There’s an old saying about commercial relationships: “Never do business with someone you’re not ready to do business to.” I can’t recall when I first heard it (recent attempts to blame my mother have been vehemently refuted by Mama Shark), but it’s something I’ve remembered. Especially with regards to doing business with friends and family.
The implied task in that aphorism is A. read the contract (to prep the battlefield), B. always maintain a “war chest” that will at least allow one to consult with a lawyer, and C. when civility fails, be prepared to engage in (legal) barbarism.
I provide that introduction as I relay a blog post from fellow author Alma Boykin. To be blunt, an author got hosed by his publisher. As in, “Hey dude, we’re just going to rob you of your royalties because, to be frank, we’re not worried about you doing anything about it.” Mistakes happen once. Happenstance may explain a second time. But when someone forgets to pay you 13 years of royalties, that’s malevolent action.
I would argue my first warning on this is, as always, try to have a lawyer read your contract. Second, if you’re going to deal with a publisher, get an agent. (With the corollary of making sure they’re not linked to the publisher you’re signing with.) Because if there’s one person who is going to raise a fuss over some math that smells like it just came off a tuna boat, it’s the other person who won’t get paid unless you do. Especially given that person probably has contacts in the publishing world who will be like, “Wow, you’ve gotta be happy with how [insert your title] is doing!” “Wait a minute…”
If you’ve chosen to ignore 1 and 2, then start figuring out an action plan when things go hokey. Over at the Passive Voice, the host lists several helpful actions. He’s an attorney, and these are all very sound. That being said, I’m afraid at some point a person is beyond worrying about “grease” and well into “seeking pound of flesh.” Certainly in the case of the author relaying this, I’d be checking with a solicitor / attorney (see “This is why you keep a war chest…”) as to whether that then kicked things into civil court. Why? Because that’s where the damages are. At the point someone’s been sitting on my wages for 13 years and now refuses to go into arbitration, I’m going to gleefully seek an opportunity to start nailing body parts to the bulkhead. If for no other reason than good companies don’t do this, so as a person I feel one should be willing to make sure they don’t do it to someone else.
Now, understand, being ready to do battle does have its risks. Short term, this will make it hard to get future contracts. Your publisher is probably going to smear your good name all over the place. Which if you get evidence of them doing, save that, as few things are sweeter than people who wronged you having to make public retractions. (“Tell them your name…” and all that.)
Long term, you might end up with your rights back and little else. Court costs are expensive as hell, and you may literally spend $10,000 to get $11,000 of royalties. However, I would submit that if a company is screwing up this bad, they may go under. What an author doesn’t want to have happen is them go under while still holding your rights to your work. Especially if the contract is at all squiggly about future, unrelated projects, i.e., “Publisher holds right to first refusal on all other writing projects…” (huge paraphrase there–but see guest blogger Amie Gibbons’ talking about rights here). Having seen that recently with other companies that have folded, that is a form of writer purgatory (with another link here). Personally, I’d rather burn the money to be clear of the impending shipwreck–but everyone must do what is in their best interests.