Friday, August 20, 2010

Everyone asks about agents...

Back in my alter ego as Avenging Writer...  I began with an agent who never did a thing for me.  I fired him (or maybe he fired me?)  Regardless, I kept writing.  I also read a lot.  I read the kind of book I wanted to have written.  At first that was hard, because there were very few fantasy writers for adults around when I began.  So I went to the British writers for young adults, (they called them children), and I read them.  Then I found Eleanor Cameron and her Mushroom Planet books, and the Court of the Stone Children.  American.  There were a couple of Canadians:  one I remember, very good: A Walk Out of the World by a writer whose name I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten.  Ruth something?  Anyway, all the time, I kept reading and kept writing.  My writing was really not good at first.  Really not good.  But after Tolkien, suddenly every writer in the universe who'd been wandering around like me, dying for a genre that didn't exist, began to write.  Some of them (unlike me) wrote very quickly.  I got my book to Lester del Ray the same month he had accepted the Sword of Shanarra, and he wrote me personally with his apologies that he'd have liked to give my book a go, except that he simply couldn't take two brand new writers with big fat books on in the same publishing season. 

Well, that was a time of mixed emotion.  I was, mostly, tired.  I had sent the book to every publisher in English in the known universe, and Lester del Ray's was the final rejection.  Did I need an agent?  Not for that book.  Not to be rejected by everyone.

But I kept on writing.  New books, shorter books, with young adult protagonists, some good ideas, unique even.  And I kept on reading.  Every single time I found a book I loved to read, I wrote down the name of the publisher.  Fortunately, the one that came up most often had her own imprint.  So, each time I wrote a book I sent it to her first.  And eventually, I almost passed out, the phone rang and a lovely, elegant, special American voice introduced herself to me.  Margaret K. McElderry.  And she wanted to publish my book.

I went on from there.  Three more books.  Then I won a big contest.  I thought, okay, maybe I should have an agent now.  It wasn't hard at all to get one.  She signed with me, I with her, and she "sold" my award-winning book and my next one which both were more or less done at the same time to the same publishers I already had: Margaret K. McElderry in the USA and a real up-and-comer in Canada.  From then (1987, 1988) till 2009, the agents got 15% of every shekel, Belgian franc, dinar, yen, and dollar I earned with those two books.  And guess what?  Right after this agent negotiated the two contracts (haha, negotiated!) she decided she didn't want to be an agent any more and turned herself into a publisher. 

Nevertheless, she sold me along with all her other clients to the agencies that came after hers, and that is how I lost a great deal of money for nothing, because the new agent was very inexperienced and submitted my books to companies that had already seen them, that sort of thing.  So we shook hands and said goodbye, except for the twice a year cheque they got from  my earnings. 

For the next six books I was on my own.  I sold world rights to either the American or the Canadian publisher who had first accepted me.  They acted as my agents, one with considerable success.  I can't remember how many deals they made, but I know it made me many thousands of dollars richer. 

Finally, I got two screenwriters who wanted to take options out on two different books.  Screenwriting contracts, even just option contracts, are incredibly complex.  My publisher was not competent to deal with it, and disguised that fact with a screaming fit in which she told me she only offered to do screenwriting contracts as a favour to her writers (yeah, sure) and she didn't want to do it anyway and all screenwriters wanted things done yesterday and so basically to hell with me, take back my darn screen rights!  I said, "Are"  Because this was a sure thing, real money.  She didn't put it in writing but she said she meant it.  So the first option got written by the screenwriter's agent and I just signed it, because it was money and who wanted to read contracts anyway?  Nothing bad happened to me.  But later, I found out that the publisher had taken back her word and kept for her publishing house the percentage she'd originally demanded for screen writing.  So then, the second screenwriter came along.  This time, I went to a proper literary agent, with promises that they could sell all my books from then on (this was a very good agency) since they had an agreement with a Film Agency that was also very good.  The film agent went to the publisher and said, "I hear you don't want the film rights in such and such a book.  Is that true?"  I had not said anything to my publisher about the taking back of the original offering, because, to tell the truth, I just was too busy to read my royalty statements and all the stuff that came with them.  Anyway, the publisher said, indeed she didn't want the film rights, and the Film Agency got it in writing, and negotiated a very complex and good deal for me.  Unfortunately my new book agents never got a chance to sell anything new.  I had a car accident at just about the same time as I signed with the agency, and it has taken nearly eight years for me to recover enough even to write little scraps like this.

So did I need an agent?  No, not for the books I published.  Yes, definitely, for film rights. And now that electronic rights are so in demand, you'd have to think seriously about getting an agent to help you decide what the best course of action would be for that kind of publishing.

The main thing is to be your own agent.  That is, you find the right fit for your books by reading and reading and reading until you know who you would want to be published by.  Then you just keep submitting your books, one after the other, to that publisher first.  I think I wasn't a particularly good writer when that wonderful Margaret K. McElderry first accepted one of my books.  But maybe she saw me improve?  So if I could do it, maybe you could as well.

I do believe there are many publishers who say they will accept only manuscripts submitted by an agent.  I have also heard that it is harder to get a good agent than a good publisher.  If I had it to do now, as a rank beginner, I think I would do both: that is, I'd submit my manuscripts to publishers (even if they said they wouldn't read it without an agent) and to agents at the same time.  Whichever one accepted me first, that would be the route I'd go.

But always, start at the top of your list.  Don't start with some publisher or agent you've never heard of.  Read and read and read the books like the ones you want to read, and make sure you read the acknowledgements, because they often mention an agent's name.  Don't expect an agent or an editor to be at the same house as you first found them.  They move around a lot, because they're good, and so people want to steal them from other publishers or agencies.  Use the internet, follow Publisher's Weekly, especially online.  This is where you get current news.

And whichever way you end up going, remember that you have to perform the task of being your own agent even if you have an agent.  You have to check their royalty statements to you.  Many, many agencies can't add worth beans.  You also have to check the royalty statements from the publisher to you or your agent.  There are so many reasons for that, it will require a lot of new posts.

Meanwhile, be an avenging writer.  Too many writers get stepped on.  Too many get ruined.  Think as if you were crooked.  Try to figure out what you might do to someone if you were crooked, and had power over that person.  Then prevent it from happening by putting things in your contract, as I discussed in detail in my second post. 

Never assume you're a bad writer just because you haven't been accepted by either a publisher or an agent.  Always believe in yourself.  You might just not have found your lucky time yet.  Keep at it, and it will come.  Baji-naji, as C.J. Cherryh would say!!   


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Climate Change

Which would you prefer, drowning?
serene at
all your edges,
clarity in every thought
and just enough vision remaining
to see the beauty of
what's coming?

Or, as in Pakistan,
clawing at
muck-clouded eyes
desiring one last pure look
at once your land, your family farm
now gone, like your family
to water?

My husband and I have
sponsored a child in Pakistan.
His name is Sajid.
He is nine years old.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Avenging Writer from Twitter: Tips 1-4 Made clearer

Good morning.  I hope you dreamed well.  I'm going to take on my other role today, as book avenger.  I tried to do it on Twitter, but what I have to say is just too complex.  And so, today's post will be an expansion of what I tried to do yesterday in Twitter.  My goal is to help you.

Long ago a student asked about the safety of her ms with a publisher. I laughed.  I shouldn't have.  So much of the publishing industry is based on trust that in fact it is very easy for a publisher to scroop a writer.

The publishing world is built on the publisher's awareness that the writer has to trust the publisher. The publisher reports to you how many copies of your book that sold or were returned, and how can you ask for proof of this? You can't. It would require an audit every six months, and that would be something no publisher would put up with, no matter how good you are as a writer. Because of this awareness that the Writer has to trust the Publisher/Agent regarding this most fundamental point, it is easy to get into the mindset that you have to trust your publisher or agent on every matter.  And that is how you get scrooped.

I've been scrooped by one of my publishers consistently for the last ten years, and off and on for fifteen years before that.  Many extraordinarily perfidious things were done, and some really stupid things as well, and I had no idea until 2009, when a tax slip they issued to me and to the government did not match my royalty sums.  I had eight books with this publisher, to whom I'd sold world rights, and that meant sixteen royalty statements each year.  The sum total at the bottom of each royalty statement is what is added together to tell the publisher what amount they'd paid the writer for the publishing year, and that is what they use to provide the tax slip.  Because of the car accident with its long recovery, I now had time to add up the sums at the bottom of each royalty statement.  Those sixteen numbers did not add up to the tax slip.  And so then I started really looking at each of those sixteen royalty statements.  The royalty statements for 2009 were a dog's breakfast of errors, some perfidious and some impossible to understand.  So, then I took one set of royalty statements (for one book) over the lifetime of the book (20 years), and the number and kinds of "errors" were incredible.  How could I have let this happen?

The biggest error was that I had never checked even one royalty statement for even one year. I was busy writing and earning a living as a writer (which means doing things that leave no time or energy for writing).  I got my royalty statements and my cheques each royalty period, and deposited the money, then shoved the papers into a file folder.

I have had many publishers, which I tell you to protect myself regarding what I will have to say here and in later posts.  In the USA my work was published by Atheneum, Scribners, Macmillan, and others, all under the Margaret K. McElderry Imprint, as well as by Dell Laurel-Leaf, Viking, Gale, and Literary Guild. In Canada my work was published by Coteau, Viking-Penguin, Overlea House, Groundwood Books, Tree Frog Press, House of Anansi Books, and Oberon Press.  I won't go into my foreign publications since I was not the primary signatory of those contracts.  Foreign publications deserve a whole post of their own, anyway.

Now let's start at the real beginning.  You've never been published (or you have, but you're like I was: too busy, or too lazy to do more than deposit your cheques).  A publisher accepts your new (or first ) book. Sooner or later a contract will come to you.  It will be the publisher's standard contract. You're scared to make a single change in the contract, because you're afraid it will make the publisher mad at you and withdraw the offer to publish.

I suppose it is a risk.  On my first real publication, I had never been published in the USA, and when  the contract came, I asked for changes that had been recommended by my lawyer (who was really a friend doing me a favour).  He didn't suggest any of the things I'm going to be suggesting to you from time to time in this blog, because he wasn't a writer with 25 years of experience of being scrooped.  Despite my lack of "history", the publisher made the changes and didn't withdraw the offer to publish.  She was annoyed, yes, I admit it, but she made the changes to the contract.

The more books you have published, or the more you've sold, or the more awards you've received, the more likely it is that your publisher will accept a change you want in the contract. But this publisher was Margaret K. McElderry, pretty much the best there is, and I was nobody, and she still accepted my changes to the contract. Be brave, and see what happens.

Advice #1: Read the very first paragraph in the contract.  It will say something like "You permit the publisher to publish the book [ ---title---] and to license others to publish....  etc. 

What does this mean?  It means the publisher can sell to other publishers the right to publish your book.  And not just to foreign publishers.  Say your publisher's distributor is too lazy or busy to talk up your book in libraries or schools themselves.  Or, say the libraries and schools read reviews of your book when it first came out and bought the book for their collections.  Say it's ten years later.  The book has circulated many times, which means it's fallen into the bathtub, the back's been broken on it, pages have fallen out or are in danger of falling out.  Some schools and libraries would buy new copies.  Others would try to get their original copies rebound.  There are publishers out there who have developed contacts with certain libraries and schools to rebind either the old version of the book or will provide rebound copies of brand-new editions of your book in a stronger format.  But your publisher or agent has to sell them the right to do this. 

If in your contract somewhere after that first clause you do not ask for (a) a copy of every agreement or contract your publisher or agent makes with licensees of every form and (b) an accounting of continuing payments made by the licensee to the Publisher/Agent and (c) a percentage of the lump sum payments and any continuing payments to the publisher or agent, you will lose, and lose, and lose.  You should also ask for two copies (minimum) of each book as it appears after the license is exercised. 

There might be a clause in the Royalties section of your publisher's standard contract which could be taken to apply to licensees. (Royalties always refer to payments for sales of your publisher's own edition of the book.  So if the publisher is going to sell its own edition of the book to other publishers, that would be a licensee, and should be covered in the Royalties section).  Read your contract very, very carefully, and if you think you have found a clause that could refer to licensees, (whether it's under the Royalties section or not) mark it up like crazy to take care of (a), (b) and (c) in italics above.  Make sure you have something like this in your own words: "If the Publisher /Agent sells copies of the Publisher's own edition of the book to licensees or other publishers for rebinding or any other purpose, then the Publisher/Agent will provide the Author a copy of the agreement made with said licensee/publisher, as well as [ -- two--] copies of any edition produced by such licensees/publishers,  as well as [70% - 85 % -- depending on what your Subsidiary Rights Section allows for sales to foreign language publishers] of any lump sum and continuing payments paid by the licensees to the Publisher/Agent.  Then you initial the changes you've made, and send the contract back to your Publisher/Agent without a signature on the last page and ask politely that your Publisher/Agent initial your changes.   

Obviously if there is no Agent you don't have to include the word Agent in the contract.  If there is an Agent, make sure the Agent gets this licensee clause into the contract.  Anyone can call himself/herself an Agent.  Not all Agents know anything about things like this. 

I know about things like this because I didn't have this stuff in my contract, and so I lost all sales income for 48 different licensees forever.  And these licensees do not just sell to schools and libraries.  They often sell new copies of their edition of your book in online stores.  Sometimes, as I have found, you will discover your legitimate book on which you get royalties competing in the same market with a licensee's edition of your book for which you don't get royalties (if you haven't done what I suggested above).  It's a truly miserable situation. 

It is up to you to police your contract.  Don't expect your Agent to do it, if you have one. Set aside a day every month to do an internet search on your name as it appears as Author on your book(s), and also do a search for the title of your book(s).  Check the ISBN of every reference you find. 

An ISBN is a unique identifier for every book in the world.  There are now two forms: the old 10-digit form and the new 13-digit form.  Your publisher will have its own identifier within  the ISBN.  That is, a book might have ISBN 1-55050-170-6 or ISBN 978-1-55050-170-4 (it doesn't matter where the hyphens are or even if they are there at all).  In the 10 digit form the publisher's identifier is the five digits after the first and in the 13-digit form it is the five digits after the first four digits.   Every book published by this publisher will have those five digits in that order within the ISBN for the book.  If you see a different publisher's ISBN than your original publisher's, and you haven't been paid for the book (either lump sum or continuing payments or both) you should query your publisher immediately and point out the "error" in your Royalty Statement or online, and ask politely for your money. 

Your contract is there to back you up.  Never rely on a publisher's agreement in an email or over the phone or in person.  It must be in your contract.
It took me more than a quarter century to learn how badly the most prestigious publisher in my country had scrooped me over the years.  Don't let it happen to you.
My wonderful husband has just attached an air conditioner on wheels to my new office window.  I'm like a kid with a new toy.  So why don't we all raise a glass of red wine (health experts agree that it is uniquely good for you in moderation)  to each other, and try to remember that there are only a few people in the world who will hurt you if they can.  Most of them will do all they can to help you, for no reason at all, or just because it's the right thing to do. 
Bon soir, my friends,
Welwyn / Book Avenger

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Once Upon a Time...

It always begins like this, doesn't it?  Way back, on someone's lap, pages turning, a voice above your head, but if you're in that lap, you're somewhere else too.  Deep in, lost in the dark forest with Hansel; eating an apple like Jim, while pirates mutter nearby; worried sick about a pig that a spider wants to save from becoming bacon; paddling out of a messy housecleaning job with someone who really knows the River...  Oh, that River!  It's as Bilbo says: you have to be careful going out of your front door, because it leads to the Road, the River, the Sky: it will take you up and move you wherever it will.  That's a book.  That's what I love.

I wasn't a reader, when I was young.  I had encountered a "Reader": not a person but a so-called book.  It was a thing with words in it like "See Dick.  See Jane.  See Spot. See Dick run.  Blah blah blah."  At first meeting, though, it was a lovely red cover bound in black, with a cover picture of a little girl reading a book, and on her book's cover was the very same little girl reading the very same book, and on that cover another little girl reading a book about herself, and on and on, until it was too tiny to see.  My first intimation of infinity.  I took it into the bathroom, where two mirrors opened up toward one another and showed you a different perspective of what you wanted to look at. And there it was.  Infinity TO THE Infinity.  If a light switch could make a lamp turn on in another room was magic, and I still think it is, though I graduated in the sciences, then this book, this cover, this infinite series, was better than stars in the sky at night.

But not on the inside.  When I learned to see Dick and Jane and Spot, it was betrayal.  And so, I would not read for fun.  Books lied.  They were magic on the outside, but nowhere else.

Now there was judging a book by its cover!

I'm so grateful my mother in her wisdom took a very exciting book out of the library, and began to read a little to me every night.  "The Castle of Adventure" took me to a scary place where people carried torches instead of flashlights and where lightning flashed in a courtyard and almost killed Jack except that he was wearing rubber-soled boots... which was when my mother laid the  book down on the bed and said with finality, "I'm sorry, I can't do this any more, I'm much too busy..."  I wailed after her, but to no avail.  And since somehow she had forgotten to turn out the light, I thought I would just pick up the book for a second, to see if the words were really like the ones my mother had said. 

I never looked back.

And now here I am, telling you a story, not much of infinity on its cover, but there is magic in it, you see.  Magic in every tale, if you go deep enough.  Even in an ordinary life.

I'm off to bed now, to my night-time book.  Donna Leon tonight, with "Friends in High Places."  A beautiful pun.  An elegant writer, with authority.  I hope when I return there will be someone to tell me about the magic in his or her life.  Or how it all began for you.  Or whether you got caught by a different book.  Or why you like books at all. 

It's 11:11 (EST).  Make a wish!