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?