Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer (Part Three) (Licensing/Copyright/Contracts)

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So, I’ve just spent the past two blog posts talking Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter as a game changer in the publishing industry. I know that my posts inspired a few of you to take our free class titled “Kickstarter Best Practices for Writers.”

I also know that many of you looked at my posts and mentally bookmarked them for the future, thinking this Kickstarter—and this changed game—means nothing to you right now. You figured you’ll be able to do something later.

Or you mentally gave both posts the kiss of death. Yeah, well, I’m not Brandon Sanderson. That’s such a defeatist attitude. You need to wipe that way of thinking out of your mental bag of tricks, because all you’re doing is dismissing opportunities. Rather than acknowledging that you’re not Brandon—and hey, I’m not either—what that little dismissive phrase does is give you permission to avoid seeing how this new opportunity can be repurposed to fit what you’re doing.

Another subset of you are traditionally published. You assumed (without checking) that you can’t do this Kickstarter either. You assumed (without checking) that you’d need to consult with your publisher and/or your agent before doing anything at all. (Another kiss of death, trad pub writers. Those folks will discourage you out of ignorance at best and malice at worst.) You can do this, even if you signed a relatively bad traditional publishing contract.

And you indies—a goodly portion of you are thinking, I don’t have the audience to do this. I’m lucky if I sell 5 copies of each of my books per month. That’s a more realistic take, and would probably have been accurate several years ago. I’ll discuss what is changing, below.

So, let’s deal with the traditionally published writers first because so many of you readers are hybrid writers. You’ve signed traditional contracts in the past and are trying to get out of them and/or you’re still signing traditional contracts and/or you’re licensing translation rights to traditional publishers overseas.

Besides, all of you need to learn how to think about copyright and licensing. I wrote an entire book about licensing for writers which came out earlier this year, titled Rethinking The Writing Business, which goes into great depth to show writers how to use copyright licenses to grow their audience and income.

If you don’t understand copyright, by the way, which is what your entire business is based on, look at this post—and then pick up the recommended books.

Back to the whole Brandon Sanderson Kickstarter, and what Brandon is doing here. As I launched into this series, I did a deep dive into Brandon’s public-facing website. I had heard that he was a hybrid writer—and he is, kinda sorta, in a very 2012 sort of way. What that means is that while he has book projects that he sells through his company, Dragonsteel Entertainment, the bulk of his fiction is sold through his traditional publishers, Tor and Delacorte.

Let me add here that although Brandon and I have met on several occasions, we have never discussed his writing business (or mine, for that matter). So what I’m telling you here is available just by looking at the public information on his website and in the press.

It used to be relatively easy to find information on book deals on the internet, back when trad publishers competed with each other, and when the deals were relatively large. Deal amounts started declining—or becoming split into so many different payments as to be less attractive—about five years ago, and so, after a deep dive into the internet, I was able to find a lot of book deals for Brandon, but not any information on the advances. I suspect his advances increased, but not by much. I also suspect that the payouts are extended.

He has some movie deals in the works, but they were stalled as of 2019, and 2020 (let me tell you from personal experience) is all about the stall until the industry shakes out from the COVID panic.

I doubt his agent, whom I know and actually considered back when I was still agented (until he dissed romance in a big way, not realizing I write romance), would have allowed any movie deal to take a huge chunk out of Brandon’s licenses for his books. But I don’t know that for a fact.

I bring this up, because I suspect Brandon’s book deals are relatively good ones, considering the bits and pieces I’ve found. He has sold translation rights separately. He has managed to carve out an exception to that non-compete that so many authors deal with for novella-length fiction, which he publishes through Dragonsteel at reasonable ebook prices.

It seems that for later books, he also has retained the limited edition license. I say it that way because some of the early leather-bound books for sale on his website state that these books were “published by arrangement with Tom Doherty Associates.”

What this tells me (and I might be wrong) is one of two things: Tor Books (which is part of Tom Doherty Associates) licensed all books rights and reverted the limited edition rights to Brandon or Tor receives a percentage of the money that Brandon earns on these particular limited editions.

Brandon is one of Tor’s biggest authors and publishers do negotiate away what they consider to be “small” rights that won’t give the publishers much money. I know who advised Brandon on his early contracts and the advice back then (fifteen years ago) was to hang onto limited edition rights.

Back then, merchandising rights weren’t even considered lucrative by publishers, so Brandon probably didn’t even have to fight to keep those, as you can see from the store on his website. (And boy are there some lovely, easy, licensing ideas here, fantasy writers.)

Brandon also benefitted from working in the science fiction and fantasy side of traditional publishing, which was one of the last to start demanding the majority of the copyright licenses. For years—including when Brandon started—Tor was a very (old-fashioned) independent company inside of the German company Holtzbrinck (under the name Macmillan in the U.S.). Tor has lost a lot of its independence over the years that Brandon has been with them, but it’s relatively standard for publishers to offer similar contracts to the ones that came before. So I would guess that fact and Brandon’s clout as one of Tor’s biggest authors mean his current contracts are kinder than many other writers’ traditional publishing contracts in 2020.

That said, he still has to work around his current publisher to do anything indie. Sometimes he does this in conjunction with the publisher, and sometimes, again as you can see from the store, he does so by coming up with products the publisher is just not interested in.

Here’s the thing, folks: a contract isn’t final. It is a living breathing document that can be modified, even after the signatures are placed on it. Both parties have to agree, and both parties have to sign the modification (usually in the form of an addendum), but such changes can be done.

Another thing about contracts that’s harder for writers to understand is the language of the contract. (Yes, writers don’t get the language piece; yes, I do find that ironic.) Contracts should be read in their entirety and one clause should be seen in the context of the entire document. (I delve into this more in my book Closing The Deal…On Your Terms or in the original posts, which are still on my website.)

Many book contracts itemize what the publisher thinks they need, and often it seems like that itemization is complete. It’s usually not, but only for writers who understand how to slice up copyright licenses. To learn this, pick up Dean’s book, The Magic Bakery.

There are all kinds of things you can do that might not be covered in your contract—everything from a compilation, which might include the novel plus an introduction and excised material, to an omnibus of two or more books.

What about that pesky non-compete, you might ask. Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve had more than one lawyer tell me that they doubt a publishing non-compete clause would stand up in court. There are many reason for this, but the simplest is that such a non-compete clause interferes with a writer’s actual livelihood. Also, the publisher actively competes against you—by publishing other romance novels, other fantasy novels, other novels in the exact same subgenres as yours. The fact that publishers do this gets into arguments about equity, a whole different branch of law that most in the publishing industry never think about.

It depends on your level of risk, but me…well, I don’t count, because I’ll never sign that kind of non-compete…but pretend I have. I’d do publish things anyway and let the publisher come after me. Most of them won’t even notice, but if they do, then just tell them to prove that the book competes.

I mean, how could a 100-copy limited edition (for example) cut into the sales of a mass market volume that shipped at 5,000 copies?

Anyway. Do the research. You will have licenses within your possession that will allow you to do something as simple as a Kickstarter. You might do a series of short stories for your readers or something else that’s not covered in your traditional book contract.

You’re a creative. Be creative. And think it through.

If you feel doubtful that such things are possible, keep this in mind: Publishers get more possessive with their biggest sellers. Yet Brandon managed to do limiteds and novellas and ebooks through his own publishing house.

You can do the same.

Now, indie (self) published writers: You also have to be creative. You might not have as big an audience as you want, but that shouldn’t matter. You can set your Kickstarter goal very small. (Make sure your rewards don’t cost you anything but time, if that’s the case. And the time something like sending out copies of the ebook. See the free Kickstarter class for more.)

Audience, though. That is sometimes a problem.

We writers have an opportunity over the summer. For the next 60 days or so, Brandon’s fans will be on Kickstarter weekly. If you put up the right project, you might not have enough people in your own fan base to fully fund, but add a few folks from Brandon’s, and you might be able to fund for a few hundred dollars—even if you only have 20 backers.  (20 backers x $5 apiece = $100)

Yeah, that’s small, but that’s how we build our audience. One reader at a time.

One of the reasons Dean and I do Storybundles. We offer our books at a discount with books by other writers to grow our individual fan bases. There are a million other tricks that indies use to entice readers from other writers’ audiences into reading a book.

By doing the free class with best practices, we’re trying to make Kickstarter into another trick. Brandon just made our efforts a great deal easier.

Writers need to stop being afraid of failing, and stepping into the new world of publishing that’s available to all of us. Through licensing and all of these new venues, we have more opportunities than we can exploit to reach different audiences.

What writers need to remember is that we build readership one reader and one book at a time. Stuffing email lists or writing Buy! Buy! Buy! tweets won’t entice anyone. Getting someone to read a story, or giving them a free book on your Kickstarter because they want the pretty book cover wallpaper that you’re giving for a $5 reward, has a much better chance of convincing that reader to buy your next book.

Yeah, it takes time. And yeah, it takes a bit of risk tolerance.

But we have so many opportunities here. And, in the case of what’s happening with Kickstarter in this horrid summer of 2020, we all—indie and traditional—have a chance to expand our earnings and our audiences.

Open your mind to this, and take a chance.

I have a hunch you’ll be glad you did.

NOTE: Bonnie Elizabeth in the comments below talked about running a Kickstarter even though she hasn’t got a Brandon Sanderson size fan base (or even my size fan base). She got some questions, so she answered it all in a blog post which you can find here.

We just launched a brand new Kickstarter for the next two books in my Diving series. The Kickstarter is called The Return of Boss.

After a lot of feedback, we’ve also decided to add a separate class on how to run a Kickstarter, including all of the details, in order. This is different from the free class, in that this one is hands-on, and will actually teach you how to run your own Kickstarter.

In addition to that, I’m revising The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I’m updating it to make it more in line with what’s going on today. If you back me on Patreon, you’ll be able to see the revised version as each chapter appears.

And speaking of all that, this blog is reader-supported. If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer Part Three,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / SheilaF2002.

4 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer (Part Three) (Licensing/Copyright/Contracts)

  1. My audience is such that if I sell five copies of a book in a month (assuming it’s not a new release), then it’s been a big month. I funded a Kickstarter at nearly a grand. If I can succeed at that, I firmly believe anyone who goes through Dean’s class and has a good looking product and a well thought-out Kickstarter can succeed. There were plenty of people who funded me (including one person at the highest level I had) that I have never met but were willing to take a chance.

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