Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Be Good, Be Kind: On Loyalty and Publishing

By Steve Weddle

So it's a Terry Goodkind week, huh? Um, OK.

First, there was this article by Alan Beatts. Off the news that Goodkind is self-publishing a book, Beatts uses the Borderland Books post to question Goodkind's loyalty.

To my eye the picture overall looks like Goodkind left Tor for more money (probably) and a bigger audience (by writing a main-stream thriller).  He failed to get anything like the sales that his new publisher was looking for and either they kicked him to the curb or he broke the contract.  The[n] he went back to his old publisher, who took him on.  But then, not happy with them for some reason, he has now decided to self-publish.
Bear in mind that Tor, the publisher he's treated this way, is the company that gave him his start.  Granted, publishing is complicated, being an author is hard, and that combination makes for some difficult decisions.  But still, perhaps Mr. Goodkind is not the most loyal fellow on the planet.

(By the way, if you'd like to read a post that Beatts wrote about Borderland Books, you can find it at Tor's website.)

The picture to my eye differs somewhat from the picture in the eye of Mr. Beatts. Looks as if Goodkind is doing what is best for Goodkind and Tor and Penguin are doing what is best for them, respectively.

Claiming that an author was given "his start" by a publisher is an idea that might not sit well with authors.

The post seems to suggest that Goodkind owes something to his publisher. He doesn't owe them blind loyalty. He doesn't owe them a lifetime of work. He doesn't owe them Right of First Refusal (ROFR) for everything he ever writes ever. He doesn't owe them anything except what is agreed upon by both parties. Who signed a contract. For both sides. Perhaps Goodkind granted Tor ROFR for the next fifty years. Perhaps he granted them Lifetime Loyalty. If he did and he broke the contract for Lifetime Loyalty, he should be flogged. Or sued. Or whatever it is they do.

But if he signed a contract for three books and delivered three books years ago, then, um, isn't that fine? I don't know. I'm just a simple caveman lawyer, but it seems that if he said he's going to do a thing and then he does the thing, then you're done. Unless you want to agree to do another thing. Which he did. With someone else. Which seems fine, right? I don't know. I'm sure it's hella complicated. A new contract is a new contract, right?

To my eye, though, if you and a publisher sign a contract, then once the contracty agreements are completed, then isn't that the end of the contract? He still owes the publisher because the publisher "gave him his start"? Yeah. My ass.

Couldn't the publisher drop him? Or worse?

Look, let me explain something to you. You sign a two-book deal with a publisher. They promote you and pay you and all sorts of lovely things. Then, for reasons not caused by you or your publisher, the book tanks. Instead of selling out the print run of 50,000, you sell 25,000 copies of the book.

What is the publisher supposed to do? Your second book is already under contract. They agreed to publish it. And maybe they don't drop you right there. But maybe they just don't overly promote your second book. Which, of course, sells nine copies. Should they have been obligated to spend full-page NYT money on your second book when your first book tanked? Are they bound by loyalty? Or is it just the author who is bound to the publisher?

Publishing is a business. Writing is a business. If Goodkind wants to self-publish a book instead of working with a publisher, isn't that fine? Does he owe a publisher anything? Of course he does. He owes the publisher whatever it is he and the publisher agreed that he owes the publisher. And the publisher owes him whatever it was that he and the publisher agreed upon. That's why they sign contracts. That's what contracts are. If you're not sure, you can google it. It's on the internet.

From what Mr. Beatts says, Goodkind was in the middle of a three-book deal when he decided to go ebook/self-pub with this book. OMG, guys. Tor is totally going to sue him for this. Oh, wait. They're not? Everything is cool? Hmm. Someone should tell the internet bloggers.

It seems that Goodkind has books under contract with Tor, but not this book he is self-publishing. Or it was, but now it isn't. OK. So what's the problem?

Beatts suggests:
There is no reason that a publishing contract can't include a prohibition against the author self-publishing anything without the publisher's permission.
GAK! OK. I'm done throwing up. Wait, not yet. Hang on. 

If I weren't a good Christian boy, I might say "JESUS GOD!" As it is, I'll just offer a HOLY HELL!

Are you kidding me? Of course there's a reason a publishing contract can't include that. It's smells predatory and unfair and unethical. But if both sides agree to a contract, isn't it fair by nature?  No. Look up predatory lending and predatory contracts. (Always a good idea to have fantastic agent.) 

If you've delivered two DragonBanger books of your three-book DragonBanger contract with HF Publishing and you have a YA story about a race car driver, why the hell would you need HF Publishing to allow you to upload it to Kindle? That doesn't have anything do with loyalty. It's in the contract.

If HF Publishing has Right of First Refusal in the contract, fine. That can cover books of the same genre, though sometimes it merely covers similar "novel-length" works. Saying contracts could "include a prohibition against the author self-publishing anything without the publisher's permission" is unworkable. Anything? Anything? Publishers can prohibit you from self-publishing a collection of letters to your puppy? If you write a series of urban vampyre romances for Trends Today Publishing, then you shouldn't be able to publish a book called "100 Ways to Baste Your Turkey"? Beatts isn't suggesting what publishers OUGHT to do, he explains in the comments. He's just saying there's no reason a contract couldn't include that. I disagree with that. I think common sense disagrees, too.

You enter a contract with a publisher. You're equals in that regard. You provide the writing, and they provide all the publishing

What's the next idea?  "There is no reason that a publishing contract can't include a prohibition against the author's promotion of non-HFPublishing books without publisher's permission." So, Author, you want to promote books that we didn't publish? Where's your loyalty?

Publishers provide great, often immeasurable benefit to writers, and writers provide great benefits to publishers. Publishers and writers, when successful, tend to work their respective asses off. They are in this together, but they are under contract, not best buddies who get married. (Though they are not prohibited from marrying each other, depending on the contract.)

They think a best-selling novelist of symbologist thrillers can make them money. And if the author is late with a book, well, then people get fired. This is a business. Then maybe the publisher doesn't devote as much time, effort, or money to the next one. Not because the publisher isn't loyal to the author, but because it doesn't make business sense. And maybe the author signs a deal elsewhere, because the Anaheim Angels need a home run hitter. Or whatever.

To my eye, saying that the author "owes loyalty" to a publisher because the publisher "gave him his start" misses a key component of the publishing business -- you know, the business part.

Publishers, those that last, don't succeed because they believe an author is an A-OK kind of guy. They don't look at an author whose last three books have shat the bed and say, "Oh, I gotta pony up some more dough for that cat." They continue publishing because they were correct in believing that the author's contracted writing is a good investment. If that works out, then the two parties continue to work together. When publishers and writers make good decisions based on finances, they can afford to stay in business.

As an author, you have to make the decisions that work best for you. I can guarantee you that the smart publishers are making the decisions that work best for them. When those overlap, it's a beautiful world.

I've signed many contracts in my 42 years. I don't go back to Clyde's Auto Emporium because that's where I signed my first contract. I go back because that worked out pretty great. And Clyde (though it's Clyde's half-sister now, after the propane accident) doesn't offer me a contract because of my charm and good looks (though I wouldn't blame anyone if they did). We continue to enter into contracts because the contracts work for us. That's what contracts are.

Can you imagine if the publishing world tried to work based on loyalty?

Here's another Tommy Terribone thriller. You all hated the last three, but we're sticking with him.

Ah, sorry. Forgot the rules. That would never happen. The publisher is investing in the author. Only authors have to show loyalty, right? Beatts concludes:
Our society has generally been in agreement for centuries that when someone is willing to risk their money on something that may or may not be successful, they're entitled to all the profit that comes from that risk and that they're allowed to protect that profit within the law.  Should publishers be held to any other standard?

I love it when our society agrees on shit for centuries.You know, except for slavery.


Oh, and the other Terry Goodkind news? He did a thing about an alleged ebook pirate.


Thomas Pluck said...

Thank for saying succinctly what needed to be said. This "loyalty" bullshit is schoolyard fantasy, where "free agents" ruin the game by you know, caring about their future.
In other news, Beatts called Terry Goodkind a "flat-leaver" for publishing an e-book that his bookstore can't sell.

As for the pirate thing, as a cranky old internet dinosaur... I won't defend piracy. I am not sure how much it actually reduces sales of new books, because when people ask me to steal for them, and I lie and say "no, I couldn't find it online" they don't go "aw shucks, I'll go buy it now."
No, they do without. For movies, they wait for cable. For music, they listen on the radio, or on youtube. And for books, they wait for the bargain edition, or they get a used copy, or go to the library.
Piracy is still wrong, of course. But so is posting someone's personal info on the internet for your legions of minions and going the cowardly route by saying "Do with him as you will!"
You know who does that? People who want to see doctors who perform abortions murdered. (Oh, and NYPD does it if they catch you filming them beating up protesters, but that's ok, they're sanctified by their badge).
If Goodkind put the guy's name up, that would be just as bad. Because his wacky fans would Google him and shriek obscenities and mutter dark imprecations whilst clutching their spellbooks. What should he have done?
I dunno, call a lawyer and prosecute the guy for copyright infringement? But that costs money. This is much easier, completely ineffective, and makes you look like an asshole... "SEIZE HIM! SEIZE HIM, MY FOLLOWERS!!!"
Now if he showed up at the guy's house and asked him why he stole his shit, and filmed it, politely, that would be cool. Unless he lives in one of those states where he can shoot you for ringing his doorbell.

Dana King said...

Loyalty accrues to people, not corporate legal fictions, no matter what the Supreme Court says. No offense to Tor or Penguin, but publishers take authors on for one reason: to make money. period. Editors may fight for an author they believe in, but the people who make the final decision are looking at the bottom line. If you don't produce, you're gone, and they don't even have to complete the contract; they can find a way to buy you out.

It might be nice to call an editor with whom you have established a relationship to tell him you're leaving as a courtesy, but that's what it is: a courtesy. It is not a contractual obligation.

Why is it so many people think everyone involved with publishing should be able to maximize their incomes except for the author, who is the only indispensable piece of the chain?

Steve Weddle said...

Mr Salami,
Yeah. I've been giving some thought to that 'incite the mob' mentality authors seem be working from now. I've seen many tweets and posts from authors pushing their fans towards a bad review in hopes of mitigating its impact. I think it's rather easy to cross a line there. More thought is needed for me to get this nailed down, though.

Yeah. If you build a personal relationship and deal with people that way, great. But you don't OWE them your livelihood because they were the first to publish you. Publishers don't publish your book in order to do you a favor.

Jeff Shelby said...

Well said, as always. The scenario you describe with a two book deal is darn near identical to what happened with my first contract. I can assure you - and I know you'll be shocked by this - the publisher did not feel any sense of loyalty to continue to promote me for that second book. And they were very upfront in letting me know that they did not have any interest in maintaining their loyalty with a third book.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, as it was all handled very professionally and while my ego took a shot, there weren't any hard feelings. That's publishing. If they were interested in anything I wrote in the future - would I work with them? Maybe, depending on the terms. But would I go back to them simply because they gave me my first contract?

Last year, I signed a contract with a new publisher for a new series. I also had another project that I was planning to self-pub. I never for one second felt the need to inform the publisher of the self-pub project because they were completely different. I didn't feel like I needed permission or anything from them because the projects were unrelated and in no way would I be prevented from fulfilling the terms of my contract with the publisher. It's worked out fine, but I never felt like I owed the publisher the chance to publish this other specific work. That's kinda insane.

Goodkind probably figured out that he could make a boatload more money doing the self-pub thing. He has the know-how and his readership will support him. It really has nothing to do with Tor. He's doing what's best for himself and his career. And in the end - that's what every author is trying to do.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

The only thing I've ever demanded from the Snubnose Press authors is that they come mow my lawn.

And those bastards are in breach of contract I might add.

Chris said...

Isn't Goodkind a hardcore Randian Objectivist? Or, to put it another way, hasn't he spent his career making it pretty damn clear he was gonna up and John Galt if ever the opportunity presented itself? Just sayin', this move should hardly come as a surprise.

Rob Kitchin said...

I have always deleted the 'Right of First Refusal' clause in my contracts and not one publisher has ever objected to me doing so. I also delete the 'another author can do future editions' clause as well (for academic books). I don't want to stick with a publisher who has done a terrible job with a book (and some of them do). As you say, the contract is the contract - anything out of that is irrelevant. I often have contracts with different publishers at the same time and none has complained to me about that. Where the loyalty kicks in for me is with respect to the commissioning editor, not the necessarily the publisher. I followed one commissioning editor across three publishers and I presently give another first refusal on proposals. I do that because I like working with him and I know he'll do a good job of representing the book in the company. Anyway, nice rant, as always.

Fred Zackel said...

Consider that a publisher taking on any e-book now means that the publisher will make a min of 75% to maybe 90% of the author's every dollar. For how long? Well, if it's an e-book ... the book will never be out of print. That is a virtual impossibility. So the publisher gets that wonderful percentage IN PERPETUITY. Not that they have to keep in in print. Just that their royalty is forever.