Ideas Are Powerful Things
Often what we think is possible limits what actually is possible. A shift in viewpoint can change everything. My thinking about what is possible in publishing started to shift as I watched Hugh Howey's rise as an indie author. It shifted dramatically when I heard he had landed a print-only contract. But the shift wasn't complete until I met him and spoke with him about the industry, about his attempts to change things, not for himself, but for other authors to come after him.
Hugh Howey on tour. Me fangirling over him.
Inspirational people have a way of shifting things. Of getting inside your head and stirring the contents until something new emerges.
The Idea: Bad Contracts Won't Change Until We Stop Signing Them
Obvious, right? Simple, powerful, yet incredibly difficult to even think about doing.
Wait, You're Self-Published! Why Are You Talking Contracts?
I am self-published: very happily so. Yet, I recently said "no" to a bad contract. It wasn't some earth-shaking "big deal" contract, so don't get excited. I won't go into the specifics, because there's really no need. You can't throw a rock without hitting a bad contract in the publishing world. They're everywhere. I know more friends who have turned down (or worse signed) bad contracts than I know authors who have signed good ones. In fact, there's a name for bad contracts: boilerplate. Meaning, decades of publishers and agents having all the power in the agent-author, editor-author relationships has resulted in standard contracts rife with things that are no good for authors.
So, the specifics of my case aren't important. What's important is this: the contract I was asked to sign was a disaster. It didn't even accomplish what the publisher wanted, and no author would sign it, if they knew what it meant. But other authors had signed it. When I attempted to negotiate with the publisher, saying, "Hey, this contract is really kinda messed up. It doesn't do what I think you want, and it's horrible on the author end. How about we change it?" the answer was, "We know it's bad, but we don't really care. We have lots of authors who've already signed this. Please go away."
I was happy to go away, not least because of the response. But this stuck with me: lots of authors who've already signed this.
Know What You're Signing
I'm convinced that there is no way those authors actually knew what they were signing. Or they were desperate and would sign anything. Whenever you're signing a contract, you're tied to that agent/publisher for the duration, like it or not. (I have personal experience on this as well.) Make sure you know what you're signing! Educate yourself on the perils and pitfalls of contracts. Hire an attorney to look over the contract, if you're not sure you understand it. If you don't think you can afford an attorney, get a friend who understands contracts to help. But don't blindly sign something, trusting the other party to tell you what it "means." You will be stuck with it, usually literally forever, as one of the worst contract provisions is that it's for the "length of the copyright", which is your lifetime plus 70 years - yes, you're binding your heirs to this contract!
Don't Be Desperate
There's never been a better time to say "no" to bad contracts. The self-publishing option means that you do not have to take a bad contract in order to reach readers. And TRUST ME if your work is good enough to attract publisher interest, it's good enough to find an audience on its own. You don't have to give away your work to a publisher for your lifetime plus 70 years to reach readers. You don't have to accept terms that are "non-negotiable" or "boilerplate." You can say no and walk away, because an as-good and quite possibly better option exists.
Self-publishing is your "get out of bad contract" free card.
Hugh negotiated his print-only contract after saying "no" to three rounds of courting by a host of NY Publishers -because he wasn't negotiating just for himself.
"We (he and his agent) both understood from the beginning that it would likely be against my best interests to take the sort of deal that would be offered (by Big 6 NYC publishers), but we also dreamed of a future where publishers and authors had a different sort of relationship... And so we pursued an impossible dream hoping that the strangeness of our demands (for a print-only deal where he kept his digital rights) might pave the way for future demands from other authors."
That clarity of vision paid dividends for Hugh, even though he didn't expect that it would ever come soon enough to benefit him. Now he was a NYTimes bestselling author courted by scads of publishers - what can lowly midlist authors do? Or even worse, authors hoping to be published for the first time?
The Idea: Bad Contracts Won't Change Until We Stop Signing Them
Coming back to this again. The way Hugh affected change is the same way every author can - by saying "no" to a contract that doesn't work well for authors. It won't change things the first time. Or the second. Or possibly the third, fourth, or fifth times. Heck, it might not even change things until the next generation of authors comes along and wants to publish their book. But it can start today, with the first generation of authors who actually have a choice. For whom saying "no" doesn't mean instant-death for their careers.
It's easy for publishers to brush off one or two odd-duck new or midlist authors who actually want negotiate better terms in their contracts. After all, they have legions of other authors who will snap up that contract in a hurry, don't they? Aren't we just hurting ourselves by saying no? I don't think so, and for three reasons:
1) When an agent or publisher comes back and says, "This is our boilerplate language; everyone signs it," you can say, "Not everyone. Not me." And negotiate from there. Or walk away. The response will be telling about what you're getting into with that person, if you stand up for yourself. How they treat you then is a good foretaste of how they will treat you when you are under contract with them.
2) Those other authors, the ones waiting to scoop up that bad contract? Check back with them in a couple years and see how happy they are about that decision. I know many (many!) authors who rue signing the contracts they did.
3) I've seen enough serious writers self-publish and do well that I'm now firmly in the Hugh Howey camp of endorsing that option as generally preferred. When you are successful as an indie author, you are better able to negotiate from a position of strength with publishers. Not just because you've "proven" your success by actually selling books - but because you have steady income from your self-published works. You've demonstrated that you don't need publishers to reach readers. And so, it is much easier for you to walk away from a bad deal.
We can't all be Hugh Howeys. We're not all going to be NYTimes bestselling authors. But we can exercise our option to say "no" to contracts that are bad for authors, not least of all ourselves. And the more of us that do this, the more authors who are inspired by the Hugh Howey's of the world to stand firm and work for change, the more times those publishers will hear the response, "Not everyone. Not me." I'm glad I said "no" to this recent contract. In doing so, I did my small part for paving the way for better contracts for my author-friends-of-the-future. My hope is that you will be inspired to do the same.
And in that way, we can all be Hugh Howeys.