Nuts and Bolts

Last week, I posted information gleaned from a Q&A with Elisabeth B. Dabney, literary agent extraordinaire, but only one little sliver of the total information discussed. As promised, here are the bits and pieces I failed to mention last week in an effort at concision and cohesion. Each paragraph represents its own topic, so enjoy a unity-free reading experience.

Agents pitch manuscripts to publishers, handle contract negotiations (with which they have experience and will be able to pick out problems or room for improvements), and act as sounding boards on author platform, marketing ideas, the saleability of future projects, etc. They pretty much handle the business end of things, freeing up their authors to focus on the creative side. But there is no stone tablet carved without hand that says authors need agents. Outside of the Big Five in New York, authors can usually pitch their own works to publishers, or even self publish, and generally take care of business themselves. Agents just smooth the trail. (And if you choose to go it alone, it is still highly recommended, by pretty much everyone reputable ever, that manuscripts be professionally edited before publication. If you’re not working with someone who provides editing as part of the contract, shell out for it yourself.)

Finding an agent is easier and easier these days. For those of us who don’t live in big cities, finding agents through word of mouth isn’t a likely option. For those of us who live in abject poverty (or who have due dates that fall right on conference weekend- sob sob sob), writing conferences, wonderful and recommended as they are, aren’t always an option either. But the internet! The internet can help you hunt out agents while streaming live radio and timing your boiling farfalle. (Unless it’s my internet. Then you’re lucky if you can check your email.) You can use specific services, such as Publisher’s Marketplace, trawl around social media that tend to attract those of the writing ilk, such as Twitter, or just run a million increasingly specific Google searches.

There is no special training required to become an agent. As such, there are many different paths to agentdom. Many agents seem to bud off from publishing houses, often starting out as editors or marketers. Others begin as interns in literary agencies and work their way through the ranks there. There is also an increasing popularity of college certification processes, achieved much like any degree. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping people from simply declaring themselves an agent and getting down to business. (This is part of what makes it so important to do your homework before querying and especially before signing with an agent. It’s always good to have some idea of an agent’s background and, more importantly, his or her track record in sales.)

15% of net royalties is the standard commission awarded to agents. (About 7.5-15% of gross earnings on a book can be expected in royalties.) Be very wary of signing anything that takes more than 15% in the agent’s commission. Also be very wary of any agent that requests reading fees, editing fees, etc. up front or anything, really, that comes out of your pocket. (On a side note, some agencies also have a separate editing arm independent of the representative arm. Editing services can justly be paid up front regardless of promises or lack of promises of representation.) The publishing contract will spell out royalties, from which agents take their cuts and the rest are sent on to the authors. Never pay the agent up front.

Children’s book authors do not have to come to the table with illustrations (or illustrator) in hand. Illustrators are often contracted separately by the publisher.

If you’re already self-published and looking to contract an agent in the hopes of snagging a traditional publisher, you’ll need some pretty impressive numbers. If you’re already under contract with a publishing house, though, agents can’t help you, at least not with that project.

Copyrighting in advance of querying is not necessary. The work is your intellectual property from the moment it spills out of your brains. Copyright registration usually happens when the book is being published. (So self-publishers do have to worry about this step, but not until publishing.) If working with a publishing house, whether the author or the publisher maintains the copyright is negotiated in the contract.

It’s fine to query multiple agents at the same time. In fact, it’s pretty standard, considering the wait times that are often involved. In queries, it makes agents happy, and shows you did your homework, if you mention some of the authors on their list whose work you’ve enjoyed. But never attach your manuscript, or any part of it, unless the agent asks for it.

If two agents are fighting over you (woo-hoo!), the two main things to consider are: which agency can do the most for you (connections, sales records, benefits in contract); and which agent you get along with the best. Agents and authors will have a relationship over the lifetime of that work, and possibly over their entire careers. It’s important to work well together.

Some things to ask an agent before signing an agency agreement:

How much author publicity will the agency provide?
What are the kinds of publishing connections the agent has? (NYC? University presses? Boutiques?)
Does the agent have experience negotiating movie rights, or would these be handled by the publishing house?
Does the agent come from an editing background or from a business background (or some other process)?
Is the agency agreement exclusive to the manuscript or to the author? (Most will agents will want to sign with the author, but some provide representation on a work-by-work basis.)
What is the agent’s communication style? (Daily phone calls? Monthly emails? Twitter bombardment? No news unless something’s gone horribly wrong?)

Also, don’t feel like you have to sign anything right away. Show it around to others who might have a better feel for contracts. Don’t sign until you know what you’re getting into. And sleep comfortably at night knowing that agency agreements have clauses for breaking contract which are way easier than getting out of a publishing agreement. Sweet dreams!

Collaborates Well with Others

GhostwriterI learned things this week! Yay! A friend and I are collaborating on a novel idea (which will have its glory day in the hot sun next month during Camp NaNoWriMo!). We got waaaay ahead of ourselves and started talking about how rights would be spelled out in any contracts we encountered, running on the assumption that this puppy ever gets published.

So in the spirit of knowledge and adventure, we looked into the different ways this collaboration thing could shake out in a publishing contract. The main terms that we dredged up were collaboration agreements, dual authorship, and ghostwriting. Here’s the quickie version of what they are and how they work.

Collaboration Agreement This is simply a catch-all phrase for, you guessed it, an agreement between two or more people to collaborate on a single project. In order to be legally binding, it should be written down. (Publishers usually require that it be so in order to work with the authors on publication, but it’s still a good idea even if you plan on self-publishing.) The agreement should include things like the ownership each contributor has regarding copyright, writing credits, and his or her portion of any royalties accrued. (Unless stated otherwise, it’s typically an equal division between collaborators.)

Dual Authors (Dueling authors? Pistols at dawn!) Also known as coauthors or as joint authors when there are more than two involved, these are the people who will receive writing credit for the project. You see this most often in nonfiction research articles, where the list of the authors and their credentials is nearly as long as the abstract, but with the internet easing the way for collaboration, it’s cropping up more and more in the rest of the writing world. (Note: not all of the listed authors will necessary do fingers-to-pencil-or-keyboard writing. More expert or ‘senior’ collaborators can often get a pass, especially where large amounts of research are involved.)

Ghostwriter (I cannot be the only person who recalls this cheesy TV show…) The gun-for-hire of the writing world, ghostwriters write projects that are actually credited to another person. This usually comes up when a famous but non-writerly person wants to put out an autobiography, or a famous author wants to put out more books a year than is humanly possible. The ghostwriter does the actual writing, ‘in the style’ of the credited author, and usually takes a fee meted out in chunks as pieces of the project are finished. (A ghostwriter can also negotiate to take a smaller fee in exchange for a portion of royalties.) But the ghostwriter will get no credit when it’s all said and done.

So there you have it! The barest-of-bones breakdown of collaboration. You’ll of course need more information if you’re considering entering into such an agreement. You can scroll around the internet for further details on collaboration and copyright, but I found the following articles particularly helpful:

Check out this much-more-detailed article from publishing and entertainment lawyer Lloyd Jassin

Or this one from KB Law: Copyright

Or you could, you know, bite the bullet and actually talk to a literary agent or a publishing lawyer. Whatever you decide to do, if you’re entering into a collaborative relationship, be sure to take steps to protect yourself and your rights. Negotiate out the details, write them down, and get all involved parties to sign. Then get to the real fun: the project itself! Whee!

PS- Don’t forget! Two weeks until the second session of Camp NaNoWriMo! I hope you’re readying yourself in whatever way you like for the literary craziness! (My way involves outlines, blog posts, and an insane amount of Oreos. Insane.)

Parody Squared

Who here knows the laws regarding fair use? And their use in parodies? ‘Cause I don’t. Not well, anyway.

My younger sister is graduating from high school this Friday, the last of the brood. She’s also having a hard time getting her driver’s license, a phenomena which my mother attributes to her not reading the Driver’s Manual put out my our state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Mother complained that if it just had a few vampires, she might read the thing. ‘Hmmm…’ I thought, grinning. Thus was conceived the idea for a novella titled Driving At Twilight, a teenager meets vampire angsty pants story wherein our heroine tries to get her driver’s license amidst the turmoil of falling in love with a vampire whilst another is trying to kill her.

The trouble is that I’m lazy. I decided right off the bat that, aside from some driving school rather than high school tweaking, it’s pretty much going to parrot Twilight (if you couldn’t tell from the title). And I fully admit that many of the scintillatingly clever writing is pulled directly from the DMV Driver’s Manual. So is this two cheap parodies mashed together in an unholy alliance? Or is it quite simply PLAGIARISM? Ooo, that dirty word has haunted me since middle school. I’ve never committed it, but am I about to? Because it’s funny?

This is why I find myself Googling ‘fair use’ this morning. I’d rather not get sued for a joke with my little sister. And I really don’t think Stephanie Meyers would come breathing down my neck at all, except that I thought I might put it up here in a week or two, or maybe even send a copy over to the DMV so we can all giggle about it together. Does circulation complicate the matter? (Most probably yes.) I’m not planning on making any money on this. And I like to kid myself that this is educational. But, still… I’d rather not get sued.

Merriam-Webster tells us that parody is “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule “. It further defines fair use as “a legal doctrine that portions of copyrighted materials may be used without permission of the copyright owner provided the use is fair and reasonable, does not substantially impair the value of the materials, and does not curtail the profits reasonably expected by the owner”. I don’t think I’ll be cutting in on Summit Entertainment or Ms. Meyers’ profits, nor do I think that anyone will be profiting from this at all. And I’m definitely portraying the characters’ situation as a little ridiculous. And I give the characters goofy not-quite-the-same names- so it’s gotta be a parody, right? If Fifty Shades of Grey can get away with it, this is even less threatening.

What do you think? What makes a parody sue-safe? Or a fan-fic, for that matter? Would you ever write a parody?