Here lies the body of Mike O’Day
I’ve never really been a sailor, but I’ve done some mucking around in dinghies on lakes and on the coast. At one point, my dad, thinking that I should actually learn something about the craft, gave me a book about it. I don’t now remember the difference between a halliard and a shroud, but I remember one section quite clearly. There was a long and patient discussion of rights of way on the water – who gives way to whom, and that sort of thing. The discussion ended with this verse:
Here lies the body of Mike O’Day
Who died maintaining his right of way.
He was right, dead right, as he sailed along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.
It’s a ditty that I urge you bear in mind. Here are three reasons why:
A lot of authors, especially indies, are anxious to Protect Their Copyright. Back in the day, people used to mail themselves sealed, dated packages containing their manuscript. More sensibly, you can register your work with the US Copyright Office, at the cost of some manageable fees and some tiresome form-filling.
And OK, if you want to do it, do it. (Any competent publisher will do the legal basics for you, and you can always check to see that they have.) But here’s the thing: let’s say you have the world’s most bullet-proof copyright registration in the world. Let’s say you have film of Barack Obama solemnly testifying, his hand upon the Great Seal of the United States, that he watched you and you alone write your manuscript. Ok, great – but so what?
If your book is popular, it’ll be pirated. Sleazy crooks, probably based in Russia, will rip off your book and make pirate copies available online.
What then? What do you do? It’s not like there’s some Interpol of Copyright staffed by a combination of Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise and the like. There’s literally no one who’s going to help you. So, sure, you could sue, but you’d have to go to a Russian court to do it (and good luck with that.) And even if you did that and won, the crooks would just pull down one pirate site and pop up a duplicate site two weeks later.
I can prove to you that you won’t defeat piracy, as follows:
- You’re not as well-resourced or experienced in fighting piracy as Penguin Random House
- PRH books are pirated all the time
- So your book will be pirated too, assuming anyone can bother to do it
Which all sounds terrible, except that almost no one gets their books from pirate sites and plenty of people make plenty of money from books. So the problem can’t be that bad.
You sign a contract with a top publisher. They make various commitments and you take those undertakings in good faith.
But it’s not unheard of for big publishers to break their contractual commitments. It’s happened to me, more than once. It used to be really quite common. Now, I think, it happens a bit less than it used to, but it still happens.
So let’s say a publisher breaks a contract with you. Let’s say, they commit to publishing three books. They publish one and it doesn’t do well. They bring out the hardback of #2 and it doesn’t do great. Meanwhile, corporate shenanigans mean the entire imprint is being reduced in size, so you get an email telling you sorry, there won’t be a paperback of #2 and they won’t bring out book #3 at all. That story isn’t made up. That exact thing happened to a friend of mine.
(And what’s more, the whole communications round the episode were terrible. It would be one thing for you editor to call, or take you out to lunch, and say, “Look buddy, I’ve got terrible news and I feel awful.” Quite another to get a blunt email from someone in Contracts you’ve never even met. I might also add that there was nothing wrong at all with the books – the same author has a great career elsewhere now. The sales failure was entirely on the publisher’s side.)
So what do you do?
You have in black and white a contract signed with full faith and credit of a very large corporation, undertaking that they WILL do X.
You could – you really could – go to court and seek an injunction compelling the so-and-sos to do what they’d promised. But in the first place, the publisher would probably deny they’d caused commercial harm. In the second place, a publisher forced by court-action to publish a book is hardly likely to do a great job with it. And third: what next? The great publishers of the world are unlikely to want an author who’s willing to sue them.
In other words, there’s damn all you can do. (Or almost damn all: you should make a big, bloody fuss because someone might offer you some apology-money, and because you thoroughly deserve to have your feelings known and recognised.)
But legally speaking? You are Mike O’Day: right, but powerless in your rightness.
Same thing here. With agents, the issues don’t tend to be contractual exactly, as the author/agent contract is often pleasantly brief. But there IS an implicit contract, nevertheless, which runs as follows:
- You will sell your work only via the agent (with a little carve out for direct-to-reader selling, via self-pub – and even then, that should always be talked about first.)
- The agent will represent your work and manage your career
- If anything happens to disturb that understanding, you’ll both talk about it like grown-ups
Often though, that’s just not how it turns out. I know of well-known agents at absolutely first-class agencies who have simply discontinued any kind of comms with no-longer wanted authors (even, in one case that springs to mind, when that author was actually a bestseller in her own country.)
So, quite possibly, the agent you think it going to take care of your career simply exits, stage left, with no proper discussion or handover. And even though your contract is with Big Agency, LLC, not with Jane Jones of Big Agency, LLC, it turns out that Big Agency has literally no interest in taking care of you if and when Jane Jones decides to wash her hands of you.
Is that fair?
It is not.
Is there ‘owt you can do about it?
There is not.
So where does that leave you? You should sail your career like a wiser Mike O’Day. You take care of your copyright, your contracts, your agents and all the rest of it as professionally as intelligently as you can.
You will do that, and people may still – unreasonably and uncontractually – mess you around. You are welcome to scream. You are welcome to feel peeved. But the thing you do after that is get back to your desk, so you can start writing another book.
Here lies the body of Sandy O’Donnell
Who never again would write a novel.
An agent betrayed her, a publisher lied –
And instead of just working, she sat down and cried.
Do not be like her.