Protecting Yourself and Your Work
A few weeks back I got an email from a company requesting me to review a book. The thing is, I didn’t have any connection with this company, or the author in question, and the email was… let’s say aggressive. And a bit optimistic about the book they were pitching, since once I looked it up it had none of the honors or buzz they were claiming. So I decided to check out the company and do a little more research on them, mostly with the intent of emailing the author and letting him know his promotional company was doing a terrible job. I realize that to some of you that might seem like I was trying to make trouble for the guy, but the truth is as an author that’s valuable feedback. You don’t often get to experience the marketing campaign a PR company might launch, so knowing that they’re turning people off is pretty important to be aware of. Yet, when I dug in, I found out the whole company was owned by the people publishing the book, known scam publishers Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency. There are tons of reasons to avoid them (here’s a good article on those: http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/alerts/#SBPRA) but I don’t want to talk about that company more today. The truth is, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to all the people out there looking to fleece writers. And on this blog, we’re going to talk about things to watch out for, and ways to keep yourself safe.
1. Beware Monetized Serial Sites
I won’t spend too long on this, as I know it only applies to a very specific section of my audience, but it needs to be addressed. As web-serials have grown as a community, there have been a lot of sites offering free space to those who want to post a serial. Royal Road and Wattpad are two of the more popular ones that spring to mind. And honestly, good on them. They make their money from ads on the stories, which is a fair trade for content hosting services. The problem is, there are new versions that keep springing up every few months, ones with a very different financing model.
At least once a quarter the Web Fiction Guide forums will get a post from someone launching a serial service with a “brand new idea”: making people pay to read the serials. This would be really long to get into, but the short version is that they want to put the content behind paywalls and split the proceeds with the authors, although “split” is a generous term in some instances. Most of us in the business have seen this exact concept flame out enough times to steer clear, so it’s not that big of an issue. The larger problem is that I also see sites who monetize by making a knock-off version of Patreon/Paypal and then taking a piece of the income. Never list with someone who does this. There is nothing wrong with monetizing content, it’s what a lot of the internet is built on, but those people are monetizing you, the author, meaning they make money off of your income directly, and there is no reason to put up with that shit. Not when there are loads of free, dependable places to put a serial. I’m sure they’ll tell you lies about their great features and amazing site tools, but these places are scams, pure and simple. And lying is what scammers do by nature.
2. Research Everyone You Work With
On to a more universal tip now: research. We all dream of getting a call from someone higher up the publishing food chain. Maybe for you it’s a publisher of any kind, or a Big 5 publisher, or a movie agent, or so on. And when we get interest from those sources, it can be very tempting to jump in with both feet forward. The thing is, all agents/publishers/whatever are not created equally. Some will treat you and your work well; others are looking to turn it for a few quick bucks. Research is the best tool available to you. Look up everything about the company. Check their Better Business Bureau rating. Check for any reports, any issues people have with them. And then, if they clear that without raising red flags, take it a step further: talk to people who use them.
I will occasionally get emails from authors looking to work with REUTS or Tantor, since I’m publicly engaged with both companies. Now I have nothing but nice things to say about both, but I don’t mind telling them that. And if the situation was different, meaning I had a lot of bad shit to make known, you’d better believe I wouldn’t mind letting people hear about it. I know the idea of writing to someone you don’t know to ask about a company seems daunting, and I get that, but we have all been there. At some point, we were in your shoes, wondering if this was a good move, and I imagine only the shittiest among us would be bothered by answering the same questions we asked someone else. Because we really are the best source. All the internet searching in the world isn’t as good as hearing about people’s actual experience with a company.
By the way, this goes for everyone you deal with. Editors you want to use, cover designers you’re going to hire, a hosting platform for your podcasts. Research all of them, because there are plenty of terrible ones out there who bank on you not looking too closely. Is it a pain at times? Sure. Is it better than ending up in a bad business partnership with real financial consequences? You’re damn right it is.
3) Understand Your Contracts
Look, I know, we all became writers because we didn’t want to mess around with boring stuff like legal documents. But this part is vital in some aspect of every business, and we are not immune. Contracts define the very ownership and rights of the properties we create, so you’d damn well better be sure you know what you’re signing. I’m pretty sure we all know how royalties and advances work, but there are other things to note as well. Things like:
How Long the Publisher Has: Remember, a publisher doesn’t own your book for now and forever. Or at least, they shouldn’t. A contract should come with a timeframe the publisher has to work in to get the book fully published. If the publisher fails to hit that timeframe, then the rights should go back to you, or there should be a fiscal penalty. Basically, the goal here is to make sure that they actually use those rights, rather than sitting on them because the market shifted or some element of their schedule changed.
Reversion Rights: These are the conditions under which rights to your books return to you. Now as we just covered, the publisher not doing their job in time is usually one of these, but there need to be more than just that. Bankruptcy or closing of the company should both be listed in there right up front. I don’t care how old or established the publisher is, books are a risky game right now, and some trusted presses have gone down in the past few years, leaving their authors in murky waters as to what happened to their rights. Sometimes a publisher will return all rights during their bankruptcy filings, but if they don’t then you need it in your contract so you aren’t stuck waiting for the now-dead-publisher’s window to run out.
Price Setting: Remember that your royalty comes off of the money earned from the sale, so when a publisher has full control over the price you’re at their mercy. If they decide it’s not doing well and drop the cost substantially, below what you would charge, then it will impact your bottom-line directly. Now a lot of publishers aren’t going to give up this control, and they have good reason for that, but you can at least establish some minimums and maximums to keep the book in a range that’s fair to both creators and consumers.
It feels like there are endless more things to be aware of I’m skipping over, but that’s enough for a blog this time. Maybe I’ll do a sequel down the line. For only $99 at that, really quite a steal when you think about it. Be sure to add the “consumer awareness” medal to hang around your neck as well, only an additional $300 to let people know you’re nobody’s sucker.