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The Three-Book Deal
By Scott Nicholson

Writers often are insecure creatures, and on the surface, nothing should appear more comforting to them than a long-term commitment from a publisher.

After all, the imagined benefits are many. You get more books out there, and presumably the publisher will have a vested interest in promoting your work, especially if it already owns your backlist. You receive guaranteed money on the advances, barring something bizarre like your failure to turn in a publishable manuscript. You develop a rhythmic presence in the marketplace, and your audience will get the itch to buy your books every nine to twelve months. You become a better writer because you are obligated to write more, and that's still the only way to improve, despite all the modern breakthroughs in achieving celebrity status and hyping your work in new and demeaning ways.

You can almost convince yourself you have arrived, even though of course the money's still bad. Unfortunately, the down side of a three-book deal is just as significant. A lot of things can happen that would make the long-term contract a bad move for both sides. Casual followers of professional sports know what happens when a veteran fails to live up to expectations. The high-priced star finds a place on the bench as younger talent steps up to the plate, and the veteran is dumped for a song at the earliest possible opportunity.

Examples of bad things that can happen:

Your editor takes a new job shortly after you sign the contract, and her replacement doesn't share the same enthusiasm for your world-view. The fiery advocate who once defended your books before an illiterate sales force is replaced by someone who buries your titles in the back of the catalog. Both parties are confined to three years of misery, except the editor has many other writers while you have only one editor. It's like a case of multiple polygamy where you're the only one sleeping in the spare bedroom.

Or maybe the first book of the long-term contract tanks, and everyone in the publishing house sours on you, even the editor who championed the deal. You desperately wish you could start another career under a pen name, or at least give the rest of the money back and start afresh. But you're a writer so you're broke, and you've already spent the paltry advance. All you can do is bite the bullet for a couple of years, smiling and pretending no one despises you.

Worse, the first book of the deal gets some chance sterling review in a major publication, Tom Hanks swoops in and snatches up movie rights, and you're a six-figure writer who is obligated to write more books at a tiny fraction of that amount. You resent working for peanuts now so you turn in books that are less than your best, and you prove right all those critics who were denouncing you as a one-hit wonder who got lucky.

Even worse than that, the editor has figured out what you should be writing and you are essentially issued assignments. Under this brand of thinking, all three of your books should be carbon copies, with only names and central conceits changed. You will become a bad writer capable of churning out nothing but more of the formula you have bottled. The publisher is ecstatic because now your work is much simpler to market because there is no individual hook needed for each book.

So the three-book deal is the best and worst of all possible worlds. Up in the stratosphere of bestsellers, such deals are as much a status symbol for the company as they are a commitment toward the writer. At the lower levels of publishing, they can be as limiting as they are liberating. The only guarantee is for the least-important thing, which is the money.

But it doesn't matter that much. You're going to sign the contract anyway, because you are a writer, and you're going to do the books regardless of whether they have a home. Now you have three more chances. Like any fool blinded by optimism, you believe the publisher loves you and is offering the equivalent of an engagement ring. The publisher may be merely hedging its bets until something better comes along. But what fool doesn't believe in miracles?

(Originally appeared in The Horror Writers Association newsletter, May 2004. Copyright 2004 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission)

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