things i wish i’d known

August 04, 2009

So over on Red Room, they’re discussing mistakes writers made early in their careers. Here’s a copy of my post (below). Lots of others make for interesting reading. There are so many ways to go wrong in publishing. The  only remedy is to keep showing up at the page.

“What was a misstep that you (or your publisher) made with publishing your first book–and how would you do things differently if you could?”

I sold my first book in 1986 while still in my 20s. Texas Wildflower was a genre historical romance sold to a publisher that was expert at publishing them so in general, it went well. My misstep was in contract negotiation. As in, I didn’t. I lacked an agent and was too intimidated and frankly, grateful, to tinker with the boilerplate.

The advance was low, but that’s to be expected. The two issues I should have worked on were the royalty percentage rate and the terms of reversion. These hardly seem to matter when you’re in the first flush of your first book deal. But a book can have a long life if you manage to make something of yourself. It’s to your advantage for the rights to revert to you so you can reclaim control of the work.

Years from now, you might want to renegotiate with the publisher or sell to another. Back in 1986, this was all new to me and now, 20+ years later, I’m still bound by that initial contract.

To the publisher’s credit, they did raise the royalty rate, but they didn’t have to. I’m just grateful they did.

My advice–get an agent. If you negotiate without one, at least join the Authors Guild. Key issues to look at–royalty rate, the meaning of “in print” and the terms of reversion. Also, the option clause. Good luck!

  • Susan,

    This is wonderful advice. I’m just starting out, though I’m in my thirties. I was recently at a writers meeting where the discussed how many are going without an agent these days. I think, when I get to that point, I will use one and rely a little on their expertise to help get me through that first contract.


  • Hi, Susan. Writers of your status can write about missteps more easily than those of us low-on-the-totem-pole people. I actually wrote to the Red Room editor and explained that for me, it would be a severe case of biting the hands that feed me (OK, so maybe they give me an occasional cup of coffee) were I to post my (or their) mistakes. Or general disgruntlements.

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