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Peter Beren

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The Writers Legal Companion
by Peter Beren  Brad Bunnin 

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Books by Peter Beren
· California the Beautiful
· Hidden Napa Valley
· The Golden Gate: San Francisco's Celebrated Bridge
· Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra
· Vintage San Francisco
                >> View all



Publisher:  Basic Books ISBN-10:  073820031X Type: 


Copyright:  October 19, 1998 ISBN-13:  9780738200316


A complete legal handbook for the working writer, this book is the definitive reference in its field and is co-authored by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren.

Now in its third edition having been continuously in print for more than 25 years, this complete guide to legal issues facing writers and publishers includes: publication contracts (magazine and book), libel, slander, copyright, Fair Use, online usage, publishing relationships, the business of publishing, how to market your book and much more.


By Peter Beren

Every piece of work involved in moving a completed manuscript into a readerís hands takes place within a framework of future considerations. A book signed today will be positioned on a publication list for its formal launch anywhere from nine months to two years (or more) later. During this period, events take place which influence the book and its commercial life, including the design of its cover, what stores order it, how it is promoted, where on the shelf it is placed, how long it stays on the shelf, and, often, whether it ends up in the hands of a reader or forgotten on a remainder table.

A crucial irony of the publishing business is that the decisions that contribute so much to the success or failure of a book often have little to do with its quality. Many good books never have a reasonable chance to succeed because of decisions made by an ill-informed publisher. And occasionally, the most unlikely suspect enjoys an immense success in spite of a publisherís complete lack of attention.

In spite of the direct relationship between a bookís performance and its publisherís support, the lore of the publishing industry is full of unexpected success and unanticipated failure. Every season, certain books succeed or fail despite the efforts (or lack thereof) of their publishers. Unfortunately, publishers too often use an unexpected success story to justify not promoting other books. Itís as if they believe that they donít have to make much of an effort to market all sorts of other books because one totally obscure book occasionally turns into a bestseller without any promotional effort.

To ensure the best possible chance for success, every author should acquire a working knowledge of the business side of publishing. We donít exaggerate when we say itís equally important to write with passion, turn a good phrase, and sign an advantageous publishing contract. If you understand how a book is published, it stands to reason youíll be able to communicate more effectively with key publishing people during the publishing process. And your improved ability to communicate will have a positive effect on the success of your book. As author and former publishing executive Leonard Felder put it in Publishers Weekly, an authorís understanding of the publishing environment is a key to success: ďI would estimate that 40 percent of the tension and disagreements between writers and book industry people could be alleviated if authors knew when to suggest good ideas and when itís too late.Ē

It may be an exaggeration to say that Hemingway or Faulkner would have sold more books if they had better understood the needs of their publishersí promotion department; itís no exaggeration at all to say that most writers are unaware of the extent to which they can influence the fate of their books. Unfortunately, instead of learning how to contribute positively to a bookís success, many writers adopt the posture of passive victim. Complaints of this type proliferate. Indeed, if you spend any time at all around other authors, youíve probably heard many horror stories about publishers.

Sadly, because so few publishing companies put a high priority on maintaining good communications with their authors, the complaints of writers are all too often justified. At other times, grievances are the result of the authorís misunderstanding of the way the publishing business works.

My job is to help you learn enough about the way the book business works so you can proactively help your book succeed. You are the single person with the most to gain if your book does well. To the publisher, yours is only one book among many. You must learn to invest yourself in the publishing process to give your book its greatest chance of success.

Now letís take a look at the publishing process, especially the critical places where you can influence the success of your book. The overview presented here, because of space limitations, focuses only on the first part of the publishing process, setting up a working relationship with your publisher and editor.


Before the production stage, authors work closely with the editorial department. Traditionally, the editor who acquires the book and sees it through the long and exhausting publishing process is the authorís advocate to the publisher and the publisherís advocate to the author. We canít overemphasize the importance of a good relationship with your editor.

In most publishing houses, itís the editor who transmits the authorís enthusiasm, desires, knowledge, and reactions to the other departments. The general feeling (often not true) is that the production and marketing departments would be besieged by authors demanding special attention if there were no editor to serve as a buffer.

The author-editor relationship is full of potential strain. If you feel estranged from your editor, you should take prompt action to talk out the difficulties. Itís crucial that you concentrate on your common goal, a successful publishing outcome. Donít waste energy on concerns not central to this purpose.

If, despite your best efforts, the relationship between you and your editor is beyond repair, you may want to request another editor. View this as a last resort, however, because if your publisher canít accommodate your request (because of work schedule, for example), you may lose additional goodwill.

Itís also important that you build relationships with people at your publisher other than your editor, because editors in todayís ďrevolving doorĒ publishing business are often either coming or going. Good editors get hired away of laid off; bad ones get fired.

If your editor should suddenly leave the scene just as your book is being published, youíll want other in-house advocates to continue the support of your book. This person could be a senior editor, an assistant to the publisher, or the marketing director. The important thing is to have some friendly allies in your corner. Your first step is to find out immediately who has inherited the project.
Move quickly to develop a strong rapport with your new advocate. Use your phone, email, and, if you can afford the time and money, make a personal visit.

In some cases, an assistant takes over for an interim period and may
lack the organizational influence of your original editor. In others, the new editor may not seem very interested in you or your book. If you face either of these situations, donít become discouraged or angry. Above all, donít give up. Enthusiasm often carries the day in publishing houses. Try to light a fire under the new editor. If this seems impossible, use the other relationships youíve established to try to move your book to an editor with more enthusiasm.


As your completed manuscript enters into production, your editor should begin to function as an intermediary between you and the other publishing departments. Problems and differences of opinion on how to solve them are common at this stage. To react to these sensibly and to understand what sorts of requests are reasonable, an author must understand the publishing process.

Letís take a typical example of how problems can develop. The castoff on a book exposing the medical industry, entitled Pills and Knives, indicates that if ten paragraphs of text can be eliminated, an entire printing signature can be dropped. (Books are printed in folded sheets or sections called signatures, which consist of eight, sixteen or thirty-two pages.) This will dramatically lower the unit cost of manufacturing and will result in a more competitively priced edition. The editor concludes that the competitive price advantage is much more important, in this case, than saving a few thousand words, and asks the author to cooperate. Attitude is important at this point. The author can dig in her heels and insist on every word being published or can agree to reasonable changes. Of course, what appears reasonable to a publisher may legitimately seem completely unreasonable to an author. We canít tell you much more than to suggest you enter this juncture with an open mind. State your case, but listen to the editorís concerns. With such openness, reasonable compromises can be worked out to mutual satisfaction. The important thing is for everyone in the process to feel that the others are approaching the problem with goodwill.
You should be particularly resistant to the idea that every request for change is an attack by commercial philistines on your work of art. It can amount to that, of course, but often the changes wonít impair your work. Getting your manuscript between covers and onto a bookshelf can be a tricky business, requiring your help, and sometimes even a measure of sacrifice. Of course, you will want to protect the integrity of your writing while doing this. Remember, though, that unyielding rigidity may drive up the final price of the book and, perhaps, difficult to be sold. This may even cause your in-house advocates to turn their backs on your book.

Here is an approach to dealing with requests for last minute changes that we have found helpful. First, clarify (remind yourself of) your publishing intent. Obviously, writers of poetry, fiction, how-to, or scholarly books will have different reactions to change requests. Second, ask yourself if your interest is fundamentally or even significantly hurt by what the publisher wants to do. If it is, how may the same result be achieved in a different way? For example, at this stage of the process, itís not uncommon for controversy to occur over whether to include an index. Indexes enhance library and institutional sales. If you feel these markets are important for your book, and the publisher wants to eliminate your index, firmly but politely state your case. If you encounter resistance, try to bargain. For example, you might offer to shorten the index, or perhaps the table of contents and introduction, if they are less important, so the size of the book will meet the publisherís format requirement.

Variations on this theme occur throughout the publication process. The important thing for an author to understand is not so much specific ways to handle particular problems, but a general conviction that it is important to work out production difficulties harmoniously. In doing this, try to make yourself available to as many of the people actually solving the particular problem as possible. Work with your editor, but politely insist that you be included in the broader dialogue.

A rough sketch, if not a portrait, of the problem areas that often separate an author from the publishing people he or she must work with is emerging. United by a common love for books and ideas, these two groups are often divided by the myths that surround both publishing and writing. I believe an individual author, armed with knowledge, goodwill, and determination to make the effort, can cut through these difficulties. If you need an incentive to do this, let me again remind you that, as a general rule, a book's future may be determined well before the first copy leaves the bindery. As an author, you should insist on forming and maintaining a good relationship with the publisher. If the publisher needs reasonable help anywhere in the complicated process of turning a manuscript into a book, you should attempt to rally to the joint cause. This doesn't mean giving in to the publisher's every demandóthe author knows her work and the field best, and there are times when it is in everyone's best interest for the author to stand ground. The trick, from the author's point of view, is to be forthcoming, agreeable, and sympathetic to the publisher's needs while maintaining the integrity of the work.

For example, computer technology has changed almost the entire publishing industry. Bookstores now have computers to track their inventory, send electronic orders, and compile customer mailing lists. Books can be produced in different formats on demand. Perhaps the most dramatic changes are the new media available to both publishers and authors, including multimedia and online formats. To keep abreast of these changes, you would do well to subscribe to Publisher's Weekly and to discuss the industry in transition with your editor. Taking note of the changing climate will increase your effectiveness in helping your book achieve the publishing outcome it deserves.


Hopefully, I've conveyed a taste of some of the realities of publishing as a business and how an author may participate in the publishing process. Difficult and complex, the book business has at its heart, in all of its aspects, from bookseller to author to publisher, the simple love of books. When this reality is obscured by cold economic facts or by mere lack of understanding of the other side's point of view, publishing relationships can become adversarial. You should enter a publishing relationship with the utmost faith and optimism, of course, but your experience may take a negative turn, if your expectations run higher than the attainable realities. In the words of one author: ďIf I let myself get discouraged by every instance of rejection or criticism, or every sign of indifference, I might have given up on my book long before I hit any successful responsesĒ.

To achieve the best publishing outcome for your book, you must participate actively in the publishing process in as many ways as you can and as early in that process as you can. The guidance suggested in this chapter will not guarantee that your publishing experience will live up to your expectations. However, if you follow these suggestions and, more important, use them as a springboard for your own ideas, you will maximize your chances of publishing successfully. We've offered a taste of the publishing business, to forewarn you of things to come.

The key words to remember are information, cooperation, and action.

INFORMATION ● Because publishers deal with so many diverse topics, no one at your publishing house will know as much as you about your subject area. A difficult and complex business, publishing demands that an author understand some of its fundamentals before that author can effectively participate in the publishing process.

COOPERATION ● Because adversarial relationships will damage both your book and your goal of reaching as many readers as possible, it's essential that you learn how to get along with your publisher.

ACTION ● Because you are the single person with the most to gain, and the greatest knowledge about and the greatest interest in this project, you must invest yourself in the publishing process with the same commitment that you invested in writing the book. Take the initiative and keep it. Remember, a book that is perceived as strong in the marketplace with a promotable and willing author will command the necessary resources and space to become strong.

© Copyright 2007 Peter Beren. Adapted from The Writers Legal Companion,
published by Basic Books.

Author of The Writers Legal Companion (Basic Books) and editor of California The Beautiful (Welcome Books), PETER BEREN is Vice President of the Palace Publishing Group and former Publisher of Sierra Club Books.

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