Author Archives: Susan Spann

Examining the Elephant: Publishing Contracts, Part 1

By Susan Spann

Autumn has arrived, and it’s time to turn the monthly “legalese” column from thoughts on pitching to talk of publishing deals.

My legal practice focuses on publishing contracts, so it makes some sense to focus on the “terms and conditions” part of the publishing process here. In the months to come, we’ll talk about everything from negotiations to contract pitfalls (and if you have questions, please ask them – I’m glad to help!)

Today, we’re starting with a macro view of the contract: what is it, and why do you need one?

The many new publishing options have changed the “face” of contracts a little. Ask a self-published author about the “contract” and some will say “I haven’t got one, I use Amazon” (or CreateSpace, or Smashwords, or something else entirely) – but the reality is that every published novel has a contract. Sometimes that contract comes in a form that’s titled “Terms of Use” but that’s a contract, nonetheless.

The wide variety of contracts and terms puts me in mind of the old joke about three blind men examining an elephant. The one who felt the tail said “the elephant looks like a rope,” while the ones who examined the trunk and legs compared the beast to a snake and a tree (respectively). Authors with different kinds of contracts may see a different side of the publishing deal, but one thing unifies them all: every publishing deal involves a contract of some kind.

So, What is a Contract, Anyway?

If I offer to publish the books of everyone who reads this blog for a year, is that a contract? If I promise to publish your book because you read this single entry, is that a contract? If I promise to publish “the first good manuscript I read” – is that a contract?

Would it matter if we pinkie-swear? If I offered you money? If I published in electronic formats only?

The answer requires looking at the law.

Many people think of contracts as “agreements” or “promises” to do or not to do something. (Note that the law considers corporations and other forms of businesses to be “persons” who can enter into binding contracts as long as right biological person signs the contract on the company’s behalf.)

By law, a contract is “an agreement which creates legally enforceable obligations.” In plain English, a contract is an agreement you can force the other person to comply with, by means of a lawsuit if necessary.

People make all kinds of promises and agreements which are not contracts because the law refuses to recognize the promises as enforceable. An unenforceable agreement isn’t illegal but it creates no remedies – meaning the injured party has no recourse if the other party won’t perform.

The key, then, is knowing whether your contract is enforceable or merely an “illlusory” promise where the other party won’t have to follow through if he changes his mind.

Generally speaking, a valid, enforceable contract requires five things: an offer, an acceptance, consideration (which has more to do with money than with kindness), proper parties, and appropriate subject matter. 

That’s a lot to take in at once, but let’s break it down a little:

THE OFFER usually needs to be made in writing – either by terms of service or in a written contract created for the author. It needs to describe the terms of the deal in sufficient detail for the parties (and a court) to understand what’s actually being offered and what the terms of the deal will include. Beware: if something isn’t in the writing, it isn’t part of the offer or the deal.

THE ACCEPTANCE occurs when the author signs the contract or clicks “I accept” or “I agree” on a website’s terms of service

CONSIDERATION means “something of value given in return for the parties entering into the contract.” In the case of a publishing deal, this usually means (a) for the publisher, acquiring the rights to publish a work, and (b) for the author, publication and the promise of royalties on sales of the work.

PROPER PARTIES means people (or companies) with the legal authority to enter into the contract. Minors can’t form valid contracts (a parent or guardian has to sign on a minor’s behalf) and authors who enter a publishing deal have to own the rights to the work in question.

APPROPRIATE SUBJECT MATTER basically means the contract can’t be an arrangement to perform an illegal act (like a murder) or otherwise contain illegal terms (like selling the author into. Generally speaking, a contract to publish a book is considered “appropriate subject matter.” Also, be careful: a contract with bad terms (even oppressively bad ones) doesn’t become “inappropriate subject matter” – the general rule is that you can make as good a deal, or as bad a deal, as you are able. Subject matter questions are generally limited to whether the contract involves a promise to break the law. If not, it’s usually acceptable.
You’ll notice the things I didn’t mention. A contract doesn’t have to involve the exchange of money. It doesn’t have to be “fair.” it doesn’t have to promise certain things or guarantee the author money, success, or even publication (Surprise! Read the fine print!)

Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Before this series is through we’ll discuss all the elements of a contract, how to make an agreement legal, and how to protect your rights through the contract process.

For the moment, though, we’ll leave it here.

Did you know the elements of a valid contract? Do any of them surprise you?

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Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.

Pitch Like a Pro (Part 2)

By Susan Spann

Last month, we took a look at the four vital elements of a winning “elevator pitch.” This week, we’re putting the elements together - just in time for Colorado Gold!

To play along, you’ll need a list with your novel’s protagonist, active antagonist, stakes, and high concept. (Remember: high concept might or might not make it into your pitch, but you need to keep it in mind throughout the process.)

It’s easier to see a pitch in motion when you’re actually seeing it thrown, so I’ll use my novel, Claws of the Cat, as our pitch example today. I’m using it mostly because the pitch worked as intended–it found me an agent, piqued an editor’s interest, and (in a slightly expanded form) ended up on the dust jacket of the completed novel. In other words: I know this one works, and when you need an example it’s nice to have a functional one at hand.

The original pitch:

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, a master ninja has just three days to find the killer in order to save the life of the Jesuit priest that the ninja has pledged his own life to protect.

(Note: Yes, this is rough. I’m sharing my original pitch to show you this can be done fairly quickly and doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect to do its job.)

Can you spot the four critical elements?

1. Protagonist: Here, a master ninja. Always lead with your protagonist, and use an archetype instead of the character’s name. Archetypes are more descriptive and harder to forget. Also, they give information about the novel that names alone cannot convey. Would you rather hear that “Sam” has to go find “Charlotte” or that “an undead barber” must locate “the kitten he left behind”?

Good pitches put the protagonist front and center. The listener must have no doubt who your book is about.

2. (Active) Antagonist: The pitch must tell us who or what the protagonist is fighting. (And It’s OK to imply the antagonist, as long as the stakes are high enough.)

Ask yourself: what’s the easiest way to describe what my hero is fighting? That’s your active antagonist, and you have to either state it outright or strongly imply it in your pitch.

Note: The active antagonist is NOT the various bells and whistles, twists and turns, hot dogs and lack of doughnuts that plague your antagonist along the way. Those are window dressing (even if they seem important) and don’t belong in the pitch. Big hero, big villain, big stakes get the job done here.

3. The Stakes: In Claws, the stakes are a ticking clock and the imminent execution of an innocent man, both of which appear in the pitch. Secondary stakes appear there too: the ninja has pledged his life to protect the priest – so if the ninja fails, he’s going to share the Jesuit’s fate.

Your pitch MUST explain what’s at stake in your novel. Fail at that, and the listener will not care. Stories require tension; tension requires stakes. In many ways, the stakes are the most important part of your pitch, because only the stakes make the listener need to hear the rest of the story.

4. High Concept: In my case? “Ninja detective.” However, you’ll notice my pitch never says those words. The pitch as a whole makes the concept clear.

The little details of your pitch convey high concept. “Master ninja,” and “find the killer” give a ninja detective vibe. “Kyoto teahouse” sets the novel in Japan, and suggests there’s a geisha or two in the mix.

Find the unique details in your novel. Wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, your antagonist, and your stakes.

Every word in your pitch must add something to the whole. You don’t have room for filler words that do not “earn their keep.”

Try to use no more than one adjective per noun. Try not to use adverbs – they break the flow.

From your elements, build one sentence that describes your story in one breath’s worth of words.

If you can’t say your pitch in a single breath, cut it until you can. Then–and only then–revise until that sentence rolls off your tongue as easily as your name.

Don’t over-rehearse, but make sure the pitch is smooth and easy to say, because it’s easy enough to trip over simple phrases when you’re stressed, to say nothing of overcomplicated prose.

A single sentence is easier to remember, flows off the tongue, and inspires the listener to start asking questions–exactly what a good pitch ought to do.

Pull the four elements from your work and build your pitch. Build it strong and polish it to a shine–and then get out there and pitch with confidence!

Thank you for joining me here this week – I look forward to seeing many of you at Colorado Gold!

Bio: Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.

Knock Your Pitch Out of the Park!

By Susan Spann

Since I’m doctoring pitches one-on-one at the Colorado Gold Conference in September, it seemed natural to start my posting here on the RMFW blog by looking at pitch construction.

I’ve got two guest posts between now and Colorado Gold, so here’s Part 1 of a 2-part series on “How to Build a Winning Pitch Pitch”

Now, there are many ways to construct a pitch, and I don’t claim my way is the only one. It is, however, the one I used when pitching my debut Shinobi mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT, and the one I use when helping other people pitch.

Winning pitches do one thing: they make a listener want to read your book.

Always keep that goal in mind. If your pitch does not intrigue, it fails, regardless of its contents. You start constructing a pitch by culling four elements from your work. We’ll look at those elements today and then, on September 19, we’ll put them together (just in time for the RMFW Conference!).

1. Who is the protagonist? Describe him (or her) with 1-2 adjectives.

For example: a ninja detective.

2. Who is your active antagonist?

The active antagonist is the person, place, or thing the hero is fighting against for most of the novelthe thing that creates “the stakes.” This might or might not be the same as the antagonist the hero ultimately defeats or reveals, especially in a mystery novel, because unlike a synopsis, the elevator pitch does not reveal the ending of the story.

3. Stakes! (Preferably, through the protagonist’s heart).

Note that I haven’t asked about where the hero started the journey, how many quirky talking teapots (s)he meets along the way, or why there’s a pregnant emu at the turn from Act 2 to Act 3. For purposes of your pitch, none of that is important.

Having trouble with stakes? Try to answer the question: What does your protagonist have to accomplish before “the end,” and why will the world fall apart if he or she fails?

Answer it in one sentence or less. If you can’t, you might need to revisit your plot.

In my novel, the stakes are clear: a ninja detective must find a killer in three days time, or the ninja, his Jesuit friend, and a lovely young geisha will die. In addition, the death of the priest will plunge Japan into war with Portugal.

Those are stakes.

Stakes can be personal (death, financial ruin, homelessness, exile) or large-scale (war, natural disaster, the end of the world). Many novels feature both. A novel without stakes is boring, and a pitch which doesn’t reveal the stakes won’t pique a listener’s interest.

Which brings us to the fourth and final element of the pitch:

4. High Concept.

High concept is premise. It’s what makes your story unique. In a nutshell, “high concept” is a concept with mass appeal that you can sum up in one sentence or less.

The high concept for my mystery series is ninja detective. The high Concept for the movie JAWS is “killer shark.”

Your high concept might not appear in your pitch, but creating the pitch with high concept in mind will always result in a stronger pitch than one which ignores high concept.

Struggling with high concept? Try the “What if” method: summarize your story in no more than 15 words, the first two of which must be “What if?”

Between now and my next guest post on September 19, your homework is to pull these four elements out of YOUR work and get ready to pitch like a pro! Then, tune in for our second installment, in which we discuss transforming your elements into a winning pitch.

Do you have an elevator pitch for your work in progress? Does it utilize all four of these critical elements?

Bio: Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.