So I was clicking links from blog to blog and I came across something that was posted a year ago. It’s okay that it’s not current; the point I want to make about it is general rather than specific, so timing is irrelevant.
The blog post was called L.J. Smith Got Fired From Writing Her Own Novels. (For anyone who doesn’t know, as I didn’t, Ms. Smith wrote the books from which the TV show Vampire Diaries was made.)
Well, that perks up one’s interest, particularly if one is a writer. Then I read the post, which purports to contain an actual e-mail written by Ms. Smith herself.
First a caveat: there’s been some discussion as to whether this is authentic. Someone who linked it opined that, seeing as how no one — not Ms. Smith herself and not her publisher — had jumped up to refute it in the year since the post went up, it’s probably authentic. I’m willing to buy that, so far as it goes.
Anyway, what actually happened was that Ms. Smith was approached by an agent (?) who worked for a book packager, with an offer of a job — writing a series of books that’d already been created, as in the idea and characters and such had already been developed and they were just looking for someone to do the writing itself. It was a work for hire contract, so the packager owns the series and characters and such, not Ms. Smith. So when (about a year ago, I suppose) Ms. Smith was fired from writing “her” books, well, they were never actually her books.
Ms. Smith, in the e-mail which she supposedly wrote, said:
When I was called by an agent and asked to write the vampire trilogy, that agent wasn’t from a publisher, but from what is now Alloy Entertainment, Ltd. And they are a book packager. A book packager sells books, already made with covers and all, to publishers, like HarperCollins—my publisher for The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle. And both these series were written “for hire” which means that the book packager owns the books the author produces. Although I didn’t even understand what “for hire” meant back in 1990, when I agreed to write books for them, I found out eventually, to my horror and dismay. It means that even though I have written the entire series, I don’t own anything about The Vampire Diaries. And from now on, the books will be written by an anonymous ghostwriter, just as Stefan’s Diaries are. It will say “Created by L. J. Smith” on the cover, but I am not allowed even to change a word in the ghostwriter’s book.
She describes the work-for-hire process as though it’s some sort of alien concept — strange and confusing and clearly unethical — she says, “You might wonder why the book packager and Harper would do this to me,” as though the whole point is to Do Something To Her, as though it’s obviously personal. They’re being incredibly mean to her because they’re mean people and they do mean things for no reason. And at the bottom of the letter, she says “I’ve worked so hard to make Vampire Diaries a good series, only to have the unthinkable happen to me. And I have no one but myself to blame for not being submissive enough.”
Ms. Smith’s problem isn’t that she’s not submissive enough. Her problem is that she was incredibly ignorant of the business in which she works. Note that an agent of the packager approached her — she had enough of a track record to draw that sort of offer. No one contacts a random unpublished newbie and offers this kind of opportunity, and looking through her Goodreads listings, there are a couple of books that came out before the earliest Vampire Diary book. So she wasn’t a complete newbie, she was multi-published already, she’d been around — and yet she’d never heard the term “work for hire?” Seriously?
And when she ran across a term in her contract that she didn’t understand, she didn’t ask anyone about it? I wonder if she even read her contract, or whether she just signed where the nice agent (who, from how she’s described, worked for the packager and not for Ms. Smith) told her to? [sigh]
(I also wonder whether that agent got 15% of everything, despite representing the packager’s interests and not Ms. Smith’s.)
When I went to Oregon to take a workshop in March with Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, there was a sign on the wall of the workshop room that said “You Are Responsible For Your Own Career.” Dean and Kris both emphasize, in their workshops and on their blogs and in personal conversation, that writers need to treat writing as a business, to learn the business, to behave as businesspeople do in every other business. That means reading your contracts, it means getting a knowledgeable advocate on your side if you don’t understand everything in your contract — and that means an IP attorney, not an agent — and it means being ready to walk away from a contract if the publisher (or packager, in this case) won’t give on a contract clause that you personally consider a deal breaker. People who sign contracts they don’t understand have no one to blame but themselves when those contracts turn around and bite them on the ass. Not understanding her contract was Ms. Smith’s mistake, not being insufficiently submissive. On the contrary, she was far TOO submissive toward whoever it was who told her she should sign the contract without understanding all the terms in it.
What happened was Ms. Smith’s fault and nobody else’s. The packager and/or publisher didn’t mistreat her — she was hired to write their series. She apparently fought them on edits and disagreed with them on the direction the series should take, so they fired her and hired someone else who’d do the work as instructed. It was business and there was nothing personal about it; no one did anything “to” her.
Hopefully Ms. Smith will hire an IP attorney to go over her contracts from now on, and explain to her what they say and what it all means. If so, then she’ll have learned something, and that’d be a positive outcome to an unfortunate episode. From everyone else’s point of view, at least she can serve as a good negative example — if you’re a writer, don’t do what she did.