And why do writers (and most other artists) get screwed? Because they invite it. They want to be screwed. I know. I’ve walked around for years with a KICK ME sign pinned to my back.—Steven Pressfield, Steven Pressfield Online
I’ve been screwed more times than the Happy Hooker.—Sean Connery
A decade kicking around Hollywood has served me well. I can smell a scam artist even if he/she’s sprayed in skunk squirt, nailed to a cross, and wrapped in the flag. Which is not to say I can’t be taken. I’ve been robbed for my creative writing, ripped off and laughed at while I lay bleeding (figuratively, of course). I’m here to say it’s part of the territory. It’s called earning your stripes. There’s no shame in it.
My point is this: if you’re a writer, getting your stuff out there, negotiating with editors publishers and agents, maybe even managers, you’re going to get exposed to the full spectrum of saints and sinners that every creative business attracts. If you’ve never been ripped off, you’re nothing but a green newbie. If you have been ripped off, take what you’ve learned to heart, don’t let it get you down, and keep going.
The happy medium that works for me means I always ask for a contract that spells out the split and I email back and forth or talk to the principals over the phone until I feel we’re sympatico. Early on, I got the name and number of a reputable literary lawyer and used him. On small jobs I always e-mail my contracts to fellow-writers or editors to ask if there’s anything missing or anything that strikes them as worth negotiating. I always come to the table willing to walk away if something doesn’t feel right. I never deal with people who can’t deliver a straight answer. And I never ever let somebody intimidate me by getting on their high horse because I’m “just a writer and don’t need to bother with business details.”
Sometimes, when you’re starting out, any deal is better than no deal. Sometimes it’s clear that you’re not going to get paid what you’re worth and maybe you’ll even work for free, but you’ll get published or get a chance to write or edit something that will get you up that next rung of the ladder. I’ve done plenty of that, it’s how I got started.
To all those who jealously guard their work to the point where they’ve never gotten anywhere, I suggest lightening up and taking a few chances. To all those who have stood in my shoes, looking like a fool and holding an empty bag I say, “Congratulations. You’re not a real writer until you’ve been screwed.”