I’m the first to acknowledge that contract negotiations can be contentious, and I’m proud (and thankful) that negotiations have never gotten to the point of spitting and pulling hair. We believe everyone should come away happy and feeling like a winner. Problems can arise when one side feels the other side isn’t giving enough ground to meet somewhere in the middle. And this is where the art of negotiation comes into play.
This is why I adore agents. More than any other group, agents understand how far they can push a particular point and when it’s necessary to walk away from either the table or that particular point. They know when a publisher is mushy on a term and may cave in, and when no means no. If it means no, agents look for other options elsewhere in the contract to balance things out. To date, we’ve only lost one negotiation, and it wasn’t because the agent walked away. Agents want to make the sale, and they are in the best position to determine a good deal from a bad one.
But not all writers have agents, and some may turn to writer’s unions for guidance, and of late, I’ve begun to wonder if the unions care a rat’s hiney about making the sale. And why should they? It’s not like their paycheck depends on the author signing a contract. They’re advisers, and they have a largely undereducated audience hanging on to their every word.
Don’t get me wrong; I feel writers unions do a great job at educating authors about the industry, general contract language, and protecting writers’ interests. But over the years, I’ve had enough dealings with them to make my teeth grind because they can be real deal killers. I understand they are there to protect the author and make sure they don’t get screwed, so a big hooya to that. However, I’ve had a number of instances where they told their author-member that certain terms are “common language in all publishing contracts” and to hold out until the publisher relents.
The author, not realizing any different, delivers the ultimatum that offers zero wiggle room. Either the publisher caves or there is nothing to talk about. So the author now faces losing a perfectly good contract based on iffy advice. Some of the ultimatums I’ve seen have been outrageous, and I can’t imagine any publisher agreeing to them. Yet the author doesn’t realize this because the union told them “it’s standard.” Who to believe?
Where an agent will offer alternatives and keep the negotiations alive, the writer union author faces an editor who is left with nothing else but, “nope, sorry,” and walks away. Instead of looking at a contract, they’re back on the street, so who won here?
Sure, the author can tell himself that the unions protected him from a skank deal, but how can they really be sure? Authors don’t know enough about publishing contracts to know if a sticking point is really worth the risk of having the editor withdraw the contract offer. Unions don’t understand this; agents do.
And don’t forget, the unions don’t negotiate on the author’s behalf. They only advise the author after looking at the contract. The author is on his own. He can either accept or refuse their advice, and it’s no skin off the union’s nose. The author doesn’t have the experience to know when to hold ’em or when to fold ’em, and they could play the wrong hand based on advice given by someone who has nothing to gain or lose.
My advice? Definitely listen to what writers unions have to say because they invariably know more than you do. And then talk to an agent. It’s always easier to get an agent when you have a contract in your hands. And they will protect your interests and get the most realistic deal.
And that’s the operative word here; realistic. Writers unions don’t often take into account that an unknown author has far smaller bargaining power than a well-established author who brings in millions. What’s realistic for Big Author is far different from Unknown Author, and those contracts will reflect those differences.
Have I mentioned that I love agents?