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"Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" the reprise

Last month I posted "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," about agent/author break-ups, and I promised you the sequel, about the difficult topic of splitting with your publishing house.  Well, here it is, reprinted from the August-September 2009 issue of the SFWA Bulletin.

Don’t Go Breakin’  My Heart The Sequel by "Agent Anonymous" (aka me)


The demented DJ in my head is now playing this section of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, “You know it’s really not my habit to intrude,” to which my inner BS meter is responding with fits of laughter.  Last Bulletin I discussed the painful parting of author and agent.  This time, it’s the equally problematic parting of author and editor or publishing house.  


First , we all know about options, yes?  Option clauses exist in all book-length fiction contracts.  They grant your publisher the first look at, say, a detailed outline or synopsis and three chapters for your next project, and set a time limit for the editor’s response.  Now, publishing houses will argue for vague, broad options, like “next work;” agents will argue for specific, narrow options, like “next book-length work in the series.”  The result might be to one end of the spectrum or the other or somewhere in the middle.  For example, “next work of science fiction” or “urban fantasy.”  Whatever your option says, that’s what you’re obligated to show your publisher.  The contract will also delineate an option period, usually something like thirty days from delivery and acceptance of the last work under contract if you have an agented agreement. 


You’re free to take your work elsewhere—

Immediately if:

-The work is not covered under the option.  For example, it’s a work of mystery and your option specifies fantasy.


Down the line if:

-You’ve negotiated in good faith with your publisher but are unable to agree to terms.  (You have the obligation to give the publisher a first look, but not to accept an offer you find unacceptable.)

-The publisher has not responded within the option period.


Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?


The Clash!  Okay, now we’re talking more my generation.  (Did I mention that musicals have always made perfect sense to me because my whole life seems to come with an internal soundtrack?  Bursting into song is just like talking to yourself, only different.   What’s that?  My logic train has jumped the track?)  Oh, right, we were speaking of options…. 


How do you know when it’s time to turn down that offer (or ask the publisher to hold that thought) and move on?  That’s between you and your agent.  Sometimes it’s the money, sometimes it’s respect and promotion, sometimes all of the above.  You’d think that since publishing is a business and past sales feed current offers that they wouldn’t differ a great deal from house to house, but the P&Ls (profit and loss statements) which drive advances are projections based on expectations.  Oh yes, accounting can be every bit as subjective as critiquing, don’t let anyone tell you differently.  One house might not have had any success with military science fiction, let’s say, and another might have a bestselling author of same on the New York Times list.  Their expectations and projections will be similarly, well, different.  The latter will probably see your work in a brighter light.  See what I’m saying?  On the other hand, just as with changing agencies, the grass isn’t always greener in another publisher’s plot. 


Things to take into account:

-Has the publisher(s) you’re considering had success with your sort of work in the past?  What about the present?

-What format do they intend for your work?  The right format can be very important, and is not always hardcover.   The larger, more expensive formats are great for the ego and for garnering reviews, but are not right for every book, especially in this economy and especially for debut novelists.  Readers are more likely to take a chance on a new author at a lower price point.  Am I saying turn down hardcovers?  Heck no!  Some novels cry out for a big book treatment.   I’m only saying that bigger isn’t always better.

-What are their promotional plans?  Where do they see you fitting into the market?


If the answers you receive or anticipate aren’t much different from those you hear from your current publisher, it may not be time to move from a sales force that knows your name and how to market you and has a lot of your backlist to promote alongside your frontlist.  Publishers are often reluctant to swap back ads or other promotion with each other, but your current publisher will happily promote their own forthcoming series in your new releases.


Okay, so we’ve been through option coverage, periods, how to know when it’s time to go….  What am I missing?  Ah, I have it — what happens if you have a new series that you’d like to sell before your last work under contract is turned in?  Well, if it’s not covered under the option, you’re all set…as long as you abide by the terms of the non-compete clause.  Ah, yes, we talk a lot about options and reversion clauses, but the poor non-compete clause hardly gets any press at all.  It’s a quiet, unassuming clause that says something to the effect that you won’t contract anything that might affect the sales or delivery of your books for the publisher.  It may promise that the works under the contract will be the next that you write.  You’re going to want to double-check this clause to be sure that any new contract won’t conflict with the terms of your current agreement.


If the new series is covered under the option, the publisher will probably (though not necessarily) be willing to take a look sooner rather than later.  They’re not obligated to give an answer before the option term kicks into effect, but it’s likely they will, either to say “here’s our offer,” “I’ll get back to you as soon as we have the latest ship and return figures” or “no,” in which case you’re free to take the work elsewhere.


Of course, you want to keep your once and future publisher happy, so it’s important to maintain open communication and to be sure:

-you actually write quickly enough to keep more than one series going and to deliver your works on time

-you keep the houses you write for apprised of each others’ publication dates, etc., so that there are no conflicts


Thus far, I’ve been talking about authors who are already contracted going to a new house with a series or stand-alone.  Let’s deal with some less pleasant possibilities.  What happens if you and your editor are at absolute loggerheads?  Just as I advised with your agent in my previous column, before deciding to do anything irrevocable, discuss.  Not on your blog or Twitter account, but with your editor if you feel you can, or if you feel civility there is right out, with your agent.  See if your agent can smooth over any misunderstanding or bring up any points that need to be addressed in a productive way.  If there’s simply no seeing eye to eye, you and your representative can discuss how best to make a change.  As you’ve probably figured out, most of us in this business are lifers.  Ink runs through our veins.  You’ll likely bump into the editor again and again, directly at conventions, or indirectly at editorial or acquisitions meetings where your work is discussed.  Asking for a new editor should be a solution of last resort.  However, it’s not unheard of.  It can be done.  In some situations it should be. 


Now, leaving a publisher…that’s even more complicated.  If you’re unhappy with your current publisher in the midst of a contract, you can’t just change.  You have a contractual obligation to fulfill.  You can buy back the books, maybe, if the publisher agrees to it, but you’re effectively burning that bridge.  Again, this is something on which your representative, who’s  in the midst of the situation, will best be able to advise you, but just think of how many publishing houses have merged in recent years.  There’s no telling whether we’ve seen the end of the trend.  Best if we can all get along or at least deal cordially with any irreconcilable differences.


It’s a lot to think about, I know.  Change is never easy, but the keys to success are contractual awareness and communication. 


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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 20th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
Thank goodness for agents. This is daunting stuff for someone who is way better at the creative end of things than the business end.
Sep. 21st, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with discussing options with the editor and not going over his/her head so to speak or going off the deep end. Once you take an irrevocable step, who knows where your reputation and career will go.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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