Category Archives: Copyright

The Craving for Validation Can Really Screw Things Up

Writers–especially new writers–crave validation the way a cat craves catnip. I’ve seen the craving result in a few writers doing some incredibly destructive things from a business perspective. I myself did quite a few stupid things business-wise due to the validation crapola in my head until I learned from much more experienced writers that the crapola was there and that I needed to get rid of it.

Validation is NOT asking “Is this piece of writing any good?”  Validation is all about saying stuff like:

When thus-and-so happens, then will I be a REAL writer.

It’s the part about “then I will be a real writer” that messes writers up in the head. Badly.

Several wise old pros told me, “a real writer is someone who writes, day in and day out,” and I used to be inexperienced and stupid enough to scoff at that saying.  Surely there had to be more to being a “real” writer.

I don’t scoff anymore, because I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a core seed of truth to what those writers said.

A writer writes.

A painter paints.

A singer sings.

A coder codes.

Whenever someone quits doing the action (code, sing, write, etc.) that is the core of their dream, everything grinds to halt in a matter of time. Writers who stop writing will eventually become the topic of “What ever happened to so and so?” among readers.

Also, validation is NOT about setting goals.  It’s fine to have goals.

What I’m talking about here is having a mindset where a writer is totally dependent on a particular thing happening to feel like a “real” writer. This dependency results in neediness that can be manipulated by scammers, and a frantic urgency that results in bad business decisions that can postpone (or even wreck) the ability to make a living as a writer.

For quite a number of writers, “thus-and-so” is “published with a NYC publishing house.” The problem is the “When I am published by a NYC publishing house, then I will be real writer” mindset leads to a neediness that makes it hard for a writer to do the negotiating that needs to be done to get a decent contract.

Here’s something to think about.  These NYC publishing contracts are between a writer and a corporation.  We aren’t talking about two individuals working out a joint partnership here. Those people you meet from the corporation can be really really nice, but at the end of the day it’s the corporation the writer signs with. Editors and CEOs can be fired.

The craving for validation from corporations based in NYC can be used against a writer in contract negotiations. It’s just the nature of business–the writer’s book is a profit-and-loss statement for the corporation. If a writer wants to play doormat, that’s the writer’s problem as far as the corporate entity is concerned. Sometimes an editor will warn a writer if the writer acts too much like a pathetic wuss in negotiations, but for the most part the writer is on his or her own.

The other nasty part of this “NYC publishing house” requirement for being a “real” writer is that all the great middle-sized publishing companies get ignored because one is chasing after a narrow definition of being “real.”  There are some terrific small and middle-sized publishing houses out there, ones that are going to be big publishing houses 15 years from now.

Lastly, the whole mindset of  “when thus-and-so happens, then I’ll be a real writer” also makes it harder to keep morale up. Several old pros have pointed out to me that writing is disheartening enough as it is due to the rejection process; there’s no need to pile more anguish on by setting absurd goals for what is “real” as a writer.

A real writer writes, day in and day out.

Everything else is just a goal to aim for.

Scrivener’s Error: Blog on Publishing Law

I’ve discovered an amusing website for keeping up with publishing law news.  Lawyer C. E. Petit has a site called Scrivener’s Error where he blogs about many things related to publishing gossip, especially anything involving publishing law.  Well worth reading.

Also, be sure not to miss Petit’s rants about the terrible contract terms being offered to want-to-be-published newbie writers by James Frey’s book packager Full Fathom Five, especially his post on this from November 13th called “The Million-and-First Little Lie.”

Cory Doctorow’s Publishing Experiment

Cory Doctorow has offered himself up as a guinea pig to test two areas of hot debate: 1) does offering a work as a free e-book lose or gain the author money in the long run, and 2) would an author make more money on a book by self-publishing or by going with a traditional publisher.

Here’s what he says:

I’m a contrarian on both of these propositions: that I’m losing money by giving away e-books, and that I’m losing money by using a publisher. I have a nice little Goldilocks gig going—not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of DIY, independent publishing and just the right amount of professional support and administration from my publisher to sell. But I’m as curious about both propositions as anyone. While it’s fun to argue about whose intuition is more correct, I think facts on the ground beat a priori assumptions every time. So I’ve come up with an idea to get some facts in evidence, while making some money and raising a little hell.

So Doctorow’s third collection of short stories With A Little Help will be done using a self-publishing model, and he’s going to keep track of the sales numbers and actually share the data.

Data he’ll be tracking:  Profit & Loss, E-book, Audiobook, Donations to him, Print-on-demand trade paperback, Premium hardcover edition, Commission a new story for the book for $10,000 (already sold), Advertisements, and Donation of books.

He’ll be posting monthly to Publisher’s Weekly.  His first post is here.

Keep an eye out on what happens with this experiment in the next year or two.

Learning About Publishing Contracts

I’ve met writers who refuse to learn the basics of a publishing contract, or who skip reading the entire thing before signing.   This always drives me crazy, because they’ve just signed a legally binding document that could result in all kinds of heartbreak because they wouldn’t accept that publishing is a business, like any other business.  You can get sued.  You can go bankrupt.  You can discover that you can’t exploit certain rights to your work because you signed away all the rights when you shouldn’t have.

A publishing contract is a business contract.   If you sell your writing to a publisher, congratulations, you’re now a small business of one.   And if you sign a bad contract, you can be dealing with the repercussions for decades.  Or out of business entirely.   Doing the writing is art, selling the writing is a business.

So, where to start learning the business law basics a freelance writer needs to know?   I started with the THE WRITER’S LEGAL GUIDE:  AN AUTHOR’S GUILD DESK REFERENCE, THIRD EDITION by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray.  Get the most recent edition to read since publishing law and technology change quickly.  This book provides a great summary of the business law a freelance writer needs to know, from copyright to publishing contracts to agent-author agreements to IRS tax law.  By the time I finished this book, I felt I had a good understanding of the legal basics.

There’s another book to consider reading next, even though it’s from 1999–KIRSCH’S GUIDE TO THE BOOK CONTRACT by Jonathan Kirsch.  Kirsch is a practicing attorney in publishing law, and he had lots of valuable anecdotes and examples to provide as he went through an entire sample publishing contract.

For both books, I found it best to read 10 pages or so, and then stop for a few hours.  The legal matters can be mentally tiring to wade through quickly.  Also, there were times it was helpful to mull over a newly learned fact or law before moving onwards.

Some writer organizations have sample contracts you can look at or lectures about contracts at their national conference.  Definitely check to see if any organization you are a member of provides such services.

Jonathan Coulton and Artistic Niches

Independent musician Jonathan Coulton’s journey as an artist fascinates me. I was introduced to his music about a year-and-a-half ago through word of mouth, and I’ve been listening to him since.  His music does not fit the mass market tropes (for example, he’s got quirky songs like “Flickr”, “Mandelbrot Set”, and “Re: Your Brains”).   Music label companies are looking for hits, not artistic niches, so Coulton ended up creating a small business to sell his music.

He’s written a long blog about his journey entitled “How I Did It” on his website.

Several things struck me when I read Coulton’s blog post on how he got to where he is:

1) He played for live audiences, experimenting with his music, and watched their reaction. Over time he figured out what sort of music he was good at (i.e. finding one’s ‘voice’ as an artist).

2) He learned–as he became interested in doing so–how to produce his music, first in posting mp3s to his website, then in having a CD made, and eventually in building an entire store of music on his website. Nothing happened overnight, it just slowly snowballed as he tried new ways of reaching listeners.

3) Putting his music under the Creative Commons license became a way for him to encourage people to share his work with others if they liked it.

4) After he quit his job as a programmer, he did a project called “Thing A Week” where he wrote a new song on a weekly basis. It ended up lasting for a year. This helped him learn how to work past creative blocks, and also (inadvertently) meant there were lots of songs that could be purchased from him by fans.

5) Technology has reached the point that niche artists can side-step distributors who require mass market appeal.

6) Selling one’s artistic work is a small business, like any other small business. You gotta learn about marketing, means of production, operating costs, technology, et cetera.

There’s a good article by Clive Thompson for the New York Times Magazine from May 13, 2007 which explores the time and emotional demands of doing your own marketing as an independent artist.

Interestingly enough, a heated debate erupted in March 2008 over Kevin Kelly’s blog post “1000 True Fans”, but I’m going to save discussing it for a separate blog post. Let me just summarize by saying people argued about how many “true fans” are needed in order for an independent artist to make a living without a distributor.