I drove “down the hill” (as we say up here on the hill) to speak at the (for Dummies) Authors’ Unconference on Saturday and wanted to share my brief impressions.

Good: Conference organizer Alan Rubin and crew did a great job of attracting press notice and scheduled numerous author book signings and media events throughout the area.
Bad: The loneliness of the poorly attended book signing.
Ugly: Some signings were scheduled during the panel sessions.

Good: I missed this session, but Wiley execs made a point of showing up in force and sharing lots of info about the Dummies brand and the company in general.
Bad: some of the authors told me that they felt Powerpointed into submission 😉
Ugly: I wasn’t able to stay for the Wiley cocktail party or dinner.

Good: I had fun on the agent’s panel and I hope I gave a few helpful answers (and thanks to Carol McClendon from Waterside who shared the panel with me).
Bad: I rambled before the Q&A came back on track.
Ugly: I didn’t follow my notes at all, here they are —

A good agent can help you to:

– Find books you might not hear about yourself
– Develop your book proposals
– Submit proposals to publishers you can’t approach on your own
– Negotiate your contract
– Choose which books to do
– Manage your schedule
– Manage co-author relationships and contracts
– Coax your publisher on all fronts
– Manage and sell your sub-rights
– Manage your expectations

Good: Authors sharing.
Bad: Maybe too much sharing at some points. It’s wise to be careful in what you say about your publisher (in public).
Ugly: “My last agent thought I was high maintenance.”

Good: Paul Aiken, Executive Director of the Authors Guild, led a great discussion about the Wiley contract.
Bad: Nothing bad here but the ultimate question is “how many Dummies authors does it take to change the Wiley contract?”
Ugly: You could see authors deflate when they understood the difference between “net” and “list” royalties.

The guild discussion was great. It’s too bad that some authors missed it.

Regarding the guild discussion, I am poised somewhere between the idealism of the guild and the realism of an agent who often works with series publishers.

Paul noted that reasonable author contracts create a profit sharing relationship between the author and publisher, and that after all expenses are deducted, in the trade at least, that ideally balances out to around a 50% share of the profit for each side. So far, so good.

But a series publisher often holds substantial (and expensive) assets: trademarks and trade dress, style guidelines and templates, a large editorial machine, existing licensing partners, and hopefully, a successful sales and marketing team. The author may hold fewer cards in this situation, and the publisher itself may have higher costs (editorial development, especially).

If you choose to work with a series that has its own strong brand and infrastructure you become a “franchiser” of sorts (i.e. you “rent” the brand) and it can skew the ultimate deal percentage.

This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea to write a series title, not at all. I love series publishing. These books can do very well for their authors, and can help an author to create their own platform and brand that they can leverage into future books, and even at a reduced rate an author may make more money on the series deal. There are plenty of publishers who can publish your book on wedding planning, but there’s only one that can publish Wedding Planning for Dummies.

With any agreement, you need to understand the pros and cons of your contract before you sign it, and it’s equally important to understand and appreciate what your publisher brings to the table. Use the Guild attorneys, use an experienced agent, or hire a publishing attorney, but make sure you understand your contract. Change what you can, live with what you can, and remember that you can always walk if the deal doesn’t work for you. Just make sure you walk for the right reasons.

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Via Media Bistro’s blog, this entry about work for hire versus royalty deal, comments inspired by a column from The Publishing Contrarian, Bring Back “Work-for-Hire” Authors.

I’m not sure how many ways I can say “uggh.”

The Contrarian suggests that authors should get their money up-front because they’re really not likely to earn anything on the back end.

Certainly, this can happen. Books don’t always earn their advances, and publishing is a bit like playing roulette (or a crapshoot as she says), but I’m reasonably certain that JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and a thousands of others in every section of the bookstore are better paid because of royalties, and I think that most authors are looking to make the same gamble.

The Contrarian seems most concerned about the emotional pain of waiting to be paid (or not paid), and the emotional highs and lows of watching a book languish with low sales.

If you want to avoid the highs and lows of writing, then maybe it’s time to find a regular job. I know that lots of publishers are hiring.

In my experience, the work for hire deals I’m offered don’t necessarily eclipse the license deals to the point that they’re worth taking.

I’m not against work-for-hire at all, in fact one of my clients signed a work for hire deal last week. It’s a decent deal that will pay the bills and leaves us in good stead with the editor — if I was to suggest a truism it would be that “helpful authors get more work.”

The Contrarian says that the advance is a “loan.”

Not true, an advance is a payment for a license to specific publishing rights, those rights may or may not include foreign rights, overseas English language rights, serial rights, film rights, etc. These rights typically expire when the book (or sub-license) goes out of print.

Another agent rightly points out that you can earn royalties over multiple periods, but if you take a work-for-hire deal you pay taxes on that amount all at once.

Ownership counts for something to most of my clients. There are plenty of work-for-hire deals out there if you want them: try the magazines, write white papers, become an on staff tech writer, work with a book packager, work as a ghost writer or ghost editor.

Work-for-hire authors are a commodity, royalty authors are partners.

Work for hire is for employees, royalties are for free agents.

Royalties inspire creativity.

Royalties ensure the publishers can take chances and share the wealth down the road.

Royalties allow authors to share real wealth on mega best-seller books.

Royalties can become annuities.

You can live on work for hire, you can get by, you can get steady work, but the only way to get rich — yeah, that’s right, if you’re smart and lucky — is to take royalties.

And if the Contrarian is unhappy with her small royalty payment, how happy will she be when her work for hire deal makes millions for the publisher while she took her safe work for hire fee? Will she be any less unhappy? I don’t think so.

I totally understand the heartbreak of small sales, and I’m not against work for hire when it works, but it’s a silly argument to make, which is why Said Miss is posing as the Contrarian I suppose.

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Author Michael Thomsett posted a comment in a previous entry about cross accounting, he says–

I would recommend every author cross out the infamous “cross collateralization clause” – a mouthful, but important stuff. This is usually some reference like, “Author agrees to that any amounts due on this or any other agreements may be withheld from earnings…” This means that if you write two books and one doesn’t earn out its advance, the publisher can apply earnings from the second book to the first.

This is good advice and it’s probably one of the best tools in an agent’s arsenal, something that authors might not learn on their own until they see lots of royalty statements. I thought I’d offer a little more perspective on co-accounting (a.k.a. cross accounting or cross collateralization) because it comes up in a variety of scenarios.

What is co-accounting?

Just what Michael said. You might have two books with $10,000 advances, but if one does great and the other poorly, you still won’t see any money until the entire $20,000 advance earns out. The “tell” is when you see the words, “under this or any other agreement” in your contract.

Co-accounting is a tool publishers use to reduce their risk, and we all want to reduce risk so it’s not really a surprise that it’s in your contract. You should be able to remove or modify this clause, but some publishers will balk at this with a new or unproven author. If you decide you can live with it on your first book, you should certainly address the issue before you sign a second book with that publisher. You might also ask that co-accounting be limited to future editions of that book only.

Co-accounting of advances

Co-accounting of advances is usually a bad deal. There are rare circumstances where it might work okay: for instance, an author and agent may agree to cross accounting on a series contract because they are sharing the risk on a full list of titles, but this is usually balanced by a strong royalty and large advance.

Co-accounting and returns

Even if you strike the co-accounting of advances, your publisher will want to keep the right to take “overpayments” from future earnings. You can make sure that “advances are not considered overpayments,” but it’s unlikely that your publisher will say the same of returns. In general I think this is fair. Returns hover at 20% for computer books, and most authors don’t expect to be paid for books that were subsequently returned.

Co-accounting and subsequent editions

If you’re dealing with books that are revised and re-released every few years — something that invariably triggers returns — you’ll find that your publisher may want to reserve the right to co-account your first edition against your second edition advance, and so on. Again, this protects a publisher from the cost of returns on the first edition.

What about reserves, don’t they cover returns?

Sure, over time they should. But something funny can happen when you have both co-accounting of editions and a certain reserve clause. Ideally, a publisher would deduct the returns from your reserve, but some will try to deduct the returns from books with positive sales, and keep the reserve pool flush for a period of time. This invariably delays your money. 20% of your sales are held in escrow, as it were, and your returns are debited against your other books. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get paid, but it forestalls that payday.

Publishers without reserves

A few publishers don’t hold a specified reserve unless they see a wave of imminent returns, but they do typically co-account advances and royalties against future editions to protect themselves from the returns on the first edition.

Success is your best weapon

In the best scenario, your books are doing so well that your returns are more than offset by multiple streams of income across multiple books that are not co-accounted. If you’re successful as an author, you can convince your publishers to limit co-accounting and also to release reserves when they climb too high. Cross accounting clauses hurt the mid-list authors of oft revised books most of all, since some of these books are only eaking out their advances before they need to be revised and updated. It’s worth asking whether they’re really worth the effort.

At the very least, make sure you understand what your contract says, and ask your editor as many questions as you can about the royalty accounting and payment system up front, especially before signing that contract for book two if you didn’t already manage it with book one. Otherwise you may not learn what your contract really says until you see the royalty statement in your hands.

Standard “I don’t know everything disclaimer”

Your mileage may vary. This post is most germane to computer books, textbooks, and reference titles. Every publisher’s system has its own wrinkle, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few points here. Please feel free to post your comments, questions, or pointers to other resources that may cover this topic as well.


Agency contracts are (or should be) pretty straightforward. In fact many agents don’t use a contract at all but do a handshake deal and let the agency clause in the publishing contract govern the relationship. At the moment I am working sans contract because by and large I am working with people I know and like and who trust me, and I don’t presume that they should be beholden to me if they want to work with someone else on future books. This is a relationship business after all, and if I can’t sustain my relationships I should find another line of work.

When needed, I do a deal memo outlining the agent-client relationship. Here’s what it looks like: I charge a 15% commission on US sales, a 20% commission on foreign rights sales (where I may use a sub-agent), and in the event the client decides to terminate our relationship while I’m working on a particular project I ask for 60 days to finish up with whatever leads I have. Plus, I reserve the right to invoice clients for copying and/or postage fees on submissions. This is all fairly standard and, I believe, fair.

Someone just sent me a contract for an agency that will go nameless here, but I was amazed to see what some agents get away with. The agent asks for a $500 from his client on signing the author-agent agreement, and further stipulates that the entire agency commission for the advance is taken from the client’s first proceeds. So if you have a $20,000 advance and a $3000 signing payment, the agency would take the entire signing advance.

My advice? Never sign a contract with an agent that asks for expense money up front — there are plenty of legitimate agents who do charge for copying and postage — but spending hundreds of dollars up front for an agent who hasn’t even submitted your proposal is a very bad idea.

And maybe I’m wrong and the practice of taking the entire commission up front is more common than I believe, but if I were an author I would avoid signing with an agent who is paid from first proceeds.

As an agent I have a fiduciary responsibility to my client, and I have an interest in ensuring that my client is paid promptly, paid correctly, and represented in all matters pertaining to the book to the best of my ability. If a book should suddenly go south, an author needs an agent who likewise won’t get paid unless the problem is fixed.