Thursday, April 17, 2008

What's best: jam today, or future jam hopes?

Most writers will encounter rejection as often as they savour success. If you can't cope with having your hopes dashed on a regular basis, don't become a writer. If you're still determined to make a living as a scribe, become used to hearing the word 'no', putting your teeth back in and getting back on the metaphorical horse. However, sometimes you face the flipside of that situation - deciding whether or not you want to take on a job that's on offer to you.

Freelancers can find it hard to say no. Self-employment is an unstable lifestyle, where work oscillates between famine and flood [and your cashflow's an even more capricious commodity]. There's a natural tendency to grab every piece of work going, and worry about how you'll achieve it later. Better to know you've got work than turn one job down in the hope something comes on stream, runs the logic. But beware taking on too many assignments at once, lest you disappoint.

Freelancers who don't deliver soon get a bad reputation, and the flood of work that took on will become a trickle. Just as writers talk to each other, comparing notes, hints and tips, so do agents and editors and commissioners. It's a small world, made smaller still by mobile phones, email, texting, social networking groups and the like. Piss off one boss by focusing on work for another and you risk of blotting your copybook for good. Don't spread yourself too thin.

There are also times when you must decide what makes something a dealbreaker. For example, are you willing to take a fulltime job in an office, if it will advance your career? Are you willing to commute for that job? Are you willing to spend every working hour at that job, for little money but the hope of better working conditions? How much are you willing to sacrifice, and what is the tipping point between saying 'yes' and turning down certain employment?

For authors who work on franchise fiction, there can be a trade-off between the advance you get paid up front for writing a novel and whether you receive any royalties from that book if it sells well. One best-selling line of licensed novels used to pay royalties, but now authors are only guaranteed a flat fee and the possibility of a bonus if sales are strong. The flat fee is generous for the work involved, but the loss of royalties will irk some.

I've written novels where licensing issues meant all I got was a flat fee for my work. I knew it going in, and I signed a contract to that effect. It was my choice. I wanted to write the book, I needed the money and the terms were not going to budge - so be it. But wherever and whenever possible I will battle to improve the terms and conditions of any agreement I sign.

For another novel, I volunteered to get less money up front in exchange for the possibility of royalties later. The publisher made no bones about the fact they didn't expect the novel to sell enough to clear my advance and generate a royalty - so be it. I'd rather take less money and have the possibilities of royalties, than write a book for a flat fee. Why? For me, royalties are an incentive. A flat fee subliminally says this book is a job of work, no more and no less.

To secure new opportunities as a writer, you have to do a lot of speculative work. You want to get on a particular TV series? Write a great original script that showcases your abilities. Get somebody at the show to read it, and hope it touches a chord. But even then, you're unlikely to get an immediate commission. You'll probably be asked to do a trial script or some sample scenes. If that goes well, you might get asked to submit story ideas for the show.

All of that is speculative, unpaid work. You'll only see cash once formally commissioned, after you're jumped through all the hoops and signed a contract. I try to see a licensed fiction novel in much the same way. I'd rather get paid a much smaller advance and have hope, than get a fat flat fee and nothing more. Hell, I'm written non-fiction books for no advance, just royalties. That's backing yourself to do a good job. Give me jam tomorrow. I can wait.

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