WriteTip: No Deal is Always Better Than a Bad Deal

DISCLAIMER: I am no lawyer. And I am not an agent. So I am not one to give legal advice. This counts more as common sense so keep that in mind. I want to say this about contracts, and it’s learned from experience:

No deal is always better than a bad deal.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating contracts, and it’s got me thinking back ten years to when I first started out as a writer. For the first two or three years especially, it seemed like I was never going to get a sale, let alone a pro sale. And that made me feel like my legitimacy as a writer was very much in question. So one day, when a deal came along that paid pro rates and offered me that opportunity, I faced a real delimma. See, they were paying me ten cents per word. And that was at a time when 6 cents per word was the pro standard, so this was great pay. But in exchange they wanted my copyright and along with it the right to rewrite me however they chose without my involvement if they decided to do so.

Man, I really liked everything about that project. I really wanted to be a part of it. Until I heard the deal points. It’s evidence of my desperation that I spent a few days actually weighing it before turning them down. Now a days, it would be a nonstarter, and, in fact, a sign that I should never do business with those people again. That’s outrageous. Writers are not slaves. Our intellectual property is our most valuable commodity, and if our name goes on it, you shouldn’t change a word we don’t agree to. It doesn’t matter how much you pay us—that’s nonegotiable. But as it was, I really wanted to be seen as a pro with a sale to prove it, so I did spend a few days considering what to do before I made the decision to decline. And just to prove what shitty people they were, the editor told me how I’d regret my decision and what a fool I was being—clear signs, I now know, of sharks and jerks I should never go near. But at the time, I had a lot to learn, so I wondered for a period if I should have taken the deal.

Seven years or so later, I have zero regrets about that decision. In fact, I have found myself in the position on occasion as anthologist defending my writers against that very type of rights grab. To me, it’s a nonstarter. And it should be for you and any creative. Unless the work is an exiting IP work for hire situation, you should never be asked to relinquish control of it by anyone. Now, if you are unreasonable about reasonable edits and copy edits and style changes, then they have every right not to publish you. And you should expect as much. So don’t be a dick. Be reasonable. But that’s not the same as rewriting someone’s work without them. I would never want my name on work that was not entirely my own, would you? In work for hire, you might not have a choice but with your own original work, you always should and do.

So, again, I advise you to remember this one thing when it comes to selling your work or negotiating any contract:

no deal is always better than a bad deal.

Of course, I also advise you to seek advice of knowledgeable people so you know what is reasonable and what to expect. After all, some deal points are standard, and you may not understand or like all of them, but that’s part of the business and there are reasons for them. Publishers are in the business to make money, and the goal of each side in any contract negotiation is to negotiate terms most favorable to them. There’s always some give and take involved. But when you know industry standard terms, you can tell when you are being treated fairly and reasonably within bounds and when people step over the line, and to me, that is the difference between a bad deal and a good one. The thing is that the industry standard terms have been negotiated or hard fought by writers organizations, writers, agents, and publishers over a number of years and represent the most reasonable compromise between both groups’ expectations. You are never going to get a deal with a publisher that is not at least somewhat more favorable toward the publisher because they are the ones putting out the money and assuming the financial risk, and they also have more overhead than you do on a number of levels. But over time, writers and their representatives have worked hard to work out terms everyone can live with in regards to not only royalties but exclusivity clauses, options, reversion rights, and so on. So familiarizing yourself with what the standards are can ease your mind and reassure you that you are making the best deal possible, all things considered. (Hint: The boiler plate almost never reflects these standards, so never take the first thing offered. Always  expect to negotiate a bit. The exception may be contracts with magazines and such, but most of the time, negotiation is expected.)

In the end, a bad deal is very hard to live with. It will haunt you and come back to make you hurt over it and regret it many times over. Whereas the deal you thought you regretted passing up, will disappear with time. That deal I mentioned that could have been my first pro sale? This is the first time I’ve thought of it in several years. Why? Because I long ago moved past it and had successes and learned what is and isn’t fair and reasonable, and that gave me perspective that I had done the right thing.  But bad deals cannot be undone, or at least, they are very hard to undo—and very expensive. So never let yourself be talked into a deal that doesn’t feel comfortable. Because it’s far easier to wonder over and over “what if” than to ask yourself over and over “how could I have been such a fool.”

And that’s why no deal is always better than a bad deal. For what it’s worth.

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