3.02.2006

Work for hire versus advances

Hey Miss Snark!

Wondered if you'd care to comment on the blog post, written by a woman who wants to bring back "work for hire" and
get rid of advances and royalties. (Something I'm sure the creators of the Superman comic strips would have something to say about.) This sounds like an utterly stupid idea for writers -- while being a terrific idea for publishers.

What think you?



Well, Miss Snark is always in favor of something that brings more money in for her authors. Let's do some math:



Author turns in manuscript and receives lump sum payment.


Year 1 Income: $25,000 from publisher who now owns the work outright, and rights to all income the work produces.

Year 2: Film company options rights to book.
Income to author = 0

Year 3: publisher in UK buys UK rights.
Income to author = 0

Year 4: Paperback edition to tie in with film opening is published.
Income to author = 0

Year 5: Audio book and ebook rights take off with success of movie tie in.
Income to author = 0

Year 6: Author has second book ready, and no publisher is willing to buy it for the amount of money it's demonstrably "worth" based on the success of the last one because they don't want to cough up 1.5 million on spec.
Income to author = 0


Gee...the only time Miss Snark likes six zeroes is when there is a 1 leading the line up.

This doesn't help authors as far as I can tell. Show me where I'm wrong; I'll listen.

30 comments:

jta said...

If publishers own a book outright they can do anything they want with it--change the text, retitle, apply a new nom de plume, whatever. A writer might well be trading away reputation and credibility for a bit of cold cash.

No deal.

Maya said...

Book packaging has been a big business for a long time--especially in the youth/teen market. Edward Stratemeyer was the brainchild behind some of the most famous book series for young people--all ghostwritten under pseudonyms:

Bobbsey Twins (72 volumes, 1904-1979) Laura Lee Hope (pseudonym)
Hardy Boys (190 volumes, 1927-2005) Franklin W. Dixon (pseudonym)
Nancy Drew (175 volumes, 1930-2003) Carolyn Keene (pseudonym)
Tom Swift (40 volumes, 1910-1941) Victor Appleton (pseudonym)

In more contemporary times, Francine Pascal created the Sweet Valley High series which she also farmed out to several ghostwriters. The series began in 1984 and finished in 1998 with over 150 books credited to Pascal.

And then we have the true confession magazines. The "trues" have been around for a long time. In talking with a friend who writes e-books, we realized I made more scribbling single short stories for the confessions than she did by writing entire novellas.

Carter said...

Ah, instant gratification--the staff of modern life. Short-sightedness seldom brings any benefit and usually ultimately leads to disaster.

Most authors make what little money they do make on the back end. It's certainly not a perfect system, but it more or less works in the long run.

doc-t said...

Show you where you're wrong? Well, you live in New York. I wasn't going to say anything...but you asked....

Termagant2 said...

Let's see, $25K divided by 6 years = less than I can live on, that's certain.

How come those of us who actually create the things (i.e., books) make the lowest percentage of the cold, hard stuff?

Just wondering...don't everybody jump all over me at once. Take turns.

T2

jta said...

I had shelves of Hardy Boys when I was a kid, and my sister had the Drews, and the Twins, because my parents kept buying them, not that they cared what was actually in them. I read them all, because they were there, but even then I knew they were pretty mediocre books-trite, predictable, die-cut. It never would have entered my mind to spend my allowance on one, though I did save up to buy myself two volumes of Sherlock Holmes. They were successful because adults looking for gifts for young people had far fewer choices than we do now.

I don't suppose it was a bad job to ghost a Hardy Boys, but what's today's equivalent? Not the estimable Harry, certainly, or anything like him. YA fiction has come a long way.

In a way, it would be cool to punch in, knock out 500 words, and punch out with a check on Friday, but I can't imagine it nowadays.

Peter L. Winkler said...

While this is a generalization, most books-especially nonfiction-sell about 12,000 copies and then disappear into oblivion. No second printing, no big score with film rights, no nothin'.

Most novels go the same way.

A lot of writers would probably do just as well if not better with a work-for-hire system, especially if they could have the entire paycheck in one fell swoop, not have it broken into three or even four installments.

Anonymous said...

It would seem to be a case of horses for courses. I can see how doing work for hire is of limited interest to a literary agent, but it is work. And it is writing.
Someone who is a technically competent writer, who can spin a yarn within some already defined boundaries and framework, may well like the idea of writing as a "job", with format, characters, etc. already established and waiting for them.
I would look as "write for hire" as a different beast that "write your own thing" and treat it accordingly: as a different aspect of the industry.
-ril

Maria said...

T2--It's the same thing with patents and large companies. The developers are doing work for hire--that means the company gets to keep any patent and the millions it may or may not make from the idea/intellectual propery of developers that work for the company.

Obviously, a lot of patents are done by individuals--They don't want to give up their rights to possibly make a lot of money. They take on the risk, they file the patent. I think there are writers that don't mind making a living writing and doing work for hire. But some need the threat/possibility of getting rich and some want to continue to "own" the idea/property.

It's a choice. If the writer choses to sell the "intelectual property" to do work for hire, nothing wrong with that. Of course if the publishers decide to try and push that on writers to benefit themselves, whole different thing.

litagent said...

I don't think there's an easy answer to this. As Peter pointed out, most authors DON'T make money on the back end -- whatever they get as an advance is it. The book doesn't earn out the advance (and I know agents who would be ashamed IF the books they represented earned out their advance, because they see that as having not negotiated for enough in the first place), they aren't sold in 15 different languages, and they don't have movies made from them (even the books that are optioned don't usually end up having movies made out of them.) All of which points to the benefit of being paid up front, although you're forever giving up anything else. It's sort of a crap shoot: Deal, or No Deal?

Dan said...

I would never give away intellectual property rights like that. Publishing contracts should be for rigidly defined rights and time periods. Anyone who signs away all rights for an indefinite period of time is either an idiot (most cases) or being paid a huge chunk of change for it (very rarely).

Anonymous said...

Unless I'm missing it, the advance route would seem to be less a crap-shoot than the fee-based route?
If the agent does lowball the initial advance negotiations, it self-corrects eventually as you get the royalties, right? And subsidiary deals are all upside too.
The flat fee basis might take some of the up front doubt out, but it would certainly put the onus on the writer (or agent) to have a very good idea of the potential long-term value of the project.
As a replacement for the traditional advance based approach for non-farmed projects, I would think that it would make negotiations much harder, with people looking for bigger numbers up front, and potentially result in less authors getting published, wouldn't it?
-ril

Nobody said...

My bread and butter is work-for-hire technical writing. My name doesn't even appear on the manuals I write except for the occasional client who chooses to put it there. I can't quote my own work as a writing sample for prospective clients without permission. It quite simply isn't mine.

This is not generally a problem because, passionate as I am about Excel, I don't really have a wealth of ideas for cool stories I could write about it. But I can't imagine giving away my fictional characters in that way.

OTOH, it pays a few bills.

Maya said...

JTA: Don't kid yourself.

Book packaging is still a very big business, although one that is rarely talked about.

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

I see the pros and cons of both structures. Still, Litagent said it best - It's sort of a crap shoot: Deal, or No Deal?

The biggest con for me with the work-for-hire is on the creative end.

I spent many years being the wizard behind the words for a variety of organizations.

At the time it was fine.

But now I want to write the stories in my head, not what someone else tells me to format.

Still, it's great to know that work-for-hire projects and packaged deals are out there, should I ever want to take on one.

Rather than have one set standard isn't it nice to have both avenues open to us?

Bernita said...

Weren't(aren't) the Mack Bolan series and similar types stabled?

Kirsten said...

A lot of writers would probably do just as well if not better with a work-for-hire system, especially if they could have the entire paycheck in one fell swoop, not have it broken into three or even four installments.

But functionally, that's the same as an advance, Peter. The only difference is, if it's "work for hire," you don't own it once you've taken your cash.

Personally, I view my novels as an investment in a new business I'm launching. If they suck, my business won't do well. If they're good, my business, with a bit of luck, will have a nice upside someday.

Writing for hire removes some of the potential upside. No way around that.

Of course writers are gambling w/ the current system, but I think that's one reason we like it -- it's one reason this whole novelist thing has a bit of a kick to it (besides the kick from writing itself, of course).

Anonymous said...

Well, if you don't give a rat's hiney about your creative efforts, then do that work-for-hire thing, knock yourself out.

For myself, I write regardless of making money or not, but I love my work, and though willing to "lease" it to a publisher to get it on the store racks, I would never sell it. (Some people are like that about real estate--lease, never sell.)

This seems to be a different kind of work-for-hire than the two books I wrote for a gaming company. Their content was based on someone else's creation, and I knew going in that I didn't own the stuff and was just playing there for a bit. (I did get industry standard on royalties, which was good.)

I had fun with those books and they made me some cash, but the jokers I worked for could and did rewrite my words as they pleased. Some of the stuff they pulled on the second book were highly objectionable to me, and I fought like hell to make things better since it was MY name on the cover. As the editorial staff had clearly been selling burgers the week before I knew I had a better grasp than they did about the craft of writing.

They did teach me something important: NEVER ever do another work-for-hire. If I felt that way about stuff I didn't own, I'd have gone postal on my works being changed, regardless of a bill of sale attached.

The money was good, but not that good.

jta said...

Unless the money were very good, it seems to me a fiction writer would be better advised to work in the real world; the viewpoints, characters, and just the daily grit of reality are a novelist's stock-in-trade, as much as grammar and dramatic sense. Same for non-fiction writers--what could be better than to work in the field you're writing about?

Turning out prose you don't care about just to be "writing" is called being a hack.

Anonymous said...

In the late 1980s, I contributed 3 (of 14) chapters to a book on the the animals that I study.

One of the book's scientific editors and I tried to get royalties - we thought the book would sell well and were willing to take nothing up front. We were told by the publishers that they didn't “do” royalties for these sorts of books. Too many authors, too complicated.

[To be fair to the publishers, the – hey, lets do this book! - came from the publisher. Much, but not all, of the structure came from the scientific editor].

So I wrote anyway, and pocketed my $2500 (AUS). I used the money to buy a computer.

After a while, I noticed the book in different places around the world, so asked the publishers how it had done. After 4 years, it'd had print runs totaling over 150,000 and been translated into four other languages.

The publisher approached me a few years ago to do a new edition. They still weren't offering royalties. Strangely enough, I wasn't interested.

At about the same time as the first book came out, a friend edited, and wrote most of, a similar book with a UK publisher. He had an agent. He bought a small farm.

Peter

charity said...

I wrote a comment on the woman's page directing her to Miss Snark's post.

My post never showed up. All comments posted to her site have to be reviewed first. (Something I think smacks of 1984-esque mind control. But that's my opinion.)

She emailed me to thank me for visiting her website. I asked her why my post never showed up and she said that since it directed her to another website that disagreed with her, there was no reason to post it.

--E said...

People on the pro-WFH side seem to be saying how usually the author doesn't earn out their advance, or doesn't get much in royalties beyond the advance. Okay, true enough.

But then they make this weird leap to "If you sell all the rights to the publisher, they will pay you a bigger sum, one that totals what you would have gotten by selling the subrights separately, anyway."

It's that leap that bothers me. If a publisher would normally pay a $10,000 advance for a particular book, and expects the book might sell subrights to the tune of another $10,000 for the author's share, then, the argument goes, the WFH offer would be $20,000.

Nuh-uh. I don't see that happening. Subrights can be split an infinity of ways, sold and resold, optioned and reoptioned. The publisher in a WFH deal would be buying the subrights as a package, in bulk, and no one pays the full price of each part if they're buying in bulk. They don't do it for pork chops, and I can't imagine a publisher doing it for subrights.

jta said...

Not to mention the downward spiral that would ensue as publishers bid the prices down, which they would, because the supply of publishable mss far exceeds demand.

Locusts...

Contrarian indeed.

jnr said...

i've been writing comics--non-superhero comics for adults, primarily--professionally for several years. i've worked on both sides of the fence.

work for hire makes good sense in some creative situations, and no sense at all in others. it tends to lead to a business model that values company-owned characters over the stories themselves. but that's a tendency. not an absolute.

wfh is not necessarily a barrier to good royalty payment. one of the better comic book publishers attaches a nice royalty schedule to their work for hire contracts. i have trade collections that have remained in print for years and years, in domestic and numerous foreign language editions. one has earned two or three times more than my initial page rate/base work for hire fee for the work.

the core issue, for me, is ownership and control of the work. the secondary issue is subsidiary rights.

i think it'd be interesting to develop a model for shared ownership of story-type IP. i reckon we'll eventually see something like that develop as cross-genre development of stories and characters becomes more common.

but i'm not sure where you'd start.

charity said...

A rephrasing of an earlier comment left by me:

A more accurate description would be to say that Lyne didn't post it because She thought it was directing HER to another site THAT disagreed with her.

She didn't say "because."

yossarian said...

It would seem to be a case of horses for courses. I can see how doing work for hire is of limited interest to a literary agent, but it is work. And it is writing.

Correct, RIL. But we're not talking about someone writing a Nancy Drew book for hire just to make some dough. The controversy is over the Publishing Contrarian's suggestion that you take your personal heart-and-soul novel you created all by yourself to a publisher, and instead of an advance against royalties and rights to be sold later, the publisher says, "Here's a check and we own everything forever. Go away."

Those of us who have a problem with this idea aren't necessarily condemning all forms of work-for-hire.

Anonymous said...

Yossarian:

Thanks - yes, I get the distinction. I was talking specifically about write for hire and not about fixed price contracts for original works. To me, work for hire has a specific connotation of, in this case, the publisher being the customer and bringing a set of expectations and specifications (e.g. farmed fiction series).

I don't do write for hire, and I don't personally know anyone who does, but I'm not inclined to knock it as a line of work. Different people pay their bills in different ways, and there's clearly a market for this. I have to believe there are people who are adept at write for hire, and people who would be hopeless at it.

I indicated in a later comment that it seems to me that the idea of fixed price contracts for authors of original works would have a lot of downside and little upside for the author.

I'm a long way from being an experienced professional though, I'm just debating from my personal point of view.
-ril

Anonymous said...

Yossarian:

Thanks - yes, I get the distinction. I was talking specifically about write for hire and not about fixed price contracts for original works. To me, work for hire has a specific connotation of, in this case, the publisher being the customer and bringing a set of expectations and specifications (e.g. farmed fiction series).

I don't do write for hire, and I don't personally know anyone who does, but I'm not inclined to knock it as a line of work. Different people pay their bills in different ways, and there's clearly a market for this. I have to believe there are people who are adept at write for hire, and people who would be hopeless at it.

I indicated in a later comment that it seems to me that the idea of fixed price contracts for authors of original works would have a lot of downside and little upside for the author.

I'm a long way from being an experienced professional though, I'm just debating from my personal point of view.
-ril

yossarian said...

Gotcha, ril. I didn't see that you'd commented again. Lost your initials in a string of anonymouses (anonymi?)

Pat Brown said...

One thing I haven't seen covered here is if you sell your book outright as a wfh, doesn't that mean the publisher now owns those characters? You couldn't write a second book with the same characters. The publisher is free to farm out your characters and your concept to anyone they want to write sequels. You earn diddly squat. Forget it, I'll take my chances with royalties.