The Business of Writing Part 1

One of the tough parts about being a “newbie” is that there are so darn many questions you have. Where do you go to get the answers? No where better than with other writers who’ve been there, done that. I sat down with some of my favorites to get some ideas on how to handle the Business side of this whole writing gig. 
Today’s post is on Contracts, Pen Names, and Accounting. Heidi Cullinan, Ethan Day, Amy Lane, Z.A. Maxfield, and Marie Sexton were all kind enough to answer my questions.
Contracts-
What do you know now about book contracts that you didn’t know when you got your first one?
ZAM-I know that reading them carefully is important. Also asking for help from people who have been through the process. At first blush, it’s such an unimaginable pleasure just receiving a contract that you’re likely to sign it thinking, wow, I don’t dare say anything, I don’t dare ask questions. But definitely, make yourself conversant with all the terms, and go to places like Preditors and Editors, find other writers, and compare publishers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
MS-I did not know a single darn thing when I signed my first contract. Frankly, I still don’t know much. I’m one of those people who is probably not nearly as careful as they need to be. I tend to sign and hope for the best. (Note: I’m NOT recommending this method.)
HC-I knew a lot, because I’d done a lot of research before. Like to watch out for moral rights clauses. (Basically, anywhere someone asks you to let them make changes to your work without your approval.) Most of what I learned are about net vs gross, percentages of royalties (what’s good, what’s not), terms of contract, etc. I’ve gotten better at looking at a contract and being able to tell if the publisher is looking out for them more than they are me. You can get a strong idea of the professionalism of a publisher by their contracts. Also how and what they’re willing to negotiate. Most of it is little stuff or global stuff that’s hard to pin down. A lot of it I’ve learned by having an agent too.
ED-I think that could be different based upon what’s most important to each individual. Royalty splits is obviously a big one – the percentage & whether that percentage is based upon net or gross profits. Author copies and what you’re charged per book once you’ve used the author copies allotted to you? If there’s a print option along with the ebook option, does it expire if it goes unused? There’s so many things to consider but most importantly, I’d tell anyone signing any contract to always consult a lawyer if they’re at all confused about the terms.                                           
AL-Mostly I know that contracts are pretty easy to read–and it’s worth the read.                                            I actually turned a book contract DOWN for the republishing of Vulnerable, my first book (m/m/f menage, ucf) because the contract language told me I had no cover art input and their distribution was not as wide as the self-pub I’d used for the book in the first place–it was all there in the contract, and I’m glad I looked for it.
What do you think are the most important things a new writer looks at in their contract?
ZAM-I honestly think the most important thing is that there is no fee for the writer. Real publishers don’t charge writers to publish their work. After that, the time a contract is in effect is important, as well as the rights you have (as an author) to your characters and the worlds that you’ve built. I haven’t been a genius about this, but I do read contracts and if there’s something I don’t understand, I make it my business to find out.
MS-I don’t know the answer to that one. I’ll tell you things a writer might want to consider that they might not think of the first time around, in terms of both choosing a publisher, and signing a contract:
First, choosing a publisher:
Royalties: Percentage of course, but also net vs gross
Cover art: We can say it doesn’t matter, but for myself, I want to be able to hand somebody my paperback and not feel like I have to apologize for it.
Editing: Different houses do it different ways. In some cases, you have a specific editor who you work with directly for your content edits. In others, you’re just dealing with an anonymous set of editors. Some publishers do a lot of content editing (meaning, asking the author to make big changes to the story), and some are more hands-off. There’s no right or wrong here, but think about what you want.
Print: Some houses do print on anything over a certain length. Some don’t do print at all. Some do, but they won’t actually disclose what the criteria is for getting it. Of the ones who do guarantee print, some release print at the same time as the ebook, and some wait 3-8 months. Again, no right or wrong, but it’s something to think about.
Distribution: Some houses put the book up for sale on all vendor sites right away, some keep them on exclusively on their own site for the first few months.
Piracy: Do they have any kind of system in place to help send take-down notices, or is it all up to you?
Marketing and Visibility: Some of them are simply more active and more visible than others.
With regard to contract:
How long is the contract for? Two years? Seven?
Exactly what rights? Is it spelled out. For example, does it say specifically distribution of ebook and paperback, or does it say something really vague like, “all distribution rights”?
Do you retain ownership of your characters?
Does it include a Right of First Refusal clause? Almost all epublishers have this, but there are a few that don’t. In most cases, all this means is, if you write a sequel or spinoff, the publisher has dibs. It generally does not apply to work that is unrelated to the contracted book. But make sure you know the terms.
Make sure you know how many copies you get.
Make sure you know if and how you can resell your books.
Make sure you know if and how you can use your cover art.
HC-The same thing an established writer does. The more you sell the more power you get for negotiation, but all authors should be looking for the future, not the next five minutes. I hear a lot of stories of authors signing bad contracts with publishers just so they can be published. It’s their choice, yes, but it tends to be that authors who don’t take contracts seriously don’t get taken seriously. Money is very important, as are rights. Make sure you don’t sign too much of your future away. Long term contracts are bad unless they’re with a very solid publisher for a very good deal. If you’re getting a crap percentage at a mediocre publisher for seven years, you aren’t getting a good deal. You’re signing on for slave labor.
It’s scary to turn down a contract, but it’s better to do that than sign a bad one. The illusion is that “someday I’ll be big and can fight.” The truth is that unless you fight when you’re small, you’ll never be big. Success isn’t handed out. It’s won through blood and sweat and a hell of a lot of tears and antacids.
AL-Make sure that international rights are covered (you’d be surprised how often this comes up), make sure your percentage is competitive with other publishers–and if not, are there other considerations. An example of this would be does this particular publisher keep your work in circulation for two years, or for seven? If your work is quality, sometimes it takes on a slow sales build–in which case, it may continue to sell after a two year window, and re-marketing the book may take time away from your writing (which is really the fun part, right?)                                       
Also, see if there are audiobook considerations (always a plus) and, if you’re the kind to write sequels (raises hand guiltily) see if the publisher asks for right of first refusal.  This is not always guaranteed, and sometimes, you need to negotiate that with your publisher. An example of this would be the Green’s Hill series. I published two novella spin offs of the series itself, and I also had the werewolf series completed as well. I told my strictly m/m publisher about those stories, but knew that, since there was a female character in the menage, they wouldn’t take them. That way, when my contracts for the m/m novellas were written, they left that clause out so that I was free to market the werewolf spin-offs somewhere else. It was very amicable–and all it took was knowing my contract.
Oh–and this isn’t something I’ve never had to use, but do make sure there is an “out clause” giving your rights back to you if your publisher doesn’t pony up with either money or publishing the books in a timely manner. I’ve been lucky–all of my publishers have been on the up and up, but the Aspen Mountain Press horror story is still very very frightening.                                       
Using a Pen Name-
Are there any special considerations writers need to make when using a pen name?

ZAM-I chose to use a pen name because I had younger children when I started and my family belonged to a relatively conservative church. I never really made a secret that it was a pen name, and my bio reflected the truth about who I am, housewife, mother of four. I’m kind of boring actually, and I’m fundamentally incapable of the presence of mind it would take to keep up an author persona that is more exciting than I am. I always want to tell everyone I’m a hot air balloonist who travels to fabulous places and has wild adventures, but I think readers would prefer that I stay home and write, and that my characters do all the cool stuff.
MS-I’ve heard some authors call out those of who use pen names as cowards, but for myself, I’m glad I have one, and it’s not because I’m ashamed of what I write. I don’t go to any really great lengths to protect my “real” identity. But, what I like is being able to compartmentalize a bit. Facebook is a good example. I have my personal account, which is where I talk to friends from high school, and my family members. I also have Marie’s page, where I talk mostly about things related to writing (with a few random personal bits thrown in). Frankly, I figure Marie’s fans don’t want to hear most of the stupid personal crap I post on my regular account, like asking if anybody knows whether or not it’s a snow day, or if anybody knows when the Windsor/I-25 exit will be done. Also, they probably don’t want to be bothered with my politics (and I don’t blame them). Along the same lines, my friends and relatives all know what I write, but they don’t necessarily care about what kind of progress I’m making on my WIP, or what my latest blog post is about. Also, Marie gets TONS of friend requests. That’s fine, especially when they’re from fans, but often they’re not. As Marie, I can accept them all without risking anything. If that was also my personal account, where I want to talk about my kid and post tons of pictures of her (even more than I do as Marie), I would feel those things were at odds.
Also, of course, some people really can’t let the world know what they’re writing. I’m lucky to not be in that boat, but it’s clearly something that needs to be considered.
I’m sure those who don’t use a pen name could give you all the reasons it’s great to write as yourself, and it’s obviously a personal preference, but for myself, I enjoy the freedom of having an alter-ego.
HC-Speaking as a reader, it’s sure nice to know how to say someone’s name. The idea of  picking a name and then making it impossible to remember/say/spell isn’t just silly but will likely cost you sales. I write under my own name, so it was established, but my name isn’t exactly impossible. My maiden name is a nightmare and likely would have necessitated a pen. The goal of your name is to establish your brand. If you’re choosing it, make the most of that.                                   
Some things to consider when choosing a pen name:
memorable (easy to say/spell/remember)
pleasant (Don’t pick Sally Stinkwater, for example)
unique (Mary Smith is a bad pen name)
possibly related to your profession or the aura you’d like to present. though not required (Marie Sexton. How smart is she? SEX. And yet it doesn’t bang you upside the head.)
The last is obviously not essential, but it can be fun. Another one I like is VJ Summers. Easy to say, and it sounds nice and breezy and fun, like summer.                                   
Another thing to do is make sure a bunch of other people don’t already have that name. If there are six other writers using Lionel Leopold or something very similar, you’re going to have trouble in Goodreads and Amazon and google searches. Also, other people in the genre who have similar names can be a problem. Either they’ll get your business or you will look like you’re trying to poach theirs, which is uncool. Again, if you’re using your own name, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. But if you’re picking, be smart.
ED-Yes. If a reader can’t figure out how to spell your name then how do expect them be able search for you on the internet? I don’t understand this trend whereby authors chose these outlandish names or simple names with outlandish spellings. Perhaps I’m missing something, but the largest reason I’m using a Pen Name to begin with is because my real last name is difficult for people to spell correctly. If you want to be known as the author, Amy Smith, I would highly recommend you not spell it like this: Aimee Smythe.
Just because we now live in an online world where most of your promo can and will be done there, I wouldn’t recommend handicapping yourself in this way. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve run across a book I was interested in buying only to go back later and not be able to find it because, while I was able to remember the author’s name, I couldn’t recall the weird spelling and therefore was never able to find the book. Irritating to me because I don’t get to read the book I wanted, bad for the author who lost a sale. My suggestion: leave the unique and creative names for the characters in your books! : )
This isn’t meant to be an indictment for any author’s who have done this. Nor am I attempting poke fun at you here. This is intended ONLY to be helpful, not bitchy. For me, it just seems like common sense, but it’s not like I know everything. These are just my opinions. I’m sure you’ll have another author come along and tell you because it’s an online world you need to make yourself stand out. I just happen to think your pen name doesn’t need to be one of those ways. Plus, people do still talk to each other…in person! I know, right? Who knew! : ) Word of mouth by mouth isn’t completely dead, lol. If I hear the name Amy Smith, I’d never think to spell it any other way. You need to be able to be found.
I also highly recommend you go to Amazon and do a name search within the Books section. If there are multiple authors already out there using the pen name you wanted then pick something else. Ethan Day was not my first choice, but there weren’t any others out there – so Ethan I became.
AL-*sigh*I was hoping we wouldn’t go here–this is a pretty volatile topic of conversation right now, not just because of stuff that’s been going on in the m/m world, but also because of stuff going on in MY world. I can’t talk about everything, but I CAN tell you this. I don’t compartmentalize well–I never have. Although Amy Lane IS a pen name, Amy Lane has all the stuff that the regular me has–an awesome husband, four amazing children, an aging dog, a couple of cats, and a weirdo, over-active imagination.                                  
She also has an enormous mouth and no discretion whatsoever.                                  
So even though I blogged under the name of Amy Lane, when I opened my enormous mouth up about my job–in spite of the fact that I used pseudonyms for pretty much EVERYBODY in the blog–it was enough to really cook me. The situation is actually bigger than that, and uglier, and really painful–but it does need to be an object lesson.
If you are writing about sex (even if you don’t see it that way, the rest of the freakin’ world is going to see writing gay romance as writing about sex, and don’t even get me STARTED on the unfairness of that assumption) you need to be VERY CAREFUL about your identity. That does not mean to appropriate someone else’s–it just means that you can not assume a pseudonym protects you, because that only works if you keep your identities separate. At this point my identities are so very merged that I answer to my pseudonym in public–and I think that’s the only way I can be. If you’ve got an option about keeping these things separate, do. It will make your professional life easier.                                
Accounting-
Are there any tips for new writers for keeping track of writing expenses?

ZAM-Oh, my goodness, YES. Start with that first month, and do it faithfully. Put every receipt where you can find it. I don’t! I always have to search around at the end of the year, and I’m sure I miss things. Also keep track of sales. That will become important to you in ways you don’t know yet.
MS-If there are, I’d love to hear them, because I’m terrible at it. I have a big manila envelope stuffed full of receipts.
HC-God, I’d like some. Mostly I have a file I shove all the receipts in, and I have a mail file as well. I just shove crap in both all year long, and in January I avoid it until my husband makes me sit down, and then I sort it all out. I go to a tax person because it boggles my brain trying to figure out what to file, but before I go I write up invoices for my expenses, attach my receipts, and she goes to town.
Postal receipts. Save them. Last year I had over $200.
ED-I certainly hope so…I’m waiting with bated breath.
AL-I’m sure there are, but, umm, you have to be more organized than I am to use them.                           
Do you handle the financial side of your writing career differently now than you did at the beginning of your career?
ZAM-No, I really don’t. I’m more likely to want to spend the time working on a book.
MS-A bit. I didn’t do anything the first year as far as keeping receipts for expenses. My accountant (who’s also my father) scolded me like crazy when he had to do my 2010 taxes. I’m doing much better this year (see note above about big manila envelope).  🙂
Just remember that anything related to your writing career can be written off. Obviously all advertising. All swag. All seminars or conventions. Postage for books or swag mailed was one thing it never occurred to me to keep track of until recently. 
HC-I think more about what time and monetary investments will pay off and how and if I have the brainpower to do them. Part of me feels like I should network on blogs and such more, but the mental drain it would take is not worth the potential advantage at this point. I don’t do a lot of pay promotion and very little swag because I’m not sure how much of it comes back in sales. I see the value, but at this point my focus is on increasing my backlist.
As for the contract details and the money therein, I have an agent, and thank god for her. I would not do this without one.
ED-No…which is a huge problem. I need to marry an accountant…who knows how to fix plumbing…as well as understand computer techie stuff. I need a Swiss Army Husband!                         
AL–  LOL– my first check came from my first self-published book. It was $25.03. I spent it on yarn. My next check was around fifty dollars. I spent that on yarn too. My NEXT check broke three digits. Yup–still spent it on yarn. Now I’m spending my checks on insurance, food, Christmas, clothes, vet’s appointments–the list goes on. Now I have to declare my earnings on my taxes, and I have to save part of them in order to pay the taxes that don’t get taken out. It’s almost like a teenager working for play money versus an adult working for rent–but the increase was very gradual.    
I definitely learned a lot from this, and hope you did as well. Part two of this interview will be about marketing, interviews, and…gasp…dealing with reviews. 
~Poppy                    

4 Comments

  1. What a impressive line-up to get advice from! Such a great ideas for those starting out in the writing world like myself. A few of the questions I was afraid to ask my writing friends because I didn't want to seem too nosy.

    Thank you all for your time and ideas. Poppy, you come up with the best ways to stay organized, I think you need to share your skills!

  2. Love the advice. And you know, Ethan, it's just too bad that I'm already engaged to be married b/c the accounting, plumbing, computer techie stuff is right in my skill bank, and I used to be in the Army too…LOL.

    I totally took notes though. Great, great advice.

  3. Great interview! I am not a writer but I found it really interesting.

  4. You're a cruel, cruel man-tease, Vicktor! ; )

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