Thursday, October 18, 2007

The good, the bad, and the Uncle Sam

I was going to blog about something mindless and probably uninteresting today, until I went out for the mail, and there was a book contract waiting for me inside the mailbox. I've been waiting for it almost two months, so I quickly tugged it out and began to read through the tangle of legal wording. (Yes, I read the WHOLE contract. More on that soon.) And then I was reminded that this job of mine, this very cool job that allows me to write in my pajamas and create characters I'd love to meet is really my JOB. A career, in fact.

I believe there's a certain glamourous aspect to being a writer, as does most of the non-writing public. The writer is a part of the entertainment industry, and man, that's cool, isn't it? And yeah, it has its glamourous moments (but trust me, they are mere moments), but I think it's very easy for non-writers, and even writers, to forget that what we do is, in fact, a job.

There are good, bad, and ugly parts to every job out there. I've done the nine-to-five thing. Don't ever want to go near that again, thank you very much. My last nine-to-five, wherein I actually worked from seven-to-seven in a freakin' beige cubicle under unrelenting flourescent lighting, taught me I'm not cut out for stress, and moreso, working alongside others. I get migraines in a situation like that. Serious ones.

Writing doesn't give me a headache. It sort of feeds my soul, actually. And that's one of the good things about my career. Another great thing is one you hear a lot from writers: we get to work in our jammies and can take breaks whenever we want and it rocks to do a book signing and have readers come up to you and say nice things like 'I loved the book!'. All good stuff. Wouldn't trade it for the nine-to-five, ever. I don't even mind the person who stops by the book signing table, studies the books, then declares grandly "I could write one of those!". Dude, go for it. Look me up when you've completed that 400-page, 100,000 word epic, and then we'll talk. :-)

There's bad stuff too. (Well, not really bad, but that's the word in the subject line, and mediocre just didn't have the same ring.) It's that business part. The very word 'business' sounds so...institutional and wrong for we right-brainers. But really what it means to a writer is that beyond the creative work, there is also marketing, promotion, office upkeep, contracts, and accounting. I don't mind all that stuff. I actually enjoy the promotion part, creating my own flyers, bookmarks, and website and blog. That's cool. And it's creative, so it feeds another part of my soul. The accounting can be a challenge, but I like challenges. Writers are freelancers. We get paid, just like everyone else. But that paycheck? It's not all ours. The majority of writers have agents. Their fees run 10-15% of all monies. It can hurt to have to give up a chunk like that. But I'm glad to have an agent to handle the contracts and legalities and tough phone calls to editors I'd rather not make. Anyway, part of our job then, is to see to that business, and not overlook it. You're not a serious writer if you avoid the business parts. Trust me, it's all part of the package. [If you think otherwise, I want to hear about it.]

Let me just talk about contracts a bit. I'm looking at all the writers out there now, so heads up. Agent or not, do you read your contract completely before signing it and sending it back to the publisher? I hope so! Yet, I can't count how many published authors I know, and have met, that say they usually don't read the contract. Their agent has gone through it, so why bother? Or that they just don't understand all that mumbo-jumbo anyway.

People. Writers! You must read your contracts. From word one, to that last page. Even agented writers. You probably won't understand 90% of the wording, but that's what agents are for. Every single contract I get, I read. Completely. Do I understand it all? Of course not. That's why I wield a pencil as I'm reading. I mark everything I don't understand, then call up the agent and ask her to explain it all. Over and over. I forget from contract to contract what I've learned, because believe me, legal wording is really some tough stuff. So I ask again. Someday I'll remember. Or maybe not. But at least I know what I'm signing at the time. And get this, agents are not infallible. They miss things. Even an agent you've been with for ages, and trust completely can miss something. How many times have we gone over our own manuscripts, thinking it's perfect, only to see a huge mistake circled in red returned with the edits?

That's my writerly pet peeve: writers who don't read contracts. Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog.

So what else? Ah, the ugly. And there is a big ugly to being a freelance writer. It's that money thing again. And I'm not talking lack of it, or heck, even an abundance. (Though I wouldn't mind an abundance.)After we get the check, and take out a percentage for the agent, well then, Uncle Sam stands there waiting for his cut. That's the part that's hard for me. I'm not sure if I ever do figure Uncle Sam's part correctly, but I try, I really do. I mean, it's easier when the money is taken out before you get the check (no matter how much it hurts; and we all know it does hurt). Having to do so after the money is in hand? Not fun. Ugly, even.

But heck, I'll take that ugly, because the good is really great.

So, writers, DO you read your contracts? And readers, what about your jobs? Would you trade your nine-to-five for some creative worldbuilding interspersed with gut-wrenching contract negotiations and solitary, oftentimes frustrating computer time?



Betina Krahn said...

Michele, I read my contracts. Though I admit I used to be a bit bewildered by some of the legalese. Not so much anymore-- I'm kinda used to it now and know what to expect.

Interestingly, the contracts of some pub houses are easier to understand and more straightforward than others. . . at least that's my experience. It's like they've made a conscious effort not to obfuscate with indecipherable terminology. Some houses don't seem to worry much about author-agent brain strain.

What kills me is the fact that they always put in clauses about things we all know will never happen. . . like hardcover royalty rates and merchandising rights. Proof, my darlings-- an admission, if you will-- that publishers don't know and can't foresee everything. They have to hedge their bets. In case your book becomes the next mania and somebody wants to put out action figures or posters or key chains of your characters, they want a piece of the action!


Helen Brenna said...

I did read my first contract, cover to cover, and with my CPA background actually understood all of it. Then I tried very hard to forget everything I'd just read. LOL

I think because I AM an accountant, the reality of all the numbers conflicts with creating for me.

So, I'll take the lashing with your wet noodle, Michele, but I can't promise to slog through the next contract!!

Playground Monitor said...

I've only sold to magazines, but I read the little one-page contract every time. I let hubby-the-ex-auditor handle the finances.

There's a writer here in my town who wrote a book called "Rocket Boys" which was made into the movie "October Sky." He spoke to our RWA group and said he thought his RB contract covered everything until someone decided to make a musical version of RB and his contract didn't cover that. So he gets nothing from the musical version. Who'd have thunk?

I was a tech writer in another life and it's lots more fun making stuff up than taking a property receiving procedure and putting it in outline form so Joe Anybody can walk in off the street and understand how to do the job.


Michele Hauf said...

Yes, that does give me a tickle too to see hardcover royalties covered. But you know the publishers are going to cover their butts. As for toys and TV-tie-in related games and such? I always try to keep those rights. Because you just never know. :-)

Helen, I don't want to hear it if you don't read your next contract. I also don't want to know that you discover a year or two later that they changed something you weren't aware of or added a never-berfore-heard-of clause.

playground, a one page contract would be a dream! But still necessary to understand. :-)


Christie Ridgway said...

Marilyn: I was a tech writer fresh out of college. While I loved the idea of "writing" for a living, I moved on to computer programming which was even less creative. Making stuff up is more fun!

Michele: I =usually= read through my entire contract. I may have skimmed a few times when I'm under deadline. I did make an important catch, once, and so I'm pretty motivated to at least read the parts I know are very important.

Cindy Gerard said...

Michelle - i've done the nine to five route too - and like you it was more 7:00 to 7:00. And writing at home wins out hands down. i think most working writers have paid their dues in the world of employment as opposed to self employment. And it made me a better business person because yes, I do read my contracts and like you, I have a pencil and paper as I go and clarify my questions with my agent.
And I love seeing 'movie' rights listed :o) gives me yet another fantasy to dream about.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Taxes first because there's little to say. I hate tax time. Those headaches you had working in the cubicle, Michele? I get some version of that at tax time. Not actual migraines or even headaches--I've never really had that problem--but tension leading to avoidance behavior leading to nightmares leading to insomnia leading to severe personality disorder. Some people have PMS. Not me. I have PTS. I wish the PTB would come up with a fair system that people like me could understand and deal with painlessly.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Did I say "little to say"? Hmmm. Guess I lied.

Contracts. I read them. I make notes so I won't forget anything when I call my agent, which I do. I've always felt that no question is TSTA. Too stupid to ask. (In my never-humble opinion, "too stupid to live" is a ridiculous concept. Sorry. The smartest people do stupid things sometimes. It's a fact of human life. But I digress.) I call my agent and ask every question that comes to mind. I'm paying him, after all.

I'm curious about the willingness to ask any question that comes to mind. My husband has a problem with it. He seems to think it's a sign of some kind of weakness. I don't get it. Is it a function of personality, gender, culture? Some combination? If I'm unsure, why shouldn't I ask, even if I'm not paying for answers? I love it when people ask me questions. I'm flattered that they think I might know something.

Michele Hauf said...

I'm becoming more willing to ask any question. Used to question myself before I'd blurt something out, then end up not asking. Now, I don't care if it's going to embarrass me or make me look stupid. If you need to know, you have to ask.

I like it when people ask me questions, too. I always say I'm an expert on nothing, but I can at least give you MY opinion on the matter.

flchen1 said...

So interesting, Michele! I'm definitely a reader only, and my current 24-7 is mainly mom-ing, with a little creative stuff on the side. I don't think I have what it takes to write, so I'd have to say, no, wouldn't trade my current situation for a writer's ;) But I'm extraordinarily thankful for you writers!