Saturday, December 04, 2004

So you want to be a writer...

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer: book signings, talk shows, movie deals, wining and dining, and seeing your book on bookstore shelves across the country. That's the life you envision, the dream you work to make true. But being a writer isn't all book signings and talk shows. There's another side to the glamorous life that writers won't talk about for fear of being labeled difficult. That's the real life of a writer. So, before you make the decision to follow this path, read the signs along the road, the ones placed in the shadows and covered with dirt and tattered shrouds.

Being a writer is more than just putting words on paper for editors and publishers and agents beating a path to your door. There is a business to writing that very few talk about and fewer still know before their books see shelf space. There are palms to be greased, butts to be kissed, and humiliation to endure before, during, and after the fact. To be sure, there are writers who hit the big time with little or no effort, but they are few and far between, almost urban legends.

You have your manuscript(s) ready and everything has been checked and double checked, edited to within an inch of it's literary life, and you know what you have is good. Or you have written sample chapters and put together a killer proposal and you want an agent to represent you because that's how the big writers do it. You approach an agent and they read your whole proposal (if it's short) or skim the first chapter or two (if they have the time) of your novel and they tell you it's not for them. You try another agent and then another and maybe they pass, too--if they take the time to respond at all. So you send your proposal/manuscript to a publisher, one you've researched thoroughly. You put in an extra stamped, self addressed envelope or manuscript box (called a SASE or SASB) and you put it in the mail and wait. The publisher contacts you and says yes, but more often than not they say no thanks in a form rejection, or a personal note if you're lucky or they're feeling generous, and send it back to you.

If the publisher says yes, they will probably ask for a few changes, to which you will gladly agree because you know you're just starting out and you'll do anything to see your work in print, they will tell you to contact someone else in their company to hammer out the details of the contract. Now, you have heard the horror stories of tiny or no advances and how writers unwittingly signed away their first born manuscript rights because they didn't know enough about contracts and hidden clauses and such, so you contact those agents who rejected you before with a bona fide publishing deal. Suddenly, one of them, the first one who turned you down, jumps on the bandwagon and says they'd be glad to help you out. You've already done most of the work but you want to protect yourself and your manuscript and you happily thank them for their help, forgetting that they didn't see enough merit in you or your work in the first place to work to place your work before. You can afford to be generous because they can help you down the road with your second or twentieth manuscript. You reason it's worth the 15%-20% you're about to shell out for them to look over the contract and protect your (their) interests; never mind they have done jack squat to this point and have also mentioned that if the advance isn't going to be sufficient they still won't represent you because it's not worth their time.

The deal is set and your advance is going to be about $5000 dollars, 15% of which is $750 for the agent who did nothing to get you to that point, but you're glad they've agreed to look out for your (their) interests and sign you. After all, you weren't expecting that much for your first advance and you're ecstatic. What's a few dollars off the top for the agent who is the Johnny-come-lately to the party when s/he will get you some really big advances down the road, advances you can barely imagine in your wildest dreams. It's a small price to pay, you tell yourself and you happily wait for the agency contract.

When the contract arrives you see that in addition to the 15%-20% commission the agent also wants an extra amount of money (sometimes spelled out and most times not) for copying, messenger service, and overnight mail, and packaging. You look at it and wonder why the commission doesn't cover the cost of those things, but you don't want to be labeled a difficult author and have the agent bail on you just when you have your first book deal. You're still looking down the road at all those book signings, 6- and 7-figure advances, talk shows, and books on the shelves so you sign the contract, reminding yourself that it's a small amount of money and you will finally be published. Of course, it's sort of like getting a bill for utilities or phone or your new car and having the company or dealership send you an extra bill for the paper on which it's printed, the stamps used to mail the bill, and the cost of ink and computer time for printing up the bill, but it's a small amount and so you pay. Evidently, 15%-20% of your royalties for the life of the book is not enough to cover those charges. You don't think about how there will be times when the agent does not copy, messenger, overnight, or otherwise do anything for you or your future work that you will still have to pay the fee for the cost of them doing business, right down to the staples, paper clips, and tape, but it's a small price to pay; you're going to be a published author. And don't forget that your new agent, the one who has your best interests at heart, is going to collect 15%-20% of every royalty check you ever get for the publication of this book for as long as it is in print even though all they did was look over a contract, something you could have paid a good lawyer to do for $100 or less, but you're still looking to the future. Oh, and don't forget that fee for the cost of doing business comes out of the first check every year.

Your book is finally published and you've earned out your advance (sold enough books to pay for the advance) and the royalty checks start coming in. The checks will be sent to your new agent who will take their commission and extra fees off the top and cut you a check for the remainder. You're a real author now and you have several books making the publishing rounds and you're finally a published author. Your dream has been realized, but there are still dangerous rapids to get around or through.

(to be continued...)

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