Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Work for Hire

by Kathryn Miller Haines

There’s been an interesting discussion on the Pittsburgh Sisters in Crime list lately that I thought I’d drag over to working stiffs (can you tell I’m on deadline?). The issue is work for hire: would you be willing to take on a work-fire-hire contract with a publisher for a novel or series? It’s another interesting way a writer can break into the biz, or diversify themselves once they’re already in it. The basic scenario works like this: a publisher likes your writing but maybe doesn’t find the book you’re currently shopping the right fit for them. You, however, possess a skill level and/or background that would make you a good fit for a series they want to launch and need a writer for. So they audition you and the next thing you know, you have a contract.

It’s been a fascinating discussion so far, which is why I thought I’d bring it out into the open. There’s a time when I think I would’ve been against doing this primarily because I didn’t think I had the chops to write an idea that wasn’t initially mine, but I think I’ve changed my opinion. As writers we’re often musing about what the next big thing is that we can sell; isn’t it refreshing to have the publisher come to you and say, “here it is – the thing we can sell. Now write it!” And I find that the more I write, the easier it becomes to become passionate and excited about what I’m working on, even if the idea didn't come from me.

So what do you think? Would you do work-for-hire writing? Are you doing it now?

And now for a little blatant self promotion. My marvelous friend David White created a book trailer for Winter in June, the third Rosie Winter Mystery (coming out in…well June of course). Hope you enjoy it!


Annette said...

Yes, I would definitely grab the chance to write a book an editor was already sold on. As long as I'm the one collecting the check, I could live with not being the one to come up with the concept.

Any editors out there? (Waving eagerly) Here I am!

Joyce said...

Me, too! (Both arms waving.)

Kathy, I LOVE the trailer. I can't wait to read this book. And it's not just because I like anything WWII related. Your books are great!

Jennie Bentley said...

Been there, doing that. It's not really that different from writing an idea of your own. You get to tailor the books to your strengths, the characters become 'yours' as you create them, and believe me, it's just as much work as writing your own ideas. And as Annette said, nothing wrong with writing a book an editor is already sold on. My contract is the same as anyone else's, with a few exceptions (copyright and pseudonym), but the books are treated the same and I'm treated the same as someone writing their own ideas. Initially, it wasn't the way I'd seen myself breaking into publishing, but when it came right down to it, a 3-book contract with the second largest publisher in the world, for books they'd already committed to and that I didn't have to write on spec, seemed well worth it. It isn't all I want to do - I certainly hope to sell books I wasn't initially hired to write, too - but when it dropped in my lap I chose to see it as an opportunity and not an insult, and grabbed it with both hands. For what it's worth. :-)

Kathy MH said...

I was hoping you'd chime in, Jenny. And I definitely think it's not an insult! Rather, it shows what absolute faith a publisher has in you that they can bring the idea to you rather than vice versa.

Annette said...

Jennie, you hit the nail on the head with the line about writing on spec. I really don't mind rejection, but when it comes after months or years of toil over a manuscript that just isn't what they're looking for (but they like the writing, send me the next one), frustration really sets in. Please! Tell you me what you want and I'll happily spend those months and years on THAT!

Karen in Ohio said...

I have written a nonfiction book for hire, and the process was about the same both ways for me. And I have edited for a friend who has written five novels (men's adventure series) for hire, back in the 1980's. He got a credit in the first one or two (the "author" was like "Carolyn Keane", which was actually a group of authors who wrote the Nancy Drew books), then later on they used his name as author, his books did so well. He enjoyed the experience, and it helped him break into the fiction market.

It would be more difficult for that to happen today, I think, don't you? He would have had to have published at least one book already, I suspect.

My own experience was a little different. I had a book in a similar vein, but with a different focus, that I self-published. On the strength of that book I approached a publisher who turned me down, initially. Later on, when they had a series of books in my genre (how-to, business), they approached me and asked if I would write something that dovetailed into their series, which of course I was happy to do. But I was on a pretty serious deadline, with four months to write a 60,000 word book. I'd never put myself through anything like that again. Previously, I'd also been asked to write a different book on a related but different topic, and with a similar time constraint. That situation was much more difficult because the editor kept changing her mind about what she wanted and she kept getting in my (and her own) way. We ended up dropping it, and I got a kill fee of $4,000 to not write it. Which suited me fine by that time.

I don't know how this relates to fiction, if it does at all. I'd say being handed a plot line and characters would help tremendously in fiction. Isn't that one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction? Very interesting discussion!

Dana King said...

Sure, assuming the idea they gave was one I thought I could do justice to.

I was actually pretty close to such a deal several years ago, but the publisher backed away when I wasn't comfortable promising the finished manuscript as quickly as he wanted it. He wasn't paying enough for me to take time from my real job, and I wasn't comfortable I could do it well in the time frame he had in mind. I chose to pass rather than have my reputation based on what I was afraid would be substandard work.

Anonymous said...

In a heartbeat. As Annette said, it's incredibly disappointing to toil for years on a manuscript, and find out that publishers don't think the hook is strong enough. Or that they have an author who's coming out with her first book in a series and it has the same hook as yours. (Insert picture of me pulling my hair out.)

Dana, I respect your decision so much! Must have been tough to turn down the project, but it no doubt saved you some grief and regrets. Are work-for-hires typically on tighter deadlines than if, say, a publisher gave you a three-book deal?

Karen in Ohio said...

Dana, I don't blame you one bit. It would be incredibly stressful to write like a madwoman, AND have a fulltime job. Some things aren't worth the money.

Jennie Bentley said...

Reply to Anonymous 11:35

My schedule is a book released every nine months. I had six months to finish the first - my idea; I wanted it out there quickly - and eight for the next two. It would be the same if the idea for the series had been mine to begin with, instead of being an in-house deal. My publisher, Berkley Prime Crime, tends to sign three-book contracts initially, and they like the nine-month schedule, if the author can comply. Deadlines is a negotiable item, just like everything else, though. I've finished my first three-book contract, so if they want me to write more, I think I'll ask for a year to write each book. Not because I have a problem finishing a book in eight months, but because I have a problem finishing two: the one I'm writing for them, and the one I'm writing for me. If I'm always working on books for hire, I won't have time to write anything for myself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jennie. One more question, if you wouldn't mind (or if someone else wouldn't mind answering):

I assume these cozy mystery work-for-hires for Berkley, although under a pen name (why is that, by the way?), aren't confidential. Meaning you can let other publishers know that hey, you wrote these books under this name. (I'd heard somewhere that sometimes work-for-hires are very hush-hush.)


Jennie Bentley said...

the idea behind the pseudonym is, I believe, that if the initial author isn't delivering, or dies or becomes otherwise incapable of finishing the contract, they can continue the series with someone else. Many series are written the same way; the best known two are the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, which were written by a lot of different authors up through the years.

Initially, I thought the pseudonym thing was going to be hush-hush too, and for some people it seems to be. I've since been told that my pseudonym works the same way as any other pseudonym, though: I can tell anyone I want that I wrote the books, and I can tell anyone I want my real name. My agent can tell other publishers that I'm writing these books under this pseudonym. Honestly, I wouldn't have agreed otherwise. That was a deal-breaker for me. If I couldn't use this opportunity to build some kind of recognition so I could eventually publish something of my own, I didn't see the sense in doing it.

Feel free to ask any questions you want. I don't mind. You don't even have to do it anonymously. ;-)

lisa curry said...

I like the idea of work-for-hire for the same reason everyone else mentioned. And heck, that's what I do every day, except it's for catalogs and other business-to-business marketing communications, rather than novels.

Legally, work-for-hire means you don't own any rights to the work, true? Like if your contract's up, and the publisher decides they don't want to deal with you any more for whatever reason, everything (the series concept, the author name, all rights forever to what you've written already for them, etc.) belongs to them, and they can just hire somebody else to become whatever pen name you were writing for them under, and the reading public is never going to know about the author switch, right?

I'm not saying that's a reason not to do work-for-hire; I'm just trying to understand the difference. With the way things normally work, if you and your publisher don't see eye to eye, you are free to take future books in your series to another publisher, because it and your name are yours, right?

Karen in Ohio said...

Actually, Lisa, my work-for-hire project contract had a clause that guaranteed that the rights would revert to me if the publisher decided to stop printing it. Which they did, so I revised it somewhat and republished it in a .pdf format, then sold it on CD-ROM for several years.

Again, I don't know how that would translate to fiction.

Sheila Connolly said...

Let me chime in as another who began with work-for-hire with the glassblowing mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime, under the scenario Kathryn outlined. I'd been submitting to one agency for a while and nothing clicked, but one of the agents said, would you be interested in trying this? And I said yes. The result was the Agatha-nominated Through a Glass, Deadly by Sarah Atwell.

I was given a set-up (character list and setting) and wrote three chapters as an audition. It sailed through. It's my book, I wrote it; I gave the characters life and a voice. The plus side is, you know it's pre-approved, if they like what you produce--no management meeting where they toss it around and say, love the character, hate the premise, let's make her a professional wrestler instead.

And it enabled me to sell a second series under my own name within six months--to the same editor. My agent made it clear from the start that I could link the two names publicly (and I do, on my website)--although right now I'm not sure which series is helping which. But it's all good!

Patg said...

Wow, talk about an interesting subject. I'd love to see the outline given by the publisher to the 'work for hire' author. And I'd certainly find it interesting why she/he was chosen for that particular series.
Definitely what Anon said about getting rejections claiming that your hook wasn't strong enough and/or they have another author coming out with what they preceive is a similar hook is frustrating. Especially when you watch for that series only to discover that the only thing it has in common with your concept may be one word and nothing else. Makes me wonder what I would do if I was offered a contract to write the series from that POV even though I know it is all nonsense and a lawsuit waiting to happen. The shocking thing is that in my deep desire to get published I can see myself honestly considering doing it.