You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Presuming you’re all authors or aspiring authors, let me ask you an ugly question: what are you in the game for—the art or the money?

My lovely and wonderful client Saundra Mitchell loves to be unlovely and unwonderful sometimes and sends me links to publishing stories that she knows will rile me up. It’s very: Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; give a man a soapbox, he’ll rant for hours. That’s the saying, right?

Point is: Saundra sent me a story about an author who, by the sounds of it, breached their contract’s non-compete clause and then let out an unholy caterwaul when her publisher took issue. She lives for her writing, you see, but she also has to earn a living. So she should be able to publish whatever she wants whenever she wants. Otherwise, it’s censorship! It’s the blocking of free trade! She all but cried, “Word genocide.”

Here’s my thing: if the terms of an agreement are so disagreeable…disagree. No one has ever been forced to publish their book. It’s not like publishers are breaking down people’s doors and stealing their manuscripts because there’s not enough supply out there. This author hated the terms of her agreement. So she shouldn’t have signed the contracts. She could have kept on writing and spreading her work however she wanted to with no one stopping her. As we know, there’s an ever increasingly diverse number of platforms authors can use to move their material. And as she said, this author lived to write.

But she also needed the money. And that’s where things get tricky. Bottom line: she was offered an amount of money to allow someone to publish her books for profit. And she took it. Once she realized that taking the money meant agreeing to the terms on which she took it, that’s where it got ugly for all involved.

Listen, I’m not saying every writer needs to sell their soul to the devil. Just the published ones.

I kid, I kid. Publishing is a business, as I’ve said over and again. There is a corporate machine that authors are part of, and there is a bottom line. Is that an ideal system in which to create art? No. But it’s a pretty solid one to make money in.

Now, I know I’m being snarky and that, realistically, this isn’t a simple binary where you choose integrity versus cold, hard cash. Which is something that we also face as agents. Let’s say a book comes across my desk and I know I can sell it for a million dollars, but I don’t personally think it’s something that needs to be out there in the world. Do I sign it anyway, take my commission and run? I’d love to say no, but if there was that kind of financial guarantee there, could I turn away? If I was offended by the book, sure. If I just thought it was unnecessary or unrewarding…the question gets a lot slipperier. Which is simply to say that it’s a constant struggle to figure out how to balance art vs. commerce and that I know I’m being reductive, but sometimes you do need to be able to put your foot down about what you can and will do for certain financial rewards.

Acknowledging that, I wonder: as authors and writers, how do you (or how do you plan to) strike that balance between integrity and the ability to put food on the table?

11 Responses to You Can’t Always Get What You Want

  1. “…[H]ow do you (or how do you plan to) strike that balance between integrity and the ability to put food on the table?”

    Two words: day job. When it comes to putting food on the table, that’s what my day job is for. I write because I have to to stay sane (or reasonably so). If I wind up making money at it without having to do anything that makes me feel dirty, then that’s a bonus. When I’ve been asked to revise something I’ve written, it’s generally been for reasons that have made sense. I may not always agree with what I’m being asked to change or how, but I find I can usually find a compromise that ultimately makes the work better. Surprisingly, I’ve yet to be asked to change something to make it more commercial. So, as far as soul-selling goes, I haven’t had any requests (at least not yet).

    On the issue of contractual obligations, um, that’s what they are: contracts. Promises. If you sign off on them, honor them. Period.

  2. Dave beat me to it: Keep the day job. It’s all about time management.

  3. Nathan Rudy says:

    I’ve written for my entire life, both for fun and for pay. I’v spent the past 20 years in public relations for corporations, political campaigns, government and non-profits and never even got to have my name on my own writing. But I was paid to write the stuff so I did it.

    I wrote the novel I’m shopping now in part because it was a fun idea and I liked exploring the characters. But I also hoped that if it turned out good enough I could sell it to someone who would turn a profit and give me enough of it so I could write another, and another, and another.

    If I signed a contract with a non-compete (I have in the past) then I would not compete. The writing is free under our Constitution, but the publishing costs something. Sometimes that’s money (if you self-publish), sometimes it’s rights beyond publishing, sometimes it’s agreeing not to compete, and sometimes it’s something else.

    But if you sign an agreement and the other party delivers on their obligations, then you have to do the same or they can get restitution. It’s pretty basic.

  4. I often tell burgeoning writers that writing your first draft is about expressing yourself creatively without limit and with the joy that comes from exploring the inner workings of your own mind freely, without fear of restriction.

    Writing your second draft is then about solving all of the problems that come with the above. :)

    I think of it like, that first draft is your inner child. The second draft is the parent reigning in that inner child, and contracts are put in place by publishers – who extend themselves sometimes at great risk – to remind the author which draft needs to show up in their in box.

    Publishers are almost always portrayed as the bad guy, and it irks me. All of my editors and publishers, (and I’ve had a few) have been nothing short of wonderful. I’ve never once felt censored or restricted, but then, I’ve always played by the rules of my contracts.

    So, like you, Jim, I believe I have little sympathy for the author crying foul. If there was a message she really wanted to convey, and felt constricted by the terms she agreed to and got paid for, then she could have been a little more clever and hidden that message in another story which didn’t compete with the first. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen writers couch their opinions in cleverly written stories before….Animal Farm anyone?

  5. Julie Nilson says:

    For art, I write fiction. To put food on the table, I write press releases and PowerPoint presentations and software manuals and management texts and corporate magazine articles. My hope is that I can eventually make some money at fiction and give up *some* of the corporate stuff, but I’m not going to count on that.

  6. Kerry Gans says:

    One way I intend to balance art and money is to get a great agent (anyone?, anyone?) who will help me do the singlemost important thing when entering into a contract: UNDERSTAND EVERY SINGLE LINE of that contract.

    Authors need to know exactly what they are agreeing to – what they’re signing away, what they’re keeping, what their limitations are for other writing they have done or plan to do. If you understand what you are signing, then there are no unpleasant surprises. And, as said above, if you do not like something in the contract, either renegotiate if possible or don’t sign. Ignorance is no excuse and there is really no excuse for ignorance.

    As for paying the bills? If I could someday pay the bills with my writing, I would be thrilled. Until then…my husband keeps his day job and I stay at home raising the kid and writing during her naps!


  7. RamseyH says:

    Keeping the balance between integrity and keeping food on the table… I’d define it a little differently. I think the balance is between staying true to your own vision and writing something that other people will want to buy. Personal vision vs. commercialism.

    Fortunately, that’s not an either-or game. You can do both. You can write an appealing, fast-paced, commercially viable novel that’s also got superb writing and depth. And from what I’ve seen, the books that hit both targets tend to be the breakout bestsellers.

  8. Giora says:

    The market for books is very competitive, so its unrealstic to expect making a living from writing books. The distinction between Artistic Book and Commercial Book is not always the choice for many authors (aspiring and established). My book, for example, was written as a commercial book to reach the maximum audience of readers in China and North America, and I pleased with it. Thanks for the topic.

  9. Anon 2 says:

    You don’t link to the original article, but I’m guessing she sold a book to another publisher when she was still under option from the first. Those option clauses don’t really do the author any favors. Many authors can write two or three books per year that are publishable, and if they’re making 20K per book, they need that money to live.

    Writers who write good books, that are solid midlist, should be able to write more than one book per year, for multiple publishers. There’s no reason they shouldn’t earn their living that way and treat writing like a career, not a hobby.

    Should the author have broken her contract? No, it’s stupid. But agents aren’t always attune to the fact that writers want/need to write more than one book per year, and don’t make sure the contracts reflect that. And obviously, writers need to be aware of what they’re signing.

  10. Aonghus Fallon says:

    A deal is a deal. You sign up for something, then you play by the rules agreed in the contract. And I’m speaking as somebody who would generally put artistic integrity before profit. And I don’t think I’d ever blame an agent for representing a book that they thought would cut them a profit. I’m not quite sure what that says re my opinion of agents…

  11. Emily says:

    gag!! I left integrity behind a thousand years ago when I started writing for government clients — but I put food in the cat dishes and acquired a nice retirement.

    So now I’m writing my heart’s desire — maybe it will one day be someone else’s desire too.

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