Always Read the Contract (Know When to Say “No”)

writing tips

There is nothing more exciting and fulfilling than to be an author without an agent who receives that coveted email or letter from a publisher saying that they want to publish your book.

It truly is incredible. It’s like a complete state of euphoria.

And it should be.  You worked hard, and your novel got picked up.  Time to celebrate!

But once you’ve finished celebrating, you have to let that excitement go and look at the deal objectively, because not everyone has your best interests at heart.

It can be hard when you worked a long time, queried a lot of people, to not just sign the contract and move on with your journey towards being a published author. It’s very tempting, but don’t sell yourself short.

What follows is a case study in two different offers I received for my novel. I’ll present them side by side so you can see the contrast.  To protect anonymity, I’ll call the two publishers, “Publisher #1” and “Publisher #2*.”

The Initial Offer Email

Publisher #1:  A form letter to “Frank L” from Query Manager letting me know that I’m I’ve been offered a contract and instructing me to click on the link to find the contract to fill it out and sign to move forward.  The email also gave me a contact email if I have questions.

Publisher #2:  A personal email to “Mx. Tybush” from the acquiring editor letting me know that I’ve been offered a contract (which was attached).  The editor gave me 60 days to think over the deal but encouraged me to reach out to all of their authors to find out their experiences.  The editor even provided a means to contact them.  They went on to offer me a free copy of one of their books so I can evaluate their work.  They let me know that if I have any questions or concerns about the contract to reach out to them.

The Contract

Publisher #1:  Lots of confusing “legalese” with statements that seemed contradictory.  There were grammatical errors.  When I showed this contract to two separate legal consultants, they both came back with pages of notes and questions and suggestions for changes.  I expressed all these concerns to the publisher.

I also expressed that I wanted to be a part of the marketing and graphic design process (the contract said it was out of my hands entirely, and I had to use the materials they created).  I shared my experience in this field because it’s literally my day job.

Publisher #2:  The contract was very straight-forward.  While written in legal terms, there wasn’t any of the legalese double-speak and contradictory statements.  There was one missing apostrophe, and I had a few small questions, and one requested change.

While the contract was less forceful on marketing and graphic design, it did state that they had a department that did the cover art and some of the marketing.  I also expressed that I wanted to be a part of this and shared my credentials in this field.

The Reply

Publisher #1:  In the email, they assured me that my concerns weren’t founded and went to great lengths to explain why they wouldn’t do any of the things that the contract said they could do.  They swore up and down they had my best interest in mind, but in the end, they said they physically couldn’t change the contract, and I had to sign it as is or not at all.  They also stated that the grammatical errors were correct per their style guide.

[Quick break in the format for some notes on this.  I went back to my legal consultants, one of which writes contracts for large companies and has extensive amounts of experience.  They regularly handle contracts for million-dollar deals.  They told me that not once in their experience have they come across a legal style guide that said that grammatical errors were correct.  They said in the rule of law that grammar always takes precedence over style.  He also said that he’s never heard of a trustworthy company that wouldn’t negotiate at all with a potential client.]

The publisher also said that when it came to graphic design and marketing that they were the professionals, and while I could make suggestions, they had the experience where I did not.  I would have to use what they created and only what they created.

Publisher #2:  In the email, they answered all the questions and agreed to not only fix the missing punctuation but to adjust the contract to address my concerns.  (They sent the modified contract over within ten minutes of that email).  They also invited me to their weekly team meeting so I could meet everyone.  They said whether I sign the contract before the meeting or not, they were open to me joining so I could get a feel of how they work and ask any questions.

With the graphic design and cover art, they said they were open to having me help and participating as much as I’d like to.  They stated that their design team loves to collaborate and that my experience would be valuable.

The Verdict

[One more quick break for another note, I got the contract for Publisher #1 almost a month before I got the contract for Publisher #2.  When I made this decision, I wasn’t choosing between two.  For all I knew, the contract Publisher #1 offered could have been the only contract I was ever offered.]

Publisher #1:  I ultimately decided that I couldn’t trust over five years of blood, sweat, and tears I put into my book to a company that seemed to care very little about my concerns.  In a last-ditch effort to see if they would change the contract, I replied that I felt that if they couldn’t make the requested changes that I would have to turn them down.

I never got a reply back.

Publisher #2:  I signed with them, and it’s been the best decision of my writing life.

Conclusion

Writing is hard (I’ll resist the urge to insert a Supernatural gif here). 

It is frightening every time you put a query out there.  That being said, if one publisher offers you a contract, there is a good chance another one will too. Don’t let a company take advantage of you “just to get published.” 

There are oodles of stories of companies taking advantage of artists. Don’t become one of those horror stories.

Read the contract, and please, know that it is okay to say “no.”

——Notes——

*Though to be honest, Publisher #2 won’t be hard to figure out, since they are publishing my book.

Diversify Your Library

writing tips

I know too many people who “only read fantasy,” “only read non-fiction history,” or “only read romance.” 

And if that’s what brings them joy, the more power to them. 

But what shocks me is how many writers say the same thing, especially when the only genre they read is the genre they write.

If you are one of these people, you are doing yourself a huge disservice.  Diversifying your library is one of the greatest ways to become a better writer.

Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot.”

This is incredible advice, but if you only read a handful of authors in one genre, at some point, you’re going to hit the ceiling with your writing ability. If you don’t open yourself up to other styles, how are you going to push forward?

I mostly write fantasy and sci-fi, but I get more inspiration reading outside of my genre than I do inside.  I’m currently reading three books. Their genres are young adult fantasy with heist components, non-fiction autobiography about travel and the environment, and Star Wars (yes, I’m claiming Star Wars as a genre, it’s big enough).

The genres of the books I’ve recently finished?  A magical realism novel set in Japan with detective elements, a historical fiction with surreal elements that pits Ahab and Nemo in a battle to the death, an LGBTQIA+ high fantasy, a contemporary romantic comedy (more on this later), a sci-fi set in South Africa, a memoir from a Mythbuster, two music history books (one about Nirvana, the other about Woodstock), a book about time travel, a fictitious oral history novel about the near-romance between two singers, and a fantasy based on African mythology.

I pulled inspiration from each and every one of these. A tweak to my writing style here; a tweak to my workflow there (I’m looking at you, Adam Savage and your excellent book about process).  And honestly, sometimes if the writing is not to my liking, I will actually learn what not to do.*

I even gleaned some new techniques for writing relationships from reading a genre I rarely ever read: contemporary romantic comedy.**  I don’t eschew romance, but I tend to get my dose wrapped in a sugary substance that usually involves aliens, crime, or adventure.  But I offered to beta read my friend Tova’s novel.  I read a snippet of her work and thought I’d take the plunge into a romantic comedy.  Not only was it incredibly enjoyable, I found the nuanced but believable relationship inspiring.  It made me re-evaluate a non-romantic relationship that I’m currently writing.  If reading gets you to look at your work critically, then you’re reading the right stuff.

Reading outside of your culture will help make you a better writer.

Let me pause for a second.  This advice comes with a warning: DO NOT APPROPRIATE ANYONE ELSE’S CULTURE.  JUST DON’T.

Okay, back to advice.

Our culture shapes the way we look at the world.  Opening yourself up to new cultures is not only rewarding for your soul but your writing.  In college, I took a class in Iranian films (this was in 2001, so some industry standards may have changed since then).  At the time, due to censorship laws, there were heavy restraints placed on their film industry.  This shaped how they told stories.†  The films I watched were slower, focusing more on the visual landscape than insane action.  It changed the way I looked at film.

I find this happens now with books I read.  There is a different pacing to the narratives of Stieg Larsson and Haruki Murakami to Stephen King or Dan Brown††.  They look at the world differently.  I found my writing has shifted noticeably since including works written outside of America and England into my reading lists.

And I’m not just talking about leveling up techniques of storytelling, but also the stories.  I get a lot of inspiration for stories from non-fiction history.  Reading about the past sparks nuggets of ideas that I then morph and insert into my narratives.  The current sci-fi I’m writing all started when I read a history book about the art that came out of 70s English punk culture.  In the end, that inspiration will be a tiny part of the final story, but I wouldn’t have started the novel if it hadn’t been for an art history book.

Writers, please, get out and experience something new.  You will grow, and your writing will grow.  Take a chance on a genre you might never have read.  A library card is gold for this, but let’s be honest, so is the clearance section of your favorite bookstore.  Take a chance, read something new, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

———Notes———-

* More on this in a future blog.

** While editing this blog, I realized that this statement is not 100% accurate.  One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby, who can be accused of writing contemporary romantic comedy.  But, let’s be honest, his books are more about brooding English men and music.  The romance elements are flawed.  I would never, I repeat, NEVER pull romantic inspiration from one of his novels. 

† The New Yorker has a great article with the incredible Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami about the restraints placed on storytelling and filming in Iran.  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/abbas-kiarostami-in-his-own-words

†† Comparing two sets of male authors brings up a whole other point…reading outside of your gender.  Want to see how drastically different perspectives can be?  Read an article about emo music by a male journalist and then one by a female journalist.  I have and the article by a female journalist changed the way I looked at emo music.  Reading outside of your gender will also be another blog in the future, one that expands on my personal experiences.

The Zombie Apocalypse Method

writing tips

I try to look at every day as the Zombie Apocalypse.

No, I’m not some doomsday prepper, just looking for a chance to use my machete (which I don’t own).  I don’t run around fortifying my domicile (outside of playing 7 Days to Die).  And I don’t train in cardio (although I really should, because it’s healthy). 

What I mean is that I take the basic tenet of the Zombie Apocalypse and apply it to all my tasks.  That tenet? “If you get lazy, you die.” 

We’ve all seen this in one form or another.  Everyone that is holed up in a house is exhausted.  A zombie horde hasn’t attacked them in a while.  Chet (it’s always a “Chet”) is supposed to be on guard duty while everyone else sleeps, but boy he’s a bit tired.  If he just closes his eyes for five minutes… Bam, zombies attack and only a handful of people survive, Chet being one of them, except he has a bite now and dammit Chet!  Why are you hiding it from the rest of the group?  Arg, you’re going to be the human races’ downfall.

I try not to be Chet.  I try not to get lazy.

I first came to this idea when doing dishes. 

Imagine this scenario: One night, you get home late, you’re tired, and you decide, “I’ll do the dishes tomorrow.” Then the next night you also get home late, and “tomorrow” turns into another day, and then you have no clean dishes left, and you wonder how everything got so, incredibly, messy. 

Needless to say, I was doing the dishes after a couple of days of being “too busy” to do the dishes.  I realized if I had just taken five minutes before going to bed and loaded the dishwasher, I wouldn’t be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a kitchen that was now taking me way too long to clean.

That’s when I decided to look at keeping the kitchen clean as the Zombie Apocalypse.  If I got lazy, I’d die, or well, I’d just have a filthy kitchen, real quick.  And it worked. As long as I look at the few dishes in the sink and say “that’s going to turn into a zombie horde if they don’t get put into the dishwasher,” my kitchen stays clean and my mind is at ease.

While that may have been the inception of the method, once that seed of an idea took root in my brain, I noticed that it helped me in other places.

I work as a Web Design and Communications Specialist to pay my bills.  I code websites and write press releases and blogs all day*.  I started to think back to any mistakes that I made and inevitably, they all arose because I became comfortable with my work and didn’t take a few extra seconds to check to make sure I had all my commas and semicolons in place before releasing my code.  Once I brought my Zombie Apocalypse Method over to coding, mistakes went down to almost nothing.

That being said, I only recently started using this method, and it was towards the end of my querying process.

Being a querying author is stressful and at times, overwhelming.  You need to research which agents and publishers are taking your specific genre and age group.  You need to make sure they are actually open for submissions at this time and not “we’re closed until July.” You need to adhere to their requirements and formatting.  And you need to do this over and over and over and over again until you get that “we’re interested in reading your full manuscript,” letter.  And then you need to start all over to make sure you’re using the proper full manuscript template that they require and that you have as few of mistakes in your manuscript as possible, and… I’m going to stop, it was exhausting to go through that process, and it’s probably exhausting to read this long paragraph about it.

My point:   

I know that queries I sent probably went out with mistakes.  A forgotten changing of a name in a copy/paste query probably happened. I’m sure that spell check probably missed that I really didn’t mean to say “he hit a stationery wall.” (I mean, maybe it actually thought that a character ran into a paper wall?)

But if I applied the Zombie Apocalypse Method, took an extra five minutes and re-read the query a few times, no matter how many times I read it before in previous submissions, I wouldn’t have any mistakes.

Thankfully, I’m with a publisher I adore, and I will hopefully never have to go through the querying process again, but there are moments (I’m 100% truthful with this) where I have a bit of panic and think of how easily I could have slipped and made a mistake in my query that would have cost me this contract. 

Taking a few extra minutes to make sure that the doors are all locked (the query letter is 100% error-free), and that all the windows are barred (all the contact info and formatting is accurate) will let you sleep well at night knowing that a zombie attack (that you didn’t disqualify yourself with any easy-to-fix mistakes) is not going to happen today.

*And yes, I’m using a WordPress theme for my website and that’s entirely because I don’t want to code in my off-time).