Friday, September 11, 2009

Publishing Contracts

Kid asked a question in the lettercol for a previous post, and I thought I'd answer it here. It concerns the nature of book publishing and contracts by the New York houses.

Basic book contracts run eleven or twelve legal-sized pages, with small print. Most everything is laid out. Some of it, a good agent can negotiate, which is why, if you are inexperienced, you need an agent -- not to sell it as much as negotiate it. They will know what you don't have to give up.

You can also use an entertainment lawyer, but a regular attorney not in the biz won't do -- s/he wouldn't let you sign a book contract, because it will ask for your first born and a pound of flesh and they don't know how to get around it. What you can get away with changes -- this week isn't the same as last week, or next week.

Some of the contract is boilerplate, and if you want a company to publish and distribute your book, you must agree to the terms. No way around it unless you are King, Clancy, or Auel, and even they have limits.

Some writing organizations offer ideal sample contracts that favor writers. These are jumping-off places -- I suppose it is possible to get one, but I've never seen a real contract as good as the idealized versions.

The publisher assumes certain risks -- they put up all the money for printing and distribution. If the book tanks, they have to eat the loss. You don't have to give your advance back, though they will try to get basket accounting on a series, so that if one book falls flat, they can avoid paying on one that sells better until they get their money out.

Advances used to be half on signing, half on acceptance of the finished ms. Now, they tend to be broken into thirds -- third on-sign, third on-delivery of the ms, and the last third on publication. Since it might be a year after you turn the book in before it hits the racks, you don't want this.

For taking these risks, publishers want as much of the pie as they can slice.

As long as a book is in print, the publisher retains the contractual rights on the title -- unless they are renegotiated and revised later. To wit: They own that book for eternity. If I write another one in the series, they will usually have a first-look option, and the right to meet a competing offer from another house, if I want to go elsewhere. If it is a goose that lays golden eggs, they absolutely do not want to kill it.

If your book goes out of print, you can get all rights reverted, and sell them where you will, or can, but this is complicated by what exactly the term "in print" means, and never more so in the age of ebooks. It can quickly get to lawyers, guns, and money, if there is still money to be made on the title.

For things like audiobooks and the like, there are additional pages, and each foreign publisher adds in their paperwork along the way, as do any companies that want to do TV, movies, game, toys, or glow-in-the-dark condoms based on your novel.

I own the Matadors. The copyright is in my name, and I can write about them as long as I have the notion and my hands work. But the contracted books and distribution thereof, which countries wherein the books will be offered, movie rights, games, ebooks, comics, radio plays, stage plays, etc. that might arise from the book, are set once the contract is signed. Maybe I can keep Namibian rights in English, and the translations into Serbo-Croat, but the publisher will get a piece of the Japanese language rights.

That's how it has always worked.

These days, my agent is able to keep more for me. Back when I started, the standards for a new midlist writer were different, and my agent didn't have the clout to keep what I routinely keep now.

(Then to make it more complicated, your agent also gets perpetual rights for any title she sells, so if you switch agents, the former one gets a piece of what she sold forever. If the new agent manages to resell an old title, you pay two pieces instead of one -- unless you can renegotiate that ... )


Bobbe Edmonds said...

Thank you so much for this, Steve.

I'm curious about this, though: You gave me permission to use your characters and universe for "Razor Games". Is this something you can do at will, or was it just because the story was never intended for sale, just online publication? Could you have gotten into trouble for that? Or can you dispense permission for use, as long as it's original work?

What are the particulars?

Sorry if this is becoming a chore, but you've piqued my curiosity.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

The reason I ask is because when I approached you, I assumed you completely owned the Matadors.

Should I remove "Razor Games" from my blog? I know I'm not much of a blip on the radar, but now I'm wondering how much of a limb you went out on...

Bobbe Edmonds said...

One last thing: After a year and a half to consider it, I admit you were right: Spetsdods don't need a wide aperture setting. I was being cavalier with it.

Steve Perry said...

Not a problem -- my characters have been copyrighted in my name, so I can exercise them as I choose. The *published* books, some of the rights Ace has a piece of, (and fewer rights in the books after the original trilogy,) but I own those otherwise.

They don't get to say anything about the universe and what I do with it. They can't license it out to a book writer for new material without my leave, and anything they do sell has to be based on the novels themselves. And in fact, I could sell those rights myself, as long as I gave Ace their cut.

Khadaji, Dirisha, Sleel, Bork, Geneva, Red, they are mine, mine, mine. I could write a book tomorrow in which they all get together for a reunion and a bomb goes off and kills them all, wouldn't be a thing Ace could do about it.

Rumor was that John D. McDonald had a Travis McGee book in a trunk, A Back Border for McGee, narrated by Meyer, in which Travis was killed. Supposedly John D would threaten the publishers with it if they didn't meet his terms when new contracts rolled around for new titles. Probably apocryphal, but it's a great story.

There are people who have sold all right to their characters. Unless it is a matter of life or death in the moment, don't ever do this -- or unless the money is enough to make you rich. Want to give me ten million for the Matadors? Where do I sign ... ?

In shared universes, you don't have a choice, you don't own anything and often it is work for hire -- a flat fee or maybe a tiny percentage of the book sales, but no TV, movie, game, comic, etc. rights.

In your own stuff, you start with the notion that you own everything and you keep what your agent can protect, which is often all the movie, TV, game, comic rights, etc., once you attain a certain level of salability.

I think the movie rights for A Clockwork Orange sold for six hundred bucks and no percentage above that. Think about how Burgess felt about that ...

Steve Perry said...

Of course I was right. (Not that I am always right. I recall back in '68 I made a mistake, then about six years ago ...)

Dan Moran said...

I've heard the McGee black border title; also heard it as "A Symphony In Black." Which I used, since McDonald wasn't going to ...

Steve Perry said...

People sometimes talk about dream projects. Two of mine:

1) Being asked to write a new Travis McGee novel.

2) Being asked to write the sequel to Lord of Light.

Edwin Voskamp said...

Steve Perry wrote:
> 2) Being asked to write the sequel to Lord of Light.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

Everyone has told me to read Lord of Light...I guess I should get off my ass...

My one real dream project would be to do the screenplay for Kieth Robert's "The Furies".

Dan Moran said...

John Betancourt wrote a sequel to the Chronicles of Amber, apparently. I mean no offense, and I should add I haven't read a word of it and have no opinion about the quality of Betancourt's work ... and so on.

But wow.

I don't mind being compared to giants, even if usually unfavorably -- I've had people compare a recent project to John D, and I take the comparison kindly even when I come out on the short end. My SF's been compared to all sorts of people, and I take the compliment. But no one could write Amber the way Zelazny did, and I wouldn't have put myself in the position of being compared to him, on his home turf, for anything except vast mountains of cash.

I get that people feel differently -- but they're more confident than I am.

Only thing that's every really tempted me are the Lensman. I think I could write Doc Smith well enough to make Doc Smith's skeleton sit up and applaud. But no one would pay for an epic set in the Lensman universe, and nnothing less would interest me.

Steve Perry said...

It's the challenge aspect of it. I wouldn't trust anybody to do the sequel to Lord of LIght, nor anything with ole Travis and Meyer, but I think I would blow out every writing chop I could beg, borrow, or steal to take a shot at either. (Be happy to have it come out as a ms found in a storage unit buried in a file cabinet if I could pull it off. Wouldn't matter if anybody else knew I did it, I would know ...)

Edwin Voskamp said...

To be fair, Steve, I know how you feel about Lord of Light, and I know how you'd work at it. And you know what I said about Champion of the Dead.

But Lord of Light does not need a sequel, anymore than it needs a prequel about the First, or more detail about the setting, and so on. The Amber series was not improved upon by the Merlin series, and Zelazny wrote those himself.

Steve Perry said...

"Need" is not the same as "want," Edwin.

My fans -- all four of them -- don't need another book in the Matador series. I could have stopped at three. and certainly after nine books, I've mined the material, but I still get letters and emails asking when I'm doing the next one. Or as Serg puts it: Blah-blah-blah-- Matadors!

See, the thing is, the planet whereupon Lord of LIght took place is fascinating. A world with two sentient species before the Terrans arrived? One of which -- the Rakasha -- was so advanced as to transcend their physical bodies and become pure energy? (And the Mothers of the Terrible Glow?)

There's a great backstory there.

Or a visit from the race that seeded the world originally and has come back to make adjustments, to find that humans have come in and screwed up the garden?

Can touch the original tale, of course, but the characters could have a fine romp ...

Dan Moran said...

Champion of the Dead does have a very nice Zelazny feel about it (and is my favorite of your novels). I don't doubt you could write a good Lord of Light sequel, if you didn't mind the inevitable comparisons.

Steve Perry said...

Can't avoid comparisons, can we? Not only to each other, but to ourselves. I've been down those roads plenty of times before, Conan, Clancy, Star Wars, my own stuff. This one wasn't as good as that one. I liked these, but not those ...

Readers bring their own sensibilities -- and axes -- and will hew where they will.

(I'm looking forward to the finished draft of Hotel California. From what i've seen, I expect that will be your best book so far, too, but you know you will have fans that won't like it -- maybe even not read it -- because of what they liked better that went before. A series fans love is a mixed blessing that way.)

I wouldn't expect diehard Zelazny fans to think anything I might do would be as good -- I wouldn't think so, given my bent. But if it served the material enough to make it interesting, it could be a fun trip.

Hamburger isn't filet mignon, but it can assuage a certain amount of hunger ...

Brad said...

"My fans -- all four of them -- don't need another book in the Matador series."

I think we 4 would disagree there Steve. We NEED another Matador book. I for one like the universe it's set in and love the characters (who wouldn't like to have an Albino exotic as a lover or? Or having Sleel watching your back?)

Of course, that's just my opinion. And it's worth what you paid for it.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

By the way Brad, there's a meeting of the "Core Four of Matador Lore and Gore" this Tuesday night at my place. You have to bring the chips. As usual, I will be supplying beer, curry and suggestive banter.

jks9199 said...

A couple of these lead me to a question/comment...

I've read a few books where someone has stepped up to the plate to finish a partly written or outlined story (like you did with the last of Chris Bunch's Star Risk books, Steve) when the author dies suddenly or simply with it uncompleted.

While many of these have been good books -- there's often a perceptible difference between them...

How does a writer go about taking on a challenge like this?

(Apropos of nothing -- or maybe not -- the verification word here is lease!)