Exposed last week in New York magazine: Full Fathom Five, a book packager* founded by author/entrepreneur James Frey (yes, that James Frey)–a kind of sweat shop for writers with an outlandishly awful contract.
The article has spurred quite a bit of outraged discussion, particularly of the contract. Book packaging is not generally known as an industry that is kind to writers, but according to people with experience, Full Fathom Five is in a class by itself.
Who would sign such an awful contract? Who’d give away all their rights (including copyright and the right to put their name on their book) in exchange for a measly $250 plus a royalty that sounds generous–40%–but isn’t–since it’s paid on net and the company can deduct unspecified expenses at its discretion? Who would be so ignorant? So desperate? So stupid?
Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that twelve years with Writer Beware has taught me, it’s that writers will sign just about anything, with just about anyone, in order to be published. I’m not talking about trade publishing, either. Say what you will about Full Fathom Five, it at least functions within the commercial publishing world, where sales, visibility, and film and foreign rights deals are possible, if not necessarily probable.
What I’m talking about is trade publishing’s underbelly, a dark realm of author mills, amateur micropresses, unprofessional epublishers, and pay-to-play outfits. In that alternate publishing universe, hideous contracts and author exploitation aren’t the shocking exception, they’re the norm. Every day, desperate and/or inexperienced writers willingly sign those contracts and accept those terms, often over the prompting of their own better instincts, or sound advice from experts.
Writers, you MUST take the time and make the effort to educate yourself about your chosen field BEFORE you try to enter it. Frey and Full Fathom Five are concentrating on MFA writing programs in their search for authors–a smart move for a company with a bad contract, since MFA programs are not exactly known for focusing on the business of publishing. But MFA candidates are not alone in attempting to enter an industry about which they are largely ignorant. Better than 75% of the thousands of writers who contact Writer Beware each year know little or nothing about publishing. For many of them, this is a recipe for disaster. The best defense against the scam agents, the bad publishers, the crap contracts, and the greedy packagers is knowledge. I know I’ve said this about a thousand times, here and elsewhere. But it can’t be repeated too often.
If you don’t understand the terms of a contract you’re offered, seek knowledgeable advice (that’s advice from someone who’s qualified to give it, such as a lawyer or a professional writers’ organization, not the kind of advice you’ll get by posting a question on, for instance, LinkedIn). Don’t just assume you understand, unless you’re already an expert (and even then; I have a lot of experience with contract terms, and I don’t trust myself to fully comprehend some of the twisted language in the Full Fathom Five contract). Don’t try to logic your way into a confusing clause–you run the risk of being wrong. And never, ever rely on extra-contractual assurances (for instance, if your contract says something scary, but your publisher promises you that they never actually invoke that clause). If it’s not in the contract, it doesn’t exist. Conversely, if it is in the contract, expect to be bound by it. I hear all the time from writers who thought they wouldn’t have to worry about this or that contract provision (such as a termination fee), only to discover that–whoops!–it was actually a big problem.
Most important: you must, you absolutely must be ready to walk away. This is the tough part, because your emotions are involved, which can make it incredibly difficult to exercise good business sense. But if the contract’s bad, or the publisher is unprofessional, or if something you can’t quite put your finger on is triggering a bad feeling in your gut, closing your eyes and telling yourself it will all work out is not the way to go. As painful as it may be to say no, in the long term you won’t regret it.
Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. The two are uneasy bedfellows. But to survive in a competitive and often harsh industry, the wise writer must strive to master–and balance–both.
* If you’re not familiar with what a book packager does, Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency offers a helpful explanation.