Category Archives: Contracts

Manage Your Business

The Fictorians and our guest bloggers have spent the month of March covering a number of legal topics and issues with which we feel every writer should have some familiarity.  If we didn’t cover a topic you’re interested in, drop us a line and we’ll see if we can squeeze it in in the upcoming months.

All of these posts, however, rest upon a common premise; that is, as writers we should also be business people.  Writing a work is only the beginning of the story—getting that work published and in the hands of readers is the rest of it, and that takes some understanding of a lot of different aspects of the business.  And perhaps even more of the story is revealed when you consider how you’re going to keep that work in front of and available to readers after the initial blush has worn off.  That’s all part of the business world in which we writers—now more than ever—have to operate.

We have to be business people, and we have to be focused on our own business—the marketing and dissemination of our creative work.  Emphasize the ‘we’.  Underline it, put it in bold italic 24 point Gothic font with flashing red lights.  If we don’t manage our own business, if we don’t take responsibility for managing our own affairs, we can’t expect anyone else to do it for us.  We have to know enough to take care of the day to day work and decisions.  We have to know enough to know when we need to consult with or hire a professional to address a problem.  And we have to know enough to be able to tell if that professional is getting the job done.

I wish that Robert Asprin was still with us.  More than any other writer I know, he could have given a testimonial about this.

Robert was a pretty successful mid-list fantasy and science fiction author in the 1980s-1990s, who unfortunately ran afoul of the Internal Revenue System after one of his books actually made it to the New York Times bestseller list.  I don’t know all the details of the story, but I do know that he ended up having to make monthly payments to the IRS for over a decade.  He died in 2008, literally just a few weeks after making the final payment to pay off his tax bill.

So, yes, paying attention to detail and keeping track of the information and getting the forms right and turning everything in on time is important.  Robert would bear witness to that.  Just like reading the contracts and taking the time to learn what each of those paragraphs of legalese really means is important if we want to continue to own and manage our works.

The problem is that most creative people really really really don’t like the boring humdrum routine of doing what the commercial world calls the back office routines.  I certainly don’t.  But if we don’t stay on top of our correspondence, if we don’t gather all the material together for tax preparation and payments, if we don’t read those contracts before we sign them, etc., then we’ll deserve the problems that come of them.

The goal of every Fictorian is to not only be a successful writer, but to be a professional writer.  Hmm, actually, that may be two different ways of saying the same thing; because every successful writer that I know is also very professional about taking care of business.

That’s the consistent message of the Superstars of Writing seminars:  that to a great extent, a writer’s success is founded on not just his skill at the craft of writing, but also how well he manages the business side of his career.

So in pursuit of that goal, we’ve spent this month talking about various aspects of the writing business.  Our hope is that you’ve found knowledge or confirmation among the various topics.  Keep in mind that none of what has been presented represents legal or financial advice.  Always consult an attorney or an accountant if you have issues arise.  Pay the money.  You’ll be better off, and the fees are tax deductible.

I want to thank all the Fictorians and guest posters for their many and excellent contributions, most especially M. Scott Boone who gave us not one, not two, but three guest posts this month.

Stay tuned—we’ll resume our themes about the writing side of the writer’s life tomorrow.

Record Keeping, Part Two: . . . But Necessary

Okay, now for a couple of specific issues:

Tax Records (U.S. version)

It is a commonly held belief that the IRS requires you to keep your tax records for seven years.  Actually, according to the records manager of a company I used to work for, that’s not quite the case.  According to her, the IRS regulations require you to keep your records for three years.  However, if they do decide to audit you, they can go back seven years.  And since no one would want to depend on an adversary for records concerning his or her own interests, everyone just automatically keeps seven years’ worth of records.  And just so we’re clear, that means not only your tax filings, forms, and schedules, but also all of the supporting documentation:  receipts, 1099 forms, spreadsheets, QuickBooks reports, e-mails that pertain to the taxes, and anything that would be necessary to defend deductions or interpretations, most especially any communications from the IRS.  In this area, it’s better to err on the side of caution; if you’re not certain you need to keep it, you should probably keep it in the file.

Contracts (U.S. version)

Every state in the U S has regulations that define certain types of records which businesses must keep, even self-employed businesses like writers. As long as you as a writer are a one-person shop, most of them won’t be an issue.  If you get to the point, however, where you are paying people to perform business functions for you (accountant, secretary, researcher, etc.) then you need to educate yourself on what your state requires.

There is one type of business record retention about which even the one-person writer shop needs to know, and that is your contracts and agreements.  Almost every publishing contract between an author and a publisher or a publishing platform will contain a clause that says that in the event of disagreement between the parties, the contract is to be interpreted under the laws of a certain state.  Most of the traditional publishing contracts indicate they will be interpreted under the laws of New York.

Obviously you want to keep the contract or agreement as long as it is active; in other words, as long as there are obligations between you and the other party which must be observed or performed.

But at such point in time as the contract has basically terminated—all parties no longer owe anything to anyone under its provisions—what do you do with it then?

Hint:  don’t throw it away.

Every state has statutes or regulations that stipulate how long such a terminated contract must be retained by the parties subject to it.  Here’s the summary:  if you or your publisher reside or work in Louisiana, or if the contract says it will be interpreted by the laws of Louisiana, the rule is to hold it fifteen years past termination.  All the other states have settled on a term of five years.

In states other than Louisiana, the only caveat I would raise would be if the contract had provisions that dealt with finances, you should probably keep it until the last year it operated has passed its seventh year tax retention.

And finally, the contract file should contain anything that would have a bearing on the intent of the parties in drafting the agreement, as well as anything that might bear on how it should be interpreted.  So yes, you may need to keep some letters or e-mails to support that contract.

In summary: be organized, back everything up to protect yourself, and manage your records.

Record Keeping, Part One: Not Sexy . . .

Contrary to popular belief, you as a writer don’t have to keep every single piece of paper or e-mail or e-documentation that comes your way.  And you especially don’t have to keep it forever.  However, just like any business owner out there, you need to have a good idea as to what kind of records you need to keep, and you need to have some idea as to how long they should be kept.

This gets down to the nitty-gritty, detailed, organized, obsessive, and—dare I say it—boooooriiiiing part of being a writer.  Keeping your records updated, filed, and organized is a necessity; particularly in a profession that undergoes regular and sometimes heightened scrutiny from the taxing authorities, and also has to deal with contracts.

Get Organized

Yes, you absolutely need an organized filing system.  No, it doesn’t need to be very complicated, as long as it’s logical.  It can be totally paper based, or totally electronic, or both.  But it has to exist, and you have to maintain it, or the risk of you getting into trouble really escalates.

You can go totally electronic:  scan all your documents into digital memory, even your signed contracts.  There is case law now that has established that a scan of a signed contract is just as valid a record of the agreement as the signed paper original which was scanned.  And there are businesses out there that destroy their originals as soon as they are scanned.  No drawers full of paper, no clouds of paper dust.  But there are also disadvantages:  you have to stay on top of the scanning and not let it pile up, or you never get it done; you have to keep your electronic files just as organized as you would the equivalent paper files; and you have to remember to back up all the files regularly.  Daily, if you work frequently.  Definitely every time you add, change, or delete data.  More about that later.

You can go with all paper, but in the internet age, a hybrid combination of paper and electronic is more practical:  keep your most important documents in paper, but go with electronic copies of correspondence, work notes, etc.  But you still have to have an organization method, and you have to stay on top of the filing, both electronic and paper.  And make sure the electronic records are backed up.

The big thing is to have a method, to be organized in a manner that works for you and is efficient.  But make sure somebody else knows how you do things, because there are always those odd moments where you’re not at home and something needs to be found.

This is especially important when it comes to your financial records, since they will be the foundation of your tax filings.  You can use an application such as QuickBooks, or you can just build all the revenue and expense records into a (relatively) simple spreadsheet.  But you have to do it.  And while you’re at it, whatever method you use, make sure it’s backed up frequently.

Myself, I organize everything by the writing project.  Work notes, drafts, contracts, payments, mail (both e- and paper), everything except tax documentation gets put under the header of a project.  I find it a simple yet convenient structure, because 99% of the time if I need to look something up, it’s the project name I’m going to be searching under.  My tax forms and supporting documentation I organize by tax year.

Back It Up

And again I say, back everything up.  If your house or office floods, or burns, or is robbed/vandalized, or is in hurricane country or tornado alley, and you’re in the middle of an IRS audit or a litigation about contract compliance when the disaster happens, just how valuable would that back-up file be to you?

Even if you like the paper records, there is good reason to scan all the important ones, such as your contracts, your tax returns, and all your current income and expense records.  This will allow you to back them up in a cloud service such as Carbonite.  If you don’t want to trust a cloud service, then at least copy the files to flash drives or an external hard drive and store them someplace else.  That doesn’t mean in your bedroom closet, either.  I mean someplace miles away from your location.  If you or your spouse has a day job, take them there and bring the older ones back home.

In the words of the old platitude, don’t put your eggs all in one basket.  Do something to mitigate the risk.

(Be sure to come back tomorrow for the conclusion!)

Commissioning an Artist

NobleArk_Left ThumbnailWhen I decided to self-publish my novel, Noble Ark, I had no experience with self-publishing, and little information. Thanks to Superstars Writing Seminars, I knew that a professional cover, typesetting, and editing were paramount, but I went into the process somewhat blind, or so I thought. As I took each step, the next one fell into place. Let’s start at the beginning.

Why? Why should you commission an artist rather than put together artwork yourself? That is a viable option. Here are a few things to consider. Is your book’s subject matter such that you can find usable artwork online? If so, then I direct you to istockphoto,  shutterstock, and bigstockphoto. If you do a search of stock photos, there are a lot of websites to choose from.

If you’re an artist or know something about art, you can probably photoshop the images you want in engaging ways and do your own cover art. If you are not an artist, don’t have typesetting training, or don’t have hours and hours to spend putting together the perfect cover then I suggest hiring someone. That cover is the first thing readers see and if it isn’t engaging, they will likely move on. Some suggestions on companies that do cover art: Ebook Artisan Design, JD Smith Design or ask around to your writing friends for their suggestions.

But what if you have one of those books that doesn’t easily fit into what can be found among the stock photos? What if one of the main focuses of your book series is an alien race that’s uncannily similar to humans, yet also vastly different. What if you believe showcasing these aliens and bringing them to life in the reader’s eye before they even open the book is paramount? That’s where I found myself, and so I decided to commission an artist.

Where? That’s the first step, isn’t it? You can’t commission an artist if you don’t know one. I know a few, but thankfully, I also knew better. About a year ago, I asked a friend of mine, a budding artist, to see what he could do with the Noble Ark concept. No promises, but if he was willing to try, I’d be willing to pay. He came back to me with the prototype, and though it was good, we both agreed it wasn’t the quality needed for a professional novel.  He wasn’t quite there with his craft yet. Friends are great, but remember that professionalism counts. Only work with friends if you know that you can approach one another as professionals.

I’d learned about an art website, Deviant Art, from workshops, Superstars, and from my friend, so I decided to join and see what I could find there. Be prepared, I had to spend some time. A lot of the artwork is fantastic, but I wanted an artist who fit the style that I foresaw for my books. I perused the site on and off for weeks. I found six.  Some of them weren’t accepting commissions because they already had an overfull workload. One of them was accepting limited commissions for projects that she liked, which meant I had to win her over. Don’t think that you can peruse through the artwork, pick an artist, and he/she will fall at your feet and be thankful for the work. Good artists have plenty of work and they don’t generally need unknown authors. I sent a note to Suzanne Helmigh, told her about my book and why I thought her art style would do well with my subject matter. She replied that she was interested and to send her more info.  I had to hook her with my book synopsis the same way we hook readers to look inside the cover to the first page. Once we’d passed a few notes back and forth through deviant art then she agreed to the commission.

How? Suzanne recommended  we do thumbnails first. The picture at the top of this post is a thumbnail. It’s a rough sketch, a type of concept art, to give the author an idea of how the finished artwork will be set up.  They’re not free, but I believe they’re worth it. By purchasing the thumbnails, it gave me something to show Kickstarter investors, and it helped me cement what I wanted on the cover before moving forward with the commission.

commission rules diagramThen came time for the contract. I’ve never put together a contract and hadn’t the slightest clue, but I’d been collecting useful websites and I have some great friends.  I read this article, and downloaded the free book. There’s an important concept in the book, shown in the illustration to the right. Learn it. Believe it. If you look online, there are dozens of contract templates. I used this one by Kelly Nomad, and a couple of author friends let me study their contracts for a few tweaks. After showing the contract to my artist, Suzanne, she suggested a couple of changes that were mutually beneficial, so I incorporated them into the contract then used Docusign to make it easier for both of us. I highly recommend the company and they’ll let you send up to five contracts free without obligation.

A few days ago, I sent Suzanne her down payment via Paypal, her preferred payment method. It’s a little bit of work to commission an artist, but I think it’s worth it. The cover for Noble Ark will stand out and catch readers’ attention. I hope the information I’ve found is of some use to someone and I hope to see more beautiful covers on e-shelves in the future. Good luck to us all.