April 27th, 2012 by Diana Peterfreund
Mo’ Contracts, Mo’ Problems

Lucky you guys. It’s a Diana double hitter this week.

Yesterday’s post about revisions vs. rewriting was told from the perspective of a writer who had the work in question under contract. That’s the position I’ve been in for seven years now. I haven’t written anything — book, short story, essay — that I haven’t either been asked for or (more relevantly) contracted and paid for since 2004.

Honestly, this is not something to be particularly proud of. If I was a more prolific and industrious writer, perhaps, I would have been breaking into unexpected markets like Ken and Sasha do (hello, science fiction periodicals) or would have made sure I always had two revenue streams (two genres, two houses, two series, two pseudonyms) going at once, the way HelenKay, Bob,  and Carrie  do. I’ve played it very conservatively, producing for the people who were already offering me money.

But the thing is, that’s what makes rewrites, as I wrote about them yesterday, so scary and stressful. If you’re rewriting something that’s not under contract, if it’s just your play novel. that you take out and bat around whenever you get a chance, the work that you talk about “writing some day” with your friends over a bottle of wine, or even the book that you actually have written and sent out in to the world, and just isn’t gelling for some reason or another (wrong agent, flat market, exploded publisher, bad timing) — then there’s no pressure. You just stick it back in the drawer for a few months or a few years or whatever. You feel free to cannibalize it for other stories. You let it marinate for a while and, at your leisure, figure out what the story’s really about. You wait until the right agent and the right market for the story comes along.

Once a work is under contract,it’s a different situation. Playtime is over. You have promised a work to a publisher. You have almost always been paid at least some for it. And if the work you deliver isn’t what the publisher is expecting, it’s you, the writer that has to go back to the trenches and fix it, usually under a good deal of time pressure. The publisher is not necessarily the evil, black-hearted villain in the piece. They aren’t gleefully rubbing their hands together and wondering how they can make their writers’ lives miserable. Here’s a short and by no means exhaustive list of how s*** happens:

  • Between the time that the publisher bought the book and the writer delivered the book, another book came out and went gangbusters, and now the publisher is under serious pressure to deliver something for that book’s fans (see: the explosion of paranormal romance in YA thanks to Stephanie Meyer, or the more recent explosion of “dystopian.”)
  • The acquiring editor has left, and the new editor doesn’t have the same vision for the book.
  • You sold them what you were both, at the time, describing as “pasta.” Then you delivered lo mein while they were expecting lasagna.
  • In between the time that you sold the book and delivered it, you went gangbusters in another house/genre/etc. and all of a sudden they want the kind of thing that you’re selling so well elsewhere.
  • In between the time that you sold the book and delivered it, a Major Life Event happened and all of a sudden the book you thought you were writing morphed into something completely different and either you or the editor are going to have to convince the other as to why one way is best.
  • In between the time that you sold the book and delivered it, the publisher has decided to go in a different direction with their imprint (or cancel it entirely).
  • In between the time you sold the book and delivered it, a major buyer has decreed that all books of a certain market segment MUST have XYZ, that your book does not.
  • Your publisher has heard a rumor that you’re departing for greener pastures with a book that has a much higher sales potential, and so is going out of their way to make you miserable  — okay, this one’s a little black-hearted villainy, but it’s also pretty rare. What usually happens in this instance is the publisher goes out of their way to kiss your butt so you’ll give the project to them instead.
  • You bit off more than you could chew with your new book.
  • You are absolutely writing the wrong book, and deep down, you know it.
  • Major Life Event is happening, and you’re not on your game.
  • Your standalone has turned into a series.
  • Your series has turned into a longer series.
  • Your publisher has decided to cancel your longer series and is giving you the chance to change your book so that all the loose ends are tied up (lucky you?)
  • You signed a blank contract.
  • You thought you and the editor came up with the idea together. Your editor thought it was more of a work-for-hire deal.

Every single one of these instances I described above are real. They resulted either in major rewrites and publishing delays or, in the more extreme cases, cancellation of the contracts in question — sometimes upon the request of the writer (known as “buying back a contract,” and sometimes on the request of the publisher. All the writers involved are now older and wiser. Some have completely changed their business strategies as a result of their experiences, no longer putting their eggs in one publisher’s basket, or not longer signing contracts on proposals, or no longer writing series or doing work for hire or dealing with particular editors or etc.

If you can (and want to) buy back your contract, then you’re a lucky one. Most folks don’t buy back contracts unless they’ve exhausted all other options, like rewrites, or substituting Book X in contract for Book Y. (I know one NYT bestselling author who jumped genre ship for her publisher, achieved great stardom, and no one involved even thinks about the tiny little midlist titles she never finished eight years ago in a series in her old genre.)

So even though it feels like it — especially if you’re under contract and are counting on the money — rewrites aren’t actually hell. They’re often the very best thing that can happen for you book and your career.

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One comment to “Mo’ Contracts, Mo’ Problems”

  1. Laura Lee Nutt
     · April 27th, 2012 at 4:34 pm · Link

    That’s a nice perspective to put on it. It makes me dread them less.


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