Writers unions and contracts

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?

3 Responses to Writers unions and contracts

  1. Aston West says:

    Examples of some of these particulars that the unions are pushing would be helpful…I don’t belong to any writer’s unions, but I don’t imagine they’re looking out for the best interests of their membership all the time.

  2. GutsyWriter says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I wasn’t really aware of Unions. I just assumed your first step is to find an agent. I’m curious to hear more about writers who query you without an agent. Are they the ones who go to the Unions for contract advice? How do you handle them if you’re interested in their query?

  3. lynnpricewrites says:

    Sure, we’ve had a number of unagented authors use writers unions. I always tell our would-be authors to have their attorney check out our contract – as they should with any contract. The unagented ones who are members of writers unions will have them check out the contract. They hand out advice and send the author on her merry way.

    To me, unions are there to educate, certainly, but like I said in my post, they have no dog in any particular race when it comes to contract negotiations. The author has already paid their dues, so there isn’t any incentive to the union to teach their members the art of negotiations. Actually, I can’t back up that statement; I’m just saying this from my observations of working with authors who got their advice from them.

    Sadly, my success rate for signing union repped authors stands at zero because the authors simply didn’t know how to negotiate and didn’t know enough about publishing contracts in general to know when they had a very fair contract in their hands. All of them to date have walked away.

    Agents, on the other hand have been successful in every case except the one where the author walked away.

    Examples of some of these particulars that the unions are pushing would be helpful

    Todd, there have been a number of interesting suggestions, but I’ll pick out the ones we see in nearly every negotiation where the unions are involved.

    The first one involves the author’s desire to have royalties paid on copies of books they buy. Authors get a 50% discount on all books they buy from us, so we’re unmoveable to that idea. The unions state that this is standard contract language. Maybe it is, I just haven’t seen it among all my editor buds. In fact, they all had a hearty laugh over the very notion.

    Conversely, with all the contract negotiations we’ve had with agents, not one of them has ever suggested their client get royalties on the books they purchase. I could see this from a POD company, where their main customers are their own authors, but certainly not a commercial press.

    Another common sticking point deals with that 50% discount we give to our authors if they want to buy any of their books. The unions suggest that authors should get the maximum discount given to any retailer, wholesaler, or distributor. Again, they state this is common contract language. I don’t know of any publisher who would agree to this, and it’s not an issue open to debate. But, hey, what do the unions have to lose, right? Whereas the author has everything to lose.

    Sure, if all these authors had been Tom Clancy, I’d given them the moon. Clancy is a proven entity and known in every corner of the world. These guys can demand pretty much anything they want. Unions make no distinction between the Clancys of the world and Joe or Jane Author. In theory, it’s nice, but it isn’t reality. And that is why I think authors should take writer unions with a grain of salt.

    I wrote about the woman who refused to buy Microsoft Word here so we could work on editing her manuscript. When it all came to a head, she went to the writers union, where they wrote us several threatening letters of a lawsuit, stating that outrageous “outrageous” demand of buying Word should have been in the contract. No one in their right mind puts this in a contract.We responded and never heard from them again.

    It was a crackerjack complaint, and had the “attorney” who wrote the letter was really on the ball, she would have told the author it was crackerjack. Instead, she wrote a couple really dumb letters that made her look like an idiot because she needed to represent her dues paying member.

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