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It’s easy to understand how writers get into these binds. So excited that someone, finally, loves his work, the writer simply asks a few questions about his particular hot-button issues (or not!) and gets out the pen to sign.

Please, stop.

Writers, it is critically important that you understand what you’re signing. That contract is not the Golden Ticket, and the publishing house is not the Chocolate Factory. The contract on your desk is the playbook for your relationship with that potential publisher: it contains all the rules and plans for the operation of getting your books into the hands of customers, and each one is different.

Let me stress that: each one is different. Each publisher has a preferred boilerplate contract, which is different, if only in seemingly minor things, from anyone else’s; and any individual contract is likely to include modifications specifically for the project in question, which reflect the writer’s, the agent’s, or the publisher’s particular needs and wants at this moment. And whether or not you understand the terms it sets out, by signing you have agreed to its terms. You won’t successfully argue these points later.

The bottom line: if you can’t read and understand the contract, right down to the letter, it is incumbent on you, in not only your best interests but also the interests of everyone else involved, to stop and make sure you do.

There are a variety of resources available. Your agent, if you have one, can help you understand the details of a publisher’s proposed contract. (We hope you are sure of the conditions of your agency contract as well!) If you don’t have an agent, there are books on publishing contract law, notably Kirsch’s volumes, that can break down the meanings of clauses that aren’t readily understood by people new to the industry. If you can afford it, consult with a lawyer who is familiar with publishing. Take the time to know exactly what you’re signing.

It’s true that there are some so-called publishers who are really just in the business of separating writers from their money; there are ample resources on the internet to help writers check out the reputations of publishers and agents they’re considering working with. But just because a publishing house has a good reputation does not mean it operates in the way you assume it does, nor does it mean you would be pleased with your specific contract if you took the time to understand it.

Please, do yourself and everyone involved a favor: understand what you’re signing, and don’t sign until the document (not the verbal agreements, but the document itself) reflects terms you’re prepared to live with. Anything less at this stage is just a recipe for misery later on.

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Today at @HomeCon(TM) on Darkcargo, editor Elizabeth Campbell interviews Mercury Retrograde’s own Barbara Friend Ish about Mercury Retrograde Press, Slow Publishing, and the mysteries of editing books. @HomeCon has been running all weekend, and will finish up in a blaze of glory today, but we’re not sure what plans have been made for a Dead Dog Party. Eliz says:

One lucky commenter will get a choice of books from the stacks at Mercury Retrograde Press (or ebook sent to them if they should happen to be in a foreign country right now…). There are other prizes for participating in Darkcargo’s @homeCon all weekend, such as this one, this one, this one and this one. And this one. (Pop over to the post to see what prizes are still in play.)

As per Darkcargo tradition, Eliz asks truly penetrating questions. If you’re interested in the stuff that goes on behind the curtain at a small press, this is the interview for you. And if you have yet to dip into the wonderful insanity of @HomeCon, this is a good place to start.

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Today on the Pendragon Variety Podcast, the Ladies Pendragon interview Mercury Retrograde publisher Barbara Friend Ish about the publishing industry, small press publishing, and opportunities and strategies for writers. Oh, and pajamas. There’s a lot unusual insider information for writers and some fun behind-the-scenes stuff with the Ladies Pendragon themselves. You can get into the spirit of this early-morning podcast recording by pouring yourself a cup of coffee (bonus points for obscure tea) and putting on your most comfortable pajamas.  Stop by and listen:

Pendragon Variety – Episode 30 – Interview with Barbara Friend Ish

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So, I’m a reader, just like you, and I’ve spent the better part of my life collecting books, selling them to used book stores when I have too many, and then investing the better part of the next few years desperately trying to buy them back.  I like being able to peruse my shelves, touch the spines, journey through the tactile memories of when I first read them.  I enjoy the feel of the page against my fingers, love the process of turning my way through another world (gently…do not bend!), and will never tire of falling asleep with the solid weight of a tome against my chest.

I cannot fathom a life without books.

But the Electronic Age can.  It can imagine a world in which paper is rendered irrelevant, and bookshelves are replete in unwatered plants, and pictures of loved ones, with nary a book to set them apart.  It can imagine a world in which an epic is downloaded, where heroes battle nemeses not across a page, but through the pixelated kaleidoscope of a computer screen.  It wants your books, and no amount of kicking and screaming will turn it away.

And you are kicking and screaming, aren’t you?

Just ask any book aficionado, and you will receive a diatribe against the Machine, unlike any this side of John Connor’s rebellion.  “No way,” they will say, just shy of screaming.  “The book will always exist.  People like to hold a book, to bend a book, to flip pages, and remove dust jackets!  This whole e-publishing thing is a fad, meant to placate the lazy, techno-geeks amongst us.  Just a fad, that’s all.”

Mhm.

To a degree, though, they are right; and to a greater degree they are drowning in a shallow pool of denial.  Motoko Rich of The New York Times recently wrote a splendid article about the rise of the e-book, in which he spends a very short amount of time extolling a very large amount of readable information, all of which is meant to help us understand the financial ramifications of the e-book vs. the traditional paper-bound.  It’s a fantastic read, and is quite the enlightening journey through the numbers involved.  And, in the end, it’s difficult to argue to point he makes.  The current economic downturn has everyone thinking cheap, lean, and efficient.  The publishing industry has been hammered over the past two years, and is reeling in one direction, or another, hungry for any means by which to gain a better foothold on the future.  The truth is–whether we like it or not–e-books are a more cost-effective process.

Here is the crux of his cost-based argument for e-books:

On a typical hardcover, the publisher sets a suggested retail price. Let’s say it is $26. The bookseller will generally pay the publisher $13. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about $3.25 to print, store and ship the book, including unsold copies returned to the publisher by booksellers.

For cover design, typesetting and copy-editing, the publisher pays about 80 cents. Marketing costs average around $1 but may go higher or lower depending on the title. Most of these costs will deline on a per-unit basis as a book sells more copies.

Let’s not forget the author, who is generally paid a 15 percent royalty on the hardcover price, which on a $26 book works out to $3.90. For big best-selling authors — and even occasionally first-time writers whose publishers have taken a risk — the author’s advance may be so large that the author effectively gets a higher slice of the gross revenue. Publishers generally assume they will write off a portion of many authors’ advances because they are not earned back in sales.

Without accounting for such write-offs, the publisher is left with $4.05, out of which it must pay overhead for editors, cover art designers, office space and electricity before taking a profit.

Now let’s look at an e-book. Under the agreements with Apple, the publishers will set the consumer price and the retailer will act as an agent, earning a 30 percent commission on each sale. So on a $12.99 e-book, the publisher takes in $9.09. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about 50 cents to convert the text to a digital file, typeset it in digital form and copy-edit it. Marketing is about 78 cents.

The author’s royalty — a subject of fierce debate between literary agents and publishing executives — is calculated among some of the large trade publishers as 25 percent of the gross revenue, while others are calculating it off the consumer price. So on a $12.99 e-book, the royalty could be anywhere from $2.27 to $3.25.

All that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54, before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances.

But that’s not the only reason that we, as the book buying populace, need to come to understand, and even to a degree, appreciate the reality of electronic publishing.  Just look around you.  We live on the computer.  We’re on Facebook, or Twitter, playing computer games, writing, or reading documents for work, getting our news, watching videos on You Tube, or catching up on shows on Hulu.  We have the I-phone, blackberry, the I-Pad (that still hurts to say), and various other mobile devices that have essentially become mini-mobile-pc’s that dominate our days.  How many times have you gotten stuck playing that ridiculously awesome paper ball in the waste basket game?  Generations of children are being raised on this as a normal facet of society, and no amount of reminiscing about rotary phones will change what the future holds.  Computers–the Electronic Age–is here, and it stands to reason that books will follow.  Actually, books must follow.  If we want people to read, then we have to give in to the conveniences they so desperately seek, and allow that books won’t exist if publishers aren’t around to print them.

Me?  I still want to sprawl out on a lawn chair at the beach with a paperback.  I still want to stick my nose in a book, and smell the scent of paper.  And I still want my dream library, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, replete with as many cobwebs as they can build.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go flop on the bed, with my copy of The Magicians, and read until I fall asleep.

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