Let me preface this post by saying, this isn’t a post about getting six or seven figure advances. I know. You want to know how to make the big bucks. I don’t blame you. We all want to be paid for our worth, plus extra. Suffice it to say, if you get a publishing deal with one of the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan), it is a given you are going to get a pretty generous deal.
Now, are you going to get Stephen King money or J.K. Rowling money coming out the gate…probably not. But will you get “take a breath” money if you get a deal with a large size or medium size press? Yes, I can just about guarantee you that you will get an advance that will allow you to breathe (even if only for a month or two), and for writers, that is so very important. Most of us have never known the freedom to just write for a period of time. Most of us have only known writing in fits and starts. Writing before everyone gets up to start their day. Writing before going to the job. Writing during the train ride or bus ride to and from the office. Writing during lunch breaks and coffee breaks. But very few of us have known the joy and pleasure of wearing the writer’s hat only.
For me, the advance I received from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins afforded me the opportunity to NOT teach this summer and teach part-time at my university for the next upcoming year. I’m also going to splurge on a new computer and then save the rest for a rainy day. But again, this post isn’t about the advance my agent was able to get me. This post is about something far more important.
A good agent is not just thinking about the advance. Now they ARE thinking about it because that is how they get paid, but they are also thinking about things that will have long-lasting impact beyond the check the publisher cuts soon after signing day. They are thinking about your long-term needs and goals as a writer. They are thinking about the next project and all of the ways your current project can be affected by the terms of the contract.
As authors, we just want to sign. When we found out Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins was interested in my book, I would have signed that very day. But thankfully, my agent, albeit excited too, understood, a book deal was only as good as the negotiation that took place. So, I forced myself to turn my attention back to writing, and stand back and allow my agent to do the job she signed up to do.
Rather than try and paraphrase some of the negotiations that took place, I reached out to my agent, Alice Speilburg at the Speilburg Literary Agency, and asked her, besides the money, what were some of things she fought for when negotiating my contract with Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. This is what she said.
For your particular contract, I fought hardest for the following:
- Your ability to do other writing work outside of the confines of this project. This means narrowing what the publisher has an option on, or retaining subsidiary rights on this story, but also, narrowing the competition clause. Publishers want to make sure your book has the time and space to succeed, and that makes sense, but sometimes they ask for too much time and space. I removed a line in the contract that limited your ability to submit any other books to other publishers while you’re writing these books, and that prohibited any other publications until 6 months after the final book in the contract. That would likely be in 2023. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered in the end, but contracts are all about the "what if" scenario. Who knows what you would be inspired to write in the intervening time?
- Your approval of EVERYTHING. In this case, we licensed a lot of subsidiary rights to the publisher, and I wanted to make sure they would use them only with your input and approval. If your publisher wants to do a derivative project based on your book, or an adapted version, or an abridged version, or anything like that, they need author approval to proceed. They need author approval if they're going to put ads on the book (or ebook). They need author approval if they want to make a change to the text of the work for reasons other than fixing typos, grammar, and punctuation. Basically this allows you to maintain the integrity of the work we submitted.
- Keeping the agreements separately accounted. When I negotiated the initial offer for your book deal, the terms were this Agreement would be separately accounted from future agreements. That way, if this series is wildly successful and a future book hasn't earned out the advance, you don't have to wait on that book before you get paid for this one. I made a point to request that up front because they often won't agree to it at the contract stage. Sure enough, the contract had language saying that sums owed can be deducted from this Agreement or any other agreement between the author and publisher. So I had to remind the contracts department that the agreements are separately accounted. They cut that line and added the separate accounting note to clarify.
To be fair, these are things I have to add into most contracts. It's very rare to get a contract boilerplate that covers these items. Sometimes the things I fight for are much worse. Sometimes we cancel the deal because the terms are unreasonable and we can't reach a compromise. Other times I only have to add in deadlines for the publisher to respond to your manuscript or make a payment, and probably redefine the out-of-print clause that allows you to terminate the contract.
I wouldn’t have known to fight for these things. THAT is why an agent is so beneficial. Not only are they there to fight for your advances and payments, they are also there to fight for the things we as authors don’t know, and if the truth be known, don’t really need to know or want to know. My agent’s job is to make sure I can focus on the writing. That is my job. Her job is to make sure we get the best deal for what I write and what I learned through this process was the money was part of the negotiation but it wasn’t the part that meant the most to me, at the end of the day.
Maintaining the integrity of my work IS the most important thing to me. I built these characters from the ground up. I cried during their saddest moments and I laughed and celebrated during their happiest times. I am their Creator. I believe in them and will fight anyone to make sure they get the best opportunity to shine when revealed to the world. I needed an agent who had the same level of passion for those characters as I did and thankfully, Alice was that agent for me.
Finding the right agent is so important for a writer. For me, I wanted someone who could talk to me about my work AND negotiate like a pro. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find an agent who can do both. I was.
I have friends who only want a negotiator. They feel secure in their writing and they don’t desire their agent to do much more than sign off on the completed manuscript and then start fighting for the best deal. As I previously stated, I wanted a bit of both. I liked the fact that Alice and I could talk about my writing on the macro and micro level. I liked the fact that she saw things in the story that needed teasing out. I liked the fact that she loved books. Not every agent loves books, and I know that sounds strange but it is true. I know people with agents who never read the book their client writes. These non-reading agents give their client’s work to an assistant, the assistant works with the author, and the agent makes the deal. In essence, the agent is more like a legal strategist or lawyer (and there are agents out there who are lawyers…some use the name “literary attorneys.”).
I didn’t want that. So, if you are looking for an agent, think about your needs. Think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. Don’t just sign with the first person who says they want to represent you. Ask pertinent questions like: What type of support do you offer your authors? Tell me about the last book you sold? How many clients do you have? Will you be working with me on fine-tuning my novel/book or will an assistant? What publishers do you feel would be a good fit for my work? What made you want to work with me?
Obviously, you want your agent to get you the best monetary deal, but really, you want someone who is going to do more than that. You want an agent who sees more than dollar signs when they see you. You want someone who sees the importance of your work and will fight like the dickens to make sure the world gets to read your words and you get the freedom to tell more stories, because after all, isn’t that what we are really after? The freedom to tell another story.
For more information about me and the books I write, click here. If you are looking for a writing mentor, click here.
He Stifled My Voice: Trying to Write Long After the Abuse Stopped (Trigger warning: abuse discussed)
I often think about myself in terms of B.A. and A.A – “before the abuse” and “after the abuse.”
I don’t have many memories of the person I was before the abuse because I was stripped of my innocence by an uncle at the age of eleven. Although the incident was a one-time event, forty one years ago, I can still call up the memory of that day in June, not long after my eleventh birthday, just like it was yesterday.
Daddy and my adopted mother were both going to be working that day and I had begged to stay at home. It would be my first time. Before then, I always went with one of them to their jobs. I would sit in a corner and read or sit in the back of daddy’s pickup truck while he worked on houses or did plumbing. But I was a big girl, and I wanted to prove that I could stay at home and be okay. Daddy’s final words before he left were, “Don’t open the door to anyone.” I said sure, gave him a hug, and went back to reading my new summer book, Roots, by Alex Hailey.
I loved the language in the book Roots. I loved the discovery of a world where my ancestors resided before they were touched by slavery. I loved the idea of the community where Kunta Kinte resided, in the Mandinka village of Juffure, soaking up familial love. I was fascinated by those relationships. As an adopted child, I was always curious about other families, particularly those that stayed intact, and on this particular day, Kunta had not become a grown Mandinka warrior yet, captured by white slave catchers. He was still a boy, innocent like me. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he and I had so much in common. He lost his family too, and like Kunta, I began a journey to find what was lost to me.
From the moment I was told I was adopted, I had dreamed of and written stories about who my real mother was and what our story would look like if she came for me. I never daydreamed about a daddy, because M.C. Jackson fulfilled that role to the letter from the first day he took me into his arms. But a mother – that was my dream. I knew if she could just find me, I would be complete. So, I wrote stories about our reunion all of the time. I filled little notebooks with my innocent, childlike dreams of rescue and redemption.
And then, that summer day in June happened. I was wearing a red, white and blue short set. My body was already beginning to fill out. I had been told by my adopted mother that we needed to buy me additional clothing because I was growing so fast. She also said I needed to start covering myself up more, and not walking around in revealing clothes. She had even started me to wearing a bra and a girdle whenever I went out, but I was at home, so I figured, I would be safe from whatever dangers she was hinting at because see…she never had “the talk” with me. Oh, she would hint at things but the language was always so ambiguous and so coded that my child’s mind never truly understood what I was being warned against. Somewhere around ten in the morning, he knocked and, because I knew him, I did not think he was the boogieman I had been warned about. Here is where I will stop THAT part of the story, and fast forward to afterwards. A.A.
I remember picking up the fried baloney sandwich that I had made before he came to the house and throwing it and the glass of grape Kool-Aid against the wall next to the refrigerator. Then I looked for bleach. Bleach would clean and purify, my eleven year old brain decided. Thank goodness I didn’t irreparably harm myself as I diluted it in water and washed, and washed, and washed myself. “What will wash away my sins…Nothing but the blood…” I remember Bob Barker was on and they were spinning the big wheel. Someone won a lot of money that day. I remember gathering my clothes that I had worn and then, as an afterthought, I grabbed my notebooks with my innocent stories of being rescued by my mother. In that moment, I determined no one was going to save me. I went outside and burned my clothes and my notebooks inside daddy’s barbecue grill. I remember the hotness felt comforting. I remember contemplating getting inside that grill. Thankfully I didn’t.
I remember going back inside and sitting at the dining room table, just inches away from where the incident took place. I remember looking down and seeing the silver dollar on the table where he had placed it. Payment in full. His final words were, “Don’t tell.” I remember tossing that silver dollar across the room and it landed somewhere underneath the couch. That same couch is still there. I wonder, did anyone ever find that silver dollar? Years later, my husband, Robert, innocently showed me a silver dollar he had saved. I remember having a panic attack and screaming. He got rid of that silver dollar that day.
Trying to be a writer after that day in June, has been difficult. My stories lack innocence. Happy is hard-fought for my characters. I used to believe in fairytales and happily ever after, but that man took those schoolgirl thoughts and obliterated them with one single act. I try to write about romantic love and immediately I become overwhelmed and afraid. Afraid for myself as I try to find words to make an act that I still have difficulties with envisioning as anything other than violence. I try to focus on the beauty of intimacy but the smell of beer, cigarettes, and pork rinds enter into my brain, leaving me with no words.
I have been working on a love scene in my new book for days now. I tried to make a joke about my social awkwardness when it comes to writing about intimacy. I thought if I laughed about it I could move past the flood of images of that faithful day in June when that man stole my voice and left me struggling to find words again.
It is not easy writing through pain. I do it so often that it becomes second nature to me. I do violence to my characters because that is what feels most natural to me. Even when I give them happiness it is often overshadowed by their sadness and pain. After the abuse, that became my writing pattern. No more did I write about an unknown mother coming to rescue the innocent young girl. No, she never found her way into my work again. Mothers abandon their children and leave them wide open for pain. I just realized this morning, that every book I have written has an absent mother. Sometimes by choice, other times because of situations out of their control, but every single time, the child is left, in my stories, to fend for themselves.
He took away my hope and my belief in the impossible that day, two things a writer must have in order to succeed. I learned how to triage my work and make up for my lack of childlike innocence when I write, but I always wonder what type of stories I would have written had I been left to mature and develop in a normal way.
I never pray that anyone goes to hell, assuming there really is a big caldron of fire that torments people for all eternity. But I do believe, if there is justice in this universe, people should be required, after they die, to spend some time in the afterlife contemplating the choices they made while here and depending on how they lived their lives, that will be their reward or their torment.
I am thankful that I found a voice that allows me to write. Yes, sometimes it is sad and awkward and dark, but it is a voice, nonetheless. Not the voice I had or the voice I was developing, but a new voice. It is an uncomfortable voice at times, but it is all that I have.
My editor at Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), Kimberly, wrote the following message to me in the editorial notes for my next book, When Stars Rain Down:
"I don’t think I can start this editorial letter without acknowledging that my editorial eyes are white. I’m acutely conscious that I’m editing a story written by a Black woman about Black people, and there might be moments—despite my best efforts to listen and educate myself—where I get something wrong because of that. If that happens, please know that you have the space to push back and let me know."
I have been fortunate in my writing career to have some great editors for my work and in most cases, they have all been white. And for any of you who have ever read my writing, you know my stories generally involve Black, southern, rural characters. So, I always have a bit of trepidation when I surrender my work to an editor because often they don’t share the same region or ethnicity as my characters, and because of that fact, I prepare myself to be offended or worse, put in a position where I have to defend my artistic choices, which aren’t really choices, but are more like obligations I owe to the ancestors to get their stories down correctly and with the utmost respect.
Therefore, when I received that note from Kimberly, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a way, I looked at my characters and said to them, “We don’t have to fight today. She gets it.” And what I mean by that is I could be myself and my characters could be themselves. They could split infinitives and use colloquialisms and not feel judged. They could be domestic workers and sharecroppers by day, and complex, loving souls at night without worrying about the white gaze reacting in a condescending manner towards them. They could follow the traditions of their ancestral religions and Christianity and not be judged harshly for the amalgamation of those multiple, spiritual beliefs. They could celebrate births and deaths with loud screams and shouts, and no one would call them out on it.
That is a huge deal for a writer in general, but it is a mind-blowing deal for Black writers or writers of color. We are used to writing our stories and then defending them like someone in a court of law because often times there is no one in the room who truly “gets” them. We struggle to make everything “clear” to the point of sometimes sacrificing the story for an overabundance of telling, not showing.
A survey by Lee and Low found that “in the [publishing] industry overall, 76% of employees are white, 74% are cis women, 81% are straight, and 89% are non-disabled. At the executive level, 78% are white, 60% are cis women, 82% are straight, and 90% are non-disabled” (Maher). This explains why it is so difficult for those of us who are considered “outside the canon” to find homes for our work.
For the writer who is The Other, it is often difficult getting one’s foot into the door, but then once you make it on the other side, it becomes even more complicated because so often editors will want to “sanitize” the work or make the work have more of a crossover appeal. In the 1991 Robert Townsend movie, The Five Heartbeats, one of the characters, Eddie King, said something that stuck with me all of these years later when it came to “crossing over” with our music or in my case, my writing. King said, “Cross-over ain’t nothing but a double-cross. Once we lose our audience, we’ll never get them back. Next thing you know, they will try to change our sound.”
More than being published, I have always been most concerned with being authentic to the stories I told, and the people I imagined were my readers. Granted, I want as many people as possible to read my work, but I specifically care what readers who come from my background think. I want them to read my upcoming novel, When Stars Rain Down, and say to themselves, “That’s my Big Mama. Or that’s my Cousin. Or that’s me.” I want those readers to feel a kinship to the imaginary characters I’ve created, so for them, I am always willing to fight for every word, every phrase, every symbol that reflects Black, southern, rural culture.
Therefore, you cannot imagine how excited I was to receive that message from Kimberly. It’s never about the ethnicity of the editor for me (or their gender, sexuality, etc.), it’s always about “Will they listen to me? Will they recognize that I am the authority in this world?” Once that happens, I am always open to the fine-tuning that I am asked to do. When I know I am not going to hear, “Does she REALLY have to speak in broken English?” OR “Is this really something a Black person would say or do?” I then have the freedom to allow my characters to soar unapologetically, and for me, that is all that matters.
Maher, John. “New Lee and Low Survey Shows no Progress on Diversity in Publishing.”
Publisher’s Weekly. 29 January 2020.