AshEdit—News About Books & Writers

March 4, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — ashedit @ 9:00 am

ELAINE ASH editor & writer

They always want the writer to work for nothing…I sell my soul at the highest rates. —Harlan Ellison

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.”


  1. Love, Love, Love that. Who of us haven’t been there,done that??? The funny thing is there would be no publishers, no producers, no movies, no books without us. Hang in everyone who writes. It gets better because we get smarter :). Thanks Elaine.

    Comment by Rebecca Forster — March 4, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  2. OK. Now I feel better. I’ve been kicking myself for letting my first publisher screw me over. But it’s been a learning experience, and this time around I know better.

    Comment by lauriehanan — March 4, 2012 @ 10:18 am

  3. That’s the spirit! Keep on, press on, but never be afraid to say, “I need to know more contractual details.” If your gut tells you a publisher is glossing over the business part or unwilling to have a frank dsicussion, RUN LIKE HELL!!!

    Comment by Elaine Ash — March 4, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  4. Well said, Elaine! A hat tip to you, my friend. 😉


    Comment by Col Bury — March 4, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  5. Great post, Elaine, thanks! Just one question: what’s a contract? 😦

    Comment by Chris James — March 4, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  6. My favorite story of an author getting (almost) screwed came from Jerry Ahern, who wrote many men’s adventure series including The Survivalist. The series was doing great back in 1982, so great that Ahern’s editor sent a rushed contract to extend the series by another ten volumes. Ahern signed the contract and his wife joined him for the ride to the post office. On the way she read the contract and said, “Why are there five pages missing?” Doh! Pages 12 – 17 were missing of the 20 page document, or something like that. Ahern had not realized pages were missing; he had not bothered to look that closely as the first page of the contract spelled out how many more editions of the series he would write and he figured the rest of the deal was the same as it ever was. The upshot is, a Hollywood producer had contacted the publisher about buying the rights to the books; the missing pages mentioned the movie deal and Ahern’s take. Ahern theorized that they wanted to hold those pages back until he returned the signed contract and then they would reinsert the missing pages and he would be stuck with the crappy split between him and Zebra Books. His editor pulled an “oh my gosh how could we be so sloppy” and sent the pages, which had an appropriate split of the option money, he thought, though the movies never came to be. Whether or not the pages were changed before being sent he will never know. Shortly after this, Ahern finally got an agent.

    I think the only time I (almost) got screwed was when I met a woman who said she was a producer; actually, she was, and while I worked on a spec script I pitched her I did some research as to who she was and what her credits were. The short version is, she had about the biggest black eye anybody in Hollywood could have, nobody would work with her or even acknowledge her existence because she was such a charlatan, and I ceased work on my script and never contacted her again. Heaven knows what she would have done with my work. Learning from the pain of others made me cautious!

    Comment by Brian Drake — March 4, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  7. Thanks for the advice and the warning! You can’t trust anybody anymore – nor less.

    Comment by Oscar Case — March 4, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  8. good stuff elaine… been there, done that, got the bloody bruises to prove it

    you may want to alert folk to the fact, EVERYTHING you post on an online board/site, whether text, graphics, photos [of your family included], music, WHATEVER… BELONGS to that board/site owner, to do with as THEY wish, including selling it, without your knowledge, consent, or any compensation, yet you RETAIN your copyright – BUT, YOU CANNOT THEN RE-SELL IT, BECAUSE THEY “OWN” IT… [read the fine print in the TOS (terms of service)]

    post away on your fave ‘social media’ site – facebook, twitter, myspace, etc – just remember, once you do, YOU NO LONGER OWN IT! [unless you have a signed affidavit stating otherwise… hahaha… just TRY to get one!]

    Comment by laughingwolf — March 4, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

  9. Hi Laughingwolf, I don’t have all the facts on what you’re stating here, but generally you’re probably correct. These terms apply when you post something yourself on another person’s site, and don’t go through them or an acceptance process. If however, you submit material to a blog owner or a site beforehand and state in your email that certain conditions apply upon acceptance (for example, they have the right to use the material for a one-time post, but not to re-sell it), then that is a contract between two parties that supercedes the TOS. Thanks for bringing this up.

    Comment by Elaine Ash — March 4, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  10. Excellent post and post title. A small addendum if I could:

    “You’re not a real writer until you’ve screwed yourself over at least one time.”

    Comment by G — March 5, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  11. I like what you said about being willing to walk away. I try to keep that in mind when I buy a car, but I’m not sure I’ve done it with my far more important writing. at least more important to me.

    Comment by charlesgramlich — March 5, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

  12. Who was it that said “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for fun. Then you do it for a few friends. Finally, you do it for money.”

    Comment by John H. Byk — March 13, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  13. […] I first blogged back in 2012 about “You’re Not a Real Writer Until You’ve Been Screwed”  I thought it was a stand alone piece about the realities of the business-end of writing. Now that […]

    Pingback by You’re Not a Real Writer Until You’ve Been Trashed | Ashedit — April 24, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

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