The Skill List Project: Professionalism

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Recently, I’ve been discussing personal management skills rather than skills involved directly with story construction. To finish off this set of topics (at least for the moment), I’m going to look at skills that we can lump together under the term professionalism.

(By the way, I hope I don’t have to say that even if you aren’t yet a professional writer—however you want to define that term—you can and should conduct yourself professionally if you ever want to make a living by writing. In other words, you should immediately start establishing the habits and reputation of being honest, reliable, businesslike, courteous, and all the rest that we’ll deal with below.)


If and when you sell a piece of writing, you enter a business relationship with the person or company who buys it. Typically, you’ll be asked to sign a contract. Also typically, this will be a boilerplate contract consisting of a string of standard clauses. Some of these clauses will be cast in stone; the publisher simply won’t change them. Other clauses may be open to negotiation…or not.

Short stories: If you sell a short story to a magazine, the deal is probably, “Take it or leave it.” Maybe a big-name author can arrange for exceptions; quite possibly, a big-name author will be offered a different contract from the ones that you or I will ever see. But a writer who’s new to the game doesn’t have much clout, so you likely can’t demand changes.

Besides, if you’re dealing with a reputable short-story market, the contract will probably be straightforward and fair. Paying publishers are professionals too, and they aren’t trying to cheat you. They’re trying to set up a mutually beneficial commercial transaction where both sides are happy with the result.

Serious warning: Money should flow from the publisher to the writer, never the other way around. DO NOT DO BUSINESS WITH ANYONE WHO ASKS YOU FOR MONEY. That isn’t how professional writing works. If you have any doubts on this subject, go to Writer Beware and read everything they have to say.

Novels: If you’ve sold a novel, or you’re trying to sell one, that’s when you need an agent. Agents can get you through the door at book publishers, most of whom don’t take unagented manuscripts or only do so as part of contests or promotions. For information on getting an agent without getting ripped off by con artists, see Writer Beware’s section on literary agents or Robert J. Sawyer’s advice on landing an agent.

One way or another, agents are the people who should deal with contracts for novels. An editor once told me she felt bad when authors tried to do their own negotiating; either the author was a clueless babe-in-the-woods or a clueless prima donna asking for concessions that were never ever going to happen. A reputable agent gets you the best deal possible, and takes any flack involved—if feathers get ruffled, editors will be annoyed at your agent, not you.

The Purpose of Contracts

Some contracts are awful. The ones associated with credit cards are notoriously bad, full of horrible fine-print designed to rip you off and leave you hanging on a hook.

But in my experience, publishing contracts are different, especially after an agent has finished negotiations. At that point, the contract should be viewed as a statement of expectations: what you can expect from the publisher, and what the publisher expects from you. That’s why you must read every contract you’re asked to sign (even after your agent approves it)…and never ever sign the contract until you understand it completely—every word of every clause.

Signing a contract is a binding promise that you’ll fulfill all the stated obligations. This includes meeting deadlines of various types: turning in the manuscript, responding to copyedits, doing the proofreading, and perhaps more. It usually includes assurances that you haven’t and won’t commit libel or plagiarism. Often, there will be clauses dealing with other intimidating subjects, such as who pays for what if you get sued.

Frankly, I was scared the first time I signed such a contract. It made me think about possibilities I’d never considered. All I cared about was writing stories, not court jurisdictions or supplying background materials in the event of legal action. But publishers have to think of such things…and so do you, if you’re going to be a professional. Fingers crossed, none of us will ever have to deal with such troubles; but they do happen. One purpose of a contract is to make you acknowledge the possibility, and to spell out what you’ll be expected to do if the worst occurs.

A contract says, “We’re all agreeing that this is how we’re going to work together.” It’s valuable to have that put clearly in writing. You’d better not sign unless you understand everything, and believe you can live with what’s spelled out.

And If There’s a Problem…

To repeat: never sign a contract unless you’re on board with it. Most especially, don’t agree to deadlines unless you’re sure you can meet them.

But as Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Stuff happens: acts of God, and force majeure, and story ideas that suddenly fall to pieces. Professionals do their damnedest not to miss a single deadline, but sometimes the sky falls in.

In such situations, communication is vital—sooner rather than later. Never blindside your editor; if a delivery date starts to look iffy, let the editor know ASAP so you can discuss what options are available. Publishing schedules can be unforgiving, but sometimes there is a little wiggle-room. If that’s not going to work, then maybe the book will slip…which is bad. Often very bad. But if you give the editor sufficient advance notice, the damage can be reduced and maybe accommodated. (Maybe.)

The thing to realize is that a business relationship is (ideally) an ongoing thing. When you sell your first novel, the publisher isn’t just thinking of that single book; the publisher hopes you’ll write a lot of great books and build up an ever-increasing number of readers. For your part, you want the publisher to be happy with the continuing prospect of working with you…and that means you have to conduct yourself professionally.

On That Note…

I think we’re done with personal management skills, at least for the moment. Next month, we’ll get back to topics more directly associated with writing, by looking at the role of diction. Have a look at that Wikipedia article, and we’ll meet back here next month to discuss it. TTFN.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, publishing, the business of writing, writing life. You can also use to trackback.

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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