When you get that first contract offer, you will probably be so excited you'd sign anything. Having an agent will help, but even that's no guarantee the contract is a good one. I bring this up because, sad to say, writers as a rule are not treated very well by publishers. Not because publishers are mean, but because usually they don't have to treat writers well. There is no union and your only rights are the ones in the contract and even then, you need an expert to point them out to you. This is not to say publishers are evil (although many writers I've met think that way). It's simply that publishers are doing exactly what you or I would be doing if we were they—looking out for their own interest. So you do the same—look out for your own.
I pay very close attention now to my contracts, but even then, there is only so much leeway a publisher will give you. The Authors Guild, Inc. (330 West 42nd Street, New York,
N.Y. 10036.) will send you a copy of a recommended Trade Book Contract for a small charge. Unfortunately, large publishing houses have a boilerplate contract that they offer and the moon and the stars would have to be in very strange alignment for them to change it for you, new author. You can read the Author's Guild recommended contract, think 'wouldn't it be great?' and then probably sign the boilerplate.
Again, even with a contract, publishers will look out for their own interests first, and yours secondly. Remember also, that your agent may have other authors that he/she represents to that same publisher. Thus your agent may be very leery of standing up for you if it means making an enemy of that publisher. It gets back to what I said above— you have to look out for your own interests. On the other hand, the publisher might not want to alienate your agent or you.
You have to understand what your publisher is doing and how they make money. If you are being published hard cover, you have to understand that unless that house also does paperback, then they are going to make a lot of their money off of selling subrights to your novel to a paperback publisher (hopefully) and also foreign rights.
Your editor is usually your 'voice' at the publishing house. But be aware that editors move between houses. When your voice is gone, your manuscript has also lost its voice. Additionally, your editor is not the only 'voice' at the publisher and certainly not the last voice. Remember that your editor works for the publisher—not you. Every editor I started working with at each publisher was not the editor I finished working with. Fortunately for me my works were still published but it is a common horror story that when an editor leaves, those works that that editor acquired might be canceled.
A large problem in the publishing business is simply geography. It is very rare that an author lives in the same town as his or her publisher. While you may have visions of getting jetted in to discuss your work over lunch in downtown Manhattan, I recommend you be thankful you get your 10 free copies when the work is published.
At the ten-year point in this business, with thirteen books published and five more under contract, I had met my first agent once face to face. That was it.
When I teach, I tell the story of the first glimpse I had of a copy of my second novel. I was at Fort Bragg on active duty (I'd anxiously waited weeks for my copies to arrive via UPS, but by the time I had to leave, they weren't there). So there I was at Bragg and I met another fellow from New Jersey who looked at my nametag quizzically. We started talking and he said my name sounded familiar and he asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer and the cloud on his face cleared up. He reached into the backpack he was carrying and pulled out a copy of my second novel, which his wife had gotten out of the library for him to read on the plane down.
The lesson I learned from all that is that New Jersey has a very efficient public library system. No, actually, it was another of many lessons I've learned about patience.
You will most likely not meet anyone at your publisher for several years unless you live close by and make the effort to visit. You will also rarely meet your agent unless your travel arrangements happen to coincide. Dealing with people exclusively over the phone and in letters is very difficult and requires some care and consideration. It takes time to get a good feel for someone under such circumstances (remember what I wrote earlier about dialogue. How the majority of communication is non-verbal, yet here is a case where the majority has to be verbal). The next chapter will discuss some of the care that needs to be taken.
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