Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

August 8, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Items that piqued my interest over the past few weeks:

Contract changes for Random House UK

UK authors, agents, and authors' groups are up in arms about a pair of recent changes to Random House UK's contract boilerplate.

The Bookseller reports that Random House is attempting to re-work its out of print clause in much the same way that Simon & Schuster did a year ago. Apparently, the new language allows rights reversion "only if the publisher cannot supply a physical or electronic copy of a book within a month, or if there have been no royalty earnings for a year." So as long as your book sells just one copy a year, Random House can refuse to declare the book out of print, and you cannot get your rights back.

As I noted in a previous post on the importance of rights reversion, "in print forever" is not a good thing. Why should publishers have control over books they aren't marketing and selling? If your book's availability is limited (for instance, if there are no physical copies that can be ordered by stores and the book exists only in an electronic edition), or if it's still available but few copies are selling, you're better off if the publisher takes it out of print, allowing you to revert the rights and regain control of them. This is why, if you're signing a life-of-copyright contract, it's important to make sure that you can demand rights reversion once sales fall below a minimum level--for instance, fewer than 250 copies sold over two consecutive royalty periods.

The other contract change affects children's writers. The Guardian's Book Blog reports that Random House has decided to include the following clause in its standard children's book contracts: "If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement."

Children's writers being such a debauched group and all. Who knew?

How literary agents get their start

"Everyone has to start somewhere." This is one of the most frustrating phrases I hear on a regular basis, applied to agents without publishing experience. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere, but as with other skilled professions, "starting somewhere" does not mean "starting from zero." To effectively perform a difficult and complicated job, you need a matching base of knowledge and experience. What does this mean for agents? They need to start their careers in some aspect of publishing, or by apprenticing at a reputable literary agency.

This dialog between two established literary agents (from Open Book Magazine) is interesting for many reasons, not least because the agents provide detailed descriptions of how they got their got their start.

Sam Hiyate, president of The Rights Factory, was an editor and publisher before he became an agent. "When I became an agent," he says, "I took the things I love most about my old job – finding and working with new writers, and promoting their talent and work – and took it to the bigger publishers to do the rest of the work...I had to learn how to sell to publishers and how to negotiate the best possible deals. I’d say those things are both so difficult and impossible to master overall that I am still learning."

Hilary McMahon, vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists, had various jobs before landing a front desk position with Westwood. "I worked on the front desk for a few years, which was tremendous training - seeing how the different agents worked and experiencing all facets of the company. Then I became Bruce [Westwood's] assistant, which was also an amazing experience; working with writers like Rohinton Mistry and Timothy Findley was a pretty great way to learn the ropes! When Jennifer Barclay left the agency to travel the world...I inherited her client list and have been adding to it steadily ever since."

When you're evaluating a new agent or agency, this is the kind of background you want to see--not "I'm a retired teacher/professor who loves books," or "I've worked in advertising/PR/real estate for 20 years and I really know how to sell," or (worst of all) "I'm a self-published/vanity-published/unpublished writer who has suffered the slings and arrows of the cruel publishing industry, and I swear I'll be nicer to you than they were to me."

For a longer discussion of why literary agents need relevant professional experience, see this blog post.

Is this the future of publishing?

A little while back, I wrote a Tidbit on HarperStudio, the new HarperCollins imprint that has generated quite a bit of discussion for its stated intention of sharing profit with authors and doing away with returns.

Recently, HarperStudio head Bob Miller hosted a breakfast to present more information about the imprint. Reports from literary agent Nathan Bransford and media blogger Jeff Bercovici reveal that, in Bransford's words, "HarperStudio will pay authors no more than $100,000 advances, and instead of royalties, utilizes a profit sharing model that incorporates expenses on one side of the ledger (expenses will include publicity and unit production, but not editorial and overhead), and income on the other side. Profits are split 50/50, and accounting reports four times a year, translating to a break-even point at around 25,000 copies sold."

HarperStudio will publish 25 books a year (17 are already signed for its launch list). Miller is still working on ways to incorporate a no-returns policy into the mix.

It's an intriguing experiment, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. (Nathan Bransford has blogged about two other "imprints of the future" that, like HarperStudio, are attempting to address some of the perceived problems of the publishing industry by making changes to the basic publishing model: Vanguard Press, an imprint of Perseus, and Twelve, an imprint of Hachette.)

Or is this the future of publishing?

From the Guardian UK, an article by Emma Johns on how focus groups are pushing their way into the arts, including publishing.

Johns describes Hothouse, "a London-based business that aims to give children what they say they want from stories, rather than what adults think they want." Hothouse employs a market research company to present kids with story ideas: "Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly."

So far, Hothouse has launched two focus group-generated children's series: Darkside, published by Scholastic, and Fright Night, published by Puffin.

"You could ask whether Hothouse is publishing books that will endure, or merely pushing products," Johns remarks. But children's books are already pretty product-oriented, with the many packaged series that crank out installment after installment, and the growing trend toward actual product placement in YA books and children's learning books. Still, creating books by focus group does seem to take it quite a bit farther. One can certainly see why this appeals to publishers--but as a sometime YA author, I don't find it an encouraging trend.

Calling Guy Noir

Last but not least, from the UK's Telegraph comes one of the odder bits of book-related news I've seen lately: the Norfolk County Council has admitted that it spent more than £80,000 over the past three years on private detectives to hunt down debtors--including paying detectives £9,190 to recover overdue library books, CDs, and DVDs.


Anonymous said...

A note of thanks for your continued hard work in the area of keeping the writing community informed and aware.

One thing, regarding those writing for children. One rotten apple may not spoil the "entire" barrel, but there can be serious, negative repercussions if a pervert is discovered. Why take chances in a market where parents will react negatively? A professional/social persona may not be an accurate indication of the person within. The case of Bernie Ward comes to mind. Not every Dodgson behaves with restraint. I can understand why a publisher would have concerns. I’m not aware of any cases, but the probably of such is non-zero.

BuffySquirrel said...

Given the current public paranoia about any adult who dares show a friendly interest in children not their own, there's no way I'd sign such a clause. Still, it's interesting to know that smoke can be achieved without fire.

Victoria Strauss said...

It would be one thing if publishers were experiencing a rash of paedophile children's authors, or revelations about children's authors involved in kinky sex triangles with sheep. It still wouldn't be right--one's publisher should not be able to enforce one's behavior--but it would make some kind of sense. But as far as I know, there hasn't been a big problem lately with Children's Authors Behaving Badly.

I mean, really, if we're talking about authors' bad behavior, it would make more sense to impose an "if the book you sold as a memoir turns out to actually be a novel" clause.

Dave Kuzminski said...

This will probably encourage some individuals to make false charges in order to remove criticism of their companies.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

If Judy Blume had to sign some kind of "morality" clause today, she'd never have sold a single book. Consider that not only do her young adult books have a lot of frank sexuality, the books she writes for adults (under her own name, no less) are VERY sexually explicit and erotic. (such as FOREVER. . . and SMART WOMEN) And yet nobody bats an eyelash and she is one of the most beloved children's authors.

Roman J. Martel said...

The information about Random House is disturbing. I was recently discussing this very issue with a mid-list author who was interested in publishing some of his out of print work on his web-site, and weighing if it would be a benefit or a hazard.

At least he has the option to weigh, with a clause like this, his work could remain out of his hands for good.

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe any author would confine themselves. I agree with Jill Elaine Hughes. I read all of Judy Blumes work I could get my hand on as a kid and later her adult novels. Thank goodness she didn't sign this contract twenty plus years ago.

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