Behaving Badly


I can give you reasons — or excuses, if you’d rather that word — for why my latest non-fiction project isn’t going well. I can tick them off on my fingers one after another and justify each one of them.

But to be honest with you, and with myself, I have to get down to the biggest problem in the whole process.

The thing about working with this agency is, they’re awesome. They’re wonderful to deal with, they make my life as easy as they can, and they don’t ask much in return. My agent doesn’t bother me a lot — though on this project he’s asked for updates more than I expected — and he’s generally able to talk me off a shelf when I need that (only once so far in my relationship with him, going on two great years). The accounting people, with whom I deal to get paid and on payment matters with the publisher, are also amazing, helpful people. I’ve got the direct line of the director of the department, and when I need results she’s never deterred me from going straight to her. She refers me to her staff when her involvement isn’t necessary, but she always speaks to me directly when I need to talk to someone. Awesome.

Now, the publisher for whom I’ve done all my work to this point? Well that’s another matter altogether.

Life can’t be easy for publishing companies right now. It wasn’t all that easy before, but you know what? I don’t remember the last time I ran across a hobo bossing the people who toss him coins in the streets around. That’s sort of an apt analogy for the publishing industry right now, but the difference is, the people tossing the coins at this hobo are programmed to believe it’s okay if he does that. Matter of fact, it’s expected he’ll do that, and if you want to toss coins to that particular hobo, you’ll do as he says when he says to do it.

The mentality is such things are backward.

My wife, brilliant as always, used this analogy:

Let’s say you hire a contractor to do an addition on your house for you. (Apartment dwellers, imagine you have a house first.) You’ve spent months gathering information, talking to contractors and finally agreeing on price with one of them. The contractor then gives you his start date, and you say, no, you’ll start on thus-and-such date instead. Oh, and this is what I’ll pay you. While we’re at it, I expect you to have this project completed in a certain period of time, and we’re going to sign a contract binding us both legally to that time frame and payment. I give you half when we sign the contract and the other half when you’re finished. That’s how we’ll do this, got it?

Now, what do you think the contractor will say to you when you lay it out like that? If you said, “He’s going to laugh, shoot me the bird and tell me to find someone else,” congratulations! You win the prize!

But, that analogy doesn’t really work. My wife assumes we, the writers, are the contractors because we are contracted to do the work. And she’s right, we are, but the fact is we have a little bit different relationship with those who contract us than the contractor has with John Q. Public.

If that same contractor wants to do work, however, for the Federal Government, or let’s say a big corporation like Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Pepsico, etc., well… he’s going to bend over backward to make that bid happen. He’s going to drop his price, he’s going to cut costs everywhere he can, he’ll sign every waiver and agreement they shove at him, and he’s basically going to bite the pillow and take whatever The Big Corporation shoves into him, greased or not, because he wants that wad of cash.

And that’s the better analogy, wherein we, the writers, ARE the contractor. We will bite the pillow and take whatever the publishing industry stuffs up our sh!t-chute and smile while they’re doing it, because we believe that’s how it’s supposed to be.

So, the publisher I work with right now — and it’s not an exclusive agreement to be sure, but they’re the one’s I’m working with right now — has been acting like a typical publishing company. They yank me around on payments, they stiff me if they can until I complain, and when I do finally complain, I run the risk of being labeled “difficult” or “problematic”, or worst of all, a “diva writer”. (Diva’s a female term though, like prima donna, so I’m not sure what the male equivalent is; let’s go with “high-maintenance”.) What they call me behind my back doesn’t interest me so much, but that I could be blacklisted by this publisher does.

I try not to complain. I do so often, but not publicly, to them, for those reasons. I complain here, and I complain to my loving spouse, who will chime right in and sound off with her own distastes for this publisher.

I'm goin' under...

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that, at the end of this project, I won’t likely take on another one for a bit. I have my own books to write and publish, my own readership to try and find. I have no idea how to do that, but I’m going to focus on learning how between writing books. I have plans for several of them. The problem is, the money terms on this sort of work are so easy to live with. (Not the payment terms, mind you, the money terms, meaning I like the cash. A lot.) So it’s hard to walk away from a publisher I know pays pretty well. There are others, of course, but I haven’t worked with any others to say one way or another. I got offered a very generous amount for an Android book, at one point, but that never panned out. Now I’m tempted to pitch an Android book myself, since I have the OS on several devices and could probably figure out how to write one.

Nevertheless, the lure, the siren song, of fiction is calling. I want to answer, so much so it’s drawing me into the rocky shores and leaving me a wreck. I’m not focused on this project, and I’m sick — sick to death — of working on it. I thought it would be easy, because I wrote another book for the same publisher on the same topic, but because this one has to be pared down and put into bite-sized chunks with a certain page count in the end, it’s proven (proved?) to be much harder than it seems. And I, as of this writing, am almost completely convinced I won’t have enough material to make the requirements. I’m dead certain I won’t make the deadline the publisher has imposed, though I’m not sure what they can do about it.

But this past week has been pretty productive, and I’m making good progress over the weekends. Except for my beloved’s birthday on Monday, I spent most of my last several weekends working on the damned thing and have done as many as three chapters in a single two-day span (doesn’t sound like much, I know, but it is, believe me). I might have found a way to do even more, and if that’s the case, I should be well down the road to finished here before the end of the month.

Then the yanking will begin.

The thing bothering me most is how much more like an arrogant, doomed gatekeeper the publisher seems to be acting. I can’t figure it out. I know I don’t like it, and I hope it’s just my perception and not reality. The editor-in-chief I deal with occasionally there seems like a nice enough guy, but there’s an overall tone of snobbery and condescension from the publisher which feels icky and strange.

So, my weekends and weeknights for the next few weeks are more than set.

How ’bout yours?

-JDT-

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