The Business Rusch: Stand Up For Yourself

Business Rusch logo webA few weeks ago, at our weekly professional writers lunch, a writer mentioned a private listserve he’s on with other writers, all of whom are traditionally published. According to him, that list has been discussing an abusive editor, one who is tearing apart her bestsellers, making them revise their books repeatedly while telling them that they don’t know how to write.

I have been an editor off and on for a long time (with a healthy hiatus in the middle of my editing career), and I’ll be honest. As an editor and someone who has owned two publishing companies (and advised others), I usually shrug off comments like that from writers.

Some writers are such sensitive souls that telling them to change a comma results in three weeks of hysteria.

However, I knew the editor in question, and she went after me viciously in October of 2011. So viciously, in fact, that I immediately attempted to terminate my contract with the publishing company.

Let me tell you what happened, then let me tell you what I did, and then I will expand this essay into something everyone can use.

October of 2011 was a bad time for me. Our friend Bill Trojan had died, leaving us his massive and messy estate. My husband, who is my rock and my support and my everything (seriously), was working his way toward a stroke trying to deal with that estate.

My own health was declining for reasons we wouldn’t understand for another eighteen months. I had had to cancel most public appearances, including one that month.

Publishing in the United States was changing quickly, and it often felt like the ground was shifting under our feet. We had cash flow issues because of the estate (see the link above) and because we had started three new businesses before Bill died. My stress was off the charts.

I still managed, somehow, to write a novel that I was quite pleased with. For once, I managed to hit every note I had promised in the proposal that sold the novel. The novel was risky for its genre, but the editor had approved the proposal and all was fine—I thought.

Then on the afternoon of October 18, 2011, the editor called me from a conference I had had to cancel out of due to my health and the estate issues. I thought she was going to update me on a book the company had just published—sales figures or something—or maybe convey something about the conference.

Instead, she wanted to talk about the book I had turned in. She didn’t ask how I was (and remember, she knew that I couldn’t attend for health and personal reasons) or anything. Instead she lit into me and my work as if I were a beginning writer.

She told me that I couldn’t write very well. She told me I knew nothing about the genre I’d been publishing in for fifteen years. She told me that I might think I was a good writer, but I wasn’t, and I needed to shape up.

I was stunned as this torrent of abuse continued. It went on for fifteen minutes before I could get a word in edgewise. I should have hung up; I was too sick and emotionally exhausted to think of that option until after the call ended.

However, I had done what I always did with a business phone call. As the phone rang and the number appeared on the screen, I grabbed a yellow legal pad and pen and took notes. Even as she attacked me personally, I continued to take notes.

It’s a great habit, because it enabled me to go back and see that she had done similar things less blatantly in previous calls.

Midway through this last conversation, she said two things that truly caught my attention. The first was that she claimed that the genre I was writing in had a specific structure—this must happen on page 75, that must happen on page 125, this other thing must happen on page 150.

The entire genre isn’t that way. I know that as a long-time reader and writer in that genre. In that genre, as in many others, there subgenres that have that specific structure—and I refuse to write those books. I would never have signed on to do such a thing.

Then she told me that I did not follow my proposal. And unlike 75% of my traditionally published books, this time I had. So I knew she hadn’t read either the proposal or the book. I point-blank asked her, and she admitted that she hadn’t read either. She said that was what assistants were for.

That was when I hung up.

After crying for a while—no one can take that kind of personal attack without an emotional reaction—I drafted a letter to the publisher of the company. I cited everything the editor said in this and previous conversations, said I had concurrent notes so I wasn’t trusting a faulty memory, and then demanded to be released from my current contract.

Because I’ve been in publishing a long time, I did not do this angrily or stupidly. I told the publisher of this company that I would repay my advance and, on the book that was currently in production (not the one I had just turned in), I would repay all expenses the company had incurred to date.

Realize, I had just committed Dean and I to tens, if not a hundred, thousand dollars of expenses at that moment. We were in crisis ourselves, having financial issues because of the estate (long story, see the link above), and we were taking a huge gamble.

I say we, because of course, I had spoken to Dean before committing to this. I knew we could figure out how to make the financial side work–with a payment schedule, if need be. It was worthwhile to me to get out of the contract and leave this company immediately. Dean (fortunately) agreed.

In my letter to the publisher, I cited my credentials, my publishing history, and my business and financial history, so he knew who he was dealing with.

He knew this was not a bluff.

I also told him that his editor was not doing her job. She was having subordinates do much of the work for her, if not all of her work for her.

I sent the letter as an email and as a certified letter, then sat back to see what would happen next.

What happened was a prolonged negotiation with the vice president of the company, a much higher ranked person than the publisher I had initially addressed. I still had several books under contract, one in production, plus the one I had turned in, and three more to write. I was going to cancel the contracts on all of these and repay the advances.

He reminded me how expensive it was.

I told him that I would not work with a company that approved proposals and then turned down a book that followed the proposal to the letter. I also told him that I had been misled about the company’s focus. I had not realized that it expected me to follow rules of a subgenre I would never ever write in. I usually avoided companies and book lines that required such things, because that’s not how I write.

He assured me the company did not expect that. We went back and forth for some time, and came to an understanding. I would switch editors for the book in production and the book I had just turned in. I would have no contact with the first editor.

If I was still dissatisfied, we would part company before I started writing the next novel I had to finish for them.

The new editor was just fine. A gem, in fact.

The other editor—well, as you can tell from the beginning of this piece—she’s still with the company. She was demoted, and taken off the publicity circuit she had been on. She was no longer allowed to work through her assistants, but had to do the work herself.

As someone who has owned a business and who has dealt with writers for a long, long time, I understand why she wasn’t fired. Writers are socially inept creatures, and sometimes react weirdly to things. Dean and I have kicked several writers out of our workshops, mostly for behavioral issues (although at least two were kicked down the road for breaking the law while attending the workshop—and I don’t mean workshop law. I mean state and federal law).

In the absence of other complaints, I, as an employer, would not have fired this woman. I would have monitored her to see if she had done it again.

Which brings me back to that professional writers’ lunch a few weeks ago. I asked the writer who is on this listserve what the writers who were being abused by this woman had done.

He said they hadn’t done anything. They were signing up for more books and taking the nastiness—the you-can’t-write, you-are-worthless comments—and sucking it all up, trying to continue forward. And unsurprisingly, several were having trouble finishing novels.

I had to clarify: You mean no one has asked for a different editor? No one has withdrawn her book? No one has left the company?

He said that a few left when their contracts were up, but no, most of them just continued.

And that, my friends, is why this editor is still employed. I may not be the only one she’s hurt, but I am one of the few (if not the only one) who refused to be treated like this in a place of business.

If this were the case of a single editor, I wouldn’t write this blog. Here are a handful of examples that I’m personally familiar with:

•The acquiring editor for Writer A moved to another company. The new editor loathed the book she inherited. Instead of passing the book to another editor, she demanded rewrites—ten of them over three years. That ended when this new editor moved to another company, and yet another new editor came on board. The latest editor noted that Writer A had missed her deadline not only for the first book, but for the other three contracted (ignoring all the revisions the writer had done), canceled the contract and demanded the company be repaid in full.

•The company that Writer B, a #1 New York Times bestseller and a beloved name in the genre, had worked with for twenty years got bought out by another company, and in the mess that followed, Writer B got assigned a new editor. The new editor loathed the genre and thought Writer B was a has-been (even though her sales said otherwise). The new editor was unbelievably rude to Writer B. Writer B was reassigned to new editors twice. Each editor was in her twenties and fresh out of college. Neither of them treated Writer B with respect. Writer B finally decided to retire from writing, having enough money in the bank to live out her days without financial worry.

•Writer C, a brand-new writer, sold a trilogy for a mid-six figure advance. The vice president who bought the book assigned an editor to the project who was notorious for not working hard. That editor did not acknowledge receipt of Book One for a year, and finally handed out revisions after much pressure from Writer C’s powerful agent. Book One came out with a terrible cover, tiny print, and no promotion. The editor still hadn’t read Book Two or Book Three, even though they were on his desk. Finally, Powerful Agent demanded action. The vice president, citing the poor sales of Book One, canceled the contract and demanded repayment of the rest of the advance.

All of these things did not happen to just one writer. They’ve happened to many writers that I know of. I can site at least four examples for point one, a dozen for point two, and three in the past eight years for point three.

This kind of unsupervised behavior on the part of editors and the sales force in traditional publishing, this lack of respect for the people who actually supply the company and make it money, is common in the publishing industry.

And it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Writers do not stand up for themselves because they do not know how.

They also don’t stand up for themselves because they’re afraid they will be blacklisted. Never mind that it’s illegal for one publishing company to tell another company to blacklist a supplier, writers get threatened with that all the time.

Some writers now go around this ill treatment by publishing themselves. That’s all well and good until these writers run into something bad in their new business, and they still haven’t learned how to stand up for themselves.

There’s a good way to stand up for yourself and a bad way to do it.

The bad way? If I had called the publishing company in tears and told them that the editor had hurt my feelings. She had, but that was beside the point.

I couldn’t trust this woman to handle my books with the respect they deserved. If she spoke to me that way, how would she speak to the sales force about my books? How would she talk to the cover artist and the promotions department?

You need to think about these things. Such behavior is not an isolated incident. It happens all the time in many different industries. In publishing, when someone in charge of your book does not respect you or the book, it shows in the book’s treatment. I fired an agent of mine shortly after she told me her bestselling client wrote smut. It wasn’t literature, it was crap, but it sold, she said. And then she laughed.

She said that to me, another client, about a client who earned millions for the agency. Imagine how she talked to the client’s editor. Imagine how she talked about me.

Respect matters, and writers should demand it.

Reasonably.

How do you demand respect? I hate to say this, but you need to earn it. Not just with good writing, and not by being a good girl and sucking it up when someone speaks badly to you.

But by knowing your business inside out, backwards, and upside down. Only then will you understand what options are available to you.

If you negotiate and/or complain from a position of ignorance, you will be ignored.

For example, on a contract negotiation for a publishing business I owned, a writer hired an intellectual property attorney to vet the publishing house’s contract. That step was good. But the writer did not get the attorney to explain the clauses that the attorney objected to.

The attorney, doing his/her job properly, suggested changing most of the contract’s clauses to benefit the writer. Sometimes, what benefits one party in a contract harms the other party. That’s when negotiation begins.

Had the attorney handled the negotiation, all would have been fine, but the writer did the negotiation with a company employee (not me and not anyone else in legal or upper management). On most points, the writer got what he/she wanted.

On one point, however, the publishing company would not budge. Why? Because the language the attorney had given the writer did this: it changed the legal language of the contract to put all of the liability of publishing the writer’s work on the company. In other words, if this writer had plagiarized someone else, the only one who would pay for that plagiarism was my company.

I am convinced the writer had no idea what the writer was asking for, and unfortunately, the company employee (who did not have a law degree) did not explain the problem clearly. The writing was not purchased. It happens. The writer stood up for his/herself, but not in an effective way.

Similarly, had I gone to the publisher of the company I mentioned above and demanded to be released from the contract and demanded that I could keep the advance and  demanded that they had to swallow the money they had already spent on a book they had already sent out as advance reading copies, then the reaction I would have had from that vice president would have been very different.

I knew I was putting the company in a difficult position. I was willing to take a financial stake in what was going on, if they would just release me from the contract. That was the opening salvo of the negotiation. We went back and forth for a long time before coming up with something we could both live with.

I greatly respect that vice president. He did a fantastic job and, unlike the editor, was very respectful of me.

That’s what it comes down to, in my opinion.

Respect.

Writers rarely get the respect they deserve, particularly in traditional publishing. Writers should get respect as a co-business partner. Instead, they’re treated worse than the new hire fresh out of college.

I must say though, as someone who has been at every desk in publishing except that of agent, most writers do not demand respect.

They act like the writers on that listserve and take whatever comes at them. Most writers, in fact, don’t know enough business to know what their options are.

They also don’t know when they’ve run into a bad publishing situation and when they’ve run up against standard business practices.

Standard business practices in traditional publishing are very bizarre by the standards of other industries. Very few industries treat their suppliers with such regular and careless disrespect.

But there is a difference between casual disregard and true abuse, which was what happened to me with that particular editor.

So…how does a writer stand up for herself?

1. She knows her business. I say this damn near once a month. Understand copyright law. It’s the foundation for your writing business.  Buy the Copyright Handbook. Study it. Learn it. Make understanding all the nuances of copyright and trademark law one of your hobbies. Trust me, this is a lifelong process, since the law is constantly changing.

2. Understand contracts. Learn what you need to have in them to make them palatable for you. If you don’t understand a contract, then ask someone. If you think you understand a contract, make sure a trusted second reader with a legal eye looks at it. If you are in any kind of doubt, hire an intellectual property attorney and make him explain the contract to you clause by clause, implication by implication. Ask for the best case scenario if you sign that contract and, more importantly, the worst case.

3. Have an escape clause. Most contracts I signed in traditional publishing back in the pre-ebook days had an end date and/or a way to determine when that contract ended. This is changing in the modern publishing world—and that change does not benefit writers. Make sure anything you sign has a way out.

4. Make sure your publishing partner meets the terms of the contract. Most traditional publishers do not follow the terms of their own contracts. The royalty statements and payments often arrive months after the contractually mandated due date. In the old days, when those payments came through agents, it was impossible to know what was late and what was mismanagement on the agent’s part. Now, it’s pretty easy to figure out.

I’ve threatened dozens of times to cancel a publishing contract for late payment. I did it back in the old days so that I could get paid. Now I wish I had canceled some of those contracts, particularly with a company that refuses to revert the rights on one of my novels.

5. Be willing to walk away from a bad deal. Most writers think that because they have an offer, they have to take it. No, no, no, and no. That’s just the beginning. The contract needs to be signed by both parties before the deal is final.

6. Be willing to walk away at any point. Sometimes a relationship that seemed good turns bad. That’s why contracts should have termination clauses. Even if there isn’t one or a clear one, you can probably get out of the contract in one way or another.

7. When all else fails, negotiate a new deal for your release. Existing contracts can be amended and terminated, as long as both parties can come to an agreement.

8. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. Seriously, people. Writers put up with things in their writing contracts and their writing business that they would never put up with in real life.

My philosophy has always been that the people around me treat me with respect. Yes, we can have heated arguments. Hell, we can even call each other names as long as we both know that underneath it all, we respect each other’s work and each other’s abilities.

I know that some people believe people who swear or use bad language are disrespectful. The most clean-spoken folks I know have been the most dirty business partners. They say one thing (very nicely) and then do another.

Look at the actions.

If the publisher promises but doesn’t deliver, why stay in business with that company?

Let’s look at the three examples above:

•In the rewriting instances (Writer A), at some point, the writers should have asked for a different editor. In their contracts, the writers should have had a maximum number of revisions specified, and if the book still wasn’t to the publishing house’s taste, then the writer and publisher could have parted ways without anyone repaying anything. Contract canceled.

•In the case of massive disrespect (Writer B), those writers should have gone up the food chain in the publishing house. In all of those cases, those writers were bringing millions of dollars to the company per year. You don’t think some vice president would notice that and solve the problem, like the vice president had done with me? Of course.

•In the case of Writer C (new writer), the writers should have asked for a new editor. If one wasn’t assigned, then again up the food chain the writer should have gone.

And note in all of these cases, I did not say that the writer should have the agent do it. Too many agents see themselves as partners with the publishers, not the writers, so the agents won’t do these things (even if they say they will).

I actually had one (so-called reputable) agent part ways with me because the publisher refused to negotiate a contract, so I didn’t take the deal. I wasn’t going to accept those terms. The agent told me I should, then when I didn’t, said that I would ruin his reputation. Um, no. It was my career and in theory, he worked for me.

That theory doesn’t work so much any more.

So rather than push someone else forward to defend you, do it yourself. First of all, you’ll feel better. Secondly, you’ll know it got done.

Look, folks. Your writing career is a career. And just as in your everyday life, if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will either.

Since this is a long post, I’ll be brief here.

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“The Business Rusch: Stand Up For Yourself” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch




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77 Comments

  1. You need to think about these things. Such behavior is not an isolated incident. It happens all the time in many different industries.

    Truer words could not have been spoken, Kris, and I’m so sorry you had deal with a pain in the ass like that (and no doubt others). I’ve had to deal with a few of them in the corporate world, across different industries. The first one was relatively harmless, and after I told him NOT to call me at home (I was living with my mother-in-law at the time) because there was a phone in mother-in-law’s bedroom, we came to an understanding that I would call him to let him know about conference calls and the like for that day. (We got along okay after that.)

    Then there was the paranoid lawyer who refused to get me the training she said would be provided. She’d been surrounded by staff who were used to the legal jargon (this was a specialized field) and all the ins and outs, but I was coming in raw. In between all this, I suffered a major health issue that could have killed me. I came back and found a temp had been hired to take over my duties while I recuperated and who also was supposed to give me on-the-job training.

    The temp did very well, and I liked her, but the lawyer I worked for, well, I went to work crying my eyes out most days and went home the same way. To top that, my sister-in-law called to bitch and moan about something or other, and I had to hang up on her, because my job was on life support at that point; sister-in-law didn’t seem to get it, even sent me a scathing email. Anyway, eventually they let me go with a nice payoff, tho it took me months to find just a temp job after that.

    The third one occurred where I work now. I had a good relationship with this one boss, until he took a trip overseas. He came back from that 2 week trip, gave me all his receipts, and I worked on that stuff for about a week (had to do some currency conversions which are never fun). I told him to expect the expense report any day. I was really hurt when he sent me an email saying that he was going to have a talk with me about my work habits. I consider myself a professional; I don’t cry or go on about things I think are petty and unimportant. I thought this was very important going forward, so after I had a cry and talked to one of my friends here, I told my boss. She told me later she was so surprised because I’m usually so quiet.

    Long story short, the expense report was in his queue and needed approval by him. Whose work habits are we talking about here? ;-) Eventually, this guy was forced to resign, because of the b.s. he kept handing his direct staff (which wasn’t me, thankfully).

    Other people are not entitled to belittle you unless you let them. That’s what I’ve taken away from all these power grabs or whatever you want to call them. After dealing with verbal abuse in both my office and personal lives, I will NOT take that b.s. from anyone anymore. It’s still tough for me because I’m an introvert and all, but if someone like me can suck it up, others can too. :-)

    Thanks for this post, Kris. I think I needed it!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Nancy, and thanks for pointing out how this behavior can show up other places. Good for you. I appreciate the post.

      Reply
  2. Very good post! I wish more writers in traditional publishing would stand up for themselves. With all the changes going on writers are being used as door mats and that is so wrong. This needs to be shouted out from the roof tops. Stand up for yourself because no one else will do it for you.

    Reply
    • I agree, Vera. Now writers have a choice. They don’t have to put up with this, yet so many do. :-(

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  3. Ooooh, R-E-S-P-E-C-T part 2. At work, reporters used to call in their stories to me. For one story, a reporter called several times to clarify details and make corrections as new facts poured in.

    She said, “I’m sorry to keep calling like this.”

    I replied, “Your name is on this story; you have every right to be conscientious.”

    The way I see it, a writer needs to jealously guard her (or his) name. If an editor keeps demanding rewrites, ask yourself, “Do I want my name on this? Or, am I willing to apologize for this book for the rest of my life? Am I willing to tell people that it reads the way it does because I allowed someone to tell me to rewrite the good parts out of it?”

    My attitude kept me from joining the Dewey Beats Truman bandwagon one night when rumors started flying (prematurely) about the death of Joe Paterno. A guy from CBS had to resign after hopping on that bandwagon, but I kept my job because I wasn’t willing to put my name on a story that wasn’t properly sourced. This, in spite of the senior editors who kept calling to nag me about “getting a story up” on our site.

    It’s easier to stand up to editors, or “authority,” when you know your trade well enough to know that you’re right and they’re wrong. And knowing is half the battle …

    Reply
  4. Dear Kris, thank you for this important post! It should be almost mandatory for every writing course or such like to dedicate at least one full session to study and discuss your post; to make young and seasoned authors alike aware of the importance of standing up for yourself in the right way.
    Even more important is your insistence on an detached, unemotional and thoroughly professional approach. And with it, the appreciation of the importance of the dance; that is to say, the awareness that once such blatant disrespect has been let loose like a genie, it won’t do to simply shoot for the obvious solution, i.e. skip the repair phase. Even if you had immediately asked for a new editor, and for argument sake, been assigned one, without the proper show-of-teeth, the respect never would have come back in earnest.
    Bravo.

    Reply
    • It’s hard to be calm in the face of this kind of treatment. That’s why I conduct 90% of my business by e-mail and letter. Everything is in writing, and I can take time to respond if I need to. The note-taking, that’s just a way of putting into words as well. And it has served me well, not just in this instance, but many others.

      I love your clarity about the dance. Yes, skip the repair phase. Sometimes it’s not worth the time. Thanks!

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  5. Thank you once again for your posts and sharing your publishing stories. We were featured on Joe Konrath’s site yesterday, talking about this- Indies sharing and giving away- and I included you and Dean in the shoutout to those who have shared their path so that other writers might benefit.
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/04/guest-post-by-dale-t-phillips-and-vlad-v.html

    I wouldn’t even bother dealing with Big Trad people unless they drove up with a dump truck full of money, and let me supervise the contract provisions. I thank my lucky stars that things changed just when I was finally ready to publish, and I no longer have to deal with people who abuse and disrespect writers.

    Now we get to choose who we want to work with, and it’s glorious!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dale, for the shout-out! Much appreciated. I’m still hybrid, because I love publishing short stories everywhere. To be honest, though, there are some places that not even a dump truck full of money would convince me to work with again. :-)

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  6. Spot on, Kris! Having your example has allowed me to stand up for myself-maybe not to the degree I >should< but certainly more than I would have otherwise. (Remember when I turned down the very first offer on my first novel?)
    Thanks, as always, for the information and the guidance. Much, much appreciated!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Chris. But you did it all. So many others find out about these things, and then don’t do it. You’ve done it. Thanks for the kind words, though.

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  7. Very good advice, Kristine. As a playwright, I’ve found the Dramatist’s Guild Business Affairs office to be extremely helpful; I’ve had to chase down a director who produced a one-act of mine without my knowledge for the royalty payment, and to a publisher who published two monologues of mine but never sent the check (I got paid in full for both.)

    Fiction writers may also find Writers Beware useful: http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/

    Reply
  8. In reading your blog, I’ve slowly but surely become a fan not only of your nonfiction work but your fiction, and have been buying your books. So far that’s stood in for a donation.

    But this time I felt the need to click that ‘Donate” button and drop $25 in the kitty, because this post is all too necessary for writers at all career stages. I just a day job that had become increasingly abusive, with violations of everything from food safety regulations to generally accepted accounting principles to HR regulations to common decency. I walked, and I’m living on savings for the nonce, but I’m dropping hard-earned cash in the box because people who say what you’re saying need to be supported.

    “Make knowing contract law your hobby” (to roughly paraphrase what you said above). In all phases of practical life and work, I can’t think of better advice. Make knowing what you need to know a pleasant diversion, like baseball statistics or weather trends or any other topic of conversation, acquire that knowledge at leisure so it’s there in times of adversity.

    “Know the details, take notes, and be prepared to walk.” Or as my mother put it, “Never let the SOBs think you need the job.” I can’t tell you how many times a variant of this advice has saved my life and sanity, sometimes quite literally.

    I’ll also add that I own the Freelancer’s Survival Guide both in Kindle and print formats and re-read it three times in the course of my decision to leave the day job. I use it regularly in my mentoring work with young writers, artists, and students in the sciences. Your work casts a long shadow, and has already improved more lives than you can know.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, E.P. Your kind words about me and the Freelancer’s Guide mean a lot. Thanks for sharing it. I also greatly appreciate the donation, especially in your tight time. I hope you find something soon. I too have walked from jobs when I could least afford it and have never regretted it once. It’s tough, but sometimes staying is harder. Again, thanks.

      Reply
    • E.P., I really admire you for walking out on an abusive job situation. :-) I’ve had to do something like that in my personal life, and it’s not easy. But you gotta do what you feel is right, and I applaud you for that. :-)

      I hope you find other work soon!

      Reply
    • I was in the same situation last year, and walked out of a job I had held for eleven years. Things had got so bad I wound up in the emergency room with sky-high blood pressure. It made me realize that I was killing myself trying to hold on to a life I didn’t really want. I wrote two novels after that, and I’m working on a third. Lately, I’ve started adding short stories to submit to magazines.

      Unfortunately, the money has run out, and I may lose the house before it’s all over. My job search has yielded a couple of interviews and a boatload of rejections. The question “why did you leave your last job?” is a loaded one that I’ve tried to answer honestly. But in addition to my age (I’m fifty-three) I think that potential employers see me as a flight risk. And they aren’t wrong.

      Fortunately, my family has been very supportive, and have been sending me food and money when they can. My parents have offered the cabin behind their house if I need it. Despite all of that, I can’t say that I regret leaving. I’m convinced the old job would have killed me sooner rather than later, and I’ve finally found something I feel like I was meant to do all along. I just need a patron to foot the bills. :p

      Reply
  9. Kris,

    In almost every blog, you shill the Copyright handbook. It’s good, but not that good that you have to sell it in every single time.

    I have to ask: Do you get a commission for recommending it?

    Anon

    Reply
    • It’s the most comprehensive overview of copyright I have found, and I’ve read a lot of them. Even with me “shilling” it as you put it, most writers who read this blog never buy it and/or never bother to learn copyright. How do I know? When those writers get into trouble, they come to me to find out how to get out of the situation–and had they known copyright, they never would have known copyright in the first place.

      Reply
  10. What an outstanding post, Kris.

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  11. Very intelligent and informative. Unfortunately, this kind of thing seems to be happening more frequently.

    Writing requires us to be both left and right brain thinkers as the creativity of our job is always balanced by the fact we are at our essence, each one of us a small business. Our agents, our publishers, they are business associates. Full stop. Period. They do not own us and they do not dictate the terms of our lives simply because of their roles in our business’ success.

    I got very good advice by a mentor early in my publishing career: never be more than one book away from walking away from a publisher. Her reasoning was that by Book 2, your advance is usually already earned out, so they are getting Book 3 for no additional investment. But her advice also made it possible to take harder lines with editorial over the years. I’ve always found it beneficial to write for more than one publisher as well. There are costs to that of course, but it does help to know that if you walk away from part of your career, there is still a viable contract in the offing.

    I’ve signed longer contracts and bigger deals, but always with some form of out clause that wouldn’t cost me more than my advance.

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    • Excellent point, Lucy. Thanks for adding it. I always worked for more than one company as well. I get nervous when my eggs are all in the same basket. (I still do.) I expanded it by writing in more than one genre and under more than one name. I love that about writing. You can reinvent as someone else so easily! Thanks for the comment.

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  12. Kris, I have only one tiny quibble…in point 8 above, you say, “Writers put up with things in their writing contracts and their writing business that they would never put up with in real life.” I think that implies a false distinction, there. I would’ve put “real life” in scare quotes, since when it comes down to it, what could be more real in your life than the very terms of your livelihood? ;)

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  13. A great and very important post, Kris, that should be required reading not just for writers.

    By the time I started seeking publication in earnest, I had already heard so many horror stories or witnessed disrepectful behaviour by editors and agents first hand, that I decided that should I ever get a publishing contract, I would put the advance in an escrow account, so I could pay it back and walk away, should there be issues. Luckily, indie publishing came along and it never became necessary.

    In my dayjob I’m a freelance translator and a lot of what I translate are legal documents. It’s unbelievable how many horrible contracts I have translated, contracts that I would never ever have signed in a million years. Sometimes, I even warned the customer and told them to talk to their lawyer, cause this or that clause looks seriously fishy. A few demanded changes and got them, some walked away, most signed anyway.

    Quite often, a few months down the line the company who signed the bad contract finds itself embroiled in a dispute with the other party.

    In one case, I persuaded a relative to get a partnership agreement changed to get a really horrible non-compete clause stricken. Said relative was investing in a start-up company and the partnership agreement had a non-compete clause which would have prevented him from working in his current job, unless the partners agreed to release him from said clause. “But they wouldn’t do that”, asked the relative. “Yeah, but better make sure that they can’t.”

    The partners later tried to sneak in the nasty clause again via a minor contract ammendment – oops, mistake, wrong draft. And now there’s trouble in the fledgling company about exactly the same issue. If my relative hadn’t listened to me, he’d be in deep trouble now.

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    • Wow, what you’ve seen must be amazing. I know most people never both to read the fine print on anything, and I just cringe. They trust that things will work out all right. While I’d love to be that way in theory, in practice being a bit of a worst-case-scenario person has protected me from some very bad things. Great comment, thanks.

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      • I tend to drive insurance agents, bank employees and the like crazy by actually insisting on reading whatever they want me to sign.

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        • Me too. We actually had a mortgage broker & title company employee yell at us for reading the mortgage documents we were to sign. “If we knew you were going to do that, we’d have sent them to you.” Us: “You did. But we’re reading it again”–and sure enough, some things had changed between the mailed document and the actual document. Huh. Who would’ve guessed…

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          • I did that once to one of those traveling notaries. She complained so much I had to have her leave the house so my husband and I could read the refinance agreement. Imagine my surprise (typed with heavy sarcasm) when there was a pre-payment penalty in there that hadn’t been there earlier. Had to have the papers redrawn. They sent a different notary the second time who came with a book.

          • Yeah, ours was a pre-payment penalty and all kinds of other fees that weren’t in the original documents, plus they had changed to one of those revolving interest loans (you know, starts at 3% goes to 15% in two years or some such nonsense). It was a mess, and we were (ahem) not polite. We made them redraft in front of us. That’s how much we trusted them. :-)

  14. Yeah. I had a similar encounter with an editor from a small press house. Let’s just say that I have had EXCELLENT relationships with the editors I’ve worked with up to now; in fact, I appreciate the insight a good editor gives me. I’ve grown to appreciate the power of a good rewrite based on GOOD editorial feedback. I love working with editors/betas who know their stuff because it makes me work harder and better.

    And then I got the proofs for an ebook with this small press, coming out in June. I’ve seen better beginner writer critique group edits than this one was. In opening notes, the person in question opened with the statement that they believed there should be only ONE exclamation point per MS. They did not want to see internal monologue. They. Did. Not. Believe in it. Hokay.

    But the real kicker was when the editor corrected my speech tag punctuation to read “blah blah blah.” she said, instead of my correctly formatted “blah blah blah,” she said. I hit the roof on that one (and a few other zingers). Said editor also began editing about two-thirds of the way through, with weird chunks of intense editing mixed in with almost no edits. There was no discernible pattern to the edits.

    Said editor is also somewhat of a mucky-muck in editor’s regional writer convention world. Said editor is also an acquisitions editor for a different small press. I shudder to think of the influence said editor has, because judging from said editor’s edits, I know one heck of a LOT more people who are more qualified than said editor is.

    OTOH, this is a no-advance, three year contract press. I’m doing this as an experiment in publicity. If this press butchers the book (and another one), I simply won’t promote it and will get the book back when the contract expires, then republish it the way I want it to be. I’m not about marrying myself to one or two projects and this was an exercise in promotion beyond my regular genre.

    And oh yeah. The other thing is that I absolutely did not extend myself on this edit. Life’s too damn short and I have other properties that I can focus on writing and selling.

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    • Oh, my, Joyce. I’ve run into the same thing at some traditional houses–copy editors who think they know how to write. I noted in some recently published bestselling books that someone’s been messing with the paragraphing at the end. (The paragraphs get longer for no story reason.) Clearly, someone there doesn’t want to add an extra signature (more pages) so they’re cramming the paragraphs together to keep the page count low. I wonder if the writers have even looked… [sigh]

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      • I recently read a friend’s book, and that was the first book where I wanted to strangle the editor. I kept getting so mad that I had to put the book down repeatedly. Butchery. The edits were total butchery. No editor should have let that book leave her desk. She took a book that needed easy help and made it worse.

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      • I know. It’s awful. I did do the professional thing and performed a decent edit so that I’d still make the publication deadline, because, well, that also makes my case for being professional. I do want to establish a good track record. I also printed off a copy so that I could snark all I wanted in red ink over the whole MS, then carefully edited everything back so that it looked professional and correct and oh-so-polite.

        There was also much, much usage of the magic word STET.

        And then, after talking to a wise old pro friend, I contacted the editor who had bought those books and told editor what had happened. You see, the kicker is…those books were solicited by that editor. Not picked out of the slush; I’d spoken to that editor at an awards function and editor had asked to see them. I hadn’t even pitched to her.

        It’s gotten kicked up to the CEO, and there’s been dead silence. Right now, I’m breaking out the popcorn. It’s become entertainment. And I’m one of those redhead/blondes for whom that is *not* a good thing.

        Situations like this are definitely an argument for separating the creative and business sides of your writing, for sure. I view everything as product once it’s written…and I don’t commit to one product line unless it suddenly starts taking off. That allows for a realistic appraisal of the story’s marketability while still writing the stuff you want to write. Some of my properties I’m willing to try out on different levels of publishers. Others…I’m not.

        Now if I could only create and execute the writing plan of my dreams, I’d be somewhere. Once I’m gone from teaching….

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        • Well, keep nagging the CEO, or after a decent period, withdraw the book, and see what happens. ;-) I’ve had to tell editors I was returning to the draft I turned in, and if that wasn’t the draft put into production, then we would have issues. That’s worked, but that’s been with larger houses. It’s a tough situation because in this instance it does stretch into your creativity. It sounds like you’re handling it very well.

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  15. If the editor who called you that day is the same person I’m thinking of, I had a similar experience with her–but not with an under-contract book. With a rejection!

    I submitted a book, and the editor emailed me to schedule an appointment to speak with me by phone. So I assumed she intended to make an offer, or was very interested but had some questions or concerns she needed to discuss.

    But it turned out that, no, she just wanted to call to tell me how BAD my submission was. (Just to be clear, it sold elsewhere. So this was a matter of opinion, rather than a grossly unprofessional manuscript.)

    After a few minutes of listening to her talk about how BAD my work was, I started politely trying to get off the phone: “Well, it sounds like this book really isn’t for you. Thanks for letting me know. I appreciate your time.”

    But she wouldn’t LET me end the conversation. She just kept going on and on and on about how bad the book was. (And there was lots of that “in this genre, such-and-such always has to happen on p.X” sort of thing. I had sold over a dozen books in that genre and had never heard these “rules” before.) It was amazingly hard to get OFF THE PHONE. And she really seemed to be ENJOYING telling me how bad she thought my work was.

    Writing has been my full-time, self-supporting profession for 26 years, so I’ve had a lot of rejections. There are only a few that were so weird or frustation that I remember them. That one really stands out.

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    • Sounds familiar, Laura, and I certainly hope it was the same editor. I wouldn’t want to think there are two of them out there!

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  16. I do not practice law any longer. (My wife talked to me about returning to the law at lunch today. I got the old feelings again. I did not enjoy them. I shall remain out of the practice.)

    I thought about the writer-publisher contract and the writer-editor relationship. Seems to me that they are not in sync. The publishing house is a fictitious legal entity: a corporation or an LLC. The writer licenses rights in copyright to the publishing house to exploit. The writer receives money for this.

    From the viewpoint of the publishing house the contract is personal to the writer. That is, the writer cannot subcontract to another writer to produce the work. (Ghostwritten works belong in another category.) Bloomsbury paid J K Rowling to write Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. No other writer was acceptable to Bloomsbury for that job. Nor would another writer be acceptable to Bloomsbury for subsequent books. The writer is more than the brand. From the viewpoint of the publishing house, the contract must be personal to the writer.

    So why do we not consider that the choice of editor is personal to the writer?

    The writer NEEDS a good editor and a good working relationship with the editor. Anything less risks a Titanic disaster.

    As currently written, publishing contracts are not personal to the publisher. They can be transferred or assigned.

    I suggest that all writers signing with publishing houses demand a contract clause that lets the writer quit an editor and select a new one. Any house that refuses such a request is a house you do not want to do business with. If the editor leaves the house, the new editor must be approved by the writer IN WRITING. And if that relationship sours, the writer may quit that editor and select a new one.

    Publishers will work hard to keep profitable writers in their stable. I have experience with a writer who — every time she had a problem with her editor — called the publisher. The problem was solved to the writer’s satisfaction. Always. Why? From the publisher’s viewpoint, editors cost money; writers make money. (FWIW the publisher was Jean Mays, publisher of West Publishing.) Kris’s experience and mine show that a publisher can change an editor, so why not codify that practice in the contract?

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    • Some contracts do, Antares. Big Name Writers can and do get the privilege to choose their editors–if these writers know about the option and ask for it in the contract. I know of several who have done that, often moving an editor from one company to a different company to act only as this writer’s editor. (Not kidding.) It’s the knowing and the being willing to ask that are the keys.

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  17. Yours is a great example, Kris. By offering to buy back your rights, you did show to the vice-president your confidence in your book. He knew it must have value, not only because of your reputation as a writer, but because you demonstrated him that it had value.

    The biggest issue, I fear, is that the most important thing is not a matter of logic, knowledge of copyright or business instinct, but of courage for authors. The courage to stand up for oneself.

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  18. After spending too much time at my day job this week, I “stand up for yourself” seems like fine advice for everyone. Yesterday, a colleague tried to pawn something off on me, and when I politely declined, the person proceeded to try and shame me, warn me that this would reflect badly on me and my ability to play on a team, would influence opinions on me, etc.
    I said, “Thank you. I will also continue to form my own opinions.”
    I’m still annoyed about it. I realize this is a minor thing compared to what you went through, Kris, and thanks for sharing that story and showing how it may look like you’ve “made it,” but there are always problematic people ready to steal your money, your time, and your self-respect. I admire how you took notes and stood up for yourself, even when it looked like you could lose everything.
    Knowledge is power. I know I’m one of the many people who has to learn copyright and business and seize that power. Thank you for the reminder.

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  19. I suspect if you’re not getting the usual number of comments, it’s because the people spinning are those with traditional publishers, so they are careful with what they post.

    There is value to posting these sorts of stories. Thanks.

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    • I’ve gotten some interesting private e-mails in the last two days, that’s for sure. :-) I hope the post helps folks wake up to opportunities before them.

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  20. Again, Kris, well done. One thing I’ve learned over a lifetime as a pro writer: Although this contract stuff ought to be logical and businesslike, it’s usually grounded in some emotional content. We say, the editor is playing a version of “The Big Game”—Who gets to tell whom what do do?”

    That’s why my strategy in this type of situation is to act, as you say, logically and unemotionally—unless and until you begin to realize that it’s not a game of logic at all, but the Big Game played by a Small Person. Then you stop trying to deal with that person and go over and around, or just walk away, as you describe so clearly.

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    • I love that phrase “The Big Game,” Jerry. These power-hungry Small People cause us no end of grief sometimes. But move away from them, and the problems vanish. It’s getting enmeshed with them that exacerbates things–particularly when they, like the editor Laura mentioned, have a truly skewed view of the world that can hook the unsuspecting. Thanks for the comment.

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  21. Kris, thank you for this. I sometimes think of myself as that *difficult* author. I write, very short, very polite e-mails, and editors have accused me of being too curt and business like. (Not kidding. They write back e-mails about spouses, and family issues trying to engage me).

    I had more than one situation like yours. In the first instance, I let the editor ruin the book. The second time, I stood up for myself. I only had two phone conversations, I think, but I kept to the business like e-mails. The hail of fire I got from the unprofessional editor would blow up this blog.

    I REALLY would like more authors to stand up for themselves, but I watch daily as they get steamrolled. It breaks my heart, but as my husband is quick to point out at least *I’m* not in any contract with the publishing house with the egregious editor now. The rest have to fend for themselves.

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    • Oh, man, don’t even get me started on all the times I or someone I know emailed their agent to ask (weeks or months after giving it to the agent) when their new proposal would be sent into submission, or to ask the editor (weeks or months after delivery) how much longer before the MS would be read and/or the writer paid… Only to receive in a reply a lengthy letter ignoring or declining to answer the business question, in favor of dishing up reams of personal problems and excuses.

      It’s amazing how many of them seem to be incapable of saying something like, “I apologize, I’m running behind, so I haven’t done this yet. I’ve now entered it in my schedule to be done by xx/xx/xx.”

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  22. Hey, Kris, great post as always. I’ve experienced a few of these things and am dealign with one situation on a reversion right now. My approach is business like and persistent. It does help that I have over twenty years of business writing experience. But I use the contract to pound in the nails and that does seem to help, but its a war of attrition I know will take time. I don’t think if I had the editor you speak of I would have handled the call well at all. I would have been very angry because I don’t put up with rudeness very well these days. My “Canadianism” seems to be wearing thin the older I get. I would problem have told her to take a hike and tried every which way to get her fired because no one needs to suffer her emotional warfare. Its not right no matter who you are. You did the right way in my view.

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    • I did try to get her fired, Russ. But I believe I’m the only one who complained. Loudly, and in a way that cost the company money. But still, one voice among hundreds is a lot different than say, 20 voices who repeat the same charges. And thanks for the good words. :-)

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      • And trying to get a bad editor fired is usually a fruitless task even if MULTIPLE people complain.

        I complained numerous times about the most incompetent and unprofessional editor I ever dealt with. One one occasion, the problem was so serious I even insisted my then-agent write to the CEO and the legal dept about the problem, which is how that problem got resolved. So the house certainly knew there was a problem.

        But I also knew I wasn’t the only one. At that time AND for years afterwards, I heard from other writers who had, like me, ALSO refused to keep working with that editor. Anecdotes were conveyed to me about conversations at conventions in which even the editor talked about how many of his writers refused to keep working with him and insisted on reassignment.

        So you BET the publisher knew. But did they ever DO anything about it? No. He stayed in his position for years.

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  23. Kris wrote: “These power-hungry Small People cause us no end of grief sometimes. But move away from them, and the problems vanish. It’s getting enmeshed with them that exacerbates things–”

    SO true. On every occasion where I got emeshed and entangled in this industry with someone who was all about mind games and power plays, it has been exhausting, stressful, counter-productive, costly, and an enormous waste of time. And on every occasion where I have disentangled and walked away (including various occasions where everyone–including the focus-drain in question–warned me this was a career mistake, or risky, etc., etc…. my only regret afterwards is that I did not disentangle and walk away much, MUCH sooner than I actually did.

    I fired 3 of my 4 agents (the first one dumped me after a very short association). And in all three cases, I regret not firing them sooner. Those were strained relationships, since I do ask questions and stand up for myself (and the agents in question clearly disliked that)–But in retrospect, I didn’t stand up enough. And standing up for myself, when I did, inevitably involved firing them, because it meant drawing a thick dark line in the sand about behavior that was damaging my finances, my career, my mental health, etc. That was always a line that the agents were openly outraged I was drawing and refused to respect. Which meant I could either erase the line and be treated like a scab-ridden streetwalker in our association; or I could terminate the association. In every case, my only regret was that I didn’t draw that line much sooner. Because by NOT drawing it sooner, I threw away a lot of time, energy, focus, and money–all because I was not standing up ENOUGH to a scant business acquintance some 800 miles away whose only power over me was the power I had GIVEN them.

    Similarly, I’ve worked with several disastrously unprofessional editors over the years, two of whom had enormous power over me (since the houses they were at represented about 95% of my career and income at the time).

    One of these, a woman comically misnamed “Joy” to whom I was reassigned after my previous editor resigned, told me I was unwanted work that had been dumped on her desk without her permission, and I shouldn’t expect to sell any more books there. She was so uncommunicative and openly hostile, I couldn’t even get her to tell me the release date for the book I had in production with that house at the time. She spent 5 months dodging all my attempts to contact her, and on the rare occasions I managed to reach her by phone so I could ask about the disposition of my newly submitted proposal… she would only say things like, “I don’t have time to read it,” etc.

    As a brand new writer with no contacts or reputation, I went over her head, keeping it businesslike, and requested reassignment. I got it, and sold another 10 books to that house over the next few years. (whereas “Joy” resigned and left publishing about 3 weeks after I requested reassignment.)

    The other instance, years later, where I requested reassignment was with an absolutely nightmarish editor–it was truly unbelievable and jaw-dropping how irresponsible, dishonest, unreliable, and incompetent this person was (also hard to find–for weeks at a time, he’d be unreachable by phone or email, and his colleagues never seemed to have any idea where he was or what was going on). I started requesting reassignment early on, because I couldn’t work with someone like this… BUT… I did it via my then-agent, who repeatedly (over a period of several years) refused to convey my request to the publisher. The editor was a buddy of the agent, and protecting that relationship was consistently the agent’s priority (so was making me do as I was told, since the agent had “chosen” that editor for me). Things got so bad, not only were my finances severely damaged by that association, the prolonged stress also made me physically ill (something which has never happened before or since) for over a year.

    So, in the end, it became a question of standing up to that agent (with whom I had a long list of problems and conflicts by then; this was just one) by making it clear that if he did not place my request with the publisher, then I would. Which is ho it FINALLY happened, several years after I started saying I couldn’t work with this editor. My association with the (who FWD’d me an email exchange in which he and his editor-buddy discussed how unfair and unreasonable I was for requesting reassignment) promptly went from very strained to completely untenable, and we parted company soon thereafter (after which parting, the agent has vindictively cost me legal bills and pointless stress for years).

    So my biggest regret there, too, is that I didn’t stand up for myself and draw the line, dark, impassable line in the sand several years sooner than I did.

    EVERY time I’ve extracted myself from publishing/agenting/editorial situations with destructive, manipulative, game-playing, power-seeking people (even if the only power they were seeking was power over -me-, a midlist writer they barely knew)–my only regret is that I didn’t stand up for myself and draw the line a lot sooner.

    Since I am not a shrinking violet, I also often wasted quite a lot of time and energy in conflict with such people, trying to make the situation work or trying to secure equal footing, etc. What I learned over the years (and the lesson had to be repeated messily, painfully, and expensively for me a few times before I finally got it) is, nope, you just have to draw that thick dark line in the sand and hold to it. Which usually means (or immediately leads to) getting OUT of those associations.

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    • I so agree, Laura. And I too have regrets only when I didn’t stand up sooner. As someone mentioned in an email comment, that’s something you learn with hard experience–when the best time to draw that line is. A very wise comment, I think. I draw it a lot faster now than I used to. Cut the Drama Queens and Power Kings as soon as they start their manipulation, and you’ll be a lot happier. You might be poorer financially for a while, but I’ve always found that I landed on my feet and got better offers because of that.

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  24. Antares made me laugh out loud talking about practicing law: “I got the old feelings again. I did not enjoy them.” I am so right there with you. But here’s the thing. As much as I hated being a lawyer, it’s turned out to be much better preparation for my second-act writing/publishing career than getting the MFA I thought I needed. A big reason people hate lawyers (other than many of us being self-important jerks) is that lawyers are really good at standing up for themselves. But even if you’re someone who regularly kicks tail and takes names, that’s still no substitute for understanding the business we work in. Otherwise you’ll be pegged as a jerk yourself. There’s plenty of horror stories in this post and in the comments from folks who’ve had to deal with clueless nutjobs who take no prisoners. Those people aren’t worth bothering with. You can’t expect them to act like rational adults. As a writer, if you can’t easily resolve the conflict with the editor, go to the publisher. Writers have a contract with the publisher, not the editor. The editor is merely an employee of the company with which you are doing business. Kris makes a good point about how not complaining about bad editors lets them continue abusing writers. From an employment law perspective, it’s much less risky for a publisher to fire an editor who has a documented history of trouble with multiple authors, rather than a problem with just one author. If this editor abuses authors, it’s a good bet she’s also abusing everyone else in her work place over whom she has any power, which creates a whole different set of employment law issues for the company. Publishers need to know this stuff. If the whole organization is dysfunctional, they might not want to hear it, (but the board of directors might be interested) which is why it’s good to have an escape plan. In my experience, being sincerely ready to walk away (you can’t be bluffing) is the most powerful negotiating tactic there is. Make sure your contract gives you a way to do that. If you don’t know if it does, hire an attorney before signing it. If you didn’t hire an attorney before signing, hire one when trouble arises and see whether they see an exit you don’t. A contract is the story of your deal. It’s the narrative description of the parties’ expectations and obligations. It’s the blueprint for a business relationship. It can be negotiated and it can be amended no matter what your agent or editor tells you.

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    • Thank you, thank you, thank you for this, Laura. I hope everyone reads it. You make many important points. I love your description of the contract as a blueprint for the deal. Exactly. Perfect. Thank you.

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    • Laura, glad you got a chuckle out of my story.

      Re Amendments to the contract:
      In my practice, I found it useful to include a clause in the contract that stated that the contract could be amended only in a writing signed by both parties and attached to the contract. The clause made the implicit explicit. Its inclusion reduced litigation and increased the likelihood of negotiated changes.

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  25. This is an excellent and, sadly, a very necessary post. Like you, I’ve pulled out of a contract because of bad editing so I know how scarey it can be to contemplate paying back money you’ve already spent. Here are four extra suggestions, based on my own experiences with editors who left me in tears.

    1 Keep the notes of calls in a hardback notebook rather than loose paper in a file. If you ever need to show them in evidence, it’s easy to disprove any accusations they haven’t been amended later. (That advice was given to me by an agent with experience of fighting big companies.)

    2 Don’t worry if you cry. It’s not a sign of your weakness – it’s a sign of their nastiness.

    3 If things get nasty, ask for all further communications to be in writing. They’ll be a bit more cautious that way and you’ve got a record of everything that can’t be called into question.

    4 If you’re in the UK, join the Society of Authors and ask them for help. They were fantastic to me when an editor upset me by making unauthorised changes to my book and her boss phoned to tell me off for upsetting the editor by crying. As soon as the publisher knew I had the society on my side, they changed their attitude completely (although they still screwed the book up so totally that I insisted it was published without my name on it.)

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    • Interesting advice about the hardbacked notebook. I had never thought of that.

      The advice I got is to follow up verbal contact with an email restating what was discussed, relayed, or agreed upon. Partly to ensure you both actually had the same conversation and both remember the same conclusions; and partly to ensure there’s an existing written record in your files of what happened verbally. However, while such advice is good for discussions about production, scheduling, money, due dates, etc… A letter reiterating the editorial conversation Kris described above would probably just open the door to MORE insulting, abusive comments from the editor. So I’d say a hardbacked notebook to document the conversation is a good idea there. As well as, yep, a request that all future contact be in writing.

      In the anecdote I shared above, with the editor who was a pal of my then-agent, so my then-agent spent several years refusing to implement my request for reassignment… After a year or so, I insisted that all further contact from the editor MUST be in writing. The editor could be abusiv, but my primary concern was that the editor was an airhead and a liar. He -regularly- (and I mean, ALL OF THE TIME) said things he then denied having said, conveyed info to me he then claimed I had merely invented or misunderstood, told me he had done things it then turned out he had not done (and he would then claim he’d never told me he’d done them), and he -also- claimed we’d had conversations we’d never had and had discussed things we had never discussed. You can imagine ho stressful and crazy-making it was to deal with someone like this!

      So I finally wised up and insisted that ALL CONTACT between us MUST be in writing. On occasions when he ignored that, I immediately followed up in writing to reiterate what had been said.

      (Okay, no, in this instance, it didn’t solve the problem. It turned out that he continued claiming he had never said things I now had WRITTEN PROOF (in the form of his own emails) he had indeed said to me. And whenever I produced the evidence, instead of acknowledging it, he simply changed the subject and told all-new lies. And “my” then-agent, his pal, went along with his behavior, as did the publisher he worked for. So in terms of that editor and that insane situation, no, ensuring there was always a paper trail didn’t help me. But the THEORY is still valid! (wg))

      Reply
  26. I had a bad experience with an editor, too. Sadly, it took me a few books to a) realize what was happening and b) take a stand. I did and was assigned a new editor, though the company then made some changes to how they contracted books that ran me off anyway.

    I was thinking about how and why this happens. And I was trying to think of ANY writing advice book I’ve read that gives you this advice. There might be some out there. I have not read them all.

    What I remember is the repeated strictures to “be professional” so that you don’t “burn bridges.” I can remember sweating bullets over query letters (which sometimes came back in VERY unprofessional form. I even had one agent use a sticky note to ask for more chapters!).

    My experience was a wake-up call. I vowed I would only work with a publisher that treated me and my work with respect. (Indie was still on the horizon.) Now I’m indie all the way and loving it. But when I read stuff like this, it brings it all back. The sense of frustration, of feeling powerless, of struggling to be creative despite the negativity.

    I look back and I’m proud I didn’t let them stop me from going forward. And glad I don’t have to do that anymore.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Pauline. Yes, even writing about this got me hopped up again. Some of these feelings don’t go away. I tell other writers it doesn’t matter how long you are on the floor after you get knocked down. What matters is that you eventually stand back up. What they don’t realize is I often envision tears in that floor moment. But standing up is all that matters.

      Reply
    • I think another aspect of this is how unbusinesslike publishing is, in general–and, in particular, in its handling of its suppliers (i.e authors).

      How many editors ever get any sort of formal, standard, or competent training, coaching, or supervision in dealing with authors, even though dealing with authors is one of their primary job functions?

      The editorial experiences Kris described above, some of the editorial experiences described here in the comments (including my comments)… Do we think ANY of these editors had an introductory training seminar (let alone any follow-up coaching) in how to deal with authors in a professional, constructive, and productive way?

      For example, I have a friend in banking whose job is to deal with branch bankers who call in with questions about client problems and procedures they don’t know how to handle. He spends all day on the phone to colleagues–employees of his own company. Yet he got training for how to communicate with them and deal with them in a professional way, AND he gets periodic supervision and coaching for this. I.E. Not just for his knowledge of problem-solving and procedures, but for his =professionalism= in assisting the bankers who contact him for help.

      I don’t think anything remotely like that exists for editors and agents. And during 26 years of being a working writer in this industry, my impression is that many editors and agents have very little concept of professionalism–and, indeed, seem to believe they’re in a business where a stuffy old thing like professionalism is not expected, required, or needed, least of all when dealing with writers.

      And certainly one of the major themes of self-publising writers, repeated over and over in indie forums, discussions, and articles, is: “It’s such a relief that I no longer have to deal with the lack of professionalism in traditional publishing.”

      Reply
  27. In general, I’ve been treated very well by my publisher, but even so, there are certain “industry standards” that I don’t agree with. The 25% ebook royalty rate, forcing authors to change names, restrictive non-compete clauses, ridiculously low thresholds for rights reversion, I could go on and on. With the growth of other opportunities (self-publishing) my hope was that publishers would have to change their tune in order to attract and retain authors. I now think that I was being naive. The supply/demand equation is still very much in the publisher’s favor. They can afford to let authors leave because there are many waiting in the wings that will accept bad contracts and abusive behavior. I’ve stopped waiting for the changes to occur. At the end of the day each author has to determine what is best for them, and it’s abuses like this that makes self-publishing more attractive.

    Reply
    • I had the same hopes, Michael, and the same disappointments. Thanks for the post.

      Reply
    • I just delivered an article to NINK (monthly journal of Novelists, Inc., which I have a column) about the years-long and probably very expensive litigation HarperCollins just fought (and won) against Open Road Media. If you read all the details and background of that case (it would take me about 1200 words to recount, so I won’t)… the short version is that looks as if HarperCollins preferred to spend 2+ years paying for litigation RATHER THAN pay one author more than 25%-of-net for one book that has sold 3.8 million copies since Harper acquired it 40+ years ago for an advance of $2,000.

      THAT is how deteremined the big houses currently seem to be to hold the line at 25%-of-net on e-royalties. Which, as the market moves ever further into digital, is food for thought for writers who can get 100% of net by self-publishing.

      Reply
  28. In many cases writers sound more like battered women/children, then like professionals. I guess I’m weird, and I know my experience in Sales to the Fortune 500 companies gives me what most people will consider an odd perspective, but there’s always another customer around the corner.

    Wayne

    Reply
    • I agree, Wayne. To people with business experience, the traditional publishing industry is a truly crazy-making place–on all sides.

      Reply
  29. My example isn’t so much about abuse as disrespect. I sold my first novel to a small publisher. Naturally, I was thrilled and excited as I waited to receive the contract. And waited.

    And waited.

    I waited 11 months before I was finally willing to relinquish the dream of having this be my first published novel. It took me that long to realize that if the publisher couldn’t be bothered to get back to me during what was the honeymoon phase, what would they be like later on with royalties, etc? It seemed disrespectful. Only when I withdrew my book did I get any response from the publisher. They asked me to stay, but it was too little, too late.

    Eleven months was a long enough time to waste waiting for a contract.

    Reply
    • It’s really hard to make these choices on a first novel sale. Good job, Rebecca, and I’m sorry this happened to you.

      Reply
  30. Terrific post, Kris, and terrific comments, too.

    Reply
  31. WOW. I read this piece and got emotional.

    I’m a newbie in the business and have had two contracts with small publishers (with no advances) that have been brutal. The first contract included an editor as you described. I stood my ground, after months of unprofessionalism. My book was on the bestsellers list for crime fictiona nd mystery in kindle and paperback on amazon, and to this day, I never received a penny.

    Then I moved on to another traditional publisher. A two book deal, no advance, and just last week asked out of the contract for the second book. I left book one with the publisher because it’s highly unlikely there could be any more issues with it and through my promotions it made the amazon bestsellers list again for paperback, hardcover, and kindle. Nevertheless,I was beyond miserable and thoroughly confused. My stress was off the charts. I did all the work. Then,my novel come out with ANOTHER AUTHOR’S NAME ON IT!!! I was also caught in a bad spot when Sue Grafton asked me who my publisher was and I gave her the name. Imagine my surprise when I learned I had been with the company for five months AND I WAS NOT ON THE WEBSITE…

    Now I consider the self-pub world. I’ve studied the business, copyright law, promotion, social media, and feel I would be better off on my own. It’s a brutal business. But, standing up for myself was the best thing I did.

    This was an amazing piece. Thank you for sharing it.

    -Chris

    Reply

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