Pub Rants

Category: negotiation

A Contract Whine

Status: The high tomorrow is going to be 3 degrees. Oh Joy. And Chutney will still not thank me when I make her wear her fido fleece.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? HEROES by David Bowie

I think this is definitely more of a whine than a rant. I’m finally negotiating the new Macmillan boilerplate because just recently I sold a novel to that publishing house. And yes, I know that they implemented that new boilerplate many moons ago. Even though I reviewed it at that time (to see what I was in for) it’s not relevant until the first negotiation happens at that house. Although many of our boilerplate items were transferred into the new Macmillan contract, so much of the language has changed (or new clauses created), it might as well be brand new.

So to be generous, I reserved 4 hours to give it a solid read and to write up my requested changes letter. After 2.5 hours of diligent labor, I had only hit page 11 of the 28 page contract.

Oh, this is going to be fun one to negotiate.

More David Bowie music on iLike

The Great Contract Delay?

Status: Freakish. It’s going to be 60 degrees tomorrow in Denver. Uh, winter, what is that?

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? ALWAYS ON MY MIND by Willie Nelson

In the last 6 months, there has been a radical shift in the amount of time it will take to complete a publishing contract. At first, I chalked it up to the new contract boilerplates publishing houses are feeling the need to implement. Any time an agent has to pretty much negotiate from scratch, it’s going to take a lot more time to establish a new agency boilerplate that is fair and reasonable for the author.

But that’s not always the case. For example, for one recent deal, it took (literally) three months to get the first draft of the contract—and the publisher had not changed the boilerplate. Having recently done 4 or 5 contracts with this house, I rather assumed this latest one was going to be a quick process. It took 6 months before the author signed the final contract.

And it’s not like I’m snoozing at my desk. This is after repeated calls, emails, follow up, and constant nagging on my part to prod the process along.

Agent job description: Nag.

Trust me, I didn’t know that was part of the job qualifications when I got into this biz.

For another contract from a publishing house that has always been very prompt in the past, I was stunned to have to wait 4 weeks between responses. (By the way, I responded within 3 days from any communication from the publisher; it was not languishing on my desk.)

It’s enough to make you wonder if it’s me! So I started bringing it up in conversations with other agents I chat with. Lo and behold, they had the same complaint!

So I don’t know what’s up. Are the contracts departments besieged? Understaffed? Combination of of things? Is this the great contract delay conspiracy? If you’ve recently sold a novel, get ready to hurry up and wait in order to sign on the dotted line.

Talk About the Money

STATUS: If I read my latest Publishers Weekly magazine at the same time as getting a pedicure, does that qualify as working? Hey, it’s summer time.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? I AND LOVE AND YOU by Avett Brothers

Last weekend I spoke at my local Lighthouse Writers Litfest. They wrapped up two weeks of celebrating literature and authors with an agent panel at the Tattered Cover in Lodo (which stands for Lower Downtown)—and to be honest, agents doesn’t sound overly celebratory to me but hey, they thought that was the way to do it. Didn’t you know that most of us are full of hot air?

One of the questions asked at the panel was how much of an advance can a writer expect for a debut novel.

Admit it. All of you just perked up your ears. Always, always, writers want to know about the dollars involved. The problem is that this question is really hard to answer. Depending on the novel, it literally could go for any amount of money.

When pressed, which happened of course, the audience wanted to know what was “typical.”

Once again, no such thing but if you hold a gun to my head, I’ll say this:

1. Most debut novels will have advances of under 25k per book. I’d say that’s typical.

2. What a debut novel will get for an advance will depend on genre.
a. Romance novels—5-15k per book
b. YA or MG—10-30k
c. Mysteries & thrillers—Uh, no idea. Don’t rep them. Janet Reid, my friend, can you chime in here? I think you are the Queen of repping this genre.
d. Literary fiction—10-30k
e. Women’s fic—10-30k (are you noticing a pattern here?)
f. SF&F—5-25k

Okay, fine. I told you the money—as long as you realize this list is meaningless, we’re fine.

Have I sold a debut romance author for six figures? Yes. Debut literary author for six figures? Yes. SF&F debut author for 6? Not yet (but I’ve gotten really close…).

Etc. It all depends on how many editors want your particularly debut novel. For my part, I often feel the most satisfaction for selling a debut that took forever to place (and the author was on the verge of giving up hope) and the novel I sold for peanuts that then exploded and just sold and sold.

Now that’s the kind of money I like to talk about.

One Possible Peril Of A Multi-book Deal

STATUS: Heading out into a glorious day.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? THE OTHERSIDE by Breaks Co-op

I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about this sometime before but it could have been years since my last entry on it for all I know. One of the perils of a multi-book contract is a little detail called joint accounting or cross-collateralizing the titles.

For the record, our agency won’t do joint accounting. All the publishers know that and if they want to insist on it, then we can only talk about selling one book and any multi-book contract is nixed. I see absolutely zero benefit in joint accounting for the author. However, some well-respected publishers do like to push for it—especially for debut authors. Tor being one example. Some houses never practice joint accounting. Harlequin being one example

First off, what is it? Basically, it means that the multiple titles sold are linked in the accounting. Let’s say an author does a 2-book deal. It’s not a series so each title stands on its own. Let’s say the advance was $30,000 (15k per title). In joint accounting, the author would not see any monies beyond the advance until both titles earned out the 15k because of the linked accounting (even if book one has already earned out).

With no joint accounting, each title has its own separate accounting so once the 15k earns out for book one, the author doesn’t have to wait for the other title to earn out to earn royalties on that first title. Or vice versa. Each title is separately accounted.

That’s it in a nutshell. If you are only selling one book, this is never an issue. It’s only a point of discussion if an editor is offering for several books.

As a matter of practice, when an editor calls to offer for 2 books (or 3 or whatever), I always begin the convo with “our agency will not do joint accounting. Given that, are we talking about one book or more than one?” This establishes it before anything else so it’s not even a factor as the negotiation unfolds.

Once again, I can only speak for myself. Other agents might differ on their opinion of this. You might be wondering why any author would agree to it.

Well, if you are getting 7-figure advance for two books and the publisher insists on joint? Do you care? Interesting question, no?

The One-Book Deal

STATUS: A nice and productive day. I think I want summer hours though. Leave by 1. Play in the sunshine. I know Chutney is all for it.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? DO YOU SLEEP by Lisa Loeb

Today let’s tackle the single book contract. What are the advantages and disadvantages to doing just a one-book deal? Considering what we discussed yesterday, it seems ludicrous to sell just one book!

Well, not really. Most one-book deals are for literary fiction and occasionally for what we would call the “big” commercial literary fiction. Commercial literary fiction is really just literary fiction that has a commercial hook or slant. For example, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a good example of commercial literary. Or TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. Or HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

Does this make sense?

And there are lots of reasons to do a one-book deal.

1. Literary fiction takes longer to write. Sometimes it’s not feasible to write a second book on a prescribed deadline so authors will contract one book at a time. Wally Lamb (SHE COMES UNDONE) is kind of known for never selling a book until it’s written and then he sells that one book only.

2. A one-book contract can alleviate the pressure on the author. The sophomore effort can be a tricky thing. I know from experience that every author hits a stumbling block with that second novel and it really doesn’t matter the genre you write in.

3. Literary fiction—especially those that lean commercial—often get undersold initially and then break out big later. If there is a sense that that could happen, why lock the author in for a certain amount of money?

4. The author might not have a second novel to propose and he/she just doesn’t want to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. And the author might take 10 years to write next literary novel. It happens.

5. If the author’s editor leaves and there is just a one-book contract, it can make it cleaner for the author to follow his/her editor to a new house. One’s editor tends to be really important in literary fiction. There is a certain trust that can be very beneficial to the literary writer.

Now having mentioned these things, you can kind of see the flipside to the argument.

1. A two-book contract might be preferred if there is a lot of hype and a book sells for a lot of money and then doesn’t perform. How nice would it be to have a commitment to two books already lined up if that’s the case? A chance of redemption or getting those numbers back up.

2. A Publisher may delay acquisition of a future book until they have sales figures for the first book. Since books easily take 18 months to publish, it’s a long time to wait to get a new contract—especially if the author is trying to earn a living here.

One Book or Two? Maybe Three?

STATUS: I was “this close” to getting to everything on my TO DO list today.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? MY WAY by Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson

Last year, a fellow agent friend and I gave a workshop on doing a single-book contract versus a multi-book contract. I was a little surprised at how many writers showed up for it. Hey, maybe these would make a few good blog entries.

First Q: When is doing a single-book contract ideal and when is a multi-book contract best?

Answering this question takes into consideration a lot of different factors. Let’s start with the obvious. If you write genre fiction, it’s almost always to an author’s advantage to do a multi-book contract.

For example, if you write fantasy and the first book being sold is the first in an envisioned trilogy, well, it would be better to have the publisher commit to three books. That way the entire series has a shot of being published. It often takes several books for a series to pick up momentum. What’s important is the publisher commitment—even if in the end a series does well and it was “undersold” initially in terms of the advance.

More common case is that a series has to build over time with the subsequent books and then the books start to earn out. Besides, who wants to sell book 1 in a trilogy only to be left in a lurch if the publisher doesn’t pick up the other books? It’s not easy (read “nearly impossible) to sell books 2 & 3 to another house. If sales are sluggish, it’s really unlikely another house will pick it up.

For another genre such as romance, careers build best if an author can release books within 6 to 8 months from each other. That means really tight schedules/deadlines for the author to make that work so doing multi-book contracts make sense. It’s also best to do multi if the stories are “linked” (as in they stand alone but have characters that might have been introduced in first novel).

Is there an advantage or disadvantage for doing 2 books vs. 3 or 4? Sure. Lots of agents differ on their opinion of this so I can only speak for myself. In general for me, the number of books sold at one time depends on the author (how fast he/she can write), on the project (how many books envisioned) and whether I think the author was undervalued. What I mean by that is if the offer was initially too low for a 3 or 4 book deal or if I thought the monies should have been higher in the auction and I don’t want to lock the author in for too many books at the lower rate. Obviously, reverse is true. If the monies are good, then why not lock in for more books as the commitment is strong from the publisher.

As you can see, lots of factors at play. How does an agent know? We’ve been doing this long enough that we pretty much use our gut sense of what feels right as the offer unfolds. I’ve yet to be wrong.

I’ll talk about single-book contract tomorrow.

eBook Royalty: Another Way To Protect

STATUS: Not sure what is up with Mondays but they seem to be getting away from me lately.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? CAPE CANAVERAL by Conor Oberst

Most authors, at this point in time, are not interested in walking away from a publishing contract over electronic book rights. The numbers are growing certainly (as we can see that statement to statement) but the numbers, in general, are still very small in comparison to traditional print sales.

Now there are certainly some exceptions. I’m very interested in seeing how it unfolds for author JA Konrath who has long blogged about making a living from electronic book sales and has decided, for his most recent novel, to go with Amazon Encore for the print with the release from Kindle coming earlier. (By the way, Mr. Konrath is embarking on this journey with his agent.)

From what I can tell from my own negotiations as well as from convos with other agents, Publishers are currently holding very firm on 25% of net receipts for the royalty structure. If they are doing an agency commission model (i.e. Apple) they are either not changing their definition of net amounts received in their contracts or they are sticking to the definition that it will be based on monies actually received by the publisher—translation: royalty of 25% of net to author calculated after 30% commission paid to third party (such as Apple). In other words, author is receiving 25% of 70% (not 100%). Reference my earlier blog entry on this topic to get up to speed.

So, if the author does not want to walk away from the offer over ebook royalty (and right now I’d have to say that’s most authors), what does an agent do?

We find another way to protect the author. One method is to include language in the publishing contract that dictates that if industry standard changes in regards to electronic book royalty rates, then the rate can be amended or renegotiated in the future to adhere to new industry standard.

Feel free to add that tidbit to your contracts file.

When Contracts Directors Have A Sense Of Humor

STATUS: Off to a terrific start today.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? STAY UP LATE by Talking Heads

From a lot of my posts lately, I imagine that you think all my recent conversations with contract directors at the big houses have been contentious.

In reality, that hasn’t been so. I have to say, that I personally like all the contracts directors at the major houses. They are under the gun and yet they’ve handled differences of opinions with good temper, grace, and with reason—even if I don’t agree with their stance.

In fact, one of the contract directors from a big six house even made me spit coffee and sputter with laughter in our last conversation.

When I mentioned that I didn’t agree with the 25% of net publishers were currently sticking with and that I was not inclined to accept the same percentage if we were to negotiate an expanded or enhanced electronic book, the director, totally deadpanned, quipped in return that I must obviously share his opinion that the split percentage to the author should be lower for an enhanced ebook as they are more expensive to produce.

I was so surprised that I just burst out laughing as did my contracts manager. You gotta respect a contracts director with a sense of humor. Grin.

A Difference of Opinion I’m Sure

STATUS: Just a twinge of a cough remains. Kristin—9 flu—1

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HOME by Daughtry

Rumor has it that several of the big 6 publishers are coming out with new boilerplate contracts in the next couple of weeks. I know for sure that Hachette is working on a new one as is HarperCollins.

With these new “boilerplates,” I already know there is going to be a significant difference in opinion about what a Publisher thinks is a boilerplate item and what an Agent will consider as a boilerplate item versus a right that needs to be negotiated up front.

I have a feeling (call it intuition—snort) that the definition of what constitutes an “enhanced ebook” or a “multimedia product” (that’s a new catch phrase I’ve been hearing as of late) will be at the center of these new boilerplate contract debates between publishers and agents.

I, myself, have yet to see a new “boilerplate” contract but am waiting with bated breath… Oh being an agent is just daily fun.

Burning Question about Agency Commission Model

STATUS: TGIF!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BEEN CAUGHT STEALING by Jane’s Addiction

As you can imagine, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with various Contract Directors at all the major publishing houses as of late as we navigate contract negotiation.

I was in discussion with one person from a Big 6 house and we got to talking about returns with electronic books. Were they going to be allowed on the agency commission model that publishers have with entities like Apple?

According to this contracts person, the answer was yes.

So I asked what I thought was a rather pertinent question. I said, “if Apple allows returns and they’ve already deducted the 30% agency commission from the sale, how will the publisher know that the commission should have been refunded to them for the returned-sale of that title?”

Contracts person: “Good question.”

Glad I could be of some help…