I sometimes wonder where all the professionals went.
I’ve now lost track of how many publishers are in breach of their contracts with me. In major and minor ways, one after the other has taken it upon themselves to not honour the terms we both agreed to and signed off on. I’ve seen everything from a refusal to send me a contributor copy of a book because “postage to Canada is more expensive than I thought it would be” to an outright failure to pay a four-figure installment of my fee because, apparently, math is hard. The cavalier way legal documents are ignored for petty, self-serving reasons makes me wish I were more litigious, but in most cases they’ve safely hedged their bets. How many starving artists are going to throw away more money than they’re owed just to pay a lawyer to write a firmly worded letter? None, that’s how many.
The breaches even flow the other way, like a bad case of acid reflux. In recent years, I myself have been accused of being in breach by one publisher—right up until I reminded him of a specific clause I had added to our contract to cover the precise eventuality in question. That one turned on its heel damn fast, going from a vague threat of legal action, to a polite “my bad” mea culpa in less than an hour. Still, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Read your fucking contract before you start with the cease-and-desists. You might be surprised what’s in there.
On the screenwriting front, this sort of shit is handled by my agent. When I have to cope with it myself on the publishing end of things, I’m reminded why I pay her a substantial cut of the proceeds for TV gigs. Most artist types aren’t built to swim with the sharks. Even if we don’t get eaten alive, we sink to the bottom without our water wings and drown. I normally try to avoid confrontation, and I don’t like to play the bad guy, but I have to keep reminding myself that if I’m getting screwed, they’re the ones being the bad guy. An “unfair engager” is what they’re called in the film and television business, where writers have an entire guild to bring pressure to bear and put these short-changers in the doghouse where other members aren’t even allowed to work for them until they set things right and pay up.
Independent publishing is too new, too scattershot, too disorganized to expect any sort of collective bargaining to emerge anytime soon. It’s still the wild west out there, and that’s a good thing. There’s a certain freedom I enjoy when I have to do it all myself. On occasions when I deal with middlemen because I’ve opted to sell a story to a promising anthology, I know that if I end up eating shit, it will only be a one-time affair. I may not like confrontation, but I hold grudges forever. Screw me once and you don’t get to work with me ever again. That might not seem like a dire threat. There are plenty of other sucker writers out there waiting to bend over, but not an inexhaustible supply—especially when it comes to talented or even competent ones. Publishing has long been a pulp business, and writers are the trees in the forest. Chop down too many and you’re left with nothing but a spoiled, clear-cut wasteland.
Only a couple of years ago, I’d typically have as many as ten stories making the rounds, trying to hook publishers at any given time. As of this writing, I have one story out, flirting with two different publishers. I have another two that have been placed and are awaiting publication. That’s all. My writing hasn’t slowed down any. I’m still pumping out a new short story here or there, but for the most part I’m hoarding them. There will be more collections like Raw and Other Stories in the future. Increasingly, they’ll feature more stories that have never appeared anywhere else, and stories I never so much as submitted. The rewards for handing over exclusive first-print rights for a year are often token. And the time these stories spend in rights limbo, or collecting dust in a slush pile, is better spent getting edited, prepped, and formatted for the next book of my own making.
The industry has changed vastly since the first time I had a story printed in an anthology. Few publishers have stepped up their game to contend with this change, and authors are leaving them behind in droves to go independent. If it’s gotten to the point where many publishing houses can’t even meet the bare-minimum requirements of a professional relationship—like honouring a legal contract—they’re going to vanish into history like the Gutenberg Press.