into my little blonde brain.) But we all do need to take away an important lesson from the sum of these redolent piles of publisher malfeasance and mismanagement:
When you sign a publishing contract, your writing career, your earnings, and your intellectual property rights become vulnerable to any weaknesses in that contract, as well as to any bad business judgment or ethical lapses which may afflict that publishing house.
I point this out because there’s a refrain I’ve heard among writers for many years, and it’s so selfevidently foolish—especially in the light of the odorous events described above—that anyone who’s still saying it is so delusional that they really need an intervention. I first heard it when I was a zygote who’d recently sold my first book, and I attended a bookstore event in another city where several much-published genre writers were speaking. Each of those writers said, at some point in their comments, that they weren’t interested in business and contracts and money, they left “all that” up to their agents and paid no attention to any of it because, “I just care about my stories. I just want to write.”
And I would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice now if only I had a fiver for every occasion since then that I’ve heard a writer say something similar. I’ve encountered writers who don’t read their contracts, don’t bother to understand their contracts, don’t know what their agency agreements say, don’t examine their royalty statements, don’t know when/whether their books are eligible for reversion, don’t know what “reversion” means, don’t know what their option clauses say (or what an “option clause” is), and don’t know which subrights they’ve licensed or retained.
I’ve also been gobsmacked by how many of these writers, rather than being sheepish about their recklessness, consider this reasonable, sensible behavior because it allows them to “focus on my writing.” As if it would be pointlessly distracting to be familiar with the terms of the legally binding business agreements to which they commit themselves, their intellectual property, and their earnings.
To give just one simple example (among oh-so-many possibilities) of how much we cannot afford to “just write” and “pay no attention to” our business agreements, let’s consider the appalling consequences of signing a contract with a “non-compete” clause. This clause prohibits the author, while under contract (which, in the digital age, could be for decades), from releasing other works which the publisher deems to be “in competition” with the contracted work.
For years, the purpose of a non-compete clause was primarily to prevent multiple non-fiction books by one author from cannibalizing each other’s sales. If you buy two 2013 guidebooks to hiking the Appalachian Trail, for example, you’re almost certainly not going to buy them both by the same author; so publishers protect the sales of their book by ensuring the author can’t have a virtually identical release out there from another house. But the common view for decades was that there was little or no real-world relevance for the non-compete clause in fiction contracts. After all, if you like one novel by Laura Resnick, you’re more likely to buy other novels by Laura Resnick, not less so; and the option clause is what typically defines the novelist’s obligation to the publisher beyond the current contract.
However, if you’ve got a non-compete clause in any of your fiction contracts, your publisher can use it to contractually prohibit you from writing for another house—and also from self-publishing—in the same genre and/or under the same name.
Let’s pause a moment to consider the devastating consequences of a publisher having that level of egregious control over your ability to release books, build audience, and earn income with your work.
And it’s no good your saying, “Oh, but my publisher wouldn’t do that.” In the bad behavior that too-often characterizes publishers in confrontation with the digital age, a number of them are doing it. You can find the details of a well-known 2011 example simply by googling the phrase “Penguin non-compete clause;” and various other authors have been victimized by similar gambits in less-publicized incidents.
Moreover, I’ve heard first-hand accounts in the past year of negotiations ending and deals falling apart when an author declines to accept a non-compete clause. That’s how crucial some publishers now consider a non-compete clause in a fiction deal; that’s how much control some houses are determined to have over a contracted writer’s career and livelihood.
Which is not to say that only writers who refuse to think about business have problems with publishers these days. On the contrary, many business savvy writers are damaged by the Bad Things that publishers do in the digital era.