Friday, 30 July 2010

Mythic interview

I'm playing away today, doing the Mythic Interview over at Lucy Coats' Scribble City Central. So if you want to know why I painted one of Big Bint's friends green or have a soft spot for the naughty Biblical raven who couldn't be arsed, come and join us.


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

How to read a publishing contract (19)

You've done well if you've stuck it out this long - there are only 27 clauses so the end is in sight! This is a dreary one, and not really required since the point is already covered by UK law:

19. Value Added Tax

The Publishers require details of the Author's Value Added Tax registration number where applicable. Where the Author fails to provide a Value Added Tax registration number the Publishers cannot pay Value Added Tax on any sums under the terms of this Agreement.

Well, durrr. If you are VAT registered, you already know you have to provide a proper VAT invoice, stating your VAT number, date and tax point, bla bla.

Don't panic about whether you are or should be VAT registered. If you are, you already know. It's not like Income Tax that just sneaks up on you as soon as you have any money. You have to jump through hoops to get VAT registered. You only need to register for VAT if your turnover (not income) goes above £70,000 in a year. You can choose to register with a lower turnover, but if your turnover is very far below Customs and Excise might not want you to. (There used to be a quarterly limit, too, but that is no longer the case.) You can deregister if your turnover drops below £68,000 but there is not point in constantly registering and deregistering if you are hovering around the threshold. We'll do benefits and disadvantages of VAT registration another day - for now, you just need to know if you are VAT registered.

There is nothing to strop about in this clause as UK law already insists you provide your VAT number, so just accept this one and move on...


Sunday, 25 July 2010

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

But for now I am in a data desert. After four days at Goddard's in Surrey last week, I've come back to find Virgin very reluctant to deliver any electrons to my house, or take away the electrons I have used. This puny update comes to you via the free wifi in Starbucks - or free in exchange for buying lunch.


Monday, 19 July 2010

How to read a publishing contract (18)

This is about checking up on your publisher. Does anyone ever do this? I've no idea. But just in case you want to...

18. Examination of Publishers' [sic] Records

The Author or the Author's authorised representative shall have the right upon written request to examine the records of account of the Publishers insofar as they relate to the sales and receipts in respect of the Work, which examination shall be at the cost of the Author unless errors exceeding £10 (ten pounds) to the Author's disadvantage shall be found, in which case the cost shall be paid by the Publishers.

This means that if you think they are fiddling your royalties, or are incompetent, you can look at their records relating to your book for £10. If you are right, and they owe you more than £10, you don't have to pay the money. This clause doesn't actually say they will pay what they owe you, I but I assume they will. Now, if the publisher *is* fiddling the royalties, they are hardly going to leave a paper trail you can pick up so this won't do you any good. Perhaps I am being naive, but I think worrying that the publisher is withholding royalties ranks along with the 'will they steal my idea?' terror that besets unpublished writers. It must cost more to fiddle the accounts than to pay the royalties due, surely? If they have got them wrong because they are incompetent - well, checking the records might do you some good. It might at least show you it's time to find another publisher.

Incompetence is the more likely reason for the royalty statement being wrong. Usually, if you query a royalty payment and ask them to check, they will do so. It's not really necessary to go this £10 route. I think this is a rather boring clause (unless you are totally paranoid) that gives little potential for a fight.

Notice that it is specifically for 'the Work' - ie the current book. If you publish a lot with the same publisher, I'd argue you want to be able to look at the records for all your books for the same £10.

The Society of Authors does random spot checks on royalties and I suspect that keeps publishers on their toes anyway. Personally, I'd rather write another book than bother with faffing around in someone else's accounts. It's bad enough faffing around in my own accounts. I suppose now I've said that, all my publishers will start fiddling my royalties with impunity, confident that I am never going to check...

Friday, 16 July 2010

How to read a publishing contract (17)

Now we have a clause you can't really argue with, at least not without looking like a tyrant. It's a bit out of date, though...

17. Recording in Braille

The Publisher shall be entitled to authorise free of charge the recording of the Work in Braille or as a Talking Book for the use of the blind and/or the microfilming of the Work for the use of handicapped persons, such permissions to be given only for the use of the material on a non-commercial basis.

You wouldn't want to argue with this, would you? And I suspect they know that even if you *would* want to, you'd probably be too embarrassed to do so. It's not going to lose you any sales and it helps more people enjoy your book.

Talking books were originally cassette tape. I imagine they are now MP3s? I don't know - I would hope, though, that a blind person could put the book on their iPod and not have to wrestle with the past.

Microfilm?? Good Lord. I used to use microfilms of manuscripts and old newspapers occasionally when I was doing my PhD thesis. I would hope by now that no-one is making microfilms of my books. I can't really see how grappling with a microfilm reader would help someone with a handicap of any kind, and I hope by now they will be making accessible pdfs that are scalable and have full text-to-speech capability. But maybe the handicap they are thinking of is 'aversion to the modern world'.

So there you go - no stropping opportunities with this clause. Unless you want to use it to point out that your publisher should have their standard contract redrafted for this millennium. Updating once per millennium is not too much to ask, surely. Or that providing the blind and handicapped with such shoddy options is tantamount to discrimination, ghettoising them in the mid-20th century? I haven't done it, but it might be interesting to suggest they change this clause to produce usable versions for disadvantaged readers. Setting them off on a mission to find a microfilm reader or cassette player is surely cruel and inhuman treatment?


Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The world's changed, move on

This month's issue of The Author was so full of fretting about how the publishing landscape has been demolished by the earthquakes of digital technology and recession that I couldn't be bothered to read it and used it instead to swat flies.

This is all you need to know about the much-vaunted demise of publishing:

  • Publishers are scared of the recession and are cutting their lists, chucking all the money at a few titles they are prepared to take a punt on. Doom and gloom follows if said titles bomb.

  • Publishers don't know what to do about digital because no-one knows what the outcome of change will be. There is a lot of speculation and pontificating - believe who you choose. It is unlikely, though, that the outcome will be driven by the market - it's more likely to be determined by the actions of publishers in the grip of panic It is likely that customers will want to carry on buying a fair number of dead-tree books for a long time, but they may not have the chance (see point above).

  • The option of self-publishing (digital or paper) is heralded by some as the way forward for authors, ditching agents, editors, buyers, and others whose role is to filter out the crap. Self-publishing faces two hurdles: perfecting the product without the agents, editors, etc, and marketing - how to get people to be aware of your totally wonderful work of breathtaking genius, because they won't buy it if they've never heard of it.

This, in a nutshell, is what is happening on the surface. For authors, it all means uncertainty, reduced advances/fees/royalties, cancelled contracts, fewer commissions - less money and fewer books in print.

Authors and publishers alike are struggling to see how to make the industry pay, but they are not working together - authors look at ways of cutting out agents and publishers, publishers look at ways of reducing their commitment to the writers that make their key product. It's not a recipe for success. And all the time the public wants to pay less or nothing for the product.

I'm with Glyn Moody in believing digital books should be very cheap or free, and the money should come from nice paper editions - but we won't go into that just now.
The real point is: the years in which we, as writers, could make a decent (or at least sustainable) living just from writing books has gone for all but a tiny minority. There's no point fussing about how unfair it is. The world has moved on. Live with it. Find another way to make money, at least while the industry sorts itself out and settles down, and make only some of your money from writing the books you want to write. It's not a new situation - Chaucer had a day job, T.S.Eliot had a day job, Tolkien had a day job. No, it's not nice. But neither is whingeing nice. It gets you nowhere. Change happens - it happened to the people who made a living from slide rules, and from stabling the horses that pulled stagecoaches, and to the people who trained gladiators...

So - The Author and the authors - stop complaining and do something; it's getting boring. I'm not just being unsympathetic - I make my living from writing, too. I know there are writers who feel they don't have other marketable skills - but of course they have writing skills which they could apply in other areas. I know it's unfair. I know it's hard. But complaining in the face of something that is not going to go away is not a good use of your time and energy. It will not change just because you don't like it. The genie will not get back in the bottle.

It might take years before society realises it has a cultural diet of crap, but in the span of cultural history, that's just a brief snack on junk food. Shame that we are the cordon bleu chefs during this foray into cultural McDonald's, but so be it. We can try to wait it out. We can starve in a garret dying of antibiotic-resistant TB, or do a Philip Larkin and embrace some other toad to fund our literary endeavours.

And, of course, Stroppy Author should stop grumbling about the state of publishing. Yes, shut up, Stroppy Author. At least stop complaining about things that won't change.
There, that will have saved a few electrons that would have been spent on comments.

Monday, 12 July 2010

How to read a publishing contract (16)

Now a clause that should actually deliver some money!

16. Accounts

The Publishers shall make up the account for royalties on copy sales of the Work at December 31st in each year and deliver the amount due to the Author within 3 (three) months thereafter provided, however, that no account need be submitted unless specifically demanded nor payment made where the amount due is less than £10 (ten pounds), in which case the amount will be carried forward to the next account.

This means the publisher will pay you once a year, by the end of March, for the money earned on royalties over the previous year. This is a bit ropey, as many publishers pay royalties twice yearly, in June and December. Or, rather, they actually pay in March and September royalties earned to June and December. So - the publisher has your money for up to *15 months* without paying any interest and with no obligation to tell you how much of it there is. This is how publishing has always been. Starting from here, if this is your first book, you are likely to ask why they can't pay sooner, or issue more frequent statements. After all, it is no longer a matter of clerks in fingerless gloves adding up columns of figures Bob-Cratchit-style. It is now a case of Excel spewing out data the publisher probably doesn't understand and is reluctant to pass on. But the very fact that The Bookseller can produce an analysis of half-year sales for the whole publishing industry to 30 June on 9 July, suggests there is no good reason why we should not know our sales figures more quickly. Rant over. It's not about to change quickly, so either enter a fruitless argument in the hope that if enough of us do so the publishers' resolve will eventually be worn away, or live with it and take out a bank loan. (Or don't - as you don't know how much you will get or whether the publisher will go bust before paying you.)

If you haven't earned more than £10 in royalties they don't need either to tell you or pay you what they do owe you. Instead, they save it for next year (no interest, of course). Not telling you is, I think, discourteous and probably a false economy. If you are diligent enough to notice they haven't got in touch, it will probably cost them more to process your queries than it would have cost to send an email saying there are no royalties. Maybe they should just give everyone £10 anyway to avoid the question :-)

Why does it take three months for them to extract a figure from Excel (which we know is available the first working day after 31st December) and convert it into a computer-generated royalty statement with errors in and a BACS transfer (minus the VAT, which they will have forgotten to pay again)? Because they can get away with it. If you want to argue this one, cite the fact that PLR - paying many, many more authors than any single publisher - gets their payments out a few days after sending statements in January or early February and these are also calculated to 31st December. It's something we should argue against, but frankly there are more interesting fights to have. Once you are used to the fact that royalties are paid in March (and September, usually), it still happens every 12 (or 6) months so it doesn't hugely matter. And as for the fact that they can earn - or save - interest on your payment for three months, well, it might just keep the publisher solvent, which will benefit everyone.

My advice regarding this cause depends on the rest of the contract. If the publisher is trying to get any electronic rights, point out that if their understanding of technology is so rudimentary that they think it takes three months to calculate royalties and make a bank transfer, they are not a fit custodian of any type of electronic rights.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

How to read a publishing contract (15)

After a very long clause and a very long wait, here is a nice short clause (and no wait at all, as long as you read it immediately rather than rush off to make a cup of coffee).

15. Other Rights

The Author hereby grants to the Publishers exclusive licences for subsidiary rights, excluding film, television and merchandising rights.

exclusive licence = only the publisher is allowed to do any of the following things (so you can't market your own line of knitted characters or jelly bean flavours named after things in your book)

subsidiary rights = rights to produce the work in other formats or produce spin-offs from the work

merchandising rights = the right to sell products badged with your characters or other aspects of your work, even creating a whole brand identity. This can be clothing, food, lunchboxes, stickers, perfume, sticking plasters, condoms.... anything

The clause as worded here is a very bad deal. Don't agree to a rights grab like this. Unless electronic rights are mentioned elsewhere in the contract (in this case, they were in clause 1), have them excluded here. Other subsidiary rights you might like to retain include animation, computer game, and theme park rights. There is a potential for overlap between film, animation, machina and electronic rights, but this clause is just about keeping them all so we don't need to worry about that issue just now.

The real problem with a clause worded like this is that you are granting the publisher all undiscovered rights. There may be highly profitable rights just around the corner using a technology we don't yet imagine. No-one would have predicted iPad application rights ten years ago, for instance. Specify the rights the publisher can have, rather than those you want to keep - all other rights you should retain. Here's my punt for the next 50 years: DNA/genetic engineering rights - using genetic engineering to manufacture real living pets that are versions of the animals or monsters in your book, or to produce living dolls of the characters. These may be soft-tissue living entities with no consciousness (a sort of zombi-ised version) or something more autonomous.

Do as I say, not as I do: this contract was negotiated by my agent, not by me. At the time, I was severely depressed and coping with a very seriously unwell daughter - I wasn't paying attention and just signed. It's also for a very short book (it should come out as a graphic novel later this year). I would not accept this clause normally and would have done a good deal of stropping.