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Virgin In The Church
#7, January 2002: Contractual Matters

--By Scott Nicholson

(Intro: I sold my first novel "The Red Church" through the slush pile. It will be released as a mass market paperback by Pinnacle Books in June 2002. I'm sharing my experiences in hopes that other writers can learn from my triumphs and mistakes, and, of course, to generate interest in the book. Scott's rule number one: build your audience one reader at a time.)

The contract for "The Red Church" is a fairly standard boilerplate. Apparently all New York publishers have these standard contracts that are the starting points for negotiations. To make life interesting, many larger agencies (or at least mine), have their own boilerplates. So the negotiations are often a matter of "dueling boilerplates."

My contract was tied up for a few months as the publisher’s attorneys and my agency’s attorneys batted the contract back and forth like a birdie at a senior citizen’s badminton match. While the money and basic royalty were determined in minutes during my agent’s initial phone call, some of the fine print needed to be honed. I won’t bore you with the fiduciary aspects of the contract, other than to say that the advance is not the kind that makes headlines in Publisher’s Weekly and that I don’t expect to quit my day job anytime soon.

Other details in the contract are of interest to me, mostly as a beginner who plans a long career. The most important question I had was, "How long does Kensington Books own my first-born?" The answer seems to be, "As long as Kensington can make money off of it." If they make an additional printing after the first run, they must print at least 10,000 copies or the rights revert to us (my agent and me).

This protects against the dreaded print-on-demand problem, where publishers abuse their right to print the novel by doling out one copy at a time and claiming they are keeping it available for sale. Realistically, most mass market paperbacks go out of print within two or three years, when interest lags and the reading public has moved on to the newer releases. Obviously, the author wants to keep the book out there as long as possible, both to continue building the audience and to keep the royalty stream trickling. But there’s no need to leave the rights with a publisher who has lost interest in promoting its own title. Since Kensington is a quantity publisher with a continuous avalanche of new titles, they are not as dependent on the backlist income.

Kensington will likely reach a point when "The Red Church" can longer justify another print run, since books are returnable and inventory taxes are high and the next new author could be a breakout seller. But that doesn’t mean "The Red Church" will be dead forever. If I work hard enough and manage to improve, my future books might be successful enough so that another publisher will eventually bring out my old titles for re-release. Any foreign rights that Kensington doesn’t sell will also be available for mining, as well as limited edition releases, story excerpts, and that sort of thing. Dean Koontz says an author should think of his books as annuities which provide lifelong income. Not everybody sells like Mr. Koontz, but it’s a sound philosophy.

The contract allows us to keep electronic rights and movie rights. E-books are not big moneymakers for anybody but a select few authors, but why let Kensington have rights they don’t need or want? They have no e-book line. Likewise, they aren’t geared toward dealing with Hollywood. My agency is, being one of the top five movie agencies. So that right may be important later on, when the agency sends galleys of the book around to studios.

While Kensington controls all the "fixed" print rights, all those that could actually appear on paper, that doesn’t mean they keep all the money. Essentially, they act as an agent to their overseas contacts, giving out their list of new titles and saying, "Which of these do you want?" Kensington gets a portion of the proceeds of successful sales, ranging from 50 percent on certain obscure and unlikely sales to 25 percent of foreign sales, 20 percent of British sales, and lots of marketing options after that.

This is where, being a first novelist, I have to accept terms that are not necessarily in my best interest. Ideally, my agent should retain those rights and market them. On future books, if I ever compile another worthy manuscript, maybe we’ll be in a better negotiating position as a proven commodity. That’s why it’s important to build on success and keep striving toward a goal.

I’m glad to have the contract signed and mailed. Now I can concentrate on other things, such as planning promotion, working on current projects, and living happily ever after. I won’t get everything I would have liked, but neither will the publisher. And it seems like scrapping over crumbs anyway.

It’s not just about money, rights, egos, and "winning." It’s about valuing what you do. Writers should have self-respect, and publishers should respect writers. Without writers, there are no books for the publishers to sell. But, ultimately, the author, the agent, and the publisher are partners who serve that most important segment of the whole process: the reader.

And reaching readers is the best reason for signing on the dotted line.

(This article is uncopyrighted and may be freely distributed and published, as long as Scott’s byline and web address are included.)

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