Contract vs. Spec

One of the things I touched upon in my talk at the Fairfield Library last month was the difference between writing a book under contract and writing a book on spec.  I like to expand on that here.

In general, working writers — by which I mean those who intend that the fruits of their creativity will form as a significant part of their income stream, and who intend to labor in the fields of their creativity for A Long Time — working writers prefer to write under contract.

There are a couple of good and compelling reasons for this:

1.  A contract brings with it an advance (i.e. “advance against royalties”), aka Money Up Front, which is always welcome.

2.  A contract is a publisher’s commitment to publish.  It’s. . .comforting to know that your finished work will be available for readers to purchase.

Like anything else, there’s also some downside to writing under contract:

1.  You have a deadline by which your work must be turned in.

2.  Within reason, you’re obligated to write the book your editor bought.

When you write on spec (“speculation”), the advantages and disadvantages are reversed.

1.  You’re working for nothing and living on dreams.  You get neither up-front money or guarantee that your book will ever be published.

But!

2.  No deadline for delivery means you can take as long as you want or need; and you can polish every word like a pearl.  If the book flips on you in the middle, a stand-alone suddenly becomes a duology,  or a duology a single book — you can go with the flow.

Carousel Tides was written on spec, and for no other reason than I wanted to write it.  Writers get these notions in their heads, sometimes.  I took eighteen months to finish it — a longish time — and it was two-and-a-half or three years’ finding a publisher.  I was fortunate that Madame the Agent handled the submissions, because having an agent greatly speeds up response-time from publishers.

Most of the novel-length work Steve and I have done together, since, oh, 1998, has, fortunately, been written under contract.  I say — and mean — “fortunately” because of the way freelance income flows, if it flows at all.

Ideally, a freelance writer should have a backlist of work generating royalty payments, to support the advances received on new works, and to keep the cash flowing in years when there may not be a new book under contract.  This is why (among other reasons) that it’s a Bad Idea to quit your day-job with the publication of your first novel.  A one-book backlist isn’t enough to stake your mortgage payment on.  Not to mention cat food.

Now, you recall that I said writing on spec gives you freedom to go with the story wherever it takes you, a freedom that contract books do not, entirely, enjoy.

The challenge for a writer under contract is to write the best  book they possibly can, and still keep to deadline and the terms of the contract.  This is not a trivial challenge, and I am all admiration for those writers who manage the trick two, three, or even four times in a calendar year.

The argument exists, that contracts make for inferior books.  I’m not certain, myself, that this is inevitably — or even usually — the case.  While most writers’ first novel is, by necessity, written on spec, someone who wishes to be a working writer cannot afford to write only on spec.  Nor is there much evidence that writing on speculation produces a “better” novel than writing to contract.

In general, I think that contracts work better for readers, if only because books under contract have a great chance of being written and published.

What do you think?

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