The Power of the Backlist

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be polishing up my final version of THE MEPHISTO CLUB, because my deadline’s in two weeks. But I can’t resist blogging today about a subject that came up over at The Publishing Contrarian ( a blogsite I enjoy very much because Lynne Scanlon makes you re-think some of the accepted wisdom about publishing. She advocated bringing back “work for hire”, and dispensing with the traditional advances-against-royalties contracts because she thinks it’s advantageous for authors to simply forget about future royalties and get all their money up front. As her reasoning goes, few authors actually earn much beyond their advances anyway, so why not get as much as you can on the front end?

The topic was picked up over at Galleycat: ( , where readers (yours truly included) offered comments on the whole work-for-hire issue.

What no one’s mentioned though, in this entire debate, is the potential earning power of an author’s backlist.

Scanlon’s correct on a number of things. Most authors don’t make enough to live on. Most authors won’t earn much beyond their advances. Most authors won’t sell movie rights or foreign rights or hit it big like Dan Brown. Ergo, her belief that giving up future rights to your own work isn’t such a big deal.

I’m willing to agree with her that for NONFICTION, this may well be true. Nonfiction books usually rely on current events or current fads or the hot new celebrity. Within a few years, the book’s no longer relevant, and you can’t even sell it on the remainders table. That baby ain’t coming back from the dead, ever.

But FICTION is a whole other story. And I’m the living proof of it.

Years ago, I started off my career by writing romantic suspense novels. I wrote nine of them. My advances back then ranged between five and ten thousand dollars per book. Quite honestly, that’s about all I could have expected to earn out on each title, because these sorts of series romance paperbacks come out, they have four weeks on the store shelves, and then they disappear, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t have seemed too crazy to accept a work-for-hire deal, in which I would have given up all rights and just took the ten thousand bucks and walked away from future rights, forever.

But then something strange and wonderful happened to me. And it was called HARVEST.

With HARVEST, I suddenly became a New York Times-best-selling author. My publishing deals climbed to whole new levels. I wasn’t a genre novelist anymore; I was a mainstream author, writing mainstream suspense. And as I became better known as a suspense novelist, my former romance publisher, Harlequin, wasn’t sitting deaf and dumb in some closet. They were paying attention. (As Harlequin is known to do.) They realized that they held the back-list of an author who was starting to do very, very well.

To no one’s surprise, reprints of my old romantic suspense titles started appearing in bookstores. Not just here in the U.S., but around the world. These were titles that I thought had long since finished earning out, and would never be seen again. And suddenly, they were selling again, and selling well, and now I’m being paid royalties that add up to many times the original advances I was first paid.

Had I accepted a work-for-hire deal when I was still a romance author, I wouldn’t be seeing any of this money today.

Yes, I know that most authors won’t be as fortunate. But if anyone’s going to have faith in your career, shouldn’t it be YOU? When you write a book, don’t you hope and dream that THIS BOOK will make it big? Or if not this one, then the next one, or the next? Don’t you harbor a secret belief that one of these days, you’ll be on the bestseller lists?

If you ever do make it big, every single novel you’ve ever written suddenly becomes a valuable commodity. Your back-list will come back into print, and it will provide a steady stream of money that you never expected to earn.

But only if you held onto your royalty rights. If you’d signed those rights away under a work-for-hire contract, your back-list will be worthless to you. But it’ll be a bonanza for the canny publisher who got you to sign that contract.

It makes me sad to think of any novelist who feels compelled to sign a work-for-hire contract. It makes me think he has no faith in his own future as a writer. Because you never know when you might be sprinkled with fairy dust. You never know if something you wrote five years ago, or ten years ago, might suddenly start earning unexpected royalties. Don’t give up your rights to your own future.

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