I Am Joe’s Blog:

September 10, 2004 • 12:54 AM

Book Contracts

More than a year ago, I started working on a book about AppleScript Studio, having signed a contract with a certain publisher—let’s call them Publisher A—stipulating the amount of advance, royalties, schedules, and so on. After I turned in the first batch (maybe one-fifth of the book), the publisher said they’d had a change in their strategic direction and were no longer interested in publishing Mac programming books. So they dropped the project and my manuscript was orphaned.

My ever-diligent agent decided to shop around for a new publisher, and several—let’s call them Publishers B, C, and D—expressed interest. Publisher B made me an offer, but had a condition in the contract I couldn’t live with (more on this in a moment). Publisher C offered high royalties but a low advance (more on that, too, shortly). And then Publisher D offered a reasonable amount of money and a great contract, except for one tiny little phrase that I absolutely refused to agree to and they absolutely refused to change. Thus, after having gone through four publishers, the project is once again orphaned (for now, at least).

The problematic phrase in Publisher D’s contract (which was also one of the sticking points with Publisher B) basically indemnified the publisher against claims of breaches of my warranty that the material is original and free from copyright violations. In other words, it means that if someone were to sue them claiming that I violated a copyright, then even if the claim were completely unsubstantiated, even if I proved in court that I did nothing wrong, and even if the claim were in fact completely frivolous, I would still be responsible to pay the publisher’s legal fees for defending the suit. This cost would almost certainly be far more than I’d ever received for writing the book in the first place.

Although it’s extraordinarily unlikely that such a lawsuit would ever occur, clearly something of that sort must have happened at some point, or the publisher wouldn’t have been so adamant about leaving that language in. I know several other authors who reluctantly agreed to this language because refusing to do so would amount to a career-limiting move. But I said no, because I don’t think it’s ethical to hold an author financially responsible for actions over which he or she had no control whatsoever. Nor is it ethical for me to put my financial security at risk to protect a big company against unscrupulous litigants. I can warrant that my work is original, but I can’t agree to pay legal fees to fight off someone who has a random grudge against the publisher.

The real pity is that I truly like and respect the publishers and editors involved, it’s just that their lawyers are being intransigent and corporate policy dictates that no contract can be signed that the lawyers don’t OK.

This is an aspect of the publishing world that the general public rarely sees, and it’s just one of many things that are broken in the system. Another thing that’s broken: money. Authors generally get an advance, which is taken out of any royalty payments that later accrue. However, because technical books (such as the ones I’ve written) usually have a very short shelf life and appeal only to a narrow field of readers in the first place, it’s fairly unusual for the author of a technical book to earn out the advance before the book goes out of print. Thus, I always assume that whatever I get paid as an advance is the only money I’ll ever earn for the book, and therefore the trade-off of a lower advance for higher royalties is not one that makes sense for me. Meanwhile, technical books take a long time to write; in the case of my books, if I take the total advance I’ve received and divide it by the (estimated) number of hours I spent writing, it works out to about minimum wage. All that to say, the life of the typical computer book author is considerably less cushy than one may suppose.

All this is why I’m so keen on the Take Control model. We write short, focused ebooks, charge a very modest fee for them, and still earn far more per copy than we would with conventional books. Readers get free updates, and authors get timely paychecks. The system works for everyone, and even the contracts are completely humane, reasonable, and largely free of legal jargon.

So I can’t get too worked up about having to walk away from yet another book deal. It would have meant five or six months of my life working for minimum wage anyway. Life is too short to spend it keeping lawyers happy.