debut, The Secret Society, and her second novel, The Little Friend. Her third book, The Goldfinch, is slated to be published this October, eleven years after The Little Friend was released.

Why did it take Tartt ten and eleven years to publish her second and third books when she doesn’t have a husband, children, or a full-time job to juggle?

“Because she took her time,” my husband said. “She’s an artist. She knows her craft. Her books are complicated. It takes a couple of years to write something good. It takes even longer to write something as complex as the story you’re trying to tell. So if you hand it to me in the next couple of months asking me to read it, I’m handing it right back to you and telling you it’s not fit to be read yet because it’s not done.”

“But what if it doesn’t take a dozen years to get right?” I asked.

My husband’s mouth formed a tight line. “I know you. You get excited when a few things come together and you get depressed when a few things fall apart. You have to stick with the story long enough so that if someone invited you to a dinner party and the guests asked what you were doing you would launch right into the crux of the story and start talking about these people as if they really did exist.”

I frowned. “No one does that. Not even the famous writers I’ve met.”

My husband chuckled. “You can’t count those writing conferences you go to as dinner parties. First, the authors who attend consider it work. They have an agenda. If they sit at your table, they’re going to talk about what they’ve been paid to talk about. They aren’t going to share what they’re working on with you.”

“But you’re saying they would.”

“In the right circumstances, yes,” my husband said. “I’ve had dinner with plenty of screenwriters who were working on projects for several years before anyone even heard of them. They knew their stories by heart and could recite lines as if they were cult fans of a movie.”

“Like the guys did with The Princess Bride?” I asked, remembering how annoying it was to watch the movie with a bunch of my husband’s twenty-year old friends who said each line just as the character’s opened their mouths.

“Yes, like that,” he said. “And you can’t do that by rewriting a novel in 20 days.”

I stormed out of the room, unable to battle against my husband’s wits any longer.

Should I set a timer to see how long it takes to rewrite this book to my satisfaction?

Or should I place out a couple of calendars instead?

Stay tuned. It might be a long journey.

When the Dream Becomes a Nightmare

My husband had a dream we divorced because I am married to writing.

Sure, the majority of my social events center on writing and literature and book promotions. Sure, I spend a good portion of my day writing and a good portion of my nights editing. And the weekends, well, they fall into the dark side of creativity.

My family constantly makes sacrifices to support my writing habit. My husband assumes all responsibility for childcare and housework, letting me have the space and time to concentrate at home instead of renting an office downtown. He postpones intimacy so I can meet deadlines. My children wait and wonder when I will have time for them. Sometimes they understand. Other times my son will shut the notebook I am writing in and shout, “The End!” before grabbing my hand and demanding, “Eat!” My daughter fluctuates from pride in promoting my work to frustration in wanting to eat breakfast with me without the clutter of notes on the kitchen table and a pen nearby in case inspiration strikes.

I have been writing since I was ten. That means long before I met my husband and gave birth to my children I had logged in hundreds of hours at the desk, typing away on an electric typewriter, writing draft after draft. I had my first poem published when I was 15. By the time I was 17, I was writing for the local paper. Two months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I received a check for my first piece of fiction.

But to dream that all of that came before him and displaced him, left me feeling bereft and helpless to convince him otherwise.

How can you tell your spouse the written word means less to you than he does when the only vehicle you have to use is words?

Showing him didn’t help. That meant canceling speaking engagements, book launches, signing parties, and other literary events. It meant pulling back instead of reaching out, but if I didn’t do something, my marriage, my family, the foundation I stood on, would crumble.

Sure, he says the dream was just a dream. He doesn’t feel that way. Not really.

But still…I have to be wary…how much do I push the envelope before the whole contents spill out?

I’ve been told I’m ambitious. I have enjoyed moderate success as a writer, enough to pay some bills, obtain some local recognition, and open a few doors to big-time opportunities, but not enough to replace the income from my other jobs, gain national recognition, or capitalize on any of those big-time opportunities. I’m what the industry calls a mid-list writer, one who falls between the cracks of oblivion and fame. But the potential exists to break out of that rut, to possibly become more, with each new poem, essay, article, screenplay or book.

That’s the real threat to the marriage—the breakout novel that will catapult me from where I am to where I want to be—that’s what will cause all the rest of my world to tumble down. And that’s the tension I live with every day: not whether to write or not to write, but whether to write better and reach further, to stop doing what I’ve already done and reach for something more.

That “more” tips the scales between the best wife and the best mother and the well-paid, well-recognized and well-respected writer.

I cannot predict the future, but I can tread lightly on the present. And that means declining some opportunities for more time to devote to those who have come into my life either by choice or circumstance to form what I call my family. To sacrifice one for the other isn’t ideal, but it is reality.

That’s why I chose to help my husband with much needed home repairs instead of attending another book festival. That’s why I refused to travel out of the country on a three month writing retreat to be with my family—correcting my daughter’s homework, discussing behavioral strategies with specialists for my son, supporting my husband emotionally as he reorganizes and expands his business. For in the end, it does not matter whether or not future generations study my novel in their junior high English class, but whether or not I showed the ones I love I care more about them than anything else…and that they feel it and believe it and know it to be true.

Your Breakout Moment

This week I was asked how well my books are selling. “Not well enough to quit my day job,” I said.

“What does it take to increase sales?” the person asked. “Social networking? Speaking engagements? Book tours?”

I thought about it carefully before responding. “Usually, it’s a breakout book. A story so compelling no one can put it down. It’s something you either find or it finds you.”

I haven’t published that breakout book yet.

Sure, there are moments when I thought I had. With my first novel, Legs, the breakout moment came when a scriptwriter approached me about turning the book into a screenplay. The arrangement, however, didn’t work out and the movie was not made. But for a moment, I had visions of quitting my day job, moving the family to Hollywood, and becoming the next novelist-turned-screenwriter. With my second novel, Blood Moon Rising, my publisher anticipated a wave of sales in response to the phenomenal success of Twilight. For the first time, I had help with promotion. But the fanfare fizzled with poor reviews and even poorer sales. The book survived only because a few readers discovered the novel is not a book about vampires but a book about motherhood. Word of mouth spread slowly and steadily, the exact opposite of what happens with a breakout book. My third novel, Out of Balance, seemed to catch my readership by surprise. After all, I had one book in one genre, a second book in another genre. Who knew what to expect with the third book? But it turned out to be the best of the three so far.

I don’t know what to expect when my collection of short stories, The Human Act and Other Stories, is released from All Things That Matter Press. Die-hard fans will definitely purchase it and write good reviews, but who knows what the rest of the world will think.

Although I have not had a breakout book yet, I have had breakout moments in my writing career. From the controversial story in my high school paper that landed me a job at the local paper to the short story turned memoir that won the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award and the attention of literary agents and an editor at one of the largest publishing houses in the United States, I know what it takes to write a breakout story and it’s nothing a professor, a literary agent, an editor, a reader or another writer can teach you.

Then how do you learn it?

You live it.

You write from the heart about your deepest, darkest secrets, the things you are ashamed of, the things that keep you up at night. You write about what you love and fear and hate, the things that make you proud, the things that make you ache. You write like there is no one in world who cares about you or what you have to say, because you will die if you do not say it. You write in your own voice, very simply, one word at a time. You stop writing because you are crying or laughing too hard to see the page. You throw your fists against the wall, break the crystal vase, and clean it all up before you sit back down again to finish what you started to write because the words won’t stop coming from wherever they are coming from. You write from what you’ve experienced, not in the moment but after time and forgiveness has softened and shaped them into something beautiful and new. You write because you want to connect, to share, to touch, and to feel what you once felt before but didn’t have the words or the wisdom to explain. And then you find the courage to expose all of that to the world.

Those hard stories, the ones you say you can’t write, won’t write, find you. If you listen to them, you can write a breakout moment. But if you turn away and return to the safe words, the safe stories, the stories you think you want to write, then those breakout moments go away.

The problem with breakout stories is the world isn’t always ready for them. That’s why there is so much rejection.

But if you are persistent and continue to pour out the words you are meant to write, then you may experience the magic when finally, finally, you do your job as a writer and connect in a way that forever changes not just one reader’s world, but the whole reading world.

Daughter Knows Best

Trust a Teen or a Publishing Professional?

Last year, amidst the holiday celebrations, I received a letter from my literary agent stating she would no longer represent me. The New York publishers she had pitched my young adult novel to had told her the plot wasn’t engaging enough and the main character was too young.

My daughter tried to encourage me by telling me she would help me rewrite the book so it would attract the attention of another literary agent who would finally sell it.

She kept her promise, read the novel, and critiqued it.

While she was reading and critiquing, I researched current publishing trends. I read young adult novels from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Smart Girls Get What They Want. I filled notebooks with magazine articles and blog posts detailing teen speech patterns, habits, fashion, and concerns. I volunteered to be near teens and chronicled first-hand encounters of student-teacher interactions, relationships between peers, and tensions between grade-levels. I witnessed teens sending secrets texts while pretending to pay attention in class. I overheard stories about how they pirate e-books and music for free from online sites.

When my daughter and I sat down to compare notes on how to approach the rewrite of my young adult novel, our views vastly differed. I wanted to set the novel in present time to use my research, but my daughter wanted to keep the historical context. “It would be fun to learn about a time before cell phones and iPods,” she said. I wanted to start over from page one, but my daughter wanted me to beef up the plot by deepening the romance between the main character and the boy-next-door.

“Rewriting the whole book is a waste of time,” she said. “You only need to change a few things.”

Changing only a few things in the scope of a novel seems daunting. I rewrite like an auto mechanic overhauling an engine. I do not know how to rewrite a book like an auto mechanic performing a tune-up on an otherwise solid engine. But that’s exactly what my daughter had asked me to do.

Of course, I don’t want to listen to her. After all, she’s a teen with limited experience, not a professional who can negotiate a lucrative publishing contract and advance my career. But she insists she knows what she is talking about, as a teen and as a reader. And, being a mother, I have decided it would be best to listen. Because even if the book never reaches hundreds of thousands of teens, it will reach my daughter, who is the only teen who really matters anyway, right?

The Writing Process in Progress

Celebrating the Completion of the First Draft

Writing a novel is like being pregnant. You can write whatever you want without anyone judging you just as you can eat whatever you want without anyone judging you. People ask with interest about the progress of your novel just as people ask about the stage of a pregnancy. “Oh, I’m halfway through the first draft,” you say, which is the equivalent of saying, “I’m in the start of my second trimester. The queasiness is over. The fatigue is gone. And I feel great!”

The closer you get to the finish, however, things change. People become annoyed by how many social obligations you miss and how distracted you seem to be because you’re caught up in another world. Just as at the last stage of pregnancy, you become irritable and uncomfortable, unable to eat without heartburn and unable to find a comfortable position to sleep because you are so big you feel like a beached whale. You want to finish the book; give birth to the baby. Have the excitement and the misery end.

But once you type, “The End,” the elation and relief ebb away. Anxiety and depression sometimes follow. All those months spent on high alert, jotting down notes in the middle of dinner, waking up in the middle of the night hearing your narrator’s voice, suddenly evaporate. The adrenalin rush crashes, and suddenly you find yourself deflated and empty. The road that stretches before you is miles and miles of toil and work. The baby has been born. Now the anticipation has been replaced with the real work of the frequent feedings, diaper changes, and mothering to raise the child into a good human being. Just the anticipation of writing a novel is replaced with the real work of editing, publishing, and marketing.

Finishing a novel is a lot like giving birth. You have the same feelings of fear and anxiety, elation and relief once you get to the final chapter and type “The End.”

I always go through postpartum depression whenever I finish a novel. All those weeks leading up to the finish, full of adrenaline and excitement, working non-stop around the clock between my everyday life and the life of my fictional world suddenly deflates once the book has been written. Gone is a whole half of what I have been engaged in, and the lost is enormous.

Now I wake up and glance at the clock and wonder who will greet me when I rush to the computer. Sure, I could start the edit or the next book in the series and plunge right back into the world, but I prefer to work with breaks. Sometimes the breaks stretch too long and suddenly I am stranded in what would look to others as writer’s block. Most times, however, I engage in smaller, more manageable projects to keep my creative juices flowing. This time I feel the need to return to my painting, which has been sorely neglected during this last novel.

Sure, there are other tasks that involve writing: the one-sentence pitch, the back copy blurb, the marketing materials that will be printed on bookmarks and postcards and press releases and online in blogs and forums. But that’s different. It is the business side of writing, and it is very different than being immersed in a separate world where things are happening, stakes are high, and emotions even higher.

The postpartum phase of finishing a novel is a natural part of the writing process. It does not have to end in depression, although mine always tend to. I think it’s because I immerse myself deeply in my work and experience “The End” as a loss rather than a celebration. Joy comes from writing, not having written. If I am not writing, I am not a writer. I’m only a part of who I am, and I think that adds to the sense of loss.