Pub Rants

Category: Publishing Deals & Contracts

Like your grandmother who couldn’t get rid of that semi-broken toaster because she might need it again someday, publishers have a surprising number of obsolete and defunct clauses hanging out in their publishing contracts.  Most just elicit a chuckle, but at least one can greatly impact an author’s earnings.

The publishing landscape has shifted so radically in the last decade, especially with the rise of ebooks and downloadable audio. Publishing contracts should shift to match. But like your Depression-era grandmother, publishers are loath to get rid of old clauses they’ve had for decades—even though the publisher will not invoke that clause in any foreseeable future I can imagine. Most of these clauses hang out in the subrights section of a publishing agreement. 

My favorite? The publisher’s right to sublicense electronic book rights. Back in 2002, when I first started in the biz, there was a scrappy little electronic publisher called Rosetta Books. Although hard to believe, in those early days right before the electronic shift, some publishers did indeed sublicense electronic book rights to this third-party publisher. In today’s landscape, there isn’t a publisher on the planet who would sublicense electronic rights when such a major chunk of their own profit comes from sales of this format. Why would they share? And yet, if you look at the sublicense section of our pub agreement, the publisher still has the right to sublicense this format to a third party (though we as an agency add “by author approval”). But hey, the publisher might need it again someday, right? So there it stays. 

Also going the way of the dinosaur (sadly, in my opinion) is First Serial. In short, first serial is the publisher’s right to license an excerpt from a novel to a major newspaper, magazine, or other outlet. Think back to when Cosmopolitan or GQ featured up-and-coming authors by printing a chapter or two of their forthcoming novels. But now so many magazines have disappeared (or gone solely online). With that, publishers shifted from licensing first serial to simply allowing an approved excerpt to be posted on top sites as a publicity push. That means no licensing fee. Yet lo and behold, there in the subrights section of a pub agreement is the first-serial clause with a 90/10 split in the author’s favor. (As an aside, you’ll also see a publisher’s right to sublicense mass-market rights—something I’ve never seen a publisher do in twenty years of agenting. But hey, might happen someday, right?)

But the one legacy clause that can bite the author in the you-know-what is the short-print-run clause. So be on the look out for it. What does short print run mean? Originally, after a publisher launched the initial print run into the world (which could be around 5,000 or 10,000 copies or more), it was expensive for a publisher to order a “short” print run, like 500 copies to ensure the title remained in-stock for buyers. Now with print-technology shifts (i.e., print-on-demand), the cost remains fairly static—even for a small print run. The clause originally allowed the publisher to reduce the royalty to the author for said short print run. But today, why should the author have to accept a lesser royalty rate when the publisher did not foot an additional expense? Right. They shouldn’t. 

Most publishers have removed that clause (finally acknowledging it no longer applies), but occasionally I spot that kind of language in a contract and it needs to be handled.

Also, if you missed this news, the Authors Guild made its model book contract public for anyone to read and access. So happy contract reading. 

Photo by 幻影 3D from Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

As a demographic, veteran literary agents are partial to opening sentences that begin with “back in the day.” Nothing signals “old” more effectively than that phrase. It implies that the good ol’ days were somehow better. The reality is that we veterans probably just have selective memory and there is no such thing as good ol’ days. However, in the case of the great publishing-house contraction that is unfolding, I might be in danger of embracing the notion that “back in the day” truly was better. 

News just hit that Newscorp is buying Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For those not super familiar with the various corporate umbrellas of publishing, Newscorp owns HarperCollins/Harlequin so buying HMH will significantly expand the HarperCollins footprint. In November 2020, news dropped that Penguin Random House (already the biggest publisher) is buying Simon & Schuster—which makes the biggest publisher even bigger. 

Well, back in the day (tongue firmly in cheek) when I first started agenting, I distinctly remember having conversations with then-twenty-year veteran agents who had fond memories of the early 1990s, when more than 300 separate and individual publishing outlets were available for client submission. That number kind of blew my mind. Many of the imprints we now associate with, say, Random House used to be private companies that have since been acquired and folded into the parent company. Macmillan is another excellent example. After all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt & Co, and even Tor used to be individual companies before they were bought up to become part of what we now know of as Macmillan. 

By 2022, we will be down to The Big 4 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, and Harpercollins) plus a smattering of some mid-size but growing independents. And that’s it. 

This contraction significantly impacts writers an authors, and here’s why:

  • Merging companies always declare that the houses will be run separately. This was certainly the case when Random House bought Penguin more than five years ago. Now these “separate publishers” exist under the same roof, use the same publishing contract, and operate under merged accounting and royalty systems. It is, in essence, almost like one house even though agents can still submit separately.
  • When publishers merge, there are often new mandates regarding how those houses will participate in auctions and submit bids. Some houses stipulate that imprints can no longer bid against each other. So if several imprints are interested in acquiring a project, they communicate and form a “house bid” (which is where all imprints propose one bid to submit in the auction, and if it is the winning bid, then the author can choose which editor/imprint to work with). This removes competition from the auction and lowers advances, which translates to less money for the author.
  • The merging of publishers results in the must-acquire-blockbusters-only mentality. Tighter budgets means fewer books will be acquired, which makes editors less likely to take chances on unique, creative voices—authors with talent who might not break out until their fourth or fifth novel. In other words, there is less focus on building an author and more focus on acquiring the obvious “big” book—which limits the diversity of unique stories in the world.
  • Contraction squeezes out the mid-list author—the author who’s not a blockbuster but whose sales might be humming along nicely. How? Because it makes the publisher less likely to pick up their option material. This precludes the possibility that a mid-list author’s third or fourth book might have been the one to break out. Not to mention, if the agent must shop the author anew, the current house (and all those imprints) are off the submit list. That equals fewer outlets where an agent can place that author and relaunch that author’s career.
  • Contraction eliminates editorial positions. Smaller staff equals fewer editors equals less diversity and narrower taste in what gets acquired. Also, smaller staff equals fewer editors equals those editors getting way more submissions from agents. Editors are already strapped for reading time and inundated with submitted manuscripts. The sheer volume makes it hard for any debut project to stand out in the crush—reducing a new writer’s chances of getting a foot in the door.
  • Contraction equals less-author-friendly publishing contracts. Fewer houses at which to place a client means publishers have the upper hand when it comes to dictating the terms, and agents have less negotiation leverage. 

This list could go on and on, so these are just a few reasons why I’m not excited by the currently unfolding mergers. Publishing is a tough business. Publishers feel pressured to grow so as to create greater profits and stronger bottom lines and to compete against other behemoths such as Amazon. I get it, but I don’t love it. 

Back in the day, there were dozens of terrific outlets at which to place a new client, to reinvent and reignite a mid-list author, or even to move a big client if needed. I am waxing nostalgic for those good ol’ days. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Images Money

On October 15, Publishers Lunch sent out their daily email blast. In it, they rounded up the pre-sales happening before the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair and included this chart, which spotlights the surge in debut-fiction sales. To quote from the article: “As this chart makes clear, the 59 reports in the measured period are almost twice the average number of debut fiction sales from recent years.”

In a nutshell, the number of book deals for debut authors is up in a big way. Sounds pretty fantastic. Publishers are buying more debut authors during Covid than they did in 2019 or 2018. Any news that publishers are buying lots more fiction is good news, in my opinion.

But there’s also another story hidden in this data, one that’s not all rainbows and sunshine for already published authors. When publishers are buying more of one thing, they’re buying less of something else. In this case, that “something else” is most likely option-material projects from current authors who find themselves firmly on what we agents call the mid-list.

A mid-list author is an author who has a book (or several books) published and has decent sales, but none of their books have become a breakout—that is, we wouldn’t call sales for any one of their books phenomenal. A mid-list author can have a long and terrific career, publishing multiple books and maintaining solid sales track records. Historically, publishers have continued to buy new work from mid-list authors; sometimes, a mid-list author can publish four or five books, and it’s number six that breaks and catapults them into superstar standing in their publisher’s eyes. And then there are a lot of mid-list authors who publish three books, maybe five books, don’t break out, and the publisher decides not to pick up the option for the author’s next work. Suddenly, that author is contract-less.

That’s the hidden story in this chart from Publishers Lunch. Debut buys might be up because mid-list option buys are down. Anecdotally, this is what I’m hearing from quite a few other agents, as we do all like to chat with each other. What does this mean for agents in 2021? We’ll potentially be doing a lot of client career strategizing for the next six to twelve months as we position anew our mid-list authors. And we might be signing more debut authors as well. So check out our submission guidelines and keep us in mind for your next project!

Note: Only Publishers Marketplace subscribers can potentially access the full news story.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: winnifredxoxo

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri

Money, so they say, is a taboo subject, so don’t expect fellow writers to spill financial details.

Until now. Hats off to Heather Demetrios for pulling back the curtain and being brave enough to share her mistakes in the article “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” It’s considered gauche to talk about money in this industry, yet it’s probably one of the most important topics authors should be discussing.

Agents are often in a weird position when it comes to talking to our clients about money management. On one hand, we are the author’s business partner; on the other hand, we aren’t their parent. We don’t want to make assumptions about an author’s financial responsibility (or irresponsibility).

Over the years, when I have a debut author who has landed a big advance, I have asked for permission to put on my mom hat and give counsel. If the author says yes, I offer these four pieces of advice:

  1. When the advance comes in, don’t wait. Cut a check for 25% of the total that has come in and mail that check to the IRS right then and there. I’ve heard too many horror stories of authors finding themselves in real trouble when April 15 rolled around and the money was already spent.
  2. Ever heard of the adage “pay yourself first”? Most people don’t know exactly what that means. Well, in investing terms, it means immediately placing the maximum percentage allowed by the IRS for that particular tax year into a retirement account (i.e., a Roth IRA, IRA, Vanguard S&P 500 fund, or similar).
  3. If you have a mortgage your advance can pay down (or, better yet, pay off), that is worth considering. Owning your home outright can create a lot of financial freedom. If you have student loans or other debts, consider eliminating them.
  4. Connect with a financial advisor who only charges by the hour rather than taking a percentage of your investments. This is a way to gain expert advice on reasonable terms—especially for authors who feel lost in the weeds about this whole investing and saving-for-retirement thing. Garrett Planning Network is a good resource that can hook you up with a fee-only certified financial planner.

In the end, the best way to think about your advance is to take that amount and divide it by, say, three years. What would the author’s annual salary then be? For example, if an author is lucky enough to get a $150,000 as an advance (sounds fab, right?), that’s $150,000 minus 25% in taxes, which equals only $37,500 a year for three years. If that’s your sole income for those three years, that might be a bit sobering.

My client Courtney Milan once told me that a blog article I wrote a lifetime ago on authors and retirement really made a difference in how she managed her money. I wish I could find that original blog post, but chances are good the info would be outdated anyway. For more up-to-date info, here are my recommendations for retirement planning:

So thank you, Heather, for getting the ball rolling for authors to talk about money. Mentorship tends to be a key factor for success in publishing. So let’s not be shy about discussing this topic.

 

Creative Commons Credit: Ben Taylor

I hope when this article hits your screen, you are safe and healthy while sheltering at home. If you are in the medical profession, I’m sending extra-warm health karma your way. You are on the front lines, and we here at NLA appreciate all you do. My mom is almost 80 now and long retired, but she was an RN. I know exactly what kinds of sacrifices you and your family are making right now.

As a way to jump into this month’s article, I re-read my February column. The words “and may become a global threat” have sadly come to fruition. In the last two weeks, our world has shifted on its axis. 

We here at the Denver office implemented work-from-home over nineteen days ago, so all of us are luckily sane and virus-free. As half our company already works remotely and all our main processes (including CRM and accounting) are cloud-based, we have seen very little disruption in our work flow. The agent team IMs every day, and we’ve been doing weekly video Chime meetings for the last four years, so it feels like business as usual for us. Where we work literally does not matter, although we all miss laughter and shared coffee.

Publishing as an industry can maintain some stability in this work-remotely world. I can report the following:

  • Contracts-in-process are closing in about the same amount of time as they were closing previously.
  • Payments and royalties have not been disrupted as almost all publishers pay via ACH.
  • Foreign deals are still happening, but they do feel a little slower.
  • Film/TV options are occurring, despite news of major agencies doing pay cutbacks and furloughs. I had two offers come in just this week.
  • NLA agents are submitting projects, and editors assure us they are eager to read. They have lots of time to read.

The publishing picture is currently stable, but I also want to speak to the reality of having physical stores nationwide shut down for weeks on end. I expect much lower physical print runs in the months to come. Recent releases saw much sharper drop-off in sales than what would have been normal. Although publishers’ marketing and publicity teams are devising alternative strategies, if households are strapped tighter with a layoff, etc., book sales will suffer. That translates to editorial boards being more discerning on what is acquired and definitely more conservative in advances offered. 

I anticipate a tightening across the board. Stay inside. Stay well.

Recent news articles:

Publishers Struggle With When and How to Move Pub Dates

HMH Reduces Salaries

Paradigm Layoffs

UTA Cuts Salaries

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

(This article originally appeared in the NLA Newsletter on February 14, 2020. Stay tuned on Wednesday 4/1/2020 for a follow up article.)

It rather cracks me up that according to USA Today, Google searches for Corona beer have surged recently. A good portion of Americans are searching “beer virus” to find information about the epidemic currently sweeping China and threatening to go global. For the record, the coronavirus (now renamed COVID-19) has nothing to do with the refreshing beer you can stick a lime in. And if you want more info on the origin of the name, wikipedia might be a good source. 

But it’s no laughing matter when something far across the Pacific impacts publishing right here on American shores. And once again, China is back in the spotlight. In September 2019’s newsletter, I talked about how the trade war between the US and China is impacting foreign-rights licensing. Now it’s a virus causing disruption. I fear it’s going to be a lean year for sales in that part of the world. 

NLA partners with a terrific foreign-rights co-agent in Asia—a partner who keeps us in the loop with detailed updates. Normally, we’d be catching up with him at the book fairs in Bologna and London, but, sadly, not this year. International travel is risky right now, so to be safe, they’ve canceled. I one-hundred percent support health over attending. 

Here’s how the epidemic is affecting publishing in China:

  • Chinese companies are having employees work remotely so as to minimize contact. In publishing, this will significantly impact contracts, royalties, and payments. I actually have a big deal happening in China. Luckily we received the on-signing payment back in September, but I have a sense that other payments will be a lot slower to come in. Luckily, most of our authors don’t rely on foreign advances when doing their annual financial planning. Still, it’s tough news.
  • In good news, publishers are still reading manuscripts. But unless a title is super hot, offers will not be as forthcoming.
  • The big rights fair of the year, The Beijing Book Fair, normally happens in September. That might be canceled. Lots of deals happen at that fair, so cancelation will be a blow.
  • Printers, physical bookstores, and banks remain closed. Yep, I’m sure you can extrapolate how that impacts so many things in this biz.

In this global publishing world, Asia’s problem is our problem. And all of it affects an author’s bottom line.

I won’t raise a beer to that. Or stick a lime in it. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: eFile989

For NLA’s March newsletter I wrote this article but hadn’t had a chance to post on the blog. Then PW recently ran this article on 4/27/2018 about how Publishers are increasingly inserting language into their contracts that allows them to terminate based on an author’s behavior. 

In further analysis and examination, I truly wonder if this is just a “change in market conditions” masquerading as a morality clause. 2018 is going to be an interesting year for contract negotiation!

AGENT KRISTIN’S ORIGINAL NEWSLETTER ARTICLE.

In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag went viral on Twitter. Thousands of women shared their stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, and injustice in the workplace. The momentum began with the allegations against film titan Harvey Weinstein and then morphed into movements across other industries.

It hit publishing in a big way in February 2018 with Anne Ursu’s  bombshell of an article on Medium about sexual harassment in the children’s book industry.

It engendered a lot of conversations here at NLA, as I imagine it did for a lot of authors out there. But I wonder how many authors realized that the #MeToo movement would directly impact them in one very specific and unexpected way: in their contracts.

It was no surprise to me when we received a Penguin Random House contract recently, and lo and behold, there was new language in clause 7.c, which deals with publication. There is a new “morality” clause that cites that if the author’s reputation materially changes, such changes could be cause for termination of the publishing agreement.

Every non-author-friendly clause in publishing contracts is there because of some other author’s previous bad behavior. But in general, I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that NLA clients have to contractually pay for the mistakes of others.

Personally, I fully understand why PRH wants to add this language given recent current events. I certainly support the intention! As an agency, though, we are going to negotiate this clause to be more fair for an author who isn’t guilty until proven innocent.

My sense is that PRH will not be alone in amending boilerplate language. We’ve got several other agreements coming our way in the next two weeks. We’ll definitely be looking for the addition of these types of morality clauses.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Luke Hoagland

We are in the season of hot chocolate, sweaters, and storytelling late into the night. Because of that, and because this is the last NLA newsletter of 2017, I wanted to share a story of authorly hard work, hope, and, ultimately, perseverance with you. If you have gotten nothing but rejections for your query, or you haven’t landed that agent, or your full manuscript has gotten nothing but passes, DON’T GIVE UP!

I met Jillian Boehme when I landed my first agency job in 2013. I was an assistant and she was my boss’s client. At that time, she had already spent eight years working toward a book contract. She’d written several manuscripts before landing an agent and been on submission to editors at every reputable publishing house with three additional manuscripts that had gotten nothing but passes. In 2007, she had also started a popular (and, at the time, anonymous) writing advice blog called Miss Snark’s First Victim, which boasted many success stories by connecting numerous authors with agents who went on to sell their books. And yet, despite her hard work, despite her industry connections, despite continuing to write and building her platform, despite having an agent, despite her persistence, she could not seem to sell a novel.

The thing about Jill is that she has an unrelenting work ethic mixed with a deep core need to create art. Every time she was knocked down (and it happened many more times than either of us wanted), she shook it off and approached her writing with a renewed sense of determination. When she submitted her fourth novel, a YA sci-fi, my boss and I gave her a massive revision that, among other things, included eliminating a love triangle by changing the gender of a character, throwing away an entire central plot line, and replacing it with an entirely new one. She got the edit letter, took a breath, and pulled it off beautifully, improving the manuscript by miles in the process. Sadly, that book didn’t sell either, but it did do something important. It pushed her to be a better writer.

By the time Jillian wrote her fifth book for submission to publishers, she had switched to YA fantasy, which my boss at the time didn’t represent, but happens to be one of my favorite genres. I was building my own client list and she and I had been working together for almost three years. We had developed a relationship built on trust, jokes, a love of chocolate, and mutual admiration. Neither of us knew for sure whether she’d ever land a book deal, but I had never seen any author work harder, bounce back from rejection more completely, or improve so drastically in skill and technique with each project. She approached her career with a dogged determination and kept trying even when she had every reason to give up. I loved her fifth book; it was the strongest thing she’d ever written. My boss stepped aside, we formalized our agent/author relationship, edited together, pushed it to be even better, and enthusiastically submitted to editors. We got so close. Every rejection was a heartbreaker, glowing and filled with praise. It still didn’t sell.

Now, twelve years in to Jillian’s journey to publication, five years in to my own relationship with her, and six publisher-submitted manuscripts later, all that hope and hard work has finally paid off. In November, we announced a deal with one of NYC’s major publishers. Jillian’s debut YA fantasy, Gathering Storm, sold to the brilliant and insightful Elayne Becker at Tor Teen in a two-book deal and will be published in Summer 2019. It is already generating film interest.

It is my personal philosophy as an agent that I need to be my clients’ biggest fan and cheerleader. We are a team. There were times when Jillian felt discouraged and couldn’t find hope; in those moments, I told her I’d take care of hoping for the both of us. I have read each of her books upwards of five times and we’ve had endless (and wonderful) editorial and strategic conversations. The agent/author relationship is a special one of shared enthusiasm and dedication to art and business. Through each rejection, we looked to the future and strategized about the next step. This was a very meaningful win. When the offer from Elayne came in, Jillian and I both cried a lot of happy tears.

Whether you are querying agents, waiting for that first book deal, or already published and working to climb higher, you can look to Jillian and her journey for inspiration. Remember that rejections are a badge of honor. It means you are in the game; people in the industry are reading your work. No matter how many no’s you get, all you need is one yes. And, most importantly, there is no such thing as overnight success. To move forward in this business (or in any business), you must constantly learn, grow, and improve. Work hard and don’t ever give up. You are reading this because you are a writer; keep writing and keep getting better. The rest will follow.