by Janis Patterson
It never ends. Writers are the sitting ducks of the universe, and it seems that someone is always trying to figure out a way to profit off our work without fairly compensating us for it.
Back when I was a talent agent for film, TV and commercials everyone wanted to be an actor. No, the word should be ‘star.’ Everyone wanted to be a star. I had people come to me and ask me how much we would charge them to be in a film or television commercial. The concept that acting was a profession and that actors were professional people who deserved to be compensated like any other professional was totally alien to them.
And there were companies who catered to those warped dreams – at a price, however, and usually with either ghastly results or no results at all. I remember a movie, a western I believe, where the ‘producers’ charged everyone a horrible fee (size of role commensurate to their investment) to be in it and so financed the film that way. None of the ‘actors’ were professional, and the resulting product was so bad that it had to go direct to video, and even then many video stores wouldn’t carry it. But the ‘stars’ could always say that they had been in a movie. They were lucky; at least they got something however horrible for their pricey investment.
The point I’m trying to make is that in certain ‘glamorous’ occupations – acting, writing, modeling, et al – there is always someone wanting to do it so badly they will pay (in some form) to do it. If a professional stands up for himself and says, I am worth XX amount of dollars to do that, the sleazy producer/publisher/whatever says, Next! There’s always someone waiting to step in who will do it for less.
There is a reason for this diatribe. Some of my writers’ eloops are burgeoning with yet a new wrinkle in the get-the-writer dialogue. We have always had vanity publishing, where you give the publisher the manuscript and a great deal of money and in return you get a book, which may or may not have been edited. In the old print-only days you usually got a certain amount of copies delivered to your garage and you were now free to market them on your own. Pretty much the same thing today, except that your book will be added to the major etailers, with or without a print setup on POD. The publicity and actual selling of the book is totally up to you – same as it is becoming now with most traditional publishers, who take nearly all the money and each year seem to give less and less value for it.
Work-for-hire has always been with us too – the publisher gives the writer a book bible, an outline and a sum of money, usually fairly small. The writer does the book and that’s it. The writer does not hold the copyright, keeps none of the subsidiary rights, gets no royalties and usually isn’t even credited as the author. I personally don’t care for this business model, but as long as everything is honestly stated up front, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s up to the writer to decide if this is a step they want to take, and a lot of writers do.
However, a new and most unsettling wrinkle is appearing in our business wherein the writer writes a book and submits it to the publisher, who accepts it with a usually very small advance. Sound good? Maybe not. You have to factor in that under this new model the writer sells the book, the characters, the world, all rights and the copyright – and agrees that there will be no royalties and their name will probably not appear on the book/movie/whatever the purchasers want to make of it. Other than the ‘advance’ fee the writer gets nothing else on a book he created from scratch.
This is not illegal – to my mind it’s just immoral. What these predatory (and I chose that word deliberately) publishers are doing is reducing a creator to the status of a ‘content provider’ – an interchangeable link in a chain, just as if we were manufacturing widgets. And from what I’ve heard the payment isn’t that good. If the book is made into a film, the original story creator gets no money and no credit – all that goes to the publisher/producer.
Now there are some who have done this happily and for whatever reasons are content with their decision. I say, joy go with them if they had all the information and made a fully informed decision and that’s what they want. What does disturb me is that this kind of sale is creeping into a lot of publishing contracts from a lot of publishing houses. Maybe some sad day it will be the norm. After all, if a writer is so ‘stupid and greedy’ (to quote one of these publishers) as to want real and proportionate compensation and (gasp) credit for their work, there are always lots of other wanna-bes out there who would be happy for the chance.
After all, who could think of a writer as a professional worthy of their hire? Especially when there are publishers and producers who want all that lovely money for themselves? (Sarcasm in full mode here) Why pay a commensurate wage when there’s always a bunch of writers waiting in line for the chance?
My personal opinion is that the time is long past due when writers and actors and other creative types are recognized for what they are – professional creators. I can see where the ‘writers as interchangeable widgets’ mentality will utterly destroy the quality of creation books and movies and most especially the readers deserve. We have already seen a foreshadowing of this in some of the ungrammatical, illogical and downright rubbishy books that have proliferated in the world of self-publishing. (I love self-publishing; I self-publish myself. There are many great and wonderful books that have been self-published – but there is also an incredible amount of utter garbage, too.)
These publishers with their draconian contracts don’t seem to realize that without us, the writers, they wouldn’t have an industry. Or maybe they do – that’s why they’re trying to exploit us. And perhaps saddest of all is that there will always be writers who, in their determination to be published, will go along.
To me it only seems fair that as long as a project is earning money the original creator should get a fair share of it, because without the original creator there wouldn’t be anything for others to build on.