Legal Tools for Surviving a Rough Patch

Last year, I went through a rough patch, the kind of month that’s enough to crush a writer’s spirit. One day, I was awash in book contracts—three of them. And then, in rapid succession, I lost them all. One of the publishers went out of business, another publisher ditched an imprint, and the third decided it no longer wanted the book it had contracted for … and there I was, with no contracts at all. Talk about disappointment!

It’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, especially with the publishing industry in such turmoil, which shows no signs of calming down any time soon. You hear all sorts of horror stories like mine. Too often, it seems, writers are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

The specifics of my lost contracts aren’t really the point, but in two of the cases, when announcing the bad news, the editors—who, to be fair, were probably acting on orders of the number crunchers in their organizations—demanded I return the advances. And this, truly, was a problem: In both cases, the money was long gone. Both contracts had been signed more than a year previously, and I had traveled, invested in transcriptions and devoted many hours of time and attention to the projects. So I was stuck.

Enter The Authors Guild, an organization whose primary purpose is to advocate for authors. For maybe 30 years, I paid my dues and didn’t ask anything much in return. I took advantage of some of the perks the Guild offers its members, such as my Web domain and discounts on car rentals, and I listed the dues as a business deduction on my taxes. I figured it was a good thing to do.

As it turned out, in that month of contract cancellations, it was an excellent thing to be a member of The Authors Guild.

I wrote to Anita Fore, the director of legal services, describing my difficulties and asking for help. She answered promptly and plunged into the fray of my negotiations with the publishers. It took nine months and dozens of e-mails for the conflict with the company that cancelled the imprint to be resolved—in my favor. The publisher agreed to return the rights to me and not ask for the advance to be returned. This was a victory, of course.

The second issue—the dispute with the company that changed its mind about wanting to publish my book—is still in litigation, and Anita Fore and The Authors Guild have been representing me since the moment I became entangled in this dispute. God knows how many hours Anita has put in on my behalf: dozens, for sure—at no charge.

I have asked colleagues, fellow writers, if they belong to the Guild, and more often than not, they tell me they have never gotten around to it or they don’t believe the investment is worthwhile. And maybe, day-to-day, over the 30 years of my $90 annual membership payment, I received minimal value—on paper. But when my back was to the wall, it was a tremendous relief to discover I had an ally who could come to my aid with confidence, expertise and commitment.

I am not quite out of the deep water of legal difficulties yet, but without Anita Fore and The Authors Guild, I would have drowned a long time ago.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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