Business Musings: Burning Bridges (The Freelance Scramble Part 5)
A freelance writer needs to be an artist and a businessperson. Sometimes those roles conflict. And sometimes we get put into truly uncomfortable situations.
The most uncomfortable situations occur when we have to take drastic action on the business side, action that might have an impact on the creative side.
In the old days, before indie publishing, that kind of action sometimes meant leaving projects unfinished, or series open-ended, or long years of silence between publications. Those negatives still happen at times, due to copyright issues, but they’re less common.
Now, a writer can leave her traditional publisher and continue a book series on her own—provided she hasn’t signed a non-compete clause in her traditional contract. Or hasn’t signed a contract that gives up rights to the characters in her series. Or hasn’t optioned the next book in the same series to the publisher without a deadline on the option.
There are a million ways that contract and copyright can interfere with indie publishing. Writers who don’t understand this need to look at my book, Deal Breakers, and also buy Nolo Press’s book, The Copyright Handbook. You especially need The Copyright Handbook, because if you don’t understand copyright, you don’t understand how your writing business works.
In the previous Freelance Scramble posts, I discussed how money, cash flow, and freelancing intertwine. From graphing how your money will arrive each month to collecting bad debts, the series delves into the complex and symbiotic relationship between what you’ve written and how you get paid for it.
You don’t have to read the previous posts before you read this one, but I would recommend it. I would especially recommend that you read last week’s post, “Debt Collection,” before you read this one.
Most new freelancers mishandle their business dealings because the freelancers have no idea how to behave in a business situation. Most freelancers have come straight off a day job where things like bill collection get handled for them. Their salary gets deposited into their account every month, with no thought as to where the money came from.
If the freelancer had a problem with another employee at the day job, company protocols dictated the way that those problems got handled. Sometimes those problems got kicked upstairs to a manager; sometimes the employees write a report; and sometimes everyone has to sit in a room with a representative from Human Resources until the problem gets solved.
In the world of freelancing, the freelancer has no HR department, no monthly salary, no legal department to handle the contracts. The freelancer has to set all these things up himself. If the freelancer needs a lawyer, the freelancer must hire—and pay for—that lawyer.
There is no one to pass the buck to, so the freelancer has to do whatever he can do on his own.
Usually, the first-time freelancer takes drastic action when calm reasonable decisions are called for. By drastic action, I mean screaming mad phone calls, threatening letters, withdrawing work from publication, sending dead rats in the mail (yes, a writer did that many years ago), publically shaming the other party, and cyberstalking.
Even when the freelancer thinks he’s being reasonable, he might not be because there are contractual terms that generally govern a freelancer’s relationship with the other party (generally, a publisher). What might seem like unreasonable business behavior might actually be written into the contract. Lawyers often have clients who believe they’re being mistreated, when the client simply doesn’t understand the document they signed a year or so before.
There are times, however, when you are being harmed. Please see last week’s post for the professional ways to handle missed payments and other problems.
Remember, always, even in your angriest business dealings, politeness is the best order of the day. Or at least, use professional language. If you’re really angry, have someone else vet any communication before you send it. And never, ever, use a phone call or go in person to deal with a company that has angered you. It’s often impossible to keep your cool in conversation.
In a difficult situation, the person who remains the calmest is usually the person who will triumph in the end.
In the comments section from last week’s post, Melissa Yi listed a website called The Daily Worth that has some great business letter templates.
Some of the templates don’t really apply to writers. (The examples might apply if you have other businesses, though.) The last two letters are fantastic. They deal with assholes. You should look at those letters for the tone the writer used, if nothing else.
But here’s what I love about this site. I love this attitude:
Do not seem desperate to keep the client’s business. Do not use “I feel” language (“I feel that our working relationship has taken a bad turn”) — you’re not married to this person. Do not throw your own employees under the bus or condone abuse against yourself or your employees.
Boy, can writers take a lot from that simple paragraph. Particularly when it comes to agents. Don’t use I-Feel language. You’re not married to this person. Exactly.
The one thing I disagree with on the site is that they recommend calling the person you’re having trouble with or dealing with them in a meeting. Don’t. Make sure all of your dealings are in e-mail and by snail mail.
Phone calls are emotional minefields, and often writers end up apologizing for their own opinions. Stick to e-mail, where you can be clear. Make sure you print and save all of the e-mail. That way, you will be creating a paper trail, which will protect you should the client/publisher/whoever you’re dealing with become a MegaAsshole and sues you.
No matter what happens, though, there will come a time in your freelance writing career where you will have to burn a bridge. You will have to forcefully (but politely) say that enough is enough.
Before you burn that bridge, try to walk away from it. See if you can simply leave the area without causing any harm. No need to yell, no need to write a harsh letter, nothing.
If you’re working on a contractual basis with the other party, complete the obligations under that contract and then do not work with that party again. If you’re working on a per-project basis, finish what you’re doing and then do no more. If you’re conducting seminars or meetings, do not allow that person to teach/attend any more.
Usually such things are easy. Chances are that the other party is as ready to be shed of you as you are of them.
But there are completely clueless people in the world, and they think everything is fine even when it’s not. There’s a reason that website Melissa Yi recommended has two letters for asshole clients for regular businesses. (Two out of seven!) Assholes abound, and life’s too short to deal with them regularly.
Generally, though, dealing with an asshole is not a reason to burn a bridge.
Remember that burning a bridge is an extreme situation. As I said last week, I’ve only intentionally burned only a few bridges in my career. I was incorrect when I said two last week; I’ve burned three.
Of those three, only one dealt with a missed payment, and I showed you that example last week.
The other two resulted from systemic problems. Let me describe one of them. (The other case still results in me calling my lawyer now and again, so I see that one as far from settled. The bridge is burned and there are ruins where the bridge was, but I have to put out spot fires now and again.)
After I describe the case I can talk about, I will go to some general things about bridge-burning.
In that burned-bridge case, I was dealing with an editor who kept approving outlines for books and then rejecting the books based on items she had already approved in those outlines. It was crazy-making. She preferred to work on the phone, but I don’t, so I had a paper trail, so I could prove she was jerking me around.
There were other problems as well, claims that she made about the company’s expectations of their writers that I later learned were not true. (I can’t get more specific than that. It sounds mild; it was not.) She also did not do her own editing. Unbeknownst to her bosses, she made her assistants read the books turned in, and she then credited the assistants’ work as her own. (Reporter that I am, I got her to admit to this behavior.)
To make matters worse, this editor was not just politely rejecting work, she was actively abusive—telling me that I couldn’t write my way out of paper bag, yelling at me for turning in subpar material, repeatedly informing me that I knew nothing about the genre I was writing in. (I later learned this was normal for her—she did this with all writers she worked with.)
This is not an old story, by the way. This happened in this century, and the editor still works in publishing. And her behavior, while modified inside her company, is still actively abusive with her authors—most of whom do not complain.
After one particularly egregious incident, I realized how toxic the relationship had become and, no matter what I did, I could not seem to get the company itself to pay attention.
So I decided it was time to terminate my relationship with the entire company. The problem wasn’t the book we were dealing with; the problem was that I had other books under contract with the company, and one book about to hit print. I knew that screaming and shouting and complaining that I was being abused would get me nowhere.
Instead, I took all of my documentation (and I had a lot), and enclosed that with a reasoned letter to the owner of the company, the head of legal, and the head of accounting. I informed them how untenable it had become to work with this editor, and how I had tried to solve the problem, to no avail.
My problem with this company wasn’t financial: it was that their editor had breached the contract in other ways. Significant ways. But to prove that would either entail a lengthy court fight or a lot of legal battles.
So I decided to buy my way out of the contract (while noting that I did have a strong case for breach of contract). I clearly stated in my letter to the owner, head of legal and head of accounting that I understood what a difficult position this put them in. I said that, in addition to returning the monies they paid me under the contract, I would also pay production costs for every dollar they had already put into the book that was going to be published in a few months.
I knew I was offering to pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars to get out of this contract. Was I scared? You bet. But I also knew that payments like this could be made over time, and I was completely willing to do it.
My polite but firm letter, the documentation I had, and my willingness to pay the $100,000 (or more) in production costs was the opening to our negotiations. I didn’t have to pay that amount, in the end. I managed to work something out with that company. The book saw print, and in the end, I did not have to repay anything, although we all mutually agreed to cancel the contract.
Will that company ever work with me again?
No, of course not.
But I have no desire to work with them either.
And that’s how bridges were burned.
Did I burn that bridge lightly? No. I spent a lot of time documenting my problems, and trying to resolve them. When I realized that I would have to terminate my relationship with the company, I had several discussions with my husband (because the financial hit would hurt him too), and with my legal advisers and friends.
Whenever I got emotional, someone would calm me down. If I had stayed emotional about this—furious or in tears—I could not have made a rational decision.
I had to be calm, and I had to stand firm once I made a decision.
More importantly, I had to figure out what I wanted—and then I had to stick to it.
What I wanted was to be rid of this company once and for all. I wanted nothing to do with them or their terrible editor.
That meant that whenever they came to me with small fixes, I could easily say no. Of course, they started with they’d “talk to the editor” and make her treat me well. No. Then they planned to give me a new editor. No. And so on and so forth. We did a lot of negotiating before we let the finished product hit print, and then we parted ways.
Technically, we still have a relationship, since those books are still in print and they pay me royalties. But we have no dealings with each other.
You should notice something here. It took negotiation to end this relationship, just like it takes negotiation to start one.
I consider this a burned bridge, because the company and I will never work together again. I respect their willingness to work with a disgruntled writer, and I know that the vice-president I ended up dealing with respected me for keeping things businesslike.
Yeah, the bridge is gone, but it was one of those bridges over a creek out in the country, and except for a few friends and neighbors (and some cryptic blog references in my business posts), no one saw the flames or the smoke—at least from my side of the bridge.
In fact, a friend of mine, who watched this entire event happen, still writes for the company and has a great relationship with them. I have never tried to sabotage his relationship with the company, and he has used my experience as a cautionary tale, going so far as to get some contractual guarantees that neither of us would have thought of, had this terrible experience not happened.
Fire prevention, in other words.
That’s how it should be done, folks.
Too often, writers get overly emotional and destroy everything when they run into trouble. I understand it. It’s easy to do.
Because we’re dealing with the arts here, and the arts are often personal (we do write from our heart, after all), a crisis can feel like a personal attack. Often, in writing and publishing, a crisis can turn into a linked series of personal attacks. You can see that in last summer’s brouhaha over a contract negotiation between Amazon and one of the Big Five Publishers.
Writers got involved, started screaming, and suddenly, lots of misinformation got slung around, relationships ended, and readers became aware that some of their favorite writers are flaming assholes. Um, no. You don’t want to do that. Ever.
Keep your business relationships quiet. Handle problems professionally. And when the time comes to end a relationship, do it in the most professional way possible.
Yes, you might be burning a bridge when you end a business relationship. When most writers torch a bridge, they end up burning down several other bridges, and all of the buildings nearby. Then the conversations start among those whose buildings only got scorched, and eventually news of that conflict—whatever it was—reaches everyone in the city.
Don’t do that. Handle the problem, whatever it is, with as little fuss as you possibly can.
So, let me give you a list of the kinds of things that might cause you to actively burn a bridge. The company/person:
- Fails to meet fiduciary responsibilities.
- Behaves in such a way that results in a provable harm to your business.
- Repeatedly breaches the contract (after attempts were made to cure).
Note how vague these are. They cover a lot of ground.
For example, “failure to meet fiduciary responsibilities” could mean anything from repeated lack of payment to active embezzlement. It could mean a failure to keep accurate records of payments received from outside vendors. It could mean a thousand different things.
What makes these things rise to the level of bridge-burning? Usually the severity of the problem and the impossibility of coming to a solution.
Sometimes the solution itself will result in a burned bridge.
For example, I had serious trouble with one agency that handled my work for years. (Not, let me say, with the agent who handled my work.) Their record-keeping got so sloppy that I was getting royalty checks and statements for other writers. I repeatedly informed the agency of this.
I was prepared to take simple action for this—getting my publishers to split payments with me and my agent (sending me my money and the agency their fifteen percent separately), when I discovered that several large payments that should have come to me from overseas never got reported to me and never got sent to me.
When I wrote to the agency about this, I got a defensive letter from the person in charge of the department. When I said I would go directly to the overseas publisher for any monies owed, the person in charge of that department panicked and told me I “didn’t dare” do that.
So, I sent my documentation, along with a letter to my then-agent and the head of the agency, explaining the problem, saying that I had tried to communicate about the systemic issues with the agency, and I had gotten nowhere. I was left with no choice, but to hire an outside auditor and look at the agency’s finances as they applied to my work.
The very next day, the agency dropped me as a client, wrote to all of my publishers declaring the agency no longer represented me and all monies owed to me should be sent directly to me, that the agency would wave its 15%, and they would pay me every dime they owed me.
They torched the bridge. I didn’t. And they torched it thinking their behavior would hurt my career. (It didn’t.) But they were afraid of that audit. Terrified, in fact. Which tells me something shady was (and is) going on at the agency.
I could have continued with the audit. It would have cost me a lot of money, but it might have made me a lot of money as well.
But before I wrote the letter threatening an audit, I knew that I wanted out of that agency. I was, in fact, no longer an active client. The agent had stopped representing my new work years before. We were only dealing with old work.
By writing that letter, I inadvertently got what I wanted: I got all of my work untangled from that literary agency.
The word “audit” was the equivalent of dropping a flamethrower on a gasoline spill. I knew that I might start a fire in that instance. I didn’t expect the agency to respond so violently. Thank heavens I was prepared.
Are there other trigger words that might burn a bridge? Oh, yes. There are hundreds of them. And even more actions. As I wrote this, I started to make a list of those solutions, then stopped.
Because with a reasonable company or a reasonable person on the other side of a dispute, a lot of those solutions are viable and won’t burn a bridge at all.
An audit is a standard business solution to disputes between companies over financial issues. In traditional publishing, an audit is seen as a hostile act. (Think about that for a minute, would you?) Many contracts between writers and traditional publishers do not allow for an audit at all.
Same with using a lawyer to resolve a contract dispute. In traditional publishing that’s often seen as a hostile act, while most non-publishing businesses see using lawyers to resolve contract issues as the sane way to proceed. (It keeps the emotions out of the proceedings—in theory.)
I prefer to keep my lawyer at arms length, not because using him would be seen as a hostile act, but because so much of what he would do, I can do easily and more effectively, like writing letters to get payment or doing the preliminary negotiation on a contract (coming to general terms). I hate paying someone to do something I can do faster, easier, and more efficiently.
But I do use my lawyer to finalize negotiations and handle particularly difficult matters. I often pay my lawyer for an hour of his time just to get his advice, and then do the actual work of dealing with the problem myself.
So, how do you handle a serious problem that has come up with your business?
- Take reasonable action. Write letters. Be calm. Give the other party a chance to cure.
- If no solution appears, pause. Evaluate what you need to do next.
- If you know that the only course of action will burn a bridge, make sure you want to take that action. Do not go blindly into bridge-burning. Do not act in haste or in anger.
- Talk to trusted advisors before taking action. Make sure you have looked at all of your options before taking the extreme route.
- Know what you want from your interaction. Do you want to lose this business relationship forever? Or do you just want a resolution to a short-term problem?
- If you decide to burn the bridge, take that action calmly. Do not escalate. Hold your ground. Never backtrack.
- Once the problem has ended, however it ends, walk away. Move forward into the future. The bridge is burned. The situation is resolved, whether you like the resolution or not. Time to move on.
I hope you never have to take my advice about burning bridges. I hope that you are able to get through your entire career, handling problems professionally and calmly and without malice.
But if you do need to burn a bridge, realize that you’re taking an extreme action, one you can’t turn back from. Be calm. Be rational. And make sure it’s the right choice for you.
Because once a bridge is burned, it’s gone. And no amount of wishing mixed with heart-felt apologies will bring it back.
Good luck and be careful.
I realized this morning that I quit writing the Business Rusch blog about a year ago, because I was tired, overworked, and I needed to focus on the end of the Anniversary Day Saga. I knew, when I shut down the blog, that I might lose a lot of readers.
When I started again six months ago, most of you came back. There are a lot of new readers as well. This made me realize that I had left properly. No bridges burnt. Instead, some of the readers simply got out of the habit of coming here every week—and I’m okay with that. (I was okay with it a year ago, when I shut down the previous incarnation of this blog.)
Thanks to all of you who returned, and welcome to all of you new readers. Thanks for reading the blog, for mentioning it on social media and to your writers’ groups. Thanks for the donations and the financial backing that helps me make the blog a priority every week.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Burning Bridges (The Freelance Scramble Part 5),” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.