Nathan Fillion, Advances, and Hybrid Publishing

So what does Nathan Fillion have to do with hybrid publishing and conflicts between publishers and authors over unmet deadlines? Read on, browncoats.

I always find the portrayal of authors in popular media interesting, particularly the ways in which that portrayal is so far detached from reality. This departure usually takes the form of showing authors as either instantly successful or as so rich that money loses all meaning to them (or both).  Bones is one example, although Dr. Brennan’s role as a rich author does not involve itself in the show that often. In one episode, her publisher buys her a new mercedes. You know – as a gift. Sure. Happens all the time.

I'm not above using Nathan  Fillion covered in kittens to get people to read my post.

I’m not above using Nathan Fillion covered in kittens to get people to read my post. More here:

Nathan Fillion’s character Richard Castle in the pseudoeponymous (epopseudonymous?) show Castle is another example. He throws money around without a thought, and he doesn’t seem to spend any time actually writing. I mean – supermodels, Italian sports cars, tons of free time – that’s been your experience with working as a writer too? Right?

But it’s not the money or lifestyle aspects of how Castle portrays authors that struck me while I was re-watching the pilot episode the other night (“Flowers for her Grave“). Instead, it was this dialogue exchange between Castle and his publisher/ex-wife:

Gina Griffin: What kind of idiot kills off his best-selling main character?

Richard Castle: Are you asking as my blood-sucking publisher, or as my blood-sucking ex-wife?

Gina Griffin: Oh, is that what you’re doing? Punishing me by killing the golden goose?

Richard Castle: Oh, come on. I may be petty and short-sighted, but I’m not *that* petty and short-sighted.

Gina Griffin: Really? Then why?

Richard Castle: Writing Derrick used to be fun. Now it’s like work.

Gina Griffin: Hmm. God forbid you should work. I mean, you could have retired him. You could have crippled him, you could have had him join the freaking circus. But no, you had to put a bullet through his head.

Richard Castle: Yeah. Real messy, too. Big exit wound. Don’t worry, Derrick Storm is not the golden goose here. I am. I wrote half a dozen best-sellers before him. What makes you think I’m going to stop now?

Gina Griffin: Oh, I don’t know. The fact the new book was due nine weeks ago.

Richard Castle: You can’t rush genius.

Gina Griffin: Genius, Richard? Try blockage. I heard you haven’t written in months.

Richard Castle: That’s ridiculous.

Gina Griffin: My sources are very reliable.

Richard Castle: Well, they’re wrong.

Gina Griffin: They’d better be. If I don’t have a new manuscript on my desk in the next three weeks, Black Pawn is prepared to demand the return of your advance.

Richard Castle: You wouldn’t dare.

Gina Griffin: Try me. Just try me.

Richard Castle: You know, I already returned that advance. I spent it divorcing you.

Stories of authors not meeting deadlines are legion. In fact, stories of authors missing deadlines by more years than you can count on one hand are not uncommon. Yet, what you don’t hear about is publishing companies suing authors for the return of their advances. That is what struck me as odd or out of place in the above-quoted scene.

(Yes, I realize she said “demand the return of” and not sue, but I’m trying to make a point here. And I’m perfectly willing to use Nathan Fillion to get your attention.)

Now, several possibilities might explain why you don’t hear about authors being sued for the return of their advances.

  1. Publishers don’t usually sue authors because it is bad for business. If the author still sells for you, then you don’t want to make them mad. If they aren’t selling for you, then they are likely what we in the law wrangling business call “judgment proof.” That is just a law wrangling way of saying you can’t get blood from a stone. So, if you aren’t going to get money back from the author, then any bad publicity you would get from the suit is more than enough to make you opt against suing.
  2. Publishers do sue, but no one talks about it because the publisher doesn’t want to turn off other authors or would-be authors and the author doesn’t want anyone to know they didn’t meet their deadline. In other words, both parties have strong incentives to keep it quiet.
  3. Publishers do sue, everyone knows about it, and Writer-in-Law is just clueless. Let me narrow that down: Writer-in-Law is clueless about publishers suing for the return of advances. I don’t want to leave that too open-ended, or we’d be here all night.

I’m pretty sure the answer is #1, with #2 perhaps playing a small role. But publishing and writing are such small worlds that you would think the stories would get out eventually even if both parties did not want it too.

So, how is it possible that this “reality” might change? What might cause publishers to start being more aggressive with authors who don’t meet deadlines? Well, that is what brings me to hybrid authors.

By “hybrid authors,” I mean authors who publish both through traditional publishers and through self-publishing channels. Being a hybrid author puts the author in a different relationship with a traditional publisher. An author who does not self-piublish, one who only publishes through traditional channels, is the “golden goose.” Publishing companies make money off the output produced by authors. However, a hybrid author is both a “golden goose” and a competitor; the hybrid author is a publisher as well as an author.

Now consider that fact in the context of the following hypothetical:

An author misses a deadline on a book for which a traditional publishing company has already paid the author an advance. So far, this is no different than any of the stories floating around about authors missing deadlines. But in addition to missing the deadline, this author also self-publishes a new book in a different series.

How is a publishing company supposed to feel about that? They’ve paid the author for a book. They haven’t gotten the book. Instead the author has self-published a book that will in their eyes compete with other books in the publisher’s line. So they’ve paid the author to compete with them.

Might that change their previously tolerant approach to deadlines?

At a recent writer’s conference, I heard one publishing attorney intimate that such a situation might change the attitude of publishers . . . to the point of pursuing legal action. He stopped himself as he started to say more about it. I suspect that he realized he was skirting the edge of client confidentiality requirements.

I’ve heard over and over again about how the hybrid approach is the new “diversification” for writing careers, and I can see how that makes sense in the quickly shifting publishing ecosystem. What I am suggesting is that we may also want to stop and think about how such an approach might alter the way publishers think and treat authors.

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