Rescue the Princess?

In 1983, having sold a couple of stories to science fiction magazines, I saw that I needed to write a novel. I had four or five file folders of notes and scraps for possible novels, ideas I had started and then abandoned before I got very far along. I looked through them, picked the one that looked most promising, and sat down and wrote it.

Miraculously, the first agent I sent it to liked it, and the first publisher he submitted it to (Del Rey) offered a contract on it. That was Walk the Moons Road. It appeared as a paperback in 1985, and has been out of print for many years.

Last year I self-published a new edition of my second novel, The Wall at the Edge of the World. It’s a much better book than Moons Road. The new edition is virtually identical to the original; I think I changed a couple of adjectives.

On re-reading Moons Road, I could see it would need an extensive rewrite if I were to republish it. The plot is heavily larded with coincidences! In the new version I’ve been working on, I’ve added a villain whose machinations cause one of the main incidents. I added an encounter in the opening chapter that gives my hero a much stronger motivation.

I’ve also done some world-building. The original version was science fiction only by courtesy; the world-building is tissue-thin. Basically it’s a rollicking adventure yarn. Nothing wrong with that, but readers today hope for more exotic splash.

And then there’s the problem of the languishing heroine.

In the original, Zhenuvnili is a passive character. She gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, and Salas Tarag rescues her. That worked well enough in 1985, but in 2021 it’s not going to fly. We need a strong female lead. She has to take meaningful actions in furtherance of her own agenda. In the slang of the writing crowd, she needs to have agency.

Unfortunately, that rather unhinges the plot. If she’s doing important things, why does Salas Tarag need to rescue her? Maybe she ought to rescue him instead!

Zhenuvnili is not actually female; she’s a polyamorous varimorph. She can reshape her body and her facial structure so as to appear either male or female as needed. She was always polyamorous, but making her a varimorph is one of several new ideas that strengthen the science fiction premise. (Salas Tarag has a new power too.)

As in the original version, her religion requires her to engage sexually with lots of people, and she loves it! But when I make her sexual activities more explicit and strengthen his motivation by making him strongly attracted to her, shaping a happy ending gets tricky. Tarag is not from her culture. He’s almost certainly a monogamous type of guy. Will he feel comfortable in a romantic relationship with a person who not only sleeps around but sometimes has, you know, male attributes? That’s kind of a hard sell. Some men would be fine with it, but I’m not. It’s not the happy ending I want to write.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that the muse does not always tap you gently on the shoulder and whisper what to write. Sometimes it’s more like you’re Laocoön wrestling with the snakes.

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Thinking out loud here. I have this mystery novel, still in manuscript but allegedly finished. I’ve been thinking that as soon as I get a couple of other projects uploaded to Amazon, I’ll hire a cover for this one, format the interior, and be done with it too.

And then it will be time to roll up my sleeves and start writing something new. The best option is probably a sequel to this particular book. It’s pretty much a whodunit — plenty of suspense, an assortment of suspects, a bit of a surprise ending. So I’ve been kicking around some plot ideas for a possible mystery series. I want to settle on something concrete, because I might need to go back and plant an idea or two in the first book that will lead up to the second book. Ideally, I would do that before the first one is published.

There’s magic in the world where the story is set. (It’s not our Earth.) But I didn’t make much of the magic in the existing whodunit. The story could almost work in a world with no magic at all. That’s rather unsatisfactory.

Among the versions I batted around while developing it was one in which their world has not one but four different intelligent species, quite different from one another, who have evolved on separate continents over the course of millions of years and who have only recently discovered one another. Each species does magic in a different way. The species are colorful, but I jettisoned this idea, as it cluttered up the mystery story without adding anything of importance.

But now, as I take notes on a possible sequel, I’m thinking, wait a minute! What if there’s a much larger story here that I missed? What if the events of the whodunit are only the opening salvo in a more complex geopolitical drama that involves lots of magic and the conflicts among several intelligent species?

I’ve been down this road before. The original version of The Leafstone Shield was written in 2004, revised in 2012, and revised again in 2015 before it was finally published in 2018. Very little of the original version remains, other than the characters and the basic plot concept. In my upcoming story collection, which should be ready for your reading pleasure in five or six weeks, the title novella, “The House of Broken Dolls,” went through some radical changes, including all of the action that is now the second half of the story. That action adds a lot to the drama, both in the fantasy element and in the emotional impact.

I don’t always get it right the first time. And I think it’s important to be willing to toss your ideas back into the hopper — or into the meat grinder, if you prefer. The other day I saw a Facebook post from a writer who said, “I’ve just finished writing the first chapter of my next novel!” And I’m thinking, oh, really? How on Earth can you be sure of that? You may have to trash it. Even after you finish the second draft of the whole book, you might have to trash that first chapter.

Maybe other writers know intuitively, and without error, how their stories will unfold. I don’t. As Theodore Roethke said once in a poem, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

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Standing Up

In the spirit of standing up for what’s good and right, naturally I applaud Twitter, Facebook, and other online service providers for shutting down some of the insane yammering that emanates these days from the wacko fringe of the Republican Party.

And yet, I find myself wondering….

Remember when that bakery in Oregon refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple? The courts said no, you have to bake that cake. If you don’t, it’s illegal discrimination.

Naturally, I despise those bigoted bakers. But in a legal sense, how is refusing to bake a cake any different from refusing to publish stuff that people write or say? This is not an easy question.

I’m not a lawyer. There may be a clear answer. I just don’t know what it is.

Freedom of the press, as someone once remarked, is for people who own one. Your local newspaper is not obliged to print your letter to the editor. This is not censorship! They may not have room for your letter. They may feel your letter duplicates other letters that are, perhaps, better written. Or, indeed, they may have an editorial policy that suggests you’re a loon and ought not to be allowed to spread your looniness. They don’t even have to explain their reasons. They just toss your letter in the waste basket, and there’s the end of it.

Online services that publish content written by outside sources are in exactly the same position. Nothing requires them to make the things you write available to the public.

But how is the business of declining to publish an opinion any different from declining to bake a cake?

One difference is that the gay couple will be paying for the cake. Twitter and Facebook are free. Could that be a basis for a legal distinction? If you offered to buy advertising space in your local newspaper in which to disseminate your letter to the editor, maybe the paper would be in the same position as the Oregon bakers. Maybe they would have to take the ad.

Except, no, I don’t think they would. There’s a long tradition in the publishing industry of newspapers and magazines refusing to accept paid advertising if the content of the ad violates their policies.

I’d really like to feel comfortable with the idea that those bakers should be required to bake the gay wedding cake, but right now I’m leaning toward thinking that, as despicable as their position is, they ought not to be required to do so.

It’s a rock-bottom principle in a democratic society that the law isn’t just for protecting nice people — people we agree with. The law has to be applied equally to everybody. People that you and I deplore are entitled to the same legal protections as people that you and I applaud. If it doesn’t work that way, it’s tyranny.

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An Object Lesson in Editing

At some point last fall, I was rather concerned about the inordinate length of my new novel. It was weighing in at 157,000 words, and I felt that I had to do something. Getting it trimmed down to a marketable length (100,000 words) was never a possibility, but I felt I ought not to impose on readers’ patience unnecessarily.

So I combined two similar scenes into one, thereby trimming (or so I thought at the time) a couple of thousand words. The scenes were on successive days in the story, but the action was somewhat redundant and the story was moving rather slowly. Good candidates for some judicious trimming.

This week, having already laid out the interior of the paperback in InDesign, complete with chapter heads, running heads, front matter, and detailed attention to widows and orphans, I sat down to give it a final read-through before uploading it to Amazon for y’all’s readin’ pleasure. All went well until I hit Chapter 18 (out of 36). At that point I realized that my intrepid sleuth was asking a woman questions about things he didn’t know yet!

So I transplanted a conversation from Chapter 20 back to Chapter 12 and deleted part of the conversation in 18. Breathed a sigh of relief — problem solved, right? This meant juggling the page layout, because 12 was now a page longer, so all of the remaining chapter start pages were off by one, forcing me to relocate all of the decorative capital letters that start the chapters. But that’s just a mechanical task, right? A chore. Hey, self-publishing is full of chores.

But now I’m staring in horror at Chapter 29, where there’s a reference to a fist fight that got deleted, and also a familiar treatment of a minor character who never got introduced because his first appearance disappeared.

My options are not appetizing. I can try thrashing through a narrow rewrite, but it’s going to look funny tossing that new character into the middle of an action sequence in Chapter 29 when he has never been properly introduced. Also, I recall that the leading lady is going to say a few words to him in Chapter 35, which will read very oddly if he hasn’t been deployed smoothly in the earlier text. And there are other minor issues, I expect.

I can scrap the InDesign file and do the layout again from scratch after carefully editing the text. That would mean a lot of extra layout work. The alternative, however, is not much better. If I start cutting and pasting chunks out of Chapter 12, 18, 20, and so on, working in InDesign, I’m quite likely to make a mess of it. Also, every edit that I make in InDesign has be be back-duplicated into Scrivener, where the manuscript resides, because I will be using Scrivener to produce the e-book file.

I can’t simply revert to an earlier version of the manuscript, because in the past few days I have made a number of small edits that I want to keep. Deleting an adverb or a comma, fixing a floating pronoun antecedent, replacing a couple of words of dialog with something that sounds less stilted. I don’t want to have to duplicate all that work by re-reading from page 1.

There’s a nice program called WinMerge (yeah, I’m a Windows user; you wanna make something out of it?) with which I can easily compare the August version with the current version. If I decide to restore the missing scene, this will allow me to figure out where the changes will go. But it’s still going to be a dangerous edit.

The lesson in this nightmare, I think, is this: Don’t try to tighten up a finished manuscript by reorganizing it. Just don’t. Leave it alone. If your literary agent (assuming you have one, ha-ha) tells you to cut 5,000 words, just smile and say, “Okay, I can do that. I charge $80 an hour for my editing services. Send me a check for the first ten hours of work. After I cash your check, I’ll get started.”

I’m kidding, of course. You should never say anything of the sort to an agent. But the real evil here does in fact reside in the publishing industry, not in your skills as an author, nor in mine. These people insist on tightly written books! They have bludgeoned us into submission. We are aesthetically cowed.

So fuck ’em. Really. Don’t try to make anything shorter. It’s fine the way it is. You may quote me.

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When Heads Hop

The wisdom du jour among those who teach fiction writing is that one should not “head-hop.” Head-hopping is considered poor technique.

I write today in defense of head-hopping. Not heedless head-hopping, to be sure. You should do it only when you actually need to do it, and when no other technique will serve as well.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, head-hopping was considered normal. Most of the fine novelists hopped from one character’s emotions or perceptions to those of another character, sometimes within a single paragraph. Nobody ever objected to it! But in those days, the novelist was considered a storyteller. The novelist’s own voice, as storyteller, would intrude from time to time as well. If you don’t believe me, try reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. It’s jam-packed with commentary from Fielding himself, in his own voice and addressing the reader directly. He also head-hops, and he does an enormous amount of telling rather than showing. A few scenes are dramatized, but much of the story is not.

But that was then, this is now. Today writers are advised sternly to stick to the point of view (POV) of a single character throughout a scene. Show only what that character sees and hears; tell only what that one character thinks and feels. All other characters should be seen externally, through your POV character’s eyes. The POV character may guess what another character is thinking or feeling, but the careful writer will show the signs that allow the POV character to guess — Laura’s hesitation before she answers, or Steven’s clenched fist. Just as often, the writer is well advised to show Laura’s hesitation or Steven’s clenched fist without bothering to mention what the POV character deduces from it. The reader will have no trouble figuring it out!

The reason to stick to a single POV is immersion. One wants the reader to feel fully immersed in the scene — to experience it almost as viscerally as the lead character does. When the writer head-hops, the reader has to pause momentarily to recalibrate. It can be disorienting. It can be confusing. It can distance the reader from the action, and pushing the reader away from emotional involvement is not what the writer hopes to do. Not in today’s overheated fiction market, anyhow. Grab ’em by the short-and-curlies, don’tcha know?

If it’s necessary to show the action from two or more different points of view, the writer is advised, these days, to start a new chapter (if possible) or at the very least to leave a blank line to show the reader that there is a break — that it’s time to recalibrate mentally.

This is quite often the right technique. But it’s not always the right technique. There are occasions when the best available option is to head-hop. If that’s what’s needed, and if you’ve honestly convinced yourself that all of your other options are less desirable, then go ahead! Head-hop and be damned!

In my Leafstone series (those books up at the top of the blog! They’re amazing! Buy them! Read them! Enjoy them! Tell your friends!), there are three places where I did some head-hopping. Maybe four places, in a story that’s half a million words long. I’m convinced I made the right choice in each case.

The main reason to head-hop, I think, is to maintain a continuous flow of action. If the action is continuous, one does not want to interrupt it in order to shift to a new POV. If the whole action scene can reasonably be depicted from a single POV, that will almost always be the right choice. But that isn’t always possible.

You want specifics? We got specifics.

In one action sequence, Alixia has escaped from her father’s house, her father being an evil wizard. She is being pursued by two of his apprentice wizards, whose charge is to capture her and bring her home to daddy. With the help of her friends, she has escaped from them the first time. She and her friends, being the good guys, don’t want to kill the apprentice wizards, so they temporize by leaving them tied up in a stable. And gagged, so that they can’t utter any magical incantations.

Naturally, this doesn’t work. The apprentice wizards soon escape, and they’re back on Alixia’s trail. The first part of the chapter is from the POV of one of them, because that’s the important action. We don’t want the reader to have to guess how they got loose. They then figure out where she must have gone and hustle across the city. Sure enough, they spot her. So one of them sneaks around to the other end of the alley, and they grab her before she can run. This is all from the POV of the apprentice wizard.

They then march her across town to her father’s mansion. During this transitional passage, the reader is not actually in the POV of anybody. The author (that would be me) has switched unobtrusively to external POV. Alixia is furious and frightened, and we see this externally; the camera is looking at her, and at them, from the outside.

When they reach her father’s house, the wizards hustle her into her father’s study, where he is sitting smugly behind his desk. He tells them to leave. They leave. The door closes. And at this point we drop into Alixia’s internal POV, seeing the remainder of the chapter through her eyes, privy to her thoughts and feelings.

Interrupting this continuous flow of action would have been just plain bad writing. Having the apprentice wizards escape from the stable offstage, without showing how they did it — again, bad writing. The action is continuous, and therefore the text is continuous.

There are, I’m sure, other situations in which the writer needs to head-hop. I offer this only as an example that I feel is clear enough to be understood. Could I have done it without head-hopping? Sure. But I try never to write while imagining that an anonymous editor is hovering over my shoulder brandishing a ruler, prepared to smack my knuckles if I do something naughty.

I have a hard enough time satisfying my own criteria for what makes a good story, without being forced to kowtow to anybody else’s.

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News Flash

I’m an old white guy. As such, I’m a lifelong beneficiary of white privilege. This fact plays out in many ways. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. My parents were able to buy a house in a pleasant neighborhood (a house where I now live) because they weren’t discriminated against by realtors or lenders.

I’m also a reasonably bright student both of current events and of history. I’m quite aware of the massive suffering caused by racism, in the past and still today. I know that racism takes many forms, not all of them obvious. And while racism is a problem throughout the world, I’m aware that it is especially toxic and deeply rooted in the United States.

For the above reasons, I don’t need to be lectured to about racism. Being reminded of how horrible my fellow human beings are to one another is neither fun nor useful. In a nutshell, there’s nothing I can do about it, so why are you grinding my face in it?

Earlier today I got an announcement that the sermon this Sunday at our local Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church will have the title “Naming White Supremacy.”

Over the past couple of years there has been an earnest, and in my opinion deeply misguided, attempt within the UU community to portray the practices of our own community as somehow emblematic of white supremacy. This movement, by a cabal of unaccountable and intellectually deficient social justice warriors, has led, among its other pernicious effects, to an organized and sustained campaign of hatred against a UU minister who dared question the basis and effectiveness of the efforts of the social justice warriors.

Our own UU minister has explicitly signed on to that effort. She has had her name affixed to an Open Letter condemning the other minister. And now she’s going to lecture our congregation about white supremacy.

I lost it a bit. I sent an email that contained the word “fuck.” Twice. And I don’t plan to apologize for having done so.

Granted, the ongoing turmoil within the UU organization is what triggered my reaction. But quite aside from that, here’s what it comes down to:

“Hey, let’s tell Jim Aikin about racism — maybe he’ll know how to fix it,” said no black activist ever.

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Alien Nation

All fiction arises out of myth. How could it be otherwise? The mythic archetypes with which our minds are endowed are what makes us human; without them, we wouldn’t even know who we are. Nor would we be able to relate to one another, because we wouldn’t know who the people around us are. We would be unable to fit anybody into any sort of mental landscape.

Because of this, the alien creatures in fiction are always, in the last analysis, humans wearing rubber masks. If they were actually alien, they would have no meaning in our mythosphere (mythscape? whatever). They could serve no purpose within a story.

I’ve been poking at an idea for a novel. I’ve been thinking about it as urban fantasy, but the fantasy elements in urban fantasy have become such dreadful clichés: Who wants to write (or read) about vampires, zombies, and werewolves?

So I started thinking maybe I should make it straight-up science fiction instead of fantasy. Drop some aliens from outer space into my urban setting. How would that work?

Not very well, or so it appears at the moment. Final results are not in. But I don’t want my aliens to be just a creepy menace; I don’t want to rewrite War of the Worlds. I want to have individual aliens with distinct personalities — with desires, weaknesses, attitudes.

But why should we assume that aliens’ personalities would be anything like our own, or even comprehensible to us? For starters, there would be no sexual tension between my humans and the aliens. Nor would there be rivalries for power and prestige. Even if they speak flawless idiomatic English (and that would be peculiar enough), their body language would be incomprehensible to my human characters. “The rim of Tharg’s carapace rippled and turned a brighter shade of green.” What does that even mean?

If they’re really alien, they’re not going to fit into a story, not without a lot of clumsy description whose goal is to make them seem human. I don’t know; maybe werewolves and zombies are not such a bad idea after all.

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Badly Informed

Rather to my surprise, I was awarded a bit of non-trivial prize money for placing well in this year’s IF Comp. This is the Interactive Fiction Competition; it’s for text-based games of one sort and another. There were a hundred entries, 20 more than last year or the year before, quite possibly because people are stuck at home and have time on their hands. My game (“Captivity”) placed 16th. So I’m thinking, gee, maybe I’ll write another game and enter it next year.

This mad impulse immediately led me down the garden path. My preferred development system for text games is TADS 3, and it’s way not the popular choice. Maybe I should consider switching to Inform 7 for next year. Or even, perish the thought, to Twine. Well, no, maybe not Twine. I strongly prefer the type of interaction that a parser game allows the player.

Some years ago I wrote a whole game (“A Flustered Duck”) in Inform 7. I also wrote a full-length book on how to write games in Inform 7. I’m not completely clueless, but my I7 is très rusty. Time to open up the program and re-learn the basics.

Silly rabbit.

There are several reasons why I prefer TADS 3 (T3) to Inform 7 (I7). Rather than go through the whole laundry list, let’s just say T3 is a computer programming language for adults. I7 is indeed a programming language, but it tries hard to be friendly to novices. As a result, it sometimes falls flat on its face. And when it does, good luck figuring out what’s going on, or how to fix it.

Here’s my actual code. This is for a tiny test environment. Nothing much is going on, and I certainly haven’t attempted to do anything fancy. This is not an excerpt; it’s the entire game.

The Lab is a room. “Bubbling retorts, that sort of thing. You could go north to the Porch.”

The player carries a board. The description of the board is “A sturdy two-by-twelve. Three nails have been hammered into it.” Understand “plank” as the board.

A nail is a kind of thing. Three nails are parts of the board. The description of a nail is “You’ve seen nails before.”

The player carries an envelope. The description of the envelope is “An envelope with three colorful postage stamps from Belize.”

A postage stamp is a kind of thing. The description of a postage stamp is usually “Very colorful.”

Three postage stamps are parts of the envelope.

A hamster is in the Lab. The hamster is an animal. The description of the hamster is “Small and cute.” Understand “critter” and “rodent” as the hamster.

That’s a complete, working game, though not an interesting one. Computer-savvy readers may be interested to note that I7 is the only programming language that routinely allows spaces as part of its language.

Here’s what happens when I run the game:

Bubbling retorts, that sort of thing. You could go north to the Porch.

You can see a hamster here.

drop nails
What do you want to drop those things in?

take nails
He seems to belong to the hamster.

drop stamps
What do you want to drop those things in?

take stamps
He seems to belong to the hamster.

Now, it’s true that the player (me, in this case) is not actually holding the nails or the stamps. In both cases, they’re parts of larger objects. So the command “drop nails” ought to result in some error message or other, perhaps “You’re not holding those.” The result of “take nails” and “take stamps” is, however, utterly bizarre. Neither the nails nor the stamps has anything to do with that poor innocent hamster!

I’m pretty sure somebody on the Interactive Fiction Forum will be able to suggest a way to fix this problem. My point is, however, that the problem should not have arisen in the first place.

Inform 7 has not been updated for five years. Five years! It’s freeware, and a jolly complex piece of freeware; but it’s not open-source. The developer, Graham Nelson, has mumbled from time to time about open-sourcing it, but he hasn’t done so. There is an active community of I7 users, many of whom have better computer programming chops than I do. But when a popular program malfunctions at such a basic level, and when the developer has quite evidently abandoned it, what is the industrious author to think?

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Let’s not mince words: The publishing industry is set up in such a way as to systematically cheat writers. A few highly successful writers rake in the big bucks, but most of us don’t. The sad part is, writers as a class have been beaten into submission. Our expectations are very low, and publishers are eager to take advantage of that fact.

It’s a truism in self-publishing that everybody makes money except the writer. If you hire an editor, a cover artist, or an interior layout designer for your novel, you’ll have to pay them at something like a professional rate. If you have a decent-looking author website (and you should), you’ll have to pay professional rates for that too.

But today’s topic is not self-publishing. Today I’m looking at the big leagues.

I’ve just turned down a contract from Oxford University Press (a reputable imprint, or so one would think) for a 70,000-word book on software synthesizers. This is a field in which I’m an expert, and I’ve written (for other publishers, not self-publishing) several other books on music and music technology. I’m a pro.

Oxford’s initial offer, in this contract, was for an advance against royalties of $1,500. I objected. I was told they could go to $3,000, or perhaps as much as $5,000, but no higher.

A book of this length and complexity would take about two months to write. A professional with my qualifications and experience, if hired for a full-time salaried position, would expect to be paid at least $90,000 a year. For two months of work, then, a proper rate of pay would be $15,000.

For $5,000, an employer could expect to get about 13 days of work. I could write 15,000 words in 13 days, or possibly as much as 20,000 words (maybe, if we ignore the hours spent proofing the page layout and the index at the end of the assignment). But not a 70,000-word book. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast.

This is not an isolated incident. It’s how the publishing industry works today.

A year or so ago, I wrote a series of columns for a start-up web zine called Synth & Software. I was willing to support a start-up, because I’d like the music technology industry to prosper. So I wrote about eight columns (with video clips) for free.

In an email exchange today, the editor at S&S told me they’re still not able to pay for content at anything like a professional rate. But here’s the thing: I’ll bet they’re paying their webmaster at a professional rate — and probably their ad sales staff too. I really doubt their web IT team is working for 75 cents an hour. And yet, there’s no money to pay the writers.

Writers create the wealth. Without writers, there would be no Oxford University Press. But I’m pretty sure the staff at that company is not working for $18,000 a year, which is what you’d earn if you were paid $3,000 for two months of full-time work.

You see how that works? Everybody gets paid except the writers — and the writers are creating the wealth.

It’s not just a problem in nonfiction. I got an email this week from SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I’m a member) about a problem some novelists have been having. In some manner or other, Disney acquired the publishing rights to some novels by Alan Dean Foster. According to SFWA, Disney took the official position that while they had acquired the rights to Foster’s work (that is, the right to make movies out of his books, among other things), they had not acquired the corresponding contractual obligations, and thus were not planning to pay him.

This matter is, again according to SFWA, in negotiation. Possibly it will be resolved amicably. And possibly I have the details wrong. (One really doesn’t want to accuse Disney of anything. One wants to express one’s understanding of the situation in very, very cautious terms.) Nonetheless, assuming the story is accurate, it’s part of a big, ugly pattern. Corporations don’t hesitate to take advantage of writers. Because they can.

Or let’s talk about royalty statements. I get statements in the mail from time to time, for my existing nonfiction books. The statements report the sales of a book for the past six months, and then tabulate how much royalty I earned based on those sales. It ain’t much.

And here’s the problem: I have no way of verifying that the sales figures are even accurate. My contracts don’t allow me to audit the publisher’s books, nor would it be feasible for me to do so even if the contract did allow it. An audit would cost me tens of thousands of dollars! Even if irregularities were uncovered during the audit, the benefit to me would be a tiny fraction of the amount I’d have to pay the accountants for doing the audit.

If a publisher wants to lie about the sales figures (and I’m not accusing any specific publisher of doing anything of the kind) so as to beef up their bottom line at authors’ expense, what’s to stop them? This is why the advance payment against royalties is so important. A publisher can offer a lower advance coupled with a larger percentage of the “net” (and best not ask how the net is calculated) — but that’s meaningless. The author can never rely on receiving another nickel beyond the advance. If it ain’t cash on the barrel head, it’s pie in the sky by and by.

Maybe I ought to write the book anyhow, and self-publish it. I wouldn’t make even $3,000 on it, but it would be fun, and a few musicians would find it useful.

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Blank Check

You’re a writer. Naturally you’d like to see your book(s) published by a real New York publishing company. If you’re very good at what you do, and have a dose of luck on your side, you may be offered a contract for publication. Hooray — time to break out the bubbly!

Before you sign that contract, though, there may be one or two things you’ll want to think about.

Just to be clear, I’m not an attorney. I cannot and will not offer qualified legal advice to anybody on the subject of contract law. However, I’ve read (and signed, when I was younger) a few publishing contracts. I offer the following observations in order to suggest that you may perhaps want to seek out expert legal advice. And it’s possible you may not like what an attorney tells you.

This is about indemnification. Indemnification is a process by which you, the author, warrant that your book contains nothing that is in violation of any other copyright (that is, that it’s entirely your original work), that it is not defamatory or libelous, and so on. In the event that the publisher receives a complaint alleging that you have violated anything in the warranty, the publisher’s lawyers will handle it — but YOU will pay the lawyers’ fees. Not the publisher; you personally.

That’s indemnification. You’re indemnifying the publisher against possible financial losses.

This week I received a contract from Oxford University Press for a nonfiction book on the subject of modular software synthesizers. It’s a field in which I have some expertise. In August I sent them a detailed book proposal. They liked the proposal, so they offered me a contract. And inevitably, the contract contains a standard indemnification clause. Here’s the text:

The Author agrees to indemnify and hold harmless the Publisher, its affiliates, assignees, and licensees and its and their respective directors, officers, members, managers, employees, agents, distributors and customers (each, an “Indemnitee”) against any damage, loss, liability, injury, or cost or expense (including without limitation reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs), settlement or judgment arising out of any claim (a “claim”) by third parties that any of the above representations or warranties has been breached. If a claim is brought against an Indemnitee, the Publisher will have the right to defend with counsel of its own choice.

This is a bit murky grammatically, possibly owing to the failure to use the Oxford comma. (You’d think Oxford University Press would use their own damn comma, but whatever.) Or maybe the word “or” before “cost” ought to be deleted. Shorn of bafflegab, what this says is that if anyone comes out of the woodwork and makes a bogus claim about my book — that it infringes copyright, damages the reputation of their fine software company, or whatever — I have to pay the “reasonable” attorneys’ fees for settling the claim. As if attorneys’ fees were ever reasonable.

In other words, I’m being asked to sign a blank check. There’s no requirement that I be found actually to have breached any warranty. If there’s a claim that I have breached a warranty, I’m on the hook for the lawyers’ fees.

Here’s the relevant portion of the warranty, in case you’re curious. By signing the contract, I warrant that “the Work is in no way whatsoever a violation or infringement of any existing copyright or license or duty of confidence or duty to respect privacy or any other right of any person or party; neither the Work nor any material portion thereof is, or will be during the statutory term(s) of copyright, in the public domain; the Work contains nothing that violates any right of privacy, is defamatory or otherwise violates any other right of any kind of any person or entity, nor does the Work contain anything that is obscene or in any other way unlawful or misleading.”

Read that carefully. If there’s an unsubstantiated, bogus claim that my book “violates any … right of any person or entity,” the lawyers for Oxford University Press will write a big fat number on my blank check and take it to the bank.

Again, I’m not a lawyer; there may be nuances here that I’m not aware of; but that’s sure what it looks like to me.

The acquisitions editor at OUP (a nice guy) tells me that it’s not just his own company lawyers that insist on this language. OUP has liability insurance in case they get sued — and the insurance policy requires them to include this language in their contracts with writers.

In defense of lawyers (not that they need any), it’s their duty to protect their clients by fobbing off the risk of any transaction onto the other party in the transaction. If they fail to do this, they’re not doing their job. So they pass the financial risk on to the weakest person in the room, namely, the author of the book. Without whom they would all be standing on a street corner selling pencils, because it’s the authors who create the wealth that keeps the publisher in business and allows the publisher to hire lawyers.

If you’re a young author building a career, this may not concern you too much. You may prefer to go ahead and sign the contract. First, having a published book will help your career. Second, the probability of a claim is remote. Third, if the lawyers come after you demanding money, you can just declare bankruptcy and start over.

I’m not in that category. I’m not building a career; I’m retired. I don’t need to write a book; I’m offering to write one. And as a retired person with some savings and no income except Social Security, I’m not in a position to declare bankruptcy and start over building a new nest egg. That being the case, I’m absolutely not willing to push my entire IRA and also the deed to my house into the center of the poker table and bet that nothing bad will happen.

Too bad. It would have been a good book.

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