Unalienable rights

by Alexandra Sokoloff

When I was a screenwriter, the absolute worst thing about the job was having to sell my rights. I was mostly a spec writer – although I did some novel adaptations, I made most of my screenwriting income by writing original scripts and selling them. And the first thing that usually happens when a script is bought is that after the original writer does her contractual drafts, or is bought out of them, she is fired off her own script so that the producers or execs or director or sometimes actor can hire their own writer, or a writer they want to be in business with, or just what they love to call “fresh blood.”

People don’t understand that about the film business. The writer can and most often will be fired off their own story at any time. Nothing you can do about it.

Even worse than being fired was having studios and production companies hold my original scripts hostage – the movie could be going nowhere (because you fired the original writer, you moron) but they still refused to revert the rights.  Talk to a screenwriter about this situation and they’ll mostly tell you just about the same thing: it’s like the physical pain of having a loved one imprisoned, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve contemplated murder more often than I like to think.

In fact there’s a story about a certain screenwriter who was in the situation of an original script being held hostage and he stormed the office of a certain studio head, brandishing a really sharp knife – and then threatened to cut off one of his OWN fingers right there on the desk if the studio head didn’t sign back the rights to him. And the story is he got the rights back, more because the studio head didn’t want the negative publicity he’d get from the incident than out of any concern for any bodily harm to the writer. Or maybe he just didn’t want to lose the desk. That’s showbiz, kid.

I’ve thought about that story a lot, recently. Because I so understand the rage, and the willingness to do ANYTHING to get your work back.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of authors now find themselves in the same position. They could be making a living income off e books, but the publishing houses they signed contracts with won’t revert the rights. (I’ll refrain from launching into a tirade about the 1%, but – really? This is okay in a democratic society?)

These days it’s critical that authors think clearly before they sign away their rights, especially e book rights. In the exhilaration of being offered a contract, it’s far, far too easy to just say yes to whatever a publisher is proposing. A mistake you may well regret for longer than you ever want to think.

Myself, I feel extraordinarily lucky that no fingers are going to have to be cut off after all. Although for a while there, I was wondering.

But I finally, finally, finally have the rights back to Book of Shadows and The Unseen in the U.S. Now I can offer these spooky thrillers as e books at the infinitely reasonable price of $2.99, as opposed to the publisher-set price of $11.99.  I mean, truly, does ANYONE pay $11.99 for an e book? Even your most highly prized authors? And I have the one-star “Protest Publisher Price Fixing” Amazon reviews to prove it. I was about to kill myself.

The whole structure of the publishing industry is changing. I’ll refrain from using Konrathian imagery featuring sexual acts with amphibians while Rome burns and all that, but this is a massive sea change we’re all experiencing. No one has any idea what things are going to look like next MONTH, let alone next year.

So why is it that writers would want to lock themselves into a contract that would mean someone else holds their e publishing rights in perpetuity? Especially given the clever ways that corporations are able to get around reversion issues?

For a large amount of money up front – sure, I understand it. A bird in the hand, etc.  But for a not-so-large amount?  Why?

The thing is, when we sign contracts, we’re speculating. We’re debating if this particular deal is better than what we could get elsewhere, or at a different time in the future. Same as choosing mortgage terms when we finance a house. Same as when we decide on an investment strategy with stocks. What’s our comfort level with volatility? Are we willing to take a risk to make a little more?

Don’t you hate it that we have to think about our writing careers as if we’re building a stock portfolio?  I know I do. But how can we not? If we are going to make a living with the writing we do, we have to make these choices, weigh the options, decide on our acceptable level of risk, and develop we believe is the best strategy for maximizing our income flow in a constantly shifting business landscape.

Half the room just stopped breathing, right?

So first things first. Breathe.

But please. Don’t ignore the fact that when you sign a contract on a book you may be limiting your income on this particular property – YOUR BOOK – to that one figure, the advance money, for possibly a lifetime.  Is it really enough, over the course of possibly a lifetime? Do you KNOW the other options? Do you know how much other people you know are making with other strategies?

Your job isn’t done when you type THE END. The job now is to do right by yourself, and by the work that you’ve just created.

So, I’m curious. DO you pay $11.99 for e books from your favorite authors? Because myself, when faced with that price I will just pay $26 for a hardcover, whether that makes any sense or not.

And – if you just want to vent about the absolute fucking scariness of the business part of writing, please feel free. We’re all there.



Now liberated and available on Kindle, Nook & Smashwords, $2.99!

Two psychology professors and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment – unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

Based on the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments conducted at Duke University.



Amazon US



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 Paperback/e book from Little Brown at Amazon UK

 Destined to become a horror classic.”  – Romantic Times Book Review

“Gave this reviewer a bad night’s sleep – what more could you ask of a horror novel?” – SFX


Available on Kindle and Smashwords, $2.99  (On Nook, 5/26)

A cynical homicide detective from Boston reluctantly joins forces with a beautiful, enigmatic witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of what appear to be satanic killings.

Amazon US


Smashwords (multiple e formats)

Amazon UK

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Amazon IT


“A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn’t-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended.”   – Lee Child

“Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones.”  Library Journal

“Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they’ve devoured the book.”   – Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars


24 thoughts on “Unalienable rights

  1. Thomas Pluck

    In college I wanted to be a screenwriter, then I read the horror stories. And who can name a screenwriter, besides the real movie junkies (like us)?
    I'm glad you got your rights reverted.
    I think this is not much different than how young, new, music talent is exploited. They don't know the business, they are excited at the first taste of fame, and by the time they realize what they gave away, their promoter thinks they did all the work. And it's not to say that a book is not a collaborative process- editors, copy-editors, agents, all play their part. It's not the cut that writers get that's alarming, it's the ownership. If a book has to sell like hotcakes within a two or three year cycle, they need to give it up when their method of sales is no longer working. Or at least reduce the prices.
    I paid $12 for a few e-books. It was disappointing. I get a better formatted e-book for $3, most of the time. Because the author cares about how they present themselves.

  2. Karen in Ohio

    Alex, I'm much more likely to buy an ebook with a lower price point than I am to purchase one the same cost as a paper book, whether it's a MMPB or a trade PB, or a hardcover book. Bits and bytes are not permanent, and the only reason I've been able to justify paying more than $8 for an ebook is if I need it immediately. Generally, that situation is related to one of my book clubs.

    I wish your ebooks were also available for the Nook. I'm still boycotting Amazon.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Thomas, I disagree about the formatting; in my experience, having now bought more than 300 ebooks in the last 1 1/2 years, that is all over the map, and price is not an indication of how well or how poorly the book will be formatted, or even edited. I'm slogging through a series that I bought for a very low price, and am fascinated–and horrified–by the absolute lack of copyediting and formatting in these books. Typos, grammar and spelling mistakes, and egregious overuse of cliches abound. The stories are very good, but there are so many, many mistakes, half a dozen on a single page sometimes. It's like one of those horrible accidents that make you want to look away, but for some reason you just can't.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thomas, you're absolutely right with the music biz comparison. Writers, musicians – we're mostly terrible at the business aspects of the business. And it's so daunting to have done the backbreaking creative work that gets you to the point of being offered a contract to begin with and then have to refocus and start the same kind of hard work on business.

    I've noticed that about the better formatting in a lot of $2.99 books, too – better than publisher-released e books. But those were mostly authors I know, who have been traditionally published before and know the drill and take the time to clean things up. There's also some appalling formatting in cheaper books.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Karen, yeah, I've bought a couple of e books at higher prices because I needed them right away for research. Otherwise, I'll wait for delivery for a pb or hardcover.

    Actually, I'm going to have The Unseen up for Nook by tomorrow, but I'm sending Nook versions of my books to your e mail address right now. Far be it from me to interfere with a boycott! The reality is, though, for an author in my position, there is no other way (right now) to get the kind of distribution you can get by launching through Amazon's Kindle Select program. It's unignorable.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Karen, 300 e books? Wow.

    I have about that many on my Kindle now but a lot of them are classics that I am thrilled to be able to build an electronic library of. I probably won't reread most of them for years, but I love having them in the palm of my hand.

  7. Jake Nantz

    I'll sooner spend on the paperback so it can go in my room at school for my students to read when I'm done than I will plunk down $11.99, or even $7.99, for an ebook. As a teacher on a fixed income (that North Carolina keeps screwing with, but I'll leave Bev Pur-dumbass out of this), my book-buying budget usually hovers around two a month, if that (and that's primarily on $3-5 ebooks). Sometimes I can squeeze and extra one in if I get it as a used paperback, but that does you guys no good so I try to limit myself there. Publishing houses are off their fucking rockers if they think my paltry salary will allow me, an AVID reader, to keep paying for their stubbornness even if I WANTED to.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake, you bring up such an excellent point about publisher cluelessness about the book-buying potential of some of the most avid readers. Yes, readers are an elite and highly educated buying base, comparatively, but that doesn't mean they're loaded! How can teachers, students, artists, etc. justify buying $11.99 books when there are quality books available for $2.99?

  9. Richard Maguire

    Alexandra, it would seem the screenwriter in Hollywood has never had much respect.. Irving Thalberg is supposed to have said, "Writers are the most important people in the industry–but we must never let them know it." That was 80 years ago. And was it Jack Warner who called his indentured scribes, "Schmucks with Underwoods"?

    Best of luck with the e-books. Having read THE UNSEEN I can say without doubt it's a 5-Star read. The suspense never lets up.

  10. Tammy Cravit

    I wonder if publishers are really clueless about the sales potential of e-books? Or are they just so attached to a world in which they're relevant – i.e. a world in which books are piles of paper shipped around the country in cartons – that they want to do everything they can to cling to the status quo? Or maybe some of both – I don't know. What I do know is that the publishing world is changing, and everyone in it – authors, publishers, agents, cover designers, editors, distribution and marketing folks – will have to change with it or be swept away. My father, who's been in the marketing business for the better part of 50 years, likes to say that "no matter what you wish was true, think should be true, hope is true or want to be true, at the end of the day reality always wins." I suspect this is a lesson some in this business are going to learn the hard way.

    At the same time, it's a heady time to be a writer. I've got one book out there now that's been downloaded close to 2,000 times (free + paid + Kindle Lending Library) in seven months, with almost zero marketing. (I'm wanting to finish book 2 before I really start my marketing push in earnest.) I've got the next three books in the series already roughed out, and I'm producing a product that I enjoy writing, that's finding readers, that's bringing me a measure of success that will, I think, only grow as I get more titles out there. I'm not selling copies at blitz speed like the "50 shades" thing is, but that's not ever been my goal. I can write the books I want, and find an audience for them, and not be beholden to a publishing business that doesn't seem any better at predicting what readers want than anyone else is.

    The bad news? I sink or swim on my own merit, talent, ability, and effort. But that's the good news, too, I think.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, thanks so much for the comments on THE UNSEEN. Made my day!

    And yes, the difference in treatment for a screenwriter and an author is just not in the same universe. Sad.

  12. Allison Davis

    Alex, great point to make that some of us think obvious and others don't think about. Having represented writers (non fiction) in contract negotiations, you get the, "this is the 'standard' contract" that "everybody" signs. Always makes me smile. Sorry, doesn't work that way and I get either the ebook rights back or a higher percentage for the author. God help me when I negotiate my own contract — probably screw it up.

    I'll pay just about anything for a hardcover but not over $5 for an ebook, go figure. Have no idea why. I haven't read Book of Shadows, might be a good read this weekend.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You're right, Allison, nearly everything is negotiable, but oh, is the e book thing a sticking point!

    You're lucky to have been on this side of it. We all need the skills of a lawyer, really.

  14. lil Gluckstern

    I just downloaded The Unseen. I'm curious since I've read about the Rhine Experiments. I am grateful when ebooks are under five dollars, but I will admit to supporting some authors because i enjoy their presence on the internet, and I like the idea of that connection for me. So once in a great while I pay more, and once or twice a year I might invest in a hardback, and i do buy trade paper backs from my local. Oh, what will I do with my addiction? 🙂

  15. Shizuka

    I don't mind paying $11.99 for an e-book if I really want to read it.
    Of course, I'm happy to pay less.

    I still buy physical books, but far fewer.
    It's less of a price thing for me than a space issue — small NY apartment.
    And my hands get less tired reading an e-book.

  16. Sarah W

    I still prefer paper and probably always will, but I also read eBooks. I'd probably read more of them if I had a Kindle instead of a Sony — I have the app, but lugging around my laptop isn't always convenient.

    But if I can only get my hands on an electronic copy of something I really want to read, I'm not really thinking prices. Same for paper, really.

    Victoria Strauss has an interesting post on Writer Beware today about two recent surveys on author satisfaction with traditional and electronic publishing ( http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2012/05/two-surveys.html ), if anyone's interested.

  17. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Congratulations on getting those ebook rights back, Alex! I can't wait until the day I can either a) earn-out my two-book advance or b) get those ebook rights back. I'm thinking of writing my next Hayden Glass book as an ebook only.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm with you on the space issue, Shizuka. I can't imagine a house where the books don't take up more space than the furniture, but the idea of my whole library in the palm of my hand is so seductive…

  19. Larry Gasper

    For favorite authors I buy in hardcover. With self-published e-books I keep on running into the fact that the only ones I enjoy come from authors who have traditionally published before. I don't know if this is because they understand just how much editing a book needs to be truly ready to be put out there or whether it's just pure storytelling skill. Since this is the case, I'm more willing to pay extra for a previously traditionally published author. It still has to be less that the paperback price though.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, MJ!! Hope you like them.

    Larry, I have to say I'm exactly the same way. Have not yet run into a book from an all-self-pub author that made me want to finish the book. Not that I don't believe that there are good ones out there, but the traditional publishing process does run you through the gauntlet and make you understand just how much of the publisher's job you're taking on for yourself when you self-pub.

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