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Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
What Is Fair for a New Writer?

What is Fair?
So, How Does a New Author Get a Great Contract?
Maintain Some Perspective


What is Fair?

I've been asked this question quite a bit lately.  What's the answer?  What are fair contract terms for a writer, new or otherwise?  Well, put bluntly, fair is what you thought was fair at the time. Not what you're thinking now, not what you're seeing in hindsight, but what you thought was fair at the time you agreed to the deal.

Fairness is subjective, not objective.  It's the way you value (or don't value) your work.  It's the compensatory value of what you put into the deal, for what you get out of it.  If your desire to be published outweighs your desire for money or specific contract rights, then a less-friendly contract may be quite fair, since the contract, regardless of the terms, will get you published in the first place, and thus get you started on your writing career.  If your desire to be published is tempered by a desire for 'average' or better contract terms or 'normal' advances, royalty rates, etc., you will probably expect and negotiate more for your work.  (If money is your sole motivation for getting published, I suggest you stay with your day job.)

What terms are fair in a contract?  Refer to the contract discussions in the FAQ.  If you are a first-time author, then demanding more than a publisher wants to give may keep you from being published in the first place.  I'm not advising you to give in to terms that are unfriendly or unethical, just to maintain some perspective.  If you want objectivity in the process, if you want to negotiate for the contract terms that would be industry average or industry standard, then you should go at negotiations only after educating yourself about just what "average" or "standard" is for your genre. If you don't do this, then obviously the benefits (value, fairness) of being published under any circumstances outweigh your need for better contract terms.

So, what is fair?  Depends on what you want.  Value your work reasonably, and you'll probably be successful.  Overvalue your work or value it unreasonably for the market, for the publisher, for the quality of the work, etc., and you probably won't be published at all.

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So, How Does a New Author Get a Great Contract?

He doesn't.  Or rather, in general, he (or she) doesn't, because his first agent isn't usually a best agent.  The first agent is usually the one willing to take a chance on a complete unknown, not the superagent who handles Tom Clancy and has, in the publishing world, the clout of a minor deity.

New writers usually have to 'pay their dues' in contract terms, just like any other newbie in any other field.  This is no different from being a midlevel business manager who has to acquire some kind of experience before he's hired into an executive position.  Working your way up to those wonderfully 'fair' contract terms is a similar process.

This doesn't mean you'll get a horrible contract to begin with.  Just that your royalty rate may not be tops, your advance may be small until your books start paying off, and you might not yet have cover consultation, etc.

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Maintain Some Perspective

Many new writers seem to have over-inflated views of their work.  They're the next Stephen King, the next Danielle Steele, the next Isaac Asimov.  Sure, they might be the next major author, but they're not that Big Name yet.  What they've forgotten is that it takes time (usually years) to fully develop writing skills and establish the loyal readership that will buy your books no matter what.  First books are not usually those "best" books.  And, first books are the ones that start to build readership, not the ones that can take advantage of a readership that's already hungry for your work.

If a first book were a writer's best book, the rest of a writer's career would be downhill into the slush pile, rather than a steady movement up.  Look at what is standard for an unknown writer, and see if you can live with that.  Look at what you have to do to build a commercial readership so you can try to move to the next level.  Then decide what is more important:  getting published in the first place, or squandering your work in an unread corner of unpublished fantasy land.

Remember that no advice I or anyone else gives you will change your life; only you can do that. Decide what is fair for you, not what is fair for me or anyone else.  That's the real value of your work.

Remember too, that it's easy for me and others to make all sorts of recommendations. But we're not you, and we don't know your situation, your motivations, or your goals.  Even in a single genre, there are so many different experiences, contract terms, percentages, and situations, that all the research you do may not help you define a 'fair' value for your work.  It might still feel as if you're making a blind decision to go forward.  On the other hand, if getting started is the hardest part, then any way you can get that first foot in the door may be acceptable, regardless of how much you wish later you could have done better.

Newbie experiences may take time and may sometimes leave a sour taste in your mouth, but they are part of working your way to the top.  If the first step in paying your dues is to sell your first work at less-than-optimum prices, then perhaps that's a decision point about your goals.  Maybe you want to hold out for something better.  Maybe you want to go back to your work and consider rewriting to improve it until it better fits the readership or even creates its own market. Compromise is part of life.

There's no shame in paying your dues, or in choosing a different goal, or in training harder to reach that goal.  There's only shame in quitting.


Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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