JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

 

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I was a literary agent. One day, a writer who was not yet a client came to me for advice. “I wrote a novel,” she said. “Mr. Blank, of Blankety Press read it and liked it, and he wants to publish.”

The actual publisher she mentioned was a well-known, respected house with a track record that included bestsellers. “Congratulations,” I said. “What’s the offer?”

“They’ll publish the book entirely at their own expense.”

“Of course,” I said. “But what advance and royalties are they offering?”

“None for the first edition,” the writer said. “But if they reprint, they’d pay a royalty on those sales.”

“Say no,” I said.

discontented writer“But they’re such good publishers! And Mr. Blank explained to me that their expenses are so high on the first edition that they would lose money if they had to pay a royalty.”

“Does he get paid? How about the typesetters and the printers and the paper suppliers? Do they donate their services?”

“Of course not.”

“The distributor and the bookstores will take their cut?”

“I assume so.”

“And yet your story is what’s going to sell the book, not the paper or the typesetting. So why on earth should you be the only one to go uncompensated?”

“I know, but it is my first novel. Mr. Blank says it’s a way to get my name out there and start building a readership.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Mr. Blank knows you can do that without giving your work away for free. He controls the price of his books, and he can take your royalties into account, just as he does for every other writer on his list.”

“But what if he won’t pay? I could lose my chance to publish.”

“It’s possible. But if the book is good enough that he wants to publish, there’s a reasonable chance others will as well. You can’t negotiate if you’re not willing to walk away.”

“I know you’re right,” she said worriedly. “But…”

I understood that “but.” I was a writer myself, as well as an agent. I knew what it felt like. Writers need to publish; why else would they write? Writing is an act of communication, a transaction that is incomplete until the work is read. For first-time writer especially, the need to publish can feel as pressing as the need of a woman nine and a half months pregnant to give birth. You’ve carried that story as long and as far as you possibly can; now it’s time for it to go out into the world.

And guess what? Publishers know this, and they use it. They are, after all, in business to make money; so if they can persuade writers to donate their work for free, that’s one less major expense.

That, by the way, is one of many reasons that writers need agents. Having professional representation means that negotiations will be conducted on a more businesslike, less lopsided basis.

arm-wrestling

And that is what happened with that writer from long ago. Rather than tackle Mr. Blank herself, she hired me to do it. He wasn’t thrilled to have me inserted into the mix, but we did a lot of business together, so he didn’t kick too hard. We negotiated a reasonable advance and royalty for my client. The agency’s fee cost her 10% (Yes, Virginia, agents used to work for 10%), but since the novel never earned out, the 90% that the writer got to keep was money she would never have seen otherwise.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a friend — let’s call him Chester, because why not? — called to say he’d received an offer from a magazine that wanted to reprint one of his short stories. It was a fine little magazine, and my friend was delighted; but their effusive note had strangely failed to mention remuneration.

“Ask,” I suggested.

“And if they say there is none?”

hard labor“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Chester agreed. He wrote to ask what the magazine proposed to pay for the story, expressing the hope that their response would not include the word “exposure.”

Silence ensued. Weeks of it, then months. Chester put the matter out of his mind, inured, like most writers, to disappointment. It’s not unusual that magazines, both print and e-zines, failed to pay contributors. So many aspiring writers are willing to work for “exposure” alone that they can fill their pages many times over while paying nothing at all for content.

Then, out of the blue, the magazine editor called Chester. They’d hadn’t ignored his question; rather, they’d been thinking hard about whether it was time to start paying contributors. In principle the unanimous answer was yes; in practice, given the magazine’s finances, the payment would need to be modest.

“How modest?” Chester asked.

The editor named a sum.

woman in burqa“You call that modest? I call it full burqa!”

“It’s the best I can do,” the editor said.

“Better than a kick in the teeth,” Chester said philosophically, and the deal was sealed, leaving my friend, as one wit said, well on his way to becoming hundredaire.

And now a third and final anecdote on the same theme. A former student of mine, let’s call her Violet, had struggled long and hard to find a publisher for her first novel. She had no interest in self-publishing; she wanted a traditional publisher, preferably one of the big five. After trying more than 80 literary agents, she’d given up on that route and started submitting to small royalty-paying publishers who were willing to consider work from unagented writers. Finally she struck gold. A small publisher offered to publish her novel in both print and electronic form. They offered no advance, but paid standard royalties on all copies sold.

man reading contractViolet asked if I would eyeball the contract just to see if anything jumped out. After the usual disclaimers (I’m not a lawyer and I’m no longer an agent) I agreed. And something did jump out: an option clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal not only on the next book, but on every book the author wrote thereafter.

“It’s the publishing version of indentured servitude,” I told Violet. “There’s no possible reason to agree to this clause. It would mean handing over control of your entire career to this company. Ask them to limit the option to your next book or cut it altogether.”

“But what if they won’t?” she fretted. “If it’s part of their standard contract… After all this time, I don’t want to lose a bird in hand for a pair in the bushes.”

“This stuff matters, unless you plan to be a one-book author. Options are inherently unbalanced to begin with, because they oblige one party but not the other. But writers and agents generally agree to a limited option on the next book, to incentivize the publisher to do its best for the first book. But this clause, this is just greedy, and it’s got ‘future headache’ written all over it.”

Violet took the advice she’d asked for and went back to her publisher, who promptly agreed to change the clause. Back in the Paleolithic era when I was an agent, publishers had different contracts for agented and unagented writers. They knew what the prospect of publication meant to aspiring writers, knew they’d sign away their firstborn child for the chance, let alone options on future unborn books.

Hence the overreaching. If by chance the writer objects, they amend the clause. Most don’t.

Now, as you’ve no doubt realized, the moral of these three stories is the same. There are times when writers must say no. (For a truly profane and heartfelt rant on the subject, I refer you to this video by Harlan Ellison.)

And so I call upon my fellow writers to take the pledge. Respect yourself and your work, for if you don’t, who will?

Say no to working for free.

Say no to rights grabs.

Say no to onerous option clauses.

Unity

Writers of the world, unite!

 

Publishing as a Career for Writers

In a recent blog post, Donna Shear, director of University of Nebraska Press, advised aspiring writers not to work in publishing, but rather to seek their day jobs in other fields. She offered a list of reasons to back up her argument, all perfectly sensible.  Recently, though, I mentored a young writer in an MFA program who asked my advice on seeking a career in publishing, and my answer was the polar opposite.

“It’s a great way to go,” I told him. “Not right away: you have to live life before you can write about it. Have some adventures first. Find something that scares you and do it. Live someplace where you don’t speak the language; travel.

“But after that,” I said, “when the time comes to choose a career, publishing makes a lot of sense.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. Publishing is an industry in flux, almost in crisis; and even in its heyday it never paid well. Still, for seriously aspiring writers, it’s a brilliant choice. Here are ten reasons why.

1. New York. Yeah, okay, there’s publishing in other places, too, but still: New York.

New York

2. Since aspiring writers usually start out as avid readers, publishing as a career has obvious appeal. Even among successful, well-published writers, only a tiny minority can live on what they make from writing, so the day job had better be satisfying in itself.

3. You will learn to speak Publishing, which has its own distinct lingo.

4. You’ll have the satisfaction of helping other writers along the path to publication. Publishing folk take great pride in the successes of “their” books. It’s good karma, too; what goes around comes around.

5. You’ll meet all sorts of people who can help you professionally: agents, editors, publicists and marketing mavens. None of them will take on a bad book as a favor; publishing is a bottom-line business, and professional courtesy only goes so far. But if you’ve got the chops as a writer, having friends in the industry can give you a big leg up.

The_philosopher6. Working in publishing will make you a better writer. Other people’s mistakes are always easier to see than one’s own. Editing sharpens the critical eye you need to apply to your own work.

7. It will make you a smarter writer, too. You’ll witness writers making every possible career mistake. When your turn comes, you’ll be savvier. There’s an old Jewish saying: It’s better to learn to shave on someone else’s beard.

8. punchIt will take you out of yourself. Many writers are natural observers, fly-on-the-wall types. The isolation inherent in writing can exacerbate this tendency. Working in publishing will teach you to speak up, lean in, even land a punch now and then (metaphorically speaking, for the most part.)

9. The people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go! I worked in publishing on two continents before starting my own literary agency. Apart from nearly starving the first year or two, I had an amazing career until I gave it up to write full time. I traveled widely, sold hundreds of books, and met writers, publishers and agents from all over the world, including people I’d admired all my life.

The pay’s a joke, especially in junior positions, but this profession has never attracted people whose primary motivation is money. The publishing people I know are smart, passionate, intellectually curious people who at some point in their lives were gobsmacked by a book and never got over it. You can’t find much better company than that.

10. Did I mention New York?

 

If you’re curious about my publishing career,  this post may be of interest.

 

Speak Up, I’m Eavesdropping!

I put it off as long as I could. Covered up, as people do; smiled and nodded. Finally I gave in and went to an audiologist.

She sat me in a booth and covered my head with large earphones. I could see her through the window, taking notes. If there was a period of silence, I watched her face for clues. It was a test, after all; I wanted to do well.

Afterward, we went over the results. “Mild hearing loss,” she said cheerfully. “Comes with age. You probably don’t even notice it except when you’re trying to have a conversation somewhere noisy.”

I didn’t mind so much about conversations. One can always shout. But noisy public places are prime eavesdropping territory, and for a writer, that matters terribly.

spyingWriters are nosy. I say this without apology, as nosiness is a requirement of the trade. For writers, as for actors, observation fuels invention. Our natural aspect is that of a fly on the wall, our patron saint Harriet the Spy.

As both human nature and language are the proper study of writers, eavesdropping is not a trivial pursuit. It’s a means of staying in touch with the ever-evolving vernacular and transcending our narrow personal circles. Hearing in general is so vital to writers that deaf writers are as rare on the ground as deaf musicians; yet some degree of hearing loss is almost inevitable with age. The first time I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I thought someone had finally come up with a practical solution, cheaper than hearing aids, though limited in efficacy; there’s only so much you can lean in without landing in someone’s soup.

Eavesdropping has always been a rich and essential resource for me. I once spent 36 hours in a Brooklyn ER with my younger son, waiting for a bed to open up. Despite my anxiety, I spent that time doing what writers do: observing and listening. And before my son was even released, I knew that I’d found the perfect setting for a book I’d long wanted to write.

Café_de_FloreIt’s not just me. There’s a reason, apart from coffee, why so many writers work in cafés: they’re great places to eavesdrop. Buses, trains, waiting rooms and bleachers are all excellent resources, but my personal favorite was always the diner. The booths provide enough illusory privacy to encourage revealing conversation, enough real privacy to allow me to take notes. I’ve overheard break-ups and make-ups, quarrels and seductions, women dissecting men, men puzzling over women, doctors dishing about patients, cult recruiters exchanging tips. My favorite bit of found art was a conversation between a father and his young son.

“You know, Dad,” the child said thoughtfully, “some of the best things in life are things you can’t buy with money.”

“Yes, my son?”

“Like friends,” the boy said. “And a family that loves you. And picking your nose.”

So I didn’t take the audiologist’s diagnosis well. Any degree of hearing loss threatened me where I lived; think of a painter with cataracts. Everything else aside, hearing loss is associated with encroaching old age, which has its own particular terrors for writers.

Coming_out_of_the_closetIt’s not discussed in polite circles, age being the last remaining closet. But the truth is  that there are commercial penalties for WWO — Writing While Old. One is no longer in the running for “hot new writer.” There is, sadly but inevitably, a tipping point at which the books become sexier than the author. Older writers in search of a new agent or publishing house are at a disadvantage compared to young writers with decades of work ahead of them.

Nor is hearing the only sense affected by age. Others may decline as well; yet fiction is grounded in sensory detail. A permanent dimming of sensation can force the older writer to resort to life’s pale cousin, memory.

Physically, writing a novel is far more labor-intensive than most people think. To produce a manuscript of 100,000 words, the writer might easily type five times that many in drafts. Travel, too, becomes more onerous as writers age and commercial planes devolve into sardine cans–yet nothing is more nourishing for writers than travel.

For some aging writers, there is also anxiety. Writing doesn’t come with a pension. This startling realization dawns on most writers around the time their non-writer friends begin retiring with comfortable nest eggs. No doubt it should have occurred to them sooner, but they were too busy reveling in the perks of their profession: setting their own hours, working at home, and making a living doing what they loved.

Robert_Frost_NYWTS_5Fortunately, these drawbacks are offset by advantages that allow writers, unlike dancers or athletes, to continue playing at a high level even in old age. Experience is a great asset. One doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see into the human heart, the wellspring of all fiction. Older writers have lived, learned, read, suffered and survived more. “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” said Robert Frost, who kept writing well into his 80s.

Older writers have skills, because the good ones never stop growing. They tend to value simplicity and clarity over ostentation. They put the story first. They’ve found their voice.

The extreme turbulence of youth is behind them. When productivity is the goal, it’s better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to be currently under fire.

Technology gives us tools as well. Google Earth is no substitute for travel, but it sure is a great backup. And writers afflicted with arthritis can now resort to first-rate dictation software.

Bottom line, it’s not as if we have a choice. Writers write, whatever the circumstances. As for me, I’m making my adjustments. I thought of handing out cards — “Speak up, I’m eavesdropping”—but  decided that might have an inhibiting effect. Instead, I practice leaning in, though I find it’s not much needed. Recently in an airport departure lounge, I heard a young woman on a cell phone describe in excruciating detail the party she’d gone to the night before. She’d gotten wasted, she said, passed out, and woke the next morning in bed with a stranger. As the young woman strolled off, still spewing into her phone, a flash symposium broke out among the dozen or so stunned passengers within earshot.

I hate it that I don’t hear as well as I used to. These days, though, people talk more loudly and openly than ever before. It’s wonderful how things work out.

 

For more on the writing life, check out Writers, Lies and Filthy LucreOn Writing and Gardening; and The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer.

MANNERS!

Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”

 

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, subscribe to In Cold Ink  via links above and to the right.

WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

money

Lately writers have been talking about a piece by Ann Bauer in Salon. Entitled “Sponsored by My Husband,” the essay reveals that Bauer’s writing career is subsidized by her husband’s comfortable salary. “All that disclosure is crass,” she writes. “I’m sorry. Because in this world, where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have.”

breaking_upWe don’t? Over the course of my career in writing and publishing, and as a frequent presenter at writers’ conferences, I’ve met countless published writers; and I’ve yet to take part in a conversation that didn’t devolve within seconds to talk of money. It’s an obsession, probably because there’s so little of it to be had in the profession. If you see a few professional writers at a table with their heads together, I guarantee you they’re not talking about the use of metaphor in modern fiction or the latest linguistics theory. They’re dishing about advances, royalty rates, and the monetization of backlists.

Of course, that’s talking writer to writer. When it comes to public speaking, writers have a different agenda. They talk about art and transformation, hard work allied with inspiration.  Bauer attributes this to their desire to present an Olympian image: the Celebrated Author descending from on high to disperse wit and wisdom to the adoring throngs (or semi-throngs; the usual book event draws an average of 8 to 12 attendees, half of them related to the author.)

slushThere are more generous explanations; but even if Bauer’s is right, should we begrudge writers their little affectations? I don’t think so. In real life, most writers are working stiffs with mortgages, kids, and too little money. Once in a while, though, we get to dress up and play rock stars; and what’s the harm in that? Consider the writer’s life. For years at a time, she leads a cloistered existence, laboring in isolation without feedback, encouragement, or paycheck. Then her book is published, and there is a great flurry of activity. The writer takes off her sweats, dons her official writer clothes,  and emerges blinking from her cave to toasts and accolades. It would take a hard heart to deny her a bit of basking and a glass or two of champagne before shutting her up again.

But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.  “We do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community,” she writes, “when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

Depends, say I. Sometimes a little obfuscation can be a good thing. As a fiction writer, I have, admittedly, an ambiguous relationship to the truth; that is, I think it takes many forms beyond the literal. But in this case, my objection to excessive truth-telling is practical. If authors were to use public appearances to complain about how poorly they are paid (which is absolutely true), how would audiences react? They’d still see the author as privileged, only now they see him as privileged and whiny. Every profession has its drawbacks. Very few writers would swap theirs for, say, coal mining or sausage making. Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.

I’m all for honesty and openness, in their place. This blog’s mission is to provide just that sort of honest, down-to-earth guidance to other writers, both published and aspiring. I believe writers need to share information and experience in order to plot our path through the rapidly changing publishing ecosphere.

But don’t cork up that champagne just yet! If we can’t have riches, we can at least have fun. One of the characters in my last book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, makes an appearance at her book launch dressed as Cleopatra, borne on a litter by four strapping young men in togas. Ms. Bauer might think this over the top. To me, it seems about right.

woman in litter

 

Major announcement coming soon, of particular interest to writers. If you haven’t already, you might want to subscribe to this blog through the links on top or to the right.

 

The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer

 

Writers with children often complain about the difficulty of combining these two particular endeavors. It’s not easy, but I am here to tell you, my fellow writers, that it can be done. I raised two sons while writing eight novels. True, I could have written 15 without the kids, but I consider that a fair trade-off.

It won’t happen by itself, though. Children are sneaky buggers and will consume all of your time if you let them. If you’re serious about writing, you need to create conditions in which writing is possible. Fortunately, a few simple rules and equipment are all you need. I’ve compiled a little list. I hope it will help.

Things You Need

A Room of One’s Own. If you have not yet read the Virginia Wolfe essay of that title, do so at once. Then designate a room in your home as your writing space. Doesn’t matter what sort of room, as long as it has a door. I knew a writer with 10 children and a tiny house; she worked in her garden shed.

lockChildproof Your Space. By childproof, I don’t mean make it safe for kids. I mean make it impossible for them to get in. Not just a door, but a lockable door.

A Dog. I recommend a German Shepherd – not the American-bred shepherds with the sweet disposition of cocker spaniels, but a European-bred dog with plenty of protective drive. My late, lamented Maya understood and enforced the sanctity of my writing space. She was a sweetheart of a dog, but anyone who entered my office while I was working was greeted with a ferocious volley of barks. She never bit; she only persuaded.

German Shepherd Military Working Dog

A Helpful Partner. Not essential, but highly desirable. Someone has to pick up the slack.

Early Education. When my children were toddlers, I taught them to recite two things: their address and the following mantra.

Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”

The one time my younger son burst in on me, he actually was covered in blood. It was his brother’s, not his own. Basketball accident. Sweat suits aside, the great advantage to working at home is that you’re actually there when you’re needed.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt kids to be independent. It might even help.

angelic childrenGood Kids. You can’t supervise children and write at the same time. Therefore, it’s helpful to have good kids. Of course, good or bad, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that kids will cut into your writing time. For one thing, they like to eat. For another, they tend to take up activities. I drove half the circumference of the earth conveying mine to practices, games, meetings, friends’ homes and various activities. But when I wasn’t being Taxidriver Mom, Dr. Mom, Chef Mom, or World’s Most Embarrassing Cheerleader Mom, when I was working, the mantra applied.

Duct Tape. In case all else fails.

Orneriness. There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no, and not just to your kids.

It’s easy once you get the hang of it. “Could you run the bake sale for the PTA?” “No, I’m working.” “Would you mind watching Cindy for the afternoon?” “Sorry, I’m working.” “Come take a dip in the pool.” Okay, that one I give into.

 

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.