Backstory to the Backstory

Subtitle’s a tad hyperbolic.

If you arrived here because of the free Substack “Voice Mail” post, thank you. If not, click here for context.

The best way I can explain the book in the photo is to quote myself from a half-finished, maybe-never-finished, book about writing I’m working nearly three decades later:

In 1995 I wrote a book called Handbook for Freelance Writing. It’s still floating around out there. You ought to be able to pick up a copy pretty cheaply. It is not selfish of me to recommend you do, as I don’t get a single sad penny for any copy sold, new or used. I signed a dumb one-off contract for the thing. A work-for-hire deal. Got paid somewhere around $2,500. Big money for me at the time. Still big money except now I know better than to accept it under those terms. Zero royalties. Never netted another nickel, even when they reprinted it again in 1998.

I wasn’t completely stupid. I had done my research and read up on rights and royalties. Upon receiving the publisher’s contract, I made a counter-offer. Wrote it up in a letter, all official-like. Told them I would accept a smaller advance in trade for royalties on the back end.

Nope, they said. We don’t do royalties. The deal as printed, take it or leave it.

Freelance writing rule Number One: You can read all the self-empowering Writers Digest articles you want, but when the publisher has a checkbook and you have rent due, you take the gig, and you take it on the publisher’s terms.

I signed on the dotted line and wrote the book. I remember finishing the final chapter against deadline using a ten-pound sheet cake of a monochromatic laptop amidst a chaff pile of notes and drafts in the middle of my bunk while on ambulance duty. Sometime after midnight my partner and I were paged out to transport a woman having a miscarriage. I remember us conversing softly within the lit cube of the rig, I remember helping her from the stretcher to the emergency room gurney, I remember returning to my bunk and my notes and writing ’til dawn. That’s a real non-sequitur of a memory, but it sure does calibrate your royalty gripes.

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