On Writing: Know Your Value

12

January 22, 2015 by Laird

In the interest of making a public service announcement:

Best practices are common enough. While not everyone agrees regarding particulars, there is a general consensus among working writers–money flows to the writer; be mindful of boilerplate and your rights as a creator, and so forth.

It’s more difficult to receive guidance in the gray areas of this business. My experience is that at some point, especially after you’ve amassed a portfolio, it’s time to decide, in broad terms, what you’re worth. It’s a perilous assessment–err too far in either direction, you’ll wind up in the rough. Nonetheless, we writers already find ourselves in the tall grass all too often. Mentors can help; agents are useful; but ultimately, it’s on us to make the call, draw the line, and sign it, or not.

Case in point: A while back, I sold a novella to a terrific publisher for a deluxe anthology with a tiny print run. The stories were solicited by a major editor. Mine was commissioned for a flat fee. The anthology sold well. Pleased with his success, the editor decided to approach other publishers for a paperback/electronic release. A new publisher expressed interest and offered the editor terms to reprint the anthology.

I can’t speak for the other writers; what follows describes my experience only.

The editor had only secured the right to publish my novella in the original limited anthology. As the book was a limited edition, there wouldn’t be any further print runs in hardcover.To use my material in the paperback/electronic edition, he required me to sign a brand new contract. And therein lay the rub. The new terms (in a nutshell) had twenty+ authors splitting (based on word count) about five hundred dollars of advance money plus whatever royalties might be earned through pb/electronic sales. I did not like the terms or the money on offer, so I counter-offered for industry standard reprint rates which typically run between 1-3 cents per word.

My reasoning? Most anthologies I’ve participated in sell thousands of copies during their original run and so the reprint value of individual stories is debatable. Additionally, I’ve also usually signed a contract giving the anthologist pb and electronic rights for a certain duration. In other words, any new money is somewhat of a bonus and not subject to negotiation. This case is trickier–fewer than 500 readers have seen this novella–if I retained the rights to reprint it, I’d have scant difficulty placing it any number of places for a fair reprint price.

Long story short, we didn’t reach an agreement and so I regretfully pulled my novella from future incarnations of the anthology.

I hold no animus toward the editor. It was purely a business decision. Whether this will lead to future difficulties, only the magic eight-ball knows. My point isn’t that one of us was right and the other wrong, it’s simply this–if you write professionally and do it long enough, you’re going to come up against these situations. Everything in this business is negotiable. Right, wrong, or indifferent, years ago I made up my mind where the lines are drawn and what value I assign my labor.

It may be something for you to ponder.

12 thoughts on “On Writing: Know Your Value

  1. Kirk says:

    Good advice, and it’s nice to have a concrete example.

    Sounds like the advance was on the order of a quarter of a penny per word, maybe even less. Fairly absurd, especially in this circumstance.

    • Laird says:

      That was my rough estimate regarding offered payment. I make no judgment of the anthologist except to say that he entertained a minuscule advance from the new publisher. Given the circumstances of the anthology and its star-heavy table of contents, I couldn’t go along for that ride.

  2. griffinwords says:

    I understand small presses selling their anthologies to bigger presses for reprinting, but I don’t think I understand agreeing to do it for so little money.

    And… I think I just figured out what book you’re talking about, and if so, I’m especially glad I ponied up for the limited edition.

  3. Teddy says:

    Thank you for the advice. I read all your advice and they are very helpful.

  4. Martin Rose says:

    Many a person has been wrecked at a casino for lack of “no.” Tragically, there is no tutor I’ve yet found for this art of discernment, for when to fold, and when to say “all in.” Yet, it really is a critical part of this writing business, and seemingly the one least discussed. It’s good to see someone write about it.

  5. T.E. Grau says:

    In screenwriting and in publishing, more writers need to stand up and demand their value, lest they remain the lowest on the artistic totem pole (as carved by the Non-Writing Machine).

    Because, you know, everyone can write, right? E-mail and twitter and texts and Post-It Notes prove it.

  6. Mercedes says:

    Exceptionally timely. I was just having a similar conversation today about how currency seems to be the only “author’s worth” that people can understand. I think it’s because money can be so concrete. You can hold it in your hands. I’ve decided to stop underselling my work, and that is a scary and intimidating thing for me. Thank you for this, Laird.

    • Laird says:

      Yeah, there’s no guarantee about coming out victorious. Still, it’s important to think about. Preferably before needing to.

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