I once dealt with an author who was angry with a publishing company. She was very clear on how much money she had spent to promote herself and a worthy cause. She felt her publishing company hadn’t spent nearly as much on the same effort. However I came away wondering…what was in it for the publishing company? The author was a very good one. The cause was a very good one. But why should the publisher care? The publisher was interested in making money, not spending it.
Maybe the publisher was shortsighted. Or broke. Or maybe the author hadn’t learned the art of negotiation.
What many authors—and some agents—miss when they want to negotiate clauses in contracts is what in olden days used to be called win-win. Both sides need to “win” something in a deal to make both parties feel good and eager to continue a relationship with each other.
Any time an author wants a change they should be clear why they need it. Not necessarily want it, but need it. Will it help him or her? Is it for the convenience of someone else…a co-author or agent but won’t help the author? Is that worth it to the author?
Some publishers simply refuse to negotiate anything in their contract. Authors may see that as draconian. But what authors need to realize is that contracts have cost publishers time, effort, thought and money already. Changes in an existing contract will cost them more. The publisher will first have to check the rest of the contract to make sure there are no other ramifications if they change a clause or two. Even a simple change means the publisher will have to consult the changes in the contract whenever there is an issue… which is additional time and effort. What’s in it for them?
But say it is a simple change. It might cost the publisher very little and the publisher thinks they will gain enough good will to make it worth the effort. That’s a win for both sides. However if the author wants or needs a bigger change later, the publisher may feel their initial gesture wasn’t worth the effort after all. So be careful that the changes you ask for are exactly what you want.
Maybe the author wants a larger change. What is the author willing to give in exchange? Their story, presumably. Is that enough? Is their story worth possibly hundreds or thousands of dollars more to the publisher than some other author’s? After all, some changes can cost that much for the publisher upfront. If the publisher does that, will other authors demand that change? Then it could cost the publisher far more. On the other hand, if the publisher doesn’t think the story alone is worth it but the author thinks publication with that publisher is, what else is the author willing to give up? A longer contractual time to the publisher? Offering all first rights of refusal to the publisher?
The publisher is running a business. The author is running a business. Negotiations between two businesses are done all the time but both sides need to know what they are stepping into and both will want to reach a win-win solution at the end. Remember also that negotiations start before the contract is signed and usually end once it has been. At least one party has little incentive to re-open negotiations after the contract is ratified. Read and be aware of what you are getting into before you start and don’t expect (although you can ask) for additional considerations after you agreed to certain conditions.
Why do publishers hate Christmas?
Because we’re mean Grinches with coal in our hearts and switches in our hands (and the switches are not for fun!) No, that’s not it. We want to have love in our hearts and a gift in the stocking of every good reader and author but…deadlines happen.
Authors may wonder why they have to write Christmas stories in August. The secret is simple. Christmas stories that come out in January don’t sell. If the stories aren’t in with time for editors, artists, proofers, marketers to do their magic by December 25th, there is no point in doing the story at all.
Seasonal stories or any time-sensitive stories can be a nightmare. Things happen and even the most reliable author can have their computer blow up or their kid get sick with the deadline ticking away. Build in extra time and more than extra time in your writing schedule when you absolutely, positively have to have that story in at a certain time. Ditto for stories accepted on proposal.
That way you let your publishers (and you) have your days be merry and bright and all your Christmases be write… or something like that.
In an ideal world, the only time you might need to read your contract is before you sign on or if you have a specific question on some publishing point once you have. The worst time to read it is after you’ve signed and you discover you're unhappy.
Read the whole contract (really) and make sure you understand what you’re signing. There are all kinds of possible issues that even I couldn't imagine ahead of time. But particularly check these items because they tend to be ones that give authors the most trouble—
Royalties. Not just what percentage you’ll be making but how you’ll make it. From distributors? A middle man takes an additional cut. From gross? From net?
When will you get the royalties? Monthly? Quarterly? Yearly? Once you reach a certain sum? Having a set time to receive royalties almost always beats waiting until you’ve reached a certain amount.
When does the contract end and how do you leave? Be careful if there is no way to get out—never sign one of those. Usually there a set end date after a book is released or perhaps contracted. There is usually a particular way you need to notify the publisher. Make sure you know. The shorter the time period the better – especially when you are new to that publisher. You may have a long and profitable partnership together but you might not and you don't want to suffer longer than you need to.
Who owns the copyright? If the publisher owns the copyright, they own the book for your lifetime.
Who has rights in your next story? Can you shop your next story to any publisher you want? Does your publisher have right of first refusal? If so, what does that right entail? Everything in a series? Everything in that genre? Everything that is novel length? All works you write?
Can you modify it? If so, how and why do you want to do it?
Royalties. Who collects those royalties, you or the agent? For how long?
How much percentage of royalties does the agent get and for how long? Forever – even if you leave the agency?
Distribution. If the agent handles collecting the royalties, do you have a set time when you will receive your share of the royalties?
You're in a business. Make sure your business will work for you.
Treva Harte, EiC, Loose Id
Dear Santa –
Thank you very much for all the good manuscripts and good authors my publishing house has been given this year. I hate to ask for more next year but if you would be so kind as to give me these things, I’d be a happy, happy editor.
--- Authors who make use of locations and setting. I hadn’t thought about this much until Loose Id ran a promotional theme that made use of setting. Do you know it was hard to find books – just 12 was all we needed – that really made use of the location? It adds a lot and helps explain how the characters see thing the way they do when a place has weight in the story.
--Authors who have learned from self-publishing. I understand the pluses of self-publishing; I understand the minuses. After all, I’ve either written for a publisher or worked in publishing for over a decade now. It’s hard work. You need to keep having new product out there that people will want but to sell that new product you need to do marketing – smart, cost-savvy, people-savvy marketing. You need to keep writing while you are aware of the business ramifications. Not all authors will do this successfully but I hope all who try learn a lot about business, what writing sells and why, and what they personally should be writing.
--Authors who are happy with what they do. Happiness shows in an author’s writing – it may not be a comedy but a book where the author is thinking, absorbing, and enjoying the story is usually reflected in the story.
--Readers who enjoy their books. Even the ones who have read a million books before this one need to find the next wonderful story to enjoy. I hope they find a million more fun reads!
--And I hope there are lots of new e-readers under the Christmas tree, exchanged at Hanukkah or given for Solstice festivities.
Thanks for a wonderful year and I’m hoping readers, authors, artists and editors all have their wishes come true—
-- We've taken years now to develop our audience. I don't care how special your book is -- if it doesn't work for our market, it won't sell here. Read our guidelines. Then believe they apply to you.
-- Yes, the edits will make your story different. That would be the reason for the edits.
-- Sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and comma splices are not part of your "voice." They're grammatical errors. Fixing them will not substantially change your voice. This is what line edits are for.
-- Why are you shopping your book to us when you have a publisher you usually use? If it's because you think the story is a good fit for us, rather than the usual publisher, that makes sense. But if you're here because this is a genre you've never written before and then you resist working or promoing with us because your usual publisher doesn't do things the way we do... don't be surprised if your sales with us don't do well. You're a new author to our readers and your regular readers need to know this book is as killer as your "usual" books. Really.
-- Even if you’re sure your editors don't know as much as your beta readers, do what the editor wants anyhow. Our editors get paid to make it work for a market. Our market. They may get bonuses if it does well. They actually have an incentive to make it sell better. Your beta readers don't.
-- If you don't meet your deadlines, don't be surprised if your book doesn't release at the date you promised everyone it would.
-- Most authors can write books. Very few can also write good blurbs. This is why we have marketing people -- to save authors from themselves. Sometimes the blurbs emphasize things you don’t think are important. But it might be important to readers when they decide to buy.
-- Happy editors are easier to work with for your next book. In fact, they're there to make sure there is a next book.
Treva Harte (with contributions from Margaret Riley of Changeling Press)
EiC, Loose Id
I recently had the joy of listening to Debra Dixon speak on writer voice. What she said at that luncheon helped clarify my part-musing, part-exasperation with authors who fight edits. I don’t mean edits where the content of the story may be changed. In fact, usually authors and editors can negotiate those things successfully and are often happy (or happy enough) with the results.
I’m talking about authors who will fight to the last breath to defend the right to use a misplaced modifier or a questionable comma. Often they say it interferes with their voice. Now no one in publishing wants to interfere with a writer’s voice, especially a voice that helps to sell books. The question is why a semicolon is so dangerous that removing it might do this, or why authors (and on the other side, publishers) fight the change so bitterly.
Debra Dixon stated, and, of course, I am paraphrasing, that a writer’s voice is made up of two things. One is the truth you write in your books. A writer may go back to certain themes, for lack of a better term, because this is what they know. When a reader reads those truths they resonate for the reader because they know that the author is revealing a truth, one that is true for the writer and the reader. That is the part of the writer’s voice that will never change.
The second part of a writer’s voice is how they say those truths. The way authors write is what is most easily changed in voice -- you can add an accent or change the rhythm of the sentences easily enough. A reader can still find the author’s voice, their “truth” in the story, even if the sentences or words are somewhat different.
I believe if you don’t occasionally change the rhythm of sentences or shake up the way you deliver your words, you are in danger of stagnation and eventually self-parody. For example, the way you phrase things for historicals would change if you then write contemporaries. Patterns of speech copied or adapted from the nineteenth century would not work in a contemporary story, even though a reader could still understand what’s being said. A good author can signal the difference by changing the narrative to fit the work.
But change in narrative can make an author uncomfortable. An author may not be able to articulate why that change bothers him or her -- or, worse, an editor may not have clearly articulated why it’s needed -- and the battle starts, especially if the argued grammatical usage has adherents on both sides. Obviously if it’s right either way and there is no other reason to change it, the author should be able to keep it, no matter how much other readers dislike it.
What is even worse for an author is when publisher house style wins over author style. If there are two ways to say the same thing and the publisher’s house style clearly says it must be one way, house style wins even if it might be arguably correct some other way. That is a problem with some authors, since I suspect they think their unique voice is being crushed by some anonymous house rule.
I would scream if someone made me spell artichoke as artechoke merely because it is house style. But that’s not how house style works. House style exists to create uniformity and consistency where the rules are vague. If there are two schools of thought on something like punctuation, say Chicago Manual of Style vs. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, house style defines which way the argument will be decided.
Will it make a difference if you say dogs, cats, and babies vs. dogs, cats and babies? Did you even notice the difference? Will you care if this question is third in a series of questions or 3rd? I sincerely hope not. But the reader might if the rules change back and forth in a story. House style actually exists to make things uniform so that readers can move on to the content of the story without stopping to wonder about grammatical usage. Neither usage should impinge on your voice, or materially change your story in any way.
In epublishing, house style may also exist to make certain formats of books work correctly on certain e-readers. We all want the reader to have the best experience possible, and sometimes that means a publisher may format things like ellipses or fractions in a way that they’ve found looks best in certain formats. It’s a good thing for readers to be able to read your book, and not puzzle over strange hieroglyphs that appear when Mobi Pocket encounters some fractions.
House style will not change the most important part of the author’s voice. The author’s voice that delivers a universal truth can’t be squelched by a comma change. That is what the readers want and buy, not a particular modifier, verb or dialogue tag.
PS: If your relationship with your editor and line editors is good enough that the worst thing you can find to argue over is a misplaced comma, you way want to take a Xanax and reconsider your position entirely. Count yourself among the extremely blessed. Few relationships in life work that smoothly.
Witty but irrelevant commentary supplied by the evil twin, M.
The Minefields of Erotic Romance
I’m going to be doing a workshop this year on erotic romance and while trying to figure out just what to talk about, I thought I'd begin with what to consider before you start writing. You've taken a huge step in getting your erotic romance published if you avoid certain problems that will always get an author in trouble. (You might be able to write yourself out of the trouble, but it's so much easier not to go there in the first place.)
Here are some specific problems I've seen in erotic romance:
The plot is just plain wrong for erotic romance. For example, I once wrote a romantic suspense that had the hero and heroine saving the United States from an evil dabbler in politics. But since the villain was chasing the hero and heroine, together and separately, through most of the story, there wasn't a lot of time for the Erotic element. For it to be erotic, you need to have sex all throughout the story. One or two sex scenes at the end of the book just don’t work for erotic romance.
This leads to a problem that is particularly fatal in erotic romance -- the hero and heroine (or any variation of gender and number of persons you desire) rarely spend time with one another. Folks, there is only so much phone sex, alone sex, or voyeur sex that any erotic romance can support without real person-to-person sex. (This is NOT a challenge to attempt to sell us a book based solely on phone sex.)
There are other problems inherent to all romance sub genres, but may become more difficult when you write erotic romance. You are trying to balance at least two elements here, the erotic and the romance, and the balance can get very delicate as you stir in more elements for the story.
There is the story with too many characters. You're trying to invest the reader in your romantic couple or ménage. While a reader may enjoy reading about a number of characters in the story, readers are only going to care deeply about so many. You don't want readers to fall in love with the secondary characters and wish the story was about them. You really don't want readers to yawn when they see number six in the ménage and try to remember who is who in this story.
There is the plot that is too elaborate for erotic romance. I don't want to say keep the plots simple but writers do need to keep focusing their story on key elements like the characters and the sex and making the romance and characterization believable.
Then there are the issues when you set up the story expecting the reader to keep reading even though you haven't given them a reason to. For example, sequels to a successful story are great, but spending most of the first story setting up the sequel is liable to turn readers off and end the chance of having a sequel. Most readers prefer a complete, interesting story with a conclusion that stands on its own.
You can have a story where you make the hero and heroine so unlikable and apparently unredeemable at the start that the reader isn't going to read through to the end to see how transformed the character becomes. If they can't like the characters or at least understand them, they aren't going to hope for a happy ending for them.
One of my editors added the problem of the story based on the Big Misunderstanding, especially one that could be cleared up with a few minutes of face-to-face conversation. (That is usually part of an unlikable character or unbelievable characterization problem -- where the reader thinks, "Why doesn't the idiot just TELL him or her why he is doing this/not doing this/is angry/afraid/etc.?")
Remember, when you're writing, to see the whole picture, and try to keep all the elements balanced, including the erotic side of the story. Give us characters we want to get to know better, and a love affair we can believe in and want to see develop, as well a s a plot that doesn't sabotage your efforts at every turn. Make us want to keep reading, and we'll be back for more.
Originally Printed in Rainbow Romance Writer’s January 2011 newsletter